House of Commons
Tuesday 8 May 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Whitehaven Harbour Bill [Lords]
Order for Second Reading read.
Read a Second time, and committed.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Around £1.4 billion of the defence budget has been spent directly in Scotland in each of the past three years. That reflects the vital contribution that Scotland makes to defence, both in terms of the brave men and women who join our armed forces and the high-quality Scottish companies that provide the sophisticated equipment used on the modern battlefield.
Has my right hon. Friend had time to work out how much of that spending might be blocked by a political party that may be in government in Scotland and that has policies that are likely to prevent some of that vital work from being done in Scotland—[Interruption.]
As ever, I will endeavour to keep my answer brief and factual. As at 1 April 2006, there were 13,520 regular forces serving in Scotland. The Ministry of Defence employs some 20,000 people in Scotland, including approximately 13,500 regular members of the armed services and 6,100 civilians, not including contractor personnel.
Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of the effect on all that military investment in Scotland if the party that came first in the elections succeeds in persuading the party that came last to overcome the vestiges of its principles and join a coalition targeted, as usual, against the military?
As he watched the Scottish elections from afar, I fear that the hon. Gentleman may not fully have appreciated the fact that two thirds of the Scottish electorate voted against separatism. Indeed, both the principal parties—my own and the Scottish National party—secured between 32 and 33 per cent. of the vote. Therefore, some of the more cataclysmic headlines that have been written in recent days do not reflect the overwhelming consensus still in Scotland that we are proud to remain part of the United Kingdom.
May I inform the Secretary of State that for the past 40 years defence has been an integral part of the economy of my area? In the past three years, more than £300 million has been put into the local economy each year. With direct and indirect jobs at the Clyde naval base, we have more than 10,000 jobs. While words may come easy to some people, we cannot play fast and loose with people’s jobs. Defence is an important part of our area and may it continue to be so.
Her Majesty’s naval base on the Clyde, which incorporates the Faslane base, is one of the main naval bases in the United Kingdom and the headquarters of the Royal Navy in Scotland. I am sure that it will continue to have a strong future based on the Clyde and serving the defence interests not only of Scotland, but of the whole of the United Kingdom.
Obviously our forces have to reflect the nature of the challenges that the country faces at any point. I am not convinced that the alternatives that were offered in recent weeks in Scotland would produce a better future for Scottish regiments or—certainly—for Scottish shipbuilding.
How many jobs does the Secretary of State believe would be created in Scotland by the construction of two aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, and how many aircraft carriers would be needed by an independent Scotland?
I shall not indulge in answering the second, hypothetical question because, as I have said, Scottish voters once again overwhelmingly rejected independence only last week. On the first question, it is the case that significant opportunities in shipbuilding and refitting will arise not only from the potential orders for the Royal Navy aircraft carriers but from the pre-existing programme of work, which has brought new life to the Yarrow yard and will do the same for the Rosyth base in the east of Scotland.
Given that defence is just one of the issues on which the new Scottish Executive will have to work with the UK Government, does the Secretary of State regret his complacency in not putting in place proper mechanisms for interaction between the Scottish Executive and the UK Government? Perhaps he can tell us now just what will happen when the prospective First Minister and his Lib Dem allies, in or out of coalition, seek to thwart the upgrade of Trident.
The hon. Gentleman’s question shows the risks involved in preparing a question ahead of events. He has repeated it many times in the past, I will give him that much, but it would be unwise of me to prejudge the appropriate conversations taking place between all the parties that failed to secure a majority in last week’s Scottish elections.
It is clear from that answer that no proper mechanisms are in place to enable the Scottish Executive to work with the UK Government when those bodies are led by parties of different persuasions. The Government have had eight years to put such a mechanism in place, and the fact that they have failed to do so is a reflection on them. Will the Secretary of State clarify what will be his Government’s relationship with the prospective new First Minister—
Climate Change Bill
The draft climate change Bill is out for consultation on a UK-wide basis. It has not yet been determined how the functions of the Bill would be performed. The UK Government and all the devolved Administrations are committed to working in partnership to combat climate change.
It is patently obvious that the only legislation likely to get through the Scottish Parliament in the current circumstances is that which has broad political support. Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that it would make sense for the UK Government and the Scottish Executive and Parliament to work together to ensure that a Scottish climate change Bill is brought forward that complements the UK Bill which, as he has noted, has now reached an advanced state of consultation?
Clearly, various devolved responsibilities are involved in promoting renewables and in the work across a range of sectors to promote climate change measures. It is self-evident that global warming can be tackled only by nations working together, irrespective of national or international borders. It is therefore incumbent on all nations to do everything that they can to tackle climate change. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done, especially with his private Member’s Bill, to raise awareness of these matters, in this House and throughout Scotland.
Does the Minister accept that the current scientific consensus is that we need a reduction in emissions of 80 per cent. rather than 60 per cent. to prevent climate change raising temperatures by 2°? The new Administration are likely to have a higher target than the UK, so how will that fit into the proposed UK Bill?
The previous Scottish Administration set separate targets, so it is entirely up to the new Administration, whatever their hue, to set their own target. However, a target set at a high level will not be achieved if the party in power opposes every application for a wind farm that is submitted. It is easy for the Scottish National party to demand higher targets here, but the truth is that it opposes every application for a wind farm to help promote renewable energy.
Act of Union
A number of events have taken place and are planned to mark this very significant anniversary.
I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Does he agree that there are ongoing benefits arising from the continuation of the Union between Scotland and the UK? Is it not our duty in this House and across the country to ensure that those benefits are promoted in a very positive way?
Unusually, I find myself in complete accord with the hon. Gentleman. An interesting fact worth noting is that, as the argument has been discussed north of the border in recent months, support there for separation and for ending the Union of 300 years has fallen consistently. I take great heart from the fact that the overwhelming number of voters in Scotland rejected the parties that wanted Scotland to separate from the UK. They did so for the very basic reason that, in the 21st century, the two countries are stronger together and would be weaker apart.
I was anticipating the West Lothian question today, but not the West Bromwich question. I know that my hon. Friend and his trade union have long held trenchant views on the merits of first past the post. It is for each individual Member of the House to reach a judgment, in light of recent elections, as to where he or she stands in that particular debate.
I was just wondering whether the Secretary of State thinks that all these celebrations are going well and to plan. Does he agree that some of the debate we have had about the Union has been brutal at times, overwhelmingly unhelpful and totally negative? Does he accept that the Scottish people have made their choice and that it is now incumbent on him, his Department and every Member of the House to ensure that the positive choice that the people of Scotland made on Thursday is accepted and respected?
It is significant if the Scottish National party now accepts that the choice that the Scottish people made was overwhelmingly to reject separation, because there is nothing more negative in politics than seeking to blame Westminster or the English for Scotland’s challenges. In that sense, I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we can all move on from a politics defined by difference; but that remains the policy of the Scottish National party—the ball is squarely in its court.
It is undeniable that over the past 300 years the Act of Union has had a positive effect not only on Scotland but on the rest of the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree, therefore, that the First Minister of Scotland, whoever that may be, should be encouraged to make a speech on behalf of Scotland and not party, emphasising the benefits of the Act of Union?
At this particular moment I would be cautious of offering advice during the 28 days set following the election last Thursday to whoever turns out to be First Minister of Scotland. I simply say that I agree with my hon. Friend; the benefits of the Union are overwhelming and I have been encouraged by the fact that, as that argument has been engaged in Scotland in recent months, support has moved in favour of the Union and against separation. I believe that that remains the settled will of the Scottish people, as the late great John Smith once described it.
Two days after the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union two thirds of people in Scotland voted for pro-Union parties. Does the Secretary of State agree that although the SNP has won the right to try to form a Government, it certainly has not won the right to take Scotland down the road to separation?
Somewhat unusually again—I suppose this is a reflection of the new politics—I find myself in agreement with the Liberal Democrats, which is not something that every party in the House can claim today. Two thirds of Scottish voters have supported the Union and rejected separation, and for all the windy rhetoric of moral authority the fact remains that the Scottish National party secured less than a third of the votes in Scotland last Thursday. The only party with the moral authority to move a country towards independence would be a party that secured majority support and then majority support in a referendum, and I do not believe that the Scottish National party has the prospect of either.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will also agree with me that the vast majority of people who voted for the Scottish National party did so not in an attempt to break up the Union but as an expression of dissatisfaction with the Labour and Liberal Democrat-led Scottish Executive. Does he accept, too, that Labour’s clunking fist approach to promoting, or rather brow-beating, Scots into supporting the Union failed and will he encourage the Chancellor and others to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) in his positive promotion of the Union?
I say this with the greatest of respect: I have never regarded the views of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), or indeed those of the hon. Gentleman, as my lodestar in terms either of defending the Union or winning popular votes in Scotland. If the hon. Gentleman has advice to offer parties in Scotland, perhaps he should write another memo to his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament.
International Sporting Events
I have recently secured the full support of the United Kingdom Government for Glasgow and Scotland’s bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth games. The bid will be formally submitted tomorrow. Scotland’s strategy for attracting, organising and delivering major events is the responsibility of Scottish Ministers.
I, too, support the Glasgow bid for the Commonwealth games. Looking forward another four years, the Conservatives have been urging a joint England-Scotland bid to host the World cup. There are many merits in a joint bid—the excellent stadiums and the fantastic fans in Scotland—yet the main obstacle continues to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I would have thought that in the current climate the Secretary of State and the Chancellor would be looking at means to strengthen the Union. The SNP is opposed to a joint bid for the World cup—
I am not aware that the Scottish Football Association is giving that matter serious consideration at present. It is principally a responsibility for the SFA and the football authorities, so although I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, I do not want to prejudice the continuation of the four home nations competing in international competitions.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his efforts to bring the 2014 Commonwealth games to the city of Glasgow. Does he agree that the UEFA football cup final to be played in Glasgow this month will be an excellent showcase for the city, which should lead to many more football finals being played in that football-mad city, and that it will also be a major boost to the Commonwealth games bid that is being launched tomorrow?
I am certainly happy to identify myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend. It is right to recognise the centrality of football to the city of Glasgow. Only on Saturday, it was a great privilege for me, as Secretary of State for Scotland, to accompany His Eminence the Cardinal of Scotland and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to Ibrox to see Rangers play Celtic in what I hope was an eloquent testimony to their shared determination to challenge sectarianism, which for too long has blighted football in that great city.
In supporting Glasgow’s bid for the Commonwealth games, may I remind the Secretary of State that in the north-east of Scotland we have a crowd of very talented swimmers, including European record holders, who will hopefully participate in both the Commonwealth and the Olympic games? Will he support the bid to ensure that we have an Olympic swimming pool in the north of Scotland so that those swimmers get the training facilities on the ground that they deserve to help them win medals for both Scotland and Britain?
At a time when the Glasgow bid for the 2014 Commonwealth games is on its way to London, will my right hon. Friend make sure, as well as supporting the bid, that the 2012 Olympic games have the knock-on effect of ensuring that facilities in Scotland are second to none and that we are given the platform that we need for 2014?
I remain convinced that there are huge opportunities for Glasgow, not simply in terms of the Commonwealth games bid, which I sincerely hope will be successful, but in its being another part of the United Kingdom to benefit from the 2012 Olympics. One of the key attributes of London’s successful bid for the Olympics was a recognition not just of the magnificent diversity within that global city, but of the fact there were real opportunities for a legacy for every part of the United Kingdom. I know that that is certainly the intention of the Olympic authorities.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no immediate plans to meet Scottish Executive Ministers to discuss the effect in Scotland of classification of drugs. That policy matter is primarily the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the UK now has the second highest number of drug-related deaths in Europe? The problem is particularly acute in Scotland, where the death-rate average for the past five years is 624. Given that recent evidence from Scotland shows beyond any doubt that cannabis can cause brain damage and can lead to experimentation with harder drugs, has the time not come for it to be reclassified? What is his view on that and what recommendations will he make that might help to save Scottish youngsters from misery and drug affliction?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that drug misuse is a terrible blight that affects all too many communities, both in Scotland and elsewhere. I commend him on the work that he has done in raising the issue. He will know, however, that the Government’s position on the declassification of cannabis was informed by the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. The position was reaffirmed in January 2006, after further advice from the council. It recommended that cannabis should remain a class C drug, but that an information campaign was needed to highlight the mental health dangers and clarify that cannabis remains illegal. The Home Secretary has accepted that recommendation and has acted on it.
Does not the confusion surrounding the classification of cannabis highlight the fact that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 needs a major overhaul? In this House we revisit road traffic legislation on average every 10 years, but we have had no major drugs legislation since 1971? Will the Minister impress on the Home Secretary the fact that the time has come to look at drugs misuse as a whole?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that, as I said, this matter is a policy responsibility of the Home Secretary. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly capable of making those representations strongly by himself. It is important that we clarify that cannabis still remains illegal and that in my view, the view of the Government and the view of more and more informed commentators, it is still a very dangerous substance indeed. The Government are clear that that is a message that we all have to get across.
Second Home Owners
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of subjects.
Is the Minister aware that, as part of the electoral fiasco in Scotland last week, some people with second homes in Scotland who applied to register as voters were turned down? Given that all Ministers of the Crown are deemed to have their primary residence in London, will the Minister tell the House whether he, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Scottish Ministers were able to register and vote in Scotland? If so, why are politicians treated better than ordinary people?
The hon. Gentleman knows that decisions on whether individuals are placed on the electoral register are a matter for individual registration officers. If he has a specific example that he wishes to put forward, I will be happy to receive his representations. On his first point, he will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be making a statement on the matter very soon.
I was grateful for the answer that the Minister gave to a written question that I tabled about this subject on behalf of a constituent with a second home in Scotland who was refused registration. We then discovered that Scottish MPs with second homes in London were able to vote locally. There are irregularities in the way in which registration officers apply the rules across the country, because some will grant second home owners a vote, while others will not. Given that second home owners now pay virtually full council tax, will the Minister ensure that they will have the right to vote if they want to, bearing in the mind the phrase “no taxation without representation”?
It is clear that it is perfectly possible to be on the electoral registration roll in more than one location. We must not allow anyone to run away with the idea that that is a special privilege for MPs. For example, students can be registered on the electoral roll at a hall of residence and their home address. I simply do not know why individuals were turned down, because it was not my decision to turn anyone down. Such decisions are made by individual registration officers, who have clear guidelines to which they work. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about a particular issue, I will take it up on his behalf, but this is clearly a matter for individual electoral registration officers.
I last met the director of Ofcom Scotland, Vicki Nash, on 29 March and we discussed a wide range of issues.
When my hon. Friend meets Ofcom and, especially, Digital UK, will he express his concerns that some suppliers are still providing equipment that will be obsolete after switchover? Will he ensure that Digital UK does all that it can to discourage people from purchasing such equipment and that it gives good information and advice?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I pay tribute to her work on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, through which she has consistently raised such issues. She asks about one of the matters that I discussed with Vicki Nash a few weeks ago. It is important that people are aware not only that digital switchover is happening—it is happening sooner in the Border television region than elsewhere—but of the technical issues involved. People should not buy equipment that they do not need or something that is far more expensive than is needed, and nor should they be sold equipment that will become obsolete very quickly. We must work with manufacturers and retailers. The Department of Trade and Industry is involved in this and I continue to raise such concerns.
Following those discussions about digital switchover, does the Minister have any progress to report on the development of handsets and controls for people with visual impairments and other disabilities, given that the programme guide is extremely difficult to control? Will the Government ensure that those with disabilities will have equal access to digital television when they are forced to use the new technology?
This is an extremely serious point. Given that digital services will be enhanced and the spectrum will be greatly increased, there will be an opportunity to tailor specific services for disabled people. It is absolutely vital that the technology allows such people to access programmes that are made on their behalf. We touched on the issue regarding handsets, albeit briefly, and I shall be happy to take up the matter on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf because I entirely share his concerns.
With regard to digital switchover, will the Minister give an absolute assurance that my constituents in Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra will be guaranteed continuity of service at all times, particularly during elections such as the one that they really enjoyed last week?
I am being encouraged to say things by my hon. Friends on the Back Benches, but I shall not put them on record. It is important to note that digital switchover means that about 98 to 100 per cent. of people will receive a new digital signal. It has never been the case that every single person would be able to receive a digital signal. I do not have the map in front of me, and I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman about every island that he mentioned. There are areas in my constituency that cannot get an analogue signal, never mind a digital signal. Everyone has been clear and consistent all the way along the line: about 98.5 per cent. of homes will be able to receive the new, improved digital services.
Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Energy Efficient Homes
New standards for building regulations were introduced in April last year. They require a 40 per cent. improvement in energy efficiency, compared to 2002. However, we need to go further, and we are consulting on a timetable for significant increases in compulsory energy efficiency measures for new homes, so that all new homes can be zero carbon within 10 years.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she is doing to ratchet up energy efficiency standards, but may I ask her to address the second part of my question, which is about existing homes? In Birmingham, 35,000 homes in the private sector, and more than half of council homes, do not even meet the decent homes standard, which is a very low standard. What is she doing to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes, particularly those occupied by people on low incomes?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it is certainly true that existing homes make up the vast majority of the stock. We already support grants and assistance for people, including through the energy efficiency commitment provided by energy companies, but more work needs to be done as part of the decent homes programme, and through the introduction of energy performance certificates, which we strongly support, but which, unfortunately, Opposition Members do not.
Does the Minister agree that there is no point in having high standards for new homes if those standards are not enforced? Does she share my concern that between a third and 40 per cent. of homes built are reported to fail to meet current standards, and what steps will she take to ensure that those standards are enforced?
The issue of enforcement is important, and that is why we have introduced pressure testing as part of the new standards introduced last year. The standards that were in place before April last year were not sufficiently well enforced, and we have been working on a major training programme to increase enforcement and ensure that the current standards are properly implemented.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we can tackle the issue of energy efficiency in new homes through building regulations, but it is important that we have a policy to deal with energy efficiency in existing houses. By including energy efficiency certificates as part of home information packs, are the Government not demonstrating that those certificates are a vehicle through which we can try to raise public awareness of existing energy-efficient homes across the board? If the Government, while pretending to be green, rejected a measure as modest as making energy certificates part of home information packs, that commitment to being green and to tackling climate change would be nothing more than skin deep.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Energy performance certificates can make a significant difference, particularly if they are linked to new programmes, such as those involving green mortgages and other kinds of grants for home owners. He will know that the measure has been strongly supported by WWF, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a range of environmental groups; they are strongly saying to us that it would be a travesty if energy performance certificates were to be delayed.
The Minister knows that the Conservative party—and, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats—is entirely behind energy performance certificates. It is because we take energy efficiency so seriously that we were scandalised to read on Sunday that there is not a single accredited domestic energy assessor available in the United Kingdom. Figures released by the DCLG on Friday reveal that there is not a single accredited assessor in place. A year ago, we were told that we would need 7,000 inspectors—this month, 2,000—but not a single one is in place. What a fiasco on the Minister’s watch.
I have to say that, for all the hon. Gentleman’s manufactured indignation, more than 5,500 people have entered training to be energy assessors or home inspectors, and 1,900 have passed their exams. The hon. Gentleman says that he supports energy performance certificates, so I must ask him why he has signed early-day motions 1264 and 1265, which oppose not only home information packs but energy performance certificates for rented buildings, public buildings and homes. WWF has criticised his party for doing so, and that is the group that helped his right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to travel to the—
Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware of the affordable homes that are being built by Ikea in my constituency? They use sustainable materials and seek to be at least 25 per cent. more energy efficient than the norm. People do not even have to build them themselves. Should councils not follow the example set by Gateshead of backing innovative solutions that produce energy efficiency coupled with affordable housing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A lot of innovative schemes have been set up across the country. I went to see one in Redditch just a few weeks ago in which people are looking at different ways of constructing homes. We have to recognise that the house-building process must change fundamentally: we must change the way in which we build, heat and power our homes if we are to meet the challenge of climate change. I agree that there is a lot more that local authorities can do to support that process.
As I have made clear on several occasions, the Government have no plans to revalue during the lifetime of this Parliament.
Given the Government’s decision to abandon the council tax revaluation for the foreseeable future, does the Secretary of State have anything positive at all to say to the 2 million-plus households that, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, are struggling to pay council tax? Can she explain, too, why the Government are so committed to retaining the unfair and unjust council tax system, which was introduced, after all, by the Conservatives, and which we all know penalises people on fixed incomes, particularly pensioners?
I do not think that any tax is ever going to win a popularity contest, and the same is true of council tax, which is why we asked Sir Michael Lyons to look at it in what I think is a thorough and valued report. He concluded, first, that council tax is not broken and should be retained. Secondly, on local income tax, which was suggested by the hon. Gentleman’s party, he said that there are serious concerns about the fairness of the proposal. I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at what Sir Michael Lyons said. Let us work together in making sure that we have a council tax and council tax benefit system that really do mean that we have a secure and stable level of funding for the future.
The Minister has just alluded to the excellent and thorough report published by Sir Michael Lyons. Will she join me in urging all Members of Parliament to read it very thoroughly before they make pronouncements about the supposed effects of council tax revaluation in, to quote some people, “shoving up” everyone’s bills? If people understood the way in which council tax worked, perhaps they would refrain from such scaremongering, which is simply scaring enormous numbers of people for no reason.
My hon. Friend makes incredibly important points. Sir Michael Lyons himself said:
“In making the judgment about whether and when to revalue, government must weigh the risks to council tax from a turbulent or painful revaluation, against the risks of allowing the tax base to fall further into disrepair.”
Those are the sorts of considerations that any sensible Government must take into account. Michael Lyons himself said that revaluation was not an urgent priority. The key to council tax fairness and to putting that tax on a sustainable footing was, indeed, council tax benefit, which is why we need to work on his proposals to increase the level of council tax benefit, to make sure that it is both affordable and fair to people in this country.
Last week, a written answer to one of my questions confirmed that more than £4 million of taxpayers’ money is being spent on buying details of people’s homes from estate agents. On 24 April, the Secretary of State was quick to criticise the tabling of questions to elicit information of this kind. Can she reconcile that written answer with her assertion that the revaluation is not already under way?
I do not think I could have made my position any clearer to the House. We have no plans at all to revalue council tax in this Parliament. In fact, I think I am going to re-label the word scaremongering as “spelmongering”, because the hon. Lady is causing fear in houses up and down the country with ill-founded allegations about the Government’s plans. Instead of criticising this Government, she should tell us what she plans to do with council tax.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Valuation Office Agency has to conduct valuations as part of the regular process and that it would be completely preposterous to abandon attempts to find new, more cost-effective ways of carrying out valuations? Will she therefore make it clear that any responsible party, including a responsible Opposition, should be welcoming these changes instead of trying to ridicule them?
As always, my right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. As he knows, there have been no changes in the powers of the Valuation Office Agency since 1993, when they were introduced by the Conservatives. Of course, the agency has to keep its records up to date, as any responsible Government agency should; and of course, instead of frightening pensioners, the Conservative party should be supporting these measures.
The Government support the conclusion of Sir Michael Lyons’ independent inquiry that council tax is not broken and should be retained. We have already implemented many of Sir Michael’s proposals through the local government White Paper and will respond to more of his recommendations in the coming months.
Does the Secretary of State fully accept Sir Michael Lyons’ criticisms of the council tax benefit system, with £1.8 billion of benefit unclaimed in the last financial year and a fall of 10 per cent. in take-up in the past decade? If she does accept those criticisms, when and how will the necessary reforms be introduced?
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s contention that we ought to do more about increasing the level of council tax benefit take-up. One of the key conclusions of Sir Michael Lyons’ report is that the key to fairness in the council tax system is not revaluation or the introduction of further bands but ensuring that there is maximum take-up. That is why my Department is working very closely with the Department for Work and Pensions on improving the process. For example, anyone who applies for a pension credit will now have their council tax benefit details taken and processed at the same time, thus doing away with the need for a claim form. We are examining further measures and considering the scope for making council tax benefit an automatic rebate.
Notwithstanding the hyperventilating headlines in such papers as the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, is it not the case that by the time the first council tax bills are produced for the next Labour Government in 2011, the council tax system will be in its third decade? Is not reform of banding long overdue, particularly as regards revaluation, which can be done on a revenue-neutral basis that will minimise the numbers of winners and losers, unlike the disaster that we saw in Wales?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern about how council tax is being implemented and about revaluation and rebanding. As I have made clear on several occasions, we have no intention of revaluing in this Parliament; nor do we have any intention of restructuring the banding system, which would naturally go hand in hand with revaluation, in this Parliament. However, Sir Michael Lyons says that even if we did go down that route, which we are committed not to do in this Parliament, that would not make the council tax system substantially fairer than it is at the moment. Clearly, there would be winners and losers, but the key to making the system fairer is to encourage greater take-up of council tax benefit.
Does the Secretary of State accept that all parties have something to learn from the results of the recent local elections? Will she therefore ensure that, in the reforms to the current council tax, any disincentive to maintain the weekly refuse collection is removed? Growing evidence shows that a weekly collection is not only desirable but essential for health and safety.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern for his constituents, but it is right that local people and communities make such decisions with their local council. It is also right to increase our rates of recycling. Local councils may decide that the weekly bin collection is one aspect of their policy and may want to introduce other measures to increase the rate of recycling. That is their prerogative, but whatever is done should be done in close consultation with local communities.
If the Secretary of State has set her face so strongly against revaluation, rebanding or abolishing the tax, what exactly will she do to lift the burden from the 2 million households already mentioned? Does she accept Sir Michael’s figure of 40 per cent. in relation to existing council tax benefit lying unclaimed? He proposes an extension, but what precisely will she do? What is her time scale? Is it not time for some action, not more spin?
I think I have made myself clear. If the hon. Gentleman reads the Lyons report—I am sure he has already done so—he might reflect on some of the evidence presented in it. I have been reflecting especially on chart 7.3, which clearly shows that council tax can be made much less regressive if there is full take-up of council tax benefit. We must ensure that those who are entitled to claim council tax benefit do that. That is why our programme, working closely with the DWP, is so important to increasing the fairness of the council tax.
If the activities of the Valuation Office Agency are so benign and the likelihood of a revaluation is as remote as the Secretary of State suggested, why did the Government fight like cats in a sack to prevent those dangerous documents “Dwelling House Coding: An Illustrated Guide” and “Digital Photography User Guide” from being released into the public domain until the information was dragged out of them by use of the Freedom of Information Act 2000?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we put extensive material into the public domain about the definition of bathrooms, digital photography and every other aspect of the valuation office’s work. We have even published a document to satisfy Conservative Members’ endless curiosity. The valuation office’s powers have not been changed since the Conservative party introduced them in 1993. We have no intention of introducing revaluation in this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues should stop scaremongering, examine the facts and make a judgment based on them.
My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way. However, Sir Michael Lyons has concluded that a property tax—in other words, a council tax—should be a strong feature of the current local tax regime. Indeed, every major industrialised country has a property tax. Of course, we must not only work with the system that we have got, but try to increase levels of council tax benefit.
Does the right hon. Lady understand that any implementation of the Lyons recommendations now requires consensus across the political spectrum? Given the massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat council seats and the total disappearance of Labour councils from many parts of the country, and given that the Government lost their mandate last Thursday and the Secretary of State lost her parliamentary seat, does she accept the new reality?
I can certainly agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s set of issues—the Liberal Democrats did not fare well on Thursday. We should bear in mind, however, the fact that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said:
“I think the way to judge us”
“to look at Greater Manchester…Are we making progress in places like Bolton”?
Well, I regret to inform the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) that we increased our majority in Bolton, taking seats from the Conservatives.
We are supporting a 50 per cent. increase in social housing over the current three-year period, as well as supporting increased market housing and shared ownership housing. That is the best way to deliver more affordable homes for the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for her reply, but does she accept that there are many attractive neighbourhoods in England’s towns and cities, such as Fenham in Newcastle, where house prices are rising far more rapidly than the incomes of local people and where more than 300 people apply for every single council-owned family house that comes up? Does she accept that rising house prices are not a sign that market failure has been overcome, but that new ones with great unfairnesses are being created?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the increase in house prices has put pressure on first-time buyers in particular and on others who would like to be able to afford their own home but instead feel that they need to join social housing waiting lists. That is why we need to build more social housing as part of the answer. We also believe that we need more shared ownership in order to help people buy a share of their own home even if they cannot afford the whole house price. It is also why we need to build more houses in the long term. We have to recognise that we have not built enough houses to meet rising demand for more than a generation. That is why it is so important to increase the level of house building and why it is so tragic that the Conservatives are still continuing to try to block the increased homes that we need.
The Minister will be aware of the increasing concern expressed by regeneration agencies and the chief executive of the Housing Corporation at the growing practice of the purchase of property not even to let but simply to hold as an investment without its being occupied. Does she believe that that should be left to the marketplace, and what is her response to those concerns?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is a difference between buy-to-let and buy-to-leave. There is concern if large numbers of properties are being bought and then not rented out but held empty, particularly in areas where there is high demand for housing. He will know that we have given local authorities powers and responsibilities to do more to deal with empty homes that are left vacant for a long time. We think that authorities should use those powers.
It is interesting to read in today’s paper that the Prime Minister-in-waiting intends to build more houses both to let and to buy. Before I throw my hat in the air on behalf of the defend council housing campaign, may I ask the Minister whether she is aware that merely putting money into the private sector increases prices, and that what is needed is more land put on the market and to stop builders hogging land that could otherwise be used for building? Also, does she yet understand that building more council houses where they are required will assist in the process of ensuring that people have somewhere to live where they can afford either to pay the rent or buy? Will she stop the flim-flam that is going on in housing and recognise that the market without subsidy is—
I want to make it clear so that you can hear me, Mr. Speaker, that we believe more land should be available for housing, which means making sure that the priority is brownfield land. It also means ensuring that more social housing is built and that there is more shared ownership. We have taken steps to make it easier for councils to be able to build homes and for housing associations to increase the level of homes that they build. It requires increased housing across the board. The South East England regional assembly, led by the Conservatives, however, is still arguing for cuts in the level of house building. That is not in the interest of first-time buyers or those in need of social housing.
The Minister will of course be aware that in September 2004 the Government announced the commissioning of a number of low-cost houses in my constituency through the design for manufacture scheme. Some two and a half years on, we are still waiting for a brick to be laid. Will she confirm that these houses will be built and that they will still cost £60,000, which was the price announced to my constituents by the Deputy Prime Minister just before the last general election?
The hon. Lady will know that a series of different sites were put forward as part of the design for manufacture programme, and they are progressing at different speeds. Investment is taking place and new homes are being built. We think it is right that those homes should be offered at a range of prices, including some that are close to £60,000, some that may be at a lower price, some that may be social housing and some that may be at a higher price. It is important that the new developments should have mixed communities, and I am sorry if the hon. Lady’s party opposes that principle.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that many Labour Members are worried that with creeping increases in interest and mortgage rates and astonishing house prices—even in the northern counties, in places such as Bolton—if, despite her assurances, there is a downturn in the economy, there will not be enough affordable houses to catch those people who will be forced out of owner-occupation?
My hon. Friend will know that the Bank of England takes the issue of stability extremely seriously, and it is important that it should do so. We are also clear that we need more investment in affordable housing, and that is why we have said that that is a priority for the spending review, and why we are supporting increased investment in affordable housing at the moment.
Although the costs of demolition in pathfinder areas vary, depending on the type and location of the property, the general trend is upwards. That is principally because, as in the rest of the country, house prices have risen significantly over the past few years in all the housing market renewal pathfinder areas.
I think that all the thoughts on this issue have involved lateral thinking. It is worth reminding the House of the benefits that £1.2 billion of investment has brought to these areas. Nine thousand houses have been developed, and 35,000 properties have been refurbished and refitted to create new homes. Obviously we have seen an increase in house prices, but that will happen when areas are renewed and become places where people want to live. That means that our investment can go towards renewing and repairing more homes, and towards providing more homes in areas where people want to live.
It is not the demolitions that are the problem in the Meden valley; it is whether the builders can actually get on and build the new homes. Will the Minister pull together those running the pathfinder schemes to give a kick to the builders, who now have plenty of demolition land available for new house building? If she does, I can assure her that she will have the support of the five Labour Warsop councillors, including Councillor Peter Crawford—a Labour gain last Thursday.
I am pleased to say that that was not the only Labour gain on Thursday; there was one in my constituency as well. I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments. Clearly, we want to see more homes being built and refurbished, and I will take away the comments that he has made. We are making significant progress, but if there is more that we can do to advance the scheme further, we should obviously look into that.
Is the Minister aware that, when the last Conservative Government successfully regenerated the Hulme estate in Manchester, they found that, in order to create a sustainable community, it was essential for at least 30 per cent. of the original residents to return to the estate from where they came? What work is the Minister doing in that respect?
In all those areas, we cannot dictate to people where they should live. We have to create areas that people want to live in, and that means addressing not only issues involving housing but those relating to schools, infrastructure and crime. It is worth noting that there has been a dramatic reduction in crime in many of those areas, which encourages people either to stay or to move back in. The important thing is that there should be a stable and sustainable community, and our objectives are not just about housing but about the community as a whole.
We are consulting widely across the private, public and voluntary and community sectors. My Department’s website lists the key consultees, and explains that anyone may request an e-mail list of particular local bodies that we are consulting in each region. I have arranged for the north-east list to be sent to the right hon. Gentleman.
Why does the Government’s list of key stakeholders consist entirely of national and regional bodies that might have an interest in having fewer local authorities with which to deal? Is it because the Minister accepts that the people of Northumberland, in a referendum undertaken by this Government, have already voted for two districts rather than one?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that it would be unwise of me to comment on the proposals for his area, but let me take the opportunity to dispel the idea that we are interested only in regional and national bodies. This is a devolutionary measure, and it is up to councils also to consult local people and organisations—which I know they are doing in the right hon. Gentleman’s area.
I have the sad duty to inform the House of the death of Lord Weatherill, Speaker of the House of Commons from 1983 until 1992. I wish, on behalf of all Members, to pay tribute to his memory, and in doing so I send my deepest sympathy to his wife Lyn, and to his sons Bernard and Bruce and his daughter Virginia.
Bernard served his country as a captain in the Indian army during the war. When he visited the sub-continent over 30 years after he left the army, he was held in such high regard that many of the soldiers who had served with him travelled long distances on foot to meet up with their old captain.
Bernard was very proud of the fact that he had served his apprenticeship under his father, a journeyman tailor. Like most good people, he never forgot where he came from, and always carried a thimble in his Speaker's waistcoat as a reminder of his craft.
Bernard was elected to the House in 1964 and represented the seat of Croydon, North-East. Throughout his career he had an excellent reputation as a constituency Member of Parliament, and he served his party as a deputy Chief Whip.
I first met Bernard when I entered the House in 1979. By then he was Chairman of Ways and Means. He was a most approachable man, and was always very kind to young Back Benchers. In his acceptance speech as Speaker, he clearly stated that he would be a Speaker for Back Benchers. He kept his word.
Under Speaker Weatherill I was invited to become a member of his Speaker's panel, and ever since then he was a person to whom I could turn for help and advice. In fact, we became and remained close friends. Even when he entered the House of Lords, he was a regular visitor to Speaker's House.
No one would disagree with me when I say that Bernard Weatherill was incapable of malice. He was thoroughly patient and always courteous, and because of that he was held in great affection by every Member of the House. The Lord Speaker informed me that he played a significant part in the House of Lords, and was for a considerable time convenor of the Cross-Bench peers.
Once again I extend my heartfelt sympathy to his family, and I end by saying that he has an assured and honoured place in the history of this House.
Scottish Parliamentary Elections
With permission, I will make a statement on the conduct of the elections to the Scottish Parliament held on 3 May.
A great deal of wholly legitimate public concern has been expressed about certain aspects of last Thursday’s elections, and I entirely share that concern. It focuses mainly on three areas: the arrangements for the administration of postal ballots, the operation of e-counting machines, and the significant numbers of spoilt ballot papers on the night. When it became apparent in the early hours of Friday morning that difficulties were emerging, I contacted Professor Sir Neil McIntosh, the Scottish electoral commissioner. I expressed to him my concern that these issues be addressed as part of the statutory review of the Scottish elections that the commission is obliged to undertake, and as a matter of urgency. Sir Neil was able to offer me that reassurance, and that investigation is now under way.
The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to report on the Scottish parliamentary elections. At the request of the Scottish Executive, it will also be reporting on the local government elections. The commission is an independent body and is committed to ensuring that there is a full and independent review of the Scottish elections. In areas where the commission itself has an operational involvement—for example, in its statutory duty to promote public awareness of electoral systems—the commission will ensure that there is independent evaluation of its own work, as it has done in respect of previous statutory reports. The commission is currently finalising the scope and time scale of the review, but intends to publish a report in the summer.
One focus of public concern has been the adoption of a single ballot paper for the Scottish elections, and another has been the holding of those elections on the same day as the local government elections in Scotland. The poll for the Scottish Parliament elections is set in the Scotland Act 1998. It has a pre-determined cycle, which the Parliament at the time supported fully. I am not aware of there being any calls to change that. The decision to hold the local government elections on the same day was entirely a decision for Scottish Executive Ministers. It was enshrined in legislation which was fully debated and passed by the Scottish Parliament.
Without wishing to prejudice the findings of the inquiry, I would like to set out to the House the sequence of recommendations, consultations and decisions that led to the adoption of a single ballot paper for both elements of the Scottish Parliament elections, which are matters for which the Government have legislative responsibility. On 25 May 2004, my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), announced the creation of a commission, under the chairmanship of Sir John Arbuthnott, to examine the implications of Scotland having four different voting systems. That commission was independent and included nominations from political parties. The commission issued a consultation paper in January 2005 and spent 12 months gathering evidence and carrying out a wide-ranging and extensive inquiry. The Arbuthnott commission issued its report jointly to my predecessor and the Scottish First Minister on 19 January 2006. The report contained a number of recommendations and suggestions, some of them to the Electoral Commission concerning voter education, others to the Scottish Executive—such as a recommendation to move the date of the local government elections—and several to the Government. My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West made it clear that it was unlikely that we would be in a position to implement those recommendations in the report which would require primary legislation in time for the 2007 Scottish elections. However, there was one matter that could be progressed without the need for primary legislation—the suggestion that the two ballot papers for the regional list and constituency member be combined into one, with the regional list on the left-hand column, based on the example of the New Zealand paper. In light of the views of the Arbuthnott commission, I decided to proceed with a wider public consultation in order to test whether the suggested move to a single ballot paper commanded more general support, and to explore the appropriate design of such a ballot paper.
The Scotland Office launched that consultation on 9 June 2006. In addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State met with a range of interested parties, including representatives from disability rights groups, to explore these issues. There was a significant level of support for a single ballot paper. Of 29 respondents, the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity party, the Liberal party of Scotland, ENABLE Scotland and Capability Scotland were not in favour of a combined ballot paper. I have requested that all responses to this consultation are placed in the Library of the House. The major political parties who expressed a view were largely in favour.
Derek Barrie, the chief of staff of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, responded on their behalf on 15 June. He said:
“The Scottish Liberal Democrats warmly welcome and fully endorse the proposal to have one ballot paper only for the next diet of Scottish Parliament elections in May 2007. This is one recommendation of Arbuthnott that we fully agree with.”
Peter Murrell, chief executive of the Scottish National party, responded on 16 August 2006:
“The Scottish National Party is in support of the proposed move to a single ballot paper for both votes in the Scottish Parliament elections. We believe that this will aid understanding of both elements of the voting system and, in particular, remove any misunderstanding that the regional vote is somehow a second preference vote”.
Lesley Quinn, general secretary of the Scottish Labour party, responded:
“The Scottish Labour Party strongly supports a single ballot paper, as this will simplify voting, counting, voter awareness and understanding. A single ballot paper will reduce the potential for voter confusion and be easier for people to use”.
No response to the consultation was received from the Scottish Conservative party.
Beyond the political parties, the Electoral Reform Society responded:
“The Electoral Reform Society supports the use of a single ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament Elections”.
SOLAR—the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland—responded:
“The SOLAR elections working group unanimously agreed to support the proposal that both Scottish Parliament contests be contained on one ballot paper.”
To explore further the issues in advance of decision, as part of this consultation, the Scotland Office requested the Electoral Commission to research with voters the impact of any possible change to the ballot paper format. On 4 August 2006, Sir Neil McIntosh wrote to the Under-Secretary of State enclosing the findings of that research, which involved focus groups in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Dundee. A copy of the research has been placed in the Library of the House, together with the covering letter from the Electoral Commission.
In that covering letter, Sir Neil McIntosh wrote:
“As you can see, the research draws a number of clear conclusions for the design of the Scottish Parliamentary Ballot Paper. These conclusions point to the interests of the voter best being served by: A design of ballot paper that incorporates both the regional and constituency ballot papers alongside each other on a single sheet of paper”.
The findings of the focus groups supported the move to a single ballot paper, with a significant majority of respondents agreeing, and with the overall preference in favour of a single combined ballot paper rather than two separate papers. Only after that extensive consultation, involving the widest possible range of stakeholders, the support of the main political parties who expressed a preference, research indicating the best interests of the voter being served by a single ballot paper and clear official advice, was a decision taken to proceed with a single ballot paper for the Scottish parliamentary elections.
I will now deal with the issue of delays in the administration of postal ballots. The handling of postal votes is increasingly a subject of public interest and concern, which is why we already have stiff penalties in legislation to prevent fraud. The use of postal votes in higher numbers than before makes that all the more important. When it became clear that such delays were occurring in the days prior to polling day, I instructed my officials to contact the Electoral Commission to ensure that those matters would be fully investigated as part of the statutory review.
However, the processes at local level for the preparation and delivery of postal votes are a matter for returning officers and their staff. They make the contractual arrangements that they judge appropriate for their area. They are well aware of the tight time scales involved in getting out the papers to voters. When the Electoral Commission reports, I will, of course, examine whether the Government can take steps to help ensure that the postal vote problems that beset regions such as the highlands and Dumfries and Galloway, among others, do not happen again.
Finally, I shall deal with the issue of e-counting. In 2005, the Scottish Executive approached the Scotland Office to discuss the option of using e-counting at the combined poll. That arose mainly because of the benefits in relation to handling a count of ballots under the single transferable vote method. Manual counts of STV would take many days and be highly complex. My predecessor as Secretary of State, after careful assessment of advice, gave an agreement in principle to the option, but stressed the need for systematic testing and evaluation of the equipment and software. That took place throughout late 2005 and into 2006 up to the final procurement decisions.
Many tests and demonstrations were held for electoral administrators, political parties, special interests and others. Various contingencies were tested, including power failures and ballot papers that had been creased or folded. That process was led by a steering group comprising officials from the Scotland Office, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament, as well as representatives from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, the Scottish Assessors Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. I am advised that none of the simulations gave any evidence of the kind or scale of problems that we saw in some centres on Thursday night and Friday morning. Clearly, this issue will be central to the Electoral Commission’s report.
There are several issues that need to be explored in relation to the problems encountered in the conduct of these elections. The Electoral Commission must now be allowed to undertake its statutory review which, as I have said, will be available by the summer. I will, of course, update the House at that stage in light of its conclusions.
I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement and, indeed, for agreeing to make a statement this afternoon. I am glad that he is now taking the issue of the conduct of the Scottish Parliament elections seriously, compared with the cavalier approach that he has shown in the past when the issue has been raised in the House and at the Scottish Affairs Committee.
Despite repeated warnings about the pitfalls of introducing a new voting system, new ballot papers and a new method of counting all on the same day, the approach of the Scottish Executive and the Scotland Office was to carry on regardless. It is not good enough to adopt the Jack McConnell approach to the cost of the Scottish Parliament building—
Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
The Secretary of State is responsible, as he himself acknowledges, so will he now apologise to the people of Scotland for Thursday night’s debacle? In particular, will he apologise to the tens of thousands of voters disfranchised due to their vote not being counted? Does he agree that it is totally unacceptable that around 100,000 people—compared with 16,000 in 2003—who actually made the effort to go to a polling station had their ballots disallowed, and that while there is no evidence of disproportionate disadvantage to any party, it does create unease among the electorate that in Airdrie and Shotts, for example, where the majority was 1,146, there were 1,536 spoilt papers?
Does the Secretary of State agree that the public’s confidence in the electoral system will be restored only if a full independent inquiry into what happened takes place? While the perspective of the Electoral Commission will be important, does he accept that it was integrally involved in these elections and—in particular and as his statement suggests—in the design of the ballot paper? The conduct of the elections was influenced by many political decisions and they, too, must be the subject of scrutiny. In that regard, before giving the go-ahead to the constituency and regional vote single ballot paper, did the Secretary of State actually read the report sent by the commission on 4 August, which showed that there was least scope for voter error when two ballot papers were used, and does he accept newspaper reports that the commission put an overly positive gloss on that report and omitted to disclose the finding that the single-paper option was more likely to lead to errors and therefore contribute to a higher number of invalid votes?
I accept that the Scottish Conservatives acceded to a single Scottish Parliament ballot paper, but what they did not accept was the use of that ballot paper on the same day as council elections under a different system of voting. Does the Secretary of State accept that every objective body from which evidence was taken recommended the decoupling of the elections, and that since the local government elections would inevitably impact on the Scottish Parliament elections, he cannot shirk responsibility for those two elections taking place on the same day? Does the Secretary of State accept that somebody has to take responsibility for the situation, and that it lies with his Government and with him?
Let me seek to deal with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. As my statement made clear, all of us regret the difficulties that were encountered on Thursday and Friday in the conduct of the Scottish elections. That is why it is entirely appropriate that the statutory view that is the obligation of the Electoral Commission be taken forward expeditiously. It is appropriate first to find out what happened and then to understand why those difficulties were encountered. However, I fail to be convinced by the hon. Gentleman’s arguments that it would be inappropriate for the Electoral Commission to carry out its statutory obligation.
The hon. Gentleman bandied around the name of an individual constituency. To maintain the confidence of the Scottish public, it is important that we be very clear that the responsibility for the integrity of results in individual constituencies in Scotland is a matter not for politicians but for the returning officers. If certain results arouse particular concerns, candidates should raise those concerns directly with returning officers.
I fully accept the need for answers. Even as the results were still coming in, I made contact with the Electoral Commission’s Sir Neil McIntosh and made clear to him my desire to make sure that each of the issues that I described in my statement was covered.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the reports in The Scotsman and other newspapers this morning. I can assure the House that the full research findings received by my office are available to all hon. Members in the Library. I do not accept the characterisation of those findings set out in The Scotsman this morning. Instead, I take the view set out by Sir Neil McIntosh that I narrated in my statement.
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing me prior sight of his statement. I am sure that we are all dismayed by the appalling mess made of the Scottish elections, especially when it became clear that as many as one person in 20 who went out to vote was unable to make his voice heard. I welcome the review that the right hon. Gentleman has said will look at the contentious aspects of the spoiled ballots, the postal voting and the electronic counting. I urge that that review be carried out in a way that is as transparent and public as possible, in order to command confidence.
The elections featured new voting and counting systems, and a new ballot paper design for the old system. The blame for the chaos has been attributed to each of the changes, but does the Secretary of State agree that we should wait for the review to understand properly where the problems lay, and that we must not fall into the trap of tarring all reforms with the same brush?
Did the Secretary of State and the Scotland Office look at and try to learn from the report into the Greater London authority elections of 2004? Similar problems with postal voting were encountered in Scotland last week, and we should not be making again the same mistakes that happened in the past. Therefore, will the Secretary of State give a guarantee that the review’s results will be shared across government? It would smack of incompetence if we were to keep making the same mistakes time after time.
There has been much speculation in the newspapers about the private companies involved in running the postal voting and e-counting for last week’s elections, and some people have suggested that the blame lies with them. Will the Electoral Commission look at the contracts in detail? Were stringent enough penalty clauses in place to give the companies adequate motivation to make sure that they were able to conduct the elections without problems?
Given the evidence from the experts that the single ballot paper was the best option, will the Electoral Commission review the adequacy of the testing that it carried out? It seems that it may not have been robust enough to identify the scale of the problems that were encountered.
Elections should not be run for the convenience of returning officers or political parties. We must remember that it is the voters who are the most important, so I hope that the commission will interview them, especially the ones who were confused by the system. In that way, we can understand where their problems lay.
In particular, there has been anecdotal evidence that putting the Scottish National party slogan “Alex Salmond for First Minister” on the ballot paper has caused some people to be confused between the party and the personal votes. Will that matter be looked into as well?
When the report is published, will the Government invite all political parties and stakeholders to comment on the results and seek to build a consensual way forward? In that way, the cherry-picking of recommendations can be avoided. It is in everyone’s interests that the problems are identified and the solutions found. That is vital if elections are to have legitimacy and if the credibility of our democracy is to be preserved.
I shall try to answer the questions put to me by the hon. Lady. First, she mentioned the way that the new voting system, the e-counting and the design of the ballot paper all came together, but she was right to say that we should await the review’s outcome. We need a clearer sense of the relative contribution that different elements might have made to the difficulties experienced last Thursday and Friday.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the GLA elections. I am aware that investigations were held at the time into the performance of the firm DRS, the same contractor that was responsible for the count last week. My understanding is that the company’s performance in the GLA elections was considered as part of the procurement process.
I have already been in touch with Sir Neil McIntosh to request that the postal voting issue be considered as part of the review that needs to be carried out. The hon. Lady asked about the tests and whether the contingencies were appropriate. As I narrated in my statement, a wide range of interests were represented on the steering group responsible, including not just politicians but a much wider range of people who have direct responsibility for and experience of administering elections. Clearly she makes a valid point that notwithstanding the extensive work of the project board, during which political parties and not simply the party of Government were invited to observe the operation of the counting machines, difficulties occurred at a number of stations, and it would be entirely appropriate for the Electoral Commission to give consideration to that in the process of its review.
The hon. Lady raised a specific issue about the designation “Alex Salmond for First Minister” appearing at the top of the regional list. It is fair to acknowledge to the party of which the hon. Gentleman is leader that that was one of the designations previously registered with the Electoral Commission—my recollection is that parties are entitled to 12 designations, and that was one of them. There has been comment since the election that it may have been a contributory factor, but as I said, it is for others to comment on that issue.
On the hon. Lady’s final point, I concur with her view that the responsibility is to identify why the problems occurred and to find solutions and a way forward. That is why I have given an undertaking that I will certainly update the House in light of the Electoral Commission’s review.
It is welcome that the equipment was evaluated in advance. What estimate was made of the accuracy of the scanners? Would a manual check on the day of the election have been an advantage to boost confidence in the new system?
Of course there was judged to be a high level of accuracy in the electronic scanning, but it is worth bearing in mind that there was the facility, which was used on the night, for manual examination of papers over which there was dispute. In that sense, electronic counting was not to the exclusion of the possibility of a manual count; there was provision whereby disputed papers could be considered by manual examination.
There was no doubt about the result of the election, which was victory for the Scottish National party, but the chaos in the counting, the postal votes and the spoiled ballots was a debacle. Did the Electoral Commission warn the Secretary of State of concerns about the design of the ballot paper? When the ballot paper size became apparent, did he decide that all must appear on one page, and at the end of the ballot design phase was there any further testing? Will he now publish all relevant ministerial correspondence? The statement was completely inadequate. It did not include reference to the necessary full, independent judicial inquiry and the Secretary of State has not faced his responsibilities, which frankly should involve him considering his position.
First, I have assured Sir Neil McIntosh of the full co-operation of Ministers and officials in the inquiry being undertaken by the Electoral Commission—the statutory review set down as the responsibility of that independent electoral watchdog. In turn, the Electoral Commission has made it clear that where matters touch on its direct responsibility, there will—as in the past—be independent evaluation of that role. Frankly, the interests of Scotland are best served by allowing the review to take its course, to ensure that as expeditiously as possible we can find answers and solutions to the types of problems that arose on Thursday and Friday.
If I were to give my true impressions of Thursday, I doubt that I would be allowed to remain in the Chamber. Given the experience both at the polling booths and at the count in the evening, can the Secretary of State give any indication as to the split in the spoiled papers of the national vote against the local government vote? In all the counts I saw, the number of spoiled papers in the local elections was far greater. Does the 100,000 include that figure or is it additional to the 100,000?
I urge caution on two fronts. First, a final tally is still to be reached on the number of spoiled papers, but according to the information that I received this morning, it does not reach 100,000. Although a number of figures have been bandied around in the newspapers, I urge caution about the number of spoiled papers. We should allow people to continue with their work. Secondly, on the relative balance of spoiled papers between the local government elections and the Scottish Parliament elections, I am not in a position to offer the House guidance on that matter, but I take comfort from the fact that, at the request of Scottish Executive Ministers, the Electoral Commission review will not only examine the Scottish Parliament elections but will give due consideration to the local government elections that took place contemporaneously.
Is this not just the latest in a catalogue of so-called electoral reforms introduced by the Labour Government that have gone wrong one after another? It comes on top of the scandal of the postal votes farrago in the general election, and the deregistration of thousands of service voters. Is it not redolent of banana republic-style chaos in the electoral system, and is it not essential that we have an inquiry not only into how the situation came about, but into whether the election should be—
I am not convinced by the case that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I am not sure that such terminology is helpful, in that it seeks to prejudge the serious and considered review being undertaken by the Electoral Commission. A whole range of new measures have been introduced by the Government to give greater assurance to voters on voting methodologies, and it ill behoves him to seek to create a partisan advantage out of what is a serious issue for the Scottish people.
Will my right hon. Friend convey to his right hon. Friends in the Cabinet the strong suggestion that in no circumstances at all should the DRS company or electronic counting machines be allowed to play any part in the next general election for the Westminster Parliament?
Without wanting to diminish in any way the standing of the Electoral Commission, many of us have real concerns about the adequacy of a report produced by it. The commission may just be too close to the process. Does the Secretary of State accept that the commission’s review may not be the last word on this matter, and will he keep in mind the possibility of a further inquiry by somebody who is independent of the Scottish political scene, but who knows a bit about politics? I am thinking of somebody of the standing of former President Mary Robinson from the Republic of Ireland. It may be necessary to involve somebody like that in order to restore the integrity of our electoral system.
I would not wish to undermine in any way the important role that the Electoral Commission plays. The hon. Gentleman’s description of a body that stands outside the Scottish political process but is of some standing seems to fit fairly accurately the work of Sir Neil McIntosh and the Electoral Commission more broadly across the United Kingdom, as our independent elections watchdog. None the less, of course I will consider whatever recommendations are made by the review, which, as I said, will report by the summer, and I will report back to the House in the light of that review. I reinforce the fact that the Electoral Commission itself is clear that, as in previous statutory reviews that it has had to undertake, where matters bear directly on the conduct of the commission there will be a full independent evaluation of that part of the process.
Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the interpretation of the ballots was the same across the country? I ask particularly with regard to the parliamentary elections: if a voter ranked people 1, 2 and 3, which was obviously wrong, was the 1 always taken to be the same as a cross, or was that sometimes counted as over-voting? Were the same criteria used in all constituencies when deciding whether to agree to a recount? I have heard that in one constituency where the majority was less than 100 a recount was refused, but in another, where the majority was almost 400, the leader of the Scottish National party—although it was not his constituency—insisted to the electoral returning officer that a recount should take place.
Let me try to deal with my hon. Friend’s points in turn. First, she asked about the conduct of electoral returning officers in different constituencies throughout Scotland. Guidance is offered to each of those electoral returning officers, but the decision at each count is ultimately a matter for the individual electoral returning officer. Secondly, the determination of whether to allow a recount in a particular constituency is ultimately a matter for the individual returning officer. Judgments were exercised by individual returning officers according to individual circumstances.
Many people not only in Scotland but throughout the country will be appalled by the Secretary of State’s complete lack of contrition for the national humiliating chaos and shambles in Scotland. May I suggest that the Secretary of State take the advice of his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, East (Mr. Marshall), abandon this obsession with electronic systems and go back to the old-fashioned system that commands the confidence of the people of this country? The returning officer in my borough of Rushmoor in Hampshire decided not to use an electronic signature verification system, and instead to resort to the mark 1 eyeball, the result of which was that we had no problems in Rushmoor. The returning officer, Mr. Andrew Lloyd, did an excellent job and I commend him to the Secretary of State for his advice.
I am now certainly aware of the advice that the hon. Gentleman has offered me. I assure him that we will give serious consideration to recommendations that might emerge from the Electoral Commission review that is under way on the conduct of Thursday’s elections.
I, along with most MPs, watched the battle take place on Thursday and Friday—and I have great concern that although people in the electoral system will be reviewing the system, they are actually part of the problem, so we must be careful about that. May I make a point about the confidence of the Scottish people? When the majority is lower than the number of spoiled papers, should not all those papers be recounted? That applies to all parties.
My hon. Friend used the phrase “in the electoral system”, so it is important that I make it clear, not only to him but to the people of Scotland and throughout the country, that the review will be carried out by the Electoral Commission, not by a politician or a political party. That being said, I have also made it clear that the Electoral Commission realises that there will be an independent evaluation of any work in which it was involved as part of the prior steps leading to the election. That is the appropriate point at which to leave the matter until the review has been concluded. The question of whether any further steps will be necessary in the light of the review can more appropriately be determined after we have seen the Electoral Commission’s recommendations.
It is a hallmark of this Government that they increase the power and size of the state, yet then cannot run it properly. It is clear that that incompetence extends to the electoral system and to people’s democratic rights—so will the Secretary of State invite the United Nations to act as an electoral observer in any other elections that are held in the remainder of this Parliament?
First, for clarification, let me make it clear that the e-counting process was overseen not only by parts of “the state”, as the right hon. Gentleman describes them—the Scotland Office, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament—but by representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, the Scottish Assessors Association and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers. It is not entirely accurate to suggest that this is a matter of party politics. However, I am intrigued to note that despite the right hon. Gentleman’s sense of indignation about the results in Scotland overnight on Thursday and on Friday, he carefully chose to suggest the United Nations, rather than a super-national institution somewhat closer to home with more experience of running elections: the European Union.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the circumstances of the Cunninghame North count, where the Labour candidate was refused a recount, despite the concerns raised about the Arran ballots by several individuals who were completely unconnected with the Labour party, and the close nature of the election? The returning officer initially said that the majority in the election was 54, but shortly thereafter, with no explanation, the figure changed to 48. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that we need to determine whether the guidelines were adhered to on Thursday night, and whether they need to be strengthened?
I hope that the House will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to pass comment on results in individual constituencies. If candidates have concerns and wish to take legal steps in light of the determinations made by electoral returning officers, it is appropriate for those officers to give due consideration to the matter, but I am not convinced that it would be appropriate, or without prejudice to the right of candidates to take the action that they deem necessary, for me to pass comment on individual constituencies at this stage.
Is the Secretary of State aware that in the Greater London authority elections three years ago, there were 385,000 spoiled ballot papers—three times as many as in the recent Scottish elections? Will he ensure that the findings of his review are used in next year’s GLA elections, and if, as he says, the same contractor was involved in the GLA elections three years ago and the Scottish elections last week, will he please ensure that that contractor has nothing to do with the GLA elections next year?
In terms of ballot papers being ruled out, that was a matter for individual electoral returning officers, and in that sense I am not sure that the conflation of the issue of the contractor and that of the number of spoiled ballot papers holds as an argument. That being said, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the terms of the Electoral Commission statutory review of the elections will be widely distributed, not simply among Members of the House but beyond.
Last week was an embarrassment, and we owe the people of Scotland an apology. I was at a count that was suspended at 5.30, and there were 1,700 spoiled papers. It recommenced at 12 o’clock and did not finish until 20 minutes to 3 in the afternoon. I share with hon. Members on both sides of the House a concern about the Electoral Commission’s role in investigating the matter. My right hon. Friend should look to some other body to carry out the investigation.
Our first obligation is to secure answers. A statutory review by the Electoral Commission has already begun. I have made it clear that where that inquiry touches on matters that are directly the responsibility of the Electoral Commission, there will be independent assessment. The appropriate step at this stage is to allow that work to be completed. The review is not without time limit; there is an expectation that it will be made available during the summer. At that point, there will be an opportunity for the House to reflect on the recommendations, and for any further steps to be taken.
Is not the simple lesson to be drawn from last Thursday’s fiasco in Scotland that the Government’s tinkering with our electoral system has been hugely damaging, whether we are talking about e-voting, the incomprehensible ballot papers produced in Scotland, the corrupt postal voting system, or proportional representation? Until recently, our electoral process was an example to the world, but under the current Prime Minister and the current Government, the democratic process has been undermined, and we have been reduced to the level of a “banana republic”—those are a judge’s words, not mine.
Amid his indignation, the hon. Gentleman suggested that there was e-voting in Scotland on Thursday. As someone who actually voted in Scotland, let me say that it is clear that he does not understand that it is e-counting, rather than e-voting, that we are discussing today. If he is suggesting that it is fundamentally wrong that Members of Scottish Parliament are elected under a proportional representation system, I would simply say, with respect, that that matter was resolved at the time of the passage of the Scotland Act 1998, and I am not convinced that that is particularly relevant to our discussions today.
I cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and offer an analysis or description of why the spoiled ballot papers were spoiled. In a limited set of circumstances, people choose to spoil their ballot papers intentionally, but I think that the prudent and responsible course in the circumstances is to allow the Electoral Commission to take forward its statutory review and explore whether there were other factors that contributed to the number of ballot papers spoiled in Scotland on Thursday evening.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that on election night, when ballot papers were rejected they were shown to the agents and the candidates and the rejection was agreed, and that when the declaration was made, the number of spoiled ballot papers was announced? If that is the case, why can he not tell us now how many ballot papers were rejected?
As I have said, when I sought from officials this morning the definitive number of spoilt ballot papers, a figure was available for a number of constituencies, but not the total number of constituencies in Scotland. That work is continuing. On the first point that the hon. Gentleman put to me, I cannot comment with authority this afternoon on the conduct in each individual constituency at the count, which is rightly the responsibility not of a politician but of the electoral returning officer in that constituency. If there are specific concerns about specific counts, the appropriate action to take is to discuss that with the electoral returning officer in that particular constituency on the night, and thereafter, if necessary, to take whatever further action is required.
There is no doubt that great damage has been done to trust in the political system by the events of last Thursday and Friday, and everyone involved in Scottish politics, as a politician or in an administrative position, has a responsibility to make sure that they never happen again. In that connection, will my right hon. Friend have early discussions with the Scottish Executive about introducing legislation to ensure that as far as possible local government elections under the single transferable vote system are not held on the same day as Scottish parliamentary elections—or, indeed, UK parliamentary elections?
As my hon. Friend knows, for a long-standing campaigner for devolution like me, the rightful place for the decision on the timing of local government elections in Scotland is Holyrood. I am sure that careful consideration will be given to the report that the Electoral Commission is preparing by the incoming Scottish Executive, of whatever hue. That said, it is heartening that Scottish Executive Ministers have already made it clear that they wish the conduct of the Scottish local government elections to be considered as part of the statutory review undertaken by the Electoral Commission.
I do not wish to prejudice the forthcoming trials of the guilty, but I do wish to make some points about the remit given to the Electoral Commission. In particular, may I ask whether it will be allowed to make publicly available all the ballots that were ruled out, so that they can be examined—either the ballots themselves or copies thereof, particularly the local government ballots? That will enable us to clarify whether, when three Xs had been marked, there would have been some way of allowing at least one of those votes to be counted. Can the rules for recounts be clarified, and can we ask the Electoral Commission to clarify whether a financial clawback from the returning officers and the firms involved would be possible, as they have not delivered adequately? Will my right hon. Friend examine the question of wasted votes, too? In Glasgow there were more than 78,000 wasted Labour votes in the second ballot. There were also 91,000 wasted Labour votes in the West of Scotland, and 112,000 wasted Labour votes in Central Scotland, on the second ballot. I certainly hope that the House will reject his proposal that the European Union be called in to monitor the situation. It should not be called in to monitor any European—
I shall try to deal with the multiple questions that my hon. Friend put to me. First, for the sake of clarification, I can assure him that it was not a proposal of mine that the EU be called in to look at the conduct of elections in the United Kingdom. I was merely reflecting the fact that it was intriguing that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) had not chosen the EU, given its role in electoral observation missions elsewhere in Europe. On my hon. Friend’s second point about so-called wasted votes, he is a long-standing campaigner on the issue, and given his commitment to the Co-operative party and its ideals, he has long argued that there could be a case for standing Co-operative candidates from the regional list. That is a matter on which I am sure he will continue to campaign.
The final matter that I wish to address is his first point about the remit given to the Electoral Commission. It is important to clarify the fact that I did not invent the Electoral Commission’s role overnight on Friday, and thereby designate it as the appropriate statutory body. As I understand it, under section 5 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission has a statutory obligation to review elections, including the Scottish Parliament elections, so it is not a mechanism that has been devised for these particular circumstances. It is a statutory review which, as a matter of course, has been taken forward. My intervention with the Electoral Commission on Friday morning was to ensure that under the terms of that statutory review, the specific issues that were of concern, and which I elucidated in my statement, would receive consideration, and I was given that assurance by Sir Neil McIntosh.
Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) about spoilt papers, and returning to what my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) told us about the Cunninghame North shambles, I too ask whether we can look at the papers. There were 1,700 spoiled papers on the regional and Scottish Parliament vote—over 10 times more than normal. I asked to look at those papers to see what the problem was, but that was denied me—all I was shown was a television screen. One vote was counted because there were two dots in a box. I am sorry, but this is not democracy. What is my right hon. Friend going to do to look at all these ballot papers, which have now been flung in a bucket somewhere, and to put the situation to rights for the people whose votes were not counted?
I can assure my hon. Friend that these ballots are not, as he suggests, flung in a bucket somewhere, but kept. On his substantive point about the facility whereby people are able to see the ballot papers, it is the case that a photograph of the ballot paper was shown on a number of television screens at counts across Scotland. However, the fact remains that I cannot comment today on the conduct of individual returning officers at individual counts, whether in Glasgow or elsewhere. If there are legitimate concerns that it would be appropriate to raise with returning officers, they should in the first instance be raised with those returning officers by the candidates affected.
[10th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to set targets for carbon emissions informed by science and not political convenience which will help to hold global warming to within two degrees of pre-industrial levels; recognises that the best current estimate is that this requires stabilisation at between 400 and 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere; and urges Ministers to inject a new sense of urgency into efforts at home by setting out an annual action plan to curb the UK’s own carbon emissions, establishing a climate change committee of the Cabinet to ensure joined up government, tackling quickly the most rapidly growing emissions in the transport sector by a more steeply graduated vehicle excise duty and a rebasing of air passenger duty onto the emissions of each flight, offset by other tax cuts, speeding up the effort to curb the waste of energy and the high emissions from buildings not just by raising thermal efficiency requirements in new homes but also by renovating existing homes, changing the incentives on energy companies so that they make more money by saving and not selling more energy, providing comprehensive insulation packages funded mainly by energy mortgages repayable through utility bills and setting an example by ensuring that all future buildings on the Government’s own estate are built to the highest energy efficiency standards.
It is good to see that Conservative Members are not too ashamed of their party’s manifesto in the Scottish elections. At least some of them are attending the debate, despite the fact that their party scored nought out of 10 for its environmental commitments, according to Friends of the Earth. The toxic Tories north of the border reminded me of the analysis undertaken by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace of the voting record of Conservative Members of the European Parliament on environmental matters during the last Parliament, which found that they were not merely the worst of all the British political parties, but the worst in the whole of the European Union.
Clearly, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has some sins still to repent. He has been leader of his party for 16 months and has yet to put on the table a single firm proposal that would have any impact on greenhouse gas emissions. I hope that his party will be able to support our motion as a first step to rectifying that omission. That would also fit with the ambitious agenda revealed in The Times today by the Conservatives’ policy chief, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who assures us that
“Cameron conservatism, so far from being merely a set of attitudes, has a specific theoretical agenda. It aims to achieve two significant paradigm shifts.
First, a shift from an econocentric paradigm to a sociocentric paradigm. Secondly, a shift in the theory of the state from a provision-based paradigm to a framework-based paradigm.”
No doubt that is deep stuff, but I think that he would perhaps do better were he to speak in English.
I wish that I could argue that the Government’s record on climate change has been good, but it has not. There is real concern that their aims are not being informed solely by the science of climate change, which must surely be the starting point. I think that we are agreed across the parties that a rise in global temperature of 2° C above the pre-industrial average is at the limit of what should be tolerated if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, with rising sea levels, drought, floods and extreme weather events. However, the Government have been less than open about what that temperature limit means for our behaviour. They have drifted towards a figure of 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide alone as the aim of our emissions policy globally. We now know what that would mean according to the latest—the fourth—assessment report of working group 3 of the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change, which was published yesterday in Bangkok. The working group is responsible for assessing what we need to do to limit global warming. It finds that a range of 485 to 570 parts per million of carbon dioxide alone—in other words, what the Government have been suggesting—would lead to a global mean temperature increase of not 2° C, but 3.2° to 4° C. The top end of that range is nearly double the 2° C that the Government specify. The same report shows that holding global warming to 2° to 2.4° C would require a CO2 equivalent concentration of 445 to 490 parts per million.
Clearly, there is a great disjuncture between the Government’s rhetoric in saying that they want to avoid dangerous climate change and the reality of the targets that they set. On the basis of the evidence of the report, if the Government continue to believe—as they should—that 2° C of global warming is the danger threshold, they must also accept a revision of their international aim and, indeed, a revision of the 60 per cent. reduction in emissions in the draft Climate Change Bill. I hope that Ministers can tell the House exactly where the Government stand on the matter, as the United Nations IPCC report makes it clear that their current position is no longer tenable.
No doubt there will be much hand-wringing in parts of British business at the prospect of a more ambitious target, but we have much to gain by being ahead of the global pack. The countries that establish first mover advantage will have the proprietary technology to give their exporters an edge in new global markets. Energy saving does exactly what any sensible business does anyway: it saves costs. The Stern review has already stated that we would benefit by moving more quickly rather than allowing higher costs to build up later. The UN IPCC report reaches similar conclusions. The costs of the most radical stabilisation proposal are put at no more than 0.12 per cent. of GDP each year, or less than 5.5 per cent. of the GDP level in 2050.
The hon. Gentleman raises a matter with which I shall deal later. No doubt he knows that the Sustainable Development Commission has had some critical words to say about the Government’s performance.
Even at the maximum costs for which the UN IPCC calculations allow, we would still reach the level of income that we might have attained in 2050 by 2053. That does not seem an excessive price to pay for a planet fit for future generations.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we need a global agreement. It is useful that the Chancellor of Germany, as President of the European Union, did so much at the recent Berlin and Brussels summits to put that on the global agenda. However, we must plan for success and not assume that no one else will follow. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the EU agreement becomes more ambitious if other developed countries follow along with us.
The first part of the motion merely calls on the Government to bring their professed goals for carbon emissions into line with their assessment of the dangerous temperature rise.
I am pleased to make it clear that we are calling for the Government to set a more ambitious target. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his recent pamphlet, in which he clearly set out some of the muddle into which the Government have got themselves on such matters. It makes a useful contribution to the debate.
The second part of the motion calls on the Government to set out an annual action plan to reduce our own carbon emissions in line with our target. If we are to persuade the developing countries to follow suit, there has to be a far greater sense of urgency about our own efforts in the developed world. That is a moral imperative, given that we rich countries may be responsible for some 70 per cent. of all the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
There is also a strong case for urgent action because of the danger that, if we do not act quickly, the costs of climate change will not mount steadily, but will tip over into highly dangerous areas. Feedback effects such as the melting permafrost on northern peatlands could release large amounts of methane; drying weather could lead to accelerated dieback of tropical rainforest; glacier melt could accelerate due to under-ice streams; and the vanishing of snow and ice cover could curb the albedo effect reflecting warmth away from earth.
An annual action plan should be linked to far greater co-ordination of the Government’s efforts, as the third part of the motion suggests, through a dedicated Cabinet Committee on climate change. No amount of Whitehall reorganisation can bring all the public activities that affect climate change into one Department—nor should it. The Foreign Office is responsible for climate change negotiations; the Department for International Development needs to reflect in our aid policy the challenge of climate change for the poorest countries; the Department for Communities and Local Government sets building regulations, including those on thermal efficiency; the Department of Trade and Industry runs energy policy and therefore policy on electricity generation; the Department for Transport sets airport and aviation policy; the Treasury controls the taxes that are such an important influence on decision making on fossil fuels and carbon emissions; and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for the energy efficiency of existing housing stock, not to mention the methane output of our livestock.
The potential for a good old-fashioned Whitehall shambles is well established. The Prime Minister has repeatedly told us that climate change is one of the greatest policy challenges of our time and we know that one of its principal effects is rising sea levels and worsening storms, yet last summer DEFRA cut the Environment Agency’s flood defence budget. Meanwhile, the Department for Communities and Local Government is still planning more than 100,000 new homes on flood plains and the Department for Transport is planning an airport expansion that is wholly inconsistent with the need to control aviation emissions. Because the Chancellor was spooked by the fuel duty protestors, the Treasury has steadily cut green taxes as a share of GDP from 3.6 per cent. in 1999 to 2.9 per cent. in 2005. The Department of Trade and Industry was responsible for research cuts at the centres for ecology and hydrology that helped us to understand how flora and fauna would react to climate change. Even more bizarrely, there were cuts in the research budget of the Hadley centre at the Met Office, which had established itself as one of the leading world centres for the study of climate change.
The truth is that the Government do not have a well co-ordinated policy on climate change. As in many other areas, they have elevated spin above substance. They have merely a public relations campaign masquerading as a climate change policy. That is why we make the proposal in the motion for some mechanisms within Whitehall to ensure a semblance of joined-up government around an annual action plan that would help to deliver real policies, not just rhetoric.
The most urgent priority is surely to tackle the transport sector, where our emissions have grown most rapidly since the Kyoto base year of 1990. We need a more steeply graduated vehicle excise duty that will shift most car buyers to low-emission models.
With a steeply graduated vehicle excise duty, what allowances would the hon. Gentleman make for people in rural areas, particularly farmers and crofters, who need 4x4 vehicles to run their livestock? I would hope that he would not penalise such people unnecessarily.
The hon. Gentleman knows very well, because we have dealt with this matter in previous debates, that we have proposed discounts for people in remote rural areas and exemptions for working vehicles. The key issue is to ensure that we shift our vehicle fleet towards low-emission vehicles, and we need a more steeply graduated vehicle excise duty to ensure that that happens.
We also need to abolish air passenger duty in favour of a tax based on the emissions of the flights. That would set up an incentive for the airlines to fill all the available places and to move more rapidly towards more fuel-efficient aircraft. It is certainly not the whole answer to sustainable aviation, but it would be a real start. Much of the rest, including imposing a kerosene tax and ensuring that aviation is included in the European Union emissions trading scheme, needs to be done at EU level if there are not to be adverse effects on the competitiveness of our businesses.
The hon. Gentleman knows that it would be unusual for the people whom he is describing to buy new high-value 4x4s. Our proposal would affect only new purchases, and it would be designed to shift the pattern of car buying towards low-emission vehicles. One thing that would certainly happen is that car manufacturers would move towards producing more fuel-efficient engines right the way down. In attempting to effect behaviour change of this kind, it is not quite so easy to hold the world constant as the hon. Gentleman might suggest. The whole point of our proposals is to encourage behaviour change.
As we are discussing the effects of vehicle excise duty on people in rural areas, may I take the hon. Gentleman back to a question that I have raised about whether a city such as Inverness would fall within his definition of a remote area in which people would be entitled to a reduction in fuel duty? One of his colleagues has suggested that it would not, but another has said that it would. Does not that illustrate the difficulty of finding an excuse for a particular area being exempt from such measures if there are perceived electoral advantages involved?
The hon. Gentleman knows that if we always find difficulties—if the glass is always half empty—we will never make progress. Sometimes it is necessary to establish boundaries—income tax or inheritance thresholds, for example—and sometimes people find themselves on the wrong side of those boundaries. Such measures are not necessary popular, but unfortunately we have to make real changes in our behaviour and it is therefore important to strike out in that direction.
Crucially, every penny raised through green taxes to help us to change our behaviour collectively should be handed back in income tax cuts, thereby shifting the tax burden on to activities that we want to discourage from activities such as work, risk and effort that we wish to encourage.
On the hon. Gentleman’s previous point about exemptions for certain people in rural areas, there are parts of my constituency in Shropshire where people can live only if they have a 4x4, because they are so remote and mountainous. Would it not create huge amounts of bureaucracy and red tape to run a pilot to decide who would and would not be exempt from these extra charges?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting topographical point about the mountains in his constituency, and I look forward to travelling across them to find out for myself whether his description is accurate. He must remember that there are already new 4x4s available that are below the top emissions category. Taking that into account when considering our proposals for rural areas, I think that I can allay his fears on that score, and I hope that the Conservatives will be able to support us.
Finally, the motion deals with the crucial issue of the built environment: our buildings, which are responsible for half our carbon emissions. It calls on the Government to set an example by ensuring that their own massive purchasing power goes into the building of low-carbon schools, hospitals and other public buildings. Sadly, as we have already heard from Opposition Members, the Government’s record is appalling. As the Sustainable Development Commission has made clear, DEFRA’s ability to wag a finger at other Departments has been entirely undermined by its record on pushing up carbon emissions from its own office buildings three times as quickly as the rise in the national average. The Government’s role in setting an example for the commercial sector is crucial, and I hope we hear from Ministers what firm proposals they intend to make to extend best practice in the public sector.
Equally important is a much more concerted effort to improve the energy efficiency of our own homes. Let me give just one shocking statistic that brought home to me how unambitious we have been in saving energy rather than wasting it. If the average energy bill in Britain were the same as that in Sweden, every household here would save £385 a year—we are literally burning £50 notes—yet average temperatures in Sweden in January are 7º C colder than they are in Britain.
Part of the answer is to raise thermal efficiency standards for new buildings, and the Government are moving towards such action. There is no reason why we should not proceed more rapidly to a GreenHouse standard for new homes that would cut energy use and carbon emissions by 95 per cent. This is not rocket science. It has already been achieved in Germany with the PassivHaus standard, and the intriguing experience there is that the initially high extra cost of more than a fifth has now all but vanished. Following the building of several thousand such homes, the extra cost of construction is running at just 2 per cent., and it repays itself in a few months’ savings on the householder’s energy bill. The GreenHouse standard would make it easier for young families to get on the housing ladder, provided that building societies take account—as the regulator should ensure that they do—of the savings in their energy bills.
The hon. Lady anticipates the next section of my speech. Adding microgeneration means that energy savings can be even greater than those that can be achieved through a move to much higher thermal insulation standards in new build. Genuinely carbon-neutral homes are now attainable, but however ambitious we are with new building standards, the truth is—as the hon. Lady rightly reminds us—that three quarters of the homes in which we will be living in 2050 have already been built. We need a far more ambitious set of plans to tackle our existing housing stock than the Government’s Warm Front scheme and the energy efficiency commitment. At the current rate of progress, it will take 125 years to upgrade the housing stock, and even then it will be only to modest cherry-picking standards involving, for instance, cavity wall and loft insulation.
We need to offer packages that can improve the sealing of windows, doors and chimneys, clad walls either inside or outside in solid-walled properties, and install under-floor insulation and efficient boilers—even, soon, combined-heat-and-power boilers. We need those packages to be testable, so that householders know they will get the energy savings that they have been promised. If those conditions are met—the Royal Institute of British Architects and the National Home Improvement Council are interested in helping to ensure that they are—hundreds of thousands of householders will jump at the chance to cut their energy bills. The obvious way to finance such packages is through an energy mortgage attached to the property that is repaid on the same bill as that of the utility company. It is likely that about one fifth of the cost of such improvements would need to be met by the energy company to ensure that the energy mortgage could be repaid from the savings in energy made by the householder.
That is why we also suggest reshaping the energy efficiency commitment. The energy efficiency commitment is currently simply a levy on consumers to pay for energy efficiency improvements. It would make sense instead to encourage energy companies to find the most effective ways of curbing energy use by changing their incentives. They currently make more profit by selling more energy. If they were subject to a “cap and trade” scheme, such as the European Union emissions trading scheme—and, to give the Government credit, similar to a measure envisaged in an enabling clause of the draft Climate Change Bill—they could collectively have a declining sales target, and they would maximise their profits by selling even less and selling on their allocations under the scheme. If they sold more than their reducing allocations, they would have to buy that in the market. Therefore, an incentive would be established.
I fully share the emphasis that the hon. Gentleman places on energy efficiency, but I want to be clear about the precise meaning in terms of the GreenHouse package of the proposed policy that he is discussing. From reading his stimulating pamphlet, it is my understanding that the message to my constituents is that the Liberal Democrats would require them to take out a loan of between £5,000 and £10,000 from the local utility company, which will then have a charge over their property while they pay it off. Is that really the hon. Gentleman’s intention, or have I got that wrong?
As we make clear in our proposals, for any period of time that we might envisage it would be extremely unlikely that any measure of compulsion would be necessary. One of the extraordinary results from the German scheme is that there has been such a great rush of households wanting to participate that the building industry has found it hard to catch up. We must be wary in that respect and ensure that the necessary skills are in place in the British building industry for us to be able to deal with such circumstances.
As the hon. Gentleman can see by looking at the pamphlet, there is no proposal for the scheme to be on anything other than a voluntary basis. Clearly, in the longer run we will have to assess its progress, but we hope that it can be completed on a voluntary basis, with the necessary incentives. However, there is no doubt that we need the sort of systematic proposals that we have made if we are to tackle energy efficiency.
The definition of compulsion is, of course, an elastic one. One of the proposals that was floated at the same time as the publication of the hon. Gentleman’s pamphlet was that there should be a tax penalty—specifically a stamp duty tax penalty—for those who do not make the improvements that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Is that part of his party’s policy?
It is not part of our party’s policy. At some point in the future additional incentives might be required to complete the process of improving energy efficiency. If that were the case, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could think of a number of tax incentives—one of which might indeed be a discount on stamp duty. That would not involve raising taxes, but it would provide people with additional inducements and therefore additional incentives to go ahead with such improvements.
Climate change is the great challenge of our times. We need to tackle it with urgency because any carbon emitted into the atmosphere has a long life—a century or more. Yet far from delivering cuts in carbon emissions, the Government have presided over increases in them since 1997. As the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change report shows, we need to be much more ambitious, much more focused and much more radical. Time is now running out. I hope that the House will support the motion.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
“welcomes publication of the draft Climate Change Bill, which will make the UK the first country in the world to establish a long term legal framework for managing the transition to a low carbon economy, setting ambitious binding targets to cut carbon emissions by 26 to 32 per cent. from the 1990 level by 2020 and at least 60 per cent. by 2050, which can be revised in light of significant developments in international policy and climate science, and establishing an independent Committee on Climate Change to advise on setting statutory five year carbon budgets and to report to Parliament annually on progress; further welcomes the Government’s comprehensive approach to reducing emissions from all sectors of the economy and the proposals in the energy review to cut carbon emissions by up to a further 25 million tonnes of carbon per year by 2020; recognises that home energy use for heating, lighting and appliances accounts for more than a quarter of domestic UK carbon emissions; applauds the Government’s proposals to improve building standards so that from 2016 all new housing developments must be zero carbon; recognises the Government’s commitment to improving the energy efficiency of existing homes and tackling fuel poverty through Warm Front and the Energy Efficiency Commitment; welcomes the Budget 2007 report statement that by the end of the next decade all householders will have been offered help to introduce energy efficiency measures; and looks forward to further development of policies in this area.”
Climate change is the greatest long-term challenge facing the human race. It is a top priority for the Government, at home and internationally. The broad cross-party consensus on the urgency of the issue is a strength of our politics. Sometimes, when people outside the House observe the partisan nature of our proceedings, they misunderstand the fact that we can have knockabout debate that is, rightly, questioning of the Government, while still reaching a broad consensus as to the policy prescriptions and action required. That is important, because climate change does not discriminate, whether in the UK, US or the rapidly emerging countries such as China, India or Brazil. Climate change is a threat to us all and, therefore, a challenge to us all.
Without global action on climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases will continue to increase. All countries will be affected. The poorest nations will be hit hardest, but the UK and other developed countries will not be immune from the consequences. We are already starting to feel those consequences, as the fourth assessment report published last Friday graphically demonstrated.
We are committed to the EU’s 2° C target temperature rise to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) said, that implies a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 50 per cent. by 2050. As the EU has said, that means that, because developing countries must grow, we and other developed countries must cut emissions by between 60 and 80 per cent. We are ready for that. We already have our 2050 target of at least a 60 per cent. cut for CO2 only. In relation to other greenhouse gases, more emissions reductions will be achievable, and we will do even more if needed. We will, of course, keep our goals under review in the light of scientific evidence and international developments, and the draft Climate Change Bill contains a specific clause allowing us to do that.
When we were discussing our targets, we thought it right to focus on the main greenhouse gas emitted, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, the large majority of greenhouse gas emissions are CO2. That is not to say, however, that we do not need to do more in relation to other greenhouse gases. Certainly, there is scope to consider that as part of the Climate Change Bill, and I look forward to future debates with him on the subject.
Is it not true that the Government signed up to the regulation on fluorinated gases, which will make a dramatic impact on the amount of other gases emitted? CO2 is increasingly rapidly, whereas most of the other greenhouse gases are being reduced and moderated by legislation and new technology.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the UK has made significant reductions in methane and other greenhouse gas emissions, notwithstanding our progress on carbon dioxide, on which we fully accept that we need to do more.
In particular, we need to do more in the light of the warnings of the intergovernmental panel on climate change from Bangkok earlier this week, and from Paris and Brussels earlier this year. The UK remains committed to demonstrating leadership internationally through our actions at home. No major industrialised country has done more than Britain to tackle climate change. Our national programme has made significant progress, through the climate change levy, the UK emissions trading scheme, reform of vehicle excise duty to encourage the take-up of low-polluting cars, differentials in fuel duties and the landfill tax. We are exceeding our Kyoto targets, and are the only country on track to double them. We have also shown real progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining economic growth and high employment levels.
Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that carbon dioxide emissions and household income were related, with the wealthiest societies responsible for the highest emissions. In the UK, that link is now being broken. We are showing the world that one can have green growth—that emissions reductions and prosperity can go hand in hand. Between 1997 and 2005, our economy grew by 25 per cent. and greenhouse gas emissions were cut by 7 per cent.—or by 11 per cent., allowing for the effects of the EU emissions trading scheme.
Currently, there is no internationally accepted definition for aviation and shipping emissions, which is one reason why they do not appear in national inventories under the IPPC. The UK is certainly pressing for international agreement on this issue. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have been pressing for including aviation in the EU’s emissions trading scheme as quickly as possible. However, we need a global deal on aviation and shipping, just as we need one on a post-2012 framework.