This Week in Parliament 26th - 30th January
Works and Pensions Questions
Even by my usual standards it was an incredibly busy week in Parliament. On Tuesday I hosted the launch of a major report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Motor Neurone Disease, which I chair, in the Speaker’s State Apartments with 50 other MPs represented. The following day I was then able to ask the Prime Minister if he would meet with representatives from the Motor Neurone Disease Association to discuss the report's implications.
I was also able to lead a Backbench Business Debate in the House of Commons on what the Government was doing to restore opencast coal sites, including Parc Slip. There were a number of other debates on different topics, including the Infrastructure Bill, as well as a large debate in Westminster Hall I sadly could not attend on employment in Wales.
There were questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his ministerial team on Monday afternoon. Labour accused the Government of missing their own targets for the rollout of the flagship universal credit system, to which the Secretary of State responded by criticising Labour’s past record and saying the Government would meet its newer targets.
Rachel Reeves (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions): In 2011, the Secretary of State said that, by April 2014, 1 million people would be receiving universal credit. With delays and write-offs, that date has been and gone, so will he answer the question that my honourable Friend the Member for West Lancashire asked, but which was not answered, and give a guarantee to the House that he will meet his latest target of just 100,000 people receiving universal credit by May 2015?
Iain Duncan Smith (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions): I say to the honourable Lady that we intend to, and I repeat the answer I gave earlier. I know she wants to dance around on these things, but she has to say whether she genuinely supports universal credit or whether she plans to get rid of it, as that seems to be becoming Labour Party policy.
Rachel Reeves (Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions: We have been consistent: we support universal credit, but not throwing good money after bad, and we will go ahead with it only if the National Audit Office signs it off and says it will save more money than it costs, which is far from clear at the moment.
Last week’s figures show that the glacial pace continues, with still only 26,940 people receiving universal credit. At this rate of progress, it will take 1,571 years before it is fully rolled out. The Secretary of State protests that it would be riskier to go faster, but he has only himself to blame for the undeliverable targets he set and the unrealistic claims he made for this flagship policy. Is not the truth that, having failed to deliver the one policy that could have helped make work pay over this Parliament, all he is left with is a toxic legacy of rising child benefit and reliance on food banks and a ballooning benefits bill for people in work—a record of Tory welfare waste that, if I were him, I would rather run from than run on?
Iain Duncan Smith (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions): I bet that looked good on a piece of paper when she wrote it. Honestly, here we go again Let me just remind the honourable Lady what her party left behind. It left a welfare budget that had “ballooned”—her word—by 60%. On tax credits alone, in the six years before the election, her Government spent £175 billion. They ballooned their welfare spending; unemployment rose; the economy crashed; people found themselves out of work—and her Government were to blame for all that. We have reformed welfare, and let me remind the honourable Lady that, at the end of this Parliament, we will have saved £50 billion from the bills Labour left us; housing benefit has come down; the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants has fallen; and before she writes a script again, she might like to test it for accuracy. They—the Labour Party—have failed.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer and his opposite number began their exchange with a note of consensus to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. New funds will be made available to the Holocaust Educational Trust, with cross-party support. There was then a rather less consensual debate over the recent GDP figures.
Ed Balls (Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer): First, on a note of consensus, today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Following our conversation last night concerning today’s report by the cross-party Holocaust Commission, on which I am proud to serve, will the Chancellor confirm the cross-party agreement to fund the Commission’s recommendations, alongside ongoing funding, for the rest of the decade, for the vital work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, to ensure we have a new and permanent memorial and that future generations never forget that terrible atrocity? Turning to today’s GDP figures, is the Chancellor, like me, concerned that economic growth is slowing? With just 100 days until the election, will working people be better off than when he became Chancellor, or will they be worse off?
George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer): First, this being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we should remember the inhumanity and the suffering of those who died and those who live with the memories of the Holocaust, and we should vow as a nation to keep their memory alive. The right honourable Gentleman and Members from other political parties served on the Holocaust Commission, the chairman of which, Mick Davis, briefed the Cabinet today on its proposals for a permanent memorial and an education learning centre. I made it clear in the Cabinet meeting that the Government would provide £50 million to support this brilliant plan, and of course we will continue to fund the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which takes Members and many school children to Auschwitz to see for themselves the horror that happened there. Across the House, we can come together to commemorate this day and ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten and that we never repeat its mistakes.
I hope you, Mr Speaker, will allow me a slight change of tone for a couple of seconds. The GDP numbers, which the Shadow Chancellor complains about, show that Britain’s was the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2014. He kept telling me to listen to the IMF—well, the head of that organisation said that few countries were driving growth like America and the UK. Growth is improving, the deficit has been reduced and unemployment is falling, and the President of the United States says we must be doing something right. When the Shadow Chancellor complained about the Prime Minister’s going for dinner at the White House, he said, “I haven’t been neglected. They invited me in and gave me coffee and biscuits.” That is all the endorsement he is going to get for his economic plan anywhere in the world.
Ed Balls (Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer): It is good we have cross-party agreement fully to fund the Holocaust Commission’s report. If things really were fine and if the economy really were fixed, people would be better off, but instead they are worse off, and the Chancellor would have balanced the books, as he promised, but he has not—he has completely failed to do it. It is because of that failure on the deficit that he is now planning spending cuts in the next Parliament that the IFS calls “colossal” and that the Office for Budget Responsibility says will take us back to levels in our economy not seen since the 1930s—before the NHS existed. Every developed country with spending as low as he is aiming for has widespread charges for health care. Is that not the real Tory economic plan?
George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer): We have a free-at-the-point-of-use National Health Service, which we are proud of and will continue to fund. What is clear is the total confusion in Labour’s health policy today. This morning the Labour Leader said he was going to use his so-called mansion tax to pay down the deficit; six days ago the Shadow Chancellor said that money would be used to pay for his NHS plan. It is total confusion today. The only way to have a strong National Health Service is to have a strong economy. Let me end on this note. We read in the last couple of days that the Shadow Chancellor has been side-lined from the general election: “In a major humiliation, party bosses have quietly shunted” him “out of the media spotlight”. Let me reach across the Dispatch Box and offer the hand of friendship. Let us resolve that we are both going to put him at the centre of this general election campaign.
|Prime Minister's Questions
The NHS was again the focus of Prime Minister’s Questions today, as both leaders accused the other of being less trustworthy and traded various figures and quotes attacking the other. I was then able to ask the Prime Minister whether he would read the report produced by the All-Party Group. He confirmed that he would and that he would ensure a meeting took place.
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): Before the last election, the Prime Minister said that he would have a “bare-knuckle fight” to save 29 accident and emergency and maternity units, and he published a list. Can he assure the House that in line with his promise all those services have been protected?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): I am glad that the right honourable Gentleman has mentioned the NHS, because before we go any further he needs to clear something up. He has now been asked nine times whether he made the disgraceful remarks about weaponising the NHS. Everyone in the House and, I suspect, everyone in the country knows that he made those remarks, so he should get up to the Dispatch Box and apologise for that appalling remark, and then we can take this debate forward.
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): The only person who should be apologising is the Prime Minister who has broken all his promises on the National Health Service. He did not give us an answer: he toured the country, standing outside hospitals and promising that services would remain open. Let me tell him about a few of those services. The A and E at Queen Mary’s hospital in Sidcup is now closed. The maternity unit in Ilford is closed. The A and E unit in Welwyn is closed. Why did he break his promises?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): It is very simple: one of the most respected political journalists in Britain, Nick Robinson, the political editor of the BBC, said—and I shall quote it however long it takes—“A phrase the Labour leader uses in private is that he wants to—and I quote—‘weaponise’ the NHS for politics.” That is one of the most respected journalists in our country. Will the right honourable Gentleman now get to the Dispatch Box and apologise for that appalling remark?
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): This is a ridiculous smokescreen from a Prime Minister running from his record on the NHS. The answer—because this is Prime Minister’s questions—is that all those units have closed. Let me give him another one. He stood outside the A and E unit at Chase Farm, with the local MP, saying, “Hands off our hospital. No to cuts, no to closure.” Is the A and E at Chase Farm open or closed?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): I will tell the right honourable Gentleman my record on the NHS—9,000 more doctors, 6,000 more nurses, hospital-acquired infections right down, investment in our health service up. People rightly want to know what his motives are when it comes to the NHS. If his motives are that he cares about this great national institution, that is fine, but he told the political editor of the BBC that he wanted to weaponise the NHS. I ask him again: get up there and withdraw.
Ed Miliband (Leader of the Opposition): I will tell the right honourable Gentleman what my motive is: it is to rescue the National Health Service from this Tory Government. Frankly, this is a man who has got a war on Wales and is using the Welsh NHS to make political propaganda. We know the Prime Minister is in a hole on the NHS and this is all he can offer the British people. It is time we had some answers from him. He has broken his promises on waiting times in A and E.
Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour): Yesterday, Mr Speaker graciously allowed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Motor Neurone Disease to use his State Apartments for the launch of its report, which demonstrates that people with motor neurone disease are having grave problems accessing the funding available for communication support in England. Some 30% of people with motor neurone disease will die within a year, and 95% will lose their voice. Will the Prime Minister meet the Motor Neurone Disease Association to sort out why these delays are happening in NHS England? Will he agree to fund communication support so that the association can provide it quickly and effectively while the NHS gets its act in order, so that no one dies without being able to communicate their last thoughts to their loved ones?
David Cameron (Prime Minister): First, let me commend the honourable Lady and others across the House for the work they do on motor neurone disease. Anyone who has known someone who has suffered from that disease—as I have—realises that it is a most appalling, debilitating condition, which is very difficult for families to cope with. I will certainly look at the report the honourable Lady has produced and make sure that the proper meetings are held with the Department of Health, so we do everything we can to support these people and allow them, as she says, to communicate with their families up until the last moment.
I was able to ask the Leader of the House for a Commons debate on a recent report published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention, which I chair.
Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour): Last week the All-Party Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention Group published a report that showed that one third of local authorities in England did not have a suicide prevention plan; they did not have the funds for such a plan and had not produced one. Last year, 4,500 people took their lives in England. May we have a debate on the importance of local authorities meeting their responsibilities and preparing and publishing plans to prevent unnecessary deaths in England?
William Hague (Leader of the House of Commons): This is an important report on an important subject. What the honourable Lady has said in the House today will help to draw the attention of local authorities to the matter, and I add to that. It is a wholly legitimate and important subject for debate, and exactly the sort of debate that can be held through the work of the Backbench Business Committee, so I encourage the honourable Lady to take that forward.
|Financial Support for Opencast Coal Sites
I successfully applied to the Backbench Business Committee for the right to hold a debate in the House of Commons Chamber for two hours on the restoration of opencast coal sites, and what the Government could do to ensure that sites such as Parc Slip near Bridgend are given the funding that they need to be properly restored and made beneficial for the community.
Madeleine Moon (Bridgend, Labour): We have a national problem. There are currently 34 open-cast mines across the UK—17 in Scotland, nine in south Wales and eight in England. There are also an unknown number of unrestored and orphaned sites, where developers have declared bankruptcy and disappeared. The fate of all those sites is of great importance. The Coal Industry Act 1994, passed under the Major Government, privatised the remains of British Coal and gave the then Department of Trade and Industry powers to ensure full continuity from the coal corporation to private companies.
In 1995 the then Minister for Industry and Energy, when pressed by my honourable Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East on the issue of Coal Authority responsibility, replied: “I assure him that those matters are being dealt with. The Coal Industry Act 1994 gives the Department of Trade and Industry powers to ensure full continuity from British Coal to the successor companies, which have the same rights and obligations as British Coal. Planning consent and the enforcement of planning conditions remain matters for the planning authorities. With regard to…concern about the ability to meet obligations for opencast sites, the Department checked carefully the financial status of the successor companies as part of the bid process.”
More recently, in March 2011, my honourable Friend the Member for Aberavon asked what assessment had been made of “the effectiveness of land remediation following the closure of open-cast mining operations”. He received the following reply from the then planning Minister, the honourable Member for Bromley and Chislehurst: “This Department has not carried out an assessment of this type but we would expect mineral planning authorities in England, when granting planning permission for open-cast mining, to set site aftercare and restoration conditions…to secure the high standard of restoration of the land concerned.”
Those are mixed messages about the responsibility for restoration. Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Will Watson, chief executive of Celtic Energy. That company took over 13 south Wales sites in 1994. Nine have completed coaling and been restored, two are working, one pit is subject to a planning application and one, Parc Slip Margam, is a highly controversial site located in my constituency and that of my honourable Friend the Member for Ogmore. When Celtic Energy took over Parc Slip, also known as Margam, it did not provide a restoration bond. According to Will Watson, that was due to the Government’s decision in 1994 to take a larger cash receipt for the sale to the company in return for a 10-year bond-free period.
Will Watson says that “had escrow funds been put away for Parc Slip at today’s level of around £10m per year for the years 1994 to 2004, then that fund would now stand at around £155m (assuming it was invested to simply cover inflation).” I would be very confident if we had £155 million to restore that site. Mr Watson also said that “the Government in 1994 had £100 million in their restoration fund, (worth around £178 million today) that could have been made available for restoration.”
In his opinion, it seems reasonable to ask the UK Government to contribute to a solution at Margam and potentially at East Pit. If Mr Watson is correct, the Government took money that would otherwise have gone to restoration. There was a significant benefit to the Treasury in 1994. Where did that money go? How do we get it back?
My local residents argue: “The Coal Authority, the government’s agent which sold the leases and licences was empowered to impose obligations on the private companies to ensure restoration and it failed to do so.” Can the Minister confirm whether this was the case and why no obligations were imposed? Can he confirm the existence of a British Coal lump sum for this site? Where was it held and when was it imposed? What happened to it and how much was it worth?
The problems affect everybody living close to the mines. Peoples’ lives have been blighted by ideologically driven legislative failures. As a Parliament, we have to give people a plan of action and a sense of hope that we are taking responsibility and tackling this problem, and we need a grown-up Government who will co-operate with devolved Governments. Gwenda Thomas, the Assembly Member for Neath, has issued a statement, which I fully concur with, as I am sure my honourable Friend the Member for Ogmore does, calling on Celtic Energy to take decisive action to demonstrate its commitment to restoration. Celtic used to have a reputation in our area as a model of responsible mining. It needs to stand up and rebuild the respect our communities had before it ripped the profits from the valley, endangered local people and walked away.
The Treasury has profited. Businesses have profited. Somebody has to hold up their hand and take the moral, social, political, financial and ethical responsibility. Nothing will change unless politicians do that. We must accept responsibility. We cannot let the private companies get out of this with a responsibility-free zone. Inadequate legislation failed; inadequate regulation failed; the mining industry has failed. We have passed the parcel of responsibility for too long. Let us stop the music, and make the changes our communities need, expect and deserve.
Westminster Hall Debate on Welsh Employment
There was a large debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday morning, which I had hoped to attend but was unable to due to my commitments to the All-Party Group, on the broad subject of employment in Wales and what could be done to help further stimulate the Welsh economy.
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