House of Commons
Tuesday 13 June 2006
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Swinden Quarry-Grassington Rail Service
We have made no estimate of the costs of reinstating the railway from Swinden quarry to Grassington, but the current north Yorkshire local transport plan refers to a study of this proposal that was made in 2002.
It is disappointing that the Government have not made an estimate, because at the moment quarry traffic runs to within two miles of Grassington, which, as you know Mr. Speaker, is the capital of lower Wharfedale—deep in the Yorkshire dales. At a time when we are trying to get people out of their cars to enjoy the countryside, surely it makes economic sense, political sense and good social sense to reinstate that railway and get people to the beauties of the dales without their having to rely on their own transport.
I agree that it is beautiful part of the world. My hon. Friend is a great champion of the need to improve the local railway and I know that he has raised many issues about it. However, the study did not show a positive cost-benefit ratio and therefore the business case has not been made. As he knows, we are investing a record amount in the railway. I am only sorry that I cannot be helpful to him today.
The concern of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) for my constituency is touching from a neighbour and I am grateful to him. Will the Minister note that, over the last few weeks, there have been four reports on the condition of the countryside, all of which highlight the problems of rural transport? If any resources were to become available for extending passenger rail links, will he bear in mind that getting ordinary people who do not have the means of transport to work and enabling them to carry out their normal daily tasks is more important than transporting tourists to the Yorkshire dales?
Rural railways and local railways are important, which is why we have developed the community rail partnership and why we are seeing investment in community rail. At the same time, there have to be enough passengers to justify the service. If there is a case for extending rail links in the future, that will have to be made by the local authority, working with Network Rail. We are keen on developing community rail, which is why the partnership has developed well.
Transport Innovation Fund
Up to £200 million a year of the transport innovation fund has been made available to support local packages of measures to address congestion. Those include demand management measures, such as road pricing, as well as investment in public transport to ensure that our towns and cities support the long- term economic success of the UK.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that Bristol is one of the local authorities that is bidding for funds from the transport innovation fund to run a road pricing pilot. What support will the local authority be given from the Department for Transport in that bid?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have already given the greater Bristol area £1.5 million of so-called pump-priming money to support the development of a potential bid for the transport innovation fund. The four unitary authorities in the area are working together to investigate the potential for using demand management and road pricing to address the problems of local congestion. I would expect to receive the first scheme proposals next year, with pricing pilots possibly going live in four to five years.
Will the Secretary of State say whether he expects any bids for money from the transport innovation fund to be successful if they do not include an element of congestion charging or road-user pricing?
Those issues are covered in the guidance notes. We have made no secret of the fact that we think that there is considerable potential to learn useful lessons from the pilots, but that is one element of the opportunities that are available to local authorities, given that there have to be local solutions that work in local areas.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s inclusion of the west midlands conurbation area in the feasibility study to bid for money from the transport innovation fund. What consideration has he given—perhaps with his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry—to how initiatives such as the transport innovation fund can be used to maximise the technological, industrial and employment potential of different kinds of traffic management schemes, as well as reducing road congestion?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the west midlands, which is one of the seven areas that are benefiting from the pump-priming money, as I described it. The broader relationship between transport and economic growth will be addressed by the Eddington study, which was commissioned jointly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my predecessor. The study should come to us later this year and will address exactly that type of relationship.
First, I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box for the first time in his new job and congratulate him on his promotion to the Cabinet. I also congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) on her promotion. It is a shame that they come to the Dispatch Box on a day when the Government have cut back the time that is available for Transport questions, which demonstrates what a low priority transport is for this Government. In the Secretary of State’s first speech, he confirmed plans for a national road pricing scheme. He has made reference again today to the concept of pilots by 2010 in areas such as the west midlands and Bristol. Does he yet have an idea of what form the pilot will take? In particular, will it involve only vehicles registered in the area covered by the pilot, will it be fiscally neutral for those involved and what technology will it use?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, in relation both to me and to my ministerial colleague. I said in the speech that I wanted to make a personal priority of taking forward the debate on a national road pricing scheme. We need such a debate, partly because there are genuine questions in the minds of motorists and other members of the public that need to be addressed. We would aim for a national consensus, and I hope that we can secure it over the months ahead, or at least begin to unbundle some of the questions that have been directed at me today. I make no secret of the fact that genuine technological questions need to be addressed. I hope that the local pilots will help us to answer other questions, which is why I think that it is sensible to have a graduated response that shows the benefits of road pricing in areas in which that can be seen to be an effective solution to congestion.
I was interested to note that the Secretary of State was not able to give specific answers to my questions. I have talked to people in the west midlands and Greater Manchester who are involved in the potential pilots and they have no idea of what is going on, what the technology involved will be, or what the pilots will look like. When will they get some information about what they should expect?
Business cases are being worked up and it is important that those responsible for the areas themselves work out a solution that works for them. I have examined the matter quite carefully in recent weeks. The hon. Gentleman puts his points to me, but I have no idea whatsoever about his position on the questions that have been asked. We will bring forward detailed proposals from the seven areas, and that will be the basis on which we can examine the range of alternatives that, in turn, will inform the thinking that we develop on national road pricing.
My right hon. Friend’s predecessor assured the House on many occasions that road charging would not be a condition for future funding of the tram system in Manchester, yet we appear to be entering into a competition for transport innovation funds between Manchester and Birmingham that will almost certainly require road charging. Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than getting into such a destructive competition, it would be much more sensible to use the TIF money to lever in private sector funds, or as a basis for prudential borrowing, so that Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol—all the cities—can have the tram systems that they require?
I pay tribute to the leadership role that my hon. Friend has played in Manchester over a number of years, both in local government and now here in the Commons. Within days of my appointment as Secretary of State, I travelled to Manchester and reiterated the commitment that my predecessor had given on the funds available for the Manchester Metrolink. Discussions continue with the Manchester authorities and I hope that we can bring them to a conclusion relatively quickly. I understand that in addition to those discussions, consideration is being given in Manchester to the applicability of TIF funding in the future. However, in the weeks ahead, I will not in any way resile from the commitment given by my predecessor to Manchester.
Rural/Community Railway Lines
The Government recognise the importance of local railway lines to the communities they serve and seek to support their development, primarily through the implementation of the community rail development strategy.
When will the Government publish their response to the recent consultation on the future of rural and community railway lines? Does the Minister accept that it is vital that there are improved connections between the rural lines which survive the forthcoming cuts and the national network, which would bring increased revenue to offset public subsidy? Would that not be a simple example of an integrated transport policy, which was much heralded nine years ago by the Deputy Prime Minister, although it subsequently appears to have sunk without trace?
I do not accept that. We launched three franchises only last week: new cross country, west midlands and east midlands. They will lead to a 3 to 5 per cent. increase in services. The east and west midlands franchises will be asked to work with and develop community rail. We are thus seeing an improvement to services and an increase in their number as a result of what the Government are doing. Part of the west midlands franchise will be a new hourly service between Birmingham and Manchester that will serve Congleton, which is in the hon. Lady’s constituency.
Will the Minister give an indication of the Government’s thinking on the National Forest line, a passenger service that would be restored to the Leicester to Burton section of the rail network? It seems to tick all the boxes that are necessary, but in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), he talked about a business case. This line has one that is strong environmentally, economically, socially and, dare I say, running through four marginal Labour seats, politically?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, especially his last comment. On business cases, there is a great demand for services and improvements to stations and lines. Although a record amount of money is going to the railway and significant improvements have been made, we have to consider such cases. In the first instance, it is up to the local authority, as the promoter, working with Network Rail to produce a business case. However, my hon. Friend will be aware, that as I just mentioned, last week we published the east midlands and cross-country franchise consultation documents, which set out the minimum service required. We want views from a range of stakeholders, and I am sure that we will hear from him, about what people want. We will consider responses carefully before we make final decisions about the franchise.
Will the Minister repeat the assurances of earlier occupants of his post that neither the Henley-Twyford line nor any other such line will be converted to a community railway without the express support of the community concerned, even though the line runs through solid Conservative territory?
Community rail development obviously has to have the support of the community; otherwise, it does not stack up and make sense. If there is no community support for a line to be designated as a community line, it will not happen. The important point to make is that the more involvement there is, whether it is through the more formal process of community development or from the local community, local business and people generally within particular areas covered by a railway station and service, the better it is. If the line is supported and more people use it, its viability is increased and it makes good business sense. There are, however lots of opportunities without necessarily going down the community rail development route. That said, it is an excellent scheme, but if it is not supported, it will not happen.
In the Minister’s answers to my hon. Friends, he reiterated the Government’s rhetoric that rural, community and light rail are important to them. However, if they really believed their own rhetoric, they would not be closing rural railway lines but increasing their usage, and they would have spent more than 0.3 per cent. of the Department for Transport’s budget on light rail. The consultation that is now happening is leading to the closure of rural, smaller and community rail links. They are surely on the way to ditching another policy. That means another policy will be ditched, another policy will be U-turned, and there will be more problems for the travelling public.
That is a bit rich coming from the Conservatives, who gave us botched privatisation, Railtrack, and years and years of underinvestment in the railway. We have seen record investment in the railway under this Government. I keep asking, as I did earlier, which line we have plans to close. Can the hon. Gentleman let us know?
We have 2,500 stations, and I have opened two or three new ones in the past 12 months; for example, Liverpool Parkway is opening and the east midlands line is being developed. There has been a growth in services as part of the franchises for east midlands, west midlands and Virgin. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s arguments do not stack up.
The draft orders for the scheme were published on 31 January 2006 and a 13-week period ending on 5 May 2006 was provided to allow affected parties and other members of the public to provide their comments. By the end of this period the Highways Agency had received 2,691 pieces of correspondence concerning the proposals. Some 1,446 objections, 997 support letters, 28 representations and another 220 miscellaneous pieces of correspondence, which included queries, freedom of information requests and other questions were received.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. May I tell him why I could not agree to the proposals? In my constituency, the scheme will displace the problems that have been experienced in Tintwistle. For example, on the A628, over Salters bridge, the traffic in 2010 will increase by 56 per cent. and in 2025 by 94 per cent. Those are already busy roads. It is a similar story through Penistone, Thurlstone and Millhouse Green. On the A616 on the other side of my constituency, there will also be marked increases in traffic through Bolsterstone, Midhopestones and Langsett. Does he agree that there need to be robust restraining measures to ensure that the lorries—
Order. I think that the Minister knows that the hon. Gentleman is displeased with his proposal.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing his concerns to my attention. I am happy to hold a meeting with him so that he can discuss them in detail. However, he is entirely right that there are issues that need to be addressed, including possible restraint measures and restrictions on heavy goods vehicle access to the road if it goes ahead. The Highways Agency has already considered such proposals, and I am happy to pass on any suggestions that he wishes to draw to my attention.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the proposals affect my part of south Yorkshire, too, including the villages of Langsett, Midhopestones and Bolsterstone. I am therefore pleased that he has made a commitment to a meeting, and I hope that he will invite all the MPs in south Yorkshire who are affected.
I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend, too, to hear her objections. I do not know whether she wishes me to invite to that meeting Government Members who support the proposals strongly, or whether we should have a separate meeting to discuss the issues.
The rail network has undergone major improvements in recent years. Punctuality on the network is now 86.7 per cent.—the highest level since May 2000. Following the 2004 White Paper, Network Rail is now accountable for performance and for co-ordinating rail industry planning and operational management. My Department holds regular meetings with Network Rail and industry representatives to discuss further performance improvements.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in congratulating the Labour-led Scottish Executive on improving punctuality and reliability? Only two weeks ago, they announced that they would extend the rail line from Bathgate to Airdrie, ensuring that my constituents have three direct rail routes to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
It is obviously the case that punctuality and reliability are challenges in every part of the United Kingdom, but I join my hon. Friend in those congratulations.
May I draw to my right hon. Friend’s attention the continuing problems with One railway in my north London constituency? In February, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), wrote to me about the difficulties that had occurred as a result of industrial action on the railways. Since then, very little has improved. Four days ago, my constituent, Ray Knight, received a letter from the Advertising Standards Authority, in which it said that it was instructing One
“to change their advertising to remove the claim regarding a 30 minute frequency where it does not apply”.
Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the Government will undertake a robust review of the franchise agreement to ensure the reliability of rail services in my constituency?
In the first instance, it is for Network Rail, working closely with One management, to try to secure the performance improvements that we all want. There has been a decline in performance in the past year, albeit from a higher base than elsewhere in the country. I understand that 87 per cent. of One services run on time, against a national average of 86.8 per cent. One management has recently been restructured, and performance has shown signs of improvement, but I will ensure that the point made by my hon. Friend’s constituent is passed on directly to Network Rail and, indeed, One management.
Will the Secretary of State consider the future of commuter services in Kent, particularly when the high speed channel tunnel rail link is finished, which will provide many welcome benefits? Can he guarantee that that will not be used as an excuse to cut services, especially to smaller rural stations in my constituency and elsewhere in Kent?
Passenger numbers on the railways have been increasing significantly in recent years. We now have a billion-passenger railway. On the other hand, as my predecessor once remarked, we are not in the business of carting fresh air around the countryside. It is inherent in a confident growing number of passengers that we face challenging decisions at times. We therefore need to consider how we can secure value for money from the network, but that is clearly in the context of continuing to grow the railways.
How will punctuality and reliability be improved by the Secretary of State’s extraordinary proposal to extend the Mayor of London’s power to set fares and control service levels to stations such as Sevenoaks, outside the London boundary, where my constituents cannot vote for the Mayor of London and certainly would not do so if they could?
My understanding is that the services are predominantly within London, but that matter is being consulted upon.
May I welcome the Minister to his new role? As someone who is quite good at spotting odd cover-ups, let me tell him that all Thames valley MPs of all parties are concerned about the punctuality and efficiency of the commuter service that leads into the Thames valley. The service between Slough and Paddington has become less frequent, and because of the reduction in frequency, it might appear more punctual and more effective. Unless we have an effective rail commuter service into the Thames valley, which is the engine of Britain’s economy, we risk losing much inward investment into the UK.
We continue to invest record amounts in the British railways, but in the context of those rising passenger numbers, it is necessary at times to introduce changes to the schedules that make sense in the context of the differing demands in different parts of the country. However, the improvements that we have seen over recent years are the result not only of more sensible timetabling changes, but of the better integration of working relationships between the train operating companies and Network Rail.
In order to improve the punctuality and reliability of congested peak-hour commuter services, what action is the right hon. Gentleman taking to replace the present chaotic system of rail fares among the rail companies with consistent and generous incentives for off-peak use?
A balance must be struck, given that there are essentially two sources of funding to the railway: there are funds provided by the taxpayer and there are funds provided by the fare payer. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which was previously raised by the Transport Committee, about the present complexity of some of those fares. We are deliberating about our response to that Select Committee report.
The Secretary of State will be aware that some train companies are almost as creative about their timetabling as they are about their accounts. Will he please look carefully at some mainline services, where the airline habit of adding in minutes to schedules is being used in order to improve the running of trains? The Secretary of State is doing a good job. He has given the train companies the money. Let us make sure we get value for it.
I concur with my hon. Friend’s final point about securing value for the investment that has been made. As I say, it is inevitable that there will periodically be timetable changes. It is important that those changes are made not simply to slacken the performance, but to reflect the changing demands over time on the network.
Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the things he could do to improve the punctuality and reliability of commuter services is to unplug the national bottleneck that exists at Reading station? Will he finally announce that the funds will be made available?
Discussions are continuing on that. I am aware that in a previous answer to, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), my predecessor explained that he had seen the station at Reading, was aware of the difficulties and recognised the challenges that are faced.
Our provisional statistics for 2005 indicate that 32,150 people were killed or seriously injured in accidents reported to the police in Great Britain, which is 33 per cent. less than the baseline average between 1994 and 1998 and 31 per cent. less than the figure in 1997.
I thank my hon. Friend for his response and welcome the reduction in the number of deaths and injuries. However, far too many people still suffer death and injury as a result of drink-driving. Does he agree that now is the time to consider reducing the alcohol limit from 80 mg to 50 mg, which would bring us in line with other European countries?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more to reduce drink-driving. She will have seen the campaign launched by right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about drinking during the summer months and the World cup, and other extensive efforts in education are continuing. However, we are still not enforcing the 80 mg limit as strictly as I would like, and we should put our resources into that before we reduce the level to 50 mg. When we have achieved strict enforcement at 80 mg, perhaps we can re-examine the matter.
When will the Minister publish the Department’s new guidelines on speed limits in villages? He will be aware that the parish councils and highways authorities believe that the speed limit should be reduced in many villages, but until his Department produces the guidelines, they cannot reduce speed limits for fear that they will have to reverse their decision when the guidelines are issued.
We will publish the guidance shortly. Over the next year or two, it is important that all highways authorities use the guidance to review all the speed limits on our roads. Speed limits should be set appropriately—they can be reduced for safety purposes or, where engineering or other improvements have happened on a stretch of road, they can be increased. That is an important part of the deal that we need to strike with motorists, and we must be seen to set speed limits fairly and in accordance with objective criteria.
I was a bit disappointed by the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin). The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland has recently indicated its support for a reduction in the alcohol limit, and there is a growing body of opinion within the road safety community in favour of that. Will the Minister think again and consider the advantages of reducing the limit in terms of saving lives and reducing injuries on the roads?
I hear what my hon. Friend has said and acknowledge his interest in the matter. I have spoken to the Association of Chief Police Officers in England, which has expressed the view that it would like to see the level come down to 50 mg at some point. However, there is no point in discussing harmonisation with the level in Europe, because, although most states in Europe specify lower levels of alcohol in their law, they do not enforce at those levels. In this country, we are at least enforcing hard at 80 mg. I have pointed out to ACPO that the police need to put resources into making sure that nobody breaks the 80 mg limit. When we are confident that we are achieving success at that level, it will be time to think about further reducing the level.
May I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State and the Minister on their appointments? Does the Minister agree that a major problem is the courts’ interpretation and use of laws passed in this House? In my constituency, for example, there is a young man with three convictions: first, he left a boy of five paralysed and was given a two-month driving ban; secondly, he left a 67-year-old woman for dead; thirdly, he stole a car and crashed into a stationary car, which led to a four-month suspended sentence. Working with other Departments, what can the Minister do to ensure that the courts enforce the laws that we pass?
We must work with the courts, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and others on reviewing the sentencing guidelines. The courts need to understand that it is the wish of this House that serious punishments should be issued for such offences. People around the country are fed up with seeing people avoid long sentences, and being given a tap on the wrist for some of the most serious offences that we can envisage. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will support us in our approach.
The DVLA has ongoing and regular discussions with the trade unions on all issues affecting the agency and its staff, in line with its partnership agreement. The most recent meeting took place between the chief executive and Public and Commercial Services Union officers at national and local level on 1 June, when they were brought up to date with the agency’s resourcing plans to March 2008.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, and for the opportunity to meet him to discuss this matter. He is aware that several of my constituents have written to me to say that they do not wish their jobs to be outsourced to a private company, but want to remain within the DVLA doing the job that they are doing very well. Will he ensure that when he next meets the director of the DVLA he will make those representations to him on my behalf and that of the union?
First, it is important that I stress that no decisions have been made as yet. It is essential that we review these matters from time to time. All the agencies make sure that they are getting the most cost-effective use of the funds and resources that they are given. I am meeting the chief executive tomorrow, and I will certainly ensure that the views expressed by my hon. Friend are made known to him.
Is the Minister aware that UK British citizens living in Northern Ireland continue to experience problems because their driving licences are not issued by the DVLA in Great Britain, which means that they are being discriminated against as regards penalty points, the recognition of their driving licences and the registration of their vehicles? Will he work with his colleague in Northern Ireland to end that anomaly?
I am aware of the anomaly, and I am talking to my colleagues in Northern Ireland about it. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to provide me with further evidence of the problems facing his constituents, I shall be grateful to receive it.
Responsibility for the condition of railway embankments is an operational matter for Network Rail. Responsibility for the condition of stations is shared between Network Rail and the train operating companies. In addition, franchise agreements require the train operators to keep their stations in a clean condition.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the amount of fly-tipping and dumping of rubbish taking place on railway banks and land around stations in Cardiff, particularly next to Lisvane station in my constituency, where sewage pipes, fallen lamp-posts, television sets and a whole load of cans are dumped? Things are similar at Llandaff North station.
My hon. Friend raises important local matters, which all hon. Members know are of direct concern to her and her constituents. Through my discussions with her, I am aware of the instances that she mentions. It may be helpful to say that the land is owned by Network Rail and leased to Arriva Trains Wales, which is responsible for removing the litter and fly-tipped material. I know of my hon. Friend’s considerable efforts on behalf of her constituents, and I will be pleased to assist her further by raising the matter with Arriva Trains Wales.
Is the Minister aware that pesticide run-off, which is often a big problem on the rail network and with highways weed control, is often blamed on farmers? Will she work with Network Rail to try to minimise that problem as, despite the fact that the problem is not caused by farmers, it may result in some important pesticides being limited for agricultural use?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It would be helpful to me, in pursuing the matter, if he gave me some specific examples. As he says, bank maintenance is a matter for Network Rail, which is more than willing to arrange meetings with any Members of Parliament who have particular concerns. I would be happy to facilitate that for him.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the condition of a city’s railway station plays an incredibly important role, as it provides the first impression, and the last memory, for many visitors. Will she therefore join me in calling on the relevant authorities to support my campaign to upgrade Dundee’s Tay Bridge station, which has lain in a neglected state for many years now?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is also Secretary of State for Scotland, so clearly he is aware—as I am—of the importance of the campaign. From my experience, I share the view that the condition of stations is important both for visitors’ perceptions and for our constituents who use the stations as residents.
The then Secretary of State’s statement to the House on 10 February 2005 set out the Government’s spending plans for rail for 2004-05 to 2008-09. In that period, the Government are to spend more than £23 billion on Britain’s railways, to make up for years of underinvestment. That is an average of around £88 million a week.
The Under-Secretary will acknowledge that there are many excellent schemes that can increase rail capacity at limited cost, such as Burscough curves near my constituency and the Halton curve near his. However, he will also acknowledge that there is no formal mechanism for opening lines, although there is a clear formal mechanism for closing them. What can we do about that?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I visited Burscough a few months ago to open the new station there. I looked at the area and I appreciate that he has been promoting it, as has the local Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper). As he points out, there is a procedure, which involves going though a sponsoring body such as a local authority and a rail operator. Merseyrail has examined the matter. Lancashire county council previously considered it but decided that the business case did not stack up. It had aspirations for the Blackburn-Preston-Bolton-Manchester corridor. Merseyrail has been working on the issue, and I know that the hon. Gentleman has been liaising with it. It is a matter for Merseyrail to take forward with the relevant local authorities.
The Minister of State was asked—
The independent parliamentary boundary commissions review parliamentary boundaries every eight to 12 years. Although the electoral quota is important, it is necessary to take other factors into account, such as geographical and community issues. The boundary commissions consider all those factors when conducting their reviews.
How can it be right for, for example, Birmingham, Yardley to have an electorate of fewer than 51,000, when in the same old county of Warwickshire, Rugby and Kenilworth has an electorate of more than 83,000? The Boundary Commission for England recommends an average of 70,000 electors per constituency and is trundling through its changes. However, the Boundary Commission for Wales will still have only 56,000 electors per constituency. Will the Government review the terms of reference for all the boundary commissions of the United Kingdom to ensure that the priority is equalisation of voters, so that each elector’s vote has the same value? I suggest a standard of 80,000 electors per constituency. That would also reduce the number of politicians, which would be popular with the British people.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is volunteering to stand down—but that might be welcome in several places.
The boundary commissions take into account not only numbers but geography and community issues. There have been historic arrangements for Wales to compensate for its smaller size. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that Welsh constituencies should be the same size as English ones, he might just as logically say that the Welsh Assembly should have the same powers and authority as the Scottish Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend accept that getting equality between numbers of electors takes us only part of the way to our destination? The objective should be equality between numbers of residents, and that means getting the percentage of residents who register to vote up to nearer 100 per cent. If we do not achieve that, young people, people in rented accommodation and others are less likely to register to vote. Some constituencies, especially those in inner-city areas, have far more residents than those in the leafy suburbs.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which we shall doubtless debate later today when we consider the Electoral Administration Bill, which deals with registration. I take his point seriously. The number of people who live in inner cities but are not registered and therefore not counted by the boundary commissions makes a considerable difference. He makes a good point about ensuring that everyone is counted and registered, so that we properly reflect the communities that we are supposed to represent.
Does the Minister accept that the criteria given to the Boundary Commission by the House need to change? The reason why constituencies are so hopelessly out of kilter in numbers of electors is that the commission is always working on out-of-date statistics. It is allowed to look backwards but not forwards, and this causes huge anomalies that could easily be avoided. Will the Minister give me an undertaking that this matter will be looked at?
I think that I can give the right hon. Gentleman that undertaking. He has made a valid point, and I shall take it on board and discuss it with the boundary commissions in due course.
Following the tone of earlier questions, may I push the Minister to consult her colleagues to see whether she can come up with a Government policy to ensure that the same number of adults are entitled to vote in every constituency across the United Kingdom for this Parliament? There can be no justification these days for a differential figure in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, if each vote is to be of equal value. Of course, the number of residents entitled to vote is just as good a test as the number who actually end up getting their names on the register.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Hon. Members have in the past raised the issue of the Isle of Wight, a constituency with a very large number of electors. If we did not take geographical issues into account, the Isle of Wight would have to be considered with at least one other part of the south of England; it would be very difficult to make it into two or more constituencies. Nevertheless, I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, and in my discussions with the Boundary Commission, I shall look at all aspects of ensuring that every constituency represents the people who live in it as well as possible.
But does the Minister not accept that there is a bit of party politics going on here? She will know that, after last month’s local elections, Sir Michael Lyons—a former Labour councillor and an adviser to the Government—said that council boundaries should now be politically redrawn to make council elections more “closely competitive”. Of course, we know what happened in those local elections. Is the Minister intending to follow this principle for parliamentary elections? Is it not the case that if Labour cannot win elections, its first instinct is to gerrymander the boundaries involved?
Dear, oh dear. I really think that the hon. Gentleman ought to reflect on what he has just said. The Labour party has won the last three general elections, I am very pleased to say—[Interruption.] The Boundary Commission is an independent, non-party-political organisation—[Interruption.]
Order. Let the Minister answer.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
I would just remind the hon. Gentleman that the Boundary Commission, which recommends changes to the boundaries, is a neutral, non-party-political organisation. This is not done on a party basis. It is done in a logical, neutral way, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on what he has said and consider whether the changes that the Boundary Commission has made over the years have also benefited his party from time to time.
Limitations of Actions
Those are recommendations from the Law Commission’s report that the limitation period—the time within which one person may bring a civil action against another—ought to be made more flexible. The Government announced their acceptance in principle of the recommendations in 2002, subject to further consideration of some aspects of the Law Commission’s report. That work is now well advanced and it should end shortly. We will then seek a legislative opportunity to reform the law.
Four years is a long time to wait. My constituent, Kevin Young, was repeatedly sexually abused by a prison officer while he was in a youth offender institution 29 years ago. He wants the terms of the Limitation Act 1980 changed to make it easier for people like him to claim compensation. In a letter to me in March, Baroness Ashton said that it might be possible to use the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, if it is passed by Parliament, to change the law more quickly by statutory instrument. Will the Government will look into that?
Yes. It is correct to say that there is a fast-track provision in that Bill to introduce non-contentious recommendations by the Law Commission by statutory instrument, and that could be used to fast-track these proposals. I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend and his constituent. People who suffered sex abuse when they were children and did not appreciate its impact until much later often find themselves outside the limitation period, and therefore suffer injustice. We will certainly look at using that Bill to bring such a proposal forward; otherwise we will seek an early legislative opportunity.
The Minister referred to the four years since the Government basically accepted the Law Commission’s recommendation. Would it help to produce parliamentary encouragement for the Government if a list of all the outstanding Law Commission recommendations was published each year, outlining what progress is being made and what blockages there are to fulfilling those steps towards greater justice?
I am sure that from time to time we do indicate the progress that is being made on Law Commission proposals, and of course the hon. Gentleman can, and will, ask questions of the Department about precisely that. The recommendations went far wider than the concern raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), as they also related to matters such as time limits on squatters’ rights, corruption, insolvency applications and compulsory purchase orders. A great deal of work has had to be done across a number of Departments, which explains the delay. My noble Friend Baroness Ashton, whose portfolio this relates to, and the Lord Chancellor are particularly keen to get on with implementing this change.
The courts are working to deliver the Government’s plans for the court system, particularly improving public safety and increasing public confidence through simpler, speedier justice. Like all public services, the courts are facing tight spending limits this year.
I declare a relevant interest as a solicitor. What is the hope for improved administration of justice in Enfield magistrates court when the north-west London region courts were told last month that, following the Lord Chancellor’s overestimate of legal aid savings, they need to find £2 million-worth of savings this financial year? Is that not good news for fine defaulters and compensation defaulters, and bad news for court users and victims?
We have to be sure that the Department as a whole lives within its financial spending limits, but within that we can improve the services that we provide. I believe that it is possible to meet both those aims.
Has my right hon. and learned Friend had an opportunity to see the evidence of Sir Mark Potter, the president of the family division, to the Constitutional Affairs Committee? He says that any changes in the budget will dramatically affect his ability to bring down the current casework delay in the family division. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is very keen on modernising the Courts Service and that she has great ambitions to do so, but a cut in the budget that is not agreed with the judiciary will have serious implications for the delays that are still inherent in our family justice system.
We are all concerned that there should be no unnecessary delay in court processes, especially where children are involved. I have discussed the delays with the president of the family division and his fellow judges. One of our aims is to ensure that as many cases as possible do not come to court at all, but can be agreed outside it, as well as ensuring that cases that are brought to court are dealt with more swiftly.
We understand that the £80 million cut in the court budget this year could lead to a reduction of services and the loss of up to 1,300 jobs. Last week, the Minister of State revealed to me that the courts failed to collect some £282 million-worth of fines. Does not that debacle prove once again the Government’s inability to run public services, and the inability of Constitutional Affairs Ministers to run their own Department?
No, it does not. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that we inherited a position in which nearly half the fines imposed by the courts were not collected, a great deal of work has been done between the police and the courts across the country, and the collection rate has been increased to more than 80 per cent. That money goes to the Treasury, which I am sure is extremely pleased to receive it. The finances of the Courts Service are not what the hon. Gentleman said that they were. In fact, the courts did not spend the full amount that they thought that they would in the previous year. Perhaps, to help hon. Members to understand the exact position, I will place in the Library a copy of the permanent secretary’s letter to all court staff. That would enable hon. Members to see the financial situation, which is challenging, but not of the dimensions that the hon. Gentleman implied.
Further to the Government’s plans for the court system, will my right hon. and learned Friend say what plans she has for the family courts, especially in relation to ending their ability to send people to prison—for example, for contempt of court for breach of a contact order—without having a public hearing?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, which she has put to me in a written question, so I know what the answer is. Last year something like 200 people were sent to prison by the family courts, which happens in complete privacy and secrecy. The idea that people are sent to prison without any reports of the proceedings makes even more important the work that we are undertaking with the family courts, and with the important intervention of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, to open them up so that they act in the public interest while maintaining personal privacy.
The Courts Service has now purchased a site in Colchester for the new courthouse. The next step is to appoint a firm to construct the building. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Before hon. Members cheer, I must tell them that that is subject to funding discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury.
The time taken between the decision to build a new courthouse in Colchester and the present day is longer than the duration of the second world war. Does the Minister regard that as a success or a failure, with regard to the concept of the private finance initiative?
Obviously, we would have liked the hon. Gentleman’s local courthouse to have been renewed earlier. When he last made the comparison between the duration of the second world war and the time taken to build the new Colchester courthouse, the land had not yet been purchased. On that basis, at least, we are making progress. We will let him know when the construction company has been appointed, and I am sure that he will ask a question about that.
Order. The hon. Lady’s constituency is much too far from the area under discussion for me to call her.
Dr. David Kelly
The Oxfordshire coroner opened and adjourned the inquest into the death of Dr. David Kelly on 17 July 2003. He resumed the inquest on 14 August 2003 to admit post-mortem evidence from the Home Office pathologist and a toxicology report. He then adjourned the inquest as directed by the Lord Chancellor pending Lord Hutton’s public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly. Having read the Hutton report, the coroner announced at an open hearing on 16 March 2004 that there was no exceptional reason to resume the inquest.
The Minister will be aware that under the 1984 coroner’s rules, as amended in 2002, where an inquest has been adjourned for any reason, an interim certificate of death shall be issued, which accepts that the death has occurred without giving the precise reasons for the death. Why, then, did the Oxfordshire coroner, on 18 August—barely a week after Lord Hutton began taking evidence—issue a full death certificate giving reasons for the death? What was the point of the Hutton inquiry if the death certificate already gave the reasons?
The Hutton report obviously ranged much more widely, which is one of the reasons why a further inquest by the Oxfordshire coroner was not necessary.
The current state of play is that the Law Commission published a consultation paper about cohabitation on 31 May. That consultation paper poses questions on how the law in this area might be reformed, and we look forward to the outcome of the consultation and will consider any recommendations made. We expect the final report in summer 2007.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her reply and congratulate her on her new position. Does she agree that the principle of equal rights for cohabiting couples is based on the principle of fairness? I have received an anonymous letter from a woman who has lived with a man for 17 years and has borne five of his children, but who now finds herself unable to leave him as he refuses to give her a share in the family home, which is in his name. She describes her position as that of a concubine. What steps is the Department taking to make people aware that there is no such thing as a common-law marriage, and that they need to protect their rights if they are embarking on cohabitation?
The Law Commission produced its paper at the request of the Lord Chancellor because of concern about the fact that there are now 2 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales and about 1.25 million children dependent on them. We must think about reducing the potential financial hardship suffered by cohabitants when there is a break-up.
Apparently, 56 per cent. of people who responded to a survey thought that there was such a thing as common-law marriage, and that cohabitants’ rights to property and finance were very similar to those of married people. That is not correct. We have engaged two charitable not-for-profit groups to try to make people aware of the limitations on the legal status of people who cohabit, but the important point is that the Law Commission, at our request, is considering responsibly—as is essential when so many individuals, including children, are involved—whether there should be some sort of safety net in the event of a break-up.
I welcome the Law Commission’s consultation paper. As a co-sponsor of the early-day motion on this subject tabled by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), may I implore the hon. and learned Lady—whom I welcome to her responsibilities—to recognise the powerful case for a change in the law? Overwhelmingly, this is not about the distribution of largesse or about providing a rival to marriage, but about fairness, and, in many cases, about rescuing people from the destitution to which they would otherwise be consigned.
I entirely recognise that. Let me make what may be a partisan point, and say that it is women, usually, who are left high and dry after cohabitation, perhaps having dreamt that they did have some property rights, and they may indeed be thrown into destitution. It is important for us to examine the whole subject with a great deal of care. It involves sensitivities on numerous fronts, which is why it was appropriate for us to ask the Law Commission to consider it. We look forward to the results of the commission’s consultation, which will doubtless be followed by plenty of debate.
On 29 March I announced to the House the publication of the Government-commissioned Deepcut review, undertaken independently by Nicholas Blake QC. It looked into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers who were training at Princess Royal barracks, Deepcut, between 1995 and 2002. I gave the House an assurance that I was determined to deal with the issues raised by Mr. Blake, and undertook to ensure that everything possible would be done to prevent similar tragedies occurring in the future. I said that we would look at every one of Mr. Blake’s 34 recommendations to see how they should best be implemented to address the weaknesses that had been identified as quickly and effectively as possible.
Today I am publishing the Government’s response to the Deepcut review. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I understand that the publication of our response will inevitably evoke sad memories for the families of the soldiers who died at Deepcut. I hope that they will find some comfort in our response to Mr. Blake’s recommendations.
Having completed the detailed analysis of the report, I reiterate that it is an exhaustive, illuminating and thorough review, and I repeat my tribute and gratitude to Mr. Blake for such a comprehensive piece of work. I am confident that its enduring legacy will be a better and more caring framework for young trainees and service personnel more generally. The Government have acknowledged that mistakes were made in the past, and that there were failures in the way in which young and sometimes vulnerable recruits were cared for. I believe that the report will constitute a watershed in the treatment of our servicemen and women.
The services had, of course, already made significant changes and improvements before the Deepcut review, as Mr. Blake readily acknowledges in his report. For example, much greater attention is being paid to risk of self-harm and preventive measures; there are stricter controls over access to firearms; supervision of recruits and trainees has improved; appreciable new investment in facilities and accommodation has occurred and is ongoing; and a new harassment complaints procedure has been implemented.
However, the Deepcut review has highlighted that there is more that we can do, particularly in some key areas. I can confirm to the House that we accept the great majority of the review’s recommendations, although in some cases with necessary and justifiable modification or qualification, as explained in our response. However, in those cases we are still confident that we can give meaning to the intent behind the recommendation. There are very few recommendations that we cannot meet either wholly or in substantial part, and I now turn to these.
Recommendation 30 concerns the availability of an inquest wherever the death occurs, in this country or overseas. We are very much in sympathy with this thinking, but of course, it bears upon the draft Coroners Bill that has been published for consultation. Consequently, we are in discussion with the Department for Constitutional Affairs as to how that recommendation might be given effect.
Recommendation 31 also concerns inquests, in this case ensuring that the family of a deceased soldier has access to legal advice and representation. It is our intention to support families as much as we can throughout what are sad and distressing events, but there is a general presumption that interested persons at an inquest do not normally need to be legally represented. However, there is provision, in exceptional cases, for application for funding to be made to the Legal Services Commission. I believe that to be the appropriate mechanism and process to satisfy the recommendation.
Finally, recommendation 33 recommends to the Surrey police that the families of Sean Benton, Cheryl James and Geoff Gray be provided with copies of the respective Surrey police reports, solely for the purpose of considering whether an application should be made to the High Court to set aside the previous inquest into their child’s death. That is of course entirely a matter for the Surrey police, but I have written to the chief constable stating that, in the Ministry of Defence’s view, that is a helpful suggestion from Mr. Blake, and that, for our part, we would be happy to co-operate fully in such a process.
As I said earlier, we have accepted the great majority of the Deepcut review’s recommendations, and, as the response that I have published today shows, some are already in the process of being implemented. Work has already begun to address the rest. However, I know that a number of the issues raised in the review are of particular interest to Members, and it is to those that I now turn.
First, let me emphasise that we fully accept and agree with the review’s concern that the needs of service personnel under the age of 18—and their vulnerabilities—should be recognised. That is now reflected in new guidance to commanding officers. A “care of trainees” module was introduced to the training programme for instructors and other supervisory staff in 2004. That has now been incorporated in the “train the trainer” course for instructors, which has been introduced across the armed forces.
A new supervisory care policy in phase 1 and 2 training establishments was introduced in March this year, and each unit is required to compile an assessment of the risk to trainees that takes account of the particular circumstances of that establishment and its population. There are specific policies aimed at the well-being of under-18s in terms of how they are accommodated, their recreational and social facilities, and their duties, including access to firearms.
One of the most significant areas of the review is the provision of independent assurance of our processes, and in particular the military justice system and the military complaints systems. We intend to introduce or enhance independent oversight of both those areas. The Police and Justice Bill will provide for the creation of a new combined inspectorate for the criminal justice system. Following discussion with the Attorney-General, the Lord Chancellor and Home Secretary, we intend to use that opportunity to extend and deepen inspection arrangements across the military justice system. Those working within that system strive to perform with professionalism and to standards comparable to those in the civilian criminal justice system. External assurance will serve further to demonstrate that.
Turning to the military redress of complaints system, as the House is aware, we have already made proposals under the Armed Forces Bill to improve that process and to introduce an independent element to it. We intend that the service complaint panels dealing with complaints such as those relating to harassment and bullying will include an independent member, and that the complaints process will be reviewed annually and publicly by an independent external reviewer. But in the light of the recommendations of the Deepcut review, and of representations made by Members during the consideration of the Bill by the Armed Forces Bill Select Committee, we propose to go further. We propose that the role of the external reviewer should be extended, providing him or her with the ability to accept complaints directly from a serviceperson or a family member, or another third party on their behalf; to have the power to refer such complaints to the chain of command for appropriate action; and to be informed of the outcome of that complaint.
That wider role would justify the title of service complaints commissioner. Critically, the commissioner would have direct access to Ministers. Furthermore, to ensure effective oversight the commissioner would report annually to Parliament. The House will note that in some practical respects this model for a commissioner is different from that proposed in the Deepcut review. Let me stress that there is, however, no difference between the Government and Mr. Blake over the fundamental intent, which is to promote the effective operation of existing military proceedings and provide independent assurance that the procedures are working effectively, with systemic issues appropriately addressed.
I now turn to the proposal that a commissioner might have the right to be consulted in disciplinary matters, or have the ability to intervene to institute legal proceedings against prosecution decisions. We believe that that would potentially undermine the role and independence of the prosecuting authorities. I know of no precedent for such a role in the civilian criminal justice system.
We have listened carefully to evidence given to various Select Committees and by Members of both Houses. We maintain—and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members would share this view—that the chain of command’s primary responsibility for welfare should not be undermined. However, in providing for a service complaints commissioner, we accept the need for external, independent assurance, especially for a vulnerable young trainee—or his family or friends—who may feel uncomfortable about approaching a commanding officer directly. Subject to views expressed in this House and in the other place, the Government would propose to bring forward amendments to the Armed Forces Bill to provide for a service complaints commissioner.
Our armed forces are deeply valued by the Government and by the whole House. Their well-being is very much at the heart of this response to the Deepcut review. We are committed to improving the way in which all our recruits are trained, developed and looked after. We are resolute in our aim to deliver real, measurable and tangible improvements to the benefit of all our personnel who serve our country so well. As I stated earlier, this will be a watershed in how our servicemen and women are treated. I am determined to deliver on the commitments, and the external scrutiny that will be put in place will hold us to account now and in the future.
I am sure that I speak for both sides of the House when I say that we wish profoundly that the tragic deaths of four young people had not made this report necessary, but I am grateful to the Minister for his response and his courtesy in making the statement available to us in advance.
As I said the last time that we discussed this subject, the social trends in our country today mean that an increasing number of recruits come from broken family backgrounds, have poor academic achievements and are often deficient in basic skills. The fact that the Army can transform them into world class soldiers is something of which we should all be justly proud. We also need to remember that the cases that we are discussing today are very much the exceptions, and I am sure that the Minister would want to underline that.
Let us remind ourselves of some of the basic facts of this tragedy. Of the four young victims, two had previous clearly recorded episodes of self-harm in their medical notes prior to recruitment. One of the others had clearly documented episodes of self-harm while in the Army. Another was about to be forced to leave the Army against his will. These vulnerable individuals were not only given loaded guns, but put on solitary guard duty in remote locations. They were given both means and opportunity and, as the Minister said, the Government accept that that represented a failure in duty of care.
The Blake report found that there was bullying, but that it was by no means endemic nor clearly linked to any of the four deaths. However, it also said that there were too few non-commissioned officers to supervise training properly—a fact that the Army had pointed out already. What can we learn from the Government’s response to the report, and how can we ensure that the tragedies cannot be repeated?
To begin with, we must make sure that there is a comprehensive system for assessing a recruit’s medical history. That means more than merely having sight of medical notes: there must be a proper investigation into the medical history of all recruits. Will the Minister confirm that that has been happening in all cases since 2004?
What about the ratio of NCOs to recruits? The 2002 report by the Deputy Adjutant-General found that the level of supervision
“was wholly inadequate and greatly magnified the level of risk.”
What has been done to improve that ratio?
The Minister spoke about phase 2 training, but the problem went beyond supervision. The indeterminate length of that training was a factor that exacerbated the unhappiness of many recruits, so what has been done to ameliorate that?
The Minister was right to talk about the inquests system, but merely amending the forthcoming Bill is not good enough. At present, 59 inquests into the deaths of servicemen killed in Iraq remain outstanding. There needs to be a change in how the system is operated or funded. I know that the Secretary of State is looking at that, and I hope that the Minister will say where the Government have got to in respect of dealing with the backlog and with the current failures in the inquests system.
I am pleased that the Government have not caved in to the arguments for introducing a full-blown ombudsman, and that the Minister said that the chain of command’s primary responsibility for welfare should not be undermined. The Opposition completely agree, but how will the relationship between commissioner and commander work in practice? What will the interface be? Who will select the commissioner, and according to what criteria? What sort of background will the commissioner have? We would much prefer it if he had a military background, and therefore an understanding of the pressures in the chain of command.
I am grateful to the Government for their response. We shall look constructively and in detail at what they propose. We need a training system that is nurturing and without harassment or bullying, yet robust enough to prepare youngsters for the sort of tasks that they face in the brutal realities of Iraq or Afghanistan.
We want the Government to ensure that there is a duty of care, but all hon. Members are fully aware that, in the end, we are training soldiers.
I do not intend to comment about the four individual deaths to which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred. Enough grief has washed over the families involved already, and this has been another bad and difficult day for them. The report looks at those deaths, but goes much wider. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the achievements of our training environment, and I shall not elaborate on what has been said time and again about the quality produced at Deepcut and elsewhere.
The hon. Member for Woodspring asked a range of questions, some of which have been answered on previous occasions. Additional resources for instructors have been made available, and we are constantly looking at the balance in this matter. I do not want to go into the history too much, but part of the problem in the past was that the training environment was stripped out to meet front-line demand. The Government inherited that problem and have been trying to address it, but strengthening the training environment means that senior and capable personnel are taken away from the front line at an exceptionally busy time. The Government must strike the right balance, and we are making significant progress.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the way in which we assess the background of recruits. New procedures have been put in place to do that, so that we have the best assessment of the nature and characteristics of the young people in question. Not all of them come from vulnerable backgrounds or are damaged individuals, and I would not like it to be thought that that is the quality of the young recruits to Her Majesty’s armed forces. It is not. There are some with those characteristics, but many come from stable family homes and military families. None the less, we have to understand the breadth of the range of individuals with whom we are dealing.
The hon. Gentleman raised the unquestionably important matter of phase 1 and phase 2 training. Our aim is to make sure that we do not have recruits, in effect, sitting around doing nothing while they wait for their next posting, and that has been tackled substantially. The average number of soldiers awaiting trade training for more than 14 days has decreased from more than 1,100 in 2003-04 to 456 in 2005-06, and we shall work to improve that. For Deepcut alone, the comparable figures are a decrease from 136 to 75. Sometimes it happens for a good reason, but we recognise that it is an issue none the less.
The hon. Gentleman asked about coroner’s inquests and the backlog in what is done for those whose bodies are repatriated from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. We have announced new measures, in consultation with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. Three additional assistant deputy coroners, one of whom is a retired High Court judge, will be appointed to assist the Oxfordshire coroner in dealing with the backlog of Iraq-related inquests. As of last week, 59 inquests were outstanding on service personnel whose bodies were repatriated to RAF Brize Norton. We have at all times recognised that that is a problem, and we are now beginning to tackle it. Throughout, the interests of the grieving families must remain paramount.
The hon. Gentleman asked specific questions about the role of the commissioner and he expressed a strong—indeed, prescriptive—view. I would say, let us examine the merits of the role of the commissioner. In the Armed Forces Bill, we will define in broad terms what the commissioner will do—we will have to table amendments, which will be subject to debate in the other place, where the Bill now is, and perhaps in this place when the Bill returns to the Commons. It is worth having the arguments; I simply ask the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to have an open mind and not to be too prescriptive. Let us see what the best method and the most acceptable solution are. I believe that the framework that we have set out has great merit. An important aspect of that is that it does not undermine the chain of command, which is paramount in all that we seek to do.
I thank the Minister for the statement and for advance notice of it. I welcome the Government’s positive response to some of the Blake recommendations.
On the matter of Surrey police sharing with the families evidence to which they have been struggling to gain access for more than three years, I applaud the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has entered into correspondence with the chief constable. If the problem is that the police believe that people gave evidence on an anonymous basis, will he explore with the chief constable the possibility of disclosing the evidence at least initially on an anonymous basis, with names obscured?
Turning to the crux of the matter, the Minister has just responded to the shadow Secretary of State on the proposed service complaints commissioner. I welcome the Government talking about the importance of independence and bringing independent assurance to the process, but I am sorry that the Minister turned down the opportunity to tell us more about the remit of the commissioner. Who will appoint the commissioner? What will his powers be and what resources will he have? To what extent will the commissioner have the power to instruct a remedy, or will he simply have an advisory role that goes back up the line of command? Will there be independent people on all service complaints panels? What ability will the commissioner have either to intervene in complaints or to initiate inquiries on the basis of evidence that he sees, or of a pattern or picture that he sees emerging? We need to hear a lot more about this matter before we can judge whether, as the Minister says, the title of service complaints commissioner is justified.
On accommodation for young recruits and recommendations 2 and 8, will the Minister explain why the recommendation to train under-17s in establishments exclusive to that age group has been rejected? Will he reflect on the findings of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the comments of the previous Secretary of State that accommodation is in a “worse position” than anything else. What does he intend to do about the accommodation issue?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for some of his comments, but perhaps not all of them. On the question of Surrey police, we are talking about something that is a matter for the police. The fact that I have written to the chief constable to indicate what I think would be of benefit reflects a view that I have taken from the early stages—as my knowledge grew—that the reopening of the inquests would be desirable. It is not in my power to so direct. The Surrey police information may provide sufficient grounds to allow that to happen, but I do not know, because I have not seen it in detail. I cannot intrude in that matter other than to indicate my strong preference as to what should happen. I cannot direct on that matter.
On the commissioner’s role, the hon. Gentleman had an early view of my statement and I have set out what the remit of the commissioner would be. I have been careful in the response—I do not want to say that this tops and bottoms it or ends it. We are fortunate that we have the Armed Forces Bill where this matter will be ventilated and can be discussed and examined. I would not want to close down on any reasonable suggestion. However, I do not want to put in place or encourage anything that seeks to undermine the important role of the chain of command. That is why we have said that the independent commissioner would have the right of reporting to the commanding officer, the right of follow-up in terms of finding out what happened as a result of all that, and, importantly, the right of access to Ministers and to report annually to Parliament. If there was a pattern developing, or even a significant case, it would be down to that individual to draw the Minister’s attention to it if he felt that there was reluctance, unwillingness or blocking on the part of the commanding officer or the system itself. So, we have an insight into what is going on. That has not been there before. However, I will resist any attempt to undermine the independence of the commanding officer or their right to ensure that proper discipline is maintained in their unit. We have made a substantial move and, hopefully, it is to be welcomed and subject to further examination.
Accommodation is a big issue; there is no question about that. That is why we have re-profiled a lot of our spending approaches to try to make sure that we can lift the quality of accommodation. We have a massive backlog to attend to. The moneys would not simply be available to anyone. We are not talking about a wish list, but about practicalities, given the hundreds of millions—if not billions—of pounds that would be required to improve that accommodation. We have a progressive programme to deal with all that. Although we can see the objectives of the recommendations, the delivery will take some time to achieve. That is what we have now set out to seek to achieve.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the time to read our response to the recommendations—I accept that he has not had that opportunity. We set out the rationale. It is fairly long and I do not want to read it out in detail, other than to say this: we recognise that there is an issue and we are seeking to address it. We have best practice and very good training environments at Harrogate and Bassingbourn. We can see the quality that comes out of that type of training establishment, where there is a separation of the single young people, and the type of training that we can give them. Whether that can be matched across the whole of the training environment has to be judged in terms of what we are trying to train. We are talking about a soldier going into the front line. We have got to judge the quality and robustness of that training.
I make a final point to the hon. Gentleman. Mr. Blake’s report referred to the unsolicited comment of a young trainee in which he said that he felt that he was being mollycoddled. Soldiers react to being mollycoddled because they might be in the front line tomorrow, so that is why a balance has to be struck.
I welcome the considered and detailed response that the Minister has given to Nicholas Blake’s review. May I question him further on the independent commissioner—the service complaints commissioner? As he is aware, I would have preferred a commissioner with the powers that Nicholas Blake outlined; nevertheless, I welcome the establishment of a service complaints commissioner. As we will be having further discussions on the matter, will the Minister consider the independence and powers of the commissioner, because families will be asking questions about that? For example, he outlined that one of the commissioner’s powers will be to refer complaints to the chain of command for appropriate action, but what will happen if the chain of command has already considered those complaints? In such circumstances, the individual concerned and his or her family will want reassurances about the powers of the commissioner and the way in which the commissioner can investigate. Will the Minister consider those powers and give assurances about independence so that the families, in turn, can be reassured?
I fully respect and understand the position that my hon. Friend takes, but I ask her to take account of all the other things that we have done. The adult learning inspectorate can carry out notified and unnotified visits to training establishments. It can then examine all the things that we have put in place regarding duty of care to determine whether that is being effectively delivered. The overall delivery is thus subject to independent scrutiny.
The commissioner will bring to the process a recognition of the fact that many young people feel that they do not have confidence in the system. The same may be the case for their parents, although the young people might not be fortunate enough to have parents who care for them directly. Indeed, a friend of the young person or someone serving alongside them could trigger the process. The people or their families could tell the commissioner that something that had happened had been brushed over. A one-off incident would be bad enough, but if an incident indicated that there was a pattern of events, the commissioner would be on to that very quickly. If there was any indication that the system—be that an individual commanding officer, or a more institutional process—was blocking what the commissioner was trying to do, the commissioner would have access to the Minister and could report accordingly.
There is now enough raised awareness in the Ministry of Defence for us to realise that we cannot allow the problems of the past to recur. However, we can never guarantee that sad incidents will not happen. We cannot be perfect, and we will never be able—in any part of civil or military life, or any aspect of society—to avoid self-harm or difficult circumstances arising owing to bullying and harassment. However, we are trying to put in place an environment that will ensure that those who have direct responsibility through the zero-tolerance approach will fully understand what they have to do. If they are not delivering, the commissioner will be able to take the matter up with the commanding officer and report to the Minister. There is also the independent overview from the adult learning inspectorate. I do not think that there is any other aspect of what the public service delivers that has such public scrutiny. We have not yet reached a conclusion on the final role of the commissioner, because that will be determined as part of the proceedings on the Armed Forces Bill.
I thank the Minister for his thoughtful and considered statement. As the constituency Member for Deepcut, I would like to ask about the Government’s response to recommendation 8, which was about the future of the training estate. I wrote to the then Secretary of State for Defence two months ago to explain to him that Defence Estates had slated the entire Deepcut barracks for sell-off and future development. Understandably, there is concern in my constituency that the Ministry of Defence wants to wash its hands of Deepcut. Can the Minister assure me that he has total confidence in the current leadership at Deepcut? Will he assure the leadership and the broader community that an excellent job is now being done? Will he give us a clear indication of what the future of the barracks will be and tell us what Defence Estates is up to?
I pay tribute to the current leadership and those who carry out the role of instructor. The quality of the young corporals and sergeants, who throw their hearts into trying to create the high-quality trainees and front-line soldiers that we so need, never ceases to amaze me, as I saw on my last visit. There is no question about that. The last inspection by the adult learning inspectorate said that Deepcut had become an exemplar. Perhaps that is a feature of the focus that has been on it, but I think that it would have happened anyway because of the intense effort that has gone in to lift the quality of what we do in the training environment. The “train the trainers” process will train instructors. We are opening a school at Pirbright in 2007 to do just that, and it will be designed to give quality training to those who become trainers. That has not been done before and was a deficiency. I pay tribute to those who deliver training at Deepcut.
I have not seen the hon. Gentleman’s letter. I do not know what has happened to it. It was not addressed to me and I suppose that it is somewhere within the big sausage machine. No doubt he will get an answer in due course. The defence training review means that I cannot tell him the future of Deepcut, any more than I can tell him the future of any part of the training environment. It is a comprehensive undertaking and a major examination of how best we can deliver training outputs. There will be change. I cannot say how it will affect Deepcut. I do not think that people want to wash their hands of it, which is why I pay tribute to those who deliver the service there. Let us remember that 1,700 recruits go through that establishment each year, as I am sure he is only too well aware. All of them are of a very high quality.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the comprehensive and thoughtful response to the Blake inquiry. Of course, families will not be wholly satisfied short of a public inquiry, but that was not recommended and I suspect that he will not suggest it today.
Recommendation 31 deals with legal representation before and during an inquest, and with legal advice that is given earlier. My right hon. Friend said that exceptional funding is available for inquests, but given what else he said, such tragedies will be more exceptional. Is it possible for him to say that legal representation will be available in every case to assist families immediately and in the inquests that may follow?
My hon. Friend is right about the public inquiry. He is only too well aware that Mr. Blake did not, after all his examination, consider it necessary, assuming that a lot of other things take place. We are delivering on those.
I gave a lot of thought to all the recommendations, but to recommendation 31 in particular because of the position that families find themselves in at coroners’ inquests. However, inquests are not adversarial, as my hon. Friend will know. If we inject a legal process into the arrangements, we could change their very nature. There are other ways in which individuals and families can seek legal remedy, given the circumstances.
The process is about establishing the facts and getting as much background as possible on what happened. It is then left to others to judge whether a wrongdoing or whatever had taken place. The approach that we—society as a whole—take to supporting families at coroners’ inquests or fatal accident inquiries in Scotland is to give legal support only in exceptional circumstances. It is a matter for the Department with responsibility to consider whether it needs to change the scope and framework of inquests. A Coroners Bill is out for consultation. My hon. Friend may want to make representations accordingly.
May I, too, congratulate the Government on their positive response to some of the recommendations? Does the Minister accept, however, that my constituents, Jim and Yvonne Collinson, and the other Deepcut families are no closer to finding out how and why their children died? The Blake report was good in places, but it only told us so much about what happened at Deepcut. Does he accept that, given the Government’s positive response to the report, we must find out how and why those young people died? The only way to do so is to compel witnesses to come forward and cross-examine them in a public inquiry.
No, I do not, because that would not achieve the end result sought by the hon. Gentleman. The Blake review was exhaustive, and it examined all of that territory. I do not think that anything was held back or that Mr. Blake was hoodwinked—I am not saying that the hon. Gentleman made such a suggestion. Mr. Blake put a great deal of effort into the review and, while he was critical of some aspects of what was going on, he revealed information of which we were not previously aware, allowing us to take action accordingly.
The presumption behind the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the process of a public inquiry would lead to the “how” and “why”, but we cannot be certain that it would do so. There have been five police reports, and we have conducted our own internal investigations. He said that Blake’s was a good report in part, but I think that it is a good report in total. If Mr. Blake had concluded that a public inquiry was necessary, I would have been in a dilemma, given my view that that was not the case. I would have had to weigh his opinion against my own. It is with a sense of relief that I find that I do not have to do so, as he advances an extremely solid argument to support the conclusion that a public inquiry is not necessary. I hope that we all use our best judgment to find on the same basis. It is easy to continue running a campaign, but for what purpose, if it does not produce the result that is sought?
I often think that dealing with the Ministry of Defence is like pushing water uphill. We are slowly getting there, given the announcement of a commissioner, who will provide the independent oversight that is needed. Like the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), I am concerned that we have not been provided with details of the commissioner’s role and remit. My right hon. Friend the Minister said that we needed more discussion, but following a report by the Select Committee on Defence and discussion of the Armed Forces Bill, is it not time to determine the detail of the commissioner’s role? Unless we do so, we will be reluctant to support the proposal when we debate the Armed Forces Bill in the House. Unlike the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), I believe that it is vital that the commissioner should be independent. The expectation that he should be associated with the armed forces is quite wrong, so I urge the Minister not to appoint anyone who is connected in any way with the military chain of command.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend thinks that he is pushing water uphill. I do not know whether he is Jack and I am Jill, or whether it is the other way round, but this is a very good complex issue. Having served on a Select Committee, I know that it is easy for Select Committees to offer headline solutions.
The hon. Gentleman is critical, but I should be grateful if he allowed me to express my view. It is easy to provide headlines and expect someone else to deliver, which is exactly what the Select Committee recommended. It was a helpful recommendation, and I do not wish to diminish it. The first piece of legislation that I steered through the House as a Northern Ireland Minister dealt with the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and one of the main issues that it addressed was the need to put in place an ombudsman to deal with police complaints. It took us a long time to achieve agreement, as my hon. Friend will accept, but it was not a case of pushing water uphill. It was a case of getting the best definition because it had to stand the test of time.
We are fortunate that we have the Armed Forces Bill, which allows proper scrutiny through the parliamentary process, rather than a prescriptive definition, top and bottom, by a Minister, albeit a Minister such as I, who has a great deal of detailed knowledge of the subject. I am prepared to set out the very broad but very specific parameters of what we are seeking to do with the new position, and I want to hear what is said and whether we have gone far enough once we define it in the Bill.
I can think of no better way of arriving at the best conclusion than having that whole debate in the open, rather than by ministerial edict. As for being prescriptive, my hon. Friend said what should not happen. I am not responding to that, because I want to hear the arguments for and against. We have time to do it. We can do it through a form of legislation. We have the vehicle for that, fortuitously. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to participate in that debate.
I am sure the Minister will agree that we need fair, robust and disciplined training for our armed forces. When I went through basic training as a 16-year-old soldier, one thing that we had then which we do not have now to address the myriad problems that young people have was trained soldiers in the barrack rooms with us throughout our basic training. When I recently visited the training regiment at Pirbright, several times while I was there the question was, “Would you like to have training soldiers in the rooms with you?” and the answer was, “Yes, we would,” because it addresses the camaraderie and the training that they needed. Will the Minister consider that? He mentioned that we would debate the Armed Forces Bill when it returns from the other place. Can he confirm that we will have an opportunity to debate it in the House?
On the latter point, was the hon. Gentleman asking when or whether the Bill would come back to the House?
Will it come back here for debate?
That depends what happens in the other place. I am not the master of that. The fact that the Bill is to be amended means that it will have to come back. I will not go into parliamentary procedure, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to say what he wants to say about the detail.
On the subject of trained soldiers alongside recruits, is that desirable? Does it raise accommodation issues? I prefer to hear what those who are expert in the matter say, rather than expressing the ministerial position. It could be a sensible proposition. The hon. Gentleman said it helped him, but maybe he needed a lot of help.
Trained soldiers asked me, because they needed help.
We must consider what benefits would flow from the proposal. Then there is the question of how many people would be required. Is there a benefit? Possibly. How many would need to be available to deliver it? The instructors are trained soldiers, as we know—
No, they are not.
Order. I know the hon. Gentleman is an ex-serviceman and has a great deal of knowledge, but when he asks a question of a Minister, he must get a reply, just as in the Army, when the sergeant starts speaking, he has to listen.
I hope I do not get the same admonition, Mr. Speaker.
One of the aims that we seek to achieve with the new accommodation blocks is a better spirit of camaraderie. One of the failings of single living accommodation was that it allowed individuals, trained or untrained, to live in an isolated room of their own. We have therefore reconstructed our approach so that there is now a common area and more integration. We need trained personnel close to all of that, but—at the risk of contradicting my earlier comment that it would be wrong of a Minister to try to impose a solution—it would have to be with a light touch, not a heavy touch. It must be carefully managed so that people grow and are not dragged up. People should grow naturally with best example, not forced example.
I want to preface my remarks to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—
Order. I know that the hon. Lady is a new Member. She does not need to preface her remarks to an Opposition Member. She needs to ask the Minister one supplementary question.
Forgive me, Mr. Speaker. I will speak to the hon. Member for Woodspring later. I have three quick questions—
Order. I have said just one.
I have one quick question. I am heartened that the Minister has written to Surrey police, but I want to place it on the record that I have not received a response to my letter to Surrey police in two and a half months and that none of the families—I represent the Gray family—has received anything. Can anything be done to pursue that matter? On recommendation 31, I fully endorse the comments by my right hon. Friend the Minister and wonder what conversations he has had with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. On recommendation 26, has he had any contact with the Canadian forces about their experiment with an ombudsman, which has been highly successful and did not involve anyone with a military background? I welcome the steps in response to recommendation 26, but I wonder what further progress will be made.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend did not get the chance to put all her questions. I am also sorry to hear her comments about Surrey police, and suggest that she take up the matter with the relevant Minister. It is a matter of regret that the families have not received a response, and I will see what more I can do in that particular area. On the experience of others, whether it involves Canadians, Australians or the Dutch, we have examined how we can best deliver our objectives. I have not had a discussion with the Canadian forces, but I have examined what is possible in terms of structure and therefore output.
The window has been left slightly open because of the Armed Forces Bill. We have defined the broad parameters of what we are seeking to do, and our objectives are comprehensive and will make a substantial difference. If, however, other examples are brought into play during the process of consideration, we must consider them and respond according to the normal democratic processes. There is no doubt in my mind that the debate in the other place on that issue will be intense.
Nicholas Blake clearly stated that if the Government refused to establish an independent commissioner for military complaints, he would call for a full, independent public inquiry into the Deepcut deaths. Is it not obvious that the Government have refused that specific recommendation and that years of co-operation and patience on the part of the parents have been paid back with secrecy and defensiveness by the authorities and a process that actually refers complaints back into the chain of command for action? Does the Minister recognise that he has left us no option but to force a full independent public inquiry, presumably with Nicholas Blake’s support, without which the parents will receive few answers, little disclosure, no commissioner and no justice?
The hon. Gentleman and I have worked closely on this matter, but a big gap has appeared, which I regret. Nicholas Blake did not make that point in his report and did not make it a condition, and only he can comment on whether he is satisfied or otherwise with our recommendations. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that Mr. Blake is not satisfied, the hon. Gentleman should wait to hear what, if anything, Mr. Blake says. I do not accept that there has been secrecy and defensiveness. I do not know how many statements I have made to the House or how much more transparency is required. Our actions have been extensive, and I think that we have gone a considerable way to meeting what the hon. Gentleman wants. The point underlying the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that the chain of command should be stripped of responsibility.
I am trying to interpret what the hon. Gentleman has said, in the same way as he interpreted what Mr. Blake has said. If he is saying that putting the complaint back to the chain of command somehow undermines the quality of the decision-making process, I disagree fundamentally, and I will tell him why. The chain of command has to ensure proper discipline and structure in the organisation for which it is responsible. We cannot allow that to be transferred to someone else, even someone with a military background. We have rejected Mr. Blake’s recommendation that someone with a civilian background should try to determine the right to go to legal process, because there is nowhere in our civil processes where that would apply.
This matter has been given very careful consideration. I uphold the primacy of the chain of command. I recognise that it has made mistakes in the past and will do so in the future. It is not perfect, but that is not for the want of professionalism, commitment and a determination to deliver what is best. The hon. Gentleman’s judgment should be based on how many recruits go through that training environment year upon year. It is not a broken regime. If anything, it is an exemplar for the rest of the public service, and it passes muster with anything internationally.
Following Deepcut and, perhaps more importantly, the growing separation between the military and the rest of society and the enormous operational commitment now undertaken by the armed forces, the challenge faced by the training establishment in producing the world-class soldiers referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) grows all the time. Does the Minister accept not only that the Army must put its best officers and NCOs into the training establishment, but that the Government must support investment in the training establishment—preferably with money from the Treasury, but if that is not available, from the balance of resources that he presides over? The training establishment will have to get more resources, perhaps at the expense of the equipment programme or other areas, because people who are making the change from ordinary members of society into world-class soldiers must have the necessary investment now and a growing scale of investment in future.
If I did not know that before, I certainly know it now, not only because of what the hon. Gentleman has said but because of the learning process that I have had to go through over the past five years in dealing with this issue. That is why more resources have been put into the training environment and why we corrected the decision made in past years. I am not making an adverse comment, but merely saying that a decision was taken that had to be reversed because it had not produced the right results, and we therefore had to find a new way of doing things.
We are instituting the “train the trainer” environment and opening up a new school for all instructors because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the best soldier is not necessarily the best instructor and the best officer is not necessarily the best person to run a training establishment. It is a question of finding the right people for the right roles. If someone needs to make up a deficiency in their knowledge base, that is what their training process will entail. It will lift their skills and knowledge and the subtleties that they have to apply in dealing with young people, and sometimes not-so-young people, as they put them through that training environment. I would argue that we have very high-quality training, although I know that the hon. Gentleman is not saying anything different. I agree, however, that we have to make it even better because of the demands that are now placed upon our service personnel.
The introduction of the service complaints commissioner provides a new process by which people can make complaints, but it is a formal process which some recruits might find intimidating. Does the Minister agree that the Army chaplaincy plays a valuable role as regards complaints within the armed services? Is he aware that currently the Territorial Army is 26 undermanned as far as chaplains are concerned and that the regular Army is looking for 16 extra chaplains? What will he do to address that important issue?
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. Others should listen to the way in which the argument was presented. If the process that we are considering has to be triggered, that almost constitutes a failure because it means that all the other duty of care mechanisms that we have put in place will somehow not have picked up the problem. That is why we are investing so heavily not only in the chaplaincy but in all the other informal and formal structures so that people know that anonymous helplines are available, that they can go to Samaritans, the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service and a range of contact points.
The other important aspect is that all our instructors will be better trained to pick up the noises off. If there is a problem, they should tackle it quickly. If anything goes to the commissioner, that is, in a sense, a failure, assuming that the case is proven. It may not be—a case could be anecdotal or not add up to anything. However, we need the protective mechanism so that, if people feel that nobody has been listening to them—that has been part of the complaint in the past—that final recourse is available. It could end up on a Minister’s desk. The process is therefore well rounded but it has to succeed at the bottom, not only at the top. If it does not succeed at the bottom, we have a problem. I do not believe that we have a problem; we have issues to which we must attend, and we are doing that.
I cannot provide a specific answer on the chaplaincy—we do not have the power to dragoon members of the Churches or of other faiths into uniform. However, I appreciate that it is an important part of what we do and I hope that the Churches and other faith groups are examining how best they can help us.
Honours (Prevention of Corruption)
Mr. Angus MacNeil, supported by Dr. Richard Taylor, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Alex Salmond, Adam Price, Angus Robertson, Hywel Williams, Mr. Mike Weir, Stewart Hosie and Pete Wishart, presented a Bill to regulate the award of life peerages to donors to political parties; to create an Honours and Appointments Commission with responsibilities relating to the awarding of certain honours and life peerages to donors to political parties; to create a quarantine period between the award of an honour and a donation to a political party; to regulate donations to political parties from individuals or organisations who benefit from government contracts or sponsor government programmes; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed. [Bill 196].
Special Educational Needs
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require that statements by local authorities relating to special educational needs are issued independently of decisions about the funding of facilities and services arising from such needs.
In that context, I declare an interest as the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who will almost certainly have special educational needs.
Interest in special educational needs in the House since the general election has been reflected in no fewer than 93 written and oral parliamentary questions. In addition, although there has been no debate on the subject in Government time, three debates have been held on the issue, notably those initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on 22 June last year in Opposition time, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on 29 November and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on 7 March, whose debate covered Asperger’s syndrome in her constituency.
What are the central facts about special educational needs? There are currently 1,230,800 children with special educational needs, but without a statement, in this country. In addition, 242,600 children have special educational needs and a statement. Of course, the needs vary greatly. They can result from learning difficulties, sensory impairments or physical disabilities. It is important to understand that they can be moderate and one-dimensional. However, they can also be severe, complex and multifaceted. We can be fairly sure of one fact in that labyrinthine field: there is no evidence to suggest that any reduction in the number of children with special educational needs is likely soon. Indeed, the evidence points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. A continuing increase in the number of children with special educational needs is expected.
It is therefore noteworthy and a source of concern that, as a result of direct Government encouragement, the number of new statements of special educational needs is in marked decline. In 1998, 35,650 new statements were issued; by 2004, the figure had fallen to 26,000. It is important for all right hon. and hon. Members to reflect and to come to a view on the statementing process.
I want to make a number of observations that seem to be fair-minded and relevant. First, a great many parents regard a statement as a lever that they can pull, a source of comfort or a guarantee of assistance. I do not sniff at that; it is extremely important. However, large numbers of them are simultaneously gravely concerned by the weaknesses in the existing statementing process. To put it simply, the process is too bureaucratic, too adversarial, too time-consuming, too expensive and, all too often, too vague. As a consequence of those failings in the system, too many children wait too long, are promised too little and receive even less.
We can observe the evidence recently produced in a serious study by the National Autistic Society. It conducted a survey that showed that 31 per cent. of children, according to their parents, are not getting the help that has been promised in their statement, and that only 55 per cent. of children are receiving the speech and language therapy that their statement stipulates that they should receive. In the light of those statistics, it is perhaps unsurprising that 79 per cent. of the parents who appeal, in protest against that lamentable state of affairs, to the special educational needs and disability tribunal—SENDIST—are successful in their appeals.
This is a serious situation. People have to wait a long time and are often promised less than they think is their due. They then find that they are not even to be given what they have belatedly and inadequately been promised. It is incredibly difficult even to enforce the entitlement that they have, in a very delayed fashion, been given. These are serious concerns.
The second concern involves SENDIST itself. Thousands of parents appeal every year. They do so because they have been denied a statutory assessment of their child, or because they have been denied the issue of a statement for their child. They appeal because there is an insufficiency of specific support in their child’s statement, or because they have been denied their preference of school for their child.
Significantly, increasingly and ominously, however, there is evidence of difference in success at the tribunals depending on socio-economic status. To put it bluntly, someone who is educated, articulate and relatively deep-pocketed will do well at a tribunal because they make their appeal, they hire the solicitors, they secure the specialist reports and they fight the system. Those people are successful. However, people who are uneducated, inarticulate and have no money are less likely to go to a tribunal. If they do, they are less likely to succeed, because they are less likely to be able to afford or secure the specialist services that are often a prerequisite of success. They will fail. They will lose.
The time has come to change the system, and I would like to make a number of specific suggestions in the context of adopting a new approach. First, we should dispense with statements and replace them with special needs profiles. The responsibility for crafting such profiles would fall to accredited assessors from the educational psychology profession. They would decide on the level of support that should be provided to the child, choosing from a number of tiers.
Secondly, we need to establish a national funding agency separate from and independent of the arrangements outlined in my first proposal. The necessary payment would come from that funding agency, and it would go with the parent, on behalf of the pupil, travelling with him or her to the institution that he or she attends.
My third proposal is that we establish a special educational needs standing commission. Its role would be to accredit the assessors, to hear appeals and to offer advice—in the light of emerging practice and policy—to the national funding agency about requirements and needs and the increase in public expenditure necessary to meet them.
My central thesis is that that would be a real advantage over the present system, which is weak because local education authorities assess and decide, pay and provide. For the most part, they are in control of the whole process, and we need to make it a great deal more independent. We need to make it quicker and fairer—independent of the Government, independent of local authorities and independent of the sources of supply. That, surely, makes sense.
I do not decry the very real efforts made in the field of special educational needs. It is a complex area, in which there is always a danger of generalisation. There is good practice, bad practice and indifferent practice. Every child is unique; each case is different; but there are serious weaknesses. I politely suggest to the Government that a real problem is now emerging: the desire to cut costs and the elevation of the useful tool of inclusion into some sort of dogmatic edict in every particular, which is grossly damaging and needs to be changed. We are talking not about guinea pigs in some giant experiment of starry-eyed social engineering, but about children who need help, more help and better help, and who need it now. My Bill will help to provide it, so I commend it with enthusiasm to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by John Bercow, Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. Douglas Carswell, Mrs. Nadine Dorries, Mr. Nick Gibb, Stephen Hammond, Mr. John Hayes, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr. Julian Lewis, Mr. George Mudie and Bob Spink.
Special Educational Needs
John Bercow accordingly presented a Bill to require that statements by local authorities relating to special educational needs are issued independently of decisions about the funding of facilities and services arising from such needs: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 195].
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the previous statement by the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made some inaccurate comments—unintentionally, I am sure—about the reasons behind the death at Deepcut barracks of my constituent’s son. For the family’s sake, I want that inaccuracy to be put on the record.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Cheryl James, the daughter of one of my constituents, also died at Deepcut barracks. For the avoidance of doubt, I support what the hon. Lady has said. No substantiated evidence of self-harm has been produced. It is important to put that on the record, because it has caused great distress to the parents. It would be a shame and very upsetting if that misunderstanding were repeated in today’s record.
The whole House understands the sensitivity of the issues, but it does not prevent my saying that it is not in order to pursue a matter of debate in the guise of a point of order. In the case of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), Mr. Speaker specifically refused her request earlier. Both hon. Members have now had their opportunity to make their point. As they must know, they will have further opportunities to raise particular matters of contention—including with the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), if they wish. They should also give him notice of their intention to pursue the debate in that way.
WORK AND FAMILIES BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Work and Families Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 5th December 2005 (Work and Families Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendment
1. Proceedings on consideration of the Lords Amendment shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.— [Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
Orders of the Day
Work and Families Bill
Lords amendment considered.
Leave and pay related to birth or adoption: further amendments
Lords amendment: No. 1.
I beg to move, that this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
The Lords amendment was tabled by the Government to correct a minor drafting error in schedule 1, which amends section 80E of the Employment Rights Act 1996. At paragraph 38, line 32 the schedule currently reads:
“The employers on whom duties may be imposed by regulations under section 80AA or 80BB include not only employees exercising rights by virtue of that section and their employers”.
The paragraph then lists other people covered by the law. The correct wording is:
“The persons on whom duties may be imposed by regulations under section 80AA or 80BB include not only employees exercising rights by virtue of that section and their employers”
and so on.
As well as not achieving the policy intention of including mothers as well as employers, the current wording of paragraph 38(3) does not make sense, as the definition of employer cannot include employees. It is clear that that was a minor drafting error made during the construction of the Bill. The error was unfortunately only noticed shortly before Third Reading in the other place, hence the requirement to make an amendment at this late stage.
I ask hon. Members to agree with the Lords in accepting the amendment, and I apologise to the House for any inconvenience caused.
May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to his new post and congratulate him on the excellent brevity of his first speech on this subject? May I astound the House by agreeing with him entirely in every word? This is clearly a drafting error. The Bill does not make sense as it stands and it must be corrected. I certainly do not oppose the Lords amendment. I will resist the temptation to go further into the rights and wrongs of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which, of course, was mostly right, not wrong, given its date. I entirely agree with the Minister and support the Lords amendment.
I welcome the Minister. We agree.
Lords amendment agreed to.
ELECTORAL ADMINISTRATION BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Electoral Administration Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 25th October 2005 (Electoral Administration Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting or at the moment of interruption on this day, whichever is the later.
2. The Lords Amendments shall be considered in the following order, namely: 7 to 15, 61 to 75, 1 to 6, 16 to 60 and 76 to 132.
3. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
4. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.— [Steve McCabe.]
Question agreed to.
Electoral Administration Bill
[Relevant documents: First Joint Report from the Constitutional Affairs and ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committees, Session 2004-05, HC 243, on Electoral Registration; and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6647. Oral and Written Evidence, taken by the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Session 2005-06, on Electoral Administration, HC 640-i and 640-ii, and on Party Funding, HC 1060-i.]
Lords amendments considered.
Lords amendment: No. 7, before clause 13, to insert a new clause—Absent voting: personal identifiers.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendment No. 8 and the Government motion to disagree thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 9 to 15, 47 to 49, 59, 60, 79 to 81, 89 to 93, 95, 102 and 131.
I have placed in the Vote Office an explanatory note on these Lords amendments that, I hope, will help hon. Members to wade through the 130-odd Lords amendments before us this evening. They simply explain what the amendments will do, rather than give any detailed background to them, but I hope that they will help us to move through the course of the debate.
I ask the House to agree with the Lords in amendments Nos. 7, 9 to 15, 47 to 49, 59, 60, 79 to 81, 89 to 93, 95, 102, and 131, but to disagree with the Lords in amendment No. 8.
Lords amendment No. 7 was tabled by Lord Elder and built upon by the Government. Taken together, the series of Lords amendments are designed to enhance the security of postal voting by establishing a scheme that provides for the use of identifiers by postal voters at elections. The amendments had support from all sides in the other place. They provide for the collection of personal identifiers from persons applying to vote by post or proxy. Postal and proxy vote applicants will be required to provide their date of birth and signature on application forms. The amendments provide for the retention of identifiers by electoral registration officers and set out the purposes for which they may be used.
At elections, postal voters will be required to provide their signature and date of birth on the postal voting statement that they must complete and return with their postal vote ballot paper. All postal voters, including proxy postal voters, will be subject to that requirement. A postal ballot paper will not be deemed valid if the postal voting statement does not include both a signature and a date of birth. Furthermore, returning officers will be required to take steps to verify the signature and date of birth on that statement, which will involve checking that the identifiers provided on the postal voting statement correspond with those previously provided on the postal vote application. If they do not correspond, the ballot paper will be rejected. The detailed arrangements for checking postal voting statements will be set out in regulations. Under the amendments, there will be no change to the current voter registration arrangements. The amendments therefore remove from the Bill the provisions that would have allowed personal identifiers to be piloted and rolled out as part of the voter registration system.
On Lords amendment No. 8, we have said previously that we accept the principle behind individual registration. We have also accepted the practical value that the use of personal identifiers might have in combating fraud. However, it is also an important principle that everyone who is entitled to register to vote is registered. Under-registration disfranchises individuals and skews the map of political representation. Northern Ireland is often cited on both sides of the debate. The main Opposition party has frequently called for us to introduce into Great Britain the tried and tested system of individual registration. Individual registration in Northern Ireland has had some benefits, especially for the perceived security of the process, but it is not true that the experience in Northern Ireland is an argument for that system to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.
When individual registration was first introduced in Northern Ireland, 120,000 entries dropped off the register—a decrease of some 10 per cent. in those on the register. The 1,192,136 entries in August 2002 had decreased to 1,072,425 by December of that year. At the next canvass, the total number of entries fell slightly further to 1,069,160. The Government have taken steps to address that decline, first by reintroducing a period of one year’s grace before entries are removed from the register, and secondly by introducing new primary legislation.
If the hon. Lady went to Northern Ireland and talked the matter through with its electoral registration officer, she would find that, as she says, there was a dip. However, as a result of active canvassing, within a matter of months, 92 per cent. of those on the census were registered to vote in Northern Ireland, which was described by the Northern Ireland Office at the time as an outstanding success. How can she try to wriggle out of what is the obvious solution?
The rigorous canvassing did increase registration, which had suffered an extreme dip, but has not increased it to anything near the original figure of 1,190,000. As I said, new primary legislation has been required to try to rectify some of those issues. Therefore, we believe that individual registration is not yet ready to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.
With regard to the Northern Ireland statistics showing that registration dipped as low as 82 per cent. and then increased to 92 per cent., a registration rate of 92 per cent. on the UK mainland would not be acceptable. We want 100 per cent. registration. Anything that decreases registration should not go ahead.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which he has raised with me and with other Ministers. It is essential for us to do all we can to ensure that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the register and we should therefore not introduce unnecessary blocks to prevent that. Such action would constitute as much of an insult to democracy as some of the other actions that we are discussing.
Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the Electoral Commission’s stance on individual voter registration?
The commission supports individual voter registration. We in Government disagree with the commission, as I have explained. We have said that we agree with the principle and we are implementing it in relation to postal votes because of the particular problems that have arisen in that regard.
If the hon. Lady leaves all the bogus entries on the register, such as Hooty McBoob, Michael Mouse and Gus Troubev, which is an anagram of “bogus voter”, and there is active canvassing of new people who should be on the register, registration could be as high as 110 per cent.
As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, although that is an amusing suggestion, we shall not be implementing it. We have included a variety of processes for the canvass. Electoral registration officers can take a number of strong measures to ensure that the register is accurate, ensuring that those who should not be on the register are not on it and that those who should be on it are.
The Minister appears complacent. Is she aware of the position in my part of the world? In Bradford, election results have been called into question because of concern about voter fraud. There has also been concern about the police time taken up in investigation of all the fraud accusations. Does she accept that the amendments provide a simple way of addressing many of the worries in Bradford and in the country as a whole?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman intervened. The amendments that I am asking the House to support will indeed address the points that he raised in relation to Bradford and elsewhere.
I mentioned the Northern Ireland example. We are also concerned about the drafting of Lords amendment No. 8. It makes several references to the role to be played by the Chief Electoral Officer. Outside Northern Ireland, there is no such officer; the role is played by local electoral registration officers. That would create a serious flaw in the operation of the proposed scheme.
Individual registration has potential benefits for the security of postal voting, particularly through the collection of personal identifiers such as signature and date of birth. That is why we included it in the Bill. We wanted to test the use of personal identifiers. Because the provisions have not yet gained the confidence of Parliament, we have adopted the alternative compromise proposed by my noble Friend Lord Elder. As I have explained, the proposal targets the use of personal identifiers primarily at postal voting. It meets the security concerns about postal ballots, and deals with concerns about the impact of personal registration on the number of people registered to vote.
In the interests of absolute clarity, is the Government’s reason for resisting the Lords amendment based solely on the perceived likely reduction in the level of registration? If it can be demonstrated that individual registration is far and away the best means of protecting against fraud, will the Government reconsider whether there are alternatives for tackling the slightly lower levels of registration that might result?
I said at the outset that, in principle, we accept individual registration; we do not have a principled objection to it. However, it is clear that there are two issues that should be considered, the first of which is that the term of punishment for any offence relating to false registration will be increased from six months to 51 weeks. Some 3 million people are not on the register who should be on it, and if there were a 10 per cent. drop in registration in Great Britain, that would add another 4 million people to that figure. A register that has up to 7.5 per cent. of its eligible electors missing does not make a good register.
The Bill includes a number of important changes to the way in which registration and elections will be run, and the Government are confident that they will meet our objectives. However, we will keep the impact of this legislation under review and share the results of our evaluation with the House. This may also be an appropriate issue for the Constitutional Affairs Committee to consider, and we would welcome any such further scrutiny from it.
We will also consider whether further evaluation may be appropriate once the Law Commission has concluded its report on the use of a formal process of post-legislative scrutiny. The Government believe that this is the appropriate way forward, and I therefore hope that Members will reject the amendment.
We in this House must do everything that we can to tackle electoral fraud. Faith in our democratic process has been undermined by recent allegations. A judge has said that our system is wide open to fraud and similar to that of a “banana republic”. Only last week, election results in Coventry were questioned when it was found that people who were in Pakistan on the day of the vote somehow managed to vote in person at the polling station. I understand that there are currently no fewer than eight petitions in the High Court alleging electoral fraud in the recent local elections.
Parliament cannot ignore this problem, especially as we have always taken great pride in our democracy. We used to lecture the world about parliamentary democracy; now, we are in the dock, accused of complacency. Our system is criticised not only by the Electoral Commission—that is an important fact—and by judges; it was also criticised by international election observers at the last general election, including those from Ukraine and Serbia. A few years ago, we would not have expected to have to take lectures from such countries about our system. That says a lot about how our stock has fallen.
My hon. Friend mentioned that there are eight outstanding electoral petitions. Does he accept that, if the hurdle to tabling electoral petitions was not set so high in financial terms and in other ways, there would be many more of them? A number of petitions that barristers said would certainly have succeeded have not gone forward because of those financial and other barriers. The House should act to remove them.
It is an expensive, time-consuming and difficult process, and the fact that there are as many as eight petitions says something, because that is a substantial number.
Every authority that has examined this question has called for individual voter registration and personal identifiers. I strongly support Lords amendment No. 8, and I pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Hanham. The amendment simply requires a signature and a date of birth for everyone going on to the voting register. I am disappointed that the Government continue to drag their feet on this issue. I have always said that I prefer the system used in Northern Ireland, where national insurance numbers are used to verify registration. That is an excellent example to follow, and the Government have crowed about that system as an outstanding success story. A consensus must be reached, and it could be reached around Lords amendment No. 8.
The Government have already accepted that voters who apply for postal votes should have to give their date of birth and signature. That was a welcome concession, made in Lords amendment No. 7. However, if that is all right for postal votes, why cannot it be done more generally? Given that it is already accepted that two forms of identification are required for a postal ballot, why is not that an acceptable approach that could be used for identifying voters more widely? The amendment would require a signature and date of birth to be included in all voters’ registration, not only in that of postal voters. I would still like to see national insurance numbers added as a personal identifier for voter registration—indeed, I have argued myself into the ground about it—but in the interests of trying to achieve a consensus, I am prepared to leave it until another opportunity arises to get it on the statute book. I hope that that will not be as a result of another scandal of the sort that we have seen in recent months. We have to secure personal identifiers for voter registration generally.
Hon. Members will be aware of the Electoral Commission’s campaign for individual voter registration and personal identifiers. From the outset of proceedings on the Bill, it has called for personal identifiers. The Government have gone some way towards that, and we all welcome Lords amendment No. 7. However, in the commission’s briefing for this debate it says:
“The Commission is delighted that the House of Lords has voted to accept an amendment tabled by Baroness Hanham requiring applicants to provide signatures and dates of birth when registering to vote.”
The amendment introducing personal identifiers for postal voting was introduced by the Lord Elder, a Labour peer, and it had the support of my noble Friend Baroness Hanham and of Lord Rennard, so we managed to reach agreement across the parties, which all—apart from Labour—wanted to make further progress. The recent alleged fraud in Coventry was the background to the debate in the other place and spurred them on. They did not want to see such things happening again. The Coventry example is just one in a long line of cases where identity has allegedly been impersonated at the polling station. The use of personal identifiers would go a long way towards protecting individuals from that kind of fraud.
The Minister in the other place spoke in support of the principle time and time again. In Committee, she stated:
“collecting personal identifiers has the potential to improve security and integrity in the electoral process”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2006; Vol. 679, c. GC593.]
At that stage she also expressed her strong views about making sure that forms requesting information from people should be simple and straightforward.
Schedule 1 requires voters to sign for their ballot paper at the polling station. The amendment would therefore introduce a useful check against fraud. Those registering to vote would provide a signature that would go on the register, which would then provide a check of whether the person signing for the vote was the same person who had registered. In circumstances such as those that allegedly occurred in Coventry, that would be extremely useful. I do not see how the provision of a signature at the polling station will be much use if there is no register of the original signature in the first place. What is more, our amendment would save voters the worry of finding a legitimate counterfoil to prove their signature in any fraud investigation.
There can be few legal forms that entitle one to do something but do not involve a signature and the provision of simple details, such as date of birth. It is suggested by some that it would be so difficult that it would put people off registering to vote. However, those of us who take a close interest in these matters know that people fill in forms for almost every activity in life and that they almost always have to sign their name and give their date of birth. How difficult is it for people to sign their names? That question shows how pathetic it is that this important change is not being made by all-party agreement.
During the Bill’s passage through the House, the Government accepted that a person’s signature and date of birth should be used for postal voting, so how can it be said that the same requirement is too hard to be used elsewhere? My voter registration form from the London borough of Lambeth says that any change of details must be backed up by a signature and a date of birth. Lord Rennard made the same point in the other place. Lambeth is an example of a Labour council already doing something that I am calling for.
Under the current system, people do not have to give their signature. Last September’s Electoral Commission report on under-registration found that between 4 million and 4.5 million people were not registered to vote. Any requirement to supply a signature and therefore make filling in the form more difficult would cause the under-registration figure to increase to 5 million people.
I do not see why the hon. Gentleman should think that that would happen. For how many things in life are people required to sign their names? The answer is that they have to do so for almost anything. People have learned how to sign their names, even under the Labour education system. Even under Labour, they know when they were born. It is not too much to ask for such simple information.
Personally, I do not think that there is much harm in asking for a national insurance number, but I have given way on that because I want to achieve consensus. What the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said is old-fashioned. Not only does he clearly believe in the patrician system, with the head of the household filling in the form for everyone else, but he fails to realise what the real problem is. What happens when a registration form goes out to a flat or a house in multiple occupation? The person whose name appears on the form may well throw it in the bin. What happens if it goes to a father who thinks that the women in the house should not vote? The form may not even have those women listed.
The range of possibilities is wide because the current process works against the grain of modern society. People see themselves as individuals with rights. It is true that our society is consumerist in its thinking, but people do not believe that the head of a household should organise how that household’s members should vote. This is the 21st century, when we believe in one person, one vote.
It is about time that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd came up to date. Individual voter registration is proposed by the Electoral Commission, the body of independent experts set up by his Labour Government to advise on this very matter. Yet the Government have such utter contempt for its recommendations that they say that they are going to pick and choose between them. What a disgrace.
At present, between 4 million and 4.5 million people are not registered to vote. Last September’s report from the Electoral Commission found that, in the main, they were unemployed, on low pay and living in council or social housing. They also included a lot of young people and people from the black and ethnic minorities. Is the hon. Gentleman so unconcerned about under-registration simply because people from those groups do not vote Conservative? If they lived in Acacia gardens as opposed to Corporation close, would he pay more attention to under-registration?
I am worried that the hon. Gentleman is letting his blind political prejudices get in the way of the obvious facts. People are not obliged to vote in our society if they do not want to, but getting them to register to vote requires a lot of hard work. People need to go out and canvass those homes, door to door. We used to do that in the old days, but we have made cutbacks and stopped doing that. That is what is needed—active campaigning to get people to register to vote.
We need to bear it in mind that people live in households as individuals and not necessarily with a—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd is harking back to a patrician world where the head of the household—the father of the family—filled the form in for everyone. The world is not like that any more. He needs to get up to date.
The hon. Gentleman talks about campaigning to get people to register, but his political party did not deliver a single leaflet in my constituency during the local elections. Does he accept that a large percentage of the 4 million to 4.5 million people who are not registered are young people? It is an interesting fact that, among young people, the rate of registration decreases as they enter their 20s, primarily because when they live at home the head of the household registers them, whereas when they move out they tend not to register. There is a real problem and until we sort it out, the effect of his amendment—although I have some sympathy with it in principle—will be to increase under-registration among young people.
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands my point. I was not talking about political parties canvassing, although I think that that is vital to our system. I was talking about council officers—the electoral registration officer and his team—canvassing door to door to encourage registration. He might not have come across that, but it used to happen: large numbers of people were employed to go out and canvass for registration. I did it myself before becoming politically active.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s other point, part of the reason why people living in student accommodation and others in that age group do not register is that we—or the Government—stubbornly, or perhaps blindly, insist that the head of the household should be responsible for registration, so the authorities send the form only to the first person of whom they are aware living at that address. It may well be that, when the form arrives, it is simply tossed and four of the five people who are sharing the flat never hear anything about it. That is a problem that active canvassing—really going after those people and encouraging registration—could help to solve. That is why I welcome later amendments in which we insist that electoral registration officers make a real effort.
We have to think laterally. Why can we not positively reward people for going on the electoral register? We could adjust the tax code of people in work, adjust the state pension of retired people, or tweak the benefits of people who receive them. We could give people a lottery ticket for registering. Why can we not do that to encourage people to register?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should work out the details of that suggestion and propose a scheme. We should consider all reasonable options to encourage people to register to vote. I am not sure how the lottery ticket idea would work, but incentivising people to register might be possible.
We should make a serious effort to get those who are not currently registered on to the register, but we should always bear it in mind that it is wrong to deal with matters such as the size of constituencies based on some back-of-the-envelope calculation of how many people may be entitled to vote in a certain area. The registration system must be what we rely on and I would like it to be much better in our country than it is now. The Government have accepted a requirement for a signature and date of birth for postal voting and it seems to me illogical that they will not go the whole way, especially given that the Bill requires people to sign for their vote at the polling station.
Door-to-door canvassing is an important part of electoral registration practice, and we need to improve what we do in that respect. I believe that a reason for the decline in the quality of our electoral registration system over the past 20 years is that local authorities have cut back in that respect. Certainly, they have felt squeezed and obliged to deal with other matters. Local authorities need to be able actively to canvass to achieve the best possible result. There is a great deal of disquiet about the potential for electoral fraud. It has grown significantly over the last few years. The Electoral Commission was set up to give independent advice on that issue. The House of Lords—the other place; not the democratic Chamber—has said that this measure is necessary in the interests of democracy. The Government should not contemptuously ignore the Lords.
I agree with an awful lot of that. There are dozens of MPs in the Commons who have majorities in three figures. I wonder about the integrity of the ballot and I have done for years. I think that there is a huge amount of fiddling and cheating going on. I am disappointed that the Government are resisting Lords amendment No. 8. The Minister drew our attention to some flaws in the amendment: there is no chief electoral officer in Great Britain, although there is in Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate that the Lords did not pick up on that point. I am heartened that she accepts the principle behind individual voter registration. It is clearly just the practicalities that the Government are concerned about, not the principle, which she has conceded. We have an Electoral Commission and its job is to police the electoral system. If it thinks that there is fraud and malpractice, it should blow the whistle and the rest of us should stand to attention when we hear it.
I thought that I would sit here and agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said, but I disagree with what he said about the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is not there to police; it is there to advise and to set out what the law is. It will not get involved in any way in policing accusations of fraud or questions that have been raised. That is for individual returning officers. The system falls down because there is no way of controlling the actions of an errant, or even corrupt, electoral returning officer. That is where we need to strengthen matters.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I am not an expert in these matters.
I just wanted to get that point on the record.
I understand that.
The Electoral Commission takes a view on the electoral system. As I said a few moments ago, if it believes that the system needs improving in some way, it will make recommendations. It made specific recommendations in the case of individual voter registration