Boundary Commissions Bill
As amended, considered; reported, with amendments.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.I am extremely pleased that this legislation has made its way to this stage in the parliamentary process comparatively quietly. It is a tribute to our parliamentary democracy that it has aroused relatively little controversy, and that only a small number of right hon. and hon. Members voted against its Second Reading. The majority of right hon. and hon. Members are committed to our system of single-member constituencies as a fair way of producing a representative assembly to support the Government of the country. If we defend that system—as the majority of us do—it is important regularly to revise the numbers in each constituency to take account of demographic change, and to ensure as far as practicable rough equality between constituencies. Our system is well trusted and impartial. The boundary commission process is fairly lengthy, and allows for considerable debate and local public consultation. It is necessary that the commissioners undertake a thorough review at rather more frequent intervals these days, because the population moves about so much across the country. A problem exists because we have reached the stage where one person's vote is worth almost twice that of another person in England alone, because constituencies have drifted apart in size. Previous boundary commission reviews were probably too infrequent—as long apart as every 15 years—for today's demographic changes. It is therefore necessary to ensure that we keep to a sensible timetable. The present review should be completed by 31 December 1994, and thereafter we will move to an eight to 12-year cycle. Although about 40 hon. Members were prepared to vote against the Bill on Second Reading, Members on both Front Benches were in agreement. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for welcoming the Bill. He said that it was important to put it on the statute book to ensure that the review is completed within a reasonable time, so that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House can contest at the next general election constituencies which have had time to settle down, and in which loyalties have become established. I am sure that all the party organisations will want to know the boundaries a reasonable time before the next election, so that they can establish the various bodies and candidates.
I voted against the Bill on Second Reading. Derbyshire is in the first tranche of counties to be examined in an investigation relating to the parallel question of the local government boundaries. The three north Derbyshire seats—Bolsover, Chesterfield and Derbyshire, North-East—all conform to the normal electoral pattern, with between 65,000 and 68,000 electors. May we have a guarantee that, irrespective of what happens in regard to the local government boundary commission and anything that may happen to Derbyshire, the parliamentary boundary commission will not interfere with constituencies of that kind, which were revised in 1983? Any changes in constituencies that fitted the bill perfectly in 1983, and have not altered dramatically since then, would constitute an act of political involvement and an attempt to rig the position for the Tory party.
One of the great strengths of the system is the fact that the Home Secretary of the day cannot direct the boundary commissioners to reach any conclusions about any constituencies. The rules in schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 determine the way in which the commissioners proceed, but ultimately their independent, objective judgment will decide where the boundaries lie, in Derbyshire and elsewhere. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), has made his point about the Derbyshire constituencies. As it happens, I represent a constituency with little more than 70,000 voters, which is coterminous with the borough council. No doubt, if any proposals are made to change his constituency, the hon. Gentleman will do the same as I would, and argue his case before the boundary commissioners and at the public inquiry.I have no reason to believe that the local government boundary commission, which has not even reached Derbyshire yet—Derbyshire is merely at an early point in its timetable—has any views about local government boundaries in the county, and I certainly do not believe that the parliamentary boundary commissioners will alter constituencies needlessly. Changes should arise only when it is necessary to make constituencies conform as closely as possible to the national quota, and to ensure that there are no major discrepancies between neighbouring constituencies. The key point is that I cannot influence boundaries in Derbyshire or anywhere else; nor should I be able to do so. The boundary commissioners must be independent, and I think that it is generally accepted on both sides of the House that they are.
Why are the two reviews not to be kept entirely separate, so that one review cannot possibly have an impact on the other? The Department of the Environment's guidance notes about the local government review state that the parliamentary boundary commission must be one of the bodies that engage in consultation. If it engages in consultation in connection with one review, it must also do so in connection with the other, and the two reviews will become intimately linked as a result.That will affect Derbyshire, which is in the first tranche of counties to be dealt with in the local government review but not in the first tranche to be dealt with in the parliamentary review. The connection should be kept out of the picture, because it is open to manipulation under the terms of reference set out for the commissioners.
The two processes are essentially separate, except in one respect. The parliamentary boundary commissioners have always been enjoined to have regard to local government boundaries when making their recommendations, and as far as I am aware that has never been seriously challenged. The parliamentary boundary commissioners—particularly in shire counties of the kind that we are discussing—do not cross county boundaries except under carefully prescribed rules.All of us who have spoken so far have constituencies in the east midlands. I do not recall anyone seriously suggesting the creation of constituencies that cross the boundaries between Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. When the Local Government Commission has been set up—it is not my responsibility but that of the Secretary of State for the Environment—it will seek the best organisation of local government, will consider the possibility of unitary authorities and will clearly have regard to local loyalties and the effective delivery of local services. It will impinge on the parliamentary boundary commissioners only if it starts altering county boundaries. Although parliamentary boundary commissioners are not enjoined to do so, in our experience they have tended to try to get the constituencies to coincide with the local borough or district boundaries where that is convenient. My constituency in Nottinghamshire is the only one where it is not convenient. Other than that, I am not aware of any overlap between the two. The Bill covers the overlap only because, if the parliamentary boundary commissioners were enjoined to avoid crossing local authority boundaries, the problem would arise of which local boundaries they should have regard to, when we are in the process of local government reform in Wales and England and, under a slightly later timetable, no doubt in Scotland. Clause 3 clarifies the position by providing a cut-off date—before that date local authority boundaries will be taken into account, and after that date, usually they will not. We have tried to maintain reasonable bipartisanship and have tried to make the Bill straightforward, so as to clarify the timetable. In so doing, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), and I have listened carefully to some of the arguments about the drafting of clause 3, and have amended it in response to the points made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling). I think that everyone is now happy with it. In our previous debate, there were many exchanges about Mr. Banham and the local government boundary commission. Strictly speaking, they are irrelevant to the Bill. We are dealing with the parliamentary boundary commission, and local government reorganisation is relevant only where local government boundaries have been changed and have a bearing on the parliamentary work as described in clause 3.
May I raise the question of Scotland with the right hon. and learned Gentleman? Of course the Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible for the local government boundary commission and the boundary commission for Scotland. I am disappointed, to say the least, that a member of the Scottish ministerial team is not present. At the moment, a local government boundary commission is operating in Scotland, drawing up new boundaries for the existing local government structure, but in September we shall have a White Paper on the total reorganisation of local government in Scotland.In Committee, the Minister of State implied that there was a fair chance that the 1994 regional elections would be cancelled, so that local boundary commission is operating ' to no good purpose although the boundary commission may take into account any recommendations that it makes about boundaries for local government seats.
The hon. Gentleman is trying to draw me on issues which he knows perfectly well should be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Whether my right hon. Friend is about to publish a White Paper on further local government reform, when he will do so and what it might contain are matters on which I cannot be drawn and of which my knowledge is very slight. Ministers from the Scottish Office have at times been present during our debates, usually listening to English exchanges, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of my hon. and right hon. Friends in the Scottish Office. The position in Scotland is the same as that in England. The parliamentary boundary commissioners will have regard to any changes in local government boundaries which come into effect by the cut-off date described in clause 3.One particular problem with local boundaries caused much debate in Committee. There was considerable concern about London boroughs and whether the parliamentary boundary commissioners should be enjoined to cross them. A perceived difficulty arose out of rule 4(1)(a)(ii) in schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986:
A number of hon. Members. including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), my right hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Dame A. Rumbold) and the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), were concerned that, if the boundary commissioners adhered rigidly to borough boundaries in London and allocated seats between boroughs on the principles sketched out, we were likely to have new constituency boundaries in London which would give rise to great discrepancies in size between one constituency and another. Other hon. Members also thought that, in London, it would make more sense to cross borough boundaries in some circumstances to achieve constituencies of a more equal size. The case was made cogently in Committee. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, when he wound up, undertook that we would look at the matter. I assure the House that my hon. Friend and I have given considerable personal attention to the question whether the rule in schedule 2 should be deleted from the Bill. We have decided that it should not be, although we had considerable sympathy with the case put to us. One can draw up good examples of neighbouring London boroughs in which a strict adherence to borough boundaries will give rise to considerable discrepancies in size. However, I point out to those who raised the point and who wonder why the Bill is unamended on that point on Third Reading that it is our considered opinion that rule 5 in schedule 2 gives the boundary commission sufficient flexibility to behave in the way that is being urged on it by hon. Members if it judges it fit. I have read out the strict terms of rule 4(1)(a)(ii) in schedule 2, which appears to give rise to difficulty about not crossing London borough boundaries. However, the rule is qualified clearly by rule 5 of schedule 2. Rule 5 makes it clear that"no London borough or any part of a London borough shall be included in a constituency which includes the whole or part of any other London borough".
We are satisfied that the boundary commission, which will have regard to that rule, can, if it judges fit, use that rule to justify crossing borough boundaries, which it declined to do when it adjusted the London boundaries on the previous occasion. Rule 5 gives two bases on which it is perfectly proper for the boundary commission to depart from a strict adherence to the boundaries. The first basis is when it is necessary or desirable to avoid a disparity between the electorate of a constituency and the national quota. That is less likely to arise in the London area. More importantly and relevantly in parts of London, borough boundaries may be crossed if it is desirable to avoid an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and that of neighbouring constituencies. I am sure that the boundary commissioners will have regard to what was said in debates in the House. They have all the powers that they require. As I said to the hon. Member for Bolsover a moment ago, it is extremely important that, in the end, the boundary commissioners themselves must decide whether it is desirable to cross borough boundaries. I have no doubt that they will do so if they judge it necessary to get a fair and proper result in London. The Bill in its present form, which I ask the House to give a Third reading, is essentially similar to the Bill that was introduced earlier. I described it then as a straightforward measure which would make no change to the rules for the boundary commission's operations and which would confirm the timetable to which most hon. Members expected the boundary commission to adhere in any event. I said that it would help to ensure that the timetable was achieved by making arrangements for some modest extra resources to be provided and for the commissioners to be paid for their public work. We all hope that the commission will finish its work in good time to enable us to fight the next general election, whenever it comes, on sensible boundaries for which everyone is prepared. I do not know whether there will be a repeat today on Third Reading of the modest vote against the Bill that occurred on Second Reading. I continue to fail to see why anyone should sensibly want to repeat that vote. When the Bill was first published, some Labour Members denounced it as gerrymandering. However, it seemed at the time, and it has become clear since, that they did that without studying the process upon which we were going to engage. The only reason to vote against Third Reading would be to try to ensure some delay in boundary changes, with the result that the next election would be fought on geographical distributions that are more than 20 years old. I hope that no one will again try to take the high moral ground and argue that it is desirable to fight an election on population distributions of 1976. The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook encountered some criticism. Mutterings in the corridors have reached my ears about the fact that the Opposition did not divide on Second Reading against this Bill, which the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook quite rightly recognised to be a sensible measure. If there is a Division against Third Reading, that can occur only because someone has decided to vote against the Bill for the sake of it. However., for the benefit of our parliamentary democracy, I trust that there will be an uncontroversial, straightforward end to our proceedings."a Boundary Commission may depart from the strict application of rule 4 if it appears to them that a departure is desirable to avoid an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and the electoral quota, or between the electorate of any constituency and that of neighbouring constituencies in the part of the United Kingdom with which they are concerned."
I was one of those who advocated for voting against Second Reading, and I did so. I want to make it abundantly clear that I did so because the Government introduced the Bill without any consultation with other political parties. They introduced it in a spirit of partisanship, and they have substantively changed the law in respect of Scotland. Although the schedule to the Act that the Secretary of State cited makes it clear that the boundary commission in Scotland is required to have regard to local government boundaries, as a result of the Government's gerrymandering objectives, the boundary commission for Scotland will not be able to follow current local government boundaries. Those were very good reasons for voting against Second Reading.
I am glad that we have heard that last-minute explanation of what the vote was supposed to be about. However, I am not convinced by it.As I have already explained, the Bill does not change the rules. The Scottish boundary commission will follow current Scottish local government boundaries unless new ones have come into effect by the cut-off date. Having listened to the Second Reading debate and the Committee stage, which was taken on the Floor of the House, I have yet to hear any substantive objections to the terms of the Bill from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I believe that the underlying point is accepted by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland advocated a quite different method of electing Parliaments. He believes in proportional representation. He does not support the single-constituency method of electing Parliaments. If I were to attribute to him the kind of unworthy motives that he somewhat lightheartedly attributes to us, I could say that it was in his interests to reduce the single-constituency method to the ridiculous and to have people represented in thoroughly disproportionate constituencies to provide him with an extra argument for moving to another method. However, those of us who believe in the single-constituency method know that it has always required periodic, objective review to ensure that the constituencies remain roughly of the same size. That is what the Bill does, and I commend it to the House.
I get the impression that the Secretary of State would like a vote at the end of the debate. The fact that the Bill's principle at any rate is not controversial seems to be a matter of regret for the Secretary of State. It does not suit his temperament to have to introduce a measure or see its progress completed when its principle at least is not a matter of major controversy.The principle that we need a review is beyond question. The present boundaries are drawn up on electorates that may have been correct 20 years ago, and there is no doubt that the population has moved since then. However, we are entitled and quite right to raise questions that arise from the Bill and, in particular, to refer to the interrelationship between local government boundary structure and local government boundary reviews and the work of the parliamentary boundary commission. Those two issues are related. The impartiality of the boundary commission is not in question. However, we are entitled to question the rules and regulations which the House, and in particular the Government, lay down. The parliamentary boundary commission is rather like a train. If one lays the tracks to lead to an eventual destination, one can hardly be surprised if the train eventually arrives there. The same principle applies to boundaries. In the main, the local authorities are the building blocks for the parliamentary boundary commission. Therefore, in directing or attempting to influence the boundary commission, it is important for the Government to ensure that the local authority structure and the building blocks are as they would like. For that reason, we raised several issues in Committee and divided the Committee on them. We were worried about the way in which the Government proposed to operate, particularly with regard to the local government review in England, Scotland and Wales. I am happy to vote against measures if the principle is at stake, but it is important to vote against the right measures and not the wrong ones. As I said, the principle of the Bill is that we need to review the boundaries because there have been population shifts. That is beyond doubt. So we do not object to the principle. However, while I accept that the 1976 electorate is no basis on which to conduct a general election in 1995 or 1996, I reiterate the point that we made in Committee. There is great anxiety that the 1991 registers in England and Wales and the 1992 registers in Scotland are inaccurate. There are grounds for suspecting that in some cases the registers are grossly inaccurate. In England alone, it is expected that more than 1.5 million people are not on the register. I repeat that it is important that the boundary commission should have regard to established under-registration. If it does not, the recommendations that it makes in 1994 will be based on electorates that are inaccurate. We shall have exactly the same problem in 1994 and subsequent years that we readily accept that we have now—constituencies are based on electorates that have changed since they were originally drawn up. As the Home Secretary said, anxiety was expressed on Second Reading about the wide scope of clause 3, which allows the parliamentary boundary commissions to take account of local government boundaries and structure. We tabled amendments on that point, and I am glad that the Government accepted the spirit of them. We in turn did not oppose the amendment which made it clear that the parliamentary boundary commissions could have regard only to boundaries that were enshrined in an Act or other measure. That amendment ensured that the commission could be sure that Parliament had approved the boundary changes. However, in Wales there is a curious arrangement whereby the parliamentary boundary commission is entitled to consider boundaries approved only on Second Reading. In other words, changes could take place in Committee or on Report. That is not inconceivable in matters of local government structure. Changes could be introduced by all-party agreement. Conservative Back Benchers might press changes on the Government. It would be unfortunate if the Welsh parliamentary boundary commission introduced proposals based on boundaries proposed on Second Reading which might change. It would be regrettable if we allowed that to happen. In any event, it is a bad precedent to invite bodies which are not part of the structures of the House of Commons to have regard to a preliminary discussion. Second Reading debates are merely preliminary discussions. It would be far better to require the boundary commission to have regard to something which is on the statute book. Notwithstanding the changes made to clause 3, problems may arise. The Home Secretary said that it was a matter of clarification, yet in London we still do not know the scale of the changes that the Government have in mind. The Local Government Act 1992 makes it clear that the review body must consider the boundaries of local government in London. Of course, the structures and boundaries that will eventually be decided by the local government boundary commission are interrelated. If the Government asked the local government boundary commission as early as this year to examine the structure of local government in London, they must be contemplating changes which may not be major but could be significant to parliamentary boundaries. I note that a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham North-West (Mr. Banks) in column 368 of yesterday's Hansard gave the impression that the Government contemplate such changes. It is now common ground between the parties that the boundary commission should cross London borough boundaries where necessary. Where small local authority constituencies coincide with parliamentary constituencies such as that of Surbiton, which has an electorate of 42,000, it is clearly right for the commission to exercise its discretion. I accept that this is not the Bill in which to change the rules in the 1986 Act—the consolidating Act. I had hoped that the Secretary of State might say something about the Government's intentions as regards those rules. Again, it is common ground that the rules are in need of revision. The Home Secretary has said that the boundary commission will have discretion, within the existing rules, to consider boundaries in London. If we accept that the rules need changing, it seems odd that we do not simply change them and remove that preliminary injunction from the boundary commission. The problems will remain in England, where there is a creeping system of review and change. By the qualifying date of 1 June 1994, it is likely that the first tranche of changes in England will have been discussed and will be on the statute book. When we consider the apparently haphazard selection in the first tranche to be reviewed by Sir John Banham's commission, it is no surprise to find included several counties which are sensitive as regards parliamentary boundaries. We shall be interested to find out whether the Government seek to influence the Banham inquiry—either through the representations made, or in any other way—and thus indirectly the parliamentary boundary commission, to make certain recommendations about boundary changes. If I am wrong and that is not the intention of clause 3, I wait with interest to discover the real intention. It seems clear that the Government hope to use the opportunity to influence the boundary commission, which has to depend on the local authority building blocks to do its work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) said, the position is different in Scotland. A commission is set up to consider appropriate parts of England and to hear representations about what people want. In Scotland, there is no similar provision—the Government will decide what is best. They will certainly consult, but having consulted—if the way that they have behaved in Scotland in the past 12 years is anything to go by—they will decide what is best. I suspect that they will decide what is best for Government and for the Conservative cause. The Home Secretary fairly said that he did not know what was going on in Scotland and could not let us know what the Secretary of State for Scotland had in mind, but we have some clues. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), has been touring Scotland, encouraging any district, parish or group to make proposals. From what we know about the Under-Secretary of State, his approach to politics and the way in which he has conducted himself, it is clear that he is trying to create Tory enclaves wherever he can. The Tories face an uphill battle in Scotland to make any recovery. They will lose no opportunity to make that recovery, and overlook nothing in their cause. I am sure that the Scottish Office intends to use the review of local authority structure to try to create units of local government that can conveniently be presented to the parliamentary boundary commission as units which ought to be taken into consideration during the review of constituencies. In Scotland, local authority boundaries are also the building blocks on which the parliamentary boundary commission will have to rely. For example, if the local authority review suggests single-tier authorities, which are small enough to be constituencies in Scotland, it will invite the parliamentary boundary commission to have regard to those. While the impartiality of the Scottish boundary commission is beyond reproach, one cannot say the same of the Government's review of local authority structure in Scotland, which is entirely partial. Nothing that we have seen from the Government leaves us in any doubt that the Conservative party in Scotland will take the opportunity to influence the parliamentary boundary commission if it has a chance to do so.
The hon. Gentleman keeps saying that the building blocks of parliamentary constituencies are local authorities. That is not the case, except in so far as the envelope is concerned within which the number of constituencies is calculated—for example, the counties in England and the regions of Scotland. At a lower level, the building blocks are wards and not local authorities. It is conceivable that, as is the case throughout England, Scottish parliamentary constituencies might have wards drawn from one, two, three or even more local authorities.
That happens quite often in England, particularly in urban areas, but in Scotland the constituencies have traditionally been more neatly contained within the regions because of our geography.The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) is right to say that the wards are the building blocks. At the moment, the parliamentary constituency of East Lothian corresponds with East Lothian district council, which is convenient for all concerned. However, if the Government suggested a local authority block of Berwick and East Lothian, it is not inconceivable that the boundary commission for Scotland might think that that would be a convenient parliamentary constituency. Lest there be any doubt, I am confident that the Labour party would hold that constituency as well, as it did so often when it existed previously. That example, however, gives a clue to the way in which the Government think that they can consider creating local authority units that would be convenient for the parliamentary commission to consider. Under clause 3, as amended, the parliamentary commission would be entitled to consider such new local authority structures, provided they are on the statute book by 1 June 1994. I know that the Secretary of State does not know the timetable for Scotland, but it is clear to those of us who represent seats north of the border that the Government could meet that deadline of 1 June. I am simply canvassing before the House the fact that the Conservative party may be tempted to try to create a local authority structure that would best suit its parliamentary boundary aspirations. I do not believe that that is the proper way in which to construct such a structure in Scotland. We should create local authorities that are designed to provide services and which will East for between 20 and 30 years, not simply a local authority structure designed to meet a need in two years' time, in June 1994.
The hon. Gentleman said that there was a coincidence between the local authority and constituency of East Lothian, but he asked what would happen if one had a local authority unit that consisted of that constituency and Berwick. The answer is that that local authority would be well above the quota for Scotland; and that therefore the parliamentary boundary commission would presumably have to subtract some of the wards from one end or other of that constituency to make up the numbers in another parliamentary constituency.The hon. Gentleman has constantly mentioned the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. Perhaps the most relevant example that I can cite is my hon. Friend's constituency of Eastwood, which consists of not only the district of Eastwood, but some of the wards from the district of Renfrew. That illustrates my precise point: that the building blocks are local authority wards, not local authorities.
I had forgotten that the hon. Gentleman has a close affection for the Under-Secretary—I believe that they went to the same university and that they share a similar philosophy.I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about Eastwood. I am not suggesting for a moment that the boundary commission will not use its discretion. However, the Government will not pass by this opportunity, particularly in Scotland, to create local authority units that the parliamentary boundary commission could consider if they were in place by 1 June 1994. I accept that subtractions and additions can be made, and it would be daft to suggest that the creation of such new authorities is the sole reason for the local authority review. Equally, people would be naive to believe that the Government are totally oblivious of the consequences of that review. We are all aware that, when parliamentary boundary commissioners conduct their inquiries and write their reports, they must have some regard for their likely consequence. Those people do not come from Mars, and it is not a matter of complete surprise when their proposals contain certain conclusions. It is important to repeat that, when considering the local authority structure in Scotland, England and Wales, the primary job of the Government is to establish councils to provide services efficiently and responsibly. Those local authority structures should remain in place for between 20 and 30 years, and should not simply be designed for an entirely different purpose. We are, by amending the 1986 Act, asking the commission to do a great deal, and I hope that it will bear in mind the need for local inquiries to enable people to have the maximum opportunity to consider the commission's recommendations. Although the Government want the commission to have regard to the boundaries in place by June 1994, the commission should bear in mind the need to produce a coherent report that will stand up to examination. The Secretary of State referred to the need to change the 1986 Act and, in particular, to examine the rules. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) made the valid point that, if the Government intend to change the parent Act governing the legislation on parliamentary boundaries, there should be cross-party discussions, involving all the parties in the House. I had hoped that the Secretary of State would give that commitment today. If changes are to be made, they must be above party politics and be seen to be fair and widely accepted. It is not good enough for a Government simply to drive through changes that they think may be beneficial to themselves. I hope that, at some point, the Secretary of State will say that, if there are to be further changes, discussions will take place among the parties in the House. My hon. Friends and I do not oppose the principle of the Bill, and we shall watch with interest to see how the practice works. On that basis, we shall not oppose its Third Reading.
I welcome the fact that the Bill has reached its Third Reading so smoothly, and I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) say that the Labour party would not oppose its principle.I do not know whether he can take along with him the representative of the Liberal party, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), who said on Second Reading—which was, after all, the vote of principle—that he had to vote against the Bill. I see that he is not noticeably supported today by the swelling ranks on the Bench alongside him. We look forward to hearing from him shortly the present position of the Liberal party on the issue. I welcome the Bill. I have no personal axe to grind because, so far as I am aware, it is likely that my constituency will remain largely unmoved by the boundary commission's proposals. I can therefore speak with some independence in welcoming the exercise as a whole. We should at the outset welcome, as has been repeated across the Chamber, the independence of the boundary commission. That should be stressed so that the general public may be assured that what is being proposed is independent and not partisan or party-orientated.
Was my hon. Friend present at earlier stages of the Bill when the hon. Members for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), in a disgraceful attack on the integrity of the parliamentary boundary commission, called it corrupt? That view has now been repudiated from the Opposition Front Bench, which presumably accounts for the absence, in disgrace, of those two hon. Members today.
We have certainly noticed the absence from the Chamber of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). One can hardly fail to notice his absence, since one notices so much his presence, especially when he is participating. I note my hon. Friends remarks and agree that the repudiation to which he refers represents a welcome change.The whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the parliamentary democratic system is fair, and it can be fair only if the allocation of seats to votes is, roughly speaking, fairly consistent across the country. I hope that, in due course, it will be across the United Kingdom as a whole, with no difference between the different parts of it. Perhaps one day we shall even find a solution to the Isle of Wight, although perhaps the population of that island will provide the solution. The size of a constituency and the number of votes needed to elect a Member of Parliament are of paramount importance and should constantly be corrected. That is why the Bill is important. It was suggested that we might consider the way in which some Members represent more constituents than others. I recall the hon. Member for Newham, North-West suggesting that, while he had fewer constituents to represent, he had more work to do because they were from an inner city. I, too, represent an inner city, with at least 50 per cent. more electors to represent than he. If there is to be disparity, perhaps it should be in favour of the Member who represents more electors, with one's pay or expenses reflecting that fact. It is impossible to obtain absolute parity of representation. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central mentioned the question of registration. We need to be very careful about bringing that question into this debate at all. There are many reasons for people not being registered. In the case of Hackney, which is constantly being cited, it is quite clear that past registration irregularities were being corrected by the electoral officer. He went back to the system of registering only people who had filled in a form and applied to be registered, instead of taking it for granted that people who had not applied for years should automatically be re-registered. Quite clearly that is a question of registration, which should not be taken into account in this process.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we may talk about more than one principle? The principle of equal electoral districts is very important, as is the principle that everybody who can be placed on an electoral register should be so placed. When those two principles come into conflict, we have a problem.
Everybody who is entitled to register should be enabled to do so. If anyone chooses not to do so it is not for us to question or enforce.My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) talked about the number of foreign residents—in the case of his constituency, refugees—who are represented by Members of Parliament. That too is a dangerous road to go down. At present, many refugees from Somalia are coming into my constituency. There are also many Italian and French residents in the constituency, and I often wish that they could vote, as I have no doubt that they would swell Conservative support in Battersea. Although they cannot vote, I represent them as best I can. In any case, registration should not be a matter for this measure. The Bill is urgent, as the process should be completed in good time for the next general election. That is not because of any changes that may arise. In some parts of the country, there may be increased representation for the Labour party, and in others increased representation for the Conservatives. It is important that the process be completed well before the beginning of the next election campaign, so that candidates may know what areas they are seeking to represent. It is only fair to individual Members. From experience, we know that, because of the disappearance of a seat, members of the same party will have to compete against each other. That will apply to both Labour and Conservative candidates for selection. Losers should have time to look elsewhere.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather bizarre that, whereas it was four days before the last election that the Leader of the Opposition realised that he was going to lose, Opposition Members are starting to make excuses four and a half years in advance of losing the next election?
I find nothing bizarre about the Opposition, but my hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I have no doubt will be borne out when the next election takes place on the basis of the new constituencies.It is important that the changes be put in place as quickly as possible. This is a rolling programme. As we go from one election to the next, we are going from one boundary commission to the next. The next commission exercise will deal with the boundaries of the European constituencies. We must get the building blocks of the parliamentary constituency boundaries right. I want to make two brief points about London. First, I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will make sure that the edges of constituencies take open spaces into account. I realise that this has probably more to do with local government boundaries than with parliamentary boundaries, but there is a relationship. For instance, Clapham common is a finger of Lambeth that comes into my constituency. There have recently been national music days there—great celebrations at which I was pleased to be present. However, we have sometimes had events like the Sunsplash concert, which was not as welcome to my constituents, who had no say in the affair through their local or national representatives. It is important that open spaces on the boundaries of constituencies are carefully considered. I take on board the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and the Opposition spokesman about crossing London's boundaries. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will look again and again at that because we are concerned about getting it right. We must be able to cross London borough boundaries in this exercise. He rightly pointed out that clause 5 provides for discretion in the event of disparity but said that, last time, that discretion was not used. The disparity may have grown, in which case I hope that the boundary commission will have noticed that and will use the discretion this time. My right hon. and learned Friend said that he hoped that the boundary commission would read our proceeding avidly and take that matter on board. I have slightly less confidence in its reading matter, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will draw to its attention the fact that the House wants them not only to note that possibility but to use it in London, so that we have as fair a system in London as in the rest of the country. With that proviso, I welcome the Bill's Third Reading, and look forward to the measure being on the statute book soon.
No one can oppose the principle that we should have equal electoral districts. In Committee, I pointed out that it was one of the chartists' principles and the Secretary of State said that, in that sense, we were all chartists now, because we wanted equal electoral districts.However, simply because a Bill is attached to a principle, it cannot be allowed to waft through. A Bill is not a principle but a detail of the measure that it seeks to pursue. This Bill has two manifest defects which should be corrected before we can advance the much needed principle of equal electoral districts. The first defect is that there is serious under-registration on the electoral register. It would not matter if it were spread throughout the country evenly, because the quotas would then simply be smaller than they should have been, and the seats would be drawn in much the same way. However, there is a serious maldistribution, which I described on Second reading and in Committee, which shows that the register is in a bad state. We should not use the current electoral register to work out quotas or determine boundaries in shire areas. If we cannot put the electoral register right, as would be desirable, we are dealing with another principle: the important operation of democracy. Everyone should be placed on an electoral register, and everyone should have a say in an election. If we cannot put that right because of logistical problems, timing, or a need to progress towards equal electoral districts, are there not other steps that we can take to achieve better representation and more equal districts? We have figures for the estimated population eligible to vote. Are not those figures adequate? They are based on the 1981 census and have been adjusted since then to take account of births and deaths——
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he will know that the Bill's scope is very narrow. He now seems to be dealing broadly with other basic issues that do not appertain to the Bill.
My argument is that we should not accept the Bill, because it is based on defective electoral registration provisions for determining quotas and drawing up boundaries. Surely, I should be allowed to explain the defects in the electoral register and how, even so, there may be a way out of the difficulties by accepting the relevant estimated population figures. It is a matter of whether those figures, the 1981 census and subsequent adjustments are good enough. It is possible that those figures are more accurate than the electoral register.There is a problem with the 1991 census, because, despite Government efforts to introduce legislation on census confidentiality, it is generally accepted that 1 million people are missing from the register. That is mainly due to the poll tax, which has had a serious impact on electoral registration. Such problems should be corrected. The manifest defect of the Bill is inadequacy of the electoral registration figures being used. There may be other figures that we could use to correct that defect.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is familiar with Plymouth, but, curiously enough, the number of names on the 1991 electoral register has been found to be between 10,000 to 15,000 less than that of the names on the community charge register. That statistic changes the argument again, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has considered that aspect in relation to the Bill.
Clearly, the 10,000 to 15,000 extra people on the poll tax register should be transferred to the electoral register and added to the figures under discussion. We need the full figures of electoral registration. I was on the Committee that dealt with the poll tax legislation, when Opposition Members tabled an amendment to do just that. The amendment would have automatically transferred those on the poll tax register to the electoral register, so the transfer was no longer merely a possibility.
Order. I must restrain the hon. Gentleman. On Third Reading, he must restrict himself to the Bill's contents.
The Bill's second manifest defect is the interconnection between the local government boundary review and the parliamentary boundary review. The Bill affects a district such as Derbyshire, which is in the first tranche of local government boundary investigations. The timing of the new changes means that Derbyshire has wobbly boundaries; it does not have precise existing boundaries within which the parliamentary boundary commission may operate and determine the correct number of seats. The current quota of seats is 10.46, so there is a problem as to whether there should be 10 or 11 seats. If some of the points raised earlier are relevant, perhaps the district should have 11 seats.When a local government boundary review is being conducted while a parliamentary boundary review is also on the cards, districts are likely to be adjusted for parliamentary purposes, to develop local government structures, not merely to fit parliamentary boundaries into shire regions. I do not know of any former legislation that has passed through the House in which boundary reviews or parliamentary affairs have been allowed to interfere with local government boundary reviews. Department of the Environment guidelines state that among those who must be consulted by the local government boundary review are the parliamentary boundary commissioners. Those factors must be taken into account. The problem is not those who are carrying out the review or the commissioners' work but the imprecise nature of the parameters set down. We should act on existing local government boundary structures and fit the districts into them. The next review should take account of subsequent local government changes. Unless those factors are dealt with, and unless the Minister states on Third Reading that the defects will be corrected in another place, we have no alternative but to vote against the Bill. One of my proudest achievements in the House is to have drawn attention to the defects in the extension of the expatriate vote from five to 20 years, and my insistence on speaking and voting against the measure at every opportunity, despite the line taken by the Opposition Front Bench team.
I did, too.
Yes, my hon. Friend also did so.I intend to act in the same way today, as I believe that there is a fundamental problem in the democratic system. If we decide that the principle is enough and it does not matter about the detailed practicalities of implementation, I hope that, on 12 February, the Government will adopt the same attitude towards my Bill on electoral registration, as that cannot be challenged in principle.
The number of local authorities affecting my constituency means that it is 25th out of a list of 32 London local authorities in terms of the ratio of Members to electors, so I hope that I am not governed by self-interest. However, there are matters relating to my constituency that are worth sharing.Some 3 per cent. of the working population of this country work in my constituency. My 650 colleagues in the House are good enough to look after the other 97 per cent. of them, which creates a daytime population in my constituency of 20 times the national average. I make no complaint about that; the workers' employers must have access to me as their Member of Parliament on matters relating to employment, on the principle that there should be no taxation without representation. However, during a general election, when I shake the hand of someone in the street, I have a one in 25 chance of shaking the hand of someone with the right to vote for me. I agree with the comments made in Committee by inner-city Members about the elusiveness of inner-city electorates. When the last boundary commission sat in advance of the 1983 general election, I had an exchange with the individual appointed by the Home Office to conduct the inquiry in my constituency. I drew his attention to the small electorates in the highlands and islands of Scotland and agreed that that fact was understandable as those constituents were a long way from London and their electors were a long way from one another. I wondered whether there could be a corollary in inner London, with its enormous daytime population. The person appointed, who is now a judge, smiled and said that he understood my problem, but could do nothing about it. London is becoming an increasingly international city, and there is a steady increase in the number of foreigners living in the capital's centre. That means that the boundary commissioner can only make my problem worse: as the residential electorate falls, the commissioner has to expand the boundaries and, as a consequence, the daytime population becomes larger. I am not complaining about that, as we are all equal in the House, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) said, we all do our best to perform for our constituents what they ask of us. I agree with one argument advanced in Committee by hon. Members with inner-city seats, and I believe that we have a shared experience regardless of parties. In 1983, the electorate in my constituency produced the lowest poll in the country in percentage terms, which was something of an embarrassment. In 1987, I vowed that my constituency should not come 650th again; it rose to 642nd, and in the process overtook six seats near inner London and two seats in Northern Ireland. In 1992, we did better still: we advanced to 634th. One more London seat fell below us and the two Northern Ireland seats continued to be below us; but, interestingly, the eight further seats whose poll turned out to be lower than our own were inner-city seats in, for example, Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle. Clearly, there is a genuine problem in inner-city seats in terms of the elusiveness of the electorate. I do not know whether London is becoming more enthusiastic about voting and other parts of the country are becoming less, but I say that in response to the observation by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling).
As one of the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, may I ask whether the logic of his argument is that he would prefer that I voted in London against him or that I continued to vote in Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman is welcome to be my constituent. We in inner-city seats value every constituent we have and, in the interests of democracy, I am perfectly happy that he should choose where he votes. If he chooses to vote against me, I am happy for him to do so.As I say, I cannot share the willingness of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central to see London boundaries blurred in the boundary commissioners' report. I have described some of the problems that exist in inner-city seats. When I became the Member of Parliament for my seat, I had four police districts and four health authorities in my small constituency. I now have fewer police districts, but the same number of consultative committees. By definition, two local authorities are involved. Where we have made progress in the past 15 years in terms of rationalisation, I would not wish to see us slip back. The fact that health authorities now march with local government boundaries is a major plus in terms of dealing with business in inner-city seats.
My right hon. Friend is arguing from the particular to the general. In his area, there may be a coincidence between local authority and health authority boundaries, but that is not always the case.
I was not seeking for a moment to suggest that my experience is universal. I was simply remarking that, where it does occur, it is of major benefit to the Member of Parliament concerned.But the extraordinary mismatch between the boundaries of the Benefits and Contributions Agencies under the Department of Social Security and those of the constituency demonstrates the problems which exist for inner-city Members on top of the population issues that I have described. All I would say is that some of the problems which we in inner-city seats have to put up with are sufficiently bad for us to notice and seek to cope with, and I would not wish them to be made worse by the suggestion that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central was pursuing.
The right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) drew attention to a number of important points which show how, with the best will in the world, it is difficult to formulate a system of parliamentary seats which does not involve some distortion. But I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that the coincidence of boundaries for health authorities, local authorities and parliamentary constituencies is desirable wherever possible. The one complaint that I make against the Bill is that clause 3 will make that less, not more, likely, certainly in Scotland and probably in other parts of the United Kingdom.The sour note of disagreement with the Home Secretary which I felt it necessary to inject earlier in the debate is due to my belief that, since the British Government enjoy such extraordinary and almost unlimited power derived from the dominance of a political party in the House of Commons, there is no more important and sensitive constitutional question than how the parliamentary constituencies are defined. If there is any inequity in the definition, it can produce an imbalance in government, it can distort the will of the people and can vitiate democracy itself. It is for that reason that I do not believe that it is appropriate for a Government to bring forward a set of proposals which manifestly will change the structure of the parliamentary constituencies—that is their intention—without consultation with other political parties. The measure was adumbrated before the election, and, notwithstanding what the Home Secretary has said, many commentators—of such knowledge and objectivity as David Butler of Nuffield college—pointed out that changes of the kind contained in the Bill would, in so far as such matters can be predicted, give the Government party additional advantage at the next general election. That in itself is not a reason for not proceeding with the Bill, but it is a reason for consulting the other parties to ensure that what is being done enjoys broad cross-party support, for reasons of equity and because it is a convention of the constitution. This delicate constitution of ours, this unwritten constitution, if it is not to be besmirched in the eyes of the public, must see its conventions endure. The convention to which I refer was observed by one of the most distinguished Home Secretaries, Rab Butler, in 1956, the last time that a Government thought it right to alter the period during which the boundary commission would operate and draw up its proposals.
I take the hon. Gentleman back to his point that the changes would give an additional advantage to the Government party. It is a question not of an additional advantage, but of eliminating a disadvantage which exists at the moment because the boundaries are well out of date.Had the hon. Gentleman been present at a previous stage of the Bill—I know that he was for most of the time—he would have heard some figures to illustrate the amazing difference between the number of votes required to elect a Conservative Member of Parliament and a Labour Member of Parliament. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the situation affecting Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament but, if he reflects, he may think that it was wrong to say that the measure gave an additional advantage rather than correcting a disadvantage.
The hon. Gentleman's intervention is purely semantic. The Bill alters the number of seats which it is probable that the Conservative party will win at the next election. That can be presented as an additional advantage or the removal of a disadvantage. I accept the hon. Gentleman's intervention for what it was worth.I do not want to lose sight of the departure of this Home Secretary from the excellent precedent and convention followed by his distinguished predecessor in 1956. The entire 20th-century history of the operation of the boundary commission, right back to 1918, rests upon multi-party agreement. The initial modern process was established by a Speaker's Conference of all parties. The reality is that the Bill, whatever its merits—I believe that it has some merits—has been introduced for wholly partisan reasons. It is clear that, notwithstanding what the Prime Minister has said about having expected the Government to win the last election, most departmental heads were not so sure that they would win, and certainly were not sure what ministerial office they would occupy. The Home Secretary could not have put his hand on his heart before the election and told anyone that he expected to carry out his present job. It was quite clear that whoever carried the responsibilities that he carries would be charged, as a good Conservative, with ensuring that this change would come in as quickly as possible.
I was a great admirer of R. A. Butler and a follower of his, so I would not lightly depart from precedent. All the hon. Gentleman's indignation would be justified if this Bill were altering the rules upon which the boundary commissioners operate. It does not do so, and was deliberately drafted to avoid that. As I was pressed to agree by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) a moment ago, some all-party consultation and a serious attempt to reach a consensus would be required before we changed the rules under which the boundary commissioners operate. This Bill avoids that. It merely provides a timetable. It makes provision for slightly added resources by paying commissioners, and also makes clear provision for what to do as local government boundaries change, as we all know they are to change.Otherwise, it puts in place a timetable which the vast majority of hon. Members expected to see in any event. Most people expected that the next election would be fought on new electoral boundaries. If that brings the Conservatives advantage—nobody really knows that it will—it is because of demography taking people from the cities into the suburbs; it is for no other reason planned by the Government. Had we consulted, we would probably have put the timetable in doubt by wasting time while we did so. My understanding is that the hon. Gentleman would not object to the timetable we propose.
Order. I remind the Secretary of State about the length of interventions—not, I think, for the first time.
I suppose that I should be flattered to have provoked a speech of such length from the Home Secretary by way of an intervention: qui s'excuse s'accuse. He is wrong in saying that this Bill does not change the rules. It is perfectly clear that clause 3, which is the heart of the Bill, does change the rules in their effect. It is quite clear—as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) said—that, as a consequence of the Bill, boundaries drawn up by local government boundary commissioners may be in place. These cannot be followed in some parts of the country; in Wales and in Scotland, where the boundaries are out of date, because the Government are proceeding with the restructuring of local government.The purpose of the requirement in Scotland that the boundary commission shall have regard to local government boundaries, a requirement that is tampered with by this Bill, is to ensure as far as possible the coincidence of boundaries, for the sort of reasons to which the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South referred. The reality is that, if the boundary commission in Scotland follows the existing boundary commissions, its definition of parliamentary boundaries will be overtaken, possibly even within a year or 18 months, by the passage of another Bill by the House of Commons following the Government's stated intention to restructure local government. This will ensure that there is no coincidence of local government and parliamentary boundaries. I do not say that that does not present problems, for I certainly believe that the time has come for a restructuring of local government in Scotland. I also believe that we need an accelerated timetable for introducing the new parliamentary boundary commission recommendations. But it is not acceptable for this Parliament to be bounced into a particular solution, a particular timetable, on a particular issue of electoral law summoned out of many which might have been chosen to remove distortions within our system. What adds insult to injury is the suggestion that this is not a partisan act. The reality is patently clear.
I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and what is not patently clear to me is the point that he is seeking to make. According to this Bill, the parliamentary boundary commission in Scotland must take account of the local government boundaries in force in Scotland when it makes its report. It may not take into account any boundaries that may be changed after 1 June 1994. It is very probable, therefore, that the present boundaries will be the ones to which it will have to have regard. I am not clear whether the hon. Gentleman is complaining because it will have to have regard to present boundaries or because he thinks that it might have to have regard to other boundaries, if such boundaries are brought in and legislated for before 1 June 1994. I am puzzled, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can clear the matter up.
The Minister is in a position to follow this, because I alluded to the point at an earlier stage of the Bill, when I made the position entirely clear. He must also be well aware of what this Bill contains for Scotland, albeit that the Home Secretary appears ready to disallow collective responsibility for anything that happens north of the border.The reality is that, as the Minister says, the boundary commission will report just before the restructuring of local government in Scotland. The consequence is that we shall very probably fight the next general election on boundaries that are drawn with regard to local government boundaries which have become historical. That is a very simple point. I cannot understand why the Minister, who is a very intelligent man and follows these things closely, cannot understand it.
The hon. Gentleman, having been a Scottish Member for some time, may recall that, when the new boundaries came into effect in the 1974 general election, it was just after the boundaries had been introduced for the new local government units in Scotland. Therefore, for a very long time, from 1974 to 1983, they represented the historical pattern of local government. That is bound to happen unless there is the happy coincidence of local government reform and parliamentary reform, which has certainly not happened in my memory.
I am afraid that this is one of the troubles of operating without a proper written constitution which orders these matters so that they can be decided within broadly the same time frame and so that, where it is in the public interest to have coincidence of boundaries, that can be achieved. It is simply another argument to reinforce the more fundamental arguments in favour of a written constitution. But that certainly goes way beyond the ambit of this Bill, which is simply tinkering in a partisan fashion with something that ought to be handled in a completely different way.I accept that it is desirable that the boundary commissions should produce their reports before the next election, and that, in view of the consequences of frequent population changes—they seem to become more frequent—there should be reassessments more often than within the periods established in 1956. But it is remarkable that the Government have introduced a Bill which does so little; remarkable that they have not even alluded to the problems which the boundary commission mentioned in bringing forward its report last year. That report spoke of the real problems being the problem of getting people to participate in boundary commission reviews and the problem of consistency in bringing forward particular recommendations. I believe that, notwithstanding the bland assurances of the Home Secretary, this measure will be seen for what it is: partisan legislation which could have been presented to the House of Commons and perhaps have achieved all-party agreement if it had been approached in the historical fashion, but which will none the less become law and will no doubt achieve the purposes which the Home Secretary intends.
I do not wish to be uncharitable to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), but I really thought that his was a shabby speech. The aspersions cast on my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary were wholly and completely unjustified. As for the suggestion that the justification for having a written constitution could be the coincidence of parliamentary and local government boundary reviews, that argument defies all belief.I know of no instance of a country's written constitution in any way guaranteeing that boundaries will coincide to avoid difficulties between parliamentary and local government boundaries. That will depend on the local government boundaries and why they are being addressed. There will be many population changes over any given period, but most countries have a way of addressing problems and of sorting out boundaries, which may or may not coincide with parliamentary boundaries, or an equivalent redistribution system.
The hon. Gentleman used the word "shabby". I have been watching his conduct during this debate. Earlier, he engaged in a debate with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) which presupposed that the new constituency boundaries for Berwick-upon-Tweed and East Lothian would take account of local government changes. Later, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) engaged in a debate with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) which assumed that the new Scottish constituencies would not take account of local government changes. Given the hon. Gentleman's interest in the Bill, can he say whether the new constituency boundaries in Scotland will or will not take account of local government changes?
The hon. Gentleman misunderstood my earlier argument. I was not saying that local government boundaries would or would not coincide with parliamentary redistribution, but that precedents show that things can go one way or the other. That reinforces the argument of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that the various parliamentary boundary commissions must get on with the job, taking into account the boundaries as they now stand. If changes occur in the meantime, that may create inconsistencies.If the hon. Gentleman has been present for earlier debates, he would have heard me say that a procedure already exists for realigning constituency boundaries where minor anomalies exist. Only in the case of major anomalies are any problems likely to arise. I shall address that aspect later. If the hon. Gentleman will be a little patient—at least from one old St. Andrewan to another—he may learn something to his advantage. I hope so. An accelerating rate of population change is bound to create difficulties in devising equal electorates over a lengthy period. I regret that the opportunity was not taken to compress the time scale rather more. The 1983 general election was fought on new boundaries drawn up on the 1976 quota—which meant that, by the time we fought those constituencies, their electorates had long since changed. In my case, the quota in 1976 was about 67,000, but by the time the 1983 election took place, it had already increased to 77,000. The reverse is true in some declining inner-city areas. The last thing that we want is a parliamentary boundary commission examining every constituency boundary at every general election. We would never know where we were. However, there is a good case for compressing the time scale between the quota year and the introduction of new boundaries, so that the gap is minimised. Earlier, reference was made to London boroughs. I was not arguing for a change in the rules. I have always thought that it is for the commission to cross London boundaries if it so wishes. I was merely arguing that that is exactly what it ought to do, because the situation has sharply deteriorated since the last redistribution. The commission was just about able to get away with the 1983 redistribution—with the exception of Surbiton, which fell some way below the norm. Most of the other constituencies came near to meeting it. Since then, many hundreds of thousands of people have moved out of London boroughs to bordering counties. Because of the stair-step approach, that makes it more difficult to ensure that London constituencies properly represent the capital without crossing borough boundaries. The commission will probably have to follow the precedent that it set with the metropolitan districts, of grouping two boroughs together where necessary. I hope that it will go no further than that, because if more than two boroughs are grouped, it becomes increasingly difficult to draw adequate boundaries within a reasonable envelope. The parliamentary boundary commission rightly worked according to practice and custom as well as according to the rules. It sought to minimise the effect of change by retaining constituencies which were about right and wherever possible making no alterations. That is not always easy, because of the spin-off effect of decreases or increases on the electorates of neighbouring constituencies. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) failed to take into account in his intervention the fact that the quota in his constituency increased in the intervening period from 67,000 to 69,000, and that the integrity of seats in north-east Derbyshire cannot be guaranteed if some adjustment is necessary to deal with problems elsewhere in that county. Equally, it is desirable to have whole boroughs within parliamentary constituencies wherever possible, but that is not always simple to achieve. Nevertheless, the parliamentary boundary commission does a pretty good job of devising as much coincidence as possible.
The parliamentary seats in north-east Derbyshire—Bolsover, Derbyshire, North-East and Chesterfield—can be affected by changes elsewhere in the county, though they could remain the same, in line with any adjustments. The danger of the Bill is its fluidity in relation to the wobbly boundaries of Derbyshire and the way in which they interlink with the local government review. The timetable means that the north-east area could be added to any other which happens to touch other county areas in Nottinghamshire or South Yorkshire.
That is a different point. It is similar to that made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). The hon. Member for Bolsover has approximately 66,000 constituents—a figure below the electoral quota. It is therefore just possible that there may be changes, to bring that electorate up to the quota.Once the commission has examined the overall entitlement of a county to a number of seats, it will have to divide that number of seats into the county's total electorate, to arrive at the county average—which might be slightly above or below the quota. One can only speculate what would happen in any particular county. That is what makes us all uncertain about our futures in terms of what may happen in our own electoral areas. That is an uncomfortable state of affairs for any politician, but it is necessary if boundaries are to be adjusted. It is perfectly possible to deal with minor anomalies, but when it comes to major problems, the commission will have to work on the basis of the historic counties—at least for the time being. If an examination of Derbyshire's structure suggests to the commission that parts of the county should be united with the city of Sheffield, there would be a problem with the crossing of some major boundaries. I suspect, however, that in most cases of local government reform an examination will take place to decide whether there should be a single-tier or a two-tier local authority system. That need not affect the outer boundary of any historic county.
My hon. Friend is known to be an expert on this subject. Does he feel that parliamentary boundaries should keep as close as possible to city boundaries, or does he consider that rural and inner-city areas should be mixed, bearing in mind the different interests of the communities involved?
I do not want to be drawn too far down that road. In any case, I do not think that it is possible to give a single answer to my hon. Friend's question, because the position will depend on the electorates in the respective areas. Sometimes it will be appropriate to use rural areas which look towards the cities in an attempt to ensure that the number of electors is right; at other times, the boundary commission will decide to take wards away from cities and add them to rural areas in order to make the numbers equal. The city of Lincoln, for example, takes in rural wards to bring the numbers up, while the city of Cambridge loses wards to its rural areas to bring them down. I do not know what will happen—my hon. Friend's guess is as good as mine.My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) rightly said that it was convenient for Members of Parliament to deal with single units in the case of, for instance, health authorities. He has to deal with a number of health authorities, which is a problem. Perhaps that is an argument for merging health authorities, or for dispensing with them altogether. Those of us who represent areas in the outer shires have to contend with the reverse argument: several Members of Parliament deal with the same health authority, and the logistics of getting them together for a discussion are quite different. Some of our constituents attend hospitals outside the constituencies, which leads to difficulties with the parliamentary conventions. We have to decide the extent to which we should become involved with the affairs of health authorities and hospitals outside the constituency boundaries.
Order. There may be difficulties here and now if the hon. Gentleman pursues that line much further.
As always, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for your sound advice.We in Hertfordshire have always had a problem, in that the size of the electorate has increased steadily over many decades. Because the redistributions take place at fairly long intervals, the county has never been other than under-represented: we are constantly chasing our tails. Although the present electorate is based on the 1991 rolls, I have no doubt that, by the time the parliamentary boundary commission's report has been implemented, the current high rate of population growth—especially in the east of the county—will have rendered the boundaries out of date. I believe profoundly in a system of single-Member constituencies, which makes us answerable to our constituents. They know who to consult about their problems. If that system is to remain, the constituency boundaries will have to be as up to date as possible. They will also have to represent a number of electors, rather than a number of problems. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) dealt with that point very effectively on Second Reading when he specifically rejected the case advanced by some of his hon. Friends that, because inner cities had more problems, the system should be weighted in their favour. The corollary is, of course, that it should be weighted against other areas. Success also leads to a large postbag and many problems. Similarly, it is impossible to take into account the number of people who work in an area without recognising the corollary that an area in which no one works should be devoid of representation. That is a nonsensical argument. The basic principle of the Bill is that equal numbers of electors are needed in constituencies throughout the country. It is important to deal with that speedily and with certainty. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has said, the Bill will ensure that that happens. I commend it to the House.
The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) has come out with some special pleading. No doubt Ministers heard it, and will consider it accordingly.I do not like the Bill. The Home Secretary said that there was no reason for hon. Members to oppose it, and that he hoped that there would be no Division. Our duty, however, is to express any reservations that we feel about a measure on the Floor of the House, and I do not apologise—any more than I did on Second Reading and on Report—for saying that I do not like this Bill. I cannot emphasise too strongly that that does not mean that I consider boundary changes and reviews unnecessary, any more than my hon. Friends who take the same line as I do. Of course they are necessary, and it would be illogical and wrong for anyone to suggest otherwise. It is, however, essential for the Government of the day to give the impression—a genuine impression—that they are acting in the most impartial way possible when introducing a measure, and I do not believe that the Bill would have been presented if the Government did not believe that there were parliamentary seats to be gained.
Would the hon. Gentleman be speaking now if he did not believe that there were seats to be lost?
That question merely confirms the point that I was making. The Minister is saying, in effect, that I am complaining because I believe that seats will be lost—which implies a confirmation of my claim that the Government believe that there are seats to be gained.As I have said, I believe that complete impartiality should be exercised. Seats are bound to be lost or gained accordingly; no politician would dispute that. So far as I am aware, I have not opposed measures of this kind in the past. Like my hon. Friends, I have been pretty logical and consistent. Only two or three days after the general election and the substantial reduction in the Government's overall majority, we read in the newspapers that the Government intended to introduce this Bill. The implication was clear: the Cabinet had formed the view that there were 10 or 20 gains to be made. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) disputed that, and I hope that he is right; whether he is right or wrong, it is essential that the Government exercise complete impartiality.
I was going to refer the hon. Gentleman to his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who sensibly said that no one could tell how the boundary commission review would work out in regard to the interests of either party.We have introduced the Bill because we consider it wrong to hold an election on the basis of registers that are 20 years old. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would dispute that; certainly, most of his hon. Friends have not done so. If he considers it right to hold an election on that basis, he will very properly oppose the Bill. If he considers it wrong, however, he will support the Bill.
The Minister has implied that I oppose the Bill because I do not believe that boundary reviews should take place. I said at the outset—as I did on Second Reading—that I believe nothing of the kind. What I object to is the haste with which the Government have presented the Bill, and the lack of consultation.In a rather lengthy intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the Home Secretary said that there was no need for consultation with the Opposition because there had been no change in the rules as such. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland rightly dealt with that point in connection with clause 3. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook said that, in 1958, the then Home Secretary was reported as saying:
The Home Secretary might be technically right—although I dispute that—in saying that as there are no rule changes there is no need for consultation with the Opposition. I cannot accept that. In fact, it is not a question whether there are rule changes at all. What prevented the Home Secretary from consulting the other parties? He could have given Opposition parties notice of his intentions and asked whether they had any representations to make before the Bill was finally drafted and came to the House. That would have been a perfectly reasonable step to take. I must tell the Minister of State that, if that had happened, my hon. Friends and I would have found it more difficult to oppose the Bill. Perhaps I would not have opposed it in the first place."'The Government naturally thought it right in this matter of constitutional importance to discuss the proposals we had in mind with the other parties."'—[Official Report, 15 June 1992; Vol. 209, c. 679.]
As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman does not mind about the substance of the Bill, but is more concerned that discussions should take place beforehand. Does he agree that the point of parliamentary representation and democracy is that the number of electors should be as near as possible to the optimum? If that is the overriding principle, why is he so worried about discussions beforehand?
I am so worried, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, for the reason that I quoted from Mr. Butler. I know that the Conservative party today is different from the Conservative party of Mr. Butler's day. I doubt whether he would feel at home in today's Tory party, although that is a matter of opinion. The reason why Mr. Butler said what he said answers the hon. Gentleman far better than I could.The Bill has been introduced in haste and without consultation because the Government want to be sure of the gains that they believe—wrongly, I hope—it will bring. The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) smiles and seems happy about his intervention. He and his hon. Friends talk about equal numbers of electors in constituencies. Like boundary changes and reviews, such ideas cannot be dismissed out of hand, and I should not wish to do so. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the interventions on Second Reading and on Report and to those made today by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes), he would understand our worry about the fact that many people are not on the register. The recommendations are to last for some time, and elections are to be fought on them. There is little doubt that many people have kept themselves off the register for various reasons—Ministers have their explanation, we have ours, and there are no doubt many others—so it is important that the boundary commissioners should be able to take into account the fact that the recommendations are based on inaccurate assessments and figures. The hon. Member for South Hams and others say that we should be pleased that the impartial recommendations are to be based on figures, but what satisfaction is there if the figures are inaccurate in a given constituency?
I have a particular problem in my constituency. When it was formed in 1983, it was already too big. It now has 86,000 or 87,000 constituents. If the Bill is passed without too much opposition, it will allow the people of Devon to have much better representation because their Member of Parliament will not represent 85,000 or 86,000 people. I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. Instead of delaying the process, we should be expediting it.
The hon. Gentleman is understandably worried about his constituency. I should have thought that the United Kingdom Parliamant should be concerned with all constituencies and, as a result of the boundary commissioners' impartiality, should make recommendations in which we can have confidence. As I have already tried to explain—although this may not apply to the hon. Gentleman's constituency—in some inner-city areas many people who should be on the register are not, so I do not understand how we can have the necessary confidence. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is beginning to understand my point of view, if only to a limited extent.I mean no disrespect to my own Front Bench spokesmen, but it is sometimes said that, if there is agreement between the Front Benches, what reason is there for a few troublemakers and dissidents to express a different point of view? It will be a sad day for Parliament and parliamentary democracy when Back Benchers who have reservations do not express them and vote accordingly. We are dealing with parliamentary democracy now, which is important to me and to all my hon. Friends. When we expressed reservations about extending the vote to people living overseas who in most cases had no intention of returning here, it was said that we were not concerned about democracy. That was not so. We spoke and voted against the measure even although Members of our Front Bench, who are also entitled to their opinions, reached a different conclusion. I see no reason why I should lack confidence in my judgment. The manner in which the Bill has been presented is unfortunate. The haste and lack of consultation have caused a strong feeling among my colleagues that the Government wish to obtain the maximum advantage. That is not the right way to deal with an issue about which there should be and, so far as I know, has been little or no controversy until now. The Home Secretary should ask himself why, despite some technical reservations, the Opposition in the past have not wished to argue as I and my hon. Friends are doing today and as we have done during the Bill's previous stages. Why do we feel so strongly? It is because the Government have acted shamefully in this instance, and I do not apologise for voting against the Bill.
I wish to raise one or two questions which have not yet been mentioned, certainly not on Third Reading.If one were running a company or an industry, before one embarked on a new operation or new project, one would try to cost it and decide whether one could afford it. One would consider the manpower implications, where people would be housed, and the general finance. One aspect lacking in this debate—this is perhaps true of many debates—is any talk of money. What will be the cost of the boundary commission? How many extra staff will be needed and what qualifications will they have? Where will they be housed? Will they be housed in docklands? Those questions were perhaps dealt with in Committee, but it is important to ask them on the Floor of the House. I did not attend the Committee stage, which I understand was taken on the Floor of the House. I ask those questions again because they are important. Before legislation is passed, we should have an idea of the increased costs to the Exchequer and the increased manpower involved. I hope that the necessary manpower can be seconded from other Government Departments rather than taken on at additional cost to the taxpayer. Can the Minister reassure us that when new legislation is introduced additional staff are not automatically detailed from the civil service and additional funds found for them but that the Government will find the staff from within their establishment for the necessary length of time? The staff could then move back to their original jobs when they finished the work. I am concerned about the ease with which the establishment of the civil service seems to increase every time we pass legislation. I should like some reassurance that we can find the additional staff required to speed up the process without having to find more money from the Exchequer. That is my rather modest, but important, contribution.
I will not try to reiterate the main lines of the debate, which have been exercised several times during the passage of the Bill. A number of questions, observations and statements were expressed in the Third Reading debate, to which I should address myself for a few minutes.The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) raised three or four matters about which he was especially concerned. He was concerned about the effect of Local Government Commission changes. They will be taken into account by the parliamentary boundary commissions only if they have been legislated for and have come into effect by 1 June 1994 at the latest. I have no idea whether any of the new boundaries, which have not yet been recommended because they have still to be decided, will favour one party or the other. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central made rather heavy weather of constructing a plot whereby the changes were bound to affect the Labour party detrimentally and were bound to favour the Conservative party. I find it difficult to believe that anyone can imagine that the local government commission, which will have to produce its recommendations after consultation, will produce boundaries that will oblige the boundary commission, when it takes them into account, to create constituencies that will favour one party or the other. I do not think that the commission could do that even if it wanted to. The commissions are not interested in party political advantage, and it would be extremely difficult for them to act in that way even if they were. I thought that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central, who was leaning forward, wanted to intervene because the thoughts that I have just ascribed to him were far from his mind. His implication that the Local Government Commission could somehow contrive parliamentary constituencies to the advantage of one party or the other is the kind of imagining which must be abandoned if one considers the role of the two commissions and the difficulty of such a contrivance even if they so intended. There was a misunderstanding about Wales. In Wales, provisional proposals for the parliamentary boundary commission are treated exceptionally, because Wales is well down the road in the matter of local government reform. The parliamentary boundary commission in Wales may take into account local government boundaries proposed in a Bill that has had a Second Reading, but that only concerns the provisional recommendations. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central is right to say that the Bill may be amended in its passage through the House. if it is, the Welsh parliamentary boundary commission must think again, because in its final report to the Secretary of State, it can have regard only to boundaries that have at least been encapsulated in an Act. There is therefore a real distinction between what it is enabled for convenience to take into account for its provisional recommendations and what it must take into account for its final recommendations. That distinction is important and seems to have escaped the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central. The hon. Gentleman also referred to London, a point on which we dwelt at length in Committee. The local government boundary commission is looking at the boundaries of the London boroughs now. Its report will be available well in time for the new boundaries it recommends, if they find favour with the House, to be taken into consideration by the English parliamentary boundary commission before the cut-off date of 1 June 1994. I gathered that that was what the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends wished to ensure would happen when they tabled amendments in Committee. I believe that the misunderstanding and confusion—partly due to the nomenclature—concern the future role of the local government commission. It has been given the responsibility of doing exactly what the local government boundary commission now does—reviewing local government boundaries—after it has finished reviewing local government structure in the rest of England outside London. That was the burden of the answer given by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment:
It will not have completed those structural reviews until well into this decade. As I said in Committee, I do not believe that, apart from the local government review going on now whose results we expect to hear shortly, there will be another change to the boundaries of London boroughs until well into the next century. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central may remember better than I do whether his amendment in Committee referred to possible changes between now and 12 June 2002, 2001 or 2000. The hon. Gentleman was a bit confused about the dates when he moved the amendment. However, it does not matter which of the three years it was. After the local government boundary commission has reported on the boundaries of London boroughs in the near future, the report can be taken into account by the parliamentary boundary commission in its current review. I do not expect a change to London government boundaries until the next century. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central also made a point about registration, which his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) raised yet again today. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East is persistent on the point. I make no complaint about that, because I accept that it is an important point. I stress again that, as far as the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys is able to estimate, upwards of 95 per cent. of eligible people are on the registers. We cannot alter the rules under which the boundary commission makes its review, because the boundary commission in England has already examined a third or so of the seats on the basis of the 1991 register. If we were to change the rules, the commission would have to go back to the beginning. The hon. Gentleman would then lose the point that he rightly makes—that the next election should be fought on more up-to-date boundaries. I remind the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East of what I said when I dealt with the point more fully on Second Reading. If there is a concern simply about registers being up to date or more accurate, I should also like to see registers that are as accurate as possible. However, it would be wrong to change the rules and start the exercise again, because we would not be able to complete the rules in time. As I suggested to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East on Second Reading, if he is concerned about party advantage, the later and more up-to-date registers would be less in the interests of the Labour party, because they would record the continuing decline in the electorate in the Labour heartlands. Even if I were able to oblige him with the kind of amendment that he is seeking, he might at least in party political terms have second thoughts. However, I cannot make that offer to him although I should like to do so, because it would mean that the commission would have to recommence the review."We intend to ask the commission to look at cases for change to local government boundaries in London when it has completed its programme of structural reviews in the shire counties."—[Official Report, 29 June 1992; Vol. 210, c. 368.]
The 95 per cent. figure—or the 95.5 per cent. figure that is sometimes given—is not very good. Those figures still mean that many people are missing from registers. Such figures are simply a comparison between the relevant estimated population and the people who should be on the register. However, it was not until 1 received replies from the Scottish Office and the Department of Health in February that I discovered that the two sets of figures are linked.In the public realm, we seem to have the latest available figures and the figures that the boundary review is acting upon. If those figures are totally inadequate, the Bill should contain something to correct that. If we have to start from scratch again, then so be it. If we have to pay more money to do that, then we must do it. When it comes to democracy, we should not be all that concerned about the relevant financial element. We must get it right.
It is not a question of money: it is a question of time. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman referred are estimates. As there are a variety of estimates, there may be many arguments about which estimate the boundary commission should rely upon.I do not believe the disadvantage of the inaccuracies of the 1991 registers. The 1976 registers upon which our boundaries are currently based were also inaccurate. They may have been a couple of points more accurate than the 1991 registers, but they were still inaccurate. Registers tend to overestimate populations in areas that are losing population and underestimate them in areas that are gaining population. That is why I told the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East that it cuts both ways in party political terms. However, there is no difference between us when the hon. Gentleman said that he wants the most up-to-date registers. I look forward with interest to his Bill and his various recommendations as to how we might ensure that registers are more accurate in future. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East, also referred to the guidance to the local government commission and the requirement to consult the parliamentary boundary commission. The boundary commission is one of the 30 or so statutory bodies that the Local Government Commission is required to consult. The others range from the inspectorates of schools and constabularies, health authorities, the Trades Union Congress, local chambers of commerce and all sorts of people. Some will have something useful to say, while consultation with others will simply be a matter of form and courtesy. The boundary commission is included on the list because of its duty to take account of county boundaries. It must be kept informed of proposed reviews that may affect county boundaries. However, a new boundary will be finally taken into account only if it has been legislated for by the House. The matter comes to this House before it can be considered by the boundary commission in its final report.
Keep it short, please.
Why can we not use the existing boundaries?
If new boundaries are in force, it would be eccentric not to take them into account.I had some sympathy with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). He was not concerned that the boundary commission would fail to take account of existing boundaries. He was worried that, after the boundary commission had reported on existing boundaries—that might take six months, a year or two years—there would be new local government boundaries in Scotland. The safe rule is to take into account boundaries which have been legislated for and which are in effect. We will then know that those boundaries have been through the proper processes and have received the approval of the House. My right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) made an interesting and lucid speech. He said that it was difficult to draw boundaries accurately in London because there is much argument as to where those boundaries might reasonably and properly fall. He is right. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, there is sufficient guidance in schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and sufficient discretion for the boundary commission to take on board all the arguments and concerns that have been raised in the House and to present boundaries that are logical and defensible and which meet the requirements of that schedule. I intervened on the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland because I was trying to follow his argument, and I was not sure that I was doing so properly. I hope that he will forgive me if I have misunderstood him. The Bill does not change the rules for the boundary commission, but it speeds up the changes so that they will take effect roughly when they were expected to, and certainly in time for the next general election. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said, if we were going to change the rules, we would have consulted. My right hon. and learned Friend and I believe that several suggestions have been made, some during our debates, which we must consider jointly and collectively before the next round of changes. However, there is no time now to change the rules. Next time, there will be time to consider carefully between the parties what changes perhaps should be made to the rules that exist now.
I am grateful for the Minister's assurance that there will be inter-party consultations in future. However, I am puzzled about why he believes it necessary to whittle away at the convention of consultation on matters that affect parliamentary boundaries and elections. Even if the Minister is right—and I do not concede that there is no change in the substance of the rules, as I believe that clause 3 changes the substance—the change in time is a point upon which R. A. Butler consulted other parties in 1956.
I am unable to pontificate upon other precedents. However, if we had intended to change the rules by which the boundary commission makes its judgments, we would have wanted to consult. It may be right to introduce some changes, and we expect to consult about those. However, this time round, the only change is that which affects the timetable.The consequent change is for the convenience of the boundary commission, and most particularly for the ease of those making representations to the boundary commission. While there are changes to local government boundaries, it is necessary for both of them to know the cut-off date for those boundaries which must be taken into account. That is why there is the cut-off date of 1 June 1994. Any boundary in force on that date is the one that the boundary commission must have regard to.
In the context of the historical precedents about which my hon. Friend confessed ignorance, and in the context of the speeches of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), it may be of assistance if I point out that neither in 1956 or 1958 was Mr. R. A. Butler Home Secretary. On the first occasion, it was Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, and on the second occasion it was Gwilym Lloyd-George.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Perhaps, if he would like to intervene again, he will tell me how the boundaries in London were examined by previous commissions. That was of massive interest in earlier stages of our proceedings. However, I suspect that, if my right hon. Friend did so, his comments might not be regarded as germane to the limited context of the Bill.
The right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) was undoubtedly accurate, and whoever quoted 1958 was undoubtedly inaccurate. But surely the Minister does not deny that Mr. Butler was Home Secretary. If I remember rightly, he was also Leader of the House at the same time. The fact remains that he said what he said. That he did not say it in 1958 is irrelevant.
Mr. Butler held most offices in the Government at some time or other. Undoubtedly, what he said in 1958, he said. I have to confess in all honesty that I am not familiar with what he said in 1958. However, I am interested in both the elucidation that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) gives and what my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South said.My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) is extremely knowledgeable on matters of boundaries. I shall not try to respond to his various arguments, although they were all interesting. However, I agree with him that a boundary commission review is an uncomfortable time for all Members of Parliament, because it affects their connection with their constituents and, indeed, whether they have a seat left to fight next time. The exception is perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), who has 68,000 constituents. That is very near the quota which is guarded by the rule in schedule 2—in so far as the boundary commission is required to have regard to it—that the commission must take the boundaries of London boroughs into account; so my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea can probably feel that much more secure than anyone else. I had a couple of exchanges with the hon. Member for Walsall, North, because he graciously gave way to me. I was left with the distinct impression that it is not so much the purpose of the Bill as the lack of consultation of which he complains. I take it from what he said that he will oppose the Bill, even though he regards it as essentially a correct measure, simply on the grounds of amour propre. He is doing the wrong thing because he was not asked. If he thinks that I am being unfair to him, he should read what he said in Hansard. He will see that it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that I have drawn from his remarks. His position is not a particularly principled one, although we can all understand why he takes it. My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) asked me some specific questions. I can tell him the specific answer, because I have now found a copy of the Bill and the answer is conveniently on the front page. He asked how much the cost of administering the commissions would be increased by the Bill. The extra cost will be about £500,000 a year for the next three years. He also asked what would be the effect on the number of staff. We expect that about 15 additional central Government staff will be needed for those three years.
Bearing in mind the size of the civil service, is it not possible to second staff from some of the many Ministries so that the job can be done without additional placements being required? If there are additional placements in the boundary commissions, could vie not reduce staff, rather than always increasing the numbers?
My hon. Friend has a good point. Many of the staff are on secondment from the Home Office. The cost to the boundary commissions will be the cost of the staff that they employ during the three years. I have not included any consequent saving to the Home Office while the staff are on loan. I cannot give my hon. Friend that figure now, but I shall be interested to know it, and when I do I shall let him know it too.
The hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) cannot get away with that. It is bad enough that he did not read the Committee proceedings, as the point worried him so much. If he had done so, he would have found that the Home Secretary told the House that most of the additional expenditure would result not from employing additional staff but from the fees of barristers who are seconded to hear the hearings. The extra cost will be legal fees, not extra civil servants' time. He should not try to get away with making a rather silly point about civil servants seconded for the temporary purpose of expediting the work of the boundary commission.
I trespass into territory on which I am not certain of my facts, but logically the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) must be wrong. We are talking about the costs over three years. As the process of reviewing the boundaries is being conducted over a shorter period, it will of course cost more. However, there will not be more reviews as a result of the Bill than there would have been without it. The extra expenditure to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central referred is expenditure which is at the most displaced. Therefore, he is mistaken in the charge that he makes against my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams.No one has argued that the Bill does not address a real problem. No one has denied that it is a problem which needs to be addressed now. That in itself should be enough to persuade the House to support the Bill. I have no doubt that by an overwhelming majority it will do so. Therefore, I commend it to the House.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:—
The House divided: Ayes 221, Noes 55.
Division No. 45]
|Adley, Robert||Browning, Mrs. Angela|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)|
|Alexander, Richard||Burt, Alistair|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)||Butcher, John|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Butler, Peter|
|Amess, David||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Ancram, Michael||Carrington, Matthew|
|Arbuthnot, James||Cash, William|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Channon, Rt Hon Paul|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)||Chaplin, Mrs Judith|
|Ashby, David||Clappison, James|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif)|
|Bates, Michael||Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey|
|Beggs, Roy||Coe, Sebastian|
|Bendall, Vivian||Congdon, David|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Conway, Derek|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Boswell, Tim||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia||Couchman, James|
|Bowis, John||Cran, James|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes||Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)|
|Brazier, Julian||Davies, Quentin (Stamford)|
|Bright, Graham||Davis, David (Boothferry)|
|Brooke, Rt Hon Peter||Deva, Nirj Joseph|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)||Devlin, Tim|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Kilfedder, Sir James|
|Dover, Den||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Duncan, Alan||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Durant, Sir Anthony||Knapman, Roger|
|Dykes, Hugh||Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)|
|Elletson, Harold||Knight, Greg (Derby N)|
|Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)||Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)|
|Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)||Knox, David|
|Evans, Roger (Monmouth)||Kynoch, George (Kincardine)|
|Faber, David||Lait, Mrs Jacqui|
|Fabricant, Michael||Lawrence, Sir Ivan|
|Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas||Legg, Barry|
|Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)||Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)|
|Fishburn, John Dudley||Lidington, David|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Lightbown, David|
|Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)||Lilley, Rt Hon Peter|
|Forth, Eric||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Luff, Peter|
|Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)||Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas|
|French, Douglas||MacKay, Andrew|
|Gale, Roger||Maclean, David|
|Gallie, Phil||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Maginnis, Ken|
|Gill, Christopher||Maitland, Lady Olga|
|Gillan, Ms Cheryl||Malone, Gerald|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Mans, Keith|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Marlow, Tony|
|Gorst, John||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Mawhinney, Dr Brian|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Merchant, Piers|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Mills, Iain|
|Hague, William||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Archie||Moate, Roger|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Moss, Malcolm|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Nelson, Anthony|
|Hannam, Sir John||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Hargreaves, Andrew||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Harris, David||Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Hawkins, Nicholas||Page, Richard|
|Hawksley, Warren||Paice, James|
|Heald, Oliver||Patnick, Irvine|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Hendry, Charles||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Hicks, Robert||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Hill, James (Southampton Test)||Portillo, Rt Hon Michael|
|Horam, John||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)||Richards, Rod|
|Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)||Riddick, Graham|
|Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)||Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)|
|Hunter, Andrew||Robinson, Mark (Somerton)|
|Jack, Michael||Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)|
|Jackson, Robert (Wantage)||Ross, William (E Londonderry)|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Ryder, Rt Hon Richard|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Sackville, Tom|
|Jones, Robert B. (W H'f'rdshire)||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Shersby, Michael||Trend, Michael|
|Sims, Roger||Trotter, Neville|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)||Viggers, Peter|
|Soames, Nicholas||Walden, George|
|Spencer, Sir Derek||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Spink, Dr Robert||Waller, Gary|
|Spring, Richard||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Sproat, Iain||Watts, John|
|Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John||Wells, Bowen|
|Steen, Anthony||Whitney, Ray|
|Stephen, Michael||Whittingdale, John|
|Stern, Michael||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Stewart, Allan||Wilkinson, John|
|Streeter, Gary||Willetts, David|
|Sumberg, David||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f''ld)|
|Sweeney, Walter||Wolfson, Mark|
|Sykes, John||Wood, Timothy|
|Taylor, Ian (Esher)||Yeo, Tim|
|Taylor, Rt Hon D. (Strangford)|
|Taylor, John M. (Solihull)|
Tellers for the Ayes:
Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. Nicholas Baker.
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Ainger, Nicholas||Loyden, Eddie|
|Alton, David||Lynne, Ms Liz|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||McCartney, Ian|
|Ashton, Joe||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Beith, Rt Hon A. J.||Maclennan, Robert|
|Benton, Joe||Madden, Max|
|Boyce, Jimmy||Martlew, Eric|
|Byers, Stephen||Meale, Alan|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)|
|Canavan, Dennis||Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)||Redmond, Martin|
|Cohen, Harry||Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)|
|Cryer, Bob||Salmond, Alex|
|Dafis, Cynog||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I)||Simpson, Alan|
|Etherington, William||Skinner, Dennis|
|Fatchett, Derek||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Flynn, Paul||Tipping, Paddy|
|Foster, Donald (Bath)||Tyler, Paul|
|Harvey, Nick||Wallace, James|
|Hinchliffe, David||Welsh, Andrew|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Jackson, Ms Helen (Shef'ld, H)||Wright, Tony|
|Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C & S)|
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Harry Barnes and Mr. David Winnick.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.
We come to the motions on family law, and I call Mr. Alistair Burt.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Order Paper states that motions 2,3,4 and 5, on family law, have not yet been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. When the Government put the motions down for debate, they knew that the Joint Committee, which has a duty to consider such instruments and report on them to the House on a wide range of grounds, had not considered them. The Joint Committee considered them at a meeting which commenced at 4.30 this afternoon—the first available opportunity.Several memoranda have been provided by the Department of Social Security to explain the instruments. The Joint Committee thought that they were of such value, as they are taken on a clause-by-clause basis, that they ought to be available to Members in the Vote Office. If we had reported them to the House, on the basis of elucidation, and had printed them, that would have been the case. Unfortunately, the meeting of the Committee has just finished, so we are unable to place the memoranda in the Vote Office, as we would wish and as we are obliged to do under the Standing Order. Therefore, hon. Members will be denied the opportunity of having the considered views of the Committee. I emphasise that the Committee wanted to help hon. Members by providing information, but because of the haste with which the Government are rushing the regulations through—before giving the Joint Committee the opportunity to report on them to the House—hon. Members have been denied that information. I have raised this point of order because the Joint Committee has, in effect, been denied the opportunity to carry out the provisions of the Standing Order, which must be strongly deprecated.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to prolong the proceedings of the House, but I serve with the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I do not agree with all the sentiments that he expressed, but the Committee considers such matters carefully and it is concerned that its deliberations, which took more than an hour and a half, will not be discussed or considered by the House tonight.
This is not a matter over which I have any control from the Chair. However, I have taken on board the points made by both hon. Members. It might be appropriate if they seek to catch my eye or that of my successor to make those points during the debate.
I beg to move,
Perhaps it will be convenient if we discuss also the next three motions on the Order Paper:That the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedure) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.
That the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.
That the draft Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, he approved.
The House will be aware that there are four statutory instruments relating to child support to be debated today. They are the first of a number of regulations that provide the detail for the Government's new scheme for the assessment, collection and enforcement of child maintenance. The framework for this scheme, as hon. Members will recall, was provided for in the Child Support Act 1991. It is important that we can inform the legal profession, voluntary bodies and other groups that may be affected by the new scheme of the exact detail as soon as possible so that they have sufficient time to prepare themselves for its introduction. Regulations before the House today, therefore, include the procedures to be followed in making a maintenance assessment, the detailed provisions of the maintenance formula, provisions relating to the collection and disclosure of information and various provisions to do with payment of interest on arrears of maintenance. Further regulations, which are not subject to the affirmative procedure and make provision for the collection and enforcement of maintenance, will be laid shortly. The remaining provisions, covering the detail of the appeals system, jurisdictional issues, fees and transitional issues, will be brought forward later in the year.That the draft Child Support (Arrears, Interest and Adjustment of Maintenance Assessments) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.
The Minister has just said that it is important that the regulations should be brought forward so that the legal profession is informed. What is his response to the charge that the regulations are being pushed through just nine days after they were laid before the House, almost before the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments was able to conclude its deliberations and certainly before other hon. Members were able to examine the result of those deliberations? Why are the Government rushing the regulations through so unnecessarily fast?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of two things. First, for some time the base of the regulations has been in the domain of the interested people and lobby groups; there is nothing new in relation to them. Secondly, he will know also that, to get the agency up and running and ready for its start in April 1993, a considerable amount of work will be done by officials preparing for that start. It is therefore extremely important for them that the regulations are laid out as quickly as possible. We have moved along quickly to ensure that those officials are given the best preparation possible.I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said and I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), but we have acted speedily because we want the agency up and running. There is a lot of support for what we are doing and it is important that the practical, solid base of legislation is laid. That is what we are doing.
I must add my concern to that expressed about the deliberations of the Joint Committee and the fact that the regulations were laid just nine days ago. More than 100 organisations responded during the consultation period and all the information gathered from them is still within the precincts of the Minister's Department—none of it is in the public domain. We do not even have access to what the specialist advisers have said about the regulations, which makes things difficult when we are discussing complicated legislation.
The Government have done nothing to prevent the interested groups from making public the information that they kindly submitted during the consultation period. I would be happy if they had done so. There is no problem about the speed with which we are considering this matter. The general terms of the regulations are well known to the people concerned. They also know how important it is to get the base legislation laid, which is what we are doing now.
Will the Minister give way?
Of course, but I am anxious to make some progress.
The Minister says that there is no problem, but there is. If the House sets up a Committee to look at statutory instruments and to report to the House, the Government should take note of that. The Committee aimed to produce memoranda, which the Department had prepared for our Committee in order to help hon. Members. We aimed to make that available to hon. Members on both sides of the House so that they could have a greater understanding of the regulations. It is complacent of the Minister to say that there is the Government's action today. The Government must take the Joint Committee's work into account.
I take careful note of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I can add little to what I have said about our need to get on with the regulations. People are depending on us to get the base work done so that the Child Support Agency, which is so important, can get up and running.The principles behind the scheme were debated during the passage of the Child Support Bill and I think it is fair to say that, although some hon. Members expressed concern about certain proposals, there was widespread support for the fundamental aims of the scheme. I am sure that the House recalls well the strong and persuasive arguments put forward by my predecessors, both of whom I am pleased to see have moved on to higher office since this subject was last before the House. Let me summarise their arguments. The responsibilities of parenthood are, of course, much more than just financial, but I am sure we all nevertheless recognise the importance of parents' responsibility to maintain their children. Regular payment of maintenance is of benefit to children and to those providing care for them. Most obviously, it provides a regular income to meet the day-to-day needs of the child. Maintenance is also an income that can be taken with the person with care when he or she moves from dependence on benefit into work. Three quarters of lone parents on income support have expressed a desire to work now or in the near future. Unfortunately, the current system for child maintenance is fragmented and uncertain and does not work as it should. Awards are often inconsistent, even where the people involved appear to be in very similar circumstances. There is no automatic way for awards to be reviewed to take account of increasing costs or changing circumstances. Obtaining maintenance can require a significant effort from the person caring for the children, who may be having to cope with the breakdown of a relationship at the same time. If payment falls into arrears, as too many often do, the person caring for the children has to ask the courts to take action. There can be significant delays before payment is re-established. As a result, in 1989, only 30 per cent. of lone mothers and 3 per cent. of lone fathers received regular child maintenance. About two thirds of lone parents are reliant on income support to meet the day-to-day living expenses of themselves and their children. It is not right that, where a parent is capable of supporting his or her children, this responsibility should be transferred to taxpayers who often have children of their own to support. As my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State, now Lord President of Council, quite rightly pointed out, many taxpayers have children of their own to support. The Government's response to those problems was laid out in the White Paper "Children Come First". Following this, changes have already been made to the benefit rules to provide support and encouragement for lone parents to work, if they wish to do so, and the Child Support Act has laid out the framework for the new system for the assessment, collection and, if necessary, enforcement of child maintenance. There are two main features to the new scheme. First, maintenance will be assessed by an administrative formula which will ensure consistency between awards. The rules governing the formula will include provision for regular review to take account of changing circumstances. Secondly, the Government will set up the Child Support Agency, within the Department of Social Security, with specific responsibility for tracing absent parents, for assessing their maintenance liability and for ensuring that full payment of that liability is made. The new scheme will be introduced in April next year. The Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedure) Regulations cover the procedures associated with the making of a maintenance assessment. Many of the regulations are technical provisions detailing the procedures for applications, reviews and terminations of assessments. Regulations 2 to 7 deal with application for maintenance assessments, including the issue and completion of relevant forms, and provisions to determine which application will be proceed with if more than one person applies in respect of the same child. If an absent parent does not provide the information required to assess his—I say "his" for shorthand purposes—liability for maintenance, the child support officer may make an interim maintenance assessment. That assessment establishes the absent parent's liability and will provide an incentive for absent parents to supply information to the agency on time. The absent parent is given a full 28 days to co-operate before an interim maintenance assessment can be made and it will last only as long as the absent parent fails to supply the required information. The provisions for those assessments are made in regulations 8 and 9. Regulations 10 to 16 are largely technical provisions relating to the notification of decisions, but the House may wish to note the provisions of regulation 10, which ensure that no information will be included in notifications which would allow one party to be traced by the other. Regulations 17 to 23 provide for reviews of the assessment to take place. That will normally occur at least annually, but provision is made for earlier review if there has been a significant change in the circumstances of any of the parties to the assessment. Regulations 24 to 29 and 30 to 33 are also largely technical. The former deal with the situation where a party asks for a review of a child support officer's decision under section 18 of the Child Support Act, and make provision, for example, as to the time limits involved and notifications to be made. The latter deal with dates from which assessments will take effect. Regulations 34 to 50 provide for a reduction in benefit to be made where a parent with care in receipt of income support, family credit or disability working allowance fails to comply with obligations imposed by section 6 of the Child Support Act. That section requires the parent with care to authorise action to be taken and provide necessary information to allow maintenance to be recovered from the absent parent.
Will the Minister explain where in the Bill procedures are available for appeal against a punitive decision? I have in mind an appeal on the interpretation of the regulations and failure to disclose the name of an absent parent. What procedure would a woman be able to follow to defend herself against her benefit being stolen by the state?
I cannot share some of the value judgments with which the hon. Lady concluded that intervention. The regulations in relation to a cooling-off period and the appeal process are contained in the regulations that we are now discussing. I will say more about the procedures shortly.
I am questioning the Minister not about a cooling-off period but about a woman having a right of appeal against a decision, referred to in the regulations, which would have the effect of taking away her benefit because of her failure to disclose the name of the absent father. That revolves around the definition of fear of violence, harassment or intimidation. That is not spelt out in the regulations but is left to interpretation. Where there is interpretation, there must be grounds for appeal. The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned those.
There are grounds for appeal to a social security appeals tribunal where a benefit direction is given to reduce benefit. If the hon. Lady will allow me to make progress, I will explain the circumstances which are obviously troubling her. I may be able to reassure her or satisfy some of her concerns.Hon. Members will know that the issue was the subject of much debate during the passage of the Child Support Bill. The Government responded in a constructive way to address the legitimate concerns expressed to us then. In particular, we made provision in the Act for cases where, if the parent were to co-operate, there would be a risk of harm or undue distress either to her or to any child living with her. If there are reasonable grounds for believing that to be the case, the requirement to co-operate will be waived. The provision gives scope to enable each case to be looked at individually—this answers the intervention of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo). That is why there is no definition given in the measure. It is designed to give flexibility to the officers dealing with the case so as to allow the widest possible range of circumstances of undue distress to be taken into account.
I will give way after I have completed this section of my remarks. I remind hon. Members that we have made it clear on many occasions that, although corroboration of evidence will be welcomed, we will accept the uncorroborated evidence of a parent in such circumstances unless there are strong reasons not to do so. We will bend over backwards in the case of all mothers who may put forward good reasons why they should not name a parent, for it is not our wish to see those mothers caused any difficulty or distress. The regulations and the advice and training given to officers will make that perfectly clear.
The Minister talks about corroboration in respect of violence. It is unclear in the measure whether such corroboration needs to be, say, a court order or repeated reports to the police. Am I to understand from the Minister's remarks that, if a woman says that she fears violence as a result of disclosing the name of her partner, her word will be good enough and there will be no further proceedings to trace the absent father? If that is the case, it is not stated in the measure.
The hon. Lady is correct, and I repeat that the Government have made it clear on many occasions that, although corroboration would be welcomed, we will accept the uncorroborated evidence of a parent unless there are strong reasons not to do so. So we do not require corroboration in the manner suggested by the hon. Lady.The difficulty is that were we to set the matter out in line-by-line terms, we might find that we were excluding women who had got themselves into situations of equal distress or fear which were not covered by, or set out in, a regulation. The purpose of keeping it flexible is to enable us to deal precisely with the point that the hon. Lady raised. Of all lone mothers—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) should not laugh, because I am dealing with a serious point.
I was not laughing.
The hon. Gentleman certainly was. He should keep his face straight.Of all lone mothers who currently do not give the name of the father, only 3 per cent. say that that is because of the fear of violence. I am anxious that this key provision is not taken to be the sort of matter that discolours the rest of the regulations and what we are seeking to do. The basis of the regulations is to try to produce a better system for the maintenance of the child. We are attempting to balance the relationship and responsibilities of fathers with that of the state in general. By keeping the provisions flexible in the way that I suggested, we can best reassure mothers who may have concerns or be in distress. That is the way in which we propose to proceed.
The problem is encapsulated in the word "flexibility". We are already seeing flexibility in the way the provisions are interpreted. I have several examples in Edinburgh of people being harassed. If a woman says that she is frightened by the threat of violence, will that be acceptable? Are there any other exemptions? The Minister's figure of 3 per cent. suggests that there are many other good reasons why mothers may not wish to name the father. Is the Minister saying that none of those will be acceptable?
No. I gave violence as an example. Concern about a risk of harm or undue distress to the mother or to any child living with her could arise in a variety of ways, which is why it is kept flexible.We recognise that this is a very difficult area and we will monitor these cases very carefully. Having said that, it remains true that both parents have a responsibility to do what they can to ensure proper financial provision for their children. In the same way that an absent parent should not be able to refuse to pay maintenance that he can afford for his child, a mother should not, without good cause, be able to refuse to co-operate in obtaining maintenance for her child. This is therefore a necessary and important measure. The Child Support (Maintenance Assessment and Special Cases) Regulations deal with the calculation of child support maintenance. The basic formula for this calculation is included in schedule 1 to the Child Support Act 1991. The regulations fill in the detail in the formula, including the actual values that will be used in the calculations, and make provision for any special cases that might arise. Regulations 3 and 4 provide for the calculation of the maintainence requirement, which represents the amount that is required to meet the basic day-to-day needs of a child. This is based on income support allowances and includes an allowance for the child and, if the child is under the age of 16, a further allowance for the person with care of the child. There is one charge from the proposals set out in the White Paper. We originally intended to reduce the allowance included for the person with care when the youngest child included in the assessment reached 11 and would be spending a larger part of the weekday at school. Several commentators felt that the role and financial responsibilities of the carer do not, in fact, reduce when the child reaches 11. Upon reflection, we agree with this view and, therefore, this allowance will not now be reduced. The proportion of a parent's assessable income—income left after meeting essential needs—which will be available for child support maintenance is provided for in regulations 5 and 6. An absent parent will be expected to pay one half of his assessable income in maintenance until the maintenance requirement is fully met. After that, and subject to an upper limit, one quarter of his remaining assessable income will be added to his maintenance assessment. Regulation 7 and schedules 1 and 2 set out the rules for the calculation of the income available to an absent parent, including the extent to which different sorts of income are to be disregarded. Regulation 8 provides that the same rules apply for the parent with care. In the main, we have adopted existing practices for the calculation of income in the income-related benefits. A parent is allowed an amount of income, known as exempt income, to meet his essential day-to-day needs. This is the first charge on his net income before any money is available to start meeting maintenance obligations. We therefore thought it important to confine this exempt income to amounts broadly reflecting income support rates, together with allowances for housing costs and for the needs of any natural or adopted child of the parent who is living with him. Regulation 9 sets out amounts allowable in exempt income, which depend on the exact circumstances of the absent parent and are, in the main, based on the various income support allowances and premiums that would be applicable. Regulation 10 provides that the same rules will apply to the calculation of the exempt income of the parent with care. Hon. Members will, no doubt, recall that the maintenance formula includes provision to ensure that the absent parent is not left worse off after paying maintenance than he would be if he were on income support. That is achieved by calculating the protected income for the absent parent and all his family living with him. This figure is compared to the disposable income available to the family and maintenance will be payable only to the extent to which disposable income exceeds protected income. The components of protected income are described in regulations 11 and 12. These include allowances for any partner and children, including step-children. There is also allowance for other expenses, such as housing costs and council tax, and there is a flat-rate margin of an additional £8 in each absent parent's case. Where total family income is greater than this basic amount, a further additional allowance of 10 per cent. of the excess is made to ensure that the absent parent is not discouraged from increasing his income. Regulation 13 defines the minimum level of maintenance payable as 5 per cent. of the income support personal allowance for a single adult aged 25 or over. At today's benefit levels, that would involve a payment of £2.15 per week. We believe that it is important to establish both the liability for maintenance and the habit of making payment as early as possible, and hence that all liable persons should make some contribution to the maintenance of their children. There are, however, some special cases where this minimum amount could cause hardship, and regulation 26 sets out a number of conditions where the minimum maintenance will not be payable—for example, where the absent parent is disabled. Regulations 14 to 18 make provision for the treatment of housing costs under the formula and cover, for example, the apportionment of responsibility for housing costs where the parent is a joint owner of his home. Regulation 18, in particular. sets a ceiling on the amount of weekly housing costs to be included in the calculation of an absent parent's exempt and protected income. That will reduce any incentive for an absent parent to lower his liability for maintenance by deliberately increasing his housing costs to unreasonable levels. Part III of the regulations deals with special cases. The maintenance formula, as set out in the Act, is designed to deal with the most common case, where the child lives with one person and there is one absent parent from whom maintenance is sought. There will, however, be other, less common, situations—for instance, where both parents are absent or where the child spends some time with each parent. The regulations provide for the application of the standard maintenance formula to be appropriately amended in such circumstances. Although I do not intend to describe in detail each of the different types of special case, I should like to mention the provision dealing with the shared care of a child. We have decided that, provided the absent parent has the child for at least two nights a week on average, the maintenance he has to pay will be reduced. That is provided for in two different ways. First, an allowance will be made in the absent parent's exempt income in respect of the time his children spend with him. In addition, regulation 20 provides for the weekly amount of maintenance to be reduced in proportion to the number of night's care provided by the absent parent. We think that that provision strikes the proper balance between the interests of both parents and the interests of the child, given that shared care should mean joint responsibility for all important aspects of a child's upbringing, nurture and day-to-day care and costs. Finally, regulation 28 sets out the conditions upon which a deduction can be made from an absent parent's income support. The effect of the regulation is that deductions will be taken only from absent parents who are aged 18 or over, who are fit and who have no children living with them. The deduction will be at the same rate as the minimum amount already defined in the regulations—5 per cent. of the income support personal allowance for single people aged 25 or over. That is the same level as for other standard deductions from income support and will be subject to the overall 15 per cent. ceiling. We think that it is right that absent parents should not escape their responsibilities simply because they are receiving income support. A deduction from benefit will demonstrate an absent parent's liability and will establish a pattern of contributing to maintenance for his children. I turn now to the provisions of the Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations. Regulations 2 to 7 deal with the collection of information. The Child Support Agency will have to collect information to identify and trace an absent parent, to assess the amount of maintenance payable and to collect and, if necessary, enforce the maintenance due. During the passage of the Child Support Bill, a number of legitimate concerns were expressed about the sort of information that would be required and the powers that the agency would have. The Government have carefully considered all the comments that were made and believe the regulations strike the right balance between empowering the agency to collect the information required to deal with an application for child maintenance and safeguarding the privacy of the people with whom the agency deals. We expect that information will normally be obtained from parties to the assessment themselves. In some limited circumstances, however, where the relevant party is unable or unwilling to provide the necessary information, it may be necessary to collect limited information from some third parties. Provision for that is made in regulations 2 and 3, taken together, which define what information may be required and from whom. Information may be required only for specific purposes directly relevant to the operation of the assessment, collection and enforcement of child support maintenance; and it may be required only from parties to the assessment themselves or, for particular items only, from their employer, their local authority or the courts. The remaining regulations in part II—regulations 4 to 7—provide further amplification of the detailed procedures governing the supply of information to the Child Support Agency.
I am intrigued. There is reference to disclosure of information. Regulation 7 says:
Does that include Windsor castle?"Subject to Her Majesty not being in residence, an inspector appointed under section 15 of the Act may enter any Crown premises for the purpose of exercising any powers conferred on him by that section."
I believe that the answer is yes. I am not strictly certain when that might come up, but it is certainly provided for in the regulations—which only goes to show how all-embracing and comprehensive the Government can be.
In future, the problem of absent parents may not be restricted to commoners.
We may be trespassing into areas that could cause grave concern and danger to us—the Tower of London and things like that. I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we shall proceed carefully from this point. If I may, I shall finish with the regulations.Section 50 of the Child Support Act makes it a criminal offence for information to be disclosed without legal authority. Regulations 8 to 11 specify the very limited circumstances in which it will be possible to disclose information gathered for child support purposes. Finally, the Child Support (Arrears, Interest and Adjustment of Maintenance Assessments) Regulations introduce a number of provisions to deal with circumstances in which maintenance is not paid correctly. Those regulations apply where the Child Support Agency has responsibility for the collection of maintenance payments. The charging of interest on arrears provides a major incentive to ensure that absent parents make full payment of maintenance, and regulations 3 to 7 make the necessary provisions. A number of safeguards are included to ensure that the absent parent is not charged interest where that would not be reasonable—for example, interest will be charged only if the absent parent has been notified of the existence of the arrears. Where the absent parent is not able to clear any arrears immediately, interest will not be payable, provided he makes and adheres to an agreement to clear the arrears by instalments. A period of 28 days is allowed from the date the payment is missed for the absent parent to reach agreement with the Child Support Agency about the terms of such an agreement. Should an agreement not be made or adhered to, however, the absent parent will be charged interest for the whole period in which the arrears remain outstanding. Only when increased income support payments have fully compensated a parent with care for the loss of income as a result of non-payment of maintenance will the interest be retained by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In all other circumstances, any interest payable will be paid to the maintenance recipient. I am grateful that the House has allowed me time to set out in detail the important regulations before us. Taken together, they provide a comprehensive background to the new system of maintenance that we are introducing through the Child Support Agency. We want a better and a more secure system of maintenance for children. We are aware of some of the concerns that have been expressed, particularly those reiterated by the hon. Member for Bristol, South. If she catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall deal with those matters when I wind up. I genuinely believe that the proposed system is better than the current ad hoc system. It will work better and it has the good will of many people. I am determined that we shall work hard to reassure those who have expressed concern about certain aspects by the time the system is introduced. I commend the regulations to the House.
I have just listened to the Minister explain in considerable detail many complicated regulations, including several special cases. He has simply reinforced the complaint that some of us made at the outset—that the Government are unnecessarily rushing the regulations through. They were laid only nine days ago and it is only half an hour since the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments finished its deliberations on those complicated matters. The Minister said in response to that complaint that it was important to have a solid base in place for the lawyers and administrators to do their work. However, it is just as important that hon. Members should have enough time to play their role in examining and criticising the regulations. I simply do not believe that hon. Members have been given that opportunity, particularly in respect of the Joint Committee's findings. The Minister's failure to meet that argument shows the contempt in which the Government hold the House. I protest strongly at the procedure that the Government have chosen to adopt in this instance.I make it clear at the outset that the Opposition very much support the principle behind the Child Support Agency—that parents should contribute to the maintenance of their children. The only reason why we are not voting against the regulations today is not because we do not have serious disagreements with important aspects of them but because, under the procedures of the House, we can vote against those aspects only by voting down the regulations as a whole, which would cut away our support for the underlying principle. The Government have made certain improvements in the regulations as a result of the consultation, but I am not being churlish in saying that those improvements are pretty minuscule. The Government have hardly budged on the important aspects on which there is a consensus of opposition among all the expert organisations consulted. We welcome the increased level of protected income for low-paid absent parents, and the increase in the personal allowance for lone parents with children over the age of I I, which rightly recognises that lone parents have a legal and moral duty to care for their children up to the age of 16. We also welcome the fact that absent parents on income support who are under 18 years of age will not have to pay. Obviously, however, that introduces the arbitrary distinction that those who are 19 will still have to pay. By far the most important objection is to the benefit penalty, over which the Minister seemed to glide rapidly. He was held to account only by the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo). He seemed to offer little justification, despite all the consultations, as to why the Government were sticking to that principle. I expected him to discuss it at greater length, but he did not. The independent organisations unanimously oppose the benefit penalty, but the Government have refused to listen to the advice given. Drawing on the point made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), I believe that the same advice was given by all 100 organisations which provided evidence, but because the Government have not published that evidence, we cannot be certain. Will the Under-Secretary of State confirm that in winding up the debate? It is not enough to say that the organisations can publish their work separately. If we are to have a citizens charter that means something, the public are entitled to know about this matter of acute concern. A large section of the population—there are more than a million lone parents—should know what was in the evidence submitted to the Government by that large number of organisations. The benefit penalty was the issue on which the original clause was defeated in Committee in another place. The Secretary of State then insisted on reintroducing it, no doubt because the Thatcherite purpose behind the Bill of saving public expenditure far overrode such minor considerations as the welfare of the child or the aggravation of poverty. Ministers have never answered key questions about the ill effects of the benefit penalty, and the Minister has made no attempt to do so today. The Government like to proclaim the slogan that children come first——
Children do come first.
I am glad to have confirmation of that from the Under-Secretary of State. In that case, how is it in the children's interest to pursue maintenance when to do so is likely to disrupt a reconciliation process, disrupt the father's current relationship or his relationship with his new family, or cause the father to press for access or other rights over the child? The Government's view is that maintenance and access are completely different, and I agree with that, but it is not the view which research has shown is held by either party. Both parents believe that, if maintenance is provided, it is not unconditional. That is an important point. How can it be right to insist on a benefit penalty in such circumstances? Above all, how can it be in the child's interest if the benefit penalty increases poverty in the family, as it is bound to do?I do not believe that the Minister can deny that. I know that the penalty is supposed to be a reduction in the personal allowance of the caring parent, but it is disingenuous of the Government to pretend that a 20 per cent. reduction in the family income—25 per cent. in the case of a lone parent under the age of 18—for six months in the first instance, will not gravely affect the child. That is the question that the Minister did not mention, let alone answer, today. We want such questions answered; they are at the heart of the regulations. It is not as though the income support rates are not already cut to the bone. The Government have reduced income support rates, relative to average earnings, during the past eight years, one year after another. One quarter of all claimants of income support already have their income support deducted to repay social fund loans and a variety of different arrears. Single parenthood is already well understood to be one of the major causes of child poverty. The 20 per cent. penalty on top of that is the last straw. A cut of £8.49 a week for the first six months and then half of that, £4.24 a week, for the next year is punitive.
The hon. Gentleman is talking as though the procedure were par for the course and the vast majority of people would be affected in that way. Surely he listened more carefully than that to what I said about the way in which we shall implement the legislation. We are dealing only with mothers who refuse to name the father and who do not have good reason not to name him. We are trying to establish the principle that, where it would cause undue distress or fear of harm, what the hon. Gentleman suggests will not come into play. There is no good reason why, in those circumstances, anyone should be affected by the reductions of which he speaks.
I was going to come to section 46, which I am well aware is at the heart of the legislation, but will the Minister assure the House that, in all cases where there is good reason, the mother will not be subjected to the benefit penalty?
That is so.
The Minister says that that is the Government's intention. We have also been told that it is their intention that the social fund will be used with discretion and sensitivity so that all those in need will find their needs met. The manifest failure of the social fund to begin to meet the extreme poverty which exists among a large section of the population does not inspire confidence in the Minister. I do not doubt the Minister's sincerity, but I have doubts about what will happen in practice.I believe that the pressure behind the Bill—to recover public expenditure—will be the driving force in terms of maintenance payments, not the welfare of the child or protecting the mother. I firmly believe that recovering public expenditure is the purpose behind the Bill, and that those other considerations are secondary. However, the Government have made up their mind, and their policy will ultimately be tested by experience. I do not believe that the number of cases will be just a few, a handful, or something so easily dismissed as the Minister suggests. I think that there will be a significant number of cases. In some extreme cases the policy could work against the child's interests. Due to financial pressures on the family, it could lead to the child being taken into care or to deficiencies in the family's diet which could result in ill health. I do not believe that the Minister can deny that possibility. Everything hinges on the interpretation of whether the mother has good cause, and where the onus lies. The Department of Social Security does not inspire me with much confidence when I consider the way in which it has handled extremely intimate and sensitive matters in the past. The fundamental issue to consider today is this: does the Under-Secretary of State believe that risking those consequences—that is putting it mildly—in some cases and exacerbating poverty in almost all cases where deductions are made, is in the child's interests or puts children first? If not, is it not clear that, after all the consultations, the regulations are still more about saving public expenditure than about the welfare of the child? If maintenance is paid, none of it goes to the caring parent or the child, but to the Department of Social Security. If it is not paid, the child suffers indirectly, as well as the parent who cares. That is the nub of our case against the regulations. I am well aware that section 46 of the Act bears on that important issue. The exemption clause allows a child support officer to take no further action against a lone parent where
The great weakness of that subsection is that it is discretionary. The Minister tried to make out that the great merit in the subsection was its flexibility, but the problem with discretion is that there will almost certainly be cases where it should be, but is not, exercised, and it will almost certainly lead to arbitrariness. Moreover, when we consider how the DSS has exercised its discretion in other matters, we are not encouraged to place our trust in it. The only reason for the dispute across the Dispatch Box is the Government's constant rejection of a maintenance disregard and their insistence on a punitive benefit penalty. One cannot help noticing the difference in treatment currently given to two groups by the DSS. Mothers on income support are expected to comply with the Child Support Agency. If they do not, one fifth of their extremely meagre income of £42 per week will be docked. Meanwhile, banks which are knowingly in receipt of more than £200 million of stolen assets from the Maxwell pension funds are asked by the Secretary of State to "examine their consciences". They are asked to consider whether they have a "moral obligation". They are not expected to comply or be penalised if they do not, but to consider the matter and decide whether to hand back stolen property. What a contrast in the attitude of our Thatcherite Secretary of State! Even the Government's other bêtes noires—those who make themselves unemployed according to the Government's definition—are not treated so badly as lone parents. I refer to the so-called voluntarily unemployed—a wonderful phrase—who suffer a variable deduction, which may be for 26 weeks, but could equally be for one day or any period in between. Under the Child Support Act 1991, however, the deduction is for a fixed time—the full period. The voluntarily unemployed can have their deduction halved where a member of the family is seriously ill or pregnant, but the regulations contain no such provision in the case of lone parents subject to the 20 per cent. benefit deduction. If the Government insist against all advice on having a benefit deduction for lone parents, the very least that they could do would be to make the time scale discretionary and reduce it in certain circumstances. One can think of a variety of such occasions—serious illness in the case of the voluntarily unemployed, pregnancy, the need for special diets for one or more family members, or where the house is particularly hard to heat. Yet one searches in vain through 85 pages of regulations for any evidence of how discretion would and should be used in such cases. That is a serious deficiency in the regulations. The only other major objection to the regulations that I want to raise concerns second families on low incomes. It has been stated repeatedly that a maintenance levy will have the effect of putting two families on income support levels rather than one. I would be the first to accept that the Government have made some minor helpful adjustments, but the regulations will still transfer almost the whole of any increase in the second family's income to the first family. That is surely indefensible, especially when it is the increased income of the new partner rather than the absent parent which is diverted. The really important point here surely is that despite all the consultations the Government have still not accepted the principle that absent parents should be zero-rated for the purposes of maintenance payments so long as they remain on unemployment benefit or income support. That seems a reasonable provision if we are not simply to transfer poverty from one family to the next, and that surely is not the aim of the Child Support Agency. The regulations, 85 pages of them, which result from almost 100 regulation-making powers in the Act, still leave open many vital questions about how the powers would be operated. They embody an important principle which we all support, but they are spoilt by the unnecessarily punitive nature of the benefit penalty and by the harsh treatment in many cases of second families. It is sad that, in the face of all the evidence from the consultations, the Government are still so wedded to the idea of compulsion for those on income support when for all other groups in society it is the language of incentives which prevails. That is why the Opposition, for all our commitment to the fundamental principle of maintenance payments, can give the regulations only limited support in terms of their detail and practical application."if she were to be required to comply, there would be a risk of her or of any children living with her suffering harm or undue distress as a result of complying."
I intrude in the debate with considerable trepidation because those assembled here know far more about the issue and the regulations than I do, but I have one or two points to make. I have already told my hon. Friend the Minister that I fear that I may have to wait for his answers until I read them in Hansard tomorrow, because I have another engagement for which I shall have to leave shortly.Listening to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), I was, as I have often in the past been, somewhat astonished at the assertiveness with which he declared that he was wholly in favour of the principle and the extraordinary difficulties that he then paraded in turning that principle into practice. That can only be a reflection on the enormous length of time that Opposition Members have had to spend being unable to turn principles into practice. The truth of the matter is that the regulations are designed to try to make an exceptionally difficult and complex area of policy work in practice. I was particularly relieved, as I had expected to be, when my hon. Friend declared that the Government would assess with great care how the regulations work out in practice, because there are some difficult issues within them. It may be just that I am ignorant of the details of the regulations on this point, but I thought that the hon. Member for Oldham, West said that every penny that was paid by a maintaining parent went directly to the Department of Social Security. My understanding is that, where a parent has a sizeable income, the maintenance will substantially improve the child's quality of life. In his traditional and in many ways commendable anxiety to bring the needs of the poorest to the House, the hon. Member seems to have forgotten that a sizeable number of single parents have an absent or an ex-spouse who is earning a considerable sum of money. The idea that the state should have to pick up the cost of maintaining their children when their incomes are more than sufficient to maintain them, is ridiculous. If the hon. Gentleman's commitment to the principle of the Bill means anything, it must surely mean that he supports that principle in practice. The first point that I should like my hon. Friend to address when he replies concerns the fact that, where the state tries to attach some part of a family's income for any purpose, there is an inevitable incentive for those who are not entirely scrupulous to try to disguise the size of their income or to distort or to hide it in various ways. Looking at the regulations, I was unclear about the penalty arrangements for a false declaration or for trying to divert one's income in inappropriate ways so that the statement to the inspector was false. For the reasons that I have already sketched, I particularly welcome my hon. Friend's point that he was anxious not to create disincentives for absent parents to increase their incomes. The other important point, which is well illustrated by the dismaying statistic of 3 per cent. of lone parents being fathers, is that one of the consequences of this important reform in making a reality of parents' responsibility for the children they create is that there will undoubtedly emerge quite quickly an even stronger feeling among some fathers that they are being denied appropriate access to their children. It is bad enough now when fathers frequently have considerable difficulty in obtaining in practice the access that the courts have given them to their children. That will become much more a bone of contention if the fathers are contributing to the maintenance of their children without any choice and under a regime which would punish them for not doing so. If, in those circumstances, the same rigour is not provided by the authorities to enable them to claim the access which the courts have given them but which frequently in practice may be virtually impossible, there will be a justifiable outcry. I feel strongly that absent fathers are frequently badly treated in those respects. I hope that, even if there is nothing that my hon. Friend can say tonight, he will look carefully at the consequences of the regulations on that aspect. I look forward to reading the answers to my questions tomorrow, because I am afraid that, to my regret, I shall not be here to hear them tonight.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I intervene now it will save me from making a speech. Earlier, on a point of order, I said that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments had not had sufficient time to deal properly with these instruments because the Government were rushing them through, and that we had made an effort to help the House by providing the memoranda which were provided by the Department of Social Security, but which, because of time constraints, we were unable to place in the Vote Office. There are 36 pages. I am happy to tell the House that, as a result of the considerable efforts of the Committee Clerk, copies of the memoranda are in the Vote Office. That should be recognised as a valuable contribution, largely at the hands of the Clerk, certainly not with the help of the Government, to the House tonight.
By the year 2000, only one in two children in Britain will experience what many would regard as a conventional childhood. By that I mean being born to parents who are married to each other, and spending one's childhood up to the age of 16 or 17, say, living still with parents married to each other. That projection alone is one indicator of why the regulations and the Act to which they relate are so important. The Act is important; therefore, the regulations and getting them right are absolutely crucial.It is estimated that one in four children born this year will have parents who divorce by the time the children reach the age of 16. Every year, some 150,000 children in Britain under 16 see their parents' marriage break up. When that is related to the phenomenon of an increase in the number of single mothers in this country and the fact that cohabiting partners with children may also break up—something not captured in the official divorce statistics—it can be seen why the issues at stake are so important. We are faced with two vital questions, with which the regulations seek to grapple: first, what are the financial costs of these family changes, and, secondly, who should meet those costs? At the moment, most of the costs are undoubtedly being met by mothers and children, through poverty. The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) spoke about better-off families, but in fact seven out of 10 one-parent families—70 per cent.—draw income support, and during their one-parent-family lives, as many as 85 per cent. will draw income support. I therefore believe that it is right that the Act puts the principle of parental responsibility at the heart of this legislation. This legislation needs to be joined soon by a measure from the Lord Chancellor to put children at the heart of the divorce law reform process. That is the partner to this Act to which some of us on both sides of the House look forward. In the rest of the world—the United States and Australia in particular come to mind—these questions are being addressed. Labour Governments in Australia have grappled with not dissimilar questions and have come up with not dissimilar solutions. The Child Support Act in Australia has been drawn on by the Government to some extent. So far, so good, but the practice is crucial. This is where I and many others both within and outside the House are very concerned to make sure that, even at this stage, the practice through these regulations is improved so that it matches the fairness of the principle. There are two concerns. The first has been articulated already: the reduction of benefit where the single mother refuses to name the absent father. We know—this is my figure, anyway, from York university—that, in about 5 per cent. of cases where there is currently refusal, violence is cited as the factor. I believe that, rather than make up regulations on their own, we can draw on the experience of other countries. At the end of 1990, I had the opportunity to spend several days talking to Ministers, officials of the Department of Social Security, officials of the tax office and voluntary bodies in Australia about the child support scheme. I hope that our Department and our Child Support Agency will draw on this experience. I should like to see one difference introduced here. It should not be for the official who decides whether a benefit should be given or withdrawn to grapple also with the sensitive issue of violence. Within the Department of Social Security in Australia, the task is given to social workers. An internal memorandum highlighting the guidelines contains the following statement:
Later on, the memorandum says:"If clients refuse or are reluctant to take action to receive child support, it may be appropriate for them to be referred to the social worker for consideration as to whether they should be exempt from taking action."
It cannot be right that the official, who may be aware of agency targets to recoup certain amounts of money, is also the person grappling with these issues."The reason for involving social workers in the exemption process is to ensure that a professional assessment of sensitive and complex circumstances is available."
The Minister shakes his head, and I should like his reassurance later that social workers and other people trained in this area will be involved in the process.In Australia, at the end of 1989–90, 2 per cent. of cases were exempted because of violence, and there was a total of 14 per cent. So there is experience there to draw on, and I hope that the Government will draw on it. The second concern has to be the lack of disregard for lone mothers on income support. To describe the whole process as a strategy of "children come first" is, in terms of implementation, a policy non sequitur. There is a sense in which the Act is not a child support Act but an Exchequer support Act. It cannot be right that the vast majority—this is no exaggeration, because the vast majority are on income support—will gain not a pound from what is meant to be a child support Act. The Minister cannot deny this and it has to be wrong. The Australians told me that one reason why things worked so well over there was that the custodial parents knew that they would be gaining financially from the Act. The Australian tax office, which administers the scheme—it would be far better if our Inland Revenue had taken that responsibility—says that the mothers had a real interest in how the scheme worked. The office expected to be deluged by calls from fathers moaning about the scheme, but in fact the phones kept ringing with mothers asking how the scheme was coming along and when they would get their share of child support. The tax office said that the ability to share out the proceeds of child support among the parents, the children and the state was crucial to the working of the scheme. I therefore believe that the child support scheme is at something of a crossroads, and I hope that there is still time for wiser counsels to prevail. At present, I repeat, most of our children affected by this will not gain financially; children will not come first. That is the reality that cannot be denied. Therefore, there is a genuine concern—I speak as a supporter of the overall strategy of parental responsibility in the changing family circumstances of the 1990s—that this will now be type-cast as yet another mean-minded measure from a Government who put money first. That would be a great pity, and I urge Ministers to think again, as they have time to do. The principle of parental responsibility, allied to measures of child care and training and employment for lone-parent families, alongside child maintenance, could give us the chance to fashion a decent piece of social policy—decent because it would be based on sound moral philosophy.
I must advise the House that the winding-up speeches will begin at a quarter to 8. It appears that four hon. Members wish to catch my eye, and if they will bear that in mind, I hope that it will be possible to call them all.
I will try to stay within those constraints, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I could speak for an hour and a half on the regulations because in a previous incarnation I was a provincial solicitor working in a town in my constituency dealing with divorce law. I learned a great deal there and I recognise many of the problems which the regulations try to tackle, and I certainly support them in principle.The Minister is a compassionate man. He is a new Minister and I am afraid that he has been given a difficult brief this evening, because the regulations are technically complex. If I had had more time, I would have added my voice and weight to the discussion on that question. The primary legislation is an enabling Act with far-reaching secondary legislative powers. I think that this is an abuse and I hope that when the Minister has a bit more experience he will tell the officials in the Box behind him that he needs a bit more time before he can bring such measures to the House. We all live and learn in this place and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take that advice in the spirit in which it is intended. The Act and the regulations do not live in the real world, because people do not easily absent themselves from their children. There are always complex psychological and emotional reasons for the parting of the ways. One is not dealing with rational people, in the case of divorced couples who have left their offspring behind. Sixty per cent. of the time, divorce settlements—which involve custody and maintenance determined by the courts-are difficult to arrange. The regulations provide a rational civil service solution to highly charged situations. Some people use their children as weapons against their former spouses. I have seen that occur time and again. I do not have the time to detail all my reservations, but my main concern is that the regulations will cause distress far in excess of any financial benefit that they may bring—even to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They will disrupt not only the family of the caring parent but the second family as well. Absent spouses—mainly fathers—will demand access to their children, some of whom they will not have seen for many years. That will cause great distress to the children. Suppose that the caring parent has reached the conclusion that disclosing information about the absent parent will lead to an application for access—which would distress the children. Would the mother be protected, as the Minister said earlier, because no other corroboration was needed to meet the regulations' non-disclosure requirements? Would it be enough for the mother to say, "My two infants will be considerably distressed if an access application is granted"? Would that be sufficient to avoid having to make the disclosures that the regulations stipulate?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that whether or not an access application succeeds is a matter for the court to decide—bearing in mind that the court will put the interests of the child first. An application for access might come at any time, and for any reason. It will not necessarily be connected with a maintenance request. The two are decided entirely separately.
I understand that the court has jurisdiction in respect of custody, and the Minister is right to say that an access application can be made at any time. However, where a couple have split and lead independent family existences, the children who are in the custody of the caring parent may have no connection with the estranged and absent father. Nevertheless, the courts rightly take a jealous view of a father's right to have access to his natural child. All other factors being equal, the court may make an order. However, we are discussing the woman's judgment of whether access will distress her family to the extent that she is entitled to refuse making a disclosure.I say with all the sincerity that I can muster in four and a half minutes that that, for me, that is the crucial issue. If a woman cannot, with her hand on her heart—and in the absence of any corroborating evidence—decline disclosure without question, the regulations will give rise to tremendous turmoil and upheaval the full length and breadth of the land. I am concerned also about the draft Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations 1992. I was teasing the Minister earlier about regulations that I do not really understand, but these regulations confer a fantastically widely drawn power on an inspector appointed under section 50 of the Child Support Act 1991, who can enter any premises for the purposes of exercising any powers conferred on him by that section. Regulations 2, 7, and 8 go much further in conferring administrative powers on officials to enforce the provisions of the 1991 Act. I am nervous about the far-ranging nature of those powers. If I had longer, I could persuade the Minister that they are very dangerous. I hope that he will respond to those points when he winds up.
I will make only two points, because I am anxious that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey) should also be able to contribute. It is outrageous that complicated regulations that will so upset many women's lives must be debated in only one and a half hours. The regulations claim to have their origin in a document entitled "Children Come First", when the rationale for the proposals is to save money for the Department of Social Security.Children are living in poverty if their single parents are claiming social security, and when the regulations are in force they will still live in poverty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said, not one penny will go to the single parent unless that parent exceeds the income support level—in which case, the other parent might be forced into poverty. I am not against the proposition in principle that parents should take responsibility for their children, but the regulations are based on prejudice, and they will interfere in the lives of single parents. They also confuse the legal process with the punitive provisions that can be dispensed under social security legislation. The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) spoke of the access rights of the absent father and said that, once maintenance was agreed, they could be reassessed. That brings us to the heart of the regulations. Absent parents—fathers—who are forced to make payments will equate them with access or other rights over the mother and her children. The regulations will not only leave the single parent family in poverty but place them at risk of the actions of an aggrieved absent parent. If the courts are failing to make sensible maintenance arrangements, it is for the courts and the Government to correct that situation through family law, not social security law. The explanatory notes, which were available only at the beginning of this debate, say that, under part I of the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedure) Regulations 1992, a notice will be sent when an application for maintenance has been received. It will not be an application for maintenance but a disclosure of the father's name under the threat that, in the absence or that disclosure, benefit will he deducted. That will immediately place the woman and her children at risk. The woman will have no grounds to defend herself, complain, or seek legal redress against an absent father who may pursue her by means of, for example, a molestation order. Nor will she be entitled even to make such an application, because the couple will have lived apart for a certain length of time. The regulations give rights of access and ownership, at least in the mind of the absent parent, with no defence or appeal mechanism available to the woman. Their position will become worse rather than better. My next point relates to the regulations. According to the explanatory note, regulation 5 informs the absent father that an application has been made, not that his name has been forced out of the mother. The regulation then lays down the penalties that will be imposed on the father as a result of the disclosure of his name by the mother, if he does not himself disclose all the information that the Department requires. Such action will lead to the building up of aggravation and resentment. The Government claim that they are legislating to put children first, but it seems to me that the lowest priority of the proposals is putting children first, and that their main priority is putting the Government first and saving them money. The proposals will do nothing to enhance parents' responsibility for maintenance and everything to weaken and endanger the position of single parents. I have no time to go into the details of the regulations. Let me make it clear, however, that the legislation is wrong. The statutory instruments are fatally flawed, and women will suffer yet again.
Let me remind the Minister of another piece of legislation, the Children Act 1989. Social security legislation and personal services legislation are entangled with each other. On the one hand, we have the Children Act, which is designed to enable parents to go on undertaking their parental responsibilities—one hopes, outside the legislative framework—and to make private arrangements that suit them, benefit their children and are seen as non-prescriptive and flexible. Most people in social services departments were happy with those arrangements; they especially welcomed their non-prescriptive and flexible nature. On the other hand, we have a piece of social security legislation that is extremely prescriptive. Its implementation will impinge on the possibility of the Children Act's being implemented in the way that was intended.I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the close connection between poverty and children going into care. As many Opposition Members have pointed out, the legislation will simply bring about a redistribution of poverty; it will not raise any family's standard of living. I am worried about the way in which the 1991 Act will impinge on private arrangements. I sometimes wonder whether those who introduce such legislation appreciate the day-to-day life styles of the people who will be on the receiving end. For example, a woman wishing to protect an informal access arrangement might tell an interrogator from the Child Support Agency that she did not know the whereabouts of the father. That could lead to a repetition of the situation that arose under the cohabitation rules: DSS officers will start investigating people's circumstances to find out whether they are telling the truth. Will there be child support officers with binoculars in parks, trying to identify fathers with small children so that they can slap a maintenance order on them? The Minister said that there were a good many caveats and discretionary powers, but DSS officers are very efficient. They have to be. I am sure that they will pursue the objective that has been set for them and try to collect as much maintenance money as they can to decrease the amount that is spent on benefit. No officer is going to say to a parent, "Tell me your personal circumstances. How helpful and understanding can I be?" That is not the rule; the rule tells DSS officers to collect the money. The Minister may believe that he is making plenty of discretionary arrangements to ensure that everyone is treated with respect, but, because of the prescriptive nature of the legislation, that will not actually happen. Does he really want thousands of women to be subjected to humiliating procedures so that he can recover a few million pounds by taking the clothes off children's backs and the food out of their mouths? If the Minister is seriously interested in children's welfare, and in ensuring that families have the income to support those children, I urge him to look carefully at the legislation. As it stands, it does nothing to dispel poverty or to improve the welfare of children, and it humiliates hundreds of our citizens.
I have enjoyed the debate. I have heard some extremely good speeches, and some to which I prefer not to respond because they are not worth it.We are trying to provide a better basis for the recovery of child maintenance, both now and in the future. Where benefit is currently doing the father's job, it is not the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Department of Social Security who are paying out but millions of ordinary fathers and mothers who are paying taxes so that they can be used for the benefit of other people's children. Fathers retain a responsibility, and I believe that when they have the money to support their children it is right for them to do so. Most people believe the same, and that principle was accepted by the House. I have rarely known the Opposition Front Bench to accept the principles of an act so candidly and straightforwardly. I have also rarely heard so many Back-Bench comments which seemed to deny not only the principle of what we were trying to do, but its limited acceptance by those on the Front Bench. I will deal again with the difficult point about mothers and potential benefit deductions. We are talking about, potentially, a very small minority of mothers who might refuse to give the fathers' names. I have tried to make it clear that, if they fear harm or undue distress, mothers will not be required to give those names. The dictionary definition of harm is to hurt, injure or damage; the definition of distress is to subject to severe strain or pressure, to cause pain or anxiety to, or to afflict, vex or make miserable. Those definitions strike the Government as wide enough to embrace all genuine cases in which we would not wish to pursue the question of child maintenance.
In a written answer on 22 June, the Minister said:
As the Minister wishes to reassure us on that score, will he publish the guidelines that will be given to staff, so that Parliament is aware of them and other agencies dealing with the matter are well briefed on how it should be handled?"Suitable and comprehensive training and guidance will be given to staff of the Child Support Agency to ensure that this sensitive area of work is handled professionally and sympathetically."—[Official Report, 22 June 1992; Vol. 210, c. 87]
I am sure that the question of training will be made entirely clear. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will visit the Child Support Agency and see for himself what is being done. As for the publication of guidelines, we are anxious not to provide a charter for some fathers to evade their responsibilities.To try to deal with the concerns expressed about appeals, I will run through precisely what the process will be. The Child Support Agency will contact the parent with care and discuss the reasons why the parent feels unable to co-operate in obtaining maintenance. We shall make clear the ways in which the agency can help by acting as a buffer, making all contacts and collecting the maintenance. There is no question of passing on an address. A six-week cooling-off period will give the parent with care the opportunity to comply or to make further representations, in which she may be supported by outside help. We shall consider whether there would be a risk of harm or undue distress. If so, the matter will not be pressed. If we are not satisfied that the parent has good grounds for not co-operating, the case will be referred to a child support officer for further consideration. There will then be a further two-week period in which to comply or make representations. If, at the end of that period, the child support officer is not satisfied, a reduced benefit direction will be issued. At that stage, the opportunity to appeal to a child support tribunal for independent assessment comes into play. Therefore, there are several opportunities for the situation to be made clear to the mother.
I dare not give way. We are running out of time and there are too many measures to discuss in detail.I enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Wicks) who referred to Australia. In Labour Australia, the benefit reduction is total. All personal benefit is removed from the mother where there is no co-operation. That is the news in Labour Australia, but I do not think that we should like to see it here. Perhaps it makes what we are doing seem a bit more reasonable. The provisions are designed to create a new arrangement for the maintenance of children. It is not done with the interests of the Exchequer in mind, but with the aim of providing a basis and platform of maintenance and support. Mothers who are on maintenance and benefit now may not want to remain so in the future. This gives them a better chance——
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings, pursuant to Order [25 June].
That the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessment Procedure) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
That the draft Child Support (Maintenance Assessments and Special Cases) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
That the draft Child Support (Information, Evidence and Disclosure) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
That the draft Child Support (Arrears, Interest and Adjustment of Maintenance Assessments) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
Council Tax Benefit
I beg to move,That the draft Council Tax Benefit (General) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 18th June, be approved. Madam Speaker—I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That just goes to show what having a hard day can do. These regulations, which I commend to the House, introduce a comprehensive system to help people on low incomes meet their council tax liability. The scheme is comprehensive in two senses. First, the new benefit will provide rebates of up to 100 per cent. of council tax liability. I am sure that the House will welcome this and the fact that under the council tax there will be no minimum contribution. Further, as my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Social Security announced last November, the additional amounts included in the income-related benefits to help towards the 20 per cent. minimum contribution towards the community charge will not be clawed back on the introduction of the new tax. That will be very good news for about 8 million people and it is evidence of the Government's commitment to protect, and indeed improve, the position of those on the lowest incomes. By April next year, income-related benefits will be nearly £700 million more than would have been required to compensate for inflation since 1989. The benefit scheme will be comprehensive in another sense. The regulations have been designed to mirror the liability and discount arrangements of the council tax itself. They will therefore ensure that rebates reflect precisely changes in liability to the new tax. The council tax benefit scheme will be operated by billing and levying authorities, and benefit will usually be awarded by rebating the liable person's council tax bill. We expect that the new scheme will help around 5 million people. The regulations provide for two distinct types of benefit. First. main council tax benefit will help liable persons on low incomes to pay the council tax. Secondly, the alternative benefit, or second adult rebates, will provide help to a liable person where others living in his home on a non-commercial basis are on a low income. Before I go through the regulations in greater detail, I should explain that the Government's objective has been to maintain alignment with the other income-related benefits wherever practicable. The benefit scheme therefore builds on the reformed system of income-related benefits which the Government introduced in 1988. In particular, it retains the same procedures for assessing capital, net weekly income and applicable amounts, and for determining claims and reviews. There is general agreement that the aligned rules have several advantages. They make it easier to understand and to claim benefit. They are also helpful to local authorities which administer housing benefit and will administer council tax benefit, since they ensure that changes to the rebate system can be kept to the absolute minimum. Main council tax benefit therefore follows closely the structure of the existing community charge and housing benefit schemes, and the rate of benefit will be calculated in a similar way. First, the capital resources of those claiming will be considered. We believe that, if people have access to significant amounts of capital, they should be expected to use some of it reasonably in meeting their necessary expenses before claiming income-related benefits. In line with the current arrangements under community charge benefit and housing benefit, the upper capital limit will be £16,000 and the first £3,000 of a person's capital will be disregarded completely. Next, the net weekly income will be calculated. The assessment of income under council tax benefit will follow the normal rules in income-related benefits, and will include tariff income on any capital between £3,000 and £16,000. I recognise that many hon. Members of all parties are concerned abut the tariff income rule which ensures that the income-related benefits take capital into account. It may be helpful if I say something about it, as I receive and sign many letters about it. The system was devised only after a comprehensive consultation exercise before the reformed system of social security was introduced in 1988. The system has several advantages. It ensures that help is focused on those who need it most while not denying benefit to those with modest amounts of capital. The arrangements are more straightforward operationally and avoid the difficulties that can arise where actual income from capital is taken into account. They include, for example, the need to assess interest, which is often paid twice-yearly, on a weekly basis. Also, some might maximise their benefit unfairly by placing their savings in an account which pays no interest. Tariff income therefore does not imply any particular rate of interest but is merely a way of tapering off benefit to take account of higher levels of savings. Having considered the matter seriously since I have been in this post, I believe that the system we have is the best that can be devised. A person's personal circumstances will be taken into account, using the same applicable amounts, made up of personal allowances and premiums, as are now used in housing benefit and community charge benefit. Main council tax benefit will again follow housing benefit in applying non-dependant deductions from maximum benefit. The Government believe that it is reasonable to assume that non-dependants sharing a household on a non-commercial basis with someone in receipt of benefit should make some contribution to the council tax. The benefit scheme therefore assumes that contributions are made and provides that these deductions will be nothing for those in receipt of income support, £1 a week for those not in full-time work or with an income less than prescribed amount, and just £2 a week for others. The deductions are relatively modest; the £2 deduction will be broadly equivalent to 25 per cent. of the average weekly council tax bill. In calculating non-dependant deductions, any income from disability living allowance and attendance allowance will be completely disregarded, and I repeat that no non-dependant deductions will be made in respect of non-dependants who are in receipt of income support. Those with income at or below income support levels will be able to get help with up to 100 per cent. of their council tax bill, and for those with higher incomes, benefit will be withdrawn on the basis of a 20 per cent. taper. The decision to have a 20 per cent. taper for council tax benefit strikes the right balance between ensuring that those with incomes just above income support levels receive substantial help, while those with higher incomes receive slightly less. That is consistent with the Government's policy of directing benefit help to those people on the lowest incomes. I now turn to an important innovation in the council tax benefit scheme—the alternative maximum council tax benefit or second adult rebates. As hon. Members will be aware, the council tax includes a system of discounts which help people living alone—for example, widowed mothers with children. The system will also help certain other groups, such as those who are severely mentally impaired, who were previously exempt from the community charge. The alternative maximum council tax benefit will ensure that persons who would otherwise have qualified for a discount will not be unduly penalised by the presence in their household of a person on low income. A maximum 25 per cent. rebate will be awarded in respect of a second adult or second adults on income support. Lower levels of rebate will apply in respect of second adults with incomes above prescribed levels. I will offer a brief example for clarification. Let us take the case of a liable person who has been living alone, but is then joined in her household by a person in receipt of income support who will be living there on a non-commercial basis. Until the arrival of this second person, the liable person would have qualified for a 25 per cent. personal discount. However, the arrival of the second adult in the household will have the effect of increasing council tax liability from 75 per cent. to 100 per cent. Given that the new arrival is on income support, he cannot be expected to contribute to the liable person's council tax bill. Therefore, a second adult rebate may be awarded to compensate for the increase in the bill. In our example, the second adult, being on income support, will attract the maximum second adult rebate of 25 per cent., thus restoring the position to what it was before the arrival. I now turn to the regulations themselves. In explaining them to the House, I do not intend to impose on right hon. and hon. Members a blow-by-blow account of each and every paragraph of the regulations, although I know that that is a disappointment to those present. For the purpose of brevity, the regulations may be viewed as falling into two sections. The first section included parts I and V, which set out the general rules governing the treatment of income and capital under the council tax benefit scheme. Those parts also detail the rules applying to specific groups of people, such as self-employed earners and students. I should also include here parts VII and XII of the regulations, which set out the general provisions for implementing the scheme, including the rules on determining claims to benefit. All regulations closely follow the provisions currently applying to the housing benefit and community charge benefit schemes. The second broad section comprises part VI of the regulations, which covers those aspects which provide specifically for the particular structure of the council tax system. It is in part VI that we find for example, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) knows well, regulation 51, which provides for benefit to be awarded up to 100 per cent. of council tax liability, and the regulations that provide for non-dependant deductions. Also in part VI are the regulations that introduce the alternative maximum council tax benefit or second adult rebate, with regulation 54 and schedule 2 setting out the rules which ensure that a liable person who shares his accommodation with people on low incomes can receive help towards his council tax bill. In commending the regulations to the House, I should like to make it clear that they were subject to formal consultations with the local authority associations. During our consultations, many helpful comments and suggestions were made by the associations, for which the Government are extremely grateful, and a number of those are reflected in the final regulations before the House. For example, amendments on the processing of claims to benefit and the treatment of students during the long summer vacation were suggested by the associations and have been included in the regulations. I stress that we do not underestimate the need to ensure that those currently receiving community charge benefit move readily from it to council tax benefit, or the need to help local authorities in their task of implementing the new scheme. To that end, we will introduce a number of special arrangements to facilitate the introduction of the scheme. They will be prescribed in the Council Tax Benefit (Transitional) Order 1992, which we intend should be made and laid before the House as soon as the benefit regulations are approved. The arrangements have already been discussed with local authority associations and have met with their broad approval. The provisions will allow for important easements during the transition to council tax. An important feature of the transitional order is that it will protect the position of people who, although liable on 1 April 1993, do not immediately claim council tax benefit. That will be achieved by providing that claims that are made within 56 days of 1 April or within 56 days of the person receiving his first council tax bill will be treated as if they had been made on 1 April. The transitional arrangements will also enable local authorities to waive claims for council tax benefit from people already in receipt of housing benefit or community charge benefit. That will remove the necessity for people to submit new claims for the new benefit and will substantially reduce work loads for authorities during the changeover. I am sure that the House will welcome the regulations as offering a comprehensive system of support to those who may face difficulties in discharging their council tax liability. The regulations will offer particular help to those on income support who will gain not only from the introduction of the maximum 100 per cent. benefit, but from our decision not to claw back the amount previously included in income support rates to meet the minimum contribution to the community charge. Help will also be extended to those who, although not on low income themselves, share their households with others of limited means. I am also certain that, by aligning the new benefit scheme as far as possible with the existing income-related benefit administered by local authorities, the implementation of the council tax will be eased. On that basis, I commend the regulations to the House.
I am pleased to appear for the first time in the House with the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security. The previous occasion on which I appeared with him was at Wembley when we were raising money for charity in a football game. On that occasion, as the Minister broke through with the ball, I emerged from the goal and, diving bravely at his feet, managed to save the honour of my team. I hope that that is the last time I shall be at the Minister's feet, but who knows with talent such as his?
The hon. Gentleman may live in hope.
We are now considering the benefit side of son of poll tax—the council tax—which was introduced to save the Government's bacon after the demise of the former right hon. Member for Finchley. Should I say right hon. Lady? I must get my terms right. I do not know whether I should change the term I use, because I believe that the right hon. Lady is in the other place from today—[HON. MEMBERS: "The noble Lady."] The noble Lady. However she is now titled, it is true to say that she was well and truly trussed up and cooked by the present Prime Minister and his colleagues. One thing that he did to resurrect the hopes of the Conservative party was to do away with—or attempt to do away with as well as he could—the poll tax. The council tax has taken its place and in many ways the regulations are the attempt to mitigate the worse effects of the council tax on those on low incomes.What I find most objectionable is that the provisions are brought before the House in this form. My understanding is that when the Local Government Finance Bill was in Committee there was little discussion about the benefits side. That may have been due to some problems in Committee or to the farcical nature of the Committee stage to which we all adhere. However. there was no excuse for not having serious consideration of what are often technical matters, but nevertheless matters that affect millions of people, as the Minister pointed out. There were failings in Committee and it is also a failing that the matter has not been reported to the Social Security Advisory Committee. I am well aware of the technical caveat that six months must elapse after the passage of the legislation before a matter can be referred to the committee, but I should have thought that on this occasion, if no other, a series of regulations of such complexity and importance would have benefited from the committee's expert eye. I readily concede to the Minister that local authority associations have been involved and that other bodies. have made representations. Hon. Members have also made representations. However, not being able to go to the Social Security Advisory Committee underlines the fact that the way in which governmental processes work—especially, in my experience, in this area—is not a great credit to our democracy. The regulations are one item before the House for a debate of one and a half hours, although they are jam-packed with stuff—no doubt excellent stuff. Our democracy is not served by items of such width and importance being put to the House for a one-and-a-half-hour debate. We need to get on with the reality, so we need to make a few points on the regulations because of their effect from 1 April 1993 on people on low incomes. I was immediately struck by the complicated nature of the council tax benefit system. No doubt, part of the reason for its complexity is that it is trying to be a poll tax and a property tax at the same time. However, there is evidence of additional and unnecessary complications in the regulations. In that regard, local authorities will have to send out net bills that are calculated in advance. That will involve extensive procedures, registration—the use of registers, or whatever we want to call them—canvassing households and assessments. There will effectively be a record of everyone in a household and possibly details of their incomes as well. After many years of sloganising about simplifying the social security system, the Government have had an opportunity to act with the regulations, but they missed that chance. The poll tax benefit system is already so cumbersome and detailed that up to 20 per cent. of assessments may be inaccurate. Some 20 per cent. of claims may result in over-payment or under-payment. We should improve on that record. I hope that the Minister, in his new capacity, will keep an eye on that. I hope that, through internal monitoring in his Department, he will try to ensure that that failure rate improves. That may require not just his eagle eye but resources directed to the right places in local authorities. The Opposition welcome the 100 per cent. rebates. However, the rebates raise several questions. It is possible that councils will continue not to be reimbursed fully when they pay the rebates. I understand that the current level is about 97 per cent., although no doubt eminent local government practitioners will correct that figure if I am wrong. It would be useful if the Minister were at some point to clarify whether the 97 per cent. reimbursement from Government to councils through the council tax will be maintained. Some of my more cynical colleagues are suspicious that that 97 per cent. figure will be reduced, particularly when expenditure pressure is brought to bear on the Department of Social Security. No doubt the Secretary of State will vigorously resist that pressure. With regard to the rebates, we must also consider the element to assist payment of the poll tax which is currently contained in income support. I understand that that element will be preserved and I welcome that. However, as I am perhaps unduly suspicious, the Minister might reassure us that the element in income support will continue to be paid in future and that it will not be frozen as a way of recouping money to the Exchequer. I hope that it will not be reduced in the next uprating or in any uprating in future. [Interruption.] I am pleased that the Minister agrees that that is unlikely to happen. Even though I have great faith in him, I hope that he will carry that message to those people who are even more eminent than he is. The possible cost saving if that element is removed is £680 million. Even if the Minister stands very firm, he and his colleagues may find that sum far too tempting a prospect and they may try to reduce the expenditure that is devoted to that scheme at the moment. It sounds like a large global scheme, but it breaks down to £1.40 for a single person on income support and £2.80 for a couple. That may not sound very much in the House, but for people on income support it is often the difference between having a square meal and not having one. As a result of experience and practice over the years, the Minister may wish to consider whether there should be changes to the regulations in respect of the taper. He is aware that, as income increases, council tax benefit will be withdrawn at 20p in the pound, as opposed to 15p in the pound under the poll tax benefit. That would account for a saving of £60 million. I intend to show how that relatively small amount could be reallocated to the taper so that the taper is more generous and people are not hit so hard as they try to get back to work and their marginal rates of taxation are kept as low as possible. Withdrawal rates are a major contribution to the poverty trap. They combine with extra taxation and national insurance to create effective marginal tax rates of some 97 per cent. I hope that no hon. Member believes that that is acceptable. Some people will receive less in council tax benefits than they have received under poll tax benefits or rate rebates. Many of those people are not on the absolute minimum levels of income. They may have small amounts of income from occupational pension funds or they may be in very low-paid work. I hope that the Government will consider those people over the next few years as they re-examine the way in which the scheme is working, with an eye to looking once again at the taper. That might be extremely important, not least to help people in hardship and difficult times, but also with the aim, which I hope all hon. Members share, of getting people back to work without penalising them unduly as their incomes increase. Perhaps the most serious concern for the Opposition is the single person discount. The discount does not seem to fit easily into the structure of benefits. Single people will qualify for a 25 per cent. discount on bills. As the Minister explained, the second adult in a home will, if on low income, also entitle the liable person to a 25 per cent. rebate. That benefit has all the makings of a real administrative nightmare. The liable person will have to provide highly detailed information so that a decision can be taken between a personal rebate and one for the second adult. We must consider whether everyone in that situation will be equipped to provide the details. Some very confused forms could be returned to local council offices by people who are not literate or who do not understand how the system works. A liable person will have to ask detailed questions about the personal income of the second adult. The second adult may be unwilling to provide that information and may even refuse to give it. Administrative tinkering might produce some benefits, not least for the individual, but also for the Department and, above all, for councils which may need to implement the policies. The council tax benefit in that area is user-hostile. It may also lead to serious problems with take-up. Individuals may feel that the whole process is just too much for them. The form-filling exercise and the details requested about their personal circumstances and those of second adults may be too much to go through. Heaven only knows what the form looks like. I do not know whether there are draft forms available, but I hope that the consultations about that form will be as wide as those held for the disability living and working allowance form. I am sure that the form would benefit from some filleting so that the required information is given and ascertaining that information is made as easy as possible. In that way, the form could be processed easily. The Minister could also do the House and the public a great service by letting us know what publicity and advice will be available when the council tax benefit scheme is to be implemented. I hope that he will make a few remarks about that in his reply. It is equally important that the individuals who have to fill out the forms, the people who process them at council level and people in the Department are all properly equipped so that the difficulties which are bound to arise can be handled speedily and sensitively. Expensive revisions will be necessary whenever the income of a liable person or the people living with that person changes. That is another administrative problem. The scope for re-billing and recalculating rebates will be immense. The leeway for under-payment and overpayment, to which I referred in the context of the poll tax, will be massive. The consequent hardship for those on benefit could be great. I hope that the Government will examine the matter carefully. The proposed scheme is in danger of drowning in a morass of detail, not least that of the daily liability scheme under which it operates. I hope that the Government will consider carefully how the scheme moves forward. I am leaving aside the huge increase in the workload which local authorities will have to undertake. That has been the subject of letters from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of London Authorities which the Minister will undoubtedly have seen. Local authority council tax benefit services could be forced to work out the best deal for each and every case. Cases may not slot neatly into the computerised programs. That would lead to incredible amounts of additional work which would need to be funded one way or another by the local authority. That is a matter of great anxiety. In many ways, the additional workload is avoidable. The 25 per cent. single person discount is a throwback to the poll tax. Unlike rate rebates, it is not related to ability to pay. The very costs of the single person discount distort the rebate system and could lead to the rebate system being underfunded. If the discount system costs £780 million, that is £780 million which will not go to produce a more sensible and planned rebate system such as we should like to see. Joint and several liability is greatly extended by the regulations. It simply means that someone living at home but not named on the council tax bill can be liable for arrears. Thus, any individual who appears in the hierarchy of liability can become liable for the whole council tax bill but may be in receipt of only part of a rebate. The position is far worse than under the poll tax, when liability extended only to the husband or wife. Of course, under the rates, only the householder was liable. The Minister referred to non-dependant deductions. Under the council tax benefit system, it will be assumed that contributions to the council tax will be met by grown-up children, elderly relatives and others who are referred to as non-dependants. But we all know that in many cases that just does not happen. That assumption could discourage the sharing of accommodation. Again, the Minister may wish to consider talking to his colleagues at the Department of Health and elsewhere about how the system ties in with the Government's approach to community care. We may place an obstacle in the way of people who might otherwise share accommodation. Even for the sake of a few pounds, households could be broken up. That will place more stress and pressure on caring services in the community. The regulations are an effort to reconcile a property-based on rates-based tax with a person-based poll tax as well as the two benefits systems that flow from them. They may be irreconcilable. One system may have to come out on top. I hope that we do not remain the prisoner of the internal battle which led to the creation of the halfway house of the council tax. I welcome the Minister's tenure at the Department of Social Security. I hope that before he moves on to even higher things he will be able to move the system one step forward to where I want it to be—to a rebate system. i hope that the property-based system will come out on top. That will happen at some time. I hope that the Minister's legacy will be to have returned us to a sensible rates-based system.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to address the House briefly on a complicated but, despite what we have just heard, non-controversial set of regulations. When I was assembling my thoughts for this, my maiden speech, I chanced to hear that my predecessor had quietly asked at the back door for a copy of my utterances in Hansard. That gave me the opportunity to do the same for him and I collected a copy of his maiden speech. It was intriguing, because a large portion of his opening remarks were spent on congratulating our current Madam Speaker, who had recently assumed a different role. Chivalry, which is something that my accent usually finds difficult, suggests that I should not mention any times or dates—and chivalry was certainly a characteristic which stood out in John Moore.John Moore had a successful career in the House and in Government. He was a Minister at the Department of Energy, at the Treasury, at the Department of Transport and at the Department of Health, where his own health let him down. As his name was mentioned on a recent list, he faces the prospect of making his maiden speech in another place fairly soon. Having spent almost a year knocking on doors in the constituency of Croydon, Central, I have learnt two things: first, my predecessor was an excellent, well liked, popular, hard-working constituency Member of Parliament; secondly, Croydon, Central is a delightful area in which to live. Most people see Croydon as a mini-Manhattan. It has concrete tower blocks and concrete arcades but there is much more to it. Although Croydon recently failed in its bid to become a city, it has been a town of independent standing for about 1,000 years. Croydon is much more than a mini-Manhattan. Croydon, Central has leafy glades and a delightful urban dormitory area which predominantly serves London. It finishes with a picturesque council estate largely set among farm land. As an early citizen of Croydon, John Ruskin, said:
Croydon, Central is one of the four constituencies served by an excellent, well known and successful Conservative council. Since the demise of the Greater London council, it has been a unitary authority or, as some of the old hands of Croydon would say, a county borough. The council is one of relatively few London councils, all Conservative, which follow value for money. The council is less paternalistic and traditional nowadays. It recognises the need for value for money and quality services. I raise that point because it has been long forgotten that the greatest benefit to the poorest among us is not so much the level of benefits available as the low level of the full charge for quality services. Some of us have a little experience of that. One London Conservative council, which has almost the lowest level of external support per head of population in inner London, has produced some of the best-quality services, and for two years has had a zero poll tax. That really brings benefit to the poor. Croydon, with its lower needs, has obviously received lower grant. Nevertheless, it has a long history of low rates and low community charge, but quality and value-formoney services. I anticipate the same from Croydon, under Conservative control, with the council tax. A small proportion of Croydon's population will need help—hence the regulations, which are bewilderingly complex and wide-ranging. I am surprised that some of the papers have not noted that the regulations cover haemophilia, which has exercised minds in magazines recently, and also polygamous marriages. We must congratulate the Government because they have taken the benefits of the two previous systems—the rates and the community charge—and have learnt from some of their mistakes. One simple example is that students are now exempt. I felt that it was non-productive and bureaucratic to charge them under the community charge system. It was pointless for local councils to chase them, but they had to, due to pressure from the auditors. Congratulations are also in order for the "second adult" rebate. Because of the complexities, local authorities have commented on that aspect, but I hope and anticipate that that system will continue as it is important for family health and for community care. I want further progress in two other areas. I should not have thought that it was beyond the wit of man, although it seems to be beyond the wit of most councils, to collect information for council tax benefits in such a way that council tax discount cases will automatically be flagged up. Because of my doubts about local authorities, I hope that the two Ministers—in the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security—could more easily organise that than the councils could perceive the possibilities. The benefit for the councils would be immense. As a past practitioner, I know that local authorities should be using publicity. It is for their ultimate benefit in keeping down arrears, and for the ultimate benefit of the public whom they are supposed to be there to serve, and so often they fail. Secondly, I hope that central Government will continue to press councils, perhaps using the citizens charter—if need be, even to force them—to produce better services for less cost. The result would be of more value to British citizens than books of regulations and millions of pounds of taxpayers' money spent on benefits."Things modest, humble and pure in peace under the low red roofs of Croydon".
I hope that you will excuse my discourtesy, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was checking up on the details of the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), whose speech I have listened to with great interest. It suddenly dawned on me that it was a maiden speech, and I was anxious to check on his constituency details so that I could welcome him in the customary fashion.
While sprinting back to the right Bench.
Yes. That is the second time in my parliamentary career that that has happened to me. The first time was in 1983 when, a week after my maiden speech, I followed the former Member for York, Mr. Conal Gregory. I received my first note from the Speaker on that occasion—which caused me great angst—advising me that he was about to call me after Mr. Gregory and asking me to do the niceties and to observe the usual decencies, which I did in some haste and confusion.I find myself in exactly the same position again. Notwithstanding that, I welcome the hon. Member for Croydon, Central, to the House. I am not an expert on local government, but I know enough to know that he is a great expert in his field. I am sure that he will bring great wisdom and knowledge to the House and we look forward to his contributions, although I hope that they will receive more recognition than my efforts in these few rushed comments. I listened to his speech with interest. Obviously, the House will welcome elements of the regulations, not least the fact that the Government have recognised that a 100 per cent. rebate on the council tax is necessary, to avoid some of the worst financial impact, especially that suffered by families in hardship under the community charge system, when there was a ceiling on the rebate. I welcome that change unreservedly. It marks considerable progress, it will deal with many of the administrative difficulties and take much of that hardship out of the council tax rebate system. Secondly, the Government could have argued with some logic that, as other benefits were increased because people were expected to pay a 20 per cent. contribution towards the community charge, the increase should have been clawed back, but they have not done so. That amounts to a considerable sum, and as claimants no longer have to make a 20 per cent. contribution, the Government could argue that they needed it back Those two changes are welcome. However, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said that we must balance that against the high level at which the taper has been set. Although, the Government should be congratulated on not clawing back the 20 per cent. benefit increase. the taper is steep. There has been discussion about that and I know that the Government have considered it carefully. I want an assurance from the Minister that he will monitor that carefully during the introduction of the regulations, to satisfy himself that it does not cause undue hardship as it would be a shame if that where to occur. People on my side of the political argument feel that it is difficult to set any property-based tax equipped with a sensitive rebate scheme. By definition, a property-based tax cannot be equated with ability to pay. In passing, I cannot resist saying that if the system were based on a local income tax, which was then used as a basis for generating local government finance, a rebate system and the monumental complexities that it embraces, as shown in the regulations, would be rendered unnecessary. There are better ways to do this. Having said that, the regulations introduce some improvements. For instance, I welcome rationalisation of the assessment systems which will make it easier for the council tax to be administered. I did not hear the Minister refer to the fact that the Social Security Advisory Committee would have been asked to consider the regulations. I wonder whether the Committee raised any significant points about them. If so, perhaps the Minister will mention it in his winding-up speech. I have several detailed questions. If the Minister cannot deal with them immediately, I should be pleased to receive written confirmation. There have been discussions, especially in the House of Lords, about the so-called "better-off" problem which could arise from the provisions under the regulations relating to joint and several liability. A bill could be levied against someone with joint and several liability who is not a spouse or part of another type of couple but one of several people living together. That person's name might not be on the bill, but he or she might qualify for a higher rebate than other partners in the household. I know that the Government have considered that problem, but it does not appear to have been resolved in the regulations. I know that it is a small technical point, but it would be helpful to learn the fruits of the Government's consideration. Another better-off problem is that posed by the second-adult rebate. A complex problem could arise if a person was entitled to benefit under both routes, as set out in the regulations. I am not entirely sure whether that problem has been resolved. It would be helpful if the Minister could give me an answer. On the wider political perspective, it would be helpful if the Minister could say what effect the regulations will have on those under 25—the regulations do not make that crystal clear. Greater consideration should be given to those in that age group. I know that this matter was discussed at length in the House of Lords and I wonder whether the Government have had any thoughts about how to mitigate the effects of the regulations on that age group, who will receive less council tax benefit than others. We should have a discussion about the social security provisions in general for that age group. I am not clear how students can claim benefits under the regulations and I should be grateful for clarification about that. I am interested in the interaction between the discount system and the rebate system. Council tax benefit will be awarded net of discounts. If that is true, there may be some difficulty for those on income support who receive 100 per cent. benefit, because discounts will make no difference to entitlement. Therefore, any discounts under the council tax will make no difference to them, but it will make a difference to those who administer the system. Problems and delays may occur if the discount is not automatically awarded before the bill is sent out. There will be problems if the local authority does not have some of the relevant information. Complications may occur for those on fluctuating incomes or whose circumstances change, which may affect their eligibility for discounts. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how the Government are thinking of rectifying those problems, Although the new benefit system is welcomed, local government is concerned because it needs assistance and time to get the system up and running efficiently. What costs will be borne by the local authorities which supervise and implement the system? I understand that in some cases local authorities will have to use their own money to try to meet the costs of administering the benefit system that the regulations set up. The Government will uprate the benefit and rebate levels each year. I am sure that the Minister's postbag, in common with those of many other hon. Members, is full of letters expressing concern at the fact that water charges are now a tremendous problem for some people in some parts of the country. I know that the Government have to have regard to associated housing costs in the round when they consider the uprating provisions each year. Is there any way in which water charges could be added to the housing costs that the Government consider when deciding the upratings for the benefit and rebate systems? That could give some relief to those suffering significant increases in their water charges. I welcome the regulations because they are a marked improvement on the original system. The Government have been generous in not seeking to claw back the 20 per cent. income support level increases. If the Minister is unable to answer the detailed points that I and other hon. Members have raised, we should be grateful for a written reply.
My first task is to welcome warmly the maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford). He has come to the House after pursuing a distinguished career in local government, which we all recognise. I was fortunate to visit Croydon the other day in connection with some of the social services provided there, and I formed a very favourable opinion of it.The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about his predecessor, who was once involved with the Department of Social Security. He was a likeable man, with many friends. We are all pleased at his ennoblement, and we look forward to hearing from him many times in another place. My hon. Friend referred to Croydon as the Manhattan of southern England. With hyperbole like that, he will go a long way, and fit in easily with Government publications and speeches about Government policy. Long may he continue to spread the news of the benefits of his borough, which he has represented so well in many different ways in the past, and which he will undoubtedly represent well in the House. We wish him well. I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) for his kind remarks at the beginning of his speech. I look forward to working opposite him for some time to come. It was kind of him to remind the House of a previous occasion when we, together with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), were on the same football pitch at Wembley stadium, when the Members of Parliament representing the north of the country as a whole inflicted a considerable defeat on those representing the south. I can remember with tears in my eyes that moment when I slotted the ball home to score at Wembley. I do not think that I shall ever forget it. There are times when tears come into my eyes when I look at Government policy, but that is the only connection between the two incidents. For the benefit of the Whips, I should add that that used to happen, but now I just shed tears of joy when I consider Government policy. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire raised a number of points, and I shall endeavour to cover most of them—if I cannot, I shall write to hon. Members. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North is right to say that we are not required to consult the Social Security Advisory Committee, which is the normal practice on regulations made within a fixed period of royal assent to a Bill. The hon. Gentleman was also right to say that we have consulted extensively with local authorities. However, a copy of the draft regulations was sent to the SSAC for information at the same time as those regulations were sent to the local authority associations for comment. No comments have been received from the SSAC. Questions have been asked about the administration of the council tax benefit. We hope that, by aligning the benefit as closely as we can with housing benefit and community charge benefit, we have done our best to meet some of the concerns that were fairly expressed by local authority associations. We are all aware of the complexities that the previous scheme caused. We lived through them, and the local authorities worked through them. We felt that it was helpful to try to do what we could on alignment. We feel that we have done the best we could, but we shall watch the administration of the benefit carefully. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North asked about the 97 per cent. reimbursement—I should correct him: it is 95 per cent. reimbursement—that comes from the Government to local authorities. I understand that the remainder is found through the revenue support grant. The subsidy arrangements for the council tax benefit have yet to be finally determined, but I envisage that they will closely follow the current arrangements.
How does the Department currently monitor the performance of local authorities in terms of over and under-payment of poll tax benefit? Will the Minister keep an eye on the new procedures in relation to council tax benefit?
We monitor matters carefully from figures provided by local authorities. That monitoring will continue.The hon. Member for Nottingham, North went on to refer to the clawback and the suggestion that we might at some stage take back the money that has been put into income support. The same point was made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. I assure them that I regard that money as having been put into income support for the future. That is Government policy, and it will now form an integral part of the benefit levels. We can all agree that that is good news. Reference was made to the 20 per cent. taper. In all income-related benefits, the Government aim to target help to those who need it most. Under the council tax benefit, help will extend to people who have incomes above the income support level. It is widely agreed that it would be wrong for benefit to stop abruptly when income rises above income support levels. The taper means that, rather than facing the sudden cut-off of benefit, people with incomes above income support levels will see their benefit reduced on a sliding scale. Those arrangements ensure that people with incomes just above income support levels can continue to receive substantial help with their council tax, while those on higher incomes receive proportionately less. That is consistent with Government policy of directing help to those on the lowest incomes who need it most. It is of course true that the regulations set the council tax benefit taper at 20 per cent. compared with the 15 per cent. taper that currently applies under the community charge benefit. The taper is applied to income in excesss of the customer's income support level. For example, excess income of £10 per week will reduce benefit by £2 per week. Hon. Members who have been concerned about that should remember that the higher taper must be considered not in isolation, but in the context of the other considerable changes to the benefit system that the Government have announced. The first 100 per cent. of maximum rebate will benefit all customers, including those with incomes above income support levels. In addition, all who are on benefit will gain from the Government's decision not to claw back any of the amounts included in income support levels to help with the 20 per cent. contribution under the community charge. Those amounts, as the House will recall, were added previously. Taken overall, benefit entitlement under the new tax will extend to claimants with broadly the same levels of income as those helped by community charge benefit. That is why I say that the taper should not be taken in isolation. It is obviously a cost on the extra money that we have put into the benefit system to protect people, and it is not always possible to even things out as well as we would like; but I am convinced that the overall complex of the taper and the other benefits that have been put in—100 per cent. rebates and no clawback—is a good deal for those looking for assistance from council tax benefit.
Without wishing to go over old ground, I remind the Minister that the amount put aside for the single person's discount scheme is £580 million. When the council tax benefit begins to settle—as no doubt it will in the next year or so—there will undoubtedly be internal reviews on how money can be saved and reallocated. I am simply putting on the record the possibility that, when a review can take place, the Minister should look on the taper as one of the first items for review. As I pointed out, from a 20p in the pound taper to a 15p one costs £60 million. Considering that the Leader of the House is sitting immediately beside him—recalling that the right hon. Gentleman was renowned for his ability to shuffle the pack and, using the same cards, come up with a slightly better deal for those in need—the Minister, bearing that lesson in mind, may be able to reallocate the money towards a more helpful taper for those on low incomes.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I can add little to what I said about the way in which extra support has been put into benefit. There are many places where a small amount comparatively would appear to do a great deal of good, but add those apparently small sums around the system as a whole and one discovers just how much is involved. The hon. Gentleman pointed out what £580 million put into the system meant in terms of pounds per week. Imagine sitting on the Treasury Bench having to make such decisions all the time, right through the benefit system. The hon. Gentleman should appreciate what a bonus it has been to have had significant amounts put into income support and to have kept them there, so helping those for whom we are all extremely concerned.The hon. Members for Nottingham, North and for Roxbrough and Berwickshire referred to the double tax consideration and asked whether people might be better off with the main council tax benefit or the alternative council tax benefit, the so-called "better buy" option. Which would be the best, they wondered. Under the council tax benefit, a person cannot receive, at the same time, both the main benefit based on his own income and personal circumstances and the second adult rebate. Authorities must award whichever is the greater of the two amounts of benefit. The Government believe that the system of second adult rebates, which follows closely the arrangements for non-dependant deductions, will be relatively simple to operate. The information that authorities will need to assess entitlement to either main benefit or second adult rebate will be collected on the benefit claim form. It will be the responsibility of the liable person to report changes in circumstances about second adult income. It will also be relatively easy to programme computers to compare the two amounts of benefit and award whichever is the greater. The administrative cost of the better buy should not be exaggerated; nor should the number of cases. We estimate that a relatively small number, about 10,000 taxpayers in Great Britain, might be affected out of an estimated benefits caseload of five million. So the administrative implications of that aspect of the benefit system must be seen in that context. It has been argued that there should be no non-dependant deductions in council tax benefit. Non-dependant deductions have been part of the benefit scheme for a long time. They reflect the assumption that adult non-dependants sharing a liable persons dwelling are contributing to the council tax. Similar rules apply to other income-related benefits, including housing benefit, and did apply in the rate rebate schemes. There are no deductions for non-dependants in the community charge benefit scheme, since the charge is a personal liability. The level of non-dependant deductions in council tax benefit will I believe, be modest. It is reasonable to expect a contribution of £1 a week from non-dependants with incomes up to £100 a week, in current terms, and of £2 a week from non-dependants with higher incomes. The lower rate reduction of £1 a week will apply in respect of non-dependants who are not in full-time work. No non-dependant deductions are made in respect of people on income support or people such as full time students. No deduction will he made, for example, for pensioner non-dependants who are on income support, and a lower rate of deduction of £1 a week will apply to pensioner non-dependants not on income support. Seen in the round, it does not seem quite so unreasonable as has been suggested. Claim forms will generally be a matter for local authorities, but we shall be producing a claim form which will be open for consultation. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central made a good point about publicity. It is extremely important that local authorities work hard to get out the information about the proposals to ensure that the majority of people benefit. It is the wish of my Department and all concerned to ensure that the rebates are properly taken up and are used for the purpose that we want to achieve. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to move forward these regulations. The matters that I have not been able to pick up will have been noted, and hon. Members can expect replies from me. These regulations provide a good system of rebate and benefit for those on the lowest possible income, and below, who will have to deal with the new council tax. They have been thought through very carefully with local authority associations. I am grateful for the helpful comments that have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, which see the regulations launched in as reasonable and fair-minded a way as possible. I am quite sure that those in local authorities up and down the land administering them will apply their usual determination and common sense to the work that they do on behalf of all of us, and I hope that the regulations will be the basis for a useful and successful scheme for the future.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Council Tax Benefit (General) Regulations 1992, which were laid before this House on 18th June, be approved.
|That Standing Order No. 130 (Select committees related to government departments) be amended:|
|In the Table:|
|by leaving out the words—|
|5||'3. Education, Science and Arts||Department of Education and Science; Office of Arts and Libraries||13||3'|
|and inserting the words—|
|'3. Education||Department for Education||11||3'|
|10||by leaving out the words—'5. Energy||Department of Energy||11||3'|
|by inserting the words—'. National Heritage||Department of National Heritage||11||3'|
|15||by inserting the words—, '.Science and Technology||Office of Science and Technology||11||3"|
|in the third and fourth columns of the entry relating to Scottish Affairs, by leaving out'13 5'and inserting'11 3'|
|20||by leaving out the words—'14. Treasury and Civil Service||Treasury, Office of the Minister for the Civil Service (but excluding the drafting of bills by the Parliamentary Counsel Office), Board of Inland Revenue, Board of Customs and Excise||11||3'|
|25||and inserting the words—|
|30||'. Treasury and Civil Service||Treasury, Office of Public Service and Science (but excluding the Office of Science and Technology and the drafting of bills by the Parliamentary Counsel Office), Board of Inland Revenue, Board of Customs and Excise||11||3'|
|35||In paragraph (3): by leaving out lines 14 to 17.|
The House will perhaps understand if I approach this speech with a certain sense of nostalgia after many years during which I have made speeches such as the one that has just been delivered. I have operated in various capacities over the years, and I suppose that I am one of the relatively few people in the House who, even now, feel easy with terms like "non-dependant deductions" and
Departmental Select Committees
Before we begin the debate on the motion on Select Committees, it might be helpful to the House if I described the procedure to be followed.We shall begin with a general debate on the motion and the issues raised by the amendments. This may continue for one and a half hours, and as a number of Members wish to speak, it would be helpful if speeches were limited. At the conclusion of the debate, the Chair will first give an opportunity for the selected amendments to be moved formally—that is to say, amendment (f) on a Northern Ireland Committee in the name of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and amendment (h) on an Energy Sub-Committee in the name of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). The Question will then be put on the motion itself.
I beg to move,
some of the others that we have heard deployed with such skill by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, who has left the Chamber.
The right hon. Gentleman is looking older.
I do not know how to respond to this badinage from the Liberal Democrats Bench. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that I look as if I am having even more problems than I had with social security, I have to say, especially as I launch this debate, that I have a sense of some satisfaction in moving a motion that large parts of the press, and perhaps an even larger part of the House, told me they did not think I would be able to deliver before the summer recess.Bearing in mind your remarks, Madam Speaker, I shall speak briefly. It is clear that, despite the relative modesty of the motion, the proposals that I am putting before the House have attracted a good deal of interest, and a number of Members wish to speak in the debate. At this stage, it will probably be for the convenience of hon. Members if I explain the motion quite quickly. The revisions to Standing Order No. 130 that are reflected in the motion introduce the changes to the Select Committee system required by the post-election changes in the machinery of government. I think it can be said that they reflect the Government's continuing commitment to the basic principle that the Committee structure should shadow the various Departments of State. The motion provides for two new Committees to be set up, to shadow the Department of National Heritage and the Office of Science and Technology, both of them with the usual, maximum number of 11 Members and with a quorum of three. The new National Heritage Committee will look at all the functions of the new Department, including the former responsibilities of the Office of Arts and Libraries and have responsibility for broadcasting, the built heritage, sport, tourism, film, export licensing of works of art and, in due course—subject to the passage of the necessary legislation—the proposed national lottery and millennium fund. So far as science and technology is concerned, the proposal is to set up a full Committee to oversee the work of the new Office of Science and Technology, bearing in mind the importance attached to science and technology matters by the House over a long period, which was reflected in the Procedure Committee's report on the working of the Select Committee system in 1990. In the circumstances of the last Parliament, that report recommended either that there should be a joint Committee with the House of Lords or that two additional Members should be provided for the Education, Science and Arts Committee, with power to form a Sub-Committee on Science and Technology. The House approved the latter option in amendments to the orders of reference last July. The appointment of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to take responsibility at Cabinet level for science and technology demonstrates very clearly the Government's commitment to the importance of these issues, and that is reflected also in our proposal for a Select Committee. As the new Office of Science and Technology is within the Cabinet Office, we could have proposed to transfer the power to form a Sub-Committee, and the additional members to do this, to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. That would have placed an additional burden on that busy Committee, which already makes use of the power to form a Sub-Committee on civil service matters. Instead, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy have readily agreed to my proposal that the Office of Science and Technology should have its own Select Committee. Other functions of the renamed Office of Public Service and Science, including civil service matters, the citizens charter, and "next steps", will fall, as before, to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. Provision for the Education, Science and Arts Select Committee to set up a Committee to look at science matters, as set out in the first four lines of the current Standing Order, is therefore removed. That is the purpose of the last amendment in the motion. In other words, the former Education, Science and Arts Select Committee will now look solely at education issues and will revert to the normal maximum membership of 11, with a quorum of three.
Does the Leader of the House accept from me, as a member of the first Science and Technology Select Committee set up in 1966 under the chairmanship of Arthur Palmer, that there are real problems here? If the House of Commons is to scrutinise science policy, even under the new ministerial arrangements, because of the nature of the problems that it faces it must be involved to some extent in the Department of Education, certainly in the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry and possibly in the Scottish Office and Welsh Office. My direct question is: will the new Select Committee have the authority to roam over the responsibilities of other Departments that are not covered by the Office of Science and Technology?
The direct answer is that that is conceived in relation to the basic proposition that the House go down the path of departmental Select Committees. Therefore, the Committee's remit is the work covered by the Office of Science and Technology. I hope that that is a sufficiently direct answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.
It is very unsatisfactory.
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is free to make a case for a Committee that is more along the lines of a House of Lords Committee, and I suspect that he intends to do so. The basic proposition has been made that the work of departmental Select Committees should match that of Departments. I acknowledge that that is the basis on which this proposal is put before the House.
The Select Committee on Procedure report in 1978, which looked forward to the present system of departmental Select Committees, argued that Select Committees should be primarily, but not exclusively, based on Departments of State. Given the fact that energy constitutes 20 per cent. of the United Kingdom's gross domestic product, is there not a strong case for a Select Committee on Energy to cover that important aspect of the nation's life? Does the Leader of the House really believe that that huge Department, covered by a huge Committee in the Department of Trade and Industry, will be able to deal adequately with energy issues?
The hon. Gentleman is advancing arguments which I suspect will crop up in various forms during the debate. Amendment (h) on that subject adopts a different tack from that proposed by the hon. Gentleman, who suggests a separate Committee. It suggests tacking energy on to the Select Committee for the Environment, creating a different kind of multi-departmental conglomerate. I should like to hear arguments developed on that subject before I comment further. My present purpose is to make a brief introductory speech, recognising that the hon. Gentleman and others will wish to make a number of points later.I was about to comment on the energy issue, which now falls to the Trade and Industry Select Committee, with the exception of energy efficiency, which is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment and would therefore fall to the Environment Select Committee. For that to happen, no amendments are required to the Standing Orders that govern either of those Committees, which may reflect the House's long-standing policy. I cannot pretend that I see a case for retaining the Energy Select Committee, given that the Energy Department has disappeared. I emphasise what I said in business questions last Thursday, that that is in no sense a reflection on the Members who have served on the Energy Committee since the current system was set up. They have done a good job in respect of their duties.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Yes, indeed. I was about to refer to the distinguished Chairman, who led the Committee in its excellent work, along with whom I represent, as Member of Parliament, the borough of Chelmsford.
My right hon. Friend said that, as Select Committees will shadow Departments of State, he saw no reason to have a Select Committee on Energy. Perhaps he would agree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) that energy constitutes 20 per cent. of gross domestic product. As, according to his logic, there can be a Select Committee only if there is an appropriate Department of State, does he agree that it was inappropriate to abolish that Department of State?
I regard my hon. Friend's suggestion as a temptation, which I shall avoid, to comment on decisions that are fairly and squarely for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as they relate to the machinery of government. Mine is the relatively humble role of seeking to match the operation of the House of Commons to the consequences of those decisions.As I said in business questions last week, although the matter is touched on in the motion in only one limited way, I am happy to say that the Government firmly intend to establish a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. The relevant change to the Standing Order does not need to provide for a Committee. It simply provides for its membership to be 11 rather than 13, and its quorum to be three rather than five, to put it on a par with all the other Select Committees. That will ease the way to the setting up of the Committee, which I believe is the general wish of all hon. Members. The House is well aware that I am relatively new to the job. One lesson that I have quickly learnt is that it has, at least in one way, a good deal in common with my social security post. Whatever advance one proposes, the applause is muted and quickly replaced by cries of "M ore, more." In this case, the manifestation of "More, more" is the range of amendments on the Order Paper to which it is clear a number of hon. Members wish to refer in their speeches. Perhaps it would be rash of me to excite hopes and say that I will feel able to invite the House to go beyond what I propose, but I look forward to hearing what is said and, with the leave of the House, to responding later.
It is nice to be able to begin with one or two words of welcome. I start where the Leader of the House left off, and give a particular welcome to the establishment at long last of the long overdue Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. Without wishing to sound churlish, it falls to me to remind the House that the Government have been in breach of Standing Orders for more than five years by not acting on that matter. There is no doubt that that has constituted a serious gap in the proper parliamentary scrutiny of Government business. Much as I welcome the fact that a Select Committee is at long last being set up, I regret that its membership has been reduced. I am sorry, as are many of my hon. Friends, that it is to be a smaller Select Committee, but better smaller and late than never.There are other aspects of the motion that are to be welcomed. I and my hon. Friends strongly support the establishment of a Select Committee to shadow the Department of National Heritage. Although it has been designated the "Ministry of Fun" for obvious reasons, it has some extremely important issues to consider. We are seeing an almost daily steady decline in the standards of public service broadcasting as the Thatcherite—I use that somewhat outdated word as the ethos still prevails—view of broadcasting is imposed on the industry and morale is at an all-time low. We are slipping slowly and inexorably towards a United States system of broadcasting. Only last week, a report commissioned by the Policy Studies Institute said that there had been a savage decline in the amount of time given by the BBC to features, documentaries, current affairs, sport and children's programmes. That will no doubt continue, and that is something that the Select Committee emphatically needs to look at. I make no apology for being populist, if that is how it is seen, in saying that I hope that the Select Committee will look sooner rather than later at the way in which we are being denied the right to see live sporting events on our terrestrial screens. About 96 per cent. of our constituents have access to BBC and ITV, on which they could previously watch world cup cricket and now can watch league football. Due to the magic of the free enterprise market system, only 13 per cent. will be able to watch premiere league football next season. I say "the magic of the market system", but it is a system which bewilders me, because the company BSkyB, which has managed to take over the exclusive right to premiere league football, reported a loss of £759 million in the 37 weeks to the end of June last year. If that is the operation of market forces, it is very strange. Clearly those are issues that we hope will be scrutinised by the Select Committee on National Heritage. We also welcome the Select Committee on Science and Technology. However, I come now to a couple of points of criticism. The Select Committee on Science and Technology will exist basically to shadow much of the work that is the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but not all that work because, as the Prime Minister emphasised, one of his key jobs is to oversee the famous citizens charter and its operation. On no less an occasion than the debate on the Loyal Address, the Prime Minister said:
It is the job of the House to be there at the sharp end with its Select Committees at the centre of the Government's decision-making. I should like to know which Select Committee will be responsible for overseeing the operation of the citizens charter."The citizens charter will be at the centre of the Government's decision-making"—[Official Report, 6 May 1992; Vol. 207, c. 66.]
Would my hon. Friend go any way towards accepting that, if the object of the Select Committee on Science and Technology is to consider the Government's science policy, if the Select Committee cannot at its discretion consider the work of the Ministry of Defence and the Board of Trade, let alone the work of the Department of Education and the Department of Health, that Committee is a sham?
I should not be quite as critical as my hon. Friend. There is a good deal of overlap in practice in a lot of what the Select Committees do. There is often a dispute about whether a particular subject should be covered by one Select Committee or another. But there is no doubt that overall—that is the only way in which we can judge these things—the establishment of the Select Committee is one I welcome, as I am sure does my hon. Friend.I place it clearly on record that the Opposition were completely opposed to the ending of the Department of Energy, not least because of the tremendous importance to our economy, of the work of those in the energy industries, and, for those who listened to yesterday's debate, the unique dangers faced by people who work in the energy industries, whether in the pits or on the North sea. We very much regret the end of that Department, and that is the motivating factor behind an amendment to today's motion, which I commend to the House. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider it sympathetically.
Does my hon. Friend not agree with me that the difficulty is that, in energy, many problems confront us, not least the privatisation of coal, the rising prices of electricity and gas and the lack of a real voice for the consumer? If we look at what is happening in trade and industry, the need for an effective watchdog, the continuing recession, and the need to look at crises in the City, at Lloyd's and elsewhere, it is clear that both these subjects deserve a Select Committee. Would it not be sensible, since we all decry what the Government have done in bringing them together, that there should at least be a Sub-Committee for both, so that each can play its full role? There is no way, given the problems that confront us, that one Committee can do justice to trade and industry and to energy.
My hon. Friend makes a very telling point. I am sure that he will have seen the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), which would specifically establish a Sub-Committee of the Trade and Industry Committee to deal with energy matters. I very much hope that that amendment will commend itself to the House.Finally, I refer back to the debate that we had a week ago today, when the whole House strongly supported the report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, so far as it related to Select Committee Chairmen and members. It recognised the special powers which members of Select Committees have and the special access which Chairmen of Select Committees have. That is an important Select Committee recommendation and should be the basis on which future Select Committees are established. I very much hope that the Leader of the House will come forward with resolutions to implement the recommendations of that Select Committee, as we said in last week's debate; but I hope that, in the meantime, it will be clear from this debate and from the debate a week ago that the message from that Select Committee is one of which anyone thinking of serving on a Select Committee or acting as Chairman of a Select Committee should be extremely mindful—I put it as neutrally as that. It was the clear view of the House that that was a good Select Committee report and one that should be acknowledged and understood by all hon. Members. With those few words of caution, I hope that the Leader of the House will respond to the points that I have made, and that this motion will commend itself to the House.
I quite understand the position in which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House finds himself tonight when he is recommending Select Committees to shadow and monitor Departments of State. The Energy Select Committee, of which I had the privilege of being Chairmen for three years until the last general election, anticipated this position. It anticipated that the Department of Energy might well disappear and be merged with the Department of Trade and Industry. In an attempt to point out to my right hon. Friend and others who make decisions regarding the House the wisdom of retaining an Energy Select Committee, we produced our report entitled "House of Commons Scrutiny of Energy Matters". It is to that that I should like to talk in the few minutes that I have at my disposal in this rather short debate.I congratulate my right hon. Friend and welcome the creation of a Select Committee on Science and Technology, even though I accept that there are some shortcomings in that Committee, as has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell).
Is that a coded way of saying that the hon. Gentleman agrees with what I have said?
The hon. Member knows from the many years that we have shared an interest in science that we both seek to have a Committee in the House that has more interest in science than the Education and Science Select Committee had in the past. It was indeed a Committee in which education was writ large and science was writ small. Anything that improves that situation, I welcome. The hon. Gentleman and I have both been recommending for some time that there should be a Science and Technology Committee in this House as well as in the other place. If it is not perfect, this is at least a major step in the right direction.
Having sat on the Education and Science Select Committee, I join other right hon. and hon. Members in welcoming the formation of the new Science and Technology Select Committee. It means that science and technology will get a lead from this place that they have never had before.
When the Select Committee on Energy produced its reports, its members wondered to what extent they influenced Government policies and decisions. Others may say that the Committee had no influence at all and just created a series of coincidences—that, when it made recommendations, by coincidence the Government were on the same track and would have introduced some of the measures they did, even without the Committee's recommendations.Be that as it may, as an ex-management consultant I am happy to say that, even if the Committee's reports were superfluous, it is reassuring that they pointed in the same direction as the coincidences. We obtained some satisfaction from that. We believe, however, that we did have influence. The Committee's report on mining subsidence, for example, was followed shortly thereafter by a Bill that embraced many of our recommendations on subsidence in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire. When, in the early 1980s, the Committee recommended that the Government should avoid generating 15,000 MW of electricity using a series of pressurised water reactors, shortly thereafter the PWR programme was curtailed and a whole family of reactors did not get built. The changes in North sea oil taxation that we recommended in 1983 were seen—by coincidence, design or influence—to be acted on. So it was with our 1983 recommendation to establish an Office of Energy Efficiency. In 1985, the Committee recommended the abolition of the North sea oil corporation. Giving evidence., one Minister defended the British National Oil Corporation, even though work to dismantle it was clearly already under way. An announcement to that effect was made three weeks after that Minister's evidence was given. Perhaps the biggest example of all was the Committee's recommendation, when electricity privatisation was under consideration, that nuclear generation should not go into the private sector. We gave a whole host of reasons. On that occasion, there were no coincidences. Instead, our recommendations were ignored and it was planned to include all nuclear generation in the privatisation. However, we were not surprised when, one year later, an announcement was made in this Chamber that nuclear generation would be taken out of the privatisation programme. We are not sure how that influence came about. Was it a question of exerting pressure over a period of time, prompting the Department to re-examine issues that it had already considered, or of forcing Ministers to take a closer interest in matters that had interested the Committee? On many occasions, a feature of the Committee's inquiries has been that they have prompted the Department to hold its own inquiry, finishing either shortly before or shortly after our own. We believe that we prompted many inquiries, to the good of the Department, the Government, and the country. We sought also to hold Ministers accountable, call civil servants before us to explain their actions, and to call to account those in charge of public bodies. The Committee ensured that information was made available to the House, the energy industry, the public, pressure groups, and the media. We believe that we did much to improve the transparency of information associated with the nuclear industry and others. There is still much work to be done. Assuming that the Energy Select Committee will be abolished tonight, let me bring to the attention of whomever inherits the mantle page 5 of the report to which I referred. It reveals a catalogue of work—so much work, indeed, that I worry about whether a Committee dealing with energy only as a part-time job could undertake it all. There is much to be scrutinised. There is the continuing evolution of the privatised electricity industry, and the future of the coal industry, which is now the subject of privatisation proposals. Who will scrutinise those proposals from a parliamentary point of view, apart from members of the Standing Committee considering the relevant Bill? There is the 1994 review of nuclear power: that should be scrutinised carefully, and Members of Parliament should give it their attention well before 1994. We must continue to monitor the fossil fuel levy, and decide what can be done to reduce it even further. We must examine the restructuring of the gas industry through the activities of the Office of Fair Trading and, of course, the Ofgas regulator. Is the industry right to retain its present size, or should it be broken down into smaller competing parts? The depletion of our oil and gas on the UK continental shelf is a big item in itself, and it will take any Committee a long time to come up with the right proposals and to formulate appropriate policies. There is also the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming, and the need to examine the Government's role in funding research and development in the energy sector. Finally, we should consider the implications for the United Kingdom of the European Commission's proposals to unify and regulate the European energy market. As I have said, there is much to be done. Who will do it? Perhaps the Select Committee on Trade and Industry will oblige. It will be difficult to ask questions about energy in the House; on the two occasions in the current Session when Trade and Industry questions have been asked, four or five energy questions have been at the bottom of the Order Paper and some have not been reached at all. I hope that, if the Trade and Industry Committee undertake all the work, it will not turn out to be like the Select Committee on Education and Science, which has been mentioned by one or two hon. Members. It must not be 95 per cent. trade and industry and only 5 per cent. energy. I hope that it will give at least 40 per cent. of its time to energy. If amendment (h) is accepted, an Energy Sub-Committee may be set up. I feel that that would be almost the worst of all worlds. If such a Sub-Committee is to operate effectively and thoroughly, it will have to meet almost as frequently as the main Committee, and Members of Parliament with an interest in energy will have to sit on both the main Committee and the Sub-Committee. Opposition Members who take Select Committees seriously know that they entail a great deal of work, and that sitting on a Sub-Committee means sitting on the main Committee as well. I doubt that many hon. Members will be prepared to devote themselves to the amount of work that will be required, and I therefore do not feel that a Sub-Committee is a good idea. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) pointed out, energy constitutes 20 per cent. of our gross domestic product. It is a coherent and clearly defined subject. Whatever its shortcomings, in recent weeks the Select Committee has received the support of 88 Members of Parliament in an early-day motion.
Despite what the hon. Gentleman has said—much of which I should like to be able to support—will he vote for the establishment of a Sub-Committee in the belief that it would be better than nothing?
Yes, of course I believe that a Sub-Committee would be better than none at all. A full Committee would be best, but I shall vote for a Sub-Committee if that is all there is to vote for.As I said, 88 hon. Members would like the Select Committee on Energy to remain. The chairman of Nuclear Electric indicated likewise in a letter to The Times. We have had letters from generators, oil companies and trade associations, and we know that at least one regulator would like us to remain. It seems that we may not do so. It appears that tonight may see the end of a Committee which, I believe, has served the House, the industry and, I hope, the nation well in the past 13 years. Whoever is to scrutinise energy matters, we urge them to be diligent. Whoever scrutinises energy, we wish them well.
In a sense, my amendment is a re-run of that which featured in the debate on 18 July 1991. The then Leader of the House did his best to ignore the amendment, and I have no reason to believe that the Government will display any greater enthusiasm for the one that we have tabled on this occasion.On that earlier occasion, the only contributor to oppose the creation of a Select Committee on Northern Ireland was the Government spokesman, the then Leader of the House. All other hon. Members who spoke to the amendment fully supported us. As is so often the case in this so-called democratic institution, had it been left to the hon. Members who were present, freed from the malign influence of the Whips Office, our amendment would have been carried. That malign influence will no doubt be employed today to ensure that democracy does not prevail, and the same malign influence will probably be used to give the Select Committee on Energy the chop in the same undemocratic fashion. We shall do our best to assist hon. Members of all parties who have spoken so eloquently in support of the retention of some form of Committee on energy. In a letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure dated 8 February 1990, I wrote:
On another occasion I went a bit further. In a letter dated 22 May, I wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee:"There ought to be a Northern Ireland Select Committee dealing with those matters for which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is responsible, but for which there is no counterpart in Great Britain, e.g. the implementation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985, and the political direction of security."
which, incidentally, had wide support from the Procedure Committee. My letter continued:"Thank you for your letter of 15 May about the proposal for a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs"—
"such a body would be a great asset to the people of Northern Ireland, extending as it would to their affairs the same scrutiny as is provided for the rest of the United Kingdom. In our view, the establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee should not be delayed for the invalid reason that some day a structure of Government may be invented for Northern Ireland."
My right hon. Friend might remember that the Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition today the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), referred to the need for a Select Committee to scrutinise at the sharp end of Government. Is it not a shame and a travesty of scrutiny in the House that, since Select Committees were established, the sharp end of Government has not been scrutinised?
Yes, and my hon. Friend will be delighted that he and I were supported by the Select Committee on Procedure in its second report, especially paragraphs 272 to 278. The report stated:
Then comes the key sentence:"Accordingly, whilst we do not believe that the uncertainties over the future administration of the Province can be allowed to preclude indefinitely the establishment of proper arrangements for the scrutiny by the House of the Northern Ireland Department, we accept that this will not be a sensible moment to recommend the establishment of a Select Committee on Northern Ireland affairs. Nevertheless, we consider that the Government cannot postpone dealing with this matter for very much longer and we will keep the position under review."
The earlier talks had ended two weeks before the debate on 18 July 1991. In that debate, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure said, not unreasonably, that, although the talks had ended:"We may well wish to return to it once the outcome of the current talks is clear."
I do not know whether the Committee reconsidered the matter in the nine months that elapsed before entirely new talks commenced. It is true that the new talks are currently under way. Just in case the Government have it in mind to wheel out the old device of blocking the amendment on the ground that this would not be a sensible time to establish a Select Committee, I should tell the House that all the participants in the current talks have taken the view that the establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee is a matter for the House of Commons and not for those participating in or engaged in the talks The former obstacle is therefore removed: I hope that the Government will not grub around in search of another obstacle, because that would be equally unconvincing."there has not been enough time for us to reconsider the issue."—[Official Report, 18 July 1991; Vol. 195, c. 585.]
Is it not right to say that, if the talks succeeded, there would be matters for which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his colleagues would be responsible to the House? Will they never be brought into scrutiny by the House? Do they have some sort of special exemption by which the House can never question them about how they do their work or make them give an account of their stewardship of Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend has reminded me that we now have a five-way agreement. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is here representing us and standing up for us. My hon. Friend has reminded me that we have a five-way agreement, because the Government team in the talks—we are not giving away secrets—has also agreed that there are certain matters which will remain in perpetuity the sole responsibility of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We have a five-way agreement that this is a matter for the House of Commons to decide tonight, minus the malign influence of the Whips Office.I hope that the Government will not look round for another obstacle. To do so would cast a shadow over the Government's integrity in the light of the response towards the end of the debate on 18 July 1991, when the then Leader of the House declared:
The present Leader of the House was informed last week of our intention to press for a decision this evening. I know that he understands our reason for asking to be included with the other countries in the United Kingdom. It is simply to enable the Government to demonstrate that their philosophy of open government shall apply to all parts of the United Kingdom, in line with the assertions and undertakings given by the Prime Minister in the heat of the last week of the general election campaign. Those facilities and benefits should not be withheld from one part of the kingdom which has suffered greatly from being different simply because the Government insist on making it different. The establishment of a Select Committee would be a stabilising factor. It would not compete with the current talks, but would be an injection of confidence which could and would assist all of us who are currently engaged in the talks and trying hard to agree on a more effective method of governing Northern Ireland. It would be a prize that would cost the Government nothing. Because it is a benefit that the House of Commons has the power to bestow, it would restore faith in the willingness of the House of Commons to extend that protection to the interests of majorities and minorities alike."now is not the time to set up such a Select Committee. However, I assure the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley that the matter can he reviewed again at appropriate times, and that I shall be prepared to do that."—[Official Report, 18 July 1991; Vol. 195, c. 602–3.]