All 20 Parliamentary debates in the Commons on 5th Feb 2024

House of Commons

Monday 5th February 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Monday 5 February 2024
The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

Monday 5th February 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Monday 5th February 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Flick Drummond Portrait Mrs Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) (Con)
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1. What steps his Department is taking to help people save for the future.

Craig Tracey Portrait Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire) (Con)
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10. What steps his Department is taking to help people save for the future.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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19. What steps his Department is taking to help people save for the future.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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Automatic enrolment has succeeded in transforming pension savings, with more than 11 million employees being automatically enrolled in a workplace pension since 2012 and an additional £29 billion in real terms saved into marketplace pensions in 2022 compared with 2012.

Flick Drummond Portrait Mrs Drummond
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I was very pleased when the Government brought in auto-enrolment for pensions in 2012, as making sure that everyone saves for a pension should prevent pension poverty. What is the rate of take-up of these pensions and what provisions are the Government putting in place to help those on low wages build up a pension pot to help provide a decent income in retirement?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The increase in take-up since 2012 has been extraordinary, particularly among women, for whom the rate was 40% in 2012 and is now 86% and in line with men. My hon. Friend will know about the 2017 review that we conducted on auto-enrolment. As and when we bring in those changes, that will mean 3 million more people auto-enrolled with £2 billion of additional savings each year.

Craig Tracey Portrait Craig Tracey
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I am chair of the insurance and financial services all-party parliamentary group, and financial inclusion has been one of our key areas of focus, particularly following the pandemic which showed that anybody has the potential to quickly become vulnerable. What are the Government doing to increase the financial resilience of our constituents and make them best placed to cope should such an unforeseen event happen again?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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May I first recognise the fantastic work my hon. Friend does on financial resilience? The Government have, through very difficult times, come forward with £104 billion of cost of living payments between 2022 and 2025. I would point my hon. Friend to one particular scheme: the help to save scheme encourages low-income households to save and we have recently extended that by 18 months, until April 2025.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call James Sunderland. Not here. I call the Chair of the Select Committee.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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I agree with the Secretary of State about the cross-party success of auto-enrolment, which has doubled the proportion of eligible employees saving for retirement, but we know that the current regular auto-enrolment contribution of 8% of earnings is not enough to deliver the standard of living in retirement that most people hope for. Does the Secretary of State recognise that that minimum level of contribution will need to be increased?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The contribution rates of the employer and employee are a very important matter, and we keep both under review.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Jim Shannon. Always here.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

When I was 16, my mother took me to Danske bank—or Northern bank as it was then—and opened an account for me. When I was 18, my mother phoned up the pension man in Ballywalter and told him I needed a pension. My mother has been a big guide in my life. What would the Secretary of State say to encourage the young people of today to take their mother’s advice on opening bank and pension accounts and planning for the future?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I think the response to that is, always take your mother’s advice. I always did—and look where it got me. At the age of 16, I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would have been saving into a piggy bank, putting his little pennies in a porcelain pig. I direct him to the gov.uk website, where there is a plethora of information for young people and those of all ages about saving and what the Government are doing to assist.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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The good news is that Mrs Shannon is still giving him advice. I call the shadow Minister.

Gill Furniss Portrait Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
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One of the simplest ways to get people saving for the future is by ensuring that they are enrolled in a pension scheme, but all too many are currently excluded from auto-enrolment, particularly women, who are twice as likely to miss out. The Government have known about this problem for years. They first proposed widening the criteria in 2017. Last year, thanks to a private Member’s Bill, the Minister was given the power to do just that, but still we have seen no update on when this will be implemented. Can the Secretary of State shed light on when these vital changes will take place?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Lady draws attention to savings for women. I have already stated that 40% of women invested in workplace pensions back in 2012, and that has skyrocketed to 86% today. There are now 2.3 million employers providing pensions through the auto-enrolment route, and there is £29 billion more in workplace pensions in 2024 than was the case in 2012. The hon. Lady refers, I think, to the 2017 review, which I have already referred to. That is currently under review.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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2. What steps his Department is taking to help people with long-term sickness into work.

Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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This Government have a range of initiatives to support disabled people and people with long-term sickness to start, stay and succeed in work. At the autumn statement, we built on that by expanding universal support, launching WorkWell pilots and establishing work on the reform of the fit note.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford
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My hon. Friend will know about the excellent work being done by people such as my Maltby constituent, Ian Birch, and all his colleagues at Reed in Partnership across the whole of Rotherham. They use DWP funding to help those with long-term issues of sickness and illness to get back into work and on their feet. What is her Department doing to make sure that those who go through these programmes stay in work permanently and contribute to the local economy?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the value of our local DWP programmes. In Rother Valley, the Reed in Partnership approach has given vital support to his constituents, helping them into work. It is vital to keep supporting them to remain there, and that is where that particular programme helps. Access to Work and our Disability Confident scheme are just some of the initiatives to support disabled people and those with health conditions while in employment.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)
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Half the women surveyed with endometriosis had to take time off work often or very often because of their condition, and one in six women had to give up work altogether. Will the Minister meet the incredible women from Endometriosis Support Hull and East Yorkshire to discuss the work they are doing with the local trade unions to create a best practice charter for employers in Hull to support women with endometriosis in the workplace?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I was in Aberdeen on Thursday meeting women with health conditions and hearing about how we can better support women who are having debilitating impacts from the menopause. That was in the oil and gas sector, where it takes a long time to build up to a senior career. I would be interested to hear about the work that the hon. Lady’s local team are doing. Through the wider women’s health strategy, we are supporting women to have a thriving career all the way through. I am keen to hear from her and those women, and to support the women to stay in work.

Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan (North Shropshire) (LD)
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3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Child Maintenance Service in collecting child maintenance payments.

Paul Maynard Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Paul Maynard)
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The Government are dedicated to ensuring that parents meet their obligations to children, and we take robust enforcement action against those who do not. Parents who paid some maintenance on the collect and pay service increased from 64% to 69% over the 12 months from September 2022.

Helen Morgan Portrait Helen Morgan
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My constituent’s daughter is a young lady who has missed out for more than a year on child maintenance payments, because her father changed jobs and the Child Maintenance Service lost track of him. My team have been involved, and despite lots of faffing, she still has not received a payment. She is one of around half of children in separated families who are not receiving the maintenance payments they deserve. Will the Minister explain what his Department is doing to ensure that the employers of these missing parents are properly chased up?

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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Where parents have certain categories of taxable income not being captured by the standard child maintenance calculation, they can make a request to the CMS to have the calculation varied. We have consulted on proposals to include more types of taxable income held by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the standard maintenance calculation.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con)
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The Department has a number of ways to try to get paying parents to cough up, and we must remember that this is cash for the children. In July 2022, the Government consulted on child maintenance and improving our enforcement powers through the commencement of curfew orders, and we still have not had a response to that consultation. I would be grateful to hear from the Government when they plan to respond, and I remind them of the other powers in place, such as depriving people of the ability to drive or of their passport. This is a simple thing, where people have the money and will not cough up the cash. I think we need to get on with curfew orders.

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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My right hon. Friend is quite right that the Government have consulted on the use of curfews, which are complex and interact with numerous Government services. Several enforcement initiatives aimed at improving compliance are currently in train, and we need to get those in place and assess their effects before we can best see how curfews might fit with them. I note her enthusiasm for curfews and might well put her in touch with Viscount Younger of Leckie, the Minister in the Lords, whose policy brief this is, so that he can update her on our latest thinking.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP)
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4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of levels of benefits.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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Welfare is there to help those who need assistance, including many of the most vulnerable, which is why we increased most benefits by 6.7% for 2024-25. That was on top of an increase of 10.1%, including the benefit cap, in 2023-24.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant
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That is all very well, but the rate of inflation for low-paid families has been significantly higher than the headline rate of inflation for some time. That means that those families who were struggling badly last year are struggling even worse this year. Citizens Advice has shown that families on low incomes have less disposable income this year than they had last year. Does the Secretary of State accept that it is time to introduce an essentials guarantee so that nobody on universal credit or another income-based benefit can ever be allowed to fall below a level where they cannot afford the basic essentials of life?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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As the hon. Gentleman will know, we keep all benefits under review. I point him to various things that we have done to ensure that we look after those lower-income families, including increasing the national living wage by about 10% in both of the last two years; the increase in the local housing allowance to the 30th percentile announced at the last fiscal event, which will be worth about £800 a year for about 1.6 million people; and, of course, the tax cuts that the Chancellor was able to bring forward, which for an average earner are worth £450 a year.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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Rather than deal with the known policy failures within the benefits system, the Government seem to be more focused on penalising people through, for example, the two-child cap. Last week, the Labour party joined the Conservatives in prioritising lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses rather than the two-child cap on working women. Does the Secretary of State take comfort in the fact that his cruel legacy will be protected by the Labour party?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I am not going to get involved in the crossfire between the Scottish National party and the Labour party, other than to say—[Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I do not need a continuing argument and disagreement. I am sure that when the questions come to an end, you can speak outside.

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. The two-child cap is there for good reason: so that families in those circumstances are taking the same kind of decisions that others—the taxpayers funding benefits—have to take.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)
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5. What steps he is taking to help reduce child poverty.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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13. What recent estimate he has made of the number of children in poverty.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Minister for Employment (Jo Churchill)
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In the latest statistics, there were 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs than there were in 2009-10. In this financial year, we will spend about £124 billion on welfare supporting working-age families. We are also providing £104 billion between 2022 and 2025 to help families with cost of living pressures. However, the Government’s focus is firmly on reducing the risk of child poverty by supporting parents into work in every way we can.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi
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The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently found that 42% of children in Bolton live below the poverty line. After 14 years of Tory cuts and general incompetence, Britain now has the worst rise in child poverty among the major countries. What would the Minister say to a young family in Bolton who told me, “One day we eat and one day we don’t”?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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Nobody on either side of the House wants to see families struggling. However, I repeat that children living in workless households are about five times more likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs than those in households where all adults work. The Government are supporting the whole family through our childcare support, which we have increased by almost 50% to £951 a month for one child or £1,630 for two; the increase in the national living wage to £11.44 from April; our cost of living offers; and so on.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted Scotland’s much lower child poverty rate compared with England and Wales, and said that that was partly due to the Scottish Government’s child payment. Further progress is constrained by the UK’s inadequate social security system. The Trussell Trust’s “guarantee our essentials” campaign shows that 90% of low-income households on universal credit in the UK cannot afford everyday essentials. Does the Minister accept that raising the universal credit basic rate is critical to tackling child poverty?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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The welfare system is there to be a strong safety net. It is not about a singular issue, because no households are the same. It is about wraparound care and dealing with people on an individual basis. It is about making sure that where children need support—for example, with free school meals—we provide it.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab)
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Further to the Minister’s response, the Prime Minister has been asked similar questions about child poverty in recent Prime Minister’s questions. He usually responds that since 2010, the Conservatives have lifted 1.7 million people out of absolute poverty, which, as you know Mr Speaker, tracks living standards from a fixed point in time. Can the Minister tell me how many more people, on average, Labour lifted out of absolute poverty annually, compared with the 1.7 million since 2010 that the Prime Minister regularly claims?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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Rather than trade numbers, I would say that this is about giving people the dignity of a job. Since 2009-10, 1.7 million fewer people are in absolute poverty after housing costs, including 400,000 fewer children and 1 million fewer working-age adults. I know the hon. Lady said that work was not the Labour party’s priority, but it is very much our priority.

Alison McGovern Portrait Alison McGovern
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If the Minister can point to an occasion when I have said that work was not the Labour party’s priority, she ought to say when that was, or she should withdraw that remark.

The answer to my question is that, on average, more than 350,000 more people left poverty in each year of the Labour Government. The Prime Minister’s claim is pathetic. Which of the following does the Minister think had the biggest impact on those poverty numbers? Was it when the Conservatives repealed the Child Poverty Act 2010, was it when they shut down the child poverty unit, was it the collapse in the value of child benefit, or was it the financial chaos caused by a Conservative Prime Minister in September 2022, which put all families’ finances at risk?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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No, it is the fact that over 1 million more people are in work and youth employment is up by around 40%. Ensuring that people have the dignity of work and that, when they are not in work, there is a strong welfare system around them, is what this country needs.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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6. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential relationship between increases in the cost of living and trends in the use of food banks.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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16. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential relationship between increases in the cost of living and trends in the use of food banks.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Minister for Employment (Jo Churchill)
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The Government take food security very seriously and are committed to understanding and addressing food poverty. The reasons that people use food banks are complex and varied. Food banks are independent charitable organisations and the Government have no role in their operation. As such, data on trends are not currently available.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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The staff and volunteers at the Norwood and Brixton food bank in my constituency work tirelessly all year round to support local people who simply cannot make ends meet. They are responding to the highest level of need they have ever seen. Why does the Minister think that, despite this being one of the richest countries in the world, food bank reliance is continuing to rise so much on this Government’s watch? Can she tell the House what the Government are doing to end the need for food banks in the UK?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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As I said, the reasons that people use food banks are complex and varied, as all the research indicates. We offer support through cost of living payments and the household support fund, running to hundreds of millions of pounds. The rise in the national living wage, the reduction in national insurance and the local housing allowance further help 1.6 million low-income households. We have a whole of suite of ways to help the very poorest in our society.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins
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Food banks such as the excellent Luton Foodbank have been pushed to breaking point this winter, as more and more people need emergency food due to the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis. It is shameful that we now have more food banks than police stations. What conversations has the Minister had with colleagues in the Treasury about introducing measures in next month’s Budget to support low-income working people facing hardship and to reduce the dependence on food banks?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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I point the hon. Lady to the further cost of living payments that will be going out this week to eligible households. We do not comment on future fiscal announcements.

Mark Hendrick Portrait Sir Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)
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7. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the carer’s allowance for people who care for more than one person.

Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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This is a particular area of interest for me as a former carer and as part of a caring family. It is important that we get the right balance. The flat weekly rate for the carer’s allowance has never been linked to the number of people being cared for. The weekly rate will increase to £81.90 from April, which is almost an extra £1,500 a year since 2010.

Mark Hendrick Portrait Sir Mark Hendrick
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The hundreds of thousands of carers up and down the country are the unsung heroes of our society, who do a fantastic job. Whether it is caring for elderly parents with dementia or sacrificing full-time work to care for a disabled child, carers play a critical role, easing the burden on health services. For most carers, care is a 24/7 job, and they cannot take full-time work because of it. When will the Government realise that £76, and now even £81.90, is measly and does not scratch the surface of what carers have to put up with and pay for, particularly when many carers are caring for more than one person?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, which I appreciate as I have been in that situation of caring for two people. The primary purpose of the carer’s allowance is to provide a measure of financial support and recognition for people unable to work full time because of their caring responsibilities. I know there are very strong views on this. I am looking forward to meeting with Carers UK just after recess—I am afraid I cannot do so before, due to a funeral—and hearing the varying views and how we can continue to support our carers, who in every constituency and community do an amazing job.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
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8. Whether his Department is taking steps to reduce the time taken for personal independence payment mandatory reconsideration decisions to be made.

Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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We have reduced clearance times from the peak of 79 days in 2021 to 36 days in October 2023 by improving processes and increasing decision-making capacity. We will continue to improve efficiency while ensuring effective decision making for all reconsiderations.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden
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In July last year, a constituent was not able to correctly fill out their PIP review form, which led to their payments being stopped. It took until last Thursday—six months from the mandatory reconsideration going in—for the payments to finally be restored. Because of the delay, my constituent fell into debt and became suicidal. Why are the Government not eliminating the delays that are letting down the most vulnerable constituents?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent. Our aim is always to make the right decision as early as possible in the claim journey, and I would be keen to see the full details of that particular situation. On decisions, it is important to consider the context: 2.9 million initial decisions following an assessment have been made between June 2018 and July 2023; 5% have resulted in a completed tribunal hearing, with 3% overturned. I would be very keen to see what has happened in the case that the hon. Lady mentions.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
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As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has just highlighted, the Department is in chaos and that is having a huge impact on claimants’ lives. As of October, there were 294,000 new personal independence payment claims waiting to be processed, with a further 445,000 claimants awaiting an award review. As of November, 24,339 people were awaiting Access to Work decisions. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of disabled people left in financial limbo, with tens of thousands waiting to start work. What message does the Minister think these huge backlogs send to disabled people, and how does she finally plan to get a grip of them?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank the hon. Lady for making the important point about the numbers. I agree that behind each of those is somebody we should be concerned about, and I am absolutely looking at this point. We are continuing to learn from decisions overturned by appeal, and we will continue to make improvements to our decision-making processes to help people to get the correct decision earlier in their claim journey, and to be able to work and have the support where it is needed. Not everybody on PIP is out of work, so we need to be listening to the needs of the people in those queues. I am conscious that every one of them is not a statistic but a person who needs our support.

Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
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9. What estimate his Department has made of the cost to the public purse of economic inactivity due to ill health.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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11. What steps his Department is taking to reduce labour inactivity.

Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham (Burnley) (Con)
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21. What steps his Department is taking to reduce labour inactivity.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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There are, of course, significant costs related to an increase in long-term sickness and illness rates in work. That is why we have our £2.5 billion back to work plan, to help 600,000 disabled people and people with health conditions start and stay in work. That approach, along with others, has seen economic inactivity reduce by 330,000 since its peak during the pandemic.

Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western
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NHS waiting lists are currently at 7.8 million, with more than 177,000 people on waiting lists in my own NHS trust area. When it is this difficult to access medical treatment, it is no surprise that we have a record 2.8 million people out of work due to ill health. Does the Minister accept that this Government’s failure on the NHS is stymying economic growth, denying people the dignity of work and costing taxpayers billions of pounds?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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On NHS waiting lists, there has been progress, in that the two-year waiting lists have almost been entirely dispensed with and those of 18 months have been very substantially reduced. Our Department recognises that work is part of the solution to improving people’s health, which is why we are putting forward the WorkWell service, bringing together medical input and work coach input; fit note reform to help at an earlier stage of the journey; and the reforms to the work coach assessment. All those things are moving towards getting more people into work, which is good for their health.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell
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In Barrow and Furness, an estimated 4,000 people who could be contributing to the labour market are not doing so. I am incredibly grateful to my right hon. Friend and his team, in the Barrow jobcentre and centrally, who, alongside Team Barrow, have worked with local employers and skills providers to help get those people back into our incredibly tight labour market. Will he pass my thanks on to those teams? May I also encourage him to visit to see their good work?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting all the good work that has gone on in his constituency. I believe he opened a jobcentre only as recently as 30 January in his constituency. He is a doughty campaigner for and supporter of employment in his patch. He asks whether I will visit his constituency. I would certainly like to consider that, but my hon. Friend the Employment Minister might also visit, because she just said she was particularly keen to do so.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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There we are.

Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham
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Burnley and Padiham has so much going for it—with the rest of Lancashire, our area is the manufacturing powerhouse of the United Kingdom—but still has stubborn levels of economic inactivity among people who could be contributing to economic growth and having financial security, which we all want them to have. What more can we do to help those people? In particular, can my right hon. Friend do more to join up with other Departments so that areas such as Burnley, which might have structural problems, get more intensive support?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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My hon. Friend asks what approach we can take to resolve the issues that he has raised. We have announced a doubling of universal support, a scheme with which he will be familiar; WorkWell, to which I just referred, bringing together medical support and work coaches; and reform of the fit note system so that we get involved earlier in the journey that many people experience when they fall out of the workforce into longer-term sickness and disability benefits. Overall, the evidence is clear: economic inactivity is down by 268,000 on the year, and by more than a third of a million since its peak during the pandemic—a 52% reduction.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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12. What estimate he has made of the number of jobs provided by businesses in Witham constituency.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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The Office for National Statistics estimates that 36,000 jobs were provided by employers in Witham in 2022.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
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As it is Apprenticeship Week, will the Secretary of State join me in thanking businesses in Witham for everything that they are doing to employ youngsters and put them on that apprenticeship pathway? Those businesses, however, are crying out for a labour market strategy that will help them to harness the skills and the upskilling that they need in certain sectors. Would the Secretary of State be prepared to advance that, and push it, across other Departments?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the extraordinary work that she does locally to promote apprenticeships. I believe she was involved in a jobs fair on 24 January, hosted by Reed, which was highly successful. The employment rate in her constituency is 81%, well above the national average, which I put down almost entirely to the work that she is doing. She asked how we would proceed. We already have swaps, bootcamps and returnerships, but I am indeed looking at specific areas of the labour market, particularly in the context of migration changes, where we may be able to do more on a strategic basis.

Rob Roberts Portrait Mr Rob Roberts (Delyn) (Ind)
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14. What recent assessment he has made of the potential cost of restoring parity in the level of state pension received by UK citizens living overseas.

Paul Maynard Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Paul Maynard)
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According to the latest estimate, based on data from March 2022, uprating the state pension where we do not currently do so would cost about £0.9 billion a year if all UK state pensions in payment were increased to current UK levels.

Rob Roberts Portrait Mr Roberts
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Following our withdrawal from the EU, we are rightly able to move closer to our partners in the Commonwealth. One way in which we could do that would be to confirm that all British citizens who live in the Commonwealth should be entitled to the appropriate uprating of their state pensions as if they were still in the UK. That would seem to be a matter of simple fairness. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the practicalities of making it happen, and restoring some much-needed common sense to a needlessly complicated situation?

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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The UK Government continue to uprate state pensions when there is a legal requirement for that to be done, and have no plans to change their long-standing policy or enter into new reciprocal social security agreements.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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15. If he will take steps to simplify the benefits claims process for cancer patients.

Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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Understandably, such a health diagnosis can be a shock for individuals, their families and, indeed, their finances—and I am conscious of saying this just after World Cancer Day. It is important to ensure that people have the right support as soon as possible, and as part of our reforms we will simplify the system to reduce the assessment burden and improve people’s experiences of assessments.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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I thank the Minister for her response, but those changes cannot come too soon for my constituent Emily, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in November, is too ill to work, and is finding the benefits system impossible to navigate. DWP officials have pushed her from pillar to post, unable to decide whether she is eligible for employment and support allowance and universal credit. She has been forced to fill in countless forms, and was even required to attend a jobcentre appointment over Christmas, despite being seriously unwell. Does the Minister agree this is simply not good enough, and that we need to put those changes in place so that people like Emily do not have to go through this?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I am sorry to hear about Emily’s situation. I would remind others in her situation that there is a help to claim service available through Citizens Advice and also a benefits calculator on gov.uk, but I would also be extremely keen to see the details of what has happened. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady or to look at the details, whatever she would prefer.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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17. What steps he plans to take to increase levels of employment in Cumbria.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)
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18. What steps his Department is taking to expand the support available through jobcentres in Cheadle constituency.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
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24. What steps he is taking to help fill job vacancies in Darlington constituency.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Minister for Employment (Jo Churchill)
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Across the country our fantastic work coaches are supporting people to secure and progress in work. In Kendal, Cheadle and Darlington, jobcentres are working with local and national employers to match jobseekers with vacancies through job fairs, sector-based work academy programmes and apprenticeships. As it is National Apprenticeship Week, this is a great time for employers to promote the opportunities available, and I urge all colleagues who have not yet done so to visit their jobcentre if it has an apprenticeship fair on. The hon. Gentleman’s was last week, wasn’t it?

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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I do indeed celebrate the work of the Kendal jobcentre. It does a fantastic job but one problem is that it has too small a workforce. This week we mourn the loss of yet another Lake District business, this time a bistro in Coniston, due in part to the loss of affordable homes and to restrictive visa rules, both of which are shrinking our local workforce. Will the Minister meet me and local Cumbrian business leaders to develop a plan to tackle Cumbria’s workforce crisis?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I also gently say that this is about other Government Departments as well. I will certainly work with him as far as employers go, under my remit.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson
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Speaking to Stockport jobcentre last week, I heard about the success of the movement to work scheme, which places young people with employers, including in the civil service. However, the lengthy civil service application process is delaying placements. Will my hon. Friend look into how the process could be streamlined and accelerated, and join me on a visit to Stockport jobcentre?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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I know that senior civil servants are engaged in piloting an initiative that will help to speed this up, because we need to place those candidates more quickly and ensure that we get them into work swiftly. I would love to visit Stockport and add its jobcentre to the growing list that I have visited.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson
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I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for his work to establish the Jobcentre Plus Facebook pages, of which Darlington’s was the first. Will my hon. Friend the Minister outline how successful that page has been and what further plans she has to develop accessible social media job advertising?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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We know that social media helps, and that 40 to 50-year-olds in particular enjoy engaging with a digital platform when they are looking for work. We have had instances in the past of people thanking us when they have been given interviews online. It is important that posts are accessible and we are working to ensure that this is the case. I would point customers of any age to the JobHelp website, which has a host of useful information. I am keen to see if we can roll out such progress further.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I do find that a strange grouping, but not to worry, Minister. Well dealt with! How you got from Cumbria across the country like that is amazing.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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20. What steps he is taking to help ensure workplaces are accessible for autistic people.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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Autistic people have a huge amount to offer in the workforce, which is why we set up the Buckland review in April 2023, led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), to look at the barriers to autistic people gaining employment and to ensure that we have a more inclusive workforce for them.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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May I push the Minister on what progress has been made by the Buckland review? Will he also remind jobcentres up and down the country that people on the autism spectrum have great talents and often need only slight workplace modifications of simple things such as lighting or noise levels? This could open up a source of real talent for our country.

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Small changes can often make a big difference, not just for autistic people but for the businesses they go on to serve and work in. He will have to be a little more patient about the Buckland review report coming out, but it will not be long. I also point him to the Access to Work and Disability Confident approaches, which both do exactly what he suggests.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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22. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the number of people who are not eligible for statutory sick pay because they are paid less than the lower earnings limit on levels of inequality in Stoke-on-Trent North constituency.

Jo Churchill Portrait The Minister for Employment (Jo Churchill)
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The Department has not made a specific assessment for the Stoke-on-Trent North constituency, but I refer my hon. Friend to the evidence I presented to the Work and Pensions Committee last week. I look forward to meeting him this week to discuss this in more detail.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her answer. I am proud to have joined a campaign, together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), to reform statutory sick pay. That campaign, led by the Centre for Progressive Change, was referenced in today’s Times Health Commission report. Ahead of the spring Budget, will the Department join us in lobbying the Treasury to make these important changes, so that we have a healthier workforce that contributes more to our economy and, more importantly, so that we make sure that work pays fairly?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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I refer my hon. Friend to the answers I gave to the Work and Pensions Committee. Statutory sick pay is considerably more complex than he makes out, but it is nice to see all this cross-party collaboration.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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The Department has been busy supporting the most vulnerable, with the third instalment of the £900 cost of living payments starting to reach the bank accounts of 8 million low-income households tomorrow. We are also on the verge of publishing our disability action plan. We have seen economic inactivity decrease by 330,000 since its peak during the pandemic.

I have made it a priority for my Department to engage across Parliament. As Secretary of State, I appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee in December. The pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), appeared before the Committee on 10 January; the Minister for Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), appeared before the Committee on 31 January; and I believe the Minister for Disabled People, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), and Viscount Younger, our Lords Minister, will appear before it next month. There will be a statement on the disability action plan this afternoon.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes
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Lambeth Council and Southwark Council have worked hard over the past few years to deliver targeted cost of living support through the household support fund. Many local people continue to face serious hardship as a consequence of this Government’s political decisions, but local authorities do not know what, if any, funding they will receive after 31 March. When does the Secretary of State expect to confirm the future of the household support fund, so that local authorities can plan ahead?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I am pleased that the hon. Lady recognises the importance and value of our various interventions. Ten million payments have been made through the HSF since its inception, and £1 billion has been put into the fund in the last year. She will know that her question is a matter for the Chancellor, and the matter will quite possibly—I really do not know—be dealt with at a future fiscal event. There is no news on that at this stage.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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T3. Anglesey has an active autism parents’ group, and brilliant coaches like Ryan Gibbs—he runs a “fighting for Autism” class—who work hard to support autistic children and each other. For parents such as Shelly Rankin Jones and young autistic people such as Becca Pierce, can the Minister update the House on the Buckland review of autism employment?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank my hon. Friend for her question, because autism is an issue of great importance to the House and to her personally. I know about the work that she is doing with Ryan Gibbs, Becca Pierce and Shelly Rankin Jones. She will know that the Buckland review was instigated in April 2023 and will conclude relatively shortly, with a report being published online. I look forward to visiting her disability jobs fair in Holyhead at the end of this week.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Liz Kendall Portrait Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab)
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This morning the Office for National Statistics published the long-awaited updated figures from the labour market survey. Can the Secretary of State now confirm that our employment rate is even lower than previously thought, and that there are at least 200,000 more people out of work due to long-term sickness? We thought that the cost of health-related inactivity was an additional £15 billion a year since the pandemic, but given these new figures, can he tell the House how much more his Government’s failure is costing taxpayers every single year?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I remind Front Benchers that this is topical questions, which are meant to be short and punchy, and they should stick to the rules. Do we understand each other?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Lady refers to the latest weighted numbers just released by the Office for National Statistics, which show that unemployment as a percentage is lower than originally forecast. She cannot get away from the fact that there are 330,000 fewer people in economic inactivity since the peak. As a result of our work capability assessment reforms, the Office for Budget Responsibility has scored us as having 371,000 fewer people on long-term sickness benefits than would otherwise have been the case.

Liz Kendall Portrait Liz Kendall
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The former health Minister Lord Bethell says that he is “gobsmacked” by the figures, and that

“the economic hit will be hard”.

The Minister would do well to listen to his words. Yesterday, the Education Secretary said that the Government cannot guarantee that their promises will be met on childcare, which parents need in order to work. Today, their Prime Minister admitted that he has failed on NHS waiting lists, which the long-term sick need dealt with if they are to get back to work. Why does the Secretary of State not do the decent thing and admit that he has failed too, and adopt Labour’s plan to cut waits, roll out breakfast clubs, overhaul jobcentres and get Britain working again?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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We are getting Britain working, unlike the Opposition, under whose last Administration unemployment increased, youth unemployment went up by 40%, some 25% more women were unemployed and 1 million people or thereabouts were stuck on long-term benefits for almost a decade. That was a disgrace.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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T4. Sizewell C will provide an enormous number of job opportunities in Suffolk. Will my right hon. Friend outline the work that the Department for Work and Pensions is doing to ensure that local people have every opportunity to work on the project and acquire the necessary skills?

Jo Churchill Portrait The Minister for Employment (Jo Churchill)
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Like my hon. Friend, I am excited about the jobs and opportunities at Sizewell. Local jobcentres have been engaged with Sizewell C, and I understand that a local partnership manager will be designated to promote opportunities, and to find people for 1,500 apprenticeships and thousands of jobs. We will invest in local skills through sector-based work programmes and the like.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the spokesperson for the Scottish National party.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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Last month, a report by the pension provider Royal London showed that women lose, on average, £92,000 as a result of juggling part-time work and childcare. What are the Government going to do about that?

Paul Maynard Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Paul Maynard)
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As the hon. Gentleman will have heard earlier, the proportion of women saving for their pensions has gone from 40% 10 years ago to 89% now.

James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)
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T7. People with disabilities often take on voluntary roles, as there can be societal barriers to gaining employment. My constituent Philippa has a son with Down’s syndrome who volunteers, providing much-valued music workshops for local children. How can the Minister ensure that the work of people with disabilities is properly recognised in the workplace?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I congratulate Philippa’s son on the very good work that he does. We have disability employment advisers in our jobcentres. I am visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency later this week; I know that he has been involved in the Denbighshire project, including the We Mind the Gap programme for young people, and I will be interested to discuss that and other matters.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant  (Glenrothes)  (SNP)
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T2.     Fife Gingerbread, based in my constituency, contacted me to point out that most of the provisions in the Child Support Collection (Domestic Abuse) Act 2023, which was unanimously agreed by the House and received Royal Assent at the end of June last year, have still not been brought into force. That means that far too many vulnerable people who want to make a claim through the Child Maintenance Service find that abusive ex-partners use it to control their behaviour. Why is it taking so long to put in place the measures in the Act?

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the Child Maintenance Service has a domestic abuse plan to ensure that parents are not placed in danger as a consequence of any suggestion of domestic violence; for example, it has a centralised sort code to limit the risk of parental involvement.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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I wish to place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for helping to guide my private Member’s Bill through Parliament. It lowers the pension auto-enrolment age from 22 to 18, and abolishes the lower earnings threshold. Briefly, has the Secretary of State received reassurances from the Chancellor that the necessary forms will be implemented in the spring Budget?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Those matters are under active consideration.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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T6. Given that the Secretary of State has just said that the continuation of the household support fund after the end of March is up to the Chancellor, and given that, last week, we had the support of all parties in Westminster Hall for the continuation of this vital fund, will he assure the House that the subject is a top priority in his negotiations with the Chancellor?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The specifics of my negotiations with the Treasury remain between me and the Treasury. As I have said, the any of those decisions on the HSF are matters for the Treasury.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North)  (Con)
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T9. In 2005, the DWP failed to make a reasonable decision about targeting information at the women affected by state pension age changes. The ombudsman ruled that there was maladministration. These women, in Dudley and around the country, deserve more than just an apology. Does the Minister accept these findings, and if not, will he explain why not?

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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The Department is co-operating with the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman investigation, which is ongoing, and it would not be appropriate to comment on it or the outcome.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
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T8. My constituent’s universal credit payments have been stopped over Christmas for two years running, because her employer pays her salary early in December. Why will Ministers not do more to ensure that caseworkers know that they can use the discretion that they have, so that my constituents and others like her have financial certainty at what is a very difficult time of year?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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The way that universal credit works means that work coaches can use their flexibility, but if a payment is short one month, the appropriate thing to do is to sort it the next.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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T10. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State mentioned the assessment period for cost of living payments, but people on four-weekly pay schedules miss out on support because they fall foul of the assessment period rules for universal credit. What assessment have the Government made of the number of people missing out, and what remedy do they have?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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Cost of living payments can be affected by when people are paid, and therefore by whether they are on universal credit and qualify at precisely that point. I do not have the figure to hand that the hon. Lady requests, but I will of course get back to her with it.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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This morning’s report by the Academy of Medical Sciences revealed that our appalling child health and infant mortality rates are worse than those of 60% of similar countries and is the key driver of child poverty. What assessment has the Secretary of State undertaken to make on the impact that stopping the household support fund in April will have on relative child poverty and, subsequently, infant mortality?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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As the hon. Lady will know, the number of those in child poverty has decreased by 400,000 since 2010. We do not yet have a decision on the household support fund, to which she refers, but I point her to the very significant uplift in the local housing allowance, which will give 1.6 million people £800 a year more on average, thereby taking many of them out of poverty.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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From unanswered emails to unreturned calls, it has been heartbreaking to hear from so many vulnerable constituents who are in a state of limbo and distress, and trying to chase up personal independence payments. When will Ministers ensure that people can get the support that they need in a timely and straightforward manner?

Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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If the hon. Gentleman has specific examples, I would be keen to hear from him and to look into them.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State point out to the Chancellor that many councils have used the household support fund to pay £3 per day per child during the school holidays to families entitled to free school meals, and that if the fund closes at the end of March, those families will be straight into hardship in the Easter school holidays?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his representation, and indeed would be grateful for any others that he is minded to make to me as we conduct our ongoing review on where we go with the household support fund.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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When will the Minister wake up to the fact that working as an apprentice in engineering is a fabulous career choice, and well paid? Will she come up to Huddersfield to look at Cummins, whose apprentice system is first rate?

Jo Churchill Portrait Jo Churchill
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I would be delighted to do so on my tour of England. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. My father is an engineer. It is a fantastic profession, and the more we can encourage apprenticeships right across the board, the better. Nearly 6 million people have now taken them up. I would be delighted to come.

Situation in the Red Sea

Monday 5th February 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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15:29
Grant Shapps Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Grant Shapps)
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With permission, I will make a statement on the recent response to Houthi aggression in the Red sea.

Freedom of navigation has been a cornerstone of civilisation since time immemorial. It underpins our prosperity and security, and is a founding principle of the international rules-based system. Since 19 October, the Houthis, supplied and aided by Iran, have been infringing on those fundamental freedoms by attacking international commercial vessels in the Red sea and in the Gulf of Aden. On 19 November, they illegally seized the merchant vessel Galaxy Leader using a helicopter-borne assault crew, and since then they have conducted around 40 attacks against commercial and military vessels. Despite repeated warnings, their attacks have continued.

The UK has always stood up for the rules-based international order, and since the Houthis began their illegal attacks we have been at the forefront of the international response, whether helping to defend vessels in the vicinity, as one of the first members to join the US-led taskforce Operation Prosperity Guardian, or working in tandem with the US and other allies to tackle the Houthis, always in response to specific threats and always in line with international law and the principle of self-defence.

On two previous occasions we have been required to use force, and those attacks have had a significant effect in degrading Houthi capabilities, but the Houthis’ intent to continue disrupting the Red sea has not been fully diminished. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister came to the House to make it clear, as I did the following day, that unless the Houthis desisted from their inflammatory actions, we would not hesitate to act again. Yet instead of ceasing their activities, they have chosen to persist, accompanying their increasingly incendiary rhetoric with further missiles and drones targeted at shipping and at the Royal Navy.

Most recently, the Houthis set the vessel Marlin Luanda on fire and targeted HMS Diamond directly in the Red sea. Such behaviour is simply intolerable. It breaks international law, and is already having consequences that are damaging to the economies of the world. Insurance premiums have rocketed tenfold since the start of December, the number of cargo ships transiting Bab al-Mandab has fallen, and the cost of containers has rocketed, all of which could send food inflation spiralling, and will certainly hit those countries with the greatest poverty levels the hardest.

The Houthis believe that they are the region’s Robin Hood, but as I discussed with the Yemeni Defence Minister just yesterday when I saw him in Saudi, the only people they are robbing are innocent Yeminis whose food and aid arrives via the Red sea. That is why at the weekend the Prime Minister and I again authorised the use of force, in strict accordance with international law and in self-defence. On Saturday, Royal Air Force Typhoons, supported by two Voyager tankers, joined the US forces to conduct further precision strikes against Houthi locations in Yemen. The Typhoons employed Paveway IV precision-guided munitions against three military facilities, hitting 11 separate targets, which were identified after careful intelligence analysis at those three locations and approved by me.

At As-Salif, due west of Sana’a on the Red sea coast, our aircraft targeted a ground control station inside a defensive position. The station has been used to control Houthi attack and reconnaissance drones launched from further inland and operating over the Red sea, targeted at international shipping. A second drone ground control station was confirmed to be Al-Munirah on the same stretch of coastline. As with As-Salif, the station provided direct control of reconnaissance and attack drones targeting shipping in the Red sea, its position on the coast allowing it to maintain the line of sight data links used to target innocent shipping with accuracy.

Our Typhoons also attacked a significant number of targets at Bani. The House may recall that an initial group of facilities at Bani were successfully struck by the RAF on the night of 11 January this year. Since then, a further set of buildings at the site had been positively confirmed to be involved in the Houthi operations and were, as a result, targeted on this occasion. As is standard practice for operations by the RAF, the strikes were very carefully planned to ensure minimal risk of civilian casualties. Dropping munitions at night further reduces such risks and we do not believe there were any civilian casualties on Saturday night.

Military action can only be one element in our efforts to confront these global challenges, and military action is indeed the very last resort. It would be far better if the Houthis stopped their attacks. Our approach is therefore founded on four pillars. First, we are increasing diplomatic engagement. The Foreign Secretary travelled to the region and met his Iranian counterpart last month to make it clear that Iran must cease supplying the Houthis with weapons and intelligence and use its influence to stop the Houthi attacks. The Prime Minister spoke to President Biden recently to discuss our joint approach and I met my counterparts in the region this weekend, returning this morning from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I discussed regional security.

Secondly, we must end the illegal flow of arms to the Houthis. Britain and the US have previously intercepted weapons shipments in the region, including the same kind of components that we have seen used in recent strikes. Thirdly, we must cut off the Houthis’ financial resources. We have already—we did so last month—sanctioned four key figures within the Houthi regime, including the commander of the Houthi naval forces and the Houthi Defence Minister.

Fourthly, we continue to help the people of Yemen, delivering humanitarian aid and supporting a negotiated peace. The UK has committed £88 million in humanitarian support so far this year, feeding 100,000 Yemenis every month with aid arriving through the very sea routes which, ironically, the Houthis are targeting.

Let me be absolutely clear: we would much rather the Houthis simply stopped attacking international shipping, stopped damaging global trade and stopped harming the prospects of their own people. At the same time, appeasing the Houthis today will not lead to a more stable Red sea or indeed a more stable region. We are not seeking confrontation and we urge the Houthis, and all those who enable them, to stop these illegal and unacceptable attacks. However, if necessary, the UK will not hesitate to respond again in self-defence.

Placating the sponsors of terror does not benefit our international order in the long run, or bring peace to the middle east or elsewhere in Europe or the world. The truth is that we cannot ignore the importance of these great waterways for shipping. That is the reason the world backs the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. It is the reason New Zealand has joined the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, Bahrain, Denmark and the Netherlands in providing support to this weekend’s air strikes. As an island nation, we have always appreciated freedom of navigation and the fact that it is intrinsic to our way of life. If we do not deal with these threats, every nation will be poorer. I commend this statement to the House.

15:39
John Healey Portrait John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab)
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I thank the Defence Secretary for the advance copy of his statement.

We back the UK-US airstrikes that took place at the weekend to protect shipping in the Red sea. We know that the strikes were carried out against Houthi command centres and weapons stores. We accept that they were limited, necessary and targeted to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. The Houthis are attacking the ships of many nations, threatening maritime security and international trade, and putting civilian and military lives in serious danger. That is why the UN Security Council passed last month a resolution condemning Houthi actions in the strongest possible terms and demanding that their attacks stop.

We accept that the strikes we justified, but will the Defence Secretary confirm that they were also effective? Were the targets selected the targets hit? Was the purpose of destroying the drone control centres at As-Salif and Al-Munirah fully achieved? Ministers have said that the aims of the strikes are, first, to deter Houthi attacks, and secondly, to degrade their capabilities. The first aim has not yet succeeded, as Houthi attacks continue, but is the fact that those attacks are now less sophisticated and more sporadic a sign that the second aim may be succeeding? This is the third UK-US strike in the past three weeks. At what stage do three one-off strikes become a sustained campaign? If this does develop into continuing military action, at what stage will the Government give Parliament a say?

Before I turn to the wider role of UK forces in the Red sea, let me make this point: it is the Prime Minister who should be making this statement to the House, just as he did after the two previous UK strikes on Houthi targets. It is the Prime Minister’s responsibility to authorise such UK military action in the name of the Cabinet, advised by others, of course, including and especially the Defence Secretary. The Government risk downgrading respect for the convention that, having given the go-ahead for such action, it is the Prime Minister who then reports directly to this House.

We also back the leading role of the Royal Navy in the continuing defence of shipping from all nations in the Red sea. What action are the Government taking to persuade other countries to join the Prosperity Guardian protection force? How long does the Defence Secretary expect Operation Prosperity Guardian to be needed? How will the EU’s new maritime mission to the Red sea co-ordinate operations with Prosperity Guardian? Two weeks ago, I asked the Defence Secretary if a UK carrier was ready to deploy to the Red sea. We now know that HMS Queen Elizabeth has serious problems, so does the UK still have the option of sending a carrier to the Red sea if required, and if so, when? Military action on its own cannot solve the problems in the region. What is the Government’s diplomatic action to pressure the Houthis to cease their attacks and settle the civil war in Yemen, and to pressure Iran to stop supplying weapons and intelligence to the Houthis?

Finally, like the Defence Secretary, I totally reject the Houthi claims that firing missiles and drones at ships from around the world is somehow linked to the conflict in Gaza. They have been attacking oil tankers and seizing ships for at least five years—not just for the 121 days since 7 October. Those attacks do absolutely nothing for the Palestinian people, whose agonies are now extreme. We want the Gaza fighting to stop now with a humanitarian truce that can build into a sustainable ceasefire, to stop the killing of innocent civilians, get all the remaining hostages out and get much more aid into Gaza. The UK aid efforts must be accelerated. Have any more RAF flights taken off since the Defence Secretary was last in this Chamber, and if not, why not?

Finally, for long-term peace, there has to be a political process that can turn the rhetoric around two states living side by side in peace into reality. The House is united in that UK vision, and I give this commitment from our side: if elected to form the next Government, Labour will lead this new push for peace.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s support for this action. He asked a series of questions, which I will rattle through. Were the actions effective? Yes, they hit the targets. Were all the targets hit? Again, yes. We are still carrying out surveillance to find out the exact impact, but I think we can be very confident that all the relevant objectives were reached. We combined very closely with our US colleagues, and sometimes interchanged some of those targets with them. The right hon. Gentleman will have noted that, on this occasion, we were involved in dropping munitions on more targets than previously, so we carried a slightly greater weight than before.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the action was successful, and rightly pointed out that what we are seeing is rather more sporadic: the attacks, including on HMS Diamond and on merchant shipping, have continued, but in a much more ad hoc fashion. It is perhaps relevant that there has been no attack using multiple different weapons at the same time, which we saw, for example, on 11 January. The degrading will have had some impact on that. I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Prime Minister at the end—I want to set the record straight.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Operation Prosperity Guardian. The simple answer, of course, is that none of us knows how long it will need to continue for, but we want it to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

We utterly reject any notion that these continued attacks by the Houthis are anything to do with the situation in Gaza. The Houthis are opportunist pirates who are using a situation to their benefit: a few years ago, they did not even support Hamas, but suddenly they want to be their greatest champions. They are over 2,000 kilometres away from Gaza; they are simply using the situation to their advantage, and it is wise for the House to not over-link the two. None the less, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to about the need to see a humanitarian truce and a sustainable ceasefire—that is the Government’s policy. We are working extremely hard to try to achieve that, including through discussions that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and myself are having. Just yesterday, I was having those discussions in the middle east.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about RAF flights. The issue is not getting the aid to location—I have been working very closely with the Cypriot Government, for example, on how we can increase the amount of aid. The single biggest problem remains getting the aid into the country. We had some success with getting Kerem Shalom open, but what we really need to see is Ashdod open, in order to route that aid to Kerem Shalom and straight into Gaza. The Government and I will continue to push for that route, but the problem is not the flights taking off; it is the aid getting in.

Finally, turning to the fact that it is myself as Defence Secretary standing at the Dispatch Box, rather than the Prime Minister, the first thing to say is that it is the Secretary of State for Defence who actually has legal responsibility for these actions—who signs off the targets and, indeed, the legal authority. Technically, it is me who should be standing here, other than for the first couple of rounds, where the Prime Minister was dealing with something new and it was therefore very appropriate for him to be at the Dispatch Box.

The wider point that I would gently make to the right hon. Gentleman, though, is that the Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland today, doing incredibly important work—[Interruption.] I hear from a sedentary position the suggestion that we should have been recalled yesterday, but I unsure whether that would have been entirely practical. It is entirely appropriate that the Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland. I would have thought that the House would welcome the fact that that historic breakthrough has been marked by the Prime Minister, and it is very appropriate that I am here today to explain the activity of Saturday night to the House.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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Do the Government accept that it is difficult to deter terrorist fanatics, and that one mainly has to contain the effectiveness of what they do until they are ultimately destroyed, preferably by our regional allies? Does the Secretary of State feel that there is in fact a link to a separate conflict, and that is the conflict in Ukraine? Is it not more than a coincidence that the proxies of Russia’s ally in the middle east have been so much more active while Russia is so desperate for us to turn our attention away from supporting Ukraine?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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As ever, my right hon. Friend has absolutely hit the nail on the head. Russia and Iran are working together. Actually, the same kind of drones—sometimes the Shahed drones—that are being fired in Ukraine by the Russians, courtesy of Iran, are also being fired by the Houthis. He makes an excellent linkage point, and he is absolutely right.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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The people of Scotland and elsewhere on these islands deserve to know what the plan is for this crisis in the Red sea—not the timings, the detail of missions, the tactical ambition or the resources behind these, but the broad strategy being pursued with lethal force in our name and in the absence of parliamentary approval. We have already made it clear from the SNP Benches that we support the Government and international partners in direct action to uphold freedom of navigation and the law of the sea, but this should never have been taken for granted and it remains subject to a realistic interpretation of both self-defence and imminence.

We see the toll that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has taken on our constituents and businesses over energy costs, so we cannot allow this to be compounded further by interrupting global supply chains, nor can we ever tolerate or stand idly by while seafarers are put at risk, whatever the supposed aims of the Houthis or their backers may be.

Will this be a sustained engagement? I do not know, and neither does the rest of Parliament. One way or another, an allied seaborne strike capability will be engaged, so with one of the two aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy out of commission again, the Type 23 frigate fleet on its knees, and the Type 43 destroyer fleet still going through PIP—the power improvement project—who in the Government has a grip of the Royal Navy’s resources? Fundamentally, what is the UK Government’s plan to ensure that this campaign is not escalatory, and what is the thinking behind any assessment that they have made?

In closing, this is not about supporting Gazans, or people dying or fleeing persecution in Gaza, but about the Houthis pursuing their own aims. However, I would be interested to know what the Government’s assessment is of the uptick in temperature in the middle east—in Gaza, in Yemen and with NATO ally personnel being killed.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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Listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, I detect that he supports the action that has been taken. As I have said, it cannot be right that international shipping is prevented from its own freedom of navigation. Again, respecting the will of the House and listening very carefully, it is quite clear that the official Opposition support this action, as do the Government and, as I now learn, do those on his own Benches, and I remember the Liberal Democrats saying it previously. So I think it is quite clear that there is a strong support in this House. It is also important that there is sufficient freedom of action to ensure the safety and security of our airmen and women when they undertake these actions, rather than flagging them substantially in advance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned—and so did the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)—the aircraft carrier, and I should just address this point. It is the case that, actually through an abundance of caution on a final inspection, the decision was taken for the aircraft carrier not to sail. I have spoken to the First Sea Lord, who has made it clear to me that, if there had been an emergency situation—the House will recall that it was going to join Exercise Steadfast Defender—it quite probably would have sailed. The fact is that we have another one, and that will sail to the exercise.

On the frigates and the destroyers, I just disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I have been out to visit those on HMS Diamond in the Red sea, and they are absolutely prepared and ready to go.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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That’s one.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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As the hon. Gentleman says, that is one, but today that ship has been replaced by HMS Richmond, which now takes on that mantle. We have 16 ships under construction or on order. I wonder how many we would get from the SNP, with its approach to defence.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Sir Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his in-depth statement, but there is concern about stretching the Royal Navy. It is a leading, world-class Navy, but it is suffering from personnel issues in crewing the ships, and responsibility for that lies back at the Treasury providing the revenue streams needed to make sure the capital equipment we have got can be used most effectively. What representations is my right hon. Friend making to ensure that the growth in maritime concerns around the world will be met by a commitment from the Treasury?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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On a wider armed forces and MOD note, we have £288.6 billion for equipment over the next 10 years. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that that has to be matched with the sailors, the airmen and women and the Army able to resource that equipment, and I have some good news for him. Since we have been talking very actively about these issues, we have seen an eight-year high in applications to the Royal Navy, a six-year high in applications to the Army and a 42% increase between this January and last January in applications to join the Royal Air Force. I predict we are making progress.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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I wonder whether the Secretary of State has seen the front page of the Financial Times today because it outlines how Iran has been using Lloyds and Santander accounts to evade sanctions. The US is accusing front companies of funding the IRGC with hundreds of millions of dollars and working with Russian intelligence to raise money for Iranian proxies. I am sure all in this House would be appalled to know that money laundered here in our capital is being used against our own troops by the Houthis, so what assessment have the Government made of those allegations by our ally? Does that not yet again show that we must proscribe the IRGC now?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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This issue is repeatedly raised in the House and the hon. Lady will know, as she will have heard the responses many times before, that we do not routinely comment on proscription. It is the case however that we do sanction, and we have sanctioned the entirety of the IRGC already, as well as taken a number of different actions. She will appreciate that this matter does not come directly within the Defence portfolio, but I know that she will have the opportunity to press Foreign Office and Home Office Ministers at a future time, and we do keep this matter under constant review.

Mark Pritchard Portrait Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con)
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I agree with the Secretary of State and the Government that we do not want to see an escalation in the region and that we want to be proportionate in our response and calibrate our response not to provoke and antagonise, but is it not the case that we might actually be hitting the wrong target—that we are hitting proxies of Iran and, while I believe in peace and diplomacy, the malevolent factor in the region, in all of this, is Iran? It might be the case that, while we have the best of diplomatic intentions and we do not want to provoke Iran to a major conflict with NATO, the US or the UK, putting off that decision now will cost more lives in the future. Iran and the regime—not the Iranian people but the regime in Iran—are behind all this. They are the ones destabilising Israel, the Abraham accords and so on. I hope the Secretary of State will take a strategic view and make hard choices on Iran, because, whether we like it or not, it is coming.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My right hon. Friend makes the excellent point that Iran is behind all this. Iran is behind Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and the IRGC-aligned militia that we have seen attack not just American troops—I often hear it is American personnel have been attacked 160 separate times in Syria and Iraq, but in fact about a third of those occasions involved British troops as well. On every occasion, Iran is behind all of this. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend and we are working hard to pressurise Iran into realising that its current approach can do no good at all and will destabilise the region, which it claims it does not want to do.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
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Let me first make the point that a direct attack on Iran would be insanity; the region would be provoked and others would be dragged into it. I understand why the Government are saying that it is wise “to not over-link” Houthis strikes with Gaza, but the reality is that the middle east region is on the edge of conflagration as a result of the war that is going on and the attacks on Gaza. The priority must therefore be to secure peace in Gaza. We have a limited role in that, but we know that Netanyahu would secure peace if pressurised to do so by the American Government, because realistically they are the only power that can influence him and Israeli strategy. What further talks have taken place with the Biden Government to ensure that they exercise the maximum pressure on Netanyahu to get to that peace negotiating table?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The right hon. Gentleman will be aware, I hope, that the UK and the US work very closely on this. I was in the States last week. I met Blinken, Lloyd Austin and others to discuss exactly the points that the right hon. Gentleman raises about how we bring together a solution that not only provides, ultimately, the Palestinian state for the Palestinian people, but security guarantees for Israel. It is also important to realise that we are working closely in a number of different spheres, including on the Lebanese border, where we are working hard to try to prevent a further conflict there. We should remember that 125,000 Israelis have had to move from that border because of the activity of Lebanese Hezbollah. We are working with the Lebanese Government. I saw the Yemeni Defence Minister yesterday, and we discussed how to prevent that conflict from becoming part of this, too. The Government are pulling every single possible diplomatic lever in what is clearly a very complex position.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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The Defence Secretary is right that this mission must continue to stand up and defend international laws in the Red sea, but the mission to remove the Houthi threat and keep the Red sea safe could last months, and it is not sustainable to continue tasking Typhoons from Cyprus for each mission or subsequent future threats. Will the Defence Secretary therefore agree that there is a case for an urgent operational requirement to upgrade the Type-45 destroyers, given the continued inability of their vertical launch systems to strike targets at range inland?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I know that my right hon. Friend takes a huge interest in this matter, and he will be interested to hear that on Friday I was on HMS Somerset in Devonport, where they are fitting a surface-to-surface system, which may or may not be appropriate in this particular type of conflict. I want to take issue with one thing. We are in a coalition here, working with the US and others. As we have demonstrated repeatedly, there is no issue with Typhoons flying a long distance. Indeed, when America carried out their unrelated attacks for Tower 22, they flew all the way from the United States. Flying a long distance is no sign that the capability is not there in itself.

Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State please have another go at giving a better answer to the question from the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) about the extremely serious report in today’s Financial Times that two of Britain’s main banks are indirectly helping to fund the Houthis, with whom we are now in some sort of conflict?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my answer a moment ago. I know that he wants me to go into further detail, but I am unable to do that at the Dispatch Box right now. We have noted both the question and the article of this morning. We are also intensely engaged in finding the best way to ensure that Iranian influence, whether through the UK or in the region, is limited. I do not think I can go further at this moment.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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The Houthi rebels are violent extremist antisemites, and it is right that we take action to combat their aggression in the Red sea. It seems that there is success in degrading their capabilities. Is the Secretary of State confident that we will get to the point where we can stop the attacks altogether?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I think the clock is running down for the Houthis, in as much as their ability is being degraded, as my right hon. Friend points out—they do not have the eyes and ears from the radar stations; they are more reliant still on Iran, and only the UK and the US have done interdictions of their weapons. There is a limitation to this. None the less, we still think that would continue, if they choose to, even at that lower level, but it is important that they cease and stop this. We are putting pressure on, as I have described, through every possible means, including very extensive talks that I had yesterday in Saudi Arabia with various different people, including not just the Saudis but the Yemenis themselves.

Apsana Begum Portrait Apsana Begum (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)
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Will the Secretary of State confirm what the long-term strategy is and how it relates to the ongoing precarious situation in Yemen? Do the Government plan to commit to sustained military action? If so, surely it is only right for Parliament to have its say in the appropriate way.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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This is the third time that we have come to Parliament and made a statement—I know that the hon. Lady has made other contributions to the debate—so we do feel that Parliament is being fully engaged in the process. We are not looking to make this a sustained, long-term military action. Indeed, I can guarantee for the House that if the Houthis stop, we will have absolutely no requirement again to drop munitions on them. But it is a fact that they are the ones interrupting international maritime activity, and we cannot stand by and allow that to happen.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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The Defence Secretary cannot comment specifically on target acquisition, but will he please confirm to the House that our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance is focused on those Houthi capabilities directly engaged in the attacks on international shipping? Is it reasonable to assume that further degradation of those capabilities will result in increased security in the Red sea?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My hon. Friend asks a good question that has not yet been asked. The answer is yes. We are looking carefully, and the locations chosen on this occasion were indeed from a combination of US and UK intelligence.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The Government are right to have this strong response for what may seem to many to be a faraway war or incident, but which could impact so much on people’s lives here in the United Kingdom, through food shortages, supply chain disruption and inflation. Given the reports about shortages of Royal Navy personnel, the difficulty with munitions, the difficulties with some ships and now the increased demands on the Navy because of tensions with China and Russia—maybe even Argentina in future—will the Secretary of State assure us that we have the capability to play our part in keeping supply chains open? What discussions has he had with other allies to get them involved in the task of supporting us in this job?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The right hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of trade. Some 90% of our goods come to this country via the sea, so it really matters to the United Kingdom, but it matters to the whole world. He mentions personnel, munitions and so on, as have one or two other Members. In my time as Defence Secretary, I have not been unable to deploy exactly where I have needed to, for example at the request of NATO when we deployed to Kosovo—they have returned home now—or for this conflict in the middle east, where we have needed to carry out the actions that we are discussing. On each occasion, those have been available. I previously mentioned a £288 billion 10-year programme on equipment and the success in recruiting more personnel. I encourage other countries to match our defence budget, which is comfortably above 2% of GDP and heading up to 2.5%—the sooner they do that, the better.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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I fully support the Government’s action in the Red sea. The irony of the Iranian regime accusing us of destabilising the region through our actions will not be lost on reasonable people. Does the Secretary of State agree that those demonstrators on the streets of London applauding what the Houthi rebels have been doing are at best useful idiots and at worst truly the enemy within?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I use my own language, but it is disgraceful to see people go out and support those who are indiscriminately firing at merchant ships—that is absolutely appalling. I will not repeat my hon. Friend’s language; I will put that support down to ignorance rather than anything else.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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The Secretary of State is rightly clear about breaches of international law by the Houthis in the Red sea. Can he be equally clear about breaches of international law by all sides in Gaza? Does he think it will help reduce hostilities across the middle east if the Government can build a broader international coalition in support of their diplomatic and military aims?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The United Kingdom Government always want international humanitarian law to be adhered to, and we make that point repeatedly to every side in this conflict. I think the hon. Gentleman is driving at Israel. To answer his question directly, Israel is included. Hamas could end the conflict very quickly if they release the hostages that they have kidnapped and cease firing on Israel. On the wider coalitions, I described how New Zealand is now on board with the military action, but I should mention that 20-plus countries are involved in Operation Prosperity Guardian, and the EU has formed an additional operation, which we welcome.

Andrew Percy Portrait Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con)
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Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), as well as open support for the Houthis this weekend on the streets of central London, some protestors in the pro-Palestinian marches again called for an intifada and held up deeply racist antisemitic signs, one of which included informing Israelis—we presume Jewish Israelis—that they were indigenous to nowhere other than hell. I am not sure that it is just ignorance; I think something more sinister is at play among some of the protestors. We should call it what it is: pure and simple Jew hate. Will the Secretary of State inform the House whether he has spoken to anyone else across Government about more action to deal with some of the hate on our streets?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The Home Secretary continuously keeps this matter under review, and meets police chiefs to ensure that they have the powers to combat what my hon. Friend rightly describes as absolutely disgusting behaviour, which has no place at all on our streets. I am sure that the whole House needs no reminding, but perhaps the people who go out campaigning do: the Houthis’ slogan is “Death to America, death to Israel, death to the Jews no matter where they are.” There is no place for that on the streets of Britain.

Jeremy Corbyn Portrait Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)
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It is an extraordinary situation where the Secretary of State comes here, makes a matter-of-fact statement about the launch of missiles against a number of targets and countries, gives no indication of the long-term war aim by the UK at present, and says absolutely nothing about the crying, desperate need for a ceasefire to protect the people of Gaza from further death and destruction. Does he not realise that the extension of the conflict by Britain and the United States to at least four other countries risks a huge conflagration across the whole region? I would have been much happier had he come here and said that Britain was determined to try to deal with the injustices in the region and to bring about a peace process rather than further militarisation of the seaways around all those countries. Surely peace is something to aim for, rather than the continuation of yet more wars.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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Never have I disagreed so much with the right hon. Gentleman—and that is saying something, given that he wants to scrap Trident and pull us out of NATO. The statement is on the Red sea. I am surprised that he is not more appreciative of the geography. The attacks in the Red sea are a very long way from Gaza. He misunderstands why I have come to this House: to talk about munitions on a single country, not three countries, as he said. I spoke to the Yemeni Government yesterday, who thank us for our work. It is a shame that he cannot do the same.

Michael Ellis Portrait Sir Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con)
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I commend the Defence Secretary for his excellent work. He talked about Yemen. Its Foreign Minister, Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, said on Thursday that there is no doubt that Iran’s Quds Force operatives have been deployed to his own coastline. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the extent of Iran’s aggressive military adventurism and its destabilising effect on international peace and security?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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Quite simply, Iran is a malign influence not just on Yemen but on the entire region. My right hon. and learned Friend is right to point out the manner in which it has helped to create instability in the Red sea. I am afraid that the only language that the Iranians understand is the approach that we have been taking: to show them that there is a red line and they have crossed it.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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I completely understand and agree with the need to protect international shipping and maritime security and to ensure the safety of civilians and seafarers in the Red sea. However, some of us are also concerned about a wider escalation in this already volatile region. Will the Defence Secretary outline what steps the Government are taking, diplomatic or otherwise, to stop us being sucked into an escalating regional conflict?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The actions we are discussing are very specific and targeted, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise. They are not open to being repeated unless the attacks on us continue, so they can actually be stopped immediately. In terms of wider diplomacy, which I have gone into in some detail, I have met with Sullivan, Blinken and Lloyd Austin in the States, while the Foreign Secretary has been doing the same with his opposite numbers. As I have just described, I was in the region until this morning, where I was having extensive discussions on how to bring this situation to a conclusion. I am afraid it is not always possible to provide a line-by-line explanation of every single element of those talks, which I appreciate is frustrating for the House, but we are making broad and strenuous efforts to achieve exactly what the hon. Gentleman is looking for.

Rehman Chishti Portrait Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
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The Defence Secretary has said the Government are looking at a comprehensive strategy with a four-pronged approach to degrade the Houthis. We have classified the actions of the Houthis as terrorist and said that they pose a significant threat to British interests. I then look at the “Proscribed Terrorist Organisations” document from the House of Commons Library, which lists non-state actors Ansar Al Islam, Al Ittihad Al Islamia and Hezbollah, all of which meet the criteria for proscription, yet the Houthis are not proscribed as a terrorist organisation. The Secretary of State says that we have sanctioned some high-level individuals. The US has proscribed them; we have not.

My question to the Defence Secretary is this: will the UK set up a contact group to deal with non-state actors in the long term? This threat is not going to go away. The Houthis will splinter into other terrorist organisations in the region.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My hon. Friend rightly points out that the US has taken some action, although it is not quite the same as our proscription—what it has done in this case with the Houthis is sort of an in-between version. Of course, we have made sure that a number of individuals, whom I named in my comments, have effectively been dealt with. The wider question is getting the balance right between ensuring that food aid can still reach Yemen—that was the discussion I was having with the Yemeni Government yesterday—and full proscription. We need to make sure we get that balance right, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is working very closely on that. Whether one would call that a contact group or something else, I can assure my hon. Friend that the work is being done.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC)
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Like others, I commend the Government’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the broader conflict—and this one, in fact. If diplomatic means fail to resolve this particular conflict in the Red sea, is the Secretary of State determined to pursue the military option to the very end?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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As I have described in answer to other Members, we see this action as being very specific and one that does not need to continue. What I do not see as being short term and specific is the diplomatic process that the hon. Gentleman refers to, which now needs to do what the world has been unable to do for decades: form a wider peace in the middle east. The pieces may be there, with potential normalisation between countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Hamas’s intent, and Iran’s intent, is to disrupt all of that. We understand that, which is why we have to work all the harder to overcome their approach to creating instability in the region.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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We cannot overestimate the value of freedom of navigation in the region, so it is not surprising that New Zealand has joined the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, Bahrain, Denmark and the Netherlands in providing support over the weekend. What concerns me is Egypt, which faces both economic and social disadvantage. The Suez canal provides $9.4 billion of trade to the Egyptian economy, and the last thing we want is for that to be disrupted. Can the Secretary of State advise what he will do to help to counter the destabilising activity of the Houthi pirates in the region?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is devastating for the Egyptian economy. I was in Egypt a couple of weeks ago, where I met my opposite number, the Egyptian Defence Minister, and we discussed exactly this point. Clearly, ships are avoiding the area and taking a much longer route around at the moment, so it is in everybody’s interests, and those of the Suez canal in particular, to see this resolved as quickly as possible.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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It was reported last night that only the UK and US were involved actively in the military action over the weekend, with that being attributed to the different risk assessments that the UK and US had compared with other international partners. Is that the case? If so, will the Secretary of State discuss what the particular concerns were in the different risk assessments in respect of escalation of the conflict?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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It is difficult for me to answer on why different countries would take part or not. A much wider group of countries take part in Operation Prosperity Guardian—the freedom of navigation part of this. A number of the other countries have actively provided assistance, including intelligence officers and the like. The truth of the matter is that only relatively few countries have the capability—the capacity—to carry out this action, and it should be a matter of pride that when push comes to shove, it is the UK that is able to step up and carry out some of this difficult work.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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Given the continuing attacks by Iranian-backed Houthis, will the Government, as well as pursuing diplomacy and trying to stop the illegal flow of weapons and finance, be prepared to intensify military action with our allies, in self-defence, to degrade the ability to make further attacks on commercial shipping?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I should be absolutely clear: we will only act within international law. That law is about self-defence, so we respond to the attacks in turn. We are not looking to increase the implications of this, as I have described carefully, because we want to bring it to a close. However, this remains open-ended and we will have to go back if the attacks do not stop.

Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian) (Alba)
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It is not simply the Houthis who say that this issue is inextricably linked to Gaza; the embassy of Yemen has made that clear in paragraph 4 of its letter to all MPs, and Brigadier Deverell, the former British military attaché in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has said that it is linked. He has gone on to add that these strikes will fail and will not resolve the situation. So rather than lurching towards world war three, and rather than an escalation of the conflict, widening it beyond countries and this limited territory, is it not time to ensure that Israel is called to heel, that its genocide ceases and that we get an immediate ceasefire? [Interruption.]

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I think the hon. Gentleman will detect that the House has not followed the logic of his argument. There is a difference between this absolutely not being inextricably linked to Gaza, apart from when Opposition Members might try to link it, and the Houthis claiming that it is somehow linked as a badge of convenience—as a way of trying to muscle in on that action. I am very, very sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to repeat their propaganda.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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In addition to the IRGC deployment on the coastline of Yemen that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) referenced, Tehran has deployed its Alborz warship to the Red sea. We also know that two US Navy SEALs have died after attempting to seize Iranian weapons bound for the Houthis, yet Iran continues to evade any meaningful deterrence. Does the Secretary of State agree that Iran must not be allowed to outsource the responsibility for its regional escalation to its proxies and must be deterred directly?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the link between the Iranian ships that loiter in the region and the items that are shipped to the Houthis, which we know come from Iran, because of the interdictions that we have made previously. It is probably wise if I do not go into too much detail, but to say that we are aware of this is absolutely correct, and the whole world needs to carry on piling the pressure on Iran to cease and desist from this behaviour.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Defence Secretary was right to highlight the risk to humanitarian aid in the region, not least given the catastrophic situation in Gaza. What steps has he deployed over the last four months, through air capability as well as sea capability, to establish routes for aid to reach Gaza by sea or by air?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I would link that with the action we have been taking to degrade the Houthis’ ability to prevent aid from reaching people. As I said in my statement, the Yemenis obtain almost all their food via the Red sea, so I would class all the action that we have taken, in three rounds of strikes, as very much part of getting that food into the country. As I mentioned, we provide significant amounts of aid, we feed about 100,000 Yemenis a month on the back of it, and it is the Houthis who are trying to prevent that from happening.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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We support the right for shipping to pass freely. Having talked to businesses, I understand that they are already feeling the effects on their supply chains. If one of the purposes of the strikes is to deter the Houthis, it seems that they have not got the message yet, and it is not clear whether they ever will. I fear there is a risk that we are going to escalate action in the region. The Secretary of State has mentioned a number of activities that he has undertaken on a non-military basis to try to reduce tensions, but is there anything he can do that he has not done already to help end this conflict?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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Although it is clear that the Houthi attacks have not ended, as the shadow Defence Secretary said, there does appear to have been a difference in the cadence. The mass attacks that we saw on 11 January, for example, have not been repeated, partly because the Houthis’ ability has been degraded. However, we are always looking at other means, including routes via the United Nations, and at the wider picture of, for instance, the peace treaty between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. All those elements fit into the way in which we are applying pressure to try to bring the situation to a close.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for his strong and robust determination to stop the attacks on international shipping. I say, “Well done, Secretary of State,” and let me also say that we in the House, or certainly most of us, support the line that he is taking.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the fact that pro-Hamas Houthi sites are celebrating the effect that the strikes in the Red sea are having on food and other supply chains sends a signal that the words spoken and actions taken by this country—our Government—and our allies are not yet having the desired effect? What steps will the Secretary of State and our allies take not simply to prevent trade route difficulties from escalating already eye-watering prices, but to send the clear message that we in the United Kingdom are not afraid to use our strength and our intelligence to respond adequately and, if necessary, even more strongly?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The hon. Gentleman has made a very worthwhile point. It is clear that the Houthis, while perhaps no longer able to act as they once did, are not fully degraded. There must surely come a time when they understand that this is no longer in their interests, because we are working actively to intercept new supplies as far as possible and they will continue to be degraded if they continue to act as they have in respect of commercial shipping and, of course, the Royal Navy. There will eventually be a conclusion to that, but I do not want to mislead the House by saying that this is over, because I simply cannot guarantee that for one moment, so let me make it clear again from this Dispatch Box that we will always have to keep the option open if it is not over.

Disability Action Plan

Monday 5th February 2024

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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16:29
Mims Davies Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Mims Davies)
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Today, and in British Sign Language for those watching on Parliament Live, I am delighted to deliver on the Government’s commitment to transform the everyday lives of disabled people across the country for the better. We as a Government are working to make this country the most accessible place in the world for disabled people to live, work and thrive, and today I am proud to announce another important milestone: the publication of the disability action plan, which will actively make a difference to disabled people’s daily lives.

In December 2022 my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove), announced the intention to develop a new disability action plan to set out the practical, immediate actions that Ministers across Government will take to improve disabled people’s daily lives. Following that, my Department and the Disability Unit did a huge amount of work, and I thank everyone involved. Since coming into the role I have spent time listening, engaging and continuing to ensure that the voices of disabled people are properly heard, as that is an important priority for the Government. That is why in July 2023 we consulted on the draft disability action plan, setting out a range of proposals where we felt we could take immediate action or lay the foundations for longer-term change. We rightly wanted to give everyone, and most importantly disabled people, disabled people’s organisations and other key charities and stakeholders, the chance to have their say on the draft plan.

The consultation ran for 12 weeks and I am immensely grateful to every single person who took the time to respond. In the consultation we set out 12 areas for action. Each area proposed how the Disability Unit, together with my Department, other Government Departments and partners, would take action to drive improvements in those areas. Since the consultation closed in October, we have been carefully working through more than 1,300 responses, which pleasingly showed broad support for almost all our proposals. We have used these responses, along with feedback from a series of events and discussions during the consultation period, to finalise the proposals, adding a number of new measures to respond specifically to these consultation findings. An independent analysis of the consultation findings will be published on gov.uk today alongside the final plan when I conclude my statement.

The disability action plan we are publishing today sets out 32 practical actions, which I will lead across Government to take forward over the next 12 months with disabled people, disabled people’s organisations, other Government Departments and public service providers to improve the everyday lives of disabled people. These actions sit across 14 different areas, aiming to: better support disabled people who want to be elected to public office; include disabled people’s needs more effectively in emergency and resilience planning; include disabled people’s needs in climate-related policies; improve information and outcomes for families in which someone is or becomes disabled; make playgrounds more accessible for everybody; help our businesses of all sizes and sectors to understand the needs of, and deliver improvements for, disabled people; explore if the UK could host the Special Olympics world summer games in 2031; improve support for people who have guide or assistance dogs; help the Government to measure how effective their policies and services are for disabled people; research issues facing disabled people in the future so the that Government can be more proactive in addressing them; make Government publications and communications more accessible; improve understanding of the cost of living for disabled people; promote better understanding across Government of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities; and monitor and report progress of the disability action plan. I can confirm that we will provide Parliament with updates on our progress in delivering against these actions in the plan in both six and 12 months’ time.

The disability action plan will be taken forward in parallel with the national disability strategy. Published in 2021, this wider strategy sets out the long-term vision to transform disabled people’s lives for the better. A written ministerial statement to Parliament on 18 September 2023 provided an update on progress on those commitments. Taken together, the disability action plan and the national disability strategy demonstrate this Government’s clear focus on improving disabled people’s daily lives in the here and now, and in the years to come.

As well as the disability action plan and the national disability strategy, the Government are already delivering significant work in areas that disabled people have told us are a priority, including reforms to employment and welfare through “Transforming Support”, the health and disability White Paper, and the back to work plan, and improving health and social care through the “People at the Heart of Care” White Paper. Further ongoing work by Departments includes cost of living support through Help for Households, as well as the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan.

Today’s new disability action plan is another vital pillar in improving disabled people’s everyday lives. Working with disabled people and their representative organisations, and with my colleagues across Government in my roles as lead for the disability unit and chair of the cross-Government ministerial disability champions, we will take immediate action now and in the coming months to achieve real, tangible improvements for disabled people, to help to deliver on their needs and to change disabled people’s daily lives for the better.

I commend this statement to the House.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the shadow Minister.

16:36
Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement.

The Government have had consultation after consultation, and they have published different strategies, but it sadly remains the case that we have had nothing that actually delivers a better life for disabled people. The Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto promised to deliver

“a National Strategy for Disabled People before the end of 2020.”

It claimed this would be an ambitious strategy to support disabled people in all aspects and phases of their life.

What have we actually seen? The Government finally launched their disability survey in January 2021, and it closed in April 2021, at the start of the pandemic. Disabled people were disproportionately affected by covid, accounting for six in 10 deaths. They struggled to access food, personal protective equipment and social care, and many were shielding. The question we must ask is why a national strategy for disabled people was not published until 28 July 2021, in the summer recess, with no chance for parliamentary scrutiny. I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to the Minister today.

The disability action plan contains some positives. It attempts to address some of the well-known barriers that disabled people continue to face, through measures such as tackling guide dog refusals, raising the profile of assistive technology and increasing support for disabled people to take part in politics. There is also a commitment to British Sign Language interpretation at all No. 10 press conferences, which many will remember that I have argued for on numerous occasions. It is about time.

I do not think any Member would argue that those are not important issues that the Government can and should look at, but there is one glaringly obvious issue that the action plan fails to address. The top concern for disabled people now is the cost of living crisis—not my assumption but what disabled people are telling me and what charities are finding on the ground. A survey carried out by Sense found that 85% of people with complex disabilities are worried about the rising cost of living. The Royal National Institute of Blind People noted in its initial analysis of the plan that

“it’s disappointing there’s no mention of any…support measures to address the rising cost of living.”

Scope, the disability equality charity, has calculated that, on average, disabled households face extra costs of £975 per month to have the same standard of living as non-disabled households. Energy bills, for example, remain high, which makes day-to-day living very expensive for those who rely on specialist medical equipment or need to heat their homes more than the average household.

The Government have made two disability cost of living payments of £150, but many disabled people have told me those barely touched the sides, with many losing their warm home discount at the same time. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that our current social security system puts disabled people through multiple upsetting and dehumanising assessments. They are denied their legal entitlements far too often, unless they have the strength and support to go through the appeals process.

The Government’s White Paper, published last year, caused a huge amount of concern by proposing to scrap the work capability assessment, leaving disabled people reliant on the flawed personal independence payment assessment. The disability action plan does nothing to improve the assessment process. Without addressing those fundamental problems, the actions outlined in the plan feel like little more than tinkering around the edges. Disabled people need proper action that deals with all the societal barriers that make their lives challenging. May I say that the Government could have started by reinstating the Minister for Disabled People role to Minister of State level?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank the hon. Lady for what, I think, was a warm welcome in there somewhere—

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft
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indicated dissent.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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Not so much, she says, so there we go. I reiterate that the disability action plan is not just another consultation, but real, tangible action to change people’s daily lives, with 13 practical actions across 14 different areas. It is about building a society that works for everyone.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) is right to point out that day-to-day life is too difficult for disabled people and their families; I agree with her. That is why we have taken the opportunities we can take in this round, alongside the wider national disabilities strategy. I would love to boil the ocean and to have fixed everything in the month or so I have been in the role, but I assure hon. Members that irrespective of the perceived level of the role, I have the convening power and support across Government. I am delighted that the hon. Lady keeps pushing for my elevation, but under the previous Labour Administration the Minister for Disabled People was an Under-Secretary of State. I am extremely proud to be an Under-Secretary of State—

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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Thank you, I will take that. Under our Government, the role has been mixed, which does not mean that we do not take it seriously. I take it extremely seriously.

I have come to the role with my own personal experience of living with my father, who became disabled and lived under the Court of Protection. When I was growing up, my mum worked with disabled adults, getting them into work. She was an early part of the Riding for the Disabled Association and the Special Olympics movement. No matter what rank I have in the Government, I bring that experience and interest to the role. I say to people watching that the pay cheque or the rank simply do not matter—I am in this for them.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), and I have met to discuss the point made by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford about the cost of energy. My hon. Friend is a disability champion across Government, as am I, so we will continue to engage. I reiterate that the cost of living payments will start again tomorrow. Some 6.4 million people across the UK have been able to claim an extra £150 in addition to their disability benefits, as the hon. Lady mentioned.

It is, of course, a challenging time for everybody. We put in place the furlough scheme and the other support for businesses and communities across the country to try to keep people on their feet. Between 2022 and 2025, we provided £104 billion to help people with the cost of living. To anybody who has a disability, a health condition or any other need, I say: please look at the benefits calculator on gov.uk. They should look at the household support fund, which runs for a full year—a whole six months longer than the previous one. There is a huge amount of interest in it, so I urge people to contact their local authority about it. I am delighted that many people with caring responsibilities and those looking after disabled people have been helped in this way.

Finally, the help-to-claim service is there as well, provided by the DWP working with Citizens Advice, to make sure that those in need do not have to worry, because the Government, both locally and nationally, are there for them.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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I am sure that as an ambassador for the Special Olympics, my constituent the great Lawrie McMenemy will welcome the announcement that my hon. Friend has just made. Specifically, she has announced 32 practical actions across 14 separate areas. That gives an idea of the scale of the challenge when it comes to co-ordination and accountability. There are disability champions across every Government Department, and of course there is the disability unit in the Cabinet Office. How will she make sure that the challenge of co-ordination is successfully met, so that my constituents and each Member in this House will know who to turn to, and who to hold accountable, if those 32 practical actions are not delivered?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank my right hon. Friend for her point about the Special Olympics. When I was Sports Minister, I had the honour of meeting her constituent. I share his passion for a very important movement. It is potentially life changing, which is why I am delighted that it is in this plan.

My right hon. Friend asks about the evidence and data around the disability action plan. The plan is there to improve the quality of Government health data, and to increase insight into the needs and barriers that affect disabled people’s daily lives. Ultimately, we will evaluate the impact of these policies and services, and we will use data, when they are available, to monitor and assess the outcomes of the plan. We will start work on developing more comprehensive evaluation. I know that, through her role as the Chair of the Select Committee, she will absolutely measure me and my role in this. I assure her, the House and all those watching that the plan is absolutely about learning, and delivering on this challenge.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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I thank the Minister for prior sight of her statement. This disability action plan is not a plan; it is a mishmash of short-term policies. Some of the proposals are welcome and should have been sorted out long ago. Others are unclear and simply do not address the most pressing concerns of disabled people.

In my submission to the DAP consultation, I listed key areas that had been overlooked. Cost of living and welfare support are still missing, even though these areas were consistently raised by disability organisations and individuals. The Minister says that the Government will improve understanding of the cost of living for disabled people. What better understanding do they need? For the past two years, disabled people have been crying out for more targeted financial support to assist with their additional cost of living needs.

The Minister said that the Government will promote better understanding of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities across Government. What does that actually mean? In 2016, the UK Government were found to have systematically failed disabled people. That is still happening. The work capability assessment reforms will subject more disabled people to the cruel, punitive, and ineffective sanctions regime. Why? If the Government are serious about improving the lives of those with disabilities, they should start by scrapping the proposals ahead of the 6 March Budget. How much of this plan will actually be enacted before the general election?

In contrast, the Scottish Government are acting within budgetary constraints to improve the lives of disabled people through the adult disability payment and child disability payment. The independent living fund, with an initial investment of up to £9 million, will enable people with disabilities to improve their life. Finally, no offence, but the downgrading of the role of Minister for disabilities indicates this Government’s disregard for people with disabilities.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank the hon. Lady for her response; I am glad that advanced sight of the statement was welcome, at least. I reiterate to those watching that this plan is one pillar of the work that we are doing across all Government Departments to help disabled people to succeed, and to make this the most accessible place to live, work and thrive.

The work capability assessment will be changed. My engagement so far has been very much about what disabled people feel. I was in Aberdeen on Thursday, chatting to some of our claimants and those working with a local charity. Many of those disabled people were so frustrated that they cannot get a chance to work, and to try things. The action plan is not about punitive sanctions; it is about giving disabled people the opportunity to take part in wider daily life, which we all take for granted. I point her to the cost of living support, and the around £200 million in Barnett consequentials for her Government. I have consistently asked where the money is going and how they are spending it. I would love to have pointed that out to those I met on Thursday.

This issue is not about party-political barneying in this Chamber; the hon. Lady and I share the view that it is about supporting disabled people in their daily life. I strongly believe that these measures will change their daily life. We will report in six months—if she knows more than me, and the next election is before that, then it will not be me doing so—and in 12 months. Of course, she and I will continue to discuss these matters until the election. I am sure that where we can work together, we will.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con)
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I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in respect of a charity to do with deaf people and cancer. I welcome my hon. Friend to her post. I know from many years of working with her that she is a very capable Minister who will take the job extremely seriously and give it her all. Disabled people have told me very clearly that they need a senior, serious voice in Government. Will she say a little more about how she will be that voice, and how she will listen to disabled people and reflect their needs inside Government? Also, to echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, I press the Minister to say a little more about how she will ensure that disabled people’s issues of accessibility are not an afterthought in Government but are put first, so that inclusion is by design, and important aims are all achieved.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank my right hon. Friend for her kind words, and for her incredible, impeccable support; she took the British Sign Language Act 2022 through Parliament, and I thank her for the work that she has done in my Department, and her continuing interest in these matters. Fundamentally, the disability action plan is about disabled people’s daily lives, and their needs not being an afterthought in any part of Government.

I will be honest: coming into this role, I found getting messages out extremely challenging. I will take that forward by promoting accessible communications, monitoring standards and training, and ensuring full inclusion. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) mentioned the No. 10 Downing Street briefings. It is so important that everybody knows the central messages; everyone needs to be included. That is why one of the actions comes down to local resilience forums, and having the right engagement at a local level in times of needs. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) will welcome that, too.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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The Select Committee called for a review of the underperforming Disability Confident scheme. That review was delayed by the pandemic, but in October we were told that officials were refining the recommendations. Can the Minister tell us what the plan says about Disability Confident, and does it hold out the prospect of shorter waiting times for Access to Work?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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It was remiss of me not to reply just now to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) about the strong voice across Government. That is, of course, the Secretary of State, who sits in the Cabinet and works alongside me to represent disabled people’s voices.

To respond to the Chair of the Select Committee, Access to Work grants, which helping with extra costs beyond standard reasonable adjustments, are important for my Department as we smash the employment goal and try to do more on disability employment. He is right to ask about that and to challenge Disability Confident. It is not just a nice thing that companies put on their website; it needs to deliver change for disabled people in the workplace. We will look at the disability employment goal; I am looking at Access to Work, and I will look at Disability Confident, just as the Select Committee has done. I urge him to watch this space.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con)
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I welcome these proposals, and I thank the fantastic disability unit team, and the stakeholders who have helped to shape them—in particular, the proposals on accessible play parks. I have been working with organisations such as Benjamin’s Smile and Mums on a Mission, both in my constituency. Swindon is leading by example when it comes to making sure that children’s play parks are accessible to all, and hopefully we can make that a given across the whole country. One of the key points of the national disability strategy was that there would be an annual review, so that we could be held to account on what we achieved and where we needed to work harder. It would also allow us to set out the next range of ambitious targets, co-ordinated by the Minister through the departmental disability champions. Can I have assurance that, good as these proposals are, we will review them on an annual basis, as well as having a new, fresh set? I also join the calls to see my hon. Friend made a Minister of State, because if she is to co-ordinate efforts across Government, in areas beyond her direct influence, she needs to have that gravitas in that room, so that she can demand what is needed to remove barriers for disabled people.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his experience and insight. I have met the ministerial disability champions already to ensure: that disability inclusion is a priority and is ultimately delivered in their Departments’ work; that they continue to be accountable for their contribution to the development and delivery of the national disability strategy and the disability action plan; and that they continue to show their commitment to disabled people by creating opportunities, protecting their rights and ensuring action on everything that we have spoken about today, in terms of contributions to society.

On making playgrounds more accessible and my hon. Friend’s impeccable work in his constituency, there is a lot of information on disability inclusion in organised sport, physical activity and exercise, but information on making playgrounds accessible is unfortunately not easily available. We want to make it available, work with the partners he mentioned and achieve best practice among local authorities. That will be part of this plan, and we will measure its delivery in six months and 12 months.