21 Mar 2016 : Column 1251

In the second half of the Prime Minister’s statement on the civil war within the Government, will he confirm that he, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Scotland and his whole Cabinet agreed last week to cut support for the disabled by £4.3 billion while at the same time handing a tax cut to the very wealthy? I have repeatedly asked the Prime Minister about the devastating impact of benefit cuts to the most vulnerable, including the disabled and ill, many of whom will go on, sadly and tragically, to take their own lives. Does the Prime Minister understand that people watching the ongoing fall-out in the Conservative party are totally horrified that more time is spent talking about the jobs of Tory Ministers than about the impact of his damaging policies on the weakest in society?

The Prime Minister: First, on the 20,000, let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that what we have said—I will repeat this again—is that we are looking at the issue of child migrants and those whom we can help more of. We took in 3,000 last year. Of the 20,000, we expect many to be children. We have said that we are working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on that, but again we are looking at children in the region, and we have talked about potentially taking in hundreds rather than thousands, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is examining that.

On the West Balkan route, I am not surprised that countries have decided to erect borders, as they have been very concerned about the huge flow of people through that route, but, obviously, everything that the Schengen countries and Europe as a whole can do to secure the external borders of Europe the better, and that is what we are helping with. I do not think that it has particular implications for Libya. Most of those migrants have been coming through Malta and Italy, and we do need to address that.

On special forces, let me confirm the long-standing policy, which is that all Governments have exactly the same approach, and we have not changed that at all. On sanitary products, I am very happy to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and apologise for missing her out.

On disability, we are not going ahead with the changes that were put forward, but let me say what we are going ahead with. When I became Prime Minister we were spending £42 billion on disability benefits, and by the end of this Parliament, we are forecast to be spending more than £46 billion, which is a real-terms increase of more than £4 billion. What we did in that Budget was help to take low paid people out of tax and assist in many, many ways, which is why it was a good Budget and we have taken the right decisions.

Mr Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con): In addition to the refugees whom we are taking from the camps, each year thousands of people enter this country irregularly and by other means from North Africa and the middle east seeking asylum, and many of those requests are granted. Those numbers are increasing. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is a complete mistake to regard the current grave crisis over migration as something that is apart from the United Kingdom if only we were not in the European Union? Does he agree that it is in the British interest that he continues to play an active and leading role in these European Council discussions to try to achieve a solution to the external European

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1252

border and how we will deal with genuine migrants in civilised conditions and return those who have no claim to be here? Will he continue to commit to the European effort the Navy, the aid money, and the resources that we are giving, together with his diplomatic and political efforts?

The Prime Minister: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his remarks. He is right that whether we are in the European Union or out of the European Union, there is still a migration crisis affecting the continent of Europe, and that does have knock-on effects on us. The more people who come, the more people who end up at Calais and the greater the problem we have. I would argue that we have the best of both worlds because we are sat round the table trying to solve this problem, and good progress has been made, but because we are not in Schengen and not in these resettlement schemes, we keep our own decisions about borders and about visas and all the rest of it. Clearly, it does benefit us to co-operate, so we should continue to do that and continue to recognise that Britain can bring its experience to bear in helping our friends in Greece, who now face a real crisis in their country and deserve our help.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and for his somewhat revised and lengthy assessment of the merits of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). Let us be clear, though: the Turkey-EU deal is the result of failure by European leaders, including our own Prime Minister, to develop safe, sustainable and humane routes for refugees who are fleeing for their lives. It is inoperable, may well be illegal, and puts politics and public image above protecting human lives. Given that the Prime Minister is today at pains to stress that he is a compassionate Conservative, will he show some compassion to the 43,000 people currently stuck in Greece, including 20,000 children, and offer sanctuary to some of them, particularly the incredibly vulnerable unaccompanied children and families with babies?

The Prime Minister: I have to say that I profoundly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The idea that if we had found safe routes for people to come to Europe then somehow all the people-smuggling, the criminal gangs and the mass movement of people would have come to an end is complete and utter nonsense. We have to have some hard borders. A country is responsible for its borders, and if it is an external country to the European Union, it is particularly responsible for its border. The combination of harder border controls but compassion in helping refugees in the region is the right answer. We play our part by putting in the money and by taking the 20,000 refugees, but the idea that if we open up safe routes the whole problem will be solved is complete nonsense.

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): Given the extraordinary difficulties that occurred with regard to the charter of fundamental rights, and the human rights and the asylum laws, how does my right hon. Friend propose that the Turkey deal will be legally, let alone politically, enforceable?

The Prime Minister: It is the view of the legal adviser to the European Council that what is being proposed is legal. Is it difficult to achieve? Yes, absolutely it is,

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1253

because we have to consider each case individually. Is it possible, if we designate Turkey as a safe country for Syrian refugees, to return people there? Yes, it is possible. Looking at the problems we have had with mass movements of people over the years, we have to have a set of measures that break the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement. Until we do that, we are basically unable to deal with the crisis. That is what Europe has now set out to do, and we should encourage it in that goal.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I agree with the Prime Minister that progress has been made, but it has come at a cost. Turkey will be getting €3 billion, and it has asked for another €3 billion by the end of 2018. Greece, on the other hand, which has to process, house and return these migrants, has not been pledged any additional resources. Does he agree that next we need to take preventive action through Frontex to stop the criminal gangs exploiting those migrants, who now come through different routes?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman says. I would argue, first, that the money that is going to Turkey is not money for Turkey—it is money for Syrian refugees in Turkey and for it to make sure they are properly looked after. We have given support to Greece; there is a European programme to help. But above all Greece needs support from experts—translators and those with asylum expertise—which all the main countries in Europe are now offering to provide. What is required is a plan to make sure that it gets what it needs. I think that help in kind will probably be more useful for firming up the Greek system than just giving it money.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. Pressure on time requires brevity, in my experience unfailingly represented by Mr John Redwood.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given the obvious difficulty in unifying the very varied economies and societies of the current EU, why is now a good time to accelerate possible Turkish membership?

The Prime Minister: It is not remotely on the cards that that will happen for many, many years to come. Every country—including this country—has a veto at every stage. For example, the French have said that they will hold a referendum on Turkish membership of the EU, and 75% of the French public do not want Turkey to join. For many countries looking towards Europe, the process of applying, opening these chapters and going through things like press freedom, human rights, the independence of the judiciary and so on, has been a good and useful process, and that is how we should see it.

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): Since the Bloomberg speech, the Prime Minister’s whole European strategy has been governed by trying to manage the divisions in his own party on that issue. Given the events of recent days, will he update the House on how that effort is going?

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1254

The Prime Minister: What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman, who in my view speaks a lot of sense about this issue, is that this country has to make a decision—it is not just one political party or another that has people on both sides of the argument. It is time for us as a country to have this debate, look at the advantages of staying in the EU, look at the risks on both sides, and make a decision. I am clear about what that decision should be, but we cannot hold a country inside an organisation against its will, and it is time again to put this question to the British people. I will campaign enthusiastically for remaining in the EU, not least after the agreements that I have achieved, and it is for others to set out their arguments. As democrats in this House of Commons, we should not be frightened of the will of the people.

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the £3.5 billion savings on benefits for disabled people that the Chancellor needed to find is exactly equal to the planned increase since his previous Budget in our EU contributions over this Parliament? Given his success in persuading our partners—most of whom are not seeing any increase in their contributions—to be flexible over VAT, will he challenge them to forgo our increase? The British people will not take kindly to the idea that we must cut benefits for vulnerable people in order to hand over every penny to the EU.

The Prime Minister: I respectfully disagree with my right hon. Friend about this fundamental European issue. The £46 billion that we spend on disability benefits is many, many times more than anything we give to the European Union. Indeed, if we think about it, for every £1 paid in tax, a little over 1p goes to the EU for our net contribution. My right hon. Friend and I will be on different sides of the arguments, but I believe that 1p out of every £1 in tax gets us the trade, investment and co-operation that we need. He takes a different view, but I am sure that we will have a civilised argument about it. Because of the budget agreement that I reached in the last Parliament, our contributions are much lower than they otherwise would have been. We have a falling EU budget, rather than a rising EU budget, and that is because of this Government and this House of Commons.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): The EU-Turkey deal will do nothing to help the 26,000 child refugees who are already alone in Europe. I met 12-year-olds who were alone in Calais this morning with no one to look after them. If the House of Lords votes this evening to support the Alf Dubs amendment to help 3,000 child refugees, will the Prime Minister drop his opposition and support children, as we did with the Kindertransport which many decades ago helped to save the life of Alf Dubs?

The Prime Minister: We do not support the Dubs amendment because, as I said previously, we think it is right to take additional children over and above the 20,000 refugees, but to take them from the region and to do so by working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I think that the unfairness, if I might say that, of comparing child migrants in Europe with the Kindertransport is that countries such

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1255

as France, Germany, Italy and Spain are safe countries, where anyone who claims asylum and has family in Britain is able to come to Britain. I do not believe that it is a fair comparison.

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): All Conservative Members were delighted to hear the Prime Minister reaffirm with vigour and confidence his determination to continue as a great reforming Government with the successful central themes of his Administration. Will he review whether there is a need to add to the deployment of HMS Enterprise in Libyan waters, and perhaps add other vessels in support?

The Prime Minister: There may well be a need to do more. There are two operations under way. There is a NATO operation in the Aegean, and, frankly, we want that operation to do more. At the moment, it is not sufficiently able to work with the Turkish coastguard in Turkish waters to send back boats to Turkey, and we want that to happen. There is also Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, where we have HMS Enterprise. Frankly, as the weather improves, I am concerned that the central Mediterranean route will open up again. That is why I held a meeting with the other Prime Ministers and Presidents to say that we have all got to put in more resources, recognising that we cannot let this route open up just as we sort out—or hope to sort out—the Aegean route.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The Lithuanian President has described the EU Turkish deal as

“on the edge of international law”.

Does the Prime Minister agree with that assessment? Does he accept that from June this year—from the English channel to the Syrian border—there will be a visa-free zone across the whole of Europe? What security questions does that pose for the United Kingdom on its borders?

The Prime Minister: First, on what President Grybauskaite has said, we are very clear that this deal must be compliant with international law and with international norms. That is exactly what the European Commission, the European Council and all the countries that are helping Greece will make sure is going to happen. The key thing is that if Turkey is a safe country for Syrian refugees, it should be possible to return Syrian refugees to Turkey, because they should be applying for asylum there rather than going on with their journey.

On the second issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, as I explained in my statement, if the rest of the EU gives visa-free access to Schengen for Turks, that is a right to travel and it is a right to visit; it is not a right to work and it is not a right to settle, and it does not in any way change their rights to come to the UK. I think there is quite a lot of scaremongering going on about this issue, because we are not changing our borders or our visa proposals one bit.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does the Prime Minister share my concern about the steady Islamisation of Turkish society by its Government? Does he share my surprise that Turkey is now so confident that it can stop the boats coming, when it has not been able to or has not wished to do so in the past? Finally, does he share my fear that mass migration to Europe

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1256

will fuel the rise of far-right, neo-Nazi parties in EU countries that were foolish enough to get rid of their national borders?

The Prime Minister: I am in the happy position of being able to agree with my right hon. Friend on all those things. As someone who spent time in Turkey as a student, I think its secularism and its belief in wanting to become more like a western democracy is one of its strengths, and we should encourage it. I also agree with him that countries that do not properly control their borders risk the rise of unsavoury elements, and that is why it is so important we maintain our borders. Obviously, when it comes to the issue of wanting to return migrants to Turkey, it is very important that Turkey is and remains a safe country, but that is what it is today.

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): The Prime Minister says he is a compassionate Conservative leading a one nation Government, so how does he feel when a former leader of his party and a member of his Cabinet for six years says this simply is not true?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, we have worked very closely together for the last six years, and I am very proud of the things that we have done together. It is this Government that have lifted almost 4 million people out of income tax. It is this Government that have seen an increase in disability benefit. Above all, it is this Government—a lot of this is thanks to the hard work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith)—that, because of the growing economy and the changes to welfare, have seen 2.4 million people get work in our country. Behind those statistics are human beings who are able to put food on the table and have a better life for their families because of the work that we have done together. I am sad that my right hon. Friend has left the Government, but I guarantee that the work of being a compassionate Conservative Government will continue.

Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): Given the nature of the terrorist threat, does my right hon. Friend agree with me about how important it is that European countries’ intelligence and security agencies co-operate fully with ours in defeating terrorism, and that it is absurd to suggest that membership of the EU is likely to result in terrorist attacks on the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: It is important that our agencies work together. On the whole, that will be on a bilateral basis, but it is worth understanding that in the modern European Union, there are a series of mechanisms to do with criminal records, border information, watch lists and passenger name records, all of which help to keep us safer than we would otherwise be. To be completely fair, if we left the EU we could try to negotiate our way back into some of those things, but it would take time, and this prompts the question: if you want to get back into them, why are you getting out of them?

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Prime Minister now justify the nearly £3 billion giveaway in capital gains tax for the wealthy?

The Prime Minister: I think it is right to cut capital gains tax, because we want to have an enterprising economy in which entrepreneurs want to get out there, set up businesses, and create wealth and jobs to generate

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1257

the tax revenues that pay for the health service and the schools that we want for our country. I note that the capital gains tax rate, at 20%, will be a little bit higher than it was when the hon. Gentleman was last in government. Because we are not cutting it for carried interest, we will not have to face the absurd situation we had when he was in government in which people working in the City were paying less tax than the people who cleaned their offices.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): The Prime Minister just sought to reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) that the accession of Turkey was a very long way off. Is this uncertainty what staying in looks like?

The Prime Minister: I have described the situation as best I can. For any new accession, there is veto by every country at every stage. As I see it, if we look at certain countries such as France, we find that there is no prospect of the French allowing full Turkish membership of the EU. In this debate that we are having about Europe—my hon. Friend and I will unfortunately be on opposite sides of the debate, but I promise that it will be a civilised one—I want to get rid of any of the potential scares on either side of the argument. Let us argue about what is actually going to happen rather than things that are not going to happen.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): There is merit in selecting the asylum seekers in greatest need, because those people will have the most serious health problems—for some of them, lifelong health problems. Will the Prime Minister agree to compensate those authorities that fully take asylum seekers in, and, in the interests of the asylum seekers and the local community, will he help to spread these asylum seekers fairly throughout the country? Will he tell us how many asylum seekers his constituency helped last year and how many he expects to welcome this year?

The Prime Minister: First, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that by selecting the 20,000 from the refugee camps, with the help of organisations such as the UNHCR we can try to choose the most vulnerable people who might have disabilities or other issues with which we in a civilised country like the United Kingdom can help. On the issue of helping local authorities, there is DFID money in year one, and we are coming forward with this package for subsequent years.

As for my own constituency, a number of families have been resettled, although I do not have the number off the top of my head. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to encourage more local authorities to come forward, which is where the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), is working so hard.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Many of us were delighted to hear the Prime Minister recommit himself to running a one nation Conservative Government, which is what the country voted for only last May. On the issue of refugees, does he agree that it is increasingly clear that this terrible crisis can be solved only through collective action at a European level? Will he commit the British Government to continue to play a leading and constructive role in facing this crisis?

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1258

The Prime Minister: I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said. It does require collective action, because the scale of the challenge is so great that it needs the Greek border to be harder and more efficiently run, which requires assistance from other countries. In my view, it also requires the presence of military assets, including NATO assets in the eastern Mediterranean and other assets in the central Mediterranean, to help the civilian authorities with the work they do. Where Britain can bring a lot of experience and heft to this is as Europe’s leading military power and as a great expert in how to deal with asylum applications and processes and all the complicated legalities. We are well placed to help on every front.

Paula Sherriff (Dewsbury) (Lab): I would like to thank the Prime Minister for what he said about the so-called tampon tax. This is a great victory for all who have campaigned on this issue, and I am sure that the whole House will congratulate Laura Coryton, whose petition did so much to raise awareness. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will accept our cross-party amendment tomorrow to provide for a zero rate of VAT in this year’s Finance Bill, and that the Bill will pass through this House before the referendum in June? Will he pledge that this vital funding for women’s services that was provided from the receipts of this VAT will continue? I hope that today is the day on which we can consign the vagina-added tax to history.

The Prime Minister: May I once again pay tribute to the hon. Lady, not least for that new epithet? I think that that one will live on in Hansard for many years to come. I should also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) for the work that she has done. We will be accepting the amendment, and I am sure that the timing will be discussed further. For my part, all I can say is that getting over the language barriers to explain the arguments on sanitary products in a 28-person European Council is something that will stay with me for a while.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I would call the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) if she were standing, but she is not so I cannot do so. There you are. You have a clue: if you stand, you will get in.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The Prime Minister has reiterated his Government’s support for Turkey’s accession to the European Union. In doing so, he helpfully pointed out that there would be no status quo option in the forthcoming referendum. What assessment has he made of the long-term effect on migration from Turkey, and of any additional costs to the UK taxpayer in increased contributions to the EU, if it were to join? Or is he in favour of Turkey’s accession to the EU at any price to the UK taxpayer?

The Prime Minister: I think I said earlier that there was not a remote prospect of that happening, so I do not think that my hon. Friend has to worry about that. In terms of future accessions to the EU, we set out in our manifesto that we were going to take a much tougher approach. We believe that countries that join the EU should get much closer to the current level of

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1259

GDP per capita, because the big migrations have been caused when some EU countries are much poorer than others. No country can get into the EU without unanimity among the existing members, so this is something over which we and other countries have a veto. We can absolutely insist on these different accession arrangements.

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): When I first raised the issue of the tampon tax last year, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was quite dismissive, so I would like to commend the Government for this U-turn. I should also like to thank the women of this country who have put such pressure on the Government to take action on this important issue. Given that this was in the Scottish National party’s manifesto, are there any other aspects of that manifesto that the Prime Minister would like to help us to implement?

The Prime Minister: I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s work on this, and I am glad to have helped. I think she will find that this will have an impact on other European countries, because there is now huge pressure on some of those countries to explain their own level of tax on sanitary products. The Irish are of course leading the way with a 0% rate. On the matter of the rest of the SNP manifesto, I have to say that if we implemented it in full and had an independent Scotland, we would basically be bankrupt and have to tax everything.

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): May I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s generous comments about my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who is so widely respected on these Benches? Does the Prime Minister agree that two of the three greatest reforms of the Government he leads are restoring fiscal rectitude and welfare reform? May I therefore encourage him to continue with both equally?

The Prime Minister: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. This goes to the point about the importance of the welfare cap. We have controlled departmental spending carefully for years in our country, but welfare spending has often run ahead. It was up by 60% under the last Labour Government. That money cannot then be spent on hospitals, schools and vital public services. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: fiscal rectitude, welfare reform and making sure we keep welfare spending under control are vital components of a one nation Government.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, a cross-party group of MPs heard powerful testimony from an 18-year-old Yazidi girl who had been kidnapped by Daesh and subsequently escaped. John Kerry has now described Daesh’s action against the Yazidis and other minorities as genocide. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to do more to help the Yazidis, and will he raise this matter with the Governments of Iraq and Turkey?

The Prime Minister: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must do more to help the Yazidis, which is why we are taking action in support of the Iraqi Government, and it is the reason for the work we are doing in Syria. On what Secretary of State Kerry said, I listened very carefully to that. The Government’s policy—I think this

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1260

was the case under previous Governments—that genocide is declared as a matter of legal opinion, rather than political opinion, but it has to be said that there is a growing body of evidence that m’learned friends need to look at.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: I warn colleagues: as they know, I normally call everyone and the Prime Minister most patiently replies, but I fear that that almost certainly will not be possible today. Brevity will help, however.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): I welcome the fact that at the end of the Prime Minister’s remarks he reminded the House of his commitment to estate regeneration. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a classic example of one nation Conservatism, given that it is proven to deliver not only better homes and communities for those who live in our inner cities, but the supply of new homes for first-time buyers?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. The aim should be to remove all the barriers in the way of people progressing and making the most of their lives. That is why regenerating estates can play a huge part, as can addressing the shortage of childcare places, improving our schools and dealing with mental health issues. All these things are about unblocking barriers to success for people.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister give us an assurance that, in view of the financial mess that has been created with this Budget, this will be the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s last Budget? He has had eight already; only cats have nine lives.

The Prime Minister: No.

Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Is it not incumbent on those who do not accept the Budget cuts to tell us how else they would reduce the deficit?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. There is a series of difficult decisions that we have to take when facing an 11% budget deficit, as we were in 2010, and we still need to get this country back to surplus. I would argue that this is not some artificial target. We have to make sure that in the good years we are putting aside money for a rainy day. That is what this is all about. It does involve difficult decisions. We do not always get those decisions right—I am the first to say that—but it is very important that we stick to the long-term economic plan of getting this country back into the black.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): In his statement the Prime Minister mentioned the work of both his former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his current Chancellor, so is he ruling out, as he suggested to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), further negotiation with the EU on benefits and spending? How does he intend to fix the big hole in his Budget that appeared this weekend?

The Prime Minister: The Budget contains a very good package of measures that will help small businesses, get the country back to work and support our schools. The Chancellor will be here tomorrow winding up the

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1261

Budget debate, and in the autumn statement a new forecast will be produced and all these issues will be addressed.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The Prime Minister is a consummate performer at the Dispatch Box and normally I understand everything he says. I do not always agree with it, but I understand it. I am now confused by the answers given to my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). The Government say that they enthusiastically back Turkey’s accession to the EU, yet apparently they announce something but wish for something else. May we get these facts right: we do want Turkey to join the EU; we do believe in free movement of people; we do want to stay in the EU; and therefore we welcome 77 million Turks living and working here?

The Prime Minister: The answer to that is no, because Turkey is not part of the EU. Look, I know that in this debate, which I know is going to get very passionate, people want to raise potential concerns and worries to support their argument, but I have say that when it comes to Turkey being a member of the EU, this is not remotely in prospect. Every country has a veto at every stage. The French have said that they are going to hold a referendum. So in this debate let us talk about the things that are going to happen, not the things that are not going to happen. If we stay in a reformed European Union, we keep our borders, we keep our right to set our own visa policy, we keep our own asylum and immigration policy, and we can stop anyone we want to at our borders. Yes, we do believe in the free movement of people to go and live and work in other European countries, as many people in our own country do, but it is not an unqualified right. That is why, if people come here and they cannot find a job, they do not get unemployment benefit, they get sent home after six months and they do not get access to our welfare system in full for four years. Ironically, if we were to leave the EU and take up a Norway-style position or something like that, we would not have those welfare restrictions. So let us set out what can happen, rather than what is not going to happen.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Lebanon took more refugees in two days last year than the UK has taken in the five years of the Syrian civil war, so when the Prime Minister says it is better to keep refugees in the region, countries there look at us and close their borders, because they have taken 4 million refugees. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what monitoring we are conducting with our European and NATO allies of the ceasefire in Syria? How will violations be reported? What is the timetable for moving towards peace and democratic elections in Syria to allow those refugees to return home?

The Prime Minister: There are lots of questions there. On the question about how we monitor the ceasefire, we are involved in the cell in Geneva that looks at that. I cannot paint an entirely rosy picture, but I think that the ceasefire is better than people expected. As a result, the peace talks are under way.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1262

On Lebanon, the hon. Lady is absolutely right: it has taken a huge number of refugees. It is, of course, the neighbouring country, and neighbouring countries are under an obligation to do so, and Lebanon is fulfilling its obligations. We are helping with a massive aid programme, but we are also helping the Lebanese armed forces, who are now hugely capable because of all the work the United Kingdom has done. They are having considerable success in making sure they keep Daesh out of their own country.

Victoria Atkins (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): The Home Affairs Committee visited Europol recently to see the work done by police forces co-operating across the EU. We were told that 90% of asylum seekers in the hotspots are thought to have reached Europe with the help of human traffickers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to break these criminal gangs to stop them profiting from human tragedy?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Already, because of the action we are starting to take, the people traffickers are seeing some of their markets more difficult to operate, and some of the costs are going up. We need to finish the job. Europol can play an important role in that, as can the National Crime Agency and co-operating with other European partners. We have to put these people out of business.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): On the domestic aspect of the Prime Minister’s statement, not once today has he shown understanding of why there was such a public outcry throughout the country over the Government’s intention to penalise the most vulnerable. He is becoming increasingly out of touch.

The Prime Minister: Having spent £42 billion on disability benefits when I became Prime Minister, that figure is going to go up to over £46 billion by the end of this Parliament. We will spend more on disability benefits. If we measure compassion by the scale of the benefits paid, there have been more in every year under this Government than ever under a Labour Government. Instead of coming here and castigating me, the hon. Gentleman should be castigating his own party.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. Now is the time for what I call considerate brevity.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): What recent discussions have been had with other NATO members on bearing down on and stopping the vile people-trafficking trade from Syria?

The Prime Minister: We are having good discussions, but, frankly, we still need NATO to be able to do more. I would like NATO ships to be able to spend more time in Turkish territorial waters, working with the Turkish coastguard on turning back boats, because it is stopping that trade that will actually undermine the people-smuggling gangs.

Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): May I bring the Prime Minister back to the issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Calais? He is right to say that

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1263

those children can apply to join parents here, but I understand that, of the 150 take charge requests issued by the French Government, not one has been agreed yet by the British Government. Will the Prime Minister undertake to look at that and bring forward proposals to get the process working before any more children suffer any longer?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to look at this. I discussed it with the French President. The rules are clear: if someone has direct family here, they apply for asylum and they will come here, but we need to make sure that happens.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): In congratulating the ship’s company of RFA Mounts Bay, may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention particularly to the embarked medical team, whose work under the most professionally challenging, extraordinary circumstances is surely in the best traditions of the naval service?

The Prime Minister: I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in doing that. I had the huge privilege of going aboard one of Her Majesty’s ships when it is was in Malta. It had recently been taking part in combating the people-smuggling operations and picking people up. It had saved literally thousands of lives, and we could see—whether it was the medical teams, the Royal Marines or the royal naval personnel—that there was huge pride in what they had done.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): The Prime Minister’s tagging on of the events of recent days to a statement on international affairs reminds me of when one of his predecessors, Harold Macmillan, unsuccessfully tried to explain chaos in his own Treasury as “a little local difficulty”. Does the Prime Minister accept that, with the revelation that the Chancellor does not care about vulnerable people because there are not enough Tory voters among them, his own little local difficulty means that compassionate conservatism is completely dead?

The Prime Minister: If I had come to the House and not mentioned these issues, which has enabled colleagues on both sides of the House to question me about them, I think there would have been justifiable outcry, so I wanted to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to do so. When it comes to people casting their vote, we won the last election because we won the support of working people, and we did so because we were creating jobs, cutting taxes, reforming welfare, improving schools, investing in our country and making the economy stronger and our society fairer.

Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): Is it not right to acknowledge that the British policy of taking refugees from the camps supports those who are in no position to take the journey—the poor, the sick, the weak and the vulnerable—and is absolutely the right thing to do?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I think that more and more countries can now see that that is the right approach.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): If fighting resumes in Syria, what is plan B?

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1264

The Prime Minister: Our plan is to continue with the long-term patient work of combating Daesh militarily, which, of course, continues, and, in terms of building the future of Syria, supporting moderate opposition elements that can support a transitional Government in Syria. In the end, a Government in Syria without moderate Sunni opinion in them will never be able to unite that country, so we have to continue with that plan.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that the weakness in the position of those who criticised the agreement between the EU and Turkey in the run-up to it—that also appeared to be the position of the Leader of the Opposition today—is that they have signally failed to advance any credible alternative to those arrangements? Surely, it is in the British national interest to support our partners in making a sensible arrangement with Turkey to prevent migrants from making a perilous journey overseas, while maintaining our own borders.

The Prime Minister: I agree with my right hon. Friend. I think we get the best of both worlds. It is worth asking what difference it would make if we were not there. I suppose my answer is that I think the European Union would have continued for longer with the rather borderless approach of relocating migrants around different European countries. That approach failed. What was required was an approach that was more about looking upstream, supporting people in the camps, finding the funding for that, hardening the external border and breaking the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement. I think that Britain, including my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has been to Council meeting after Council meeting, has done a huge amount to drive that agenda forward.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Angela Maher, the proud mother of two disabled sons, rang me to say, “I could cry,” and then she did, saying, “Why is it always people like us?” Can the Prime Minister rule out, as Robert Meadowcroft, the chief executive of Muscular Dystrophy UK, has said today, any further cuts to support for disabled people during this Parliament?

The Prime Minister: We are increasing the amount of money going to disabled people, as I have explained many times. My right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will set out our approach in a moment, but we set out in our manifesto the changes we needed to make to get the welfare budget under control. We have made those changes and those are the changes we are pursuing.

Alberto Costa (South Leicestershire) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for the fair and sensible way in which he has negotiated with our EU partners on the refugee crisis. Will he ensure that UK local authorities such as Blaby District Council, Harborough District Council and, indeed, Leicestershire County Council are properly resourced and financed if they are going to welcome some of the Syrian refugees?

The Prime Minister: I believe that they are properly resourced because of the Department for International Development money that is available, particularly in the first year, and the ongoing support that is being given.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1265

I encourage local councils to make the most of this opportunity. Families are going to come here who want to make a home and who will be hard working and contribute to our communities, and I encourage local councils to come forward with their plans.

Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP): Other European countries are revising the number of refugees that they are taking in. Just what will it take for the Government to revise upwards the figure of 20,000 refugees that we have agreed to take, particularly since there are thousands of unaccompanied children stranded abroad who have disappeared? We have a moral obligation, surely, to look after the most vulnerable in society.

The Prime Minister: If we look at the charts that the European Union is now publishing, it is perfectly apparent that Britain is doing more than the vast majority of other countries. Some countries that made pledges to resettle Syrian refugees have taken one, two, or, in some cases, none. We are doing far more than other countries. Our system is working.

Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con): In my constituency, Boston has seen the highest level of immigration from eastern Europe of anywhere in the country. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that it would be perfectly reasonable for this country, or indeed any other in Europe, to veto the accession of Turkey?

The Prime Minister: Of course that is the case. Every country has a veto at every stage, so the agreement to open one additional chapter in Turkish accession was something that had to be agreed by every country, including Cyprus and Greece. There is a veto at every stage, and other countries have made their position perfectly clear.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): May I ask the Prime Minister when the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) first spoke to him about his concerns about pressure being put on people with disabilities to fill the gap created by the deficit?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I received a letter from my right hon. Friend on Friday afternoon on my return from the European Council. There had been prolonged discussions at the heart of Government about disability benefit reform, but, as I have said, we are not going ahead with those proposals.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I believe the real test of compassion is not Opposition words but Government action. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government that he leads are taking 3.8 million people out of tax, ensuring that the richest are paying a large amount, creating 2.4 million jobs and spending more than £50 billion on support for the sick and the disabled?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Look at the figures and at what is happening to some of the poorest families in our country, who are

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1266

able now to get jobs, to get work and to pay less tax, and who will be getting a £900-a-year pay rise through the national living wage. That is what is happening for those families. In terms of people at the top, the top 1% are paying a higher percentage of income tax than they ever did under Labour—some 27% of the total. With a growing economy, that means that we can also build a fairer society.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Amazingly, a few moments ago I heard the Prime Minister praise an independent Ireland and in the same breath slag off the idea of Scotland matching the possibilities that Ireland has today.

Now to the matter at hand. It is claimed that the Government took aim at the poor because they do not vote Tory. A wee while ago, the Government tried to mug Scotland for £7 billion, presumably for the very same reason. Who else in this society does the Prime Minister have in his sights?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that the Irish based their entire case on oil revenues that disappeared. [Interruption.] Oh, that was not the plan. I seem to remember that the plan was referring to $100-a-barrel oil as a modest, mid-market—[Interruption.] You can tell they do not like it. When you are shouting, you are losing.

Mr Speaker: Order. Mr MacNeil, I have told you before that you are an exceptionally excitable fellow. You have aspirations to statesmanship and must comport yourself accordingly. Now, we will have an altogether more subdued tone.

Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is often said that the EU is undemocratic and that laws are imposed on us. Is not the decision that the Prime Minister reports today on VAT an example of how Britain can mould and shape those rules and regulations?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend. This supports the argument that if we get stuck in, we can change these things. It is frustrating, and those of us on either side of the argument should accept the frustrations referred to by the other side. VAT has been frustrating—frustrating for the last Government, and frustrating for us. Restrictions were put there, so that we could have reasonable trade and so that we would not have cross-border shopping issues and tax competition issues, but they are too inflexible and this change is worth while.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Prime Minister agree that world populations are moving and changing in a way that we will not wish away? Does he agree that we need a strong and united European Union to manage those great challenges and that, without it, we will be alone and unable to help those people?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, co-operation among the EU nations helps, but, as well as that co-operation, it is important that we have the right ideas. The hon. Gentleman is right to say there is a lot of movement of people around the world. The scale of movement from Africa has been so much greater in recent years not

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1267

because of growing African poverty, but the weakness of north African states and the lack of adequate border arrangements. If we have the right thinking, plus co-operation, we can get the right answer.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that the best way to show compassion and to provide support for those in need, whether at home, Syria or elsewhere in the world, is to build a strong economy and generate the resources needed to look after them?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot show compassion unless we have a strong economy generating the revenues that our health service, our schools and our welfare system need. Conservative Members understand that compassion is a combination of getting the economy right and then making the right choices.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): Despite the Prime Minister’s best efforts to forge ever closer union within his own party, there is a real risk that the UK will become decoupled from its biggest market and most strategic ally. What impact does he think Russian bombing on Syria and tactical resignation by his Cabinet have had on the appetite for Brexit in Britain?

The Prime Minister: There is a strong argument to say that, at a time of international danger and difficulty, there is strength in numbers and that we should stick with our allies and friends, as we confront Putin in the east of our continent and ISIL in the south. As for ever closer union among my colleagues, we believe in co-operation rather than uniformity.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. As colleagues know, it is very unusual for me not to accommodate everybody, but time is against us and we must move on. If colleagues who were unsuccessful in respect of this statement are patient—who knows?—their voices might be heard. Let us hear the next statement, a statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1268


5.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Stephen Crabb): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement.

It is a privilege to stand here at the Dispatch Box as the new Secretary for Work and Pensions. First, I would like to pay a huge tribute to the work of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). He came into this job six years ago with a real sense of mission and purpose to transform people’s lives for the better and he achieved some remarkable things. I intend to build on that success.

As a one nation Conservative, my vision is to support everyone to achieve their full potential and to live independent lives. That means people having the stability and security of a decent job, and children growing up in a home with the benefit of that stability. There are now over 2 million more people in work than in 2010 and almost half a million more children now grow up seeing a mum or a dad go out to work each day. We are ensuring these opportunities extend to all those in our society, including disabled people.

Today, there are more than 3 million disabled people in work. In the past 12 months alone, 152,000 more disabled people have moved into work, with 292,000 more in the past two years. That represents real lives transformed as we support people with disabilities and health conditions to move into work and benefit from all the advantages that that brings. We are also supporting the most vulnerable and are determined that those with the greatest need are supported the most. Our reforms have seen support for disabled people increase. In the previous Parliament, spending rose by £3 billion. We are now, rightly, spending about £50 billion on benefits alone to support people with disabilities and health conditions. Devoting that level of resources to such an important group of people is, I believe, the mark of a decent society.

Personal independence payments were introduced to be a more modern and dynamic benefit to help to cover the extra costs faced by disabled people, something its predecessor benefit, the disability living allowance, did not do. PIP is designed to focus support on those with the greatest need and we have seen that working. For example, 22% of claimants are receiving the highest level of support, compared to 16% under the predecessor benefit DLA.

Before Christmas, the Government held a consultation on how part of the PIP assessment worked in relation to aids and appliances. As the Prime Minister indicated on Friday, I can tell the House that we will not be going ahead with the changes to PIP that had been put forward. I am absolutely clear that a compassionate and fair welfare system should not just be about numbers; behind every statistic there is a human being, and perhaps sometimes in government we forget that. So I can also confirm that after discussing this over the weekend with my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, we have no further plans to make welfare savings beyond the very substantial savings legislated for by Parliament two weeks ago, which we will now focus on implementing.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1269

I turn directly to the welfare cap. It is right that we monitor welfare spending carefully. The principle of introducing a welfare cap is the right one, given the huge increases in welfare spending under previous Labour Governments—up nearly 60%. If we do not control the public finances, it is always the poorest in society who pay the biggest price, so we need that discipline. The welfare cap strengthens accountability and transparency to Parliament—something that simply was not in place under Labour—and we make no apology for this. As we are required to do, we will review the level of the cap at the autumn statement, when the Office for Budget Responsibility formally reassesses it, but I repeat that we have no further plans to make welfare savings beyond the very substantial savings legislated for by Parliament two weeks ago, which we will now focus on implementing.

Against that backdrop, I want to build on the progress we have made in supporting disabled people. We made a manifesto commitment to halve the gap between the proportion of disabled people in work compared with the rest of the labour market. As I have outlined, we have made good progress in supporting disabled people into work, but to go further will require us to work in a way we have not done before and to think beyond the artificial boundaries of organisations, sectors and Government Departments to an approach that is truly collaborative. That is why today I want to start a new conversation with disabled people, their representatives, healthcare professionals and employers. I want the welfare system to work better with the health and social care systems. Together we can do so much better for disabled people.

This is a hugely complex but hugely important area of policy to get right. Disabled people themselves can provide the best insight into how support works best for them. I am determined, therefore, that all views will be listened to in the right way in the weeks and months ahead, and I will be personally involved in these discussions. The events of recent days demonstrate that we need to take time to reflect on how best we support and help transform people’s lives. That is the welfare system I believe in, and I commend this statement to the House.

5.37 pm

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): I start by saying “Croeso a llongyfarchiadau”—welcome and congratulations —to the new Secretary of State. He and I have history at the Wales Office, and I look forward to renewing our relationship. On the basis of today’s statement at least, it looks like it will be a bit more productive than the one I had with his predecessor. I thank him for advance sight of the statement and welcome the vital and wholly inevitable U-turn on the cuts to PIP.

The way this mess has been handled is a textbook example of Tory social security policy—long on divisive rhetoric and totally lacking in competence and compassion. We had the lies before the election; the sham consultation—I welcome the new Secretary of State saying he will listen to the disabled, but the Government should have listened to them in the consultation, when 95% told them not to go ahead, instead of listening to just 11 respondents and putting it through—the announcement snuck out on a Friday night; the briefings before the Budget, the spin afterwards, the extra £20 million set aside to fight

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1270

the appeals; but, above all, the deliberate targeting of disabled people to pay for tax cuts in the Budget, as exposed so mercilessly by his processor, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), at the weekend.

However entertaining it has been watching this Tory civil war over the weekend, what really matters are the 640,000 disabled people who have been in the firing line of the Prime Minister’s Budget, so on their behalf I sincerely thank the new Secretary of State for doing the right thing and reversing the cuts to PIP.

But however welcome that decision, the manner in which it came about leaves many questions unanswered and strips all credibility from the claims of this Government and this Prime Minister to protect all of the people of Britain. Never again can he or this Government claim that we are all in it together. Never again can he claim to lead a one nation Government, because the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) has left that claim in tatters. Speaking from the heart of the Tory Government, he said that their “unfairness” is damaging the people: it is attacking the poor and dividing our nation.

So my question, quite simply, to the new Secretary of State is: does he agree with his predecessor about the fundamental unfairness of those welfare policies and is that why he is reversing the PIP cut today? Can he reassure us that those cuts will be fully reversed? Can he reassure us that changes made to the points system under PIP will be dropped and that full support will be maintained for people who need, for example, help going to the toilet or getting dressed in the morning? Can he reassure us that this is a real U-turn, not another sleight of hand or sham, as we saw with tax credits? Disabled people need to know definitively today that they are being protected, so can he rule out any further cuts to the incomes of disabled people?

I presume the Secretary of State cannot, because I read in the statement that he refers to the “substantial savings legislated for by Parliament two weeks ago”. He did not say what he meant by that, but I can tell the House what he meant. What he meant were the cuts to the ESA work-related activity group budget—£30 a week taken away from the best part of half a million people, who will lose £1,500 a year. We know the Secretary of State’s attitude to that, because he voted for it two weeks ago and he defended it just last week. In fact, on a blog—[Interruption.] Hon. Members would do well to listen to this: they need to know about their new Secretary of State. In a blog written last week, he said that those who were opposed to the ESA WRAG cut were engaged in mere “political banter”. Well, there is nothing fun for disabled people—it is not “banter”—about losing £1,500 a year out of their fragile incomes. So can the Secretary of State be serious and tell us: did he mean the ESA WRAG cut? Is there no chance that he is not going to agree with his predecessor that that, too, is unfair and reverse it, as he should?

Thirdly, could the Secretary of State confirm for us—and correct the errors made once more from the Dispatch Box by his hon. Friend the Financial Secretary earlier today—that spending on disabled people in this country is not increasing in real terms, as was alleged, but declining? The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed last week that spending on PIP and DLA is falling in real terms by 3%, or £500 million. In fact,

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1271

if we take into account all disabled benefits, as the House of Commons Library has done, in analysis for the Labour party to be released later today, we see that spending has fallen by 6%, in contrast with the 60% increase in spending on disabled people that we saw under the last Labour Government—6% down under the Tories; 60% increased for the disabled on our side.

Finally, I welcome what the new Secretary of State had to say about starting a new conversation with the disabled. He has made a good start with a U-turn, but will he decide now that he is going to put an end to the divisive rhetoric that has characterised this Government’s approach over the last few years? Will he stand up for a fair and progressive renewal of our welfare state—the system of support that should be there for us all when we need it?

The new Secretary of State stands at a crossroads today. He can choose the path trodden by his predecessor —to cut the incomes of the disabled; to defend the illegal bedroom tax; to take money from working families through universal credit—or he can choose the path less trodden by Tory Secretaries of State. He could reverse the ESA cut; he could scrap the hated bedroom tax; he could truly speak in favour of disabled people, the poor and the vulnerable in our society.

Among the many extraordinary truths spoken by the Secretary of State’s predecessor yesterday was the shameful admission that these two-nation Tories decided to cut people’s benefits because they did not think that those people would vote for them. It was extraordinary, it was shameful, and the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will have a hell of a job on his hands to wash that stain out.

Stephen Crabb: Let me begin by saying “diolch yn fawr” to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) for his welcoming remarks. It is good to renew the relationship with him that culminated so happily, for me at any rate, on 7 May last year, when he had to crawl out and explain why the Labour party had lost Cardiff North, Vale of Clwyd and Gower. I am very happy to be partnered with him across the Dispatch Box once again. He has lost none of his usual spiky style, and he retains what I described, when he was shadow Welsh Secretary, as a rather “pantomime anger” approach.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith). I was, and am, very proud to have served in a Government with my right hon. Friend, who has a superb record as a social reformer. His record over the last six years compares, any day of the week, with the record of Labour Governments when it comes to welfare reform.

There was a time when Labour Members used to speak the language of welfare reform. There was a time when they liked to pretend that they understood that a benefits system that traps people in poverty is not a benefits system based on compassion and fairness. The time when they talked that language was a time when the British public considered them to be a serious prospect to be voted into government. That was a long time ago.

I have no intention of repeating my statement word for word. I thought that I had been crystal clear about the fact that we are not proceeding with the proposed changes in the personal independence payment. I am

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1272

sorry if the hon. Gentleman was not listening carefully enough. We are increasing real support for disabled people, in real terms, over the lifetime of this Parliament, and the hon. Gentleman should not stand at the Dispatch Box and say that we are not, because it simply is not true.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment, and join him in paying tribute to our right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who spent many years bringing passion, commitment and dedication to his post as Work and Pensions Secretary and who will be sorely missed in many quarters.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is going to take the opportunity presented by the current focus to open his dialogue with disabled people and disabled groups. May I ask him to consider particularly how the welfare system works for people with autism? I hope that he will agree to meet me, along with representatives of the National Autistic Society and members of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, so that we can discuss how the welfare system can work really well for this very important, and sometimes deserted, group of people.

Stephen Crabb: I am, of course, very familiar with the excellent work that my right hon. Friend, and other Members on both sides of the House, have done with the all-party parliamentary group, and we certainly want to involve and include the all-party parliamentary group in the discussions that we are currently having. I should also put on record my appreciation of the fantastic work that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People has already been doing with disability groups and charities.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I welcome the new Secretary of State to his role and thank him for advance sight of his statement. I think he knows that he is inheriting one almighty mess. As the debacle has unfolded, there have been untold adverse consequences not just for those who depend on personal independence payments, but many others, such as those who are set to lose £30 a week in ESA, the thousands of low-income families affected by cuts in work allowances under universal credit, the thousands of mostly disabled people already affected by the bedroom tax, and the women born in the 1950s for whom the goalposts have been shifted relentlessly on their state pension age.

Last week, the Government proposed taking a further £4.3 billion out of the pockets of disabled people to fund tax cuts for the wealthiest. Even by their standards, that was a new low. I am glad that they have been forced to backtrack on the latest round of PIP cuts, but the policy’s problems are more fundamental. The PIP roll-out has consistently failed to meet the Government’s own implementation targets and has been dogged by inordinate delays. Meanwhile, the Government have missed every single opportunity to sort out the fiasco of the implementation of universal credit. Indeed, their cuts have butchered the aspects of universal credit that might have created work incentives. Instead they have hammered low-paid workers, in particular those with children.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1273

I said last week that the Government have remained wedded to austerity as a political choice, even when that has meant a heartless and callous disregard for the wellbeing of disabled people. Now those same people have become pawns in an increasingly bitter Tory civil war. Parts of the social security system, including PIP, are set to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, yet there has been wholly inadequate consultation and engagement with Scottish Ministers ahead of the changes coming into effect. I urge the Secretary of State to take the opportunity to go back to the drawing board not only on PIP, but on the wider social security reform agenda, including the cuts to ESA and work allowances. Will he meet disabled people and work with them? Will he meet me and my colleagues to identify a more constructive way forward?

Stephen Crabb: I thank the hon. Lady for her series of questions. She listed several specific issues, all of which are high up in the in-tray that I have inherited at the Department, but I do not recognise her description of my inheritance. When I arrived at Caxton House yesterday and again today, I found that I had inherited an amazingly committed, passionate, capable group of civil servants and an amazing team of Ministers, who share a real determination to work together in unison to carry on reforming welfare.

On Scotland specifically, I have already checked the matter out and the working relationships in the Department, at both ministerial and official levels, with the Scottish Government are positive and constructive. I want to look at that and will be making an early visit up to Scotland. Perhaps we can carry on the discussion about the new devolved powers that Scotland will be getting.

Dame Angela Watkinson (Hornchurch and Upminster) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and welcome him to his new post. Does he agree that disability is an umbrella term? At one end of the spectrum, there are people with very serious disabilities, for whom independence is impossible. At the other end, however, there are many disabilities that should not preclude people from finding employment. Is not right that we focus spending on that group to help them gain skills and lead a productive life?

Stephen Crabb: I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for her warm and generous remarks. Her point is absolutely right. The term disability covers an immensely varied range of issues and people with different challenges in their life. The changes that we have been making to focus the most resources on those who most need the care of the state and the most vulnerable are absolutely right. Increasing the resources from £60 million to £100 million as part of the employment and support allowance changes will help more disabled people to achieve their aspiration of moving into the workplace.

Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I congratulate and welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box today. Did his officials brief him over the weekend on what has been happening to his Department’s budget? Being large, it has of course been singled out for cuts. Within those cuts, however, the pensioner budget not only has been protected, but has risen by 11%. All the cuts have fallen on those of working age. As he is now

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1274

unsackable—it would be sheer farce if anybody moved against him—I urge him to reconsider seriously any further cuts affecting ESA claimants not only because justice demands it, but because he might face difficulties in getting them past the Back Benchers behind him.

Stephen Crabb: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, for his kind remarks and for the message he sent me at the weekend. I look forward to some constructive discussions with him in the weeks and months ahead. I made it clear in the statement that we are not pursuing further welfare savings and not looking to make alternative off-setting savings to replace the changes to PIP that we were going to bring forward. I hope that that makes it clear for the right hon. Gentleman.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): On Saturday morning, I had a remarkably well-timed visit to the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s south Devon branch to welcome it to Torquay and to speak to a number of its members, and I was given quite a lot of feedback. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how he intends to take forward his dialogue with disabled people and disability groups over the next few weeks?

Stephen Crabb: We are already in the process of setting up meetings with such organisations. As I said earlier, I will be building on some fantastic work that has already been done by the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People, but I want to lead the discussions myself and find out what they are thinking and how best we can work with them. There is a lot of goodwill in the sector for what we are trying to do, recognising the long-term challenges of reform and of getting the health system to work far better with social services and employers to achieve far better outcomes for disabled people. I hope that all of us on both sides of the Chamber can unite around that aspiration.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): The Secretary of State says that there will be no further savings beyond those legislated for. Will he confirm whether that means no alternative welfare cuts to meet the PIP cuts hole? Does it also mean not going ahead with the further £3 billion a year in cuts to meet the welfare cap on page 26 of the Red Book published on Wednesday? Given that he was part of the Cabinet that agreed to the Red Book, published last Wednesday, will he tell the House whether he thinks the entire Cabinet got it spectacularly wrong or just the Chancellor?

Stephen Crabb: I think I fully addressed the right hon. Lady’s question in my statement.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. He is a good man, and I think he will do a great job. He will of course know that the Conservative party has a proud heritage of welfare reform in areas such as public health and social housing. If he is to have a debate, it must surely be about intergenerational fairness and ring-fencing. Those of my constituents who see welfare reductions cannot understand why, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, we intend to spend another £900 million on Scotland and are ring-fencing the Department for International Development budget. We need to refocus our priorities on the most needy across our country.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1275

Stephen Crabb: My hon. Friend makes an important point on intergenerational fairness, about which a debate is emerging. If he looks at the changes to the state pension, half a trillion pounds is being saved over the next 50 years as a result, so the burden is being spread across generations, but there is an important debate to be had.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role and genuinely wish him all the very best of luck. I suspect he realises that he will need it. The problem is that there is a sense of double -unfairness in the Budget. Not only were taxes cut for the better-off while the burden on disabled people increased, but better-off pensioners were again completely protected while working-age people suffer another cut. Does he set himself completely against looking again at the problem of inter-generational fairness?

Stephen Crabb: My intention, very simply, is to look at all these questions with a fresh pair of eyes and with the support of a fantastic team of Ministers around me. The point the right hon. Gentleman is making is similar to the one just made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), and my answer is the same at this moment in time.

Dr Tania Mathias (Twickenham) (Con): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and am glad the Government are not pursuing cuts to PIP. May I remind him that his predecessor showed great empathy and assisted me greatly with a constituent who had very difficult concerns regarding her disability? Will he note that not only do people with a disability have insight into how a policy may have an impact on them, but that they are the experts?

Stephen Crabb: I completely agree with my hon. Friend on both counts. First, on the empathy of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, I can say that he was a man who spent years thinking about these problems in a very serious and considered way, and, as I said earlier, the Government should always be proud of his legacy. The second point she makes is about disabled people who experience these issues being the experts. We absolutely recognise that and want to put them at the very centre of the debate we are about to begin.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State may strike a different tone but in the end he is going to be judged by his actions. My constituents would like to know the following: will he scrap the bedroom tax? Will he scrap the cuts to ESA? And will he deal with the shameful treatment of older women and their pensions?

Stephen Crabb: I say to the hon. Gentleman that if this is about judging by actions, I will happily stand by the record of this Government every day of the week when marked against the record of previous Labour Governments, who allowed the benefits bill to spiral out of control but left a legacy of long-term unemployment. They left hundreds of thousands of people who had not worked a day in their life with no effective support from the state to help them make the transition back into the workplace.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1276

Mims Davies (Eastleigh) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the commitments he makes in the House today. On Friday, I visited the Enham Trust, which is trading in Eastleigh as Mount Industries. It is turning over £1 million a year and nearly half its current workforce are people who are disabled or who have come off disability living allowance, having been supported by the Department for Work and Pensions. This Government are helping the company to grow and it is helping to create more jobs. I would like to see the Minister continue this work, alongside the changes we need to make sure we have the jobs and opportunities for people to come into the workforce, as they are doing in Eastleigh.

Stephen Crabb: I agree with my hon. Friend on that, and the company she mentions is a great example. It is not one that I have had meetings with, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People has. It is exactly the kind of organisation we want to see replicated and growing throughout this country.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): The new Secretary of State talked about being a one nation Conservative, but what does that mean to the UK’s 6.5 million carers, 52,000 of whom will have been worried about losing their carer’s allowance, with the link to the PIP changes? Those worries come on top of those of 60,000 unpaid family carers hit by the bedroom tax. Will this new Secretary of State start to consider the very people who provide the bulk of care in this country ?

Stephen Crabb: The hon. Lady makes a really important point about the vital role of carers in our communities and all across society. That is exactly why since 2010 the Government have spent more than £2 billion extra supporting carers, but I would always be happy to meet her and other groups representing carers to find out what more we can do to ease the challenges they face in their daily lives.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s appointment, and I know that he will respect the policy legacy of his predecessor. When he looks at pay progression in this country and the worthwhile pilot that his Department is undertaking, may I urge him to look creatively at solutions across government with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Health to ensure that we are not just satisfied to get people into work, but that we look to move them through the pay scales to sustainable, independent living?

Stephen Crabb: That is a really important point from my hon. Friend, who serves on the Work and Pensions Committee and is very knowledgeable about these issues. It is not just about seeing more disabled people move into work—an increase in the number—we want to see more disabled people earning higher wages, too. I confess that I was not previously aware of the initiative he mentions, but I will certainly look into it to see whether we can expand it.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) was being a little generous, because I am not sure we have even heard a change of tone

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1277

today—we are hearing precisely what we heard under the previous Secretary of State. As we all know, the new Secretary of State is a patron of Pembrokeshire Mencap. Is he seriously telling us that in his listening exercises with its members they would have told him that they recognise what he said today, which was that the previous Secretary of State had a record to be proud of, that he transformed the lives of disabled people and that members of Pembrokeshire Mencap would be proud of the job he had done as Secretary of State?

Stephen Crabb: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman knows anyone from Pembrokeshire Mencap or has ever been to Pembrokeshire in his life. It is made up of a special group of people doing fantastic work, and I am very proud to have been their patron for the past 11 years, supporting them in all kinds of practical ways.

Byron Davies (Gower) (Con): May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his recent appointment and say that it is good to see Welsh MPs on the march? I am pleased to see that under this Government just under 300,000 more disabled people are in employment. That is positive progress, but does he agree that there is more important work to be done in this area?

Stephen Crabb: Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. He raises the issue at the heart of my statement today: we want to see society doing a much better job of supporting disabled people make that move into work. We had a manifesto commitment to halve the disabled employment gap that currently exists, but that will require lots of new ways of thinking and working across different sectors.

Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab): The Secretary of State, whom I congratulate, talked about a decent society. Let me assure him that he is not in a position to lecture the House on a decent society, given that Conservative Members voted to cut ESA, cut tax credits and introduce the bedroom tax, and just five days ago were cheering the very cuts that they are now decrying. He spoke about providing support for the “most vulnerable” and those in the greatest need to make sure that they are “supported the most”. The problem is that that excuse only works once. If someone has a disability, the chances are that they will not be cured. Will he therefore guarantee to the House today that those who are in receipt of PIP will not have to reapply for it, because their disability is so severe?

Stephen Crabb: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome, and he raises a number of different issues. The statement I made to the House today was clear on some of the changes we are making, some of the ones we are not and some of the longer-term aspirations that I have coming into the Department. It is just day one for me, so he will forgive me if I am not quite on top of all of the specific issues he wants to talk about—I would be happy to have a meeting with him.

Mrs Flick Drummond (Portsmouth South) (Con): I welcome the new Secretary of State, as I am sure he is going to be an excellent one. I also thank the Government very much for their rethink, because last September Portsmouth had 4,400 people on DLA and since January

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1278

1,094 are now on PIP. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that all its communications to claimants are accessible to all and to reassure them that the help is there when they need it?

Stephen Crabb: My hon. Friend raises an important point about communications with people who are disabled, and she will be pleased to know that within the Department, we recently set up a taskforce of stakeholders and interested parties to look at this very issue. This included organisations such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the British Deaf Association, Action on Hearing Loss, Sense and Mencap.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. I hope his commitment to a more inclusive listening approach will deliver a more positive set of outcomes for disabled people, unlike the missionary zeal of his predecessor. Given that we now have a £4.4 billion gap—a big hole in the Red Book—will he say, as a member of the Cabinet, where the Government will find that money from? If it is from the welfare budget, which part of the welfare budget will be targeted?

Stephen Crabb: That “missionary zeal” that the hon. Lady mentions in relation to my predecessor is a really important quality when one is trying to achieve big changes across Whitehall. As I have repeatedly said this afternoon, we have much to be proud of when it comes to the achievements of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. On the question of savings, we have another debate on the Budget tomorrow, in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be speaking on that very issue. For the sake of absolute clarity, let me reiterate this: the Government have no plans to make further reductions in welfare expenditure.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): The Secretary of State may be aware that the Government have recently accepted the recommendation of the independent Mental Health Commission to put more money into supporting those with mental health problems to get back into work. That is a totally new and radical approach to ensuring that people with mental health conditions can lead productive lives and get back into the workplace.

Stephen Crabb: Supporting people with mental health issues has been debated many, many times in this House. There is a recognition across all parts of the House that, as a society, we have not always got it right, but as a Government we are determined to improve on that, which is why we are currently undertaking pilot projects worth £43 million, providing individual and tailored support, including face-to-face support, group work, online and telephone support, and co-location of Improving Access to Psychological Therapies services.

Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (SNP): The Secretary of State has indicated that disabled people are themselves best placed to inform him of their needs. As chair of the all-party group for disability, I urge him to attend a specially convened meeting of the APPG so that he can outline the changes and listen to disabled people’s concerns. Will he confirm today that he will attend that meeting?

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1279

Stephen Crabb: Yes, I would very much like to attend that meeting. The Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People is whispering to me that the group does genuinely excellent work, so I look forward to that opportunity.

Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (Con): Like me, my right hon. Friend was brought up by a devoted single mum. Does he believe that it is thanks to the fundamental welfare reforms and the personalised nature of support for those looking for work—those with disability and those without—that so many more parents are now finding good jobs and are better able to support their family?

Stephen Crabb: Some of the most impressive people I meet, week in and week out, in my constituency and elsewhere are single mums. As a Government, we are doing far more than ever before to support people in those circumstances to realise their ambitions, to move into work and to achieve some quite exciting things in their careers.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Some 640,000 disabled people will be relieved to hear the announcement this afternoon. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that those cuts will never be reintroduced by this Government again?

Stephen Crabb: The hon. Lady and other Opposition Members are trying to tease out a commitment from the Government that there will never, ever, ever be any other changes to welfare spending. Such a commitment would be absurd. We know that we need to carry on with reform. The commitment that I am making today, based on some very long conversations with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister over the weekend, is that we will not go ahead with the proposed PIP cuts, that we will not be seeking alternative offsetting savings, and that as a Government we are not seeking further savings from the welfare budget.

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con): My right hon. Friend’s appointment is very much welcomed. He is a one nation, pragmatic and moderate Conservative from the tips of his toes to the end of his beard. I am the chair of the inquiry into employability by the APPG on multiple sclerosis, so does he accept from me that there is still huge anxiety among employers over bringing disabled people into the workplace? Will he work with our APPG and other groups to ensure that employers across the country are aware of the huge opportunity and benefits that those who are disabled can bring to their business and enterprises?

Stephen Crabb: There really should not be any nervousness on the part of employers over hiring disabled workers. Disability Confident, into which we as a Government have put a lot of resource, is doing some really excellent work; indeed, I had the pleasure of participating in some of its work in my previous ministerial role. We have engaged a taskforce of experts to work on new and innovative ways to ensure that the scheme reaches small and medium-sized enterprises. Hopefully, in that way, we will support employers to hire more disabled people.

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab): For almost three hours now, we have been addressed by a Treasury Minister, the Prime Minister and now the new Secretary

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1280

of State, and yet we still have not had an answer to Labour’s very direct question of where the £4 billion is coming from. There are two possibilities: either the Government do not know, or they do know but will not tell us. Which is it?

Stephen Crabb: We have explored that issue in depth for a long time this afternoon. There will be further opportunities later today and tomorrow in the Budget debate. Let me just repeat the commitment that I have made today: we will not be pressing ahead with the proposed PIP cuts; we will not be seeking alternative offsetting savings; and the Government do not have plans for further welfare savings.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role. I see him as a ray of sunshine after a bleak few days. He will be aware that PIP is there to meet the extra costs of disability, and those costs have been rising rapidly. May I apologise for adding to his workload by recommending that he read Scope’s Extra Cost Commission, which looks at how Government can reduce—and work with the private sector to reduce—those extra costs to ensure that PIP really does go further?

Stephen Crabb: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I always like to try to be a ray of sunshine if I can. I am really grateful for the reading recommendation, and will make it an early priority.

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): The Secretary of State is doing an excellent job of avoiding answering the question from the Opposition Benches. Where will the £4.4 billion be found? If it is not from the welfare bill, where will these savings be found?

Stephen Crabb: I am genuinely really puzzled as to why Members on the Labour Benches cannot listen and follow the arguments that we are making. I have repeated the Government’s position. I am sorry if the hon. Lady was not listening to the statement earlier, but it was very clear.

Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. His personal background and experience mean that he knows the benefit of an effective welfare system. Will he assure me that he will continue his predecessor’s work of the past couple of years of getting 292,000 people back into work? At the end of the day, work and an effective welfare system are far more in tune with true social justice than the numbers that are being bandied about by the Opposition.

Stephen Crabb: My hon. Friend is exactly right. When he uses the figure of 292,000, we should make it absolutely clear that we are talking about 292,000 disabled people who, with lots of support from the different initiatives of this Government, have made that transition back into work. That is a terrific record, but let us not be complacent. There is so much more to do if we are to achieve our manifesto promise of halving the disability employment gap.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and wish him well. He faces a huge challenge, but he also leaves behind a huge challenge for his colleagues in the Wales Office in respect

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1281

of the Wales Bill. With one bound he was free—or possibly not. I welcome his commitment to resetting the conversation with disabled people. The abandoned changes to PIP were apparently based on review of just 105 cases of the more than 600,000 people who depend on PIP, supplemented apparently by 400 further reviews after the decision was taken. Will he guarantee that before further changes to welfare are proposed, proper, independent research will be publicly available beforehand?

Stephen Crabb: The kind of research that the hon. Gentleman talks about is always published by a Department ahead of any major policy change. There is a duty on Departments to publish impact assessments and to conduct their policy making in an open and transparent way. What I hope he has taken away from my statement today is my personal commitment to ensuring that as we look again at these really challenging long-term issues around disabled people moving into employment, I will be doing so in a way that is transparent, open and based on sound evidence.

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): Before coming up to London this afternoon, I held one of my regular surgeries in Upton in my constituency. One constituent who came was a disabled lady who was in work but wanted support from her employer and support in finding new work. What practical steps will the Secretary of State take through conversations with the disabled, with disability groups, and, importantly, with employers to ensure that we halve the disability employment gap?

Stephen Crabb: One of the big challenges we have as a Government is working with employers to reassure them and support them in making good decisions about recruiting and hiring disabled people. We have a really important initiative in my Department called Access to Work. We need to publicise it a lot more and get more employers looking at it and accessing it.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): We were all pleased to hear the Secretary of State say, “We have no further plans to make welfare savings beyond the very substantial savings legislated for”. Can he therefore guarantee that there will be no reductions in rates or eligibility criteria for any social security benefits in this Parliament?

Stephen Crabb: The statement was very clear. The kind of changes that the hon. Lady describes would be cuts to people’s benefits, so we as a Government are not looking at that at this moment in time.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment. There is no one more appropriate to take on the reform and social justice agenda of his predecessor. What is his Department doing for disabled entrepreneurs? May I remind him not to forget entrepreneurs who are disabled?

Stephen Crabb: There are some amazing examples of disabled people who have set up really successful small, and not so small, businesses around the UK. In my previous role as Welsh Secretary, I recently had the

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1282

pleasure of meeting a number of them in Cardiff. They are absolutely the kind of people that we as a Government need to be backing and supporting. Schemes like Access to Work are a really important part of that.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. I also welcome the Treasury’s retreat on cuts to PIP which he has been credited with. Will he use his new-found power to press the Treasury to make a further retreat on cuts to ESA and to properly fund the White Paper on health and work beyond the previously committed £100 million—and also, having had a commitment from his predecessor only last week, to have it published well before the summer?

Stephen Crabb: The changes to ESA have been debated at length in this House on numerous occasions, and Members have had an opportunity to vote on them. I will of course look at the other issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions and will be in touch with him.

Craig Williams (Cardiff North) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. I can think of no Member of this House who could bring any more compassion and empathy to this new role, given his personal life experience. Does he agree that a fair welfare system should not just be about numbers?

Stephen Crabb: It is about human beings, as I said in my statement. All the statistics that we talk about in this place have lives, families and individuals behind them, but it is especially important in the area of welfare and disability to remember that we are talking about human beings.

Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) pointed out, page 26 of the Red Book commits the Government to £3 billion of cuts to meet the welfare cap. Is this not what his predecessor described over the weekend as

“too focused on narrowly getting the deficit down”

at the expense of the poorest? Is the £3 billion going to be honoured, and how he is going to deliver that?

Stephen Crabb: I have a very direct answer to that very direct question. It is the one I have been giving all afternoon, which is that the Government will not be seeking further savings in the welfare budget.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): One of the major problems that disabled people face is the prejudice in a society that talks about what they cannot do rather than what they can do. In leading the Department, what will right hon. Friend do to change that attitude to concentrate on what people can do rather than what they cannot do?

Stephen Crabb: The can-do principle that my hon. Friend describes is very important, and it is at the heart of everything we are trying to achieve in all our welfare reforms. In the area of disability, the central understanding that my predecessor brought to the Department, along with the sense of mission and purpose, was to focus on

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1283

what people can do. For people who genuinely cannot work and need the support of the state, we need to reorient resources to make sure that those who are the most vulnerable and need them most get those resources.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State would do well, though, to recognise that there are a lot of very upset and unsettled disabled people who, having heard the Chancellor on Wednesday, were very concerned indeed. The new Secretary of State says that he wants to “reset the conversation”. Does he not think he would do well to apologise for this appalling upset that people have felt over recent days? Will he use the word “sorry”?

Stephen Crabb: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s line of questioning is particularly fruitful. I made a very clear statement about what I am trying to achieve on day one in this new role. If he is looking for apologies, he should look to his own party’s Front Benchers and ask for an apology for the scandalous state in which they left the public finances in 2010.

Maria Caulfield (Lewes) (Con): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment, but also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) for his previous work. A good welfare system is an important safety net that is there when people absolutely need it, but the true route out of poverty is through education and work. This Conservative Government have not only got more people into work but raised the lowest paid out of tax by increasing the tax threshold and introducing the living wage. [Interruption.] As someone who grew up in a poor area of Labour-controlled south London in the ’70s, I can say that the lack of aspiration that is evident today is the same as it was then. [Interruption.] Does the Secretary of State agree that if you want a lecture about poverty, you should ask Labour, but if you want something done about it, you should ask the Conservatives?

Stephen Crabb: Labour Members jeer my hon. Friend, who, with her own upbringing and her work as a cancer nurse on the south coast, has far more understanding, in real-life terms, of working with vulnerable people who need the support of the state than the Opposition are displaying.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): When the Secretary of State says, “Read my lips—no more cuts to welfare”, he does not of course include the huge cuts in social security spending that have already been agreed and are still to be implemented. The Government website says:

“If you’re ill or disabled, Employment and Support Allowance…offers you… financial support if you’re unable to work”.

Only last week, he, as a Government Minister, was telling people on his Facebook page that people on employment and support allowance were able to work. Will he correct that, please?

Stephen Crabb: I think the hon. Lady is referring to an error that was on my constituency Facebook page. It was a good spot, but it has been corrected.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1284

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his position. I particularly welcome his commitments for the future and his decision to back Access to Work and Disability Confident even further. I shall shortly be holding a Disability Confident jobs fair in Worcester. I would be delighted if he came to Worcester at some point to see amazing businesses such as Dolphin Computer Access that employ large numbers of disabled people.

Stephen Crabb: In the past five years, my hon. Friends have had a fantastic track record of running jobs fairs, putting themselves at the vanguard of the great turnaround in the employment situation in this country. I am conscious that about 50 colleagues have already been holding disability jobs fairs. I have not been to one, and I would love to come along to attend my hon. Friend’s.

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): One of the big challenges the new Secretary of State will have is that the lowest-paid civil servants are employees of the Department for Work and Pensions, with 40% on tax credits and many on social security benefit. First, when he is implementing social security reforms, will he commit to publishing an impact assessment of how they affect employees of the DWP? Secondly, will he address the issue of low pay among employees in his new Department?

Stephen Crabb: The Department for Work and Pensions has a very good record on pay and conditions, and 80,000 people work in it across every part of the United Kingdom. I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting a few of them today, and I will be getting out and meeting far more people in the days and weeks ahead. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point and we will look at it again, but there is already a duty on the Department to publish impact assessments.

Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): The welfare state is a safety net. If that safety net is to be sustainable in the long term, not only do we need sound economic policies to fund it, but we must work to challenge some of the underlying causes that lead people to need that safety net. Will the Secretary of State work across the Government to assist with the challenges facing people who have drug and alcohol addiction and other family breakdown challenges?

Stephen Crabb: My hon. Friend raises an important point that has not been mentioned so far. The Government are focused on working with people who have drug and alcohol problems, and I point to the excellent work currently going on with the troubled families programme. That is key to creating lasting pathways out of poverty. It is not just about increasing the jobs available; it is about supporting people who have underlying conditions that prevent them from going into work.

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): The Secretary of State was keen to say that behind every statistic there is a human being, and in my constituency 1,586 human beings are in receipt of PIP and hundreds are on DLA and Motability. Some 13,000 people with disabilities lost their Motability claim last year. How will the Secretary of State ensure that Motability, which has had such a huge impact on the lives of disabled people, does not disappear down the plughole?

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1285

Stephen Crabb: Motability is not decreasing or disappearing down the plughole, and the number of people benefiting from it are increasing, not decreasing.

Suella Fernandes (Fareham) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his position. Like his predecessor, he shares a commitment to social justice, and brings real empathy born out of his personal experience. In Fareham, I have been working with local residents to set up a support group for sufferers of epilepsy. More than 600,000 people in the country have that condition, yet many of them still encounter insensitivity and prejudice in society. What steps are the Government taking to raise awareness in schools and the workplace, so that that stigma is smashed?

Stephen Crabb: Through her work in this place my hon. Friend is a powerful voice on behalf of many vulnerable groups. Epilepsy is an issue close to her heart and those of other hon. Members, and I look forward to discussing with them how we can better address that issue and support people with epilepsy.

Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): Last year, the Government tried to cut tax credits and that plan failed. This year, they tried to cut disability benefits and that plan failed. The House wants to know who is next. Let us be clear: has the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the right hon. Gentleman that his budget is now set to rise by £4.2 billion? It is a simple question—yes or no?

Stephen Crabb: Spending on welfare is rising, so, yes, the budget is increasing. I repeat that the Government have not got plans for further welfare savings beyond those that Parliament has already voted for, and we will focus on implementing them.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and statement. In May, he and I stood on a manifesto that pledged to protect pensioner benefits, so I am sure that under his stewardship there will be no backsliding on our commitment to older people.

Stephen Crabb: The commitment and promises that we made in our manifesto were clear, and the Government are absolutely focused on delivering those promises and keeping our commitments to the British people, including pensioners.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): The Budget’s cuts to capital gains tax and to support the wealthiest in the country were paid for by spending cuts for the most disadvantaged in our society, which was

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1286

immoral. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) said that he could not “watch passively” while such divisive policies targeted non-Tory voters. Why is the Secretary of State so craven and so keen to introduce such unfair policies?

Stephen Crabb: The hon. Gentleman is another one with a good line in theatre. Even with the changes that we are making, capital gains tax will still be 2% higher than it was left by the previous Labour Government.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): My right hon. Friend has always walked and talked social justice, and he is the right person to take forward the good reforms of his predecessor. He emphasised the human dimension, and as he reflects on the additional costs for disabled people, which are reflected not only in personal independence payments but in social care, housing and the national health service, and as he works on future reform, will he reflect on bringing together all those factors, rather than picking off areas such as PIP?

Stephen Crabb: My hon. Friend makes a crucial point that was at the heart of what I was trying to communicate in my statement. If we are serious about breaking down long-term barriers to people with disabilities moving into work, we must think in new ways and much more creatively and effectively across different sectors such as social care, healthcare, employers and education. We have a big challenge ahead of us, and I hope to bring fresh thinking and a new approach.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): To be clear, will the Secretary of State confirm that the £4 billion in the Red Book that people have mentioned will have to be found from somebody else’s Department, not his?

Stephen Crabb: Such questions really ought to go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and tomorrow the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to put them to him. This statement is about my Department and budget, and it is extremely clear that we are not pressing ahead with the proposed changes to PIP, that we will not be seeking alternative offsetting savings and that the Government will not be coming forward with further proposals for welfare savings.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am genuinely sorry to disappoint colleagues. This is a rarity because my objective is always to get in every colleague who wishes to speak on a statement, but every rule has its exceptions. I hope that colleagues will understand that I have to move on and that there is an element of rough justice when that happens.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1287

Points of Order

6.36 pm

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions leaves the Chamber, may I point out that he said in his statement that the Government will not be seeking future savings from the welfare budget? However, Treasury sources were apparently briefing to The Sun newspaper during his statement that that is not what he means, and that he means that there are no “planned” increases in the cuts to the welfare budget in this Parliament. Can he tell us which it is?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has raised his concern under the guise, or within the clothing, of an attempted point of order, but as he knows—his puckish grin merely testifies to his awareness of this—that is not a matter for the Chair. If he is beseeching the Secretary of State to come in on that point of order, he is entitled so to beseech. The Secretary of State can do so if he wishes, but he is under no obligation.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Stephen Crabb) indicated dissent.

Mr Speaker: The Secretary of State is leaving it there, which he is perfectly entitled to do. I thank him for his statement and his responses to questions.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: I will come to the right hon. Lady in a moment. I am saving her up—it will be worth waiting for, I feel sure.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If indeed the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been put in an impossible position by the Treasury and may have unintentionally used misleading language in the House, would the way to clear that up be for the Chancellor to come to the House and make a full statement in which people can ask questions, rather than simply closing the very end of a debate?

Mr Speaker: I say to the right hon. Lady and the House only that I have no knowledge, or way of possessing knowledge, about what is or is not being briefed to a particular newspaper at a given time. To meet her concern head on, the Chancellor will be in the House tomorrow. I understand that he is winding up the debate, but it is customary for a Minister who is winding up a debate to attend most of it, so there will be ample opportunity for colleagues to air their concerns. I hope she will understand if I say that I prefer not to entertain hypothetical situations. I always thought that Lord Whitelaw was very sound when he said that on the whole he preferred not to cross bridges until he came to them.

Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says that he wants to listen to disabled people. There is a case in the Supreme Court at the moment.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1288

Paul and Sue Rutherford, who are constituents of the Secretary of State, won an exemption from the bedroom tax in the High Court, and that case is now in the Supreme Court. If the Secretary of State wants to listen to disabled people, perhaps he could listen to his own constituents and stop fighting tooth and nail against that exemption.

Mr Speaker: I wish gently, although not too gently, to reprove the hon. Lady. The shadow Secretary of State made at least a half-hearted attempt to conceal his political observation within the guise of a point of order. There was really no such attempted disguise on the part of the hon. Lady. Her point may or may not have been valid, and it might well relate to a case that is sub judice, but whatever else may be said of it, it is not a matter for the Chair. We will leave it there for today. She has got her point on the record.

Mrs Gillan rose—

Mr Speaker: We will proceed only after we have heard the point of order from Mrs Cheryl Gillan.

Mrs Gillan: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are well known for defending the rights of Back Benchers. In the light of a motion on the Order Paper today, I need your advice about defending the rights of a very small group of Back Benchers. Both Opposition and Government Members are being whipped against this group of Back Benchers, who are the small group representing the interests of the constituencies lying along the High Speed 2 route. The HS2 Bill, which has some 417 pages, has taken six years to come to fruition, yet the Government have seen fit to table a motion providing only two hours on Report and one hour for Third Reading, which is only half a day’s debate. If Members wish to have their amendments voted on, it will be almost impossible to have any reasonable debate.

The amendments tabled cover tunnelling, the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, an adjudicator to help people who fall foul of the construction process and of subcontractors, speed limitations, compensation for local authorities, environmental provisions and safeguards, and compensation and local issues relating to constituents of both Labour and Conservative Members and those of many other Members. Several MPs who are affected have expressed dismay to me, and people are despairing at having such a short time to look at these important issues.

What can we do? At the moment, there is no point even in voting against the business of the House motion because Members of both parties are being whipped against it. People looking at the House will think that the process of democracy is dead when MPs defending their constituents’ interests cannot even get a whole day on a £56 billion white elephant.

Mr Speaker: I thank the right hon. Lady for giving me notice of her point of order. Her concerns about the Bill are well known. She referred to constituencies on the line of route and I mention, purely in passing, that my own constituency situation is well known to the right hon. Lady and many other Members throughout the House. She has referenced the motion that the Government have tabled. That business of the House

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1289

motion, item 2 on today’s Order Paper, allocates time to the remaining stages, and she has complained about what she regards as the total inadequacy of that time. As she also knows, because she has been in the House for almost 24 years, I am afraid that such motions are not the preserve of the Chair: there is absolutely nothing that the Chair can do on that matter. It is up to the House whether to agree to the motion.

However, for the benefit of the right hon. Lady and those beyond the Chamber interested in these matters, I would simply add that if the motion is reached after 10 pm, it cannot be debated and can be agreed tonight only if there is no objection. I am not a seer—the right hon. Lady knows that I cannot be sure how events will play out—but given the time now and the fact that we are about to hear two Front-Bench speeches and that some dozens of colleagues wish to give the House the benefit of their views on the Budget, it seems at least highly probable that the motion will not be reached until after 10 o’clock. Knowing the indefatigability of the right hon. Lady, I feel sure that she will be in her place at the point the motion is reached, and she will know what she thinks she should do.

Beyond that, the right hon. Lady should have a chat with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and deploy her combination of intellect and charm to try to secure an improvement in the position.

Mrs Gillan: Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: There is really nothing further to that point of order, but because it is the right hon. Lady, I feel I must take it.

Mrs Gillan: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that piece of information. Unfortunately, I have already deployed my intellect and charm. They have failed to work on the Secretary of State for Transport. Hence my appeal to the Chair in this instance.

Mr Speaker: In that case, I can advise the right hon. Lady and anybody else who feels as she does only as I have just done. It is not for me to tell the House how to vote. I would not dream of doing so; that would be most improper. All I am doing is saying to the right hon. Lady that that is the position procedurally. She will go into the situation with open eyes if she wants to be in the Chamber close to and beyond 10 o’clock. She knows that what I am telling her is not opinion, but based on sound procedural advice. I think we had better leave it there. I suggest that the Clerk now proceeds to read the Orders of the Day.

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1290

Ways and Means

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Amendment of the Law

Debate resumed (Order, 17 March).

Question again proposed,


(1) It is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance.

(2) This Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to value added tax so as to provide—

(a) for zero-rating or exempting a supply, acquisition or importation;

(b) for refunding an amount of tax;

(c) for any relief, other than a relief that—

(i) so far as it is applicable to goods, applies to goods of every description, and

(ii) so far as it is applicable to services, applies to services of every description.

Mr Speaker: Before I call the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, from whom we look forward to hearing—we also look forward to hearing from his shadow—I simply point out that some dozens of colleagues want to speak in the debate. There will have to be a very tight time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but I know that the Secretary of State and his shadow, who are both very considerate Members of the House, will, while wanting to treat comprehensively of the issues within their domain, wish to facilitate contributions by colleagues.

6.46 pm

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Greg Clark): No one can pretend that this has been an easy Budget for the Government, but none of them is. Every single one of them is overshadowed by the events of the previous decade, by the deepest recession since the war and by a financial and fiscal crisis in which a large part of our national wealth disappeared in a puff of debt. GDP, productivity and revenue were all decimated. That is what happens when one spends a decade using a credit bubble to inflate the size of Government. One day, the income suddenly disappears, but the commitments remain. In 2010, those responsible in the Labour party left government and did so without looking back. In the six years that followed, they have retreated ever further from any sense of responsibility.

It fell to us on the Conservative Benches to put things right: to rebuild an economy on firm foundations, to wrestle down the deficit and to mend the many institutions left in disarray. Financial regulation, educational standards and the housing market—all were broken, and all are being painstakingly restored to working order by this Government. However, every decision we made has been a hard one, because when the gap between the need and the Government’s resources is so wide there are no easy answers. We have not always got them right first time—the least worst option is not always apparent—but this is a Government willing to listen and to respond, while also keeping on track to squeeze out debt, encourage growth,

21 Mar 2016 : Column 1291

generate jobs and build new homes. On all these fronts, we are moving the country in the right direction, while the Opposition rush headlong to the left. They can go their way, but we will keep on moving forward.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): This Government said that they would eradicate the deficit in four years. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me when that policy changed? How long does a long-term economic policy last for?

Greg Clark: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber for the Budget statement. If he was, he will have seen that the Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed that we are on track to eliminate the deficit by the end of the Parliament and to have a surplus. He should spend a bit of time talking to his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), who might provide the answer to why it has taken some time to reduce the deficit.

Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Hundreds of thousands of small businesses are paying lots of those taxes. What assistance can the Secretary of State give to small businesses that are facing rate demands from local authorities?

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend draws attention to a very important point. We have doubled small business rate relief, benefiting businesses right across the country—the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy and that are contributing a record number of jobs, meaning that we have more people employed than ever before.

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab): Will the reduction in small business rates have an impact on local authority incomes?

Greg Clark: If the hon. Lady had attended DCLG questions earlier in the day, she would have heard me confirm that every penny will be made up. I am sure she is delighted to hear that.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I asked the Secretary of State about this issue in questions earlier. He said that the cost of small business rate relief in this Parliament would be funded by section 31 grants. Will he confirm that that grant will not come from any other part of local authorities’ budgets, and if it is not will he point out precisely where in the Red Book it says how that is funded?

Greg Clark: On page 84, line 15.

Let me turn to the subject of today’s debate, which is infrastructure and devolution. Those issues will still matter a year from now—indeed 10 years and 100 years from now. In “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith spoke of three fundamental duties of Government: the defence of the realm, the maintenance of law and order, and a third duty that he described as follows:

“the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit would never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”