In the Commons
Today following the disgraceful behaviour of the Tory Government in dragging their feet over the publication of data of people on benefits, who were declared fit for work, and subsequently died - Labour MPs including Gordon raised urgent questions about this in the House of Commons.
Below is the opening statement from Labour's Debbie Abrahams and then also Gordon's question to the Government Minister Priti Patel.
Debbie Abrahams: (Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister to make a statement on his commitment of 24 June to publish Department for Work and Pensions data on the number of people in receipt of employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit who have died since November 2011, including those found fit for work.
The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): The Government intend to publish mortality statistics, but before doing so the statistics need to meet the high standards expected of official statistics. Once we have completed that important work, we will publish them.
Debbie Abrahams: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
I am disappointed that the Prime Minister is not here in person to explain why he has not yet honoured his commitment of 24 June to publish the data. On 30 April, the Information Commissioner ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions should publish data on the number of people in receipt of employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit who have died since November 2011, including those who had been found fit for work.
The Government have since appealed the decision, stating in their appeal that the publication would be “contrary to the public interest” and that the publication of mortality statistics is “emotive”. To date, more than 240,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Government to publish the data.
As the House will be aware, on 24 June the Prime Minister was asked, at Prime Minister’s questions, by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) about the publication of the data. He said: “let me reassure the hon. Lady that the data will be published; they are being prepared for publication as we speak. I think that it is important that we publish data, and this Government have published more data about public spending than any previous Government.”
I have since raised this issue in two points of order, at a Westminster Hall debate on 30 June, by writing directly to the Prime Minister and by tabling a named day written question to him, which his office decided to transfer to the Department for Work and Pensions and to which I received a non-answer yesterday from the Minister for Employment.
I have some specific questions. First, when will we see the data published, including on those who have been found fit for work, given the Prime Minister’s comment of nearly four weeks ago? When are they being prepared for publication? Secondly, will the Minister commit to publishing the actual numbers of deaths, as well as the DWP’s proposed age standardised mortality rates, as they did in 2012 when the actual number of deaths was published?
Thirdly, will the Minister inform the House how much the Secretary of State’s Department has spent on staff and legal fees in the decision to refuse the initial freedom of information request and now to contest the Information Commissioner’s ruling? Fourthly, will the Secretary of State reconsider his decision not to publish the details on any of his Department’s 49 peer reviews into social security claimants who died, including, most importantly, changes his Department has brought forward as a result of them?
Finally, what assessment has been undertaken on the potential impact on the health status of those on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance, given the measures introduced in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill?
Just four weeks ago, the Prime Minister promised urgent action. Now is the time to deliver—to be open, transparent and publish the numbers the public and Parliament are calling for. Without that, this House is brought into disrepute.
Gordon Marsden: DWP Ministers tried to sit on information from internally generated data which suggested that one in five deaths of benefit claimants had been linked to sanctions. Perhaps we can be forgiven our scepticism about the Minister’s definition of autumn: after all, this Government publish their autumn statements in December.
More important, what steps will the Minister take to look into cases that have led from morbidity to mortality? In my constituency, the failure of Atos to pay home visits to severely ill people on some occasions has caused real health problems. A constituent of mine had motor neurone disease, but failed the assessment for employment and support allowance.
Priti Patel: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Atos. We, of course, terminated that contract. It was part of the Labour legacy that we were there to clear up. As for the data, they will be published, and they will be published before the autumn.
Today following the disgraceful behaviour of the Tory Government in dragging their feet over the publication of data of people on benefits, who were declared fit for work, and subsequently died -...
Gordon: Is it not clear that the Government have lost the plot for bus users outside London? Their own latest statistics show that journeys there were down by 11 million and fares up by 3.6% last year.
Two thousand bus routes countrywide have been lost through cuts since 2010. London, with franchise powers to set routes and fares, has rising bus use.
Why are this Government blocking them for communities elsewhere in England—unless they have an elected mayor, which many do not want, forced on them? Is this not sham rather than real localism?
Andrew Jones (Bus Minister): Bus fares in Greater London have, in fact, been rising faster than those in non-metropolitan areas.
As for the issue of franchising and local mayors, it is all about local control and decision accountability.
A range of proposals will be published later in the year with the buses Bill.
Gordon: Is it not clear that the Government have lost the plot for bus users outside London? Their own latest statistics show that journeys there were down by 11 million...
Gordon: Why has the Prime Minister promised local people the final say on onshore wind farms but denies local people in Blackpool and Lancashire the final say over local fracking applications?
Why are there double standards on renewable energy and fracking?
The Prime Minister (David Cameron): The hon. Gentleman is making a slightly odd comparison.
We have taken away the unnecessary subsidy for onshore wind, given that it is now a mature technology, and we have a sensible planning system so that unconventional gas can go ahead under very strict environmental conditions.
I will tell him what I want for Blackpool. I want Blackpool to be the centre of expertise and excellence for this industry. I want the jobs, the apprenticeships and the training rather than to see things stuck, which is what he wants.
Gordon: Why has the Prime Minister promised local people the final say on onshore wind farms but denies local people in Blackpool and Lancashire the final say over local fracking applications?...
Gordon: What assessment she has made of the adequacy of current arrangements for key stage 4 students to access business and work experience?
The Secretary of State for Education (Nicky Morgan): Ensuring that young people leave school or college prepared for life in modern Britain is a vital part of our plan for education. We have put more emphasis on mastering vital skills and on more respected qualifications, and we have given employers greater influence over the content of courses, so that young people have the skills that universities and employers value. One reason I am delighted to continue as Secretary of State is that I can continue to make progress with the new employer-led careers and enterprise company, which will help young people access the best advice and inspiration by encouraging greater collaboration between schools, colleges and employers.
Gordon: That sounds all fine and dandy, but the Government’s dropping of mandatory work experience from the school curriculum has not helped the small businesses I speak to in Blackpool, which want to take young people on. Nationally, the British Chambers of Commerce found that three quarters of employers were worried about a lack of work readiness. Will the Secretary of State make a fresh start and bring forward substantial initiatives to improve work experience, thereby making apprenticeships more accessible to 16 to 19-year-olds?
Nicky Morgan: I am afraid I will not be changing course. We are focusing on high quality and meaningful work experience post-16. The blanket requirement to provide work experience at key stage 4 and under had fewer and fewer employers willing to accommodate young people. They were worried about health and safety, red tape introduced under the previous Government and, exactly as the hon. Gentleman says, being without the work readiness skills that this Government are focusing on to ensure our young people are ready for life in the world of work.
Gordon: What assessment she has made of the adequacy of current arrangements for key stage 4 students to access business and work experience? The Secretary of State for Education (Nicky...
Gordon: The Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), I congratulate him on his appointment said at a transport event last night that his door would always be open.
I invite the Minister and her new colleague to start with disabled people’s access to buses, because the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the Transport Committee have all said that the Government’s exemption of bus companies from mandatory driver training is not working?
The Government have ducked and dived on this: a review was first promised for 2014, then more evidence this January confirmed the disquiet, and this week I received a written answer telling me that there will be a research project a review of the review of the review. Will she use the open door that her colleague spoke about to stop the buck being passed for disabled people on buses?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): All our ministerial doors are always open to all colleagues. I invite the hon. Gentleman to focus on the fact that almost 100% of drivers have now received some form of disability awareness training.
We think that the future lies in providing public sector data, so that people can use an app themselves to make their specific journey. The cost of providing this across the UK can be prohibitive, but we will have 100% accessibility on all buses by the end of next year.
Gordon: The Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), I congratulate him on his appointment said at a transport event...
I heartily congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your re-election today. I am delighted to make this contribution thanks to my electors in Blackpool South, who returned me as their MP with an increased majority for the fifth successive time. It is a huge privilege to be a Member of Parliament for a town that is loved by millions of visitors every year, and that has played a huge part in the social, leisure and cultural life of this country for well over 100 years. It has stamped its mark on Britain as firmly as the lettering that goes through Blackpool rock.
Blackpool has many hard-working small businesses and enterprises. But, like many other seaside towns, it is a town that continues to face great challenges in housing, low part-time pay, significant pockets of deprivation, health, education and a highly transient population. Bread-and-butter questions are what matter to the people of Blackpool: how do we ensure that devolution delivers and fuels growth properly; and how does it strengthen our town’s social cohesion?
I warmly congratulate the Secretary of State on his new post. I do so not out of convention but because of the respect that I hold for him personally. He has already shown in discussions about Blackpool an empathy for our needs in terms of our local enterprise partnership and the local growth programmes. The challenge is to recognise that, for structures that work with the grain of local need, it is a question not just of expanding economic growth in the region but rebalancing it. We need strategies that do not exacerbate divisions within and between regions. Where the best laid plans or structures are based is important, as is the way in which change is delivered. The coalition Government did us no favours with the big-bang abolition of regional development agencies and the setting up of a regional development fund, which has had little local input. As shadow regional growth Minister, with my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and his predecessor, the former Member for Southampton, Itchen, I saw that at first hand.
Some degree of humility is needed from the new Government over conduits for further change. Rhetoric about a so-called northern powerhouse can seem very thin in a town such as Blackpool where we have endured funding cuts of nearly 40% over the past four years. This Government must tell us how their devolution plans will deliver not just for big cities but for the smaller towns and the seaside and coastal towns. I am talking here about towns such as Blackpool, Bradford, Swindon and Stevenage. This is not just a north-south issue.
As someone who grew up in and around Manchester, I yield to no one in admiration for what has been done there through enlightened local government and business. But the Chancellor has been insisting that powers—even lesser powers—can be delivered only if a directly elected mayor is accepted. That is despite the fact that some of those areas have previously elected not to have such a role.
The Chancellor seems to be adopting the approach of Henry Ford, who, when asked about his cars said, “You can have any colour you want as long as it’s black.” Perhaps he is beginning to recognise that plurality is important, because I saw a picture in the Financial Times ofhim in Derby talking about a poster that said that the midlands was the business engine of Britain. It reminds me of the old story about the American politician who praised a city—let us say St Louis—and then said, “Why do I say this?” only to receive the reply, “Because you are in St Louis.”
We know that the RDAs delivered £4.50 of long-term benefits for every £1 spent. The LEPs were intended to work with the new structures, but LEP members are entitled —we all are—to know what their future will be if their remit is not dovetailed properly with local authorities or elected mayors.
As a Blackpool MP and a shadow transport Minister, I know that there are potentially many areas for greater collaboration. Transport is one such area. It is essential that there is legitimate democratic oversight of spending. Some time ago, I wrote in a Smith Institute pamphlet that the art of localism is getting the balance right between the maximum amount of democratic accountability and the maximum amount of entrepreneurship. People’s aspirations in the 21st century are more complex than they were in the past, so local needs must be addressed by local communities. Devolution will only produce good growth if the interests of communities are supported. Spending on and investment in sustainable housing is an issue that this Government need to address.
Those are the challenges on which the Chancellor needs to be held to account. If we are to have sustainable growth, this Government will not be forgiven if they simply devolve money to cities.
I heartily congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your re-election today. I am delighted to make this contribution thanks to my electors in Blackpool South, who returned me as their...