All 37 Parliamentary debates in the Commons on 4th Sep 2023

Mon 4th Sep 2023
Mon 4th Sep 2023
Mon 4th Sep 2023
Mon 4th Sep 2023
Mon 4th Sep 2023

House of Commons

Monday 4th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Monday 4 September 2023
The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

Monday 4th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks 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]
Business before Questions

Recall of MPs Act 2015: Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Monday 4th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I have received notification from the Petition Officer for the constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West, in respect of the recall petition for Margaret Ferrier. The recall petition closed on Monday 31 July. As more than 10% of those eligible to sign the petition did so, the petition was successful and the seat is accordingly vacant. I shall cause the text of the notification to be published in the Votes and Proceedings and in the Official Report.

[The notification will appear at the end of today’s proceedings.]

New Members

The following Members took and subscribed the Oath, or made and subscribed the Affirmation, required by law:

Keir Alexander Mather, for Selby and Ainsty.

Steven Tuckwell, Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

Sarah Joanne Dyke, Somerton and Frome.

New Writs

Ordered,

That Mr Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough constituency of Rutherglen and Hamilton West in the room of Margaret Ferrier, against whom, since her election for the said Borough constituency, a recall petition has been successful.—(Owen Thompson.)

Ordered,

That on the 12th day of September, Mr Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of Mid Bedfordshire, in the room of Nadine Vanessa Dorries, who since her election to the said County constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward or Bailiff of His Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, in the county of Buckingham.—(Simon Hart.)

Speaker’s Statement

Monday 4th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I wish to inform the House that I have received a letter from the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) informing me of his resignation as Chair of the Business and Trade Committee. I therefore declare the Chair vacant. I will announce the arrangements for the election of the new Chair in due course.

Oral Answers to Questions

Monday 4th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Christian Wakeford Portrait Christian Wakeford (Bury South) (Lab)
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1. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of its policies on reducing regional inequalities in employment.

Kate Osborne Portrait Kate Osborne (Jarrow) (Lab)
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2. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of its policies on reducing regional inequalities in employment.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab)
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7. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of its policies on reducing regional inequalities in employment.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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It is good to be back, Mr Speaker. I trust that you had at least some rest during the recess. Let me also extend my welcome to the new Members who have just taken their seats.

The regional employment rate gap is 7.7 percentage points, which is 1.2 percentage points less than the gap in 2010 and a low figure by historical standards.

Christian Wakeford Portrait Christian Wakeford
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As the Marmot review shows, there is a strong correlation between indices of deprivation and addiction. This issue affects all regions, but especially the poorer regions. What policies are in place across the regions to address the issue of addiction and to help more people remain in and enter employment, particularly in the north-west?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Gentleman will be aware of universal support and the WorkWell pilots. In exactly the areas to which he has referred, they are bringing together healthcare and help with seeking work, which my party believes to be one of the best ways to remedy the issues he has mentioned, including mental health issues.

Kate Osborne Portrait Kate Osborne
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It is 87 years since the Jarrow march against unemployment, and my constituents are still being let down. We have a higher percentage of people claiming unemployment benefits than the national average, and the reality is shown to be worse when hidden unemployment is factored in. According to the Centre for Cities, nine in 10 of the places with the highest hidden unemployment rates are in the north. Instead of continuing their false rhetoric on levelling up, when will the Government stop neglecting and start investing in our northern communities?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I have no problem at all with defending the Government’s record on employment. There are now nearly 4 million more people in employment than there were in 2010, including about 2 million more women, and unemployment across the country, including in the north, is at a near-historic low.

Andy McDonald Portrait Andy McDonald
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In his blog today on ConservativeHome, Lord Ashcroft says:

“On the cost of living, two thirds of voters...thought the Government could do more to help but was choosing not to.”

Given the regional disparity in earnings, does the Secretary of State accept that the roll-out of fair pay agreements providing sectoral minimum terms, as outlined in Labour’s “A New Deal for Working People”, would not only boost the economy but address the blight of in-work poverty and insecure work that is having an impact on so many households in my constituency and throughout the country?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of support during the cost of living squeeze that we are experiencing. My Department has been responsible for distributing millions of payments to the most vulnerable people, including £900 in total to 8 million low-income households, £150 to 6 million disabled people and the £300 payment to pensioners. On the question of work, we put up the national living wage by over 9% to £10.42 this April.

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con)
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In parts of my constituency, the healthy life expectancy is now just 53 to 54—a true regional inequality if ever there was one. That means that people—even those in the Minister’s age group—are dropping out of work far too early, which is not good for them or the economy. What steps is the Department taking as a consequence of the health and disability White Paper to address this serious inequality?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I have already mentioned the measures that we brought forward at the last Budget, including universal support and WorkWell. The Government are of course constantly looking at how we can go further in that respect. On the over-50s specifically, the midlife MOT that we are running, the returnerships and the changes to the pension tax arrangements are all helping to bear down on economic inactivity in that group.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
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The good news from Kettering is that, at 3.6%, the overall unemployment rate is below the national average of 3.7%. The bad news from Kettering is that there are 420 18 to 24-year-olds without work and the youth unemployment rate is 6.2%, versus the national average of 4.7%. What is the Secretary of State doing to address youth unemployment?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that since 2010, youth unemployment has fallen by over 40%, which is the mirror image of what happened under the last Labour Government when it rose by over 40%. On his specific question, I point him towards the youth offer, which we have recently announced we will be expanding to even more young people.

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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I thought the Secretary of State understood that, while unemployment is at a historic low, economic activity is the big challenge before us, particularly when it comes to regional economic inactivity and the huge, near 10-point gap across the regions. The east midlands, London, the north-east, the north-west and the west midlands all have higher inactivity rates than the south-east. The Tories have had 13 years to close that gap, so can I ask the Secretary of State: is his plan really to make levelling up a reality by leaving it to Labour?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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Given that there has never been a Labour Government who have left office with unemployment anything other than higher than they found it in the first place, I do not think I would leave employment to Labour. On the hon. Lady’s point, economic inactivity is important and it is a major focus for my Department. It has of course reduced substantially since its peak during the pandemic, having fallen by around 350,000.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)
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3. What steps his Department is taking to help claimants in receipt of means-tested benefits with increases in the cost of living.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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The Government recognise the pressures people are facing and we have acted. We are providing cost of living support worth over £94 billion between 2022 and 2024 to help households and individuals with those rising costs. That includes cost of living payments totalling up to £900 in 2023-24 for over 8 million households on eligible means-tested benefits. We successfully delivered the first payment of £301 to 8.3 million households earlier this year, and the second payment of £300 will be paid in the autumn.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Harriett Baldwin
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The Government are indeed giving generous cost of living support to households on certain means-tested benefits this winter, but if someone is on one of those means-tested benefits and they earn £1 more, they have the potential to lose the full payment. I wonder if the Minister has noticed any change in people’s behaviour as a result of that disincentive to take on extra work.

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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It is vital that those on low incomes, or indeed those who are keen to work more, see the incentives. In the spring Budget, we announced an ambitious package of measures to support people to take up work and, importantly, to progress by making sure that they are always better off. We are also supporting them with a significant investment in childcare and, of course, the largest ever cash increase to the national living wage, taking it up to £10.42. I would say to those people that they should look at the benefits calculator on gov.uk, because they will always be better off in work.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Select Committee.

Stephen Timms Portrait Sir Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)
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Rents have risen very sharply over the past couple of years, but the support for people claiming means-tested benefits to pay their rent, determined by local housing allowance, has not changed at all since 2020—it has been completely frozen. I wrote to the Secretary of State about this over the summer. Is the Minister able to give the House any assurance that the forthcoming benefit uprating statement will include a realistic increase in local housing allowance?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very interested in this subject, as am I. Again, there is help for households, with the local housing allowance rate being set at the 30th percentile in 2020. The Government are projected to spend around £31 billion, or around 1.2% of GDP, on support for renters in 2023-24. It is absolutely right that we support people to be better off. The LHA is not intended to cover all rents in all areas, but I take a close interest in this subject.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
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4. What assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of unemployment over the last 12 months.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (Bradford South) (Lab)
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10. What assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of unemployment over the last 12 months.

Guy Opperman Portrait The Minister for Employment (Guy Opperman)
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I welcome our three new colleagues.

The independent Office for National Statistics estimates that, notwithstanding a recent uptick, the unemployment rate is now almost half the rate we inherited in 2010 and is back to pre-pandemic levels.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore
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Actually, according to the Government’s own figures, three and a half years after the pandemic began, employment is not back to pre-pandemic levels. Will the Minister set out what the unanticipated rise in unemployment says about the underlying health of our economy? It is not looking good, is it?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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With great respect, I disagree. Employment is at record levels. Vacancies have been down for the past 10 quarters. Payroll employment is at a record high. Pay is up and inflation is down. We are doing an awful lot better than that lot would.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins
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We have seen a summer of job cuts in my Bradford South constituency, with both Morrisons and Solenis announcing major redundancies. Does the Minister agree that this shows that the Government’s plan to grow the economy is failing?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I should make the point that payroll employment is at a record high. There are 4 million more people in work than in 2010, and the unemployment rate is down to 4.2% across the UK—that is a near record low. Our jobcentres are clearly doing a fantastic job, and I fully support all the work that is going on in Bradford to try to address these issues.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
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5. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of trends in the level of (a) inflation and (b) food prices on pensioners’ incomes.

Samantha Dixon Portrait Samantha Dixon (City of Chester) (Lab)
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13. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of trends in the level of (a) inflation and (b) food prices on pensioners’ incomes.

Laura Trott Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Laura Trott)
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In April, the state pension saw its largest ever rise of 10.1%, thanks to the triple lock protecting pensioners.

Gerald Jones Portrait Gerald Jones
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We know that 770,000 pensioners are eligible for pension credit but are not receiving it. A few months ago, I joined my local citizens advice bureau to organise a pension credit action day. As a result, an additional £200,000 was drawn down to people across Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. The Government have the data and could take a much more targeted approach to get eligible people to apply, so why have they not taken that action? When will we see more action from the Government?

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he is doing in his constituency. I assure him that that is exactly what the Government are doing. We recently launched an “invitation to claim” trial, which has been rolled out in 10 constituencies and is using housing benefit data to target those who might also be eligible for pension credit. We will report back on the results of that trial later this year.

Samantha Dixon Portrait Samantha Dixon
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It might be hard to imagine on a sunny day like today, but winter is just around the corner. The reality for many worried pensioners in my constituency is that this winter there will be a choice between heating and eating. We have a Government who are tiptoeing around the real issues while our constituents struggle to make ends meet. When will the Government make a real plan to tackle the cost of living crisis and implement meaningful action to help thousands of pensioners in poverty?

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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With respect to the hon. Lady, that is exactly what we are doing. That is why we have put the cost of living payments in place, which are worth £900 to all those on pension credit, and why a cost of living pensioner payment worth £300 is coming out in the winter. All the while the Labour Mayor of London is charging pensioners £12.50 when they want to drive to the hospital.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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Clearly, there is a stigma attached to claiming pension credit, because this is on poorer pensioners who desperately need the money. What action can my hon. Friend take to remove that stigma? My constituency has recently been added to the pilot, and I am looking forward to its results, because elderly people deserve to get the money they need to fulfil their lives.

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that, and I praise all the work he has done in his constituency on pension credit. We are trying to do exactly what he sets out: encourage as many people as possible to claim this important benefit, at a time when they are going to need it most. I note that across the House good work has been done in individual constituencies.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda (Reading East) (Lab)
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As inflation rises, being able to top up pension contributions is vital for many part-time workers, who would otherwise not be able to claim the full state pension. However, a Daily Mail investigation showed that the Government are failing to accurately record people’s top-up contributions. Pensioners are terrified that their money has simply disappeared, so when will the Government get a grip of this terrible problem? When will Ministers show that they understand the pressure on families and pensioners due to the cost of living crisis?

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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With the comprehensive package of support I have talked about today, we have shown that we are taking action during the cost of living crisis to help pensioners as much as we can. We know that accuracy is the most important thing when it comes to the state pension, which is why we have taken action very quickly to correct issues where they have occurred, for example, with LEAP—the legal entitlement and administrative practices exercise. We will do the same in all such cases.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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6. What steps he is taking to increase employment in Essex.

Guy Opperman Portrait The Minister for Employment (Guy Opperman)
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I know that my right hon. Friend is a champion for job creation in Essex, where our jobcentres are working with a range of employers and partners to address recruitment on an ongoing basis. For example, last Wednesday, Essex jobcentres hosted a recruitment event at Stansted airport to match constituents of hers, and of my right hon. Friends the Members for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) and for Braintree (James Cleverly), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), to dozens of catering, hospitality and logistics-based jobs.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
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Essex is a powerhouse on jobs and employment, but there is always more to do and businesses are saying that they are finding barriers to creating more jobs. Will the Minister give an update on how he is working across government to create a labour market strategy to help enable businesses to recruit, to lower taxes and burdens for businesses, and, in particular, to make it easier for small businesses in counties such as Essex to start employing more people and to recruit?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I endorse pretty much everything that my right hon. Friend says. Clearly, we are working with other Departments to ensure that we are doing everything possible to address recruitment. For example, on a recent visit I saw the T-levels being pioneered at South Essex College; I have seen the apprenticeships that are being driven forward locally; and, recently, in Witham, the “midlife MOT” took place in the middle of last month to address older workers. However, there is more to do and we are certainly trying to do it across Departments.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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In Essex, as in many other parts of the UK, the number of people off work because of chronic illness is significantly higher now than it was before the pandemic. Forcing sick people into work is not an appropriate way of dealing with that, so will the Minister confirm that work capability assessments will be reasonable and will consider all aspects of the individual’s life in assessing whether they really are fit for work?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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The hon. Lady’s constituency is a long way from Essex, Mr Speaker! She will, however, be aware that over 1 million more disabled people are in work and that the WCA will continue on an ongoing basis until there is reform.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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8. What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of eligible people claiming pension credit.

Laura Trott Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Laura Trott)
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The DWP has conducted an extensive campaign across TV, radio and social media, and with partner organisations, to boost pension credit take-up, with a number of pushes being made before cost of living payment deadlines. I am pleased to tell the House that that is working; applications were up by 75% in the year to May.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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One of my Chelmsford constituents sent me a message that has been circulating recently. It suggests that asylum seekers are entitled to receive more in benefits than pensioners; I believe that is not accurate. For the record, will the Minister confirm what support is available for pensioners, compared with that for asylum seekers?

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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Let me reassure my right hon. Friend and her constituents that asylum seekers are given no recourse to public funds. They are given payment for their food and shelter, but they are unable to claim benefits. Pensioners in her constituency will receive a state pension, if they qualify, which for the first time is worth on average more than £200 per week or over £10,000 a year. Pensioners who have not built up sufficient contributions may be eligible for pension credits, worth on average £3,500 per year, to top up their income. They are also eligible to receive the cost of living payment, if they ever receive pension credit, and the pensioner cost of living payment.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
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Over the summer, I held events in villages across Wyre in my constituency. I was approached by many pensioners who are suffering because of the cost of living crisis; pension credit is just not plugging the gap. At my “Chat with Cat” event in Pilling, a constituent asked me why 400,000 more pensioners are living in poverty than when Labour left office. Will the Minister answer that question?

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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There are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty than when Labour left office.

Sarah Green Portrait Sarah Green (Chesham and Amersham) (LD)
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9. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the assessment process for personal independence payments.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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Assessments play an important part in ensuring people get the right entitlement. It is the claimant’s chance to give all the information needed to help make the right decision. The assessment, which measures the impact of a health condition on a person’s ability to live independently, is kept under review; I am sure the hon. Lady is familiar with the tests and trials set out in the White Paper.

Sarah Green Portrait Sarah Green (Chesham and Amersham) (LD)
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The Minister will know that one challenge with PIP is how to accurately assess fluctuating conditions. More than half a million people in the UK are living with Crohn’s disease or colitis, but fewer than 3% are in receipt of PIP. Past applicants have said that while fatigue is the most disabling symptom, they feel that that is the least represented symptom in their assessments. [Interruption.] Would the Minister consider introducing a fatigue rating scale to PIP assessments to more effectively capture what is, for many, the most debilitating component of their condition?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Minister, the reason I was coughing was that the question was rather long.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her interest in this issue. Through the White Paper reforms, we have advocated for a number of tests and trials, including one that focuses specifically on better capturing fluctuating conditions. I would be keen to have conversations with her about that. The Government are committed to working with charities and those that are interested, including disabled people, to ensure we get those reforms right.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
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I agree with the importance of having a timely assessment. Last week, a constituent raised her case with me: she filled in her renewal form nine months ago, but has been given less than two weeks’ notice for an assessment next week. Surely we need to have assessments when the form is fresh and accurate, not nine months later?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The waiting time for PIP decisions has come down considerably in recent times, but I am not complacent about that, as we want to go further in seeing those waits reduced. For example, being able to apply online is an important part of that journey, as well as improving interfaces and making sure people provide all the right information up front. If we can provide better support for that, it will help us make decisions sooner, which can only be welcome.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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I urge the Minister to look specifically at how PIP is assessed for those with brain injuries. It is well known that the effect of a brain injury may vary over time—people go up and down, and many who have had a brain injury want to give a very positive impression of how they are, which gives a false impression when it comes to assessing whether they need PIP.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s point—he has been a passionate and tireless campaigner on the issue of brain injury for a long time. These are exactly the sorts of issues that we want to look at as we take this reform forward. I mentioned our changes around fluctuating conditions, but we also want to look at issues such as expert assessors and having specialists working with individuals to carry out the assessment to ensure a proper understanding and, hopefully, build confidence around decision making.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con)
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Our excellent, proactive Minister is no doubt testing out concepts ahead of the forthcoming White Paper. Does that include extending the severe conditions criteria so that people with conditions such as motor neurone disease can automatically access support without the need of an assessment?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am fortunate that my hon. Friend was one of my predecessors as Minister for Disabled People, as he is a tireless campaigner on these issues and has done much to take the agenda forward. On the severe disability group, we remain committed to this work. We have worked with an expert group of specialist health professionals to draw up a set of draft criteria. We have started initial testing at small scale, and we are looking to scale that up as we move forward, because we want to get this right and we think that this is a significant change.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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11. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce waiting times for Access to Work assessments.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
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16. Whether his Department plans to take steps to reduce the time taken by the decision-making process for applications to the Access to Work scheme.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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Access to Work has received a significant increase in applications over the past year and has recruited new staff to meet the increased demand and reduce the time it takes to make decisions. We are also transforming the Access to Work service through increased digitalisation that will make the service more efficient and the application process easier, and improve the time taken from application through to decision.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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I think the Minister knows that the waiting times are too long for all applicants, but may I draw his attention to an event in Cambridge that I hosted earlier this year with the local jobcentre where we highlighted job opportunities for the neurodivergent community? Will he tell us what impact these long waits have on people who are neurodivergent?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, last week, 88% of claims were paid within 10 days and that we are taking steps to drive further improvement. The online application capacity that came on stream in June is a significant part of that, but we are also putting additional staff on to processing claims. We are streamlining various processes to ensure that people get access to that support sooner. Anecdotally, officials are saying that that is beginning to bear fruit. What we are not doing is speeding up that process at the cost of getting the right decision and the right outcome. We will continue to move this forward, and we are already making progress.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle
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A decade ago, the Government’s Sayce review recommended supporting 100,000 disabled people through specialist employment programmes, but, last year, Access to Work helped just 38,000, and Versus Arthritis and other organisations that support people navigate this difficult system saw a tripling in the delays. When will the Department meet the 100,000 target and end the delays hitting disabled people, employers and the UK economy?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Like the hon. Gentleman, I am passionate about the positive difference that Access to Work makes in terms of opening up employment opportunities for people. He will be aware of the passports that we have introduced to help better understand people’s needs and passporting that between jobs and between, for example, education and employment. I refer him back to the steps that we have taken to see improvement in the journey times, but we will continue to work tirelessly to make sure that people get the Access to Work help as quickly as possible.

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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In January, it was found that the Access to Work backlog had trebled since February 2020, rising to more than 25,000. In June, the Minister claimed additional resource was being put into Access to Work. Will he inform the House exactly how many additional staff are working to clear the backlog and when he expects it to return to pre-pandemic levels? His Government say that they want to get more people into work, yet disabled people are missing out on jobs because of unacceptable delays at the DWP.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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For the House’s benefit, let me provide the full-time equivalent staffing levels in the Access to Work team a full six months ago and once the staff at Bradford have moved to Access to Work. The figure stood at 375.22 full-time equivalents in March 2023, and at 462.84 on 4 September 2023. That figure is expected to stand at 530.41 full-time equivalents by the end of October 2023 with the additional staff moving to the Access to Work team in Bradford. I direct the hon. Lady’s attention again to the figure from last week that 88% of claims were paid within 10 days. This is a priority for me as the Minister for Disabled People and for the Department as a whole.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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12. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of the two-child limit on trends in the level of child poverty.

Amy Callaghan Portrait Amy Callaghan (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
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21. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of the two-child limit on trends in the level of child poverty.

Guy Opperman Portrait The Minister for Employment (Guy Opperman)
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The Government’s firm belief is that the best route out of poverty is through work. In the most recent statistics—in 2021-22—there were 400,000 fewer children living in absolute poverty after housing costs than in 2009-10.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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A recent study by the University of York found that the two-child limit and the benefit cap had contributed to rising child poverty, which, allied to wider benefit cuts, had impacted larger families disproportionately. Given the growing weight of evidence that families are being pushed further into hardship, will the Government finally acknowledge the real harm that their cruel and callous welfare policies are causing, and reverse them?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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Families on benefits should face the same financial choices when deciding to grow their family as those supporting themselves solely through work. A benefit structure adjusting automatically to family size is unsustainable.

Amy Callaghan Portrait Amy Callaghan
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A report by the Child Poverty Action Group showed that the two-child limit affects one in 10 children across the UK. It found that abolishing the policy would be the most cost-effective action that the Government could take to reduce child poverty. Why will the Minister not take that action? Is child poverty so low on his priority list that he has not considered it, or did he consider it and then decide that vulnerable children just are not worth it?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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The Government are committed to a sustainable long-term approach to tackling poverty and supporting people on low incomes. We will spend around £276 billion through the welfare system in 2023-24, including around £124 billion on people of working age and children.

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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The Minister seems to forget that the two-child limit impacts people who are on in-work benefits. The only exemption to the two-child limit is if a woman can prove that her third or a subsequent child has been born as a result of rape. How many people has the Minister’s Department asked to prove that they have been raped in order to get an exemption to the two-child limit?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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We do not use the language used by the hon. Gentleman, but I will of course write to him.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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I am disappointed that the Minister does not know, because his Department has made 2,590 women prove and relive the ordeal of being raped, simply to get that state support, but given that the Labour party and the Conservatives support the two-child policy and rape clause, does it give him comfort to know that when the “Ghost of George Osborne Future” comes into office, his legacy in promoting astronomical child poverty rates will be safe in the hands of the Blairites on the Labour Benches?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I can only repeat that, compared with 2009-10, there are 400,000 fewer children in absolute poverty after housing costs.

Mark Fletcher Portrait Mark Fletcher (Bolsover) (Con)
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14. What recent progress his Department has made on tackling benefit fraud.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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We continue to bear down on fraud and error. It decreased by 10% in 2022-23. There is of course still more to be done, which is why we are investing £900 million to reduce that figure still further by £2.4 billion by 2024-25.

Mark Fletcher Portrait Mark Fletcher
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During the pandemic, the Government rightly got support out to people as quickly as possible, but that inevitably meant that errors were made and some people took advantage of the situation. What is being done to clamp down on fraud and errors in universal credit?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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A huge amount, including the targeted case review, which over the next five years will review hundreds of thousands of universal credit claims to look for fraud and error. Of course, we use emerging new technologies for that purpose as well.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I absolutely support the principle that those who carry out benefit fraud must be made accountable, but what I find in my office—I think that others in the Chamber will probably find this as well—is that many people have filled in an application form, document or review and inadvertently ticked the wrong box. By doing so, they have left themselves in a very difficult position where they find that they have to make a repayment. Sometimes people need help at the initial stages to ensure that they get it right. What can be done to help those people so that they do not get into debt that they did not expect to be in?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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There is help within jobcentres. There is also Citizens Advice, and a help to claim process available there. When people make genuine errors and when they have been overpaid for various reasons, we are of course sympathetic, to ensure that we do not put them in a position where it is incredibly difficult for them to repay those amounts.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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15. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of its policies on reducing the level of inactivity in the labour market.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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We are doing a great deal to bear down on economic inactivity. As of August this year, the figures show that over half the increase in economic activity that occurred during the pandemic has since unwound. That is more than 300,000 people into work.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins
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The Secretary of State’s comments suggesting that unemployed over-50s should consider becoming delivery riders clearly show that the Government are failing to help older workers into stable employment. Rather than glorifying precarious work in the gig economy, will he commit to rolling out a plan that gives older workers the dignity, respect and support they deserve to rejoin the workforce?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I think it is very unfortunate when any Member of this House looks down on a certain category of job that is employing hundreds of thousands of people perfectly satisfactorily. In fact, in that interview I said:

“I think as a department we shouldn’t be prescriptive,”—

referring to the over-50s—

“so we’re not here to start pontificating about whether people should or should not go back into work”.

Hopefully that has put the record straight. We are doing a huge amount to support those over 50 who have retired prematurely, including the midlife MOT, returnerships and the tax changes we have made around pensions, and we will continue to support people. That is why we are seeing those inactivity rates above 50 declining quite strongly.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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Sickness and sick pay are an anchor when it comes to getting people back into work, as well as helping to grow the economy. That is why the Centre for Progressive Change produced an excellent report that has support from Members across this House. Will my right hon. Friend therefore meet me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who has also supported it, to look at the proposals made, so that we can really help to improve sick pay—something that has the backing of 75% of British businesses?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I would be very happy for either myself or the relevant Minister to meet my hon. Friend or my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel).

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Karen Buck Portrait Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab)
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We all want to see both unemployment and economic inactivity as low as possible, but the Office for National Statistics, quoted approvingly by the Minister a few minutes ago, reports that this spring’s quarter showed a large fall in the number of people moving from economic inactivity into employment, and that the net movement from employment to economic inactivity was the largest since the covid autumn of 2020. Given that this is the Department’s priority, what assessment has he made of why this is going wrong?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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My assessment of economic inactivity is that it is falling; it has fallen by around 350,000 or more since its peak during the pandemic. That leaves us below the average rate of economic inactivity across the G7, the European Union and the OECD. We are making real progress and will continue to do so.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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17. What estimate his Department has made of the number and proportion of unsuccessful benefit decisions that were overturned on appeal in the last 12 months.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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Our aim is to make the right decision as early as possible in a claim. In 2022-23, there were 80,000 social security and child support appeal tribunal hearings, with 50,000 overturned. We recognise that the overturn rate at appeal is high. However, the numbers must be seen in the context of overall decisions. The majority of appeal tribunal hearings relate to PIP. Since PIP was introduced, 8% of initial decisions have been appealed and 4% overturned at a hearing.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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The Minister is being very selective in his use of statistics. The most recent tribunal stats show that an increasing number of cases, the vast majority, are being overturned—something that is certainly borne out by my constituents contacting me. Why are we not getting it right first time? Surely it is a huge waste of resources to be taking so many cases to tribunal?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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There is no advantage to anybody in the right outcome not being achieved at the very earliest point. The hon. Lady asks why we often see tribunals reach different decisions. There are a number of reasons, for example, drawing different conclusions on the same evidence, cogent evidence being presented orally within those tribunals, or even perhaps written evidence being provided at the hearing that has not previously been shared. We are taking steps, including having presenting officers feed back to the Department, to ensure that more decisions are got right at the first opportunity.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
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18. What steps his Department is taking to improve social mobility among young people.

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes (Walsall North) (Con)
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20. What steps his Department is taking to improve social mobility among young people.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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Every day, our work coaches help people of all ages and all backgrounds to overcome barriers, build their confidence and move into and progress in work. For young people, we have specialised support via the DWP youth offer. We have extended our Jobcentre support for people in work and on low incomes, helping them to increase their earnings, to move into better-paid, quality jobs and to improve their prospects through in-work progression. We are also providing additional work coach time and boosting the skills support, meaning that we are truly opening up opportunities for all.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett
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I welcome my hon. Friend’s strong commitment to social mobility, and I share her approach. However, what are the Government doing to ensure that young people in my constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford have the jobs that they need and greater opportunities to succeed?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I agree and am determined to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background or postcode, can succeed in Bexleyheath and Crayford and beyond. As part of the DWP youth offer, we have a youth hub serving my right hon. Friend’s constituency, working in partnership with YouthBuild Ventures, to help young people to build their confidence with tailored wraparound support and to move into local jobs.

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes
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Degree apprenticeships are a great way for those who are socially less well off to get into employment and avoid the costs associated with getting a degree through other routes, so what steps is the Minister taking to help more people achieve that ambition?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I agree that it is key that young people get the right opportunities to progress, thrive and move into long-term sustainable work. Apprenticeships are crucial in driving growth and social mobility. They boost business skills and improve people’s earnings and progression opportunities. My hon. Friend will be pleased to see a new youth hub open in Walsall shortly, and that our work coach has been working with Walsall College on place-based tailored employability support for his area.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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The biggest bar to young people finding employment in the lakes and the dales is the fact that there is nowhere affordable for them to live—average house prices are 12 times average incomes, and the long-term rented sector has collapsed into the Airbnb sector. Will the Minister make the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales special pilot areas to ensure that the only homes we build there are affordable ones for people who will make their lives there, work and contribute to our economy, so that we do not run out of workforce?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I think we can agree on one thing: the hon. Gentleman’s area is a very special one. In the meantime, we have recruited at the DWP 37 progression leads who will work locally with employers and jobcentres to sort that progression and retention challenge, but I think some of his questions are for a different Department.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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19. What steps his Department is taking to increase employment in North Devon constituency.

Guy Opperman Portrait The Minister for Employment (Guy Opperman)
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The Jobcentre teams in North Devon are working day and night to fill the vacancies in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That includes inviting employers into the Jobcentre Plus each week, and having upcoming events on sector-based work academy programmes, including one that is about to happen with the NHS trust in Barnstaple.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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Unemployment in North Devon is well below the national average due to the high proportion of retired people and a lack of homes those working can afford. Businesses and the public sector alike are reporting high vacancy levels. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that we do not see further business closures because of a lack of homes that workers can afford?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I visited North Devon in April to meet my hon. Friend and discuss those issues. She has my full support and that of the Department in her work to ensure that we address those problems. Clearly, those matters are being addressed on an ongoing basis by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, but I can assure her that she has my full support.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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22. What steps his Department is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help reduce sickness absences in the workplace.

Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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Sickness, and supporting those who are sick in the workplace, is an important focus for the Department, which is why we are consulting on occupational health and ensuring that more businesses take it up as something to offer their employees.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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Seventeen million working days are lost every year because of negative workplace cultures and staff wellbeing. That is partly down to bullying, which is prevalent across many workplaces. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to consider workplace cultures, particularly bullying at work, and will he meet me to discuss my bullying and respect at work Bill, which would put a recourse into law?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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Like the hon. Lady, I and my ministerial colleagues take bullying in the workplace extremely seriously. There is no place for that in our country. I would be very happy for her to have a meeting with the relevant DWP Minister.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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25. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the high income child benefit charge on the gender pension gap.

Laura Trott Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Laura Trott)
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In April, we announced plans to address this issue by introducing a retrospective national insurance credit, which will ensure that more people—especially women—have the opportunity to obtain a full state pension.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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The high income child benefit charge is potentially a scandal waiting to happen. Currently, families have to apply for a benefit they know they are not entitled to so that the stay-at-home parent—usually the mother—gets the national insurance credits that they need for her state pension. It is good to hear that the Government are doing something, but they need to reform the process further. Will they agree to at least put some comms in? I certainly had not heard of the changes in April.

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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I am glad that the hon. Lady agrees with those changes. I assure her that we will be bringing them forward as soon as we can.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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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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May I begin by welcoming my new opposite number, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), to her post? I know she will agree that it is an honour and a privilege to be associated with this Department, whether on the Opposition Benches or the Government Benches, and the very important mission of looking after the most vulnerable, which I know we both share. I look forward to a constructive engagement with her in the weeks and months to come.

My Department continues to focus on supporting the most vulnerable through cost of living payments, pension credit and the benefits system more generally; bearing down on fraud and error; and promoting work and, in particular—as we have been discussing—reducing economic inactivity.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford
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Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the recent decision on the national disability strategy, which allows us to get on and improve the lives of so many disabled people?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I very much welcome the Court of Appeal’s decision in July, meaning that the national disability strategy is lawful. The Government are now able to continue with the important work of implementing that long-term strategy, and I can confirm that my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People will shortly come forward with further details of some of the individual commitments we will be making around that strategy.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I welcome the shadow Secretary of State to her position.

Liz Kendall Portrait Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words. However, whatever he says about economic inactivity, it remains a serious problem in this country, with the UK lagging behind all other G7 countries in terms of workforce participation since the pandemic. Indeed, last month, the number of people off work due to long-term sickness hit an all-time high. What is this Government’s response? The Chancellor tells the over-50s to get off the golf course, and the DWP Secretary tells them to literally get on their bike. Is not the truth that this Government’s failure to cut waiting lists, sort social care and have a proper plan for reforming our jobcentres is harming individuals and our economy as a whole?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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To the extent that the hon. Lady was suggesting that economic inactivity was worse in our country than in all other economies, or all similar economies—I think that is what she said—that simply is not the case. It is true that economic inactivity spiked during the pandemic; none the less, as I said earlier, the average rate is lower than the average across the OECD, the EU and the G7.

The hon. Lady mentioned those who are long-term sick and disabled. That is why we are bringing forward pilots such as WorkWell and rolling out universal support, to make sure we bring the world of work together with the world of health, to the betterment of those who we look after.

Liz Kendall Portrait Liz Kendall
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This is not just about the over-50s. Is the Secretary of State aware that the biggest relative jump in economic inactivity due to sickness is among young people, with mental health being the biggest concern? Labour has a plan to transform mental health in this country, paid for by closing private equity loopholes. When will this Government act and put a proper plan in place?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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There is a proper plan in place. I invite the hon. Lady to spend some time looking more closely at the announcements that have been made, particularly at the time of the last fiscal statement, and especially those about WorkWell, universal support, and the work we are doing with the national health service and other agencies to make sure—as I say—that we bring together the world of work and the world of health and provide support, particularly for those with mental health conditions.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley)  (Con)
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T3.   The Health and Safety Executive website currently makes no mention of the aerated concrete issue that we all heard about at the end of last week. Can we be assured that the Executive has the resource and motivation to get that guidance out there, so that employers and other building owners know what they should be doing in this situation?

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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The HSE’s focus has been on raising awareness of RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—through its engagement and stakeholder groups via the public sector, and this was actually raised in a bulletin back in April 2021. I will look into the point my hon. Friend has made, but I am certain there has been clear guidance to those who need it.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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T2. Thousands of women who have been underpaid their state pensions due to departmental mistakes will be forced to wait until the end of 2024 to see this error addressed. Does the Minister really think this is acceptable?

Laura Trott Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Laura Trott)
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The hon. Lady asked about this last time, and I believe I informed her previously that all alive people will be receiving the benefits they are entitled to by the end of this year.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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T5. What action are the Government taking to deal with the difficulties that many disabled people face with accessing the support they need? In particular, has there been a move back to making face-to-face contacts part of the assessments and decisions in the benefit system?

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Tom Pursglove)
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We have made available a diversity of assessment channels to people, but the key point is that anybody who wants to have a face-to-face appointment is able to have one. They can request one and that will be facilitated, and I think that is important. Jobcentres will be at the leading edge of delivering on our new supported employment programme—universal support—and we have WorkWell coming on stream as well. We do not want to write anybody off. Where people want to work or to try to work, we should be supporting that wherever we can, and that is precisely what we are all about.

Dan Carden Portrait Dan Carden (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
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T6. A constituent of mine has cerebral palsy, a lifelong condition for which there is no prospect of improvement and which affects her mobility and balance. Despite this, she has faced repeated unnecessary and inaccurate reassessments for the personal independence payment, and she lost her PIP mobility after the most recent assessment. The DWP justifies its decision by saying that it was advised that her last fall was over three months prior to the consultation. What kind of system demands that people with lifelong conditions regularly have to hurt themselves to receive the support they are entitled to?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I would obviously want to see the details of the case in question before commenting on it, so perhaps the hon. Member could kindly share those details with me. One of the things we are focused on is getting to a place where people with conditions or disabilities that are unlikely to improve or are only likely to deteriorate are not having to go through repeat assessments. That is the objective we are working towards through the White Paper reforms. [Interruption.] I hear a lot of chuntering from the Opposition. I would be absolutely delighted if they would get on and support our reforms so we can make those improvements.

John Penrose Portrait John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
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T8. Universal credit has been hugely effective in making sure it always pays to work, but for jobseekers with no savings who used to be paid daily or weekly the five-week wait for their first payment can plunge them into debt, whether it is a DWP advance or other loans. Will Ministers consider the proposals in “Poverty Trapped” for initial payments to be made at the same daily or weekly frequency as a jobseeker was previously paid, so they can focus on finding a job rather than juggling their debts?

Guy Opperman Portrait The Minister for Employment (Guy Opperman)
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I can tell my hon. Friend that there are no plans to change the assessment period and payment structure of universal credit, but I am very happy for him to sit down with officials and discuss his paper.

Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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T7. A constituent battling multiple sclerosis recently came to one of my surgeries after his PIP application was refused without ever receiving a face-to-face assessment—and he did request one. The automated letter dismissing his appeal used incredibly insulting and derogatory language. Without ever meeting him, the Minister’s Department declared my constituent fit and able despite this clearly not being the case. I am doing whatever I can to support my constituent, but surely the Minister will agree that PIP applicants deserve face-to-face assessments rather than this dismissive, humiliating letter language.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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If people wish to have a face-to-face assessment, they ought to be able to have one—that is the position. There are claimants for whom a different form of assessment—a telephone assessment or a virtual assessment—is more appropriate and is perhaps what they want, but that choice should be available to people, and providers should be facilitating that. Again, if the hon. Member would kindly share the details of that case with me, I will look at it as a matter of urgency.

Simon Jupp Portrait Simon Jupp (East Devon) (Con)
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I warmly welcome the considerable progress this Conservative Government have made in supporting pensioners. The triple lock and targeted support with the cost of living are welcome in my part of Devon. Will my hon. Friend outline how this Conservative Government will ensure that this great progress continues?

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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The triple lock was a Conservative invention. It was a pledge in our manifesto and the Secretary of State will be looking at it again this year when he makes his decision on benefits.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie  Abrahams  (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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T9.   In 2016 the United Nations committee responsible for monitoring the UN convention on the rights of disabled people published a damning report that found that the Government had systematically discriminated against disabled people, in breach of their rights. Last week the UN committee reviewed evidence describing the further deterioration of disabled people’s circumstances and rights since 2016, but the Government refused to attend. Isn’t this just another kick in the face for disabled people?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation. We have followed all of the committee’s procedures; we are engaging with this process in good faith and will present our progress at the session in March 2024. [Interruption.] It is rather frustrating that the hon. Lady often gives the impression that this country is not a world leader on disability issues. The Equality Act 2010, for example, is the cornerstone of ensuring equalities legislation, and we also have the British Sign Language Act 2022 and the Down Syndrome Act 2022. We have also taken other steps forward, and we should be supporting that.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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I am fortunate to represent a part of the country that is blessed with near-full employment. However, businesses in Bracknell and beyond struggle to recruit enough staff. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that his Department will leave no stone unturned in getting as many people as possible back into the workplace?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I welcome the good news but also accept the challenge. I have visited Bracknell to meet my hon. Friend and am happy to sit down with him and the local jobcentres to ensure we are addressing his constituency’s vacancy issues.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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Last week I met the citizens advice bureau in Cheshire west and Chester, which informed me that 75% of those who appeal their PIP assessments win. Why does the Minister not get it right in the first place, and what is he doing, at pace, to address that?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very appreciative of citizens advice bureaux around the country for all the work they do in supporting constituents in each of our constituencies. In the interests of time, I will just refer the hon. Gentleman back to the points I made earlier about the steps we are taking.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
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The recent changes to access to means-tested benefits for those in receipt of vaccine damage payments are very welcome, and I thank the Minister for his engagement. Will he join me in paying tribute to those who campaigned for that change in the law, including my constituent Sheila Ward?

Guy Opperman Portrait Guy Opperman
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I pay full credit to Mrs Ward and also to my hon. Friend. I read with interest the Stoke Sentinel report on this particular issue. There is a genuine change to be made, there has been a long-standing campaign, and all parties should be pleased with the outcome reached.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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In all honesty, I probably ought to declare an interest, but pensioners living in Edinburgh and Glasgow do not face the same sorts of increases as pensioners living in a remote and faraway constituency such as mine when it comes to living costs such as running a car, buying groceries and heating the house. Will the Government look at ways of targeting these particularly hard-hit people?

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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We of course look at particularly targeting harder-hit pensioners through pension credit, and the Pensions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), has done a huge amount to promote that. But we are always open to receiving further ideas and having discussions, and if the hon. Gentleman would like to come forward with further ideas, we will certainly look at them.

Taiwo Owatemi Portrait Taiwo Owatemi (Coventry North West) (Lab)
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I have been contacted many times each month by parents left seriously out of pocket by their ex-spouses’ failure to pay child maintenance owed. What steps are the Government taking to ensure parents are able to receive their child maintenance on time so that many families are not left subjected to coercive control by their ex-spouses or left out of pocket?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank the hon. Lady for making those points. Child maintenance payments keep about 160,000 children out of poverty each year and are absolutely vital. They play a key role in ensuring both parents play their part in supporting their children whether or not they live with them. If the hon. Lady has particular cases or interests, I am happy to meet her.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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A constituent of mine has a small work pension, rendering her ineligible for pension credit yet still struggling to get by. Another constituent who is 80 and misses out on pension credit by just £10 has contacted me several times angry and hurt that he now has to pay for his TV licence. Will Ministers review the rules on pension credit, because ineligibility for so many of the passported benefits leaves many of my constituents out of pocket? They want to be eligible for it but are not.

Laura Trott Portrait Laura Trott
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Obviously this is without looking at the individual case, but it is important to note that the threshold has gone up significantly, so it is worth questioning whether the hon. Lady’s constituents are now eligible. If not, applications to the household support fund can be helpful, and local councils may be able to offer housing benefit support. If there is an individual case that she would like to write to me about, I am happy to respond.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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That completes the questions. Those who wish to leave should do so.

Police Service of Northern Ireland: Security and Data Protection Breach

Monday 4th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

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

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Before I call the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) to ask the urgent question, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. The matter of the data breach is not sub judice, but I have been advised that an individual has been charged with terrorism-related offences following the data breach. While I am content to waive the sub judice resolution in this and other proceedings to allow simple reference to the fact of the arrest, any further discussion of the circumstances of that case would not be in order.

15:40
Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the breach of security and data protection at the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Chris Heaton-Harris)
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his urgent question. As you know, Mr Speaker, I was keen to do a statement on the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s data breach on 8 August, so I am pleased to have this opportunity. I am also happy to provide an update to the House on this matter. However, since writing this answer, and as the right hon. Gentleman will know, news of the PSNI’s Chief Constable’s resignation has broken over the past few minutes. I thank Simon Byrne for his years of public service. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the appointment of a new Chief Constable is a matter for the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and I will continue to liaise with the senior management team of PSNI while the process of appointing a successor gets under way. The PSNI continues to have my and the Government’s full support in responding to the data breach, and we are focused on providing appropriate and proportionate data and expertise.

The breach, where the personal information of more than 10,000 officers and staff was accidentally published in what appears to be a human error involving a number of spreadsheet fields, happened on 8 August. Not realising that the relevant document contained a hidden table, the initials and surnames of every rank and grade, the location where an individual was based—but not their home address—and their duty type were published online for approximately three hours. The data breach is deeply concerning and significant. Recent events in Northern Ireland, including the terrible attack on Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, show that there is still a small minority in Northern Ireland who wish to cause harm to PSNI officers and staff in Northern Ireland. I take this opportunity to thank all those individuals who work to keep the people of Northern Ireland safe. They have my many thanks, and we all owe them our gratitude.

I recognise, too, that there is significant concern about the consequences of this data breach. Many PSNI officers and staff have raised concerns about themselves and their families, and they have my support and understanding as they go about their important work, keeping communities safe in these worrying and most testing of circumstances. To them, I again say thank you.

In response to these concerns, the PSNI and wider security partners are taking appropriate action and are working around the clock to investigate the incident, provide reassurance and mitigate any risk to the safety and security of officers and staff. As of 30 August, 3,954 self-referrals have been made to the PSNI’s emergency threat management group. That is part of the welfare and support services that have been made available to PSNI officers.

The House will understand that the PSNI is devolved and has operational independence. That has been the case since April 2010 with the creation of the Department of Justice. However, as the House would expect, the Government have remained in close contact with the PSNI since this breach and other data breaches came to light. My officials and I have been receiving regular updates and the Government’s focus has been on providing specialist support and expertise to the PSNI in its handling of this issue. Officials in the Cabinet Office have chaired—[Interruption.] I will finish in a second, Mr Speaker. Officials in the Cabinet Office have chaired regular meetings, and I will update the House further, hopefully during this urgent question.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson
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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to raise the plight of police officers and staff in Northern Ireland. The industrial-scale breach in data last month was yet another self-inflicted blow to the morale of the police service, as well as to confidence in policing across Northern Ireland. For the rank and file, and for the staff working in our police stations, for their personal details to be released into the public domain and to find their way into the hands of dissident republicans is unforgivable.

The current terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland is “severe.” Just a few months ago, Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was barbarically attacked by gunmen in front of his young son after coaching an under-15s football team near Omagh. Now, each one of his colleagues must come to terms with the fact that they and their families have potentially been placed in harm’s way by the release of this data.

It goes further than that. Last week’s ruling by Mr Justice Scoffield found that the PSNI’s senior command unlawfully disciplined two of its own officers in order to appease Sinn Féin. These actions are hugely damaging to community relations, to community confidence and to confidence in the rule of law in Northern Ireland. Fair and even-handed policing is just as foundational to progress in Northern Ireland as is fully functioning political institutions operating on a cross-community consensus basis. We therefore need to hear from the Government that they will ensure that the necessary resources are available to the police—notwithstanding budgetary constraints—so that police officers, their families and police staff are properly protected against terrorist attack.

Furthermore, the Democratic Unionist party welcomes the decision by the chief constable to announce his resignation. We believe that is the right thing to do in all the circumstances. Now we want to see confidence rebuilt in our police service, and we will work with the PSNI—it has our full support—to achieve and deliver effective and efficient policing for everyone in Northern Ireland in a way that commands cross-community support.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman again for the urgent question and for the various questions he has posed. Officials in the Cabinet Office have chaired regular operational meetings—initially daily—bringing together the PSNI, Government Departments and our world-class security services to ensure that all their collective skills, including cyber-expertise, have been brought to bear in supporting the PSNI on the breach.

You will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that given your ruling on sub judice and for security reasons, I cannot comment on specific details of the response, but six individuals have been arrested by detectives investigating the breach and the criminality connected to it. Five have been released on bail to allow for further police inquiries and one has been charged with possessing documents or records likely to be useful to terrorists, and another item.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned money. The response to such a significant breach will obviously come with a cost. The UK Government are clear that security is paramount, and the focus remains on support and expertise at this point. With Northern Ireland’s policing being devolved, it is for the Department of Justice to set its budget and ensure it can fulfil its duties and responsibilities, but it still remains a fundamental responsibility of the Executive—in their absence, Northern Ireland Departments—to run a balanced and sustainable budget. Where additional funding is required, the correct process, which includes a whole host of different things, must be followed. However, I completely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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This whole episode is agonising. I want to put on record my support and sympathy for all those brave men and women of the PSNI who fear for their security and that of their families as a result. I urge the Secretary of State to do everything possible with the PSNI to ensure that documents of this sensitivity are subject to sufficient protection so that a mistake of this sort can never ever be made again.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I think that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) referred to it in his question as a “self-inflicted” wound, and it surely was. To be frank, checks and balances should have been in place. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, and we will do what we can to assist the PSNI and the Department of Justice, as she would expect. We keep abreast of these matters, as I hope I detailed in my answers, but this is a really significant breach. As one police officer put it to me, “When I joined the police service, I used to think when I went to work that maybe people knew what I did for a living, but now that has completely flipped—I feel that they absolutely know what I do for a living.” That has changed the psychology around the whole piece. I know that a lot more assurances need to be given for us to get to the place that my right hon. Friend wishes to get to.

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

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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May I say that I look forward to working with the Secretary of State in the interests of peace, prosperity and progress in Northern Ireland?

The release of the names and workplaces of thousands of PSNI officers and staff was doubtless inadvertent, but its consequences could not be more serious. That has now been recognised by the chief constable, Simon Byrne, who is resigning—I join the Secretary of State in thanking him for his service. Those who serve in the PSNI confront great risks every day in their job to keep the public safe, and we thank them. But they already knew that dissident republicans were targeting them and their families, and now they know that those who would do them harm have this list. The damage to morale and confidence should not be underestimated. They are asking urgently, “What will be done to reassure and protect us?”

Does the Secretary of State agree that the inquiry needs to be completed as quickly as possible? Can he confirm that he will approve the appointment of the new chief constable in the absence of a Justice Minister in Northern Ireland? Does he intend to review the operation of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and how it functions? Does he recognise that there will be additional costs in protecting staff, as well as responding to potential civil claims? There were already great pressures on the Northern Ireland policing budget, and the cuts it now faces will, in the words of the PSNI, leave the service “smaller…less visible, less accessible and less responsive”.

Finally, the whole House wants to ensure that the staff get the support, protection and reassurance they need, but to succeed in doing that we need leadership from the Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland, to get the Assembly and the Executive up and running again as quickly as possible.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his place and look forward to working with him. As I mentioned outside the Chamber, I will happily brief him on any aspects and will arrange technical briefings from my officials so that he can be brought up to speed quickly. I would like to put on record my thanks to the former shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who is present, for the way he went about his business and for the very co-operative way we dealt with business. I appreciate it and wish him well as we move forward.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the inquiry. Yes, it needs to be expedited. A timetable has been set up by the Policing Board, which is independent, and I believe that it reports in three months’ time. It is quite a fundamental inquiry, and I hope in that time it will be able to bring all the answers required to the table. He asked about the appointment of a future chief constable; if the institutions of the Executive and the Minister for Justice are not present, we will have to pass secondary legislation in this place to allow that to happen. All that depends on the Policing Board going about its business and recruitment—I believe that is very much a rubber stamp of its work.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Policing Board and reform. I spoke to a number of board members before the resignation of the chief constable, and they all know that the spotlight is on them and how they deal with this. I would like to wait and see how they discharge their duties over the course of the next few weeks before I commit to reform, because there are good people there who have the ability to do the job.

Finally, on the budget, which I mentioned in my answer, the right hon. Gentleman forgot to mention that the Information Commissioner will come out with a decent fine for the data breach. We will have to take a whole host of things into account. As and when they materialise, we will look at them.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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The Secretary of State mentioned the independence of the PSNI, and that funding issues lie with the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Executive, but may I press him on this issue? Will he use his considerable influence to ensure that the safety of all people is first and foremost, and not the cost? It is important that the influence he has is exerted to its fullest, because these are good people who find themselves in a very, very difficult position through no fault of their own.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I like to feel that I have considerable influence in Government, but I am not sure that is completely correct. However, I will use the influence I have to do the right thing by all those who work for the PSNI. All sorts of issues have come up over the past 25 years and since policing was devolved, but policing in Northern Ireland certainly seems to look and feel better, and it is beginning to get good outcomes for those who are being policed. I can only praise the officers and say that I will do everything in their support.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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I join the Secretary of State in offering my thanks to Simon Byrne for his service. I believe his decision today, however, is the right one. This represented a shocking breach of confidentiality not just in relation to people’s personal data, but a shocking breach in the confidence that PSNI officers and staff can have in the organisation. I pay tribute to the dedicated PSNI officers and staff who daily protect and serve the people of Northern Ireland.

The PSNI, as has been alluded to, is already suffering a crisis of funding and therefore resourcing. The officer complement is lower than it has been in the police service serving Northern Ireland than at any point since 1979. The UK Government pay £30 million a year in additional funding to meet the security challenge, but that funding was inadequate even before the breach and is surely even more inadequate now. Will the Secretary of State be a little clearer on exactly how he will give funding guarantees to the PSNI going forward, because I do not believe this is something where the buck can be passed entirely to those who are currently charged with administering devolved budgets?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He talks about the additional security funding that the Government put in. The UK Government’s contribution to the financial year 2022-23 is £32 million in this space. The cost implications of the PSNI response are rightly being discussed with the Department of Justice. Any additional asks for funding would come through an established process. While it would not be right for me to pre-empt that, the Government are clear that security is paramount. Our focus remains currently on the asks that have been made of us, which are to provide specialist support and expertise in response to the latest assessment.

Julian Smith Portrait Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
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PSNI officers face significant physical risks, but they also face significant reputational and relationship risk when they are revealed to be members of the PSNI. The Catholic Police Officers Guild and the Police Federation for Northern Ireland have done brilliant work over the past few weeks. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is engaging with those organisations as the Government seek to support the impact of the breach?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I have not yet spoken to the Catholic Police Officers Guild personally, but my officials have done so on a number of occasions and I am very happy to do so. Initially, we were receiving high-level briefings from the chief constable and his senior management team, and, as I mentioned, the Cabinet Office committee that was set up was receiving and imparting information at an officer level. We are at the beginning of the process, so there is still a very long way to go. The PSNI will have to reflect on today’s news of the chief constable’s resignation. There is a lot more for the Government and the Secretary of State to do in this space, and I fully recognise that.

Colum Eastwood Portrait Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)
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I think that Simon Byrne has made absolutely the right decision in resigning today, given everything that has happened in recent weeks. However, there is a much deeper and more significant problem than just one individual, and it is one about which we have been warning for years: the real crisis in the recruitment and retention of Catholic PSNI officers and staff. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way of dealing with that crisis is to bring back 50:50 recruitment?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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During a conversation I had with the hon. Gentleman last week, he talked about the Patten reforms and 50:50 recruitment, and said it had been a backward step to depart from that point. I am a great believer in the original principle of policing, in Peelism, whereby a police force reflects the community that it polices. That is how it gains its confidence. I may be mistaken, but I think I was briefed recently that there had been good levels of recruitment to the PSNI from Catholic communities, but situations such as the one we are discussing today damage the prospects of that continuing, and it is our job—the job of all of us—to ensure that that does not happen.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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If anyone was in any doubt about the particularly difficult and sensitive role played by police officers in Northern Ireland, they should not be in any doubt now following this appalling incident. Has my right hon. Friend been satisfied thus far that within the PSNI, suitable measures have already been taken to ensure that freedom of information and subject access requests are dealt with by people of sufficient seniority, and that there is vetting and double-checking of information before it is disclosed into the public domain?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his wise question, and I can give him that assurance. The processes behind the issuing of freedom of information answers have been very well checked and will, I am sure, be checked and checked and checked again—and, I believe, simplified, with much more senior eyes making sure that information goes out correctly.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)
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I was in Northern Ireland during the week after the breach, and the fact that officers continued to go out and go about their duties is a testament to them and their service. However, it is unacceptable that the job they do remains a secret from many people, and that we somehow think this is normal in Northern Ireland 25 years after the peace process; it would not be normal in any other part of the United Kingdom, or in Ireland. What is the Secretary of State doing with the co-guarantors of the peace process, the Irish Government, and those in the field more widely to deal with what is now clearly a crisis?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I personally agree entirely with the first part of what the hon. Lady has said. Policing should be much more normalised in Northern Ireland, as, indeed, life should be. However, there is an interesting, rich and troubled history in Northern Ireland that has led us to where we are now. What the Chief Constable did in introducing community policing means that the hon. Lady will be able to walk around all sorts of places and have the sense of a much more normal policing experience.

I have had conversations with my Irish counterparts, although this is very much an issue that rests with the UK Government, but everyone is interested in how freedom of information requests are now dealt with.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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I, too, thank Simon Byrne for his service, and join others in recognising that in the current circumstances he made the right decision in resigning, given that his position was no longer tenable. On the issue of the data breach, can the Secretary of State assure the House that money will be no obstacle in the short run when it comes to the relocation of any officer? There will be people, particularly those from a Catholic nationalist background who are operating in intelligence and highly sensitive security roles, who are particularly exposed, alongside everyone else who is at risk. Can the Secretary of State assure us that there will be no barriers to ensuring their safety, which is paramount?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I must be careful about how I answer that question, because it relates very much to security matters, but I think I can say that the hon. Gentleman is correct in assuming what he assumes.

Meg Hillier Portrait Dame Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)
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I am heartened by the Secretary of State’s commitment to money and support for his officers, although money cannot put this right. Ministers come and go, as do Governments, so will he also commit himself to giving regular and confidential updates to, perhaps, the Intelligence and Security Committee or the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on the ongoing costs? There is a danger that while there is a long-term risk for officers, short-term Government thinking can mean that support of this kind can wither on the vine.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I will happily find out the appropriate way of reporting, as the hon. Lady suggests. As I have said, I think this is going to have a very long tail, so the ramifications as it plays out will ripple through the system for a very long time indeed.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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On behalf of my colleagues, I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State to his place. I look forward to working with him. I also thank his predecessor for all his efforts to engage with us.

It is important to correct a number of inaccuracies in the Secretary of State’s response. There was no hidden table but, as is common with Excel spreadsheets, there was more than one field. There was human error, but there were five levels of security to assess what was going out, all of which failed. That speaks to systemic failure within the PSNI. I welcome the resignation of the Chief Constable this afternoon and I think it is important that collectively—politically and in society—we all work together. I hope the Secretary of State will support us in this to instil confidence again in the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I did not know that the hon. Gentleman was such an expert in Excel. I am certainly not, so I am happy to be corrected by him on the detail of that, but I think my statement was pretty thorough and I agree with what he says.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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As some Members will know, my wife comes from County Armagh. We got married at the height of the troubles—the bombings and the shootings—and it sent a chill down my spine when I read of this leak. First, the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) has referred to the difficulty of recruiting to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and this will only make it worse. Secondly, it will not do much for our relationship with the police in the Republic of Ireland. The danger is that we just say that this is a matter for the PSNI and take a view from across the Irish sea, but Northern Ireland is a constituent part of the United Kingdom and I hope that a United Kingdom solution will be sought involving police forces on this side of the Irish sea and, if necessary, the UK’s intelligence services to find out what happened.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. That is why I detailed the meetings of officials in the Cabinet Office, who have chaired a large number of regular operational meetings bringing together the PSNI, Government Departments and world-class cyber-security experts to ensure that all our collective skills across the Union are galvanised in this space.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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I welcome the resignation of the Chief Constable. It is a pity it took so long. I think he saw that the writing was on the wall when he knew a motion was going to the Policing Board calling for his resignation, and so he should. He has lost the confidence of officers, not just because of this data breach but because he was prepared to throw two junior officers to the wolves in order to placate Sinn Féin, and it is right that he should go.

The Secretary of State has been a bit confusing in his answers about money. He says that he recognises there will be considerable expenditure involving the Information Commissioner, mitigation measures, the relocation of officers and so on. On one hand, he says that this will have to come from the Justice Department budget, but on the other hand, he seems to indicate that the Government recognise that there will be additional expenditure for the police. Given that the police are already 600 officers under strength, will he give a commitment that any additional costs as a result of this will not have to come from the existing overstretched budget?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I hope he will forgive me for pushing back slightly, but I think I have been particularly clear on this, and all of this could be solved much more easily if there were an Executive in place. I very much hope that that happens.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna (Belfast South) (SDLP)
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The last few weeks have been hugely damaging to hard-won progress in our still fragile society. Ordinary officers are feeling vulnerable and demoralised, and we are thinking of them and also of the families of the victims of the Sean Graham murders, who have been thrust into a political row that they did not seek due to a heavy-handed response. In the interests of officer morale and impartial policing, it is important that we know, following that Ormeau Road incident, who in the Northern Ireland Office spoke to the Chief Constable and, when the issue came up of Sinn Féin withdrawing from the Policing Board, what the NIO said to the Chief Constable.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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If the hon. Lady would kindly nod to indicate whether she means in the last couple of weeks—[Interruption.] I am afraid I will have to come back to her with that answer, if I may, because I do not have those details.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his response.

Ever mindful that this is a practical, physical issue for my constituents, will the Secretary of State outline what additional support and help is to be made available to PSNI officers who are under threat and whose families feel unsafe in their homes? Over my 38 years as an elected representative—as a councillor, an Assembly Member and a Member of Parliament—a number of RUC and PSNI officers have come to me in need of assistance after being threatened. That assistance was available fairly urgently. Will the Secretary of State confirm that a budget is available to rehouse, as a priority, those 10,799 police officers and civilian staff who are under threat, taking into consideration those who have moved from one district to another for safety reasons? They feel open and vulnerable to attack, and an apology is simply not enough to allow them to lie safely in their bed at night. What is needed is a practical, physical solution. That is what I am asking for.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for the way he puts it. We are currently at a stage where officers and staff who have a concern are reporting it to their senior management, and a triage process has been in place. As of 30 August, 3,954 people have self-referred to the emergency threat management group within PSNI.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am very wary of mentioning security matters for those at highest risk, so I will not do so. There is a continuing process to make sure PSNI has both the budget and the process available to ensure that extra security measures can be taken, and to ensure there is extra training and conversations to reassure people. It will be a little while before we see much upward pressure on budgets, and I will then happily update the House.

Countess of Chester Hospital Inquiry

Monday 4th September 2023

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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16:12
Steve Barclay Portrait The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (Steve Barclay)
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With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the crimes of Lucy Letby.

On 18 August, as the whole House is aware, Letby was convicted of the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six others. She committed these crimes while working as a neonatal nurse at the Countess of Chester Hospital between June 2015 and June 2016. As Mr Justice Goss said as he sentenced her to 14 whole life orders, this was a

“cruel, calculated and cynical campaign of child murder”

and a

“gross breach of the trust all citizens place in those who work in the medical and caring professions.”

I think the whole House will agree it is right that she spends the rest of her life behind bars.

I cannot begin to imagine the hurt and suffering that these families went through, and I know from my conversations with them last week that the trial brought these emotions back to the surface. Concerningly, that was exacerbated by the fact the families discovered new information about events concerning their children during the course of the trial.

Losing a child is the greatest sorrow any parent can experience. I am sure the victims’ families have been in the thoughts and prayers of Members across the House, as they have been in mine. We have a duty to get them the answers they deserve, to hold people to account and to make sure lessons are learned. That is why, on the day of conviction, I ordered an independent inquiry into events at the Countess of Chester Hospital, making it clear that the victims’ families would shape it.

I arranged with police liaison officers to meet the families at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss with them the options for the form the inquiry should take, and it was clear that their wishes are for a statutory inquiry with the power to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath. That is why I am confirming this to the House today.

The inquiry will examine the case’s wider circumstances, including the trust’s response to clinicians who raised the alarm and the conduct of the wider NHS and its regulators. I can confirm to the House that Lady Justice Thirlwall will lead the inquiry. She is one of the country’s most senior judges. She currently sits in the Court of Appeal, and she had many years of experience as a senior judge and a senior barrister before that. Before making this statement, I informed the victims’ families of her appointment, which was made following conversations with the Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney General.

I have raised with Lady Justice Thirlwall the fact that the families should work with her to shape the terms of reference. We hope to finalise those in the next couple of weeks, so that the inquiry can start the consultation as soon as possible. I have also discussed with Lady Justice Thirlwall the families’ desire for the inquiry to take place in phases, so that it provides answers to vital questions as soon as possible. I will update the House when the terms of reference are agreed and will continue to engage with the families.

Today, I would also like to update the House on actions that have already been taken to improve patient safety and identify warning signs more quickly, as well as action that is already under way to strengthen that further. First, in 2018, NHS England appointed Dr Aidan Fowler as the first national director of patient safety. He worked with the NHS to publish its first patient safety strategy in 2019, creating several national programmes. Those included requiring NHS organisations to employ dedicated patient safety specialists, ensuring that all staff receive robust patient safety training and using data to quickly recognise risks to patient safety. Last summer, to enhance patient safety further, I appointed Dr Henrietta Hughes, a practising GP, as England’s first patient safety commissioner for medicines and medical devices. Dr Hughes brings leaders together to amplify patients’ concerns throughout the health system.

Secondly, in 2019, the NHS began introducing medical examiners across England and Wales to independently scrutinise deaths not investigated by a coroner. Those senior doctors also reach out to bereaved families and find out whether they have any concerns. All acute trusts have appointed medical examiners who now scrutinise hospital deaths and raise any concerns they have with the appropriate authorities.

Thirdly, in 2016, the NHS introduced freedom to speak up guardians, to assist staff who want to speak up about their concerns. More than 900 local guardians now cover every NHS trust. Fourthly, in 2018, Tom Kark KC was commissioned to make recommendations on the fit and proper person test for NHS board members. NHS England incorporated his review findings into the fit and proper person test framework published last month. It introduced additional background checks, the consistent collection of directors’ data and a standardised reference system, thus preventing board members unfit to lead from moving between organisations.

Finally, turning to maternity care, in 2018 NHS England launched the maternity safety support programme to ensure that underperforming trusts receive assistance before serious issues arise. Also since 2018, the Government have funded the national perinatal mortality review tool, which supports trusts and parents to understand why a baby has died and whether any lessons can be learned to save lives in the future. Furthermore, the Government introduced the maternity investigations programme, through the Health Safety Investigation Branch, which investigates maternity safety incidents and provides reports to trusts and families. In 2020, NHS England’s Getting It Right First Time programme was expanded to cover neonatal services. It reviewed England’s neonatal services using detailed data and gave trusts individual improvement plans, which they are working towards. Indeed, Professor Tim Briggs, who leads that programme, has confirmed that all neonatal units have been reviewed by his programme since 2021.

Let me now turn to our forward-facing work. We have already committed to moving medical examiners to a statutory basis and will table secondary legislation on that shortly. It will ensure that deaths not reviewed by a coroner are investigated in all medical settings, in particular extending coverage in primary care, and will enter into force in April.

Secondly, on the Kark review, at the time the NHS actively considered Kark’s recommendation 5 on disbarring senior managers and took the view that introducing the wider changes he recommended in his review mitigated the need to accept that specific recommendation on disbarring. The point was considered further by the Messenger review.

In the light of evidence from Chester and ongoing variation in performance across trusts, I have asked NHS England to work with my Department to revisit this. It will do so alongside the actions recommended by General Sir Gordon Messenger’s review of leadership, on which the Government have already accepted all seven recommendations from the report dated June last year. This will ensure that the right standards, support and training are in place for the public to have confidence that NHS boards have the skills and experience needed to provide safe, quality care.

Thirdly, by January all trusts will have adopted a strengthened freedom to speak up policy. The national model policy will bring consistency to freedom to speak up across organisations providing NHS services, supporting staff to feel more confident to speak up and raise any concerns. I have asked NHS England to review the guidance that permits board members to be freedom to speak up guardians, to ensure that those roles provide independent challenge to boards.

Fourthly, the Getting it Right First Time programme team will launch a centralised and regularly updated dataset to monitor the safety and quality of national neonatal services.

Finally, we are exploring introducing Martha’s rule to the UK. Martha’s rule would be similar to Queensland’s system, called Ryan’s rule. It is a three-step process that allows patients or their families to request a clinical review of their case from a doctor or nurse if their condition is deteriorating or not improving as expected. Ryan’s rule has saved lives in Queensland, and I have asked my Department and the NHS to look into whether similar measures could improve patient safety here in the UK.

Mr Speaker, I want to take the first opportunity on the return of the House to provide an update on the Essex statutory inquiry. In June, I told the House that the inquiry into NHS mental health in-patient facilities across Essex would move forward on a statutory footing. Today, I can announce that Baroness Lampard, who led the Department of Health’s inquiry into the crimes of Jimmy Savile, has agreed to chair the statutory inquiry. I know that Baroness Kate Lampard will wish to engage with Members of the House and the families impacted, and following their input I will update the House on the terms of reference at the earliest opportunity.

The crimes of Lucy Letby were some of the very worst the United Kingdom has witnessed. I know that nothing can come close to righting the wrongs of the past, but I hope that Lady Justice Thirlwall’s inquiry will go at least some way towards giving the victims’ families the answers they deserve. My Department and I are committed to putting in place robust safeguards to protect patient safety and to making sure that the lessons from this horrendous case are fully learned. I commend this statement to the House.

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

16:23
Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
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I strongly echo the sentiments of the Secretary of State and thank him for advance sight of his statement. I welcome the appointment of Lady Justice Thirlwall to lead the inquiry into the crimes committed by Lucy Letby, and I strongly welcome his appointment today of Baroness Lampard to lead the statutory review in Essex. I look forward to receiving further updates from the Secretary of State as soon as possible.

Turning to the case of Lucy Letby, there are simply no words to describe the evil of the crimes that she committed. They are impossible to fathom. Although she has now been convicted and sentenced to a whole-life order, the truth is that no punishment could possibly fit the severity of the crimes she committed. With Cheshire police’s investigation having expanded to cover her entire clinical career, we may not yet know the extent of her crimes. What we do know is that her victims should be starting a new school term today. Our thoughts are with the families who have suffered the worst of traumas, whose pain and suffering we could not possibly imagine, and who will never forget the children cruelly taken from them. We hope that the sentencing helped to bring them some closure, even though the cowardly killer dared not face them in court.

I wish to pay tribute to the heroes of this story: the doctors who fought to sound the alarm in the face of hard-headed, stubborn refusal. This murderer should have been stopped months before she was finally suspended. Were it not for the persistent courage of the staff who finally forced the hospital to call in Cheshire police, more babies would have been put at risk. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in recognising Dr Stephen Brearey and Dr Ravi Jayaram, whose bravery has almost certainly saved lives.

Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing is never easy, which is why it should not be taken lightly. Indeed, we can judge the health of an institution by the way that it treats its whistleblowers. The refusal to listen, to approach the unexplained deaths of infants with an open mind and to properly investigate the matter when the evidence appeared to be so clear is simply unforgivable. The insult of ordering concerned medics to write letters of apology to this serial killer demonstrates the total lack of seriousness with which their allegations were treated.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has changed the terms of the inquiry and put it on a statutory footing. There must be no hiding place for those responsible for such serious shortcomings. It is welcome that the inquiry will have the full force of the law behind it, as it seeks to paint the full picture of what went wrong at the Countess of Chester Hospital, and it is right that the wishes of the families affected have been listened to. I welcome the fact that they will be involved in the drawing up of the terms of reference.

I ask the Secretary of State, people right across Government and people who hope to be in government to make sure that, in future, in awful cases such as this, families and victims are consulted at the outset. Can he assure the House that the families will continue to be involved in decisions as the inquiry undertakes its work?

Mr Speaker, no stone can be left unturned in the search for the lessons that must be learned, but it is already clear that there were deep issues with the culture and leadership at the Countess of Chester Hospital. This is not the first time that whistleblowers working in the NHS have been ignored, when listening to their warnings could have saved lives. Despite several reviews, there is no one who thinks that the system of accountability, of professional standards and of regulation of NHS managers and leaders is good enough.

Why were senior leaders at the Countess of Chester Hospital still employed in senior positions in the NHS right up to the point that Lucy Letby was found guilty of murder? The absence of serious regulation means that a revolving door of individuals with a record of poor performance or misconduct can continue to work in the health service. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is simply unacceptable in a public service that takes people’s lives into its hands?

The lack of consistent standards is also hampering efforts to improve the quality of management. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that good management is absolutely vital for staff wellbeing, clinical outcomes, efficient services and, most of all, patient safety. The case for change has been made previously. Sir Robert Francis, who led the inquiry into the deaths at Mid Staffs, argued in 2017 that NHS managers should be subject to professional regulation. In 2019, the Kark review, commissioned by the Secretary of State, called for a regulator to maintain a register of NHS executives, with

“the power to disbar managers for serious misconduct”.

In 2022, the Messenger review commissioned by the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) recommended a single set of core leadership and management standards for managers, with training and development provided to help them meet these standards. We must act to prevent further tragedies, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement that his Department is reconsidering Kark’s recommendation 5. Labour is calling for the disbarring of senior managers found guilty of serious misconduct, so I can guarantee him our support if he brings that proposal forward.

The Secretary of State should go further. Will he now begin the process of bringing in a regulatory system for NHS management, alongside standards and quality training? Surely we owe it to the families and the staff who were let down by a leadership team at the Countess of Chester Hospital that was simply not fit for purpose.

Finally, I know that I speak for the whole House when I say that the parents of Child A, Child C, Child D, Child E, Child G, Child I, Child O and Child P are constantly in our thoughts, as are the many other families who worry whether their children have also been victims of Lucy Letby. We owe it to them to do what we can to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. As the Government seek to do that, they will have our full support.

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for the content of his response and the manner in which he delivered it. I think it underscores the unity of this House in our condemnation of these crimes, and our focus on putting the families at the centre of getting answers to the questions that arise from this case. I join him in paying tribute to those consultants who spoke up to trigger the police investigation and to prevent further harm to babies. I note the further work that the police are doing in this case, and also pay tribute to the police team, which I had the privilege of meeting. They have worked incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances in the course of this investigation.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the families are absolutely central to the approach that we are taking. That is why I felt that it was very important to discuss with them the relative merits of different types of inquiry, but their response was very clear in terms of their preference for a statutory inquiry. I have certainly surfaced to Lady Justice Thirlwall some of the comments from the families in terms of the potential to phase it. Of course, those will be issues for the judge to determine.

On the hon. Gentleman’s concerns around the revolving door, clearly a number of measures have already been taken, but I share his desire to ensure that there is accountability for decisions. As Members will know, I have been vocal about that in previous roles, and it is central to many of the families’ questions on wider regulation within the NHS.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of good management. I am extremely interested in how, through this review and the steps we can take ahead of it, we give further support to managers within the NHS and to non-exec directors. The Government accepted in full the seven recommendations of the Messenger review. The Kark review was largely accepted. There was the issue of recommendation 5, which is why it is right that we look again at that in the light of the further evidence.

It is clear that a significant amount of work has already gone in. A number of figures, including Aidan Fowler and Henrietta Hughes, have focused on safeguarding patient safety, but in the wake of this case we need to look again at where we can go further, which the statutory inquiry will do with the full weight of the law. I am keen, however, that we also consider what further, quicker measures can be taken. Indeed, I have been in regular contact with NHS England to take that work forward.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I call the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee.

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
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I place on record my sympathy to the families, who have conducted themselves with the utmost dignity throughout this process and who remain in my thoughts and prayers as well. I welcome the judge-led statutory inquiry that my right hon. Friend has announced. It is the right thing to do, as are the phases of the inquiry, which prevent stuff from taking too long to move fast. As that work moves forward, and the debate rightly continues to touch on how we regulate managers working in the NHS, and remove them, I ask that Ministers remain alert to any “us and them” thinking between managers and clinicians. Surely any successful hospital trust is one team working together, so that defensive medicine is all but impossible.

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I very much agree with the Chair of the Select Committee on the need for a one-team approach, and on looking at how we encourage more clinicians into management roles. We need to be clear-eyed that often some of those in management positions were already regulated, because they were in medical or nursing regulatory positions, but it is important that we consider the right approach to ensure accountability for the families. That is why NHS England will look at this further.

Samantha Dixon Portrait Samantha Dixon (City of Chester) (Lab)
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Terrible crimes have been committed in the Countess of Chester Hospital in my constituency—my hospital. I thank the Secretary of State for meeting and listening to the families at the heart of this tragic case and for instituting a statutory inquiry into the circumstances surrounding these crimes. Serious questions about NHS accountability and governance have arisen that the inquiry will need to address. Given that the scope of Cheshire police’s Operation Hummingbird has now broadened, what reassurance can the Secretary of State offer my community about our hospital?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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First of all, I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work she has done with the families and the staff in response to these terrible events. It is important that we reassure patients who are using the Countess of Chester Hospital now about the measures that have been put in place; that is why I wanted to bring to the House’s attention House the steps that have already been taken.

However, it was also striking in my discussions with family members that they were at pains to point out that some of the other staff they had been treated by in the Countess of Chester Hospital had been exceptional in their care. There were specific issues that raised very serious concerns, but the families were at pains to point out that there were other staff who had treated them extremely well. Indeed, as the shadow Health Secretary said, there were staff also raising concerns and ensuring that the police investigated. With NHS England colleagues, we are working closely with the Countess of Chester Hospital on next steps, but it is important that the measures we have taken provide reassurance about the quality of care that is available at Chester now.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter (Warrington South) (Con)
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I commend the Secretary of State on his decision to upgrade the inquiry and put it on a statutory footing, something I know many of the families wanted. I am keen to understand what steps he can take to give assurances that there is consistency in all hospitals around the UK on the freedom to speak up guardians. What steps is he taking to ensure consistency right across the NHS estate?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. That is why in 2022 the guidance around the national freedom to speak up policy was strengthened —I mentioned the appointment in September 2022 of Henrietta Hughes as the Patient Safety Commissioner—and why significant work has been done on the quality of data, looking at the work for example of the getting it right first time teams, so that the data can be analysed more effectively to alert investigation.

Looking at the timeline, there are further lessons around, for example, who had visibility of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report and when. Clearly there are further lessons that we need to look at, but already the guidance, particularly on freedom to speak up, has been strengthened. Back in 2018 both the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and alongside it the child death overview panel, which reviews all child deaths, were also strengthened.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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As the Secretary of State will be aware, my constituency is served by the Countess of Chester Hospital and many of my constituents work there and are being treated there. There is no doubting the impact this case has had on the whole community, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) has mentioned. However, as a constituency MP, when I was briefed by the management at the time the issues first emerged, I can say a very different picture was painted from the one we see today. It has been a huge concern that management involved at the time have gone on to work in other parts of the NHS, seemingly with approval from NHS England. I hope the Secretary of State will look into that and that the Kark review recommendations will finally be implemented, because there are serious lessons to be learned from what went on with the senior management.

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. It is right that we focus on that and ensure that the concerns about the revolving door are addressed. On the decision taken by my predecessor, my understanding is that the recommendations accepted from Kark were viewed as effective in addressing that—obviously, the events to which this statement relates have happened since—but I have asked NHS England colleagues in the Department to look again at testing them further in the light of the evidence that has come through from the court case in particular.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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My heartfelt prayers and thoughts are rightly with the families, whose heartbreak and suffering is just unimaginable. I really welcome the tone that the Secretary of State has taken on ensuring that no stone is unturned in the quest for justice. Likewise, I thank him for the support that he has given us in Essex through the Essex mental health trust statutory inquiry that he announced just before recess—we look forward to working with Baroness Lampard on the terms of reference. Can he some provide some assurance so that the 80-plus families who did not engage with the inquiry previously come forward, give evidence and have confidence that their evidence will lead to justice for the loved ones they are missing because of what happened at the mental health trust?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I am keen to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. I know that she has personally championed —as have a number of colleagues across the House—the interests of families in Essex to ensure that they get the answers they need. Indeed, she very effectively conveyed to me the concerns about the inquiry in Essex hitherto. Our focus—I think this is an area of consensus across the House—has to be on ensuring that families get the answers that they legitimately deserve. The reason that it was proportionate to shift the Essex inquiry from a non-statutory footing to a statutory footing was the concern of the chair that there was insufficient engagement, particularly from staff but also, as my right hon. Friend just said, from families who did not have confidence in the inquiry as it was. That is why that inquiry has been strengthened and we have put in a very senior chair with experience of the Savile inquiry. I know that my right hon. Friend will be at the forefront in ensuring that the families’ voices are heard moving forward.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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I and my Cheshire West and Chester constituents are served by the Countess of Chester Hospital, so I welcome the inquiry’s having been put on a statutory footing, but like other hon. Members across the House, and, in particular, the families of the victims of this horrendous situation, I want to ensure that those managers who have somehow recycled themselves into leadership positions face stronger regulation and accountability. I look forward to the Secretary of State’s expanding on that.

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman that a central concern of the families when I met them was the extent to which they felt fobbed off when concerns were raised and the ability of those managers either to continue in post or to move to new posts. I think that concern is shared across the House. It is very much central to some of the safeguards that have been put in place through the recommendations from Kark that have already been accepted. It also opens up questions about the role of boards and how we strengthen non-executive directors, the training and induction, and the other provisions that we can put in place. Of course, some of those issues are the reason we are having the inquiry, and through the statutory process, there will be the opportunity to call people to give evidence and for the judge-led inquiry to put questions on behalf of the families.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the statement and for the announcement of the judge-led inquiry. The shocking murders of those babies and the attempted murders of so many others have shocked the nation. A major concern for me is that managers ignored consultants who had raised serious issues. It appears that there is in some hospitals a culture of people not being listened to when they raise concerns. Dr Stephen Brearey, one of the whistleblowers in this case, says that he has been inundated with emails from people who say that they have not been listened to when they have spoken about really serious issues. I thank the Secretary of State for everything that he has said today, but does he support a strengthening of the whistleblowing legislation so that all whistleblowers know that they will be heard and protected?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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To provide some reassurance to my hon. Friend, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 was strengthened in 2018. Obviously, that is post the appalling events covered today, but that Act has already been strengthened. The freedom to speak up guardians have also been implemented since these events, and their role has been strengthened further in the guidance. Significant work has also been done on the role of the child death overview panel and the role of data through the Getting It Right First Time team, picking up data where there are concerns. A significant amount of work has been done on that, but of course through the inquiry, we also need to interrogate more clearly why the concerns raised by clinicians were not acted on by those in leadership positions. I am sure that is something that the judge will want to test in significant detail.

Mark Tami Portrait Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
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I certainly welcome the Secretary of State’s change of heart on the statutory inquiry: that is vital to get the answers that all the parents deserve. It is also vital that any other parents who have concerns about the treatment of their child when Letby was working at Chester and Liverpool have those concerns fully investigated or reinvestigated by the police, so will the Secretary of State ensure that the Home Secretary provides whatever resources the police need to make that happen?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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Given the gravity—the seriousness—of the cases before the House, this issue is something that all Ministers are very seized of, but I will of course relay the right hon. Gentleman’s point to the Home Secretary. From talking to the team, I know that specific funding had been allocated for that in response to the seriousness of these cases, but of course, I will relay that point to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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It is impossible to imagine the depths of the grief of the families of the babies who were murdered, and it is absolutely right that we try to help them to get the truth, to find out the facts and to make sure that it does not happen again, so I thank the Secretary of State for agreeing to the statutory inquiry and making sure that the parents are involved. In the Essex case, 2,000 people lost their lives and families have waited many years for that truth, so I thank the Secretary of State for progressing with the statutory inquiry and announcing the new lead of that inquiry today. Can he put that same energy into saying that the families will be involved in the terms of reference; that those terms of reference will be agreed swiftly; and that the inquiry will have the resources it needs to get to the truth, too?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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Again, my right hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. I am extremely keen that the families, as well as the Members of Parliament in Essex, are able to engage with the chair of the inquiry and to shape that inquiry.

As part of the discussion in Chester with families about the relative merits of a statutory or a non-statutory inquiry, one concern was that a statutory inquiry sometimes takes much longer, which is why the point around phasing is important. Of course, the court case itself will have established significant areas of factual information that can be used by the inquiry. I hope my right hon. Friend can see that the decision to put the Essex inquiry on to a statutory footing underscores our commitment to getting families the answers they need.