Debates between David Rutley and Jim Shannon during the 2019 Parliament

Gibraltar: UK-EU Negotiations

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Monday 11th March 2024

(1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I do not know why I looked shocked, because it is pretty obvious from my hon. Friend’s hard work that where Goole leads, the rest of the UK follows. As I said, we are working hard on the border issues at the airport and more widely. The aim is to reduce the friction that will take place.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his answers and the clear commitment that he has given. We have always had a great relationship with Gibraltar. I am a big supporter of that, as are others in the Chamber. It is so important that our relationship is maintained with strength and pride, as we are able to work better together. With the Minister ensure that all efforts are made to continue our much-valued relationship with Gibraltar, and that we do all that we can to support it, as a British overseas territory, with the same rights as everywhere else?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to Gibraltar, and that of most people in the Chamber. A huge amount of work is done, not least by Mr Speaker, to foster the relationship, which we are very proud of. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will continue work in that way. The best feedback that we received today from the Chief Minister was that the Government of Gibraltar believe that they have a good working relationship with us—probably the best that we have had. We will continue to work together in their interests on that basis.

Venezuela: Threat to Guyana

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Thursday 14th December 2023

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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We have already highlighted the work we are doing with the Commonwealth. We have talked about the international engagement, and obviously, the situation was also discussed by the UN Security Council last Friday. We are taking it at every single level, and it helps if, in this place, we condemn with one voice the actions that have been taken by Venezuela. That will be noted in each of those forums, so I commend the hon. Member for his very important words.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister very much for his response, and I am pleased to know that he will be in Guyana shortly—his presence will send a message. Guyana has an army of some 4,000 and a population of 800,000; Venezuela has an army of 125,000, plus tanks and aircraft, so it is very much the aggressor and the stronger of the two countries. When it comes to the potential annexation of a democratic country by somebody who many of us feel is a demagogue, part of the axis of evil—that is North Korea, Iran and Russia, and now we can add Venezuela to that list—it is very important that we take a stand. As a country, as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, could we not send a Royal Navy ship to Guyana? That is the sort of strong action we need to see.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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It is good to get the last word from the hon. Gentleman—that is often his role. We are working hard through diplomatic channels to urge partners in the region to use bilateral contacts and regional groups to advise and mediate, in order to de-escalate the situation. I also bring to the House’s attention the fact that HMS Trent is heading towards the region to support action against narcotics trafficking.

Libya Floods

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Thursday 14th September 2023

(7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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That is a really important point. Hopefully, our expertise can help there. We need to see what the UN wants us to do in a co-ordinated way. We will play our part, and the calls from Members in this House will spur us on and help us in our negotiations to get urgent access to do what we can to help. I wish to thank all Members for their contributions today. It has been an important conversation and call to action.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his deep and sincere interest and for his commitment, which is what all of us in this House wish to see. Our Government and our Ministers have never been found wanting when it comes to helping, and we appreciate that. He has outlined the devastation and loss of life from Storm Daniel. Like others, my thoughts and prayers are with those families who have lost loved ones. Charities such as Christian Aid, alongside church groups in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland, are already setting up a page. It is clear that there is a desire to help. How can the Minister and the Government work alongside the charities and the churches to get aid to the right place as soon as humanly possible?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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The response from UK charities, including those that the hon. Member has mentioned, is always greatly valued, as is their expertise and capability to deliver. We need to get the impact assessment from the UN today. Let us then co-ordinate our efforts with partners, not just across Governments but with non-governmental organisations, to get the best possible outcome. The call to action is clear and we need to move fast.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Tuesday 18th July 2023

(8 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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You did not look at me, but I appreciate your calling me, Mr Speaker. Thank you, very much.

Hon. Members are right to point out the advantage of education, but for the children in Ukraine it is not just about education, but about the trauma they have had. What is being done to work alongside those in education and health to enable those young people to deal with the horrors that they have experienced?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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As always, the hon. Gentleman makes important points. He can be assured that the work we are doing is not only about education, but about providing reassurance and support for these children and young people who are going through extraordinarily challenging times.

Afghan Women and Girls

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Tuesday 6th June 2023

(10 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (David Rutley)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Latham. It is good to see you there—congratulations—and I will follow your instructions to the letter. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to her commitment to Afghan women and girls, including as the co-chair, I understand, of the all-party group. I am also grateful for the many thoughtful contributions from hon. Members present. As Members know, the Minister for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), would normally reply to such a debate, but he is in Cabinet now, and it is my honour to reply in his place.

I will try to address many of the points that have been made, but I will start by saying that between 2001 and 2021, secondary school enrolment in Afghanistan rose from 12% to almost 55% across all parts of the education system. An additional 8 million children, including 3.6 million girls, were receiving an education as a result of progress made over those two decades. By 2021, basic health services had reached 85% of the population, and the number of people with access to clean water and sanitation had doubled. Life expectancy had risen by eight years. Maternal mortality had nearly halved, and infant mortality had decreased faster than in any low-income country. Those are significant achievements.

In short, the UK and our allies, working with the Afghan Government, have given millions of Afghan women and girls access to health and education, and a path to a brighter future. Successive UK Governments invested heavily in Afghanistan and targeted that support towards women and girls, because we all wanted Afghanistan to succeed and prosper, and because, as we note in our international women and girls strategy, we know that gender equality embeds greater freedom, prosperity and security for all. Others have made that point very clearly, but I think the Development Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, said it all when he said:

“If we want to change the world, we can do so by educating girls. That is the first and foremost way of achieving it, and the Government are absolutely behind that agenda.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 677.]

In February, the UN special rapporteur, Richard Bennett, reported that further Taliban restrictions deepened existing, flagrant violations of women’s human rights, and, in his words, “may amount to gender persecution”. We continue to support that work, and we look to organisations such as the International Criminal Court to judge whether the actions of the Taliban amount to gender apartheid, a point made by the hon. Member for North East Fife. Taliban decrees limiting women’s rights to education, work and freedom of movement have taken a terrible toll on the lives, hopes and dreams of millions of Afghans. The UN estimates that excluding Afghan women from work costs the country up to $1 billion a year, or roughly 5% of GDP. That seriously undermines Afghanistan’s capacity to recover and its future prospects.

In the face of these attacks, Afghan women and girls continue to demonstrate incredible perseverance, courage and bravery, which has been highlighted by all contributors today. Many continue to take to the streets to call peacefully for their rights and the right to education for their daughters. The actions of the Taliban have been rightly condemned by the entire international community, and senior Islamic scholars from countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia have dismissed the Taliban’s claims to be acting in line with Islam.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

One of the things we all referred to was the NGOs and the fantastic humanitarian work they do. For many ladies and girls, that is where they find their employment. Has the Minister been able to have any discussions with the NGOs on not taking away the jobs, but taking away the humanitarian aid that filters across the whole of Afghanistan? There is a bigger picture here, to which the Taliban unfortunately have a blindness. Has the Minister been able to use his influence or the Government’s influence to ensure that what they do can be looked upon differently?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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I thank the hon. Member for his important points. He also made important points about freedom of religion or belief, which he and I support very strongly. I was grateful for those.

In terms of engaging with NGOs, there are pathways to bring food and engage women and girls in that process with a limited number of NGOs, including the Red Cross and Red Crescent. We are doing everything we can to work within those pathways to do that, but this is far from ideal. We are not happy with the situation, and we want to find other ways, but at least there are some limited pathways.

While we are talking about the humanitarian situation, it is worth emphasising that more than 28 million Afghans—over half the population—are estimated to be in humanitarian need, with around 17.2 million suffering acute food insecurity. We are working very hard to find ways to get food to those individuals and support them. The UK remains one of the most generous donors to Afghanistan; since April 2021, we have spent over £530 million. Points have been made about the official development assistance budget. It is well known that our aim—the Government’s aim—is to return to 0.7% when the fiscal conditions allow.

The crisis has been exacerbated by the Taliban’s bans on women working for the UN and for NGOs. The UN described the ban on its staff as “unlawful” and it has been unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council. Those bans prevent humanitarian development aid from reaching Afghans, particularly women and girls, and threaten lives in communities dependent on that support, as highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The UK Government continue to provide support despite the bans, and we are working with allies and countries in the region to put pressure on the Taliban to reverse them. The goal for the aid we provide is to ensure that 50% of those reached are women and girls. We achieved that in 2021-22 and are on track to do so again in the last financial year, despite the bans that we have all called out.

Afghanistan is the only country in the world to ban women from secondary and higher education. It is a genuinely extraordinary step. As a parent of four children—two young men and two young women—it is clear to me, along with millions of others in this country, that that is unfair, economically and socially ignorant and completely self-defeating. We know from our consultations with Afghan women, including those in Afghanistan, that educating their sons and daughters is their No. 1 priority. It is key to lifting families out of entrenched poverty and insecure, low-skilled labour.

We support education provision in Afghanistan through our financial contributions to NGOs, UN partners and the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, Education Cannot Wait and the Global Partnership for Education. We will continue to use every diplomatic and development lever at our disposal to restore girls’ rights to education. We are working with close allies, regional powers and through the UN to press the Taliban to allow girls back into classrooms. In December, we used the Bali international conference on Afghan women’s education to urge regional partners to speak on behalf of Afghan women and girls.

Important points were made by the hon. Member for North East Fife about the breadth of engagement with NGOs. We have had a range of consultations with Afghan women over the past year, both those in Afghanistan and here in the UK. We engage with NGOs in regular meetings with the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group and we organise consultations with local organisations as well on specific thematic issues, such as education, health and livelihoods. We will continue to take forward that engagement. We also allocated £17 million to support regional countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan, in 2021-22. That aid supports those countries to be better prepared for an increase in population movement from Afghanistan and to deliver services to refugees and asylum seekers.

Important points were made about what we can do to help encourage girls to study at home. We support access to education for girls at primary level through community-based education, which reaches adolescent girls close to their homes. Some of the partners that provide community-based education are testing innovative approaches to reach girls through technology, as mentioned by several hon. Members today. However, we have some concerns around access to electricity and the internet, which make it difficult to scale technology-based solutions.

There was a call to impose sanctions on members of the Taliban who send their daughters to schools overseas. I understand those concerns. We believe it is important to continue to engage with the more moderate members of the Taliban to persuade them to call on the Emir to reverse the edict banning girls’ education. That is the primary focus in that work.

Points have been made on how we can support particular cases. I am with the FCDO, not the Home Office, and it would not be appropriate for us to comment on individual cases. However, we are working hard to encourage and support people to come into the United Kingdom. To date, 24,500 people have been brought to safety, and since April 2021 more than 9,000 people have been granted settled status under pathway 1 of ACRS. Since 2022, the first people have arrived in the UK through pathway 2 of ACRS, and, in the first stage of pathway 3, the Government are considering eligible or at-risk British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors and Chevening alumni for resettlement.

Raid of BBC Offices in India

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Tuesday 21st February 2023

(1 year, 1 month ago)

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

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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to make a statement on the raid of BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai, and allegations of tax evasion following the BBC documentary “India: The Modi Question”.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (David Rutley)
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I am grateful to my friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for raising this urgent question, and appreciate his interest in the recent news that India’s Income Tax Department has conducted what has been described as a survey on the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. That began on 14 February, and finished after three days, on 16 February.

As everyone in this House will be aware, the BBC is quite rightly operationally and editorially independent from His Majesty’s Government. While I cannot comment on the allegations made by India’s Income Tax Department, the BBC has said that it is supporting its staff in its Indian offices and co-operating with the Indian authorities to resolve this matter as soon as possible. Respect for the rule of law is an essential element of an effective democracy, as are an independent media and freedom of speech. They make countries stronger and more resilient. That is why we regularly engage with and support different parts of India’s media. For example, the annual south Asia journalism fellowship programme, under the flagship Chevening brand, includes over 60 Indian alumni.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has previously said, the UK regards India as an important international partner, and His Majesty’s Government are investing heavily in strengthening our ties. Our broad and deep relationship, guided by the comprehensive strategic partnership and the 2030 road map for India-UK future relations, allows us to discuss a wide range of issues in a constructive manner with the Government of India. We continue to follow the matter closely.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his response, but I want to develop the question. Let us be clear that this was a deliberate act of intimidation following the release of an unflattering documentary about the country’s leader. Since its release, there has been a concerted effort to prevent the documentary from screening in India. Take-down notices issued to Twitter and YouTube have resulted in an India-wide ban of the documentary on those platforms. There has been suppression of the freedom of expression of the media and journalists.

When students from universities across the country have tried to organise screenings of the documentary on university campuses, dozens have been arrested, while others face internet blackouts through power cuts. As the raids on the BBC offices commenced, the Bharatiya Janata party spokesperson issued a statement that said:

“The BBC indulges in anti-India propaganda. India is a country which gives an opportunity to every organisation as long as you do not spew venom”.

As has been said:

“These raids have all the appearance of a reprisal against the BBC…They have come at a time when independent media are being hounded more and more, and when pluralism is shrinking in India”.

Not my words, but the assessment of Reporters Without Borders—strong words indeed. In the past six years, claims of financial irregularities and tax evasion have been used as justification for shutting down more than 14,000 media outlets and non-governmental organisations doing great work in India. They include such household names as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam. That has had a chilling effect on journalists, human rights advocates and religious minorities.

The raids happened seven days ago. Since then—I say this respectfully—there has been silence from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. No Government statements have been issued, and it has taken an urgent question to encourage the Government to condemn this blatant attack on press freedoms. Alarmingly, the raids happened hours after the Government signed a trade deal with India. That has led to allegations that the silence from the Government is due to the proximity of the raids to that deal. In conclusion, can the Minister tell me and the House whether the Government intend to summon the Indian high commissioner, so that his counterparts can raise the issue with him?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I noted a bit of coughing going on, which will give him a clue to a few things.

The hon. Gentleman raised important points. The UK’s support for media freedom is well known. Media freedom and freedom of speech are essential elements of robust democracies. As I said in my opening remarks, I cannot comment on the specifics of the allegations, because the BBC is co-operating with the Indian authorities on the matter, and as the BBC has said, this is an ongoing investigation and it would be inappropriate for it to comment further.

The hon. Gentleman made important points about the implications for NGOs and faith-based organisations. He knows that we continue to work with them on the ground. That is an important issue for him, and certainly for me.

Anti-lockdown Protest in Shanghai: Arrest and Assault of Edward Lawrence

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Tuesday 29th November 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the arrest and assault of Edward Lawrence by Chinese authorities while covering an anti-lockdown protest in Shanghai.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity. It has been 12 years of waiting—patience is a virtue.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (David Rutley)
- Hansard - -

I find it hard to believe, given his powers of persuasion, that this is the hon. Gentleman’s first urgent question. He is an ever present ray of sunshine in Parliament, and we love him for it.

As the Foreign Secretary made clear yesterday, the arrest of a BBC journalist while covering the recent protests in Shanghai is a deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable situation. Journalists must be able to do their job without fear of arrest of intimidation. The BBC has stated that the journalist was beaten and kicked by the police during his arrest, and was held for several hours before being released. In response, we are calling in the Chinese ambassador to make clear the unacceptable and unwarranted nature of those actions and the importance of freedom of speech, and to demand a full explanation. We have also been in close touch with the journalist and the BBC throughout to gather the facts and provide consular support.

We recognise that the covid-related restrictions in China are challenging for the Chinese people. We urge the Chinese authorities to respect the rights of those who decide to express their views about the situation. Moreover, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday in his Mansion House speech, the media—and, for that matter, our parliamentarians—must be able to highlight issues without fear of sanction or intimidation, whether in calling out human rights violations in Xinjiang and the curtailment of freedom in Hong Kong, or in reporting on the recent protests.

This, of course, follows the recent incident in Manchester. As we have previously made clear to the House, the apparent behaviour of staff at the Chinese consulate general was wholly unacceptable. In view of the gravity of that incident, we summoned the Chinese chargé d’affaires on 18 October and delivered a clear message through our ambassador in Beijing. There is now an ongoing investigation and it would be wrong to pre-empt the findings.

More broadly, we recognise that China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, which, again, the Prime Minister highlighted yesterday. That challenge grows more acute as China moves towards greater authoritarianism. That is why we are taking robust action to protect our interests and stand up for our values. That includes imposing sanctions, leading action at the UN and strengthening our supply chain resilience. Let me assure Members that, as part of our frank relationship with China, we will continue to raise our human rights concerns at the highest levels.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for having a certain firmness in his response, which is what we wish to hear. I welcome the news that the Chinese ambassador has been summoned by the FCDO to account for this arrest. I encourage the Minister to share—hopefully he can—all the justifications that will be given at that meeting. The reason given to the BBC by the Chinese authorities was that they had arrested Edward Lawrence for his own good in case he caught covid from the crowd. Wow, what a pathetic answer! My goodness. Such was their concern for him, a senior journalist in the BBC and a British citizen, that the Chinese police beat him and kicked him as he tried to lawfully cover a peaceful protest in Shanghai. He had all the necessary permits and licences, and is a veteran reporter in China.

The first question we need to ask is: what assessment has the FCDO Minister made of the safety of British journalists in China following this assault? It is important to remember that the arrest and assault of Edward Lawrence is not the first attack on freedom of speech, but just another example in a long line of journalists and human rights defenders who have been silenced, arrested or simply disappeared by the Chinese Communist party. This is the sixth urgent question granted in this parliamentary term on human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist party. We have seen the CCP establishing incognito police stations in the UK, the assault of Bob Chan outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, the Xinjiang police files highlighting horrendous crimes against the Uyghurs, and the arrest of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. This is unprecedented and needs urgent action.

This incident is part of a clear pattern of behaviour of increased crackdowns and restrictions on Chinese people within China and on British soil in the run-up to, and following, the 20th national congress of the Chinese Communist party last month. Last night at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, the Prime Minister gave a speech stating that the “golden era” of China-UK relations was over. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment, which is worthy of saying. The director general of MI5 said that China represents

“the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security”.

Clearly, tougher action is needed to protect British citizens, human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, and religious and ethnic minorities targeted by the CCP.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

As always, my friend the hon. Gentleman raises important points, and he can be assured that when the Chinese ambassador is called in to the FCDO, they will be raised, particularly the immediate point about the arrest, its unacceptable manner and the justification, which as he highlighted is incredibly thin. In that meeting, we will also raise the wider point he has mentioned about the safety of journalists. He raises a number of other important points, including about Chinese police stations. As the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), made clear in his statement to the House on 1 November, reports of undeclared police stations in the United Kingdom are extremely concerning and will be taken seriously. The Home Office is reviewing our approach to transnational repression, and the Minister for Security has committed to providing an update on that work to the House in due course. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there are wider concerns about the increasing authoritarianism and muscular foreign policy of the Chinese, and the Prime Minister rightly set out a new era of robust pragmatism, which we have seen grow over recent years, but which was clearly articulated by the Prime Minister yesterday.

Iran

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Wednesday 16th November 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

As I have said, we are working with our international partners, and we are working very closely with the United States on that specific point. The hon. Lady is right: it makes a difference, and we will push that matter forward.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister very much for his response to the questions and for his desire and determination to assist the protesters in their quest for democracy in Iran.

Iranian protesters are calling for a non-religious state, where the rights of women and religious minorities are protected—an issue on which both the Minister and I agree. A revolutionary court in Tehran has started sentencing protesters to death on charges that allegedly include “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”. Those charges have a chilling effect on protesters and religious minorities and have led to fears of large-scale executions in Iran in the coming weeks. Does the Minister agree that, as a country, we must pursue every available measure to support Iranians asserting their fundamental human rights and sanction officials responsible for these violent crackdowns?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
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The hon. Gentleman always makes these points with conviction and real passion. I share his views. We want to support the Iranian people—women, girls and those of religious minorities—in their struggle. We will take every possible step forward that we can, and, with cross-party support here, we will have extra weight and clout in making those calls for action.

Child Maintenance Service: Reform

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Thursday 19th May 2022

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

I give way to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I loved the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and, in particular, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). I also associate myself with the Minister’s comments. I have been a Rangers supporter since I was a wee boy. Rangers may not have won last night, but they made this great kingdom of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland better together. It was a showcase for us all.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

I agree. Other hon. Members may not quite agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman just said, but I think we can all agree that it was a remarkable achievement.

We can all also agree that this debate is important. Even though my current ministerial brief does not cover this area, it is vitally important. The Child Maintenance Service plays a valuable role in ensuring that children are supported in instances where parents do not live together and where they come to a private arrangement. We know that the vast majority of separated parents quite rightly take their responsibilities extremely seriously, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out. Our aim is to help parents to support their children and we are sensitive to the needs of both parties. The CMS is designed to promote collaboration between parents, and it offers a statutory scheme where collaboration is not possible.

The central focus in all of this is that the children are supported. The intent of child maintenance reform is to encourage parents to meet their responsibilities and provide their children with the financial support they need to get a good start in life, and that intent is well supported by the evidence. I will come on to that point in a second.

We are committed to maximising the positive impact of the Child Maintenance Service and ensuring that good arrangements are put in place for children, no matter where they are growing up. As the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, parents need to honour their responsibilities to their children. We believe the CMS has made substantial improvements in the pre-covid period, notwithstanding that there is further room for progress, and the statistics support that. The compliance rate for parents on the collect and pay service has increased significantly, with the percentage of parents paying something rising by eight percentage points between the quarter ending March 2018 and March 2020. From March 2016 to December 2021, the percentage of CMS cases where no maintenance is being paid fell by about 30%, from 46% in March 2016 to 32% in December 2021.

CMS investigators have the power to deduct directly from earnings and to seize funds owed in child maintenance payments where requests for payments are consistently refused. For example, the CMS has the ability to seize funds held by a third party that they owe to the paying parent. Over 800,000 children are now covered by the Child Maintenance Service arrangements, up from 700,000 in mid-2019. We are making a difference to the support that children have been receiving: since 2019, over £1 billion in child maintenance has been arranged each year through the direct pay service and the collect and pay service. The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) made an important point about poverty. She and I have regular debates on this subject, but it is important to note that around 140,000 fewer children are growing up in poverty as a result of child maintenance payments. That is good progress, but clearly more work needs to be done.

The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw rightly raised points about the fee for an application to the Child Maintenance Service, which is set at £20 for all CMS participants. That fee is intended to encourage parents to consider whether they really need a statutory scheme case, but it is not so high that it creates an insurmountable obstacle. Applicants who are victims of domestic abuse or under the age of 19 are exempt from paying the application fee. It is not our intent to create a barrier for vulnerable customers; in fact, around 60% of applicants do not pay that fee. Collection charges, which are 20% for the paying parent and 4% for the parent with care, only apply to the collect and pay service, and are intended to provide both parents with an incentive to collaborate. The collection charge for the receiving parent is deducted only when maintenance is paid, so the receiving parent does not owe money to the Child Maintenance Service if maintenance is not paid. If there were no charge for receiving parents, there would be no incentive for them to use the direct pay service.

The Child Maintenance Service may also review the income of a paying parent if earnings decrease or increase by 25% over a year—a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw. That 25% threshold ensures that liabilities remain stable so that both parents can budget with certainty, which aims to provide ongoing certainty for the child as well.

--- Later in debate ---
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister very much for what he has said so far. I think that each and every one of us here today—and, indeed, those who are not here—have the very same issues, particularly that of men trying to hide their incomes. For instance, before a couple separates, money could be moved out of bank accounts and properties could be shoved sideways into the ownership of parents, brothers, sisters or new partners. Does the DWP have the power to investigate such cases in a thorough, almost forensic way? That is really what is needed.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes—with conviction, as always—but until an application is made to the CMS, it has no jurisdiction to investigate finances. It is important that applications are put in place so that that sort of action can move forward.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Does that mean that there is going to be a review of the system and that it will lead to such action? If it does, that is a giant step forward.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

That is a point on which the redoubtable Baroness will need to come back to the hon. Gentleman. I will write to him on that point.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way one further time?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman is very persuasive. I will allow him one last intervention, because he is a good man, but then I think we better move on.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I thank you as well, Ms Rees, because I would not be able to intervene without your say-so.

I also made a point about the evidential base. The ex-wife has great knowledge of where the money is. I referred to her knowing “where the dead bodies are buried”. She knows everything. Discussions with the wife are really important. Can that also be part of the process that the Baroness is considering?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

I will ensure that the Baroness hears these views. We have all had cases as parliamentarians that have shown us that there are real challenges. We want to lean into this and tackle the challenges appropriately. I have a couple of concluding remarks, which I hope will give Members some confidence.

We have talked about dividends and unearned income. This addresses the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, to some extent. Including that income will reduce the scope for parents to organise their financial affairs in such a way as to reduce their financial liability for their children, which is the situation that we need to stop. Parents need to honour their responsibilities. I also recognise the current cost of living pressures as a result of rising prices around the world and the impact of the Ukrainian war. We will strive to introduce this change as soon as possible.

On enforcement, between January 2020 and December 2021 we arranged a total of 14,300 deduction orders, which represents about 33% of non-paying collect and pay parents. We also referred 15,000 parents to enforcement agents, which represents about 35% of non-paying collect and pay parents. These enforcement actions are taken before sanctions are considered.

During the same period, where further action was needed the CMS initiated almost 6,000 sanction actions against non-paying parents, which represents about 13% of non-paying collect and pay parents. That led to 249 prison sentences—244 suspended of them and five immediate.

We are always looking for new, innovative and effective ways to encourage paying parents to provide the financial support that their children need. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has set out, we are aiming to introduce curfew powers before the end of the year—I understand the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw—and changes to the measures on unearned income after that, which will increase the range of enforcement measures available. Having listened to today’s contributions, I think that those changes will meet with the approval of the hon. Members in attendance.

I thank hon. Members for their participation in this important debate and I hope they will join me in agreeing that the CMS provides an important service. We will continue to keep under review options with regard to CMS policy and operational reforms. Hon. Members can be assured that we will strive to continue addressing the needs of separated parents and producing better outcomes for children—it is a clear priority.

DWP Estate: Office Closures

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Thursday 17th March 2022

(2 years 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.

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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

We are not removing the back office; we are modernising it. Of course we want to ensure that we deliver, at the front end, for people in the channels that need it. It is interesting and important that many people who have disabilities or health conditions and who are staff members can now be empowered to do their work, because they do not have to travel because of digital capabilities. There are some exciting possibilities there, notwithstanding the fact that, on the frontline, we need to ensure that we are providing support for all customers in the way they need it.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the impact of job losses, the Minister has clearly said that, in his opinion, there will be no impact on the offices and the delivery of the service, but I suggest that there is always an impact when jobs are lost. People who live in rural constituencies who have to travel by bus or do not have a car can be sanctioned if they do not attend their appointments. Can he assure the House that the benefit entitlements of constituents of MPs present, and not present, will not be affected by the changes in the offices?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

I assure the House that this does not have an impact on the front end—on the activities that we do to support our claimants and our customers. It is also important to reconfirm that we are not reducing staff numbers; the focus is on retaining as many people as possible. We have great staff and we want to retain them. In many cases, people will relocate to another site in close proximity.

Social Security and Pensions

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Monday 7th February 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

We are following the policy that Governments have followed for many years, by increasing in line with CPI over a year to September 2021. On the point he makes, I will come on in more detail to explain the smoothing effect, which he is well aware of, given his experience in the House. We will come to that point and see what he has to say at the end.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We are well aware that over the weekend the chief executive of Tesco was on the TV, and has been in the papers today, saying that the price of food will increase by another 5%. We are in incredibly difficult times that we have not been in before, at least not that I can remember in my lifetime. Given that and what the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) is referring to, can consideration be given in this legislation to these abnormal price increases?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will have seen the Chancellor set out last week a three-part plan to deal with rising energy prices. Of course the Government are watching the situation, but, as we will discuss, there is more than just the uprating legislation being put in place to help people through these challenging times.

DWP Risk Review Team

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Wednesday 26th January 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

I understand the point that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee makes, but the key thing is that claimants need to prove eligibility. We want to help them to prove eligibility for a benefit. The challenge, and the reason these cases take time, is often that claimants are not able or willing to provide that evidence. I will come on to that later.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I think the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) hinted at this, and I did in my intervention: there are occasions when people do not understand the process, and need a wee bit of help. I think the hon. Lady asked about that. Is there an opportunity to make extra officials available to pursue those necessary evidential bases when claimants may themselves not understand what has been asked for?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

The hon. Member makes a good point. We stand ready to help and assist. One of the points made by the hon. Member for Edmonton was that, in some of the cases that she highlighted, there are challenges around the ability to speak English. Of course, interpreters are made available. In the Chamber today, we have three of the most well-recognised campaigners in the House, along with others who have not spoken yet. Hon. Members should bring cases about which they have concerns to my attention directly, with the usual information that they think is appropriate and that needs to be processed. If there are any outstanding concerns, I will take a personal interest in them and move cases forward. The issue is that often—I will talk about the statistics in due course—the information is not provided, and of course we cannot provide benefits without that evidence, because of all of the fraudulent cases we have spoken about. I will carry on with my speech, which I hope will answer more questions. We will take a close look at each and every one of those 29 cases if that information can be provided—I give hon. Members that undertaking.

First, I need to emphasise that the overwhelming majority of claims for universal credit are legitimate. We know that most people are not trying to defraud the Department. The hon. Member for Edmonton raised—I would not say “a couple”—a lot of pertinent issues via parliamentary questions. That was one of the reasons why we were delayed in providing full answers to all her questions: we wanted to make sure that they matched up with the parliamentary questions. In the letter that I sent her, I apologised for that. As I say, it was mainly because we wanted to ensure that we had all the right information in response to all the questions. I hope that underlines the approach that we want to take, which is all based on due process.

However, I take this opportunity to stress, as I already have, that we are trying to get the balance right between getting money to those who need it and tackling those who are actively seeking to commit fraud. I will follow up on those individual cases in due course once the information is provided. Benefit claims should be verified and paid as quickly as possible, which is why we always make it clear to claimants exactly what information they need to provide. We do that via the claimant’s universal credit journal, and the messages also let the claimant know exactly how they can contact the Department and speak to the staff members responsible for their case. That is an important dimension; in our casework, we can do better at highlighting that to constituents. I also take the feedback that maybe we can do a better job at communicating that to MPs and their offices—a point well made.

Where there is a problem in providing information, we always encourage the individual to get in touch, so that we can discuss and resolve the matter as quickly as possible. As the hon. Member for Edmonton would expect, when we suspend a claim, we do not do it lightly. Suspension is always a last resort, for the reasons that the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), has highlighted. Suspension is based on an initial assessment that a person would not be entitled to the benefit that they have claimed—an assessment that is based on intelligence and not on the specific characteristics of claimants, such as nationality. I know that that was a concern of the hon. Member for Edmonton, but I can confirm that a person’s nationality is not a factor in determining whether a claim is referred to the risk review team.

In fact, because nationality is not a factor in that assessment process, an equality impact assessment is not needed. However, as part of the initial universal credit claim process—not the risk element, but the claims process itself—we do request information regarding a person’s nationality. That is necessary to assess the eligibility and entitlement of a claimant at the start of their claim, but it is not used as part of the risk review process.

We take good care to ensure that we understand a person’s personal circumstances, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted, and any potential vulnerability before we suspend. That means that we can engage with individuals in the right way. We have processes in place such that any contact from a claimant will be dealt with by a dedicated team. That type of one-to-one conversation with a member of staff allows the claimant to discuss the claim in detail and means that the member of staff can provide the necessary support to help to ensure that individuals can give us the documentation we need.

Once the risk review team has its information and the decision has been made that there is an entitlement to benefit, we will of course lift the suspension immediately and pay any arrears due. However, we receive no contact from the majority of suspected fraud cases—approximately 65% of those that we suspend. That is a remarkable figure: 65% of people do not get in touch with us after a suspension notice.

If a claim is suspended, we are unable to make alternative payments. However, claimants are still able to get help from work coaches to find them work. We have a record more than 1.2 million job vacancies and our work coaches are supporting thousands of people into work. There is also continued support for the most vulnerable children, regardless of a parent’s universal credit suspension. Children in receipt of free school meals will continue to receive that support. There is also the free childcare provision for three and four-year-olds and disadvantaged two-year-olds, where eligible. An individual may also be entitled to claim child benefit, assuming they meet the qualification conditions.

More broadly, local authorities have responsibility for local welfare provision. Recognising that some households will require additional help this winter, we have provided £500 million to provide support with essential household costs such as heating and food bills. That is delivered through the household support fund in England. Other help may be available via healthy start payments and the holiday activities fund. Staff in local jobcentres will be able to help to direct those in need. I should also make it clear that, while in law there is no right of appeal against the decision to suspend payment of a benefit, a claimant does have the right to appeal any outcome decision where the Department has determined that there is no entitlement.

Hon. Members will appreciate that I cannot say too much about how the risk review team works in this area of activity. As I said, it is a constant challenge to stay ahead of fraudsters and we cannot provide any clues to those looking to evade our systems. However, while a focus on disruption is a primary tactic of the team, their activity does not stop at that point. The risk review team will also gather intelligence that can be used as the basis for a formal criminal investigation, should it be warranted. It is worth noting that although the number of suspicious claims processed by the risk review team is significant, it is believed that the numbers of people responsible for those claims are actually relatively small. Our focus is on pursuing those behind the attacks in intelligence-led investigations, which is the most effective use of our resources.

Last month I went on a raid with fraud colleagues as part of a joint crackdown on fraud with West Midlands police. The raid was part of Operation Goliath, a joint national operation with police nationwide that aims to combat fraud. Numerous arrests were made and we believe that we stopped an organised crime gang alleged to be stealing from the benefits purse. Thousands of false claims, based on thousands of hijacked identities, had netted the gang approximately £4 million already—a huge amount of money, and a figure that would have likely been far higher had we not been able to intervene at the pace that we did and had the approach taken by the risk review team not been in place.

As I have said, fraudsters are constantly thinking of new ways to attack us and to evade and circumvent our systems and safeguards. Some of the frauds are so engrained and deep-set that, remarkably, even after the arrest of major criminals, we are still being contacted by individuals pursuing claims linked to those investigations. It is extraordinary.

We are continuing to build and grow our capabilities, including investing to save. At the end of last year, we had announced a total investment of £630 million, which is a huge amount of money, over the next three years, to support the Department in this challenge and enable us to drive down fraud and recover debt. The money also enables further recruitment into our counter-fraud, compliance and debt so that we can continue to respond quickly and effectively to threats. It includes the funding of around 2,000 trained specialists to stop and identify scammers. I wish that we did not have to recruit those people, but we have a challenge, which is why we have to take those steps.

I hope that hon. Members agree that we must have a co-ordinated response to the attacks on the benefits system, and take action on as many fronts as possible to drive criminals out of it. These criminals will not let up and neither will we, on which note I commend the work of the risk review team, which is clearly playing a major part in helping to stop fraud getting a foothold.

At the same time, I reiterate the point that I made earlier: I know that it can be difficult, and that there are challenges for the people involved, but we always want to work with genuine claimants. In getting the balance right, I again extend the offer to hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Edmonton, who has been a doughty champion for her constituents, that if they write to us on those cases we will take them up and follow them through. I hope that she will do so, and that I have given her some satisfaction on the questions that she asked. Clearly, we will follow up on the outstanding parliamentary questions that she highlighted in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Cost of Living

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Tuesday 25th January 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

There are more vacancies available, and we are encouraging people to take them up across the country, in Scotland as well. The scheme has seen real success in turning people’s lives around. There are further opportunities in the months ahead for people to get involved with that important programme.

It does not stop there, because we want to ensure that we help address some of the gaps in the workforce that were highlighted yesterday: in hospitality, health and social care, and technology. Sector-based work academies help people to get new skills and a guaranteed job interview at the end of their placement.

I also recognise, along with many others here, the immense value that older workers bring to the workforce. That is why the DWP is providing specific funding for that cohort. There is funding available for the over-50s to get tailored Jobcentre Plus support, to help them find work and build on skills to get into the workforce.

In addition, to support those jobseekers who are out of work for 12 months or more, our Restart scheme provides intensive support to help claimants in England and Wales find jobs in their local area, which I am sure will be welcomed across the Chamber today. Through regular contact with all participants, providers will develop a strong understanding of the individual’s employment history, skills, aspirations and support needs to help each one succeed. That will break down the employment barriers holding claimants back from finding work.

I remind hon. Members that the DWP is focused on helping people to increase their income by progressing in work. We often talk about the importance of getting people into work, but we are equally committed to helping people progress in work and move ahead with their career aspirations. We will shortly respond to Baroness McGregor-Smith’s report on in-work progression and set out our approach. I hope that will be welcomed by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), who was concerned about that issue.

Universal credit incentivises work as part of its design. With that in mind, we have gone further to make work pay, as has been referred to, by cutting universal credit taper rates from 63% to 55%, and increasing universal credit work allowances by £500 a year. That is essentially a tax cut for the lowest paid in society, worth around £2.2 billion in 2022-23. That means that 1.9 million households will keep, on average, around an extra £1,000 a year. In addition, from April 2022, we will boost the national living wage by 6.6% to £9.50, which is ahead of inflation and worth another £1,000 each year to workers on the lowest pay.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

A number of Members have asked for confirmation that the national insurance contributions planned for April will be deferred, adjusted or done away with. I know the Minister cannot answer that question, because it is not his responsibility, but can he take it to the Chancellor for his consideration? That would be an excellent step in the right direction to help those who are under financial pressure.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Hansard - -

The hon. Gentleman makes his point with characteristic commitment and compassion. We on the Treasury Bench note that and will make sure that it gets through. The particular levy he talks about is to tackle the impact of the pandemic on the NHS and to face a challenge that has not been faced adequately across many decades—to tackle social care—but the points he makes have been noted.

Coming back to the national living wage, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) made some points about how we can move forward. Let me reassure her that the Low Pay Commission forecasts that the national living wage will reach £10 next year. That is consistent with the target for the national living wage to reach two thirds of median earnings by 2024. We will not stop at the 6.6% increase.

Underpayment of Benefits: Compensation

Debate between David Rutley and Jim Shannon
Thursday 13th January 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

More needs to be done to make those processes simpler. Again, this specific area is not part of my portfolio or brief, but we have made significant progress in getting disabled people into work, and we want to move that forward with the disability strategy and a clear action plan. I know that my colleague the Minister for Disabled People will actively drive that forward across the nations, and will work very closely on that with the Scottish Government as well.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister for his replies. There is no doubt that the inaccuracy of benefit payments will have a detrimental impact on individuals and their families throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Many of those 118,000 people are vulnerable and face the injustice of arrears. Those moneys belong to those people. Will the Minister confirm a timescale in which those affected are likely to receive their compensation? How many of the people to whom unpaid money is due are from Northern Ireland? What amount of money is due for Northern Ireland? I would appreciate an answer today, but if the Minister does not have the figures, I am very happy to wait for a written response.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley
- Parliament Live - Hansard - -

The exercise to pay the arrears to the 118,000 people is complete. As of 1 June 2021, we have reviewed 600,000 cases. The 118,000 arrears payments were made to those who were eligible, and a total of £613 million has been paid. I will follow up on the hon. Gentleman’s other points.