House of Commons
Wednesday 23 May 2007
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Provisional IRA Army Council
If I may, I should like to congratulate the right hon. Members for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on being nominated to be Privy Councillors; those nominations are well deserved.
Successive Independent Monitoring Commission reports have demonstrated that the Provisional IRA is committed to a political path. The IMC’s latest report reiterates that the organisation has eschewed violence and disbanded its paramilitary structures.
Having announced membership of the Provisional IRA army council in the past, can the Secretary of State tell the House who is in membership of that terrorist body now? Does he understand that the Unionist community will have no confidence in the words of Adams and McGuinness while the so-called army terrorist council of the IRA remains in existence as a threat to the stability of Northern Ireland? There can be no riding of two horses, and all terrorist structures must therefore be dismantled now.
I agree that there can be no riding of two horses. I am encouraged by the fact that successive reports by the IMC have confirmed that the engineering, intelligence gathering and other paramilitary apparatus of the IRA has been disbanded. That is not me speaking as Secretary of State; it is the IMC. That is the big picture, and the complete transformation that we have seen in Northern Ireland in recent weeks underpins the commitment that the IMC has reported.
Does the Secretary of State agree that none of the paramilitary organisations—republican dissident or loyalist—now has a mandate or authority in Northern Ireland? Will he ensure, however, that they cease activities such as exercising control over communities under the guise of community groups or restorative justice groups? Will he give direction and guidance to ensure that such activities do not go on, and that no Government funding is paid to groups that contain erstwhile paramilitaries?
I agree completely that there is no role for paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, if there ever was. There is certainly no justification for any of the trappings of paramilitary activity, let alone the activity itself. We continue to work as a Government to ensure that loyalist groups, in particular, come out of their past of violence, paramilitary activity and criminality—which is even more of a problem and has been for many years—and move towards accepting the rule of law without any qualification.
The Secretary of State has alluded to the progress being made towards normality, and that is indeed welcome. A number of issues remain outstanding, however, the most glaring of which is the existence of the IRA army council. What pressure is he applying to the hon. Members for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) and for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) to dismantle and get rid of that anachronism in Northern Ireland in 2007?
I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), that the important thing is that the IRA has now turned its back irrevocably on its past. The apparatus that once existed for terror and paramilitary violence has all disappeared, not least due to the pressure that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have maintained so steadfastly over these past few years. That is the important thing.
Obviously, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last comment, but I should like to refer to the earlier comment by the hon. Member for south Armagh—[Interruption.] I am so sorry, I meant the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). The Secretary of State will be aware that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs produced a report on community restorative justice that drew attention to the very points that the hon. Gentleman raised. It is crucial that there should be no back door into these schemes for people who have not utterly and totally repudiated their paramilitary past.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill, which has just gone through Parliament, has quite properly strengthened the oversight of community restorative justice schemes. His own Select Committee commented on that, and we have taken careful note of those comments and implemented the points that were made. It is now absolutely clear that anyone involved in community restorative justice has to obey the rule of law—there is no qualification on that—and has to work with the police; there is no qualification on that either.
Like the Secretary of State, I welcome the profound change that has taken place in the republican movement during recent years. Does he agree, however, that that very process of change means that the existence of something calling itself an army council—and that council’s continuing assertion of a claim to legitimate authority within the island of Ireland—is at odds with the transformation that the Sinn Fein leadership says that it has brought about, and with the pledge of office that Sinn Fein Ministers have taken? Surely the best way for Sinn Fein to demonstrate to the most sceptical Unionists that its commitment to democracy is really serious would be to get rid of that anachronistic institution.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s objective. Obviously we all look forward to a time when—as the situation continues to stabilise and the transformation deepens—there are no remnants of, and no legacy from, any of the paramilitary past that has bedevilled the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the whole island of Ireland, and that goes for every paramilitary organisation.
Members on both sides of the House hope to see conditions make the devolution of criminal justice and policing possible, in perhaps as little as 12 months from now. Does the Secretary of State believe that for such devolution to take place we need first to reach a stage at which the British and Irish Governments feel that the Provisional IRA is no longer a terrorist threat and that, as a consequence, proscription should cease?
Let us take one step at a time. The Assembly has a duty, under legislation that the hon. Gentleman supported, to report to the Secretary of State by 27 March next year on the prospects for devolution of policing and justice being completed by May next year, as the Government intend and as was set out on the Anglo-Irish agreement. We shall have to see what assessment is made and how matters progress, but as I said earlier, the IMC has stated repeatedly—I know the hon. Gentleman accepts this, and he is nodding—that the Provisional IRA poses no terrorist threat, and indeed is not capable of doing so.
Loyalist Paramilitary Organisations
Ministers continue their engagement with the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist party in support of their efforts to encourage loyalist paramilitaries to leave conflict behind and adhere to democratic principles.
While I welcome the news that the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commandos are saying that they will now decommission their arms, is it not still of great concern that the Ulster Defence Association has not done the same? All three organisations are involved in criminality, drug dealing, extortion and loan sharking. Will the Minister give an undertaking that action will continue to be taken against them when they have committed crimes?
The UVF’s announcement was a welcome step forward. Of course we want to see full and verifiable decommissioning, and last week’s discussions with General de Chastelain and representatives of the UVF were another welcome step. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we cannot tolerate either paramilitary activity or criminality by either of those organisations, and I assure him, and the House, that law enforcement in Northern Ireland will continue to bear down on them.
I join the Minister in welcoming the UVF’s statement of the first steps towards a complete winding down of its organisation. However, he and the House will recognise that it fell short in decommissioning terms by only putting weapons “beyond reach”—beyond whose reach is not clear. Can the Minister inject some urgency into the issue, and indeed into the issue of the disbanding of the army council of the IRA? It is essential that all paramilitary organisations go completely out of business, and are seen to be doing so.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there must be a sense of urgency in relation to any organisation or individual still involved in paramilitary activity. I hope that those on either the dissident republican or the loyalist side who are still engaged in paramilitary activity will recognise what a fruitless waste the violence and conflict of the past 40 years has been, will see the hope that democracy is bringing to Northern Ireland, and will desist from their activities and join the peace process in a meaningful way.
May I echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), and say how important it is for all loyalist paramilitary organisations to decommission? Indeed, as was said by the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson), the weapons must be destroyed and verification must take place. The Minister slightly pre-empted my question by referring to de Chastelain, but could he give a little more detail about the engagement that has taken place between the so-called loyalist paramilitary forces and the general?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that Ministers are not privy to the detailed discussions that take place with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, which is headed by General de Chastelain. The general has had that meeting, however, and I hope that it will lead to a new phase in which the UVF engages meaningfully with the IICD, decommissioning becomes verifiable, and we have not only the promise that weapons are beyond use but confirmation that they are.
Following the restoration of devolution on 8 May, I can now tell the hon. Gentleman that roads are now devolved, and whooper swans are devolved too. The hon. Gentleman asks about recent discussions at European level; as a Liverpool MP, the only discussions that I am really interested in having at European level today are about Liver birds rather than whooper swans—and specifically about how well the Reds will do in Athens tonight.
I am grateful to the Minister for her answer, and also for a written answer from one of her colleagues on 20 March revealing that in the Seamus Heaney area of special protection, where a large proportion of the 4,000 over-wintering whooper swans are to be found, by Lough Beg, there is a proposal for a dual carriageway from Toome to Castledawson.
Am I right in saying that both national and international laws require the Roads Service to make a far better assessment of the risk to whooper swans—and may I invite the Minister to come with me next winter to see them and to make sure that they are protected?
I can confirm that whooper swans are protected. They are listed in annexe 2 to the birds directive and schedule 1 to the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. However, such matters are the concern of the devolved Administration. The Minister in the Northern Ireland Administration with responsibility for them is Arlene Foster MLA. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s previous correspondence, and he might wish to write further to her on this matter.
Prisoners (Drugs Rehabilitation)
The Northern Ireland Prison Service recently concluded a wide-ranging consultation on its substance misuse policy. Voluntary organisations currently provide counselling and rehabilitation courses in each of its establishments. A full-time addiction services manager takes up post on 1 June.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, will he kindly explain what is so exceptional about the drugs rehabilitation of prisoners that responsibility for it alone was not transferred properly and on time in April to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Department?
Discussions continue between the Department and the Prison Service about the detail of the new arrangements. It is important that the health service in prisons is run by health experts; I am committed to that. The hon. Lady points to the fact that three voluntary organisations provide community addiction services in the three prisons in Northern Ireland. They do so effectively, and I know that she has a particular interest in the Northlands project, which provides an excellent service. I am looking at possible ways to expand such services, to the benefit of prisoners who as a result can come out of prison free of their addiction.
I thank the Secretary of State for his earlier words of congratulation. Many prisoners who enter prisons in Northern Ireland—some 10 per cent.—have amphetamine- based addictions, so rehabilitation work is clearly necessary, and we should enhance that. However, is it not the case that many drug prevention groups that work outside prisons trying to prevent young people from becoming addicted to drugs in the first place are operating on a shoestring budget? Ascert, in my constituency, is doing good work, but it cannot get funding. Do we not need to address the root cause of this problem by supporting groups that are trying to prevent it from happening in the first place?
I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that prevention is always better than cure. A range of organisations throughout Northern Ireland are trying to prevent people from becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol in the first place. It is essential that when prisoners leave prison and go back into the community they receive the effective support that such groups offer.
Dissident Republican Organisations
While dissident republicans remain determined to cause harm and destruction, excellent policing continues to thwart them. Dissidents will not deter us, or the new Executive, from achieving a stable and prosperous future for Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Although we are glad that power sharing has returned to Northern Ireland—and many of the terrorist organisations are now disarming—there are still dissident forces, such as Continuity IRA. What measures are the Government taking to prevent, dissuade and capture those vile and murderous criminals?
The Police Service of Northern Ireland takes the lead in detecting and preventing terrorist activities by organisations such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. So far this calendar year there have been 31 incidents involving dissident republican organisations. As recently as April, a serious incident was prevented in Lurgan by the PSNI, by a timely interception of what would have been a serious mortar attack. We should all compliment the PSNI on the work that it is doing and make it clear to those involved in dissident republican organisations, and loyalist paramilitary groups, that law enforcement will continue to hunt them and bear down on them.
The Secretary of State will be aware of a number of recent arrests in the Province—those of Brian Arthurs and two of his comrades, and of Roisin McAliskey, commonly known throughout the Province as members of the Provisional IRA. Can the Minister give us some background to the situation and assure us that if a request is made by the German authorities for the extradition of Roisin McAliskey, it will be accommodated?
The last question is entirely a matter for the German authorities under the European arrest warrant system. There will be arrests from time to time. The whole thrust of my argument is that the PSNI will continue to bear down on those involved in criminality or paramilitary activity. We should all be encouraged by the fact that Sinn Fein has made it clear that people should co-operate with the police whenever such arrests take place.
The security situation continues to improve beyond recognition, as last month’s report from the Independent Monitoring Commission made clear. But the report also shows that more is still needed from loyalist paramilitary groups to demonstrate their commitment to peace, and that dissident republicans continue to present a security threat.
Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), does the Minister agree that with the Provisional IRA army council in place, the IRA has a ready-made infrastructure to rebuild a terrorist capability rapidly at any time? Now that Sinn Fein is in government, surely the time has come for it finally to sever any links with its sister organisation the IRA? Otherwise, how can the Ulster public have real confidence in Sinn Fein Ministers?
With the normalisation of the security situation—and, we hope, the eventual delegation of full powers to the Welsh Assembly—is it not time to think about merging the Northern Ireland Office into an office for the nations and regions, providing a logical structure for administering the nations of the United Kingdom and the regions of England?
Loyalist Paramilitary Organisations
The recent meeting between the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning is a step in the right direction. It is vital that all loyalist paramilitary groups make a complete transition to peace and engage in full decommissioning.
Is the Minister aware that people want an end to all paramilitary activity—all the guns, intimidation, drug dealing, protection rackets and other threats to emerging normality—and is he also aware that while some elements within loyalism are making progress, people feel that he is only playing footsie with some hardliners who have no intention of ending their grip of fear on their local communities?
Of course my hon. Friend is right to say that we must continue to bear down on criminality and paramilitary activity. As I said in answer to an earlier question, my hope is that those involved in dissident republican groups and loyalist paramilitary organisations will see the wastefulness of the death and destruction of the last 40 years, and the positive hope that comes with democracy. Of course there will still be some hardliners, and they need to hear the message that we will not give up pursuing them and ensuring that if they do commit criminal acts, they are dealt with by the justice system.
We are all very encouraged by the positive start to devolution, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, his party colleagues and the other parties for the strong leadership that everyone has shown.
I thank the Secretary of State for his comments. However, does he accept that to bed in political progress and stability in Northern Ireland, it is absolutely essential that the right economic and financial package, which was promised to the people of Northern Ireland, is put in place?
I welcome the presence of the Chancellor during these questions and his input into the work of progressing the economic package. I also welcome the fact that Sir David Varney is starting work on the corporation tax review this week. Can the Secretary of State assure us that progress will be made towards ensuring that a step change in the Northern Ireland economy can be made, moving forward, so that we can make real political and economic progress for Northern Ireland?
The Chancellor has been equally concerned to make sure that the incoming Executive, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, have the best possible start and the best possible financial platform to succeed. That will be the case; any final details will be settled, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied.
The historic inquiries team project has been allocated £34 million to re-examine all the unresolved deaths in Northern Ireland that were related to the security situation during the period from 1968 until the signing of the Belfast agreement.
Is the Minister aware that up to 40 per cent. of police resources available for investigating serious crime can be diverted into historic inquiries, many of which originate from the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which many believe is engaged in a witch hunt against former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Does the Minister agree with the Superintendents Association of Northern Ireland, which says that perhaps now is the time to draw a line under the past and concentrate police resources on current policing needs, rather than on those politically motivated inquiries?
It is very important that the historic inquiries team should be able to fulfil the purpose for which it was first established: to look back at records and see whether explanations for unresolved deaths can be offered to families. However, I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to find other ways of drawing a line under the past—not to pretend that the past did not happen or that the hurt is not still there, but to focus our resources on the present and the future so that, going forward, Northern Ireland can enjoy peace and prosperity.
The multi-agency Organised Crime Task Force enables Government, law enforcement agencies and business to tackle organised crime in a co-ordinated, effective and strategic way. Next month, I shall publish the latest OCTF annual report and threat assessment.
I am grateful to the Minister for that considered and rational reply, but is there not a danger that acts of terrorism, which have dominated Northern Ireland in recent decades, could well be replaced by crimes committed by organisations? That would undermine the peace and stability that have recently come to Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is right; we know of the connection between organised criminality and those who in the past may have been involved in paramilitary activity. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Organised Crime Task Force brings all those agencies together to defeat those involved in organised crime. Indeed, yesterday I chaired a meeting of the Organised Crime Task Force stakeholder group, which brings business and law enforcement groups together. We will deal with organised crime, in order to eradicate it from Northern Ireland.
Provisional IRA Army Council
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea)—and to him, too, I think.
I thank the Secretary of State for the improving security situation, to which he has now referred twice. Can he ensure not only that the improvement continues, but that we systematically try to purge Northern Ireland society of all aspects of paramilitary activity?
Yes, indeed. I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are determined that all remnants of paramilitary activity, especially by dissident republicans and loyalists, must be put aside and that everybody must turn their back on that activity, so that Northern Ireland can move forward to a confident, peaceful and democratic future under a devolved Government.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Millennium Development Goals
We are making progress on the commitments to the millennium development goals, particularly in respect of the commitment to halve the world’s population living in poverty, on which we are making significant progress. In respect of HIV/AIDS, we believe that we will have near universal access by 2010. In respect of primary education, there is a big increase in the numbers going into it in Africa, but we need to do much more. The G8 summit in a couple of weeks will be immensely important. Both in Washington last week and in Germany a couple of weeks ago, I urged the American and German Governments to do more in respect of Africa and poverty, and I hope very much that those efforts will come to fruition at the G8 conference.
We are halfway through the 15 years set by the rich world to deliver the millennium promise of making poverty history in the poorest countries around the globe, yet despite the fanfare at Gleneagles two years ago, there are stalled trade talks, the obstacle of an increasingly polarised and dangerous world and a failure to deliver the promised aid. As campaigners say, the world cannot wait, so does the Prime Minister believe that G8 leaders will ever live up to the hopes of their people and, if so, what does he believe is now necessary to deliver—[Interruption.]
First, I think that it is important that the G8 leaders live up to the commitments given at Gleneagles, and the next couple of weeks will be absolutely vital in that regard. As a result of Gleneagles, we have wiped out billions of dollars-worth of debt for some of the poorest countries and radically increased the number of children going into primary education—often precisely because of that debt relief. This country should be proud of the fact that it has trebled its aid to Africa and doubled its overall aid budget. As a result of what we are able to do now on HIV/AIDS, a real difference is being made: hundreds of thousands of lives are being saved in Africa. We have to do more and we will do more—the next couple of weeks will be vital in that—but we should be particularly proud of what this country has achieved in relation to the millennium development goals.
Helping every child to reach their full potential and closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged young people and their peers is a priority for our education policy. In that respect, the roll-out of children’s centres across the country—there will be 3,500 by 2010—the additional support for families with children, particularly the poorest, and early years intervention, when children are at both pre-nursery and nursery stage, are making a real difference, but I agree that much more needs to be done.
The Prime Minister will be aware that for every pound spent on intensive health visiting for the under-twos, £6 is saved on the costs of criminality, disrupted classes, antisocial behaviour and a lifetime on welfare benefits, so will he welcome the initiative being taken not only by Departments but by partners in Nottingham, to bring forward a package of early intervention measures so that we not only break the inter-generational cycle of deprivation, but save the taxpayer billions of pounds?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to his work and the work that has been done by the city of Nottingham particularly in respect of early intervention for families who are disadvantaged or in difficulty. He is right to say that the more we invest in the early stage, the better the return for the whole country later in life. As a result of the new measures we introduced and announced a couple of weeks ago, we will have the ability, especially through the focused work of health visitors and others, to make sure that children who really need help early in life, and the families who need help, receive it. As a result, as my hon. Friend rightly says, when we are also encouraging families to get off benefit and into work, we will make a real difference to child poverty in this country.
Will the Prime Minister consider commissioning reports and investigations into early interventions and the potential link between suffering from dyslexia and criminality later in life? Is he aware that there is a unique pilot scheme in Chelmsford prison that has identified that more than 50 per cent. of prisoners suffer from dyslexia? Help is being provided in the prison to allow them to overcome or minimise their problems, but there is no help once they leave prison, which could lead to ongoing problems and a return to criminality.
The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is good and valid. The Government are now looking at the links with some learning disabilities—dyslexia is an obvious one. He is absolutely right to say that many of those people in the prison population have not had the educational opportunities—often because they are dyslexic, have not been diagnosed properly and have not got the extra help that they need. We are looking specifically at how the early intervention programmes help those people. He is absolutely right in what he says, and when we have the results of the investigation that we are carrying out at the moment we will of course share them with the House.
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will once again wish to join me in sending our profound sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Jeremy Brookes of 4th Battalion the Rifles, who was killed in Iraq this week by a terrorist bomb. He and others before him died working towards a safer, more secure world and we pay tribute to him.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
I am sure that the whole House wants to be associated with the Prime Minister’s remarks.
Does the Prime Minister agree with me, and indeed with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, that lobbying firms such as Bell Pottinger and DLA Piper that do not sign up to the industry’s voluntary ethical code of standards, which requires transparency in regard to all clients, should seriously consider doing so?
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Jeremy Brookes and I also pay tribute to Lance Corporal George Davey, who died after a tragic accident at a British base in Afghanistan.
With more than 40 maternity units under threat in the NHS, including five in Greater Manchester, would the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to stop the closure programme and think again?
I certainly would not advise stopping a change programme that is absolutely necessary in order to provide the best care for patients. Part of that will of course involve more specialist services, whereby those who need specialist help get it and those who do not need it get a more routine service. That is entirely sensible. It is being clinically driven. We are actually putting more money into maternity services in Manchester and elsewhere.
Let me just point out to the right hon. Gentleman two reports that came out within the last week. First, the Healthcare Commission reported that 90 per cent. of patients said that the health care that they received inside the NHS was “excellent” or “good”. Secondly, there is the international survey that ranks the UK’s NHS top, ahead of Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the United States of America. One of the reasons for that is the investment that we put in, which he opposed, and the other reason is the necessary changes, which he is now also opposing.
So let us be absolutely clear: the closure programme is continuing—that is what we have learned—even though deputy leadership candidates are appearing on picket lines and objecting and even though the former chairman of the British Medical Association says that morale in the NHS is at a 30-year low. Across the country, accident and emergency departments are under threat, including five in London. Will the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to stop that closure programme?
I will give exactly the same response that I gave to the last question, because we are being advised—with the greatest respect, by those who know better than the right hon. Gentleman how to deliver health care in this country—that these changes are necessary. Let us be absolutely clear. At the same time that these changes are happening, waiting lists and times are falling and cancer and cardiac treatments are improving, as is the standard of care in the NHS. It was extraordinary that he made a speech earlier this week in which he said that if the Conservatives were returned to power, he would abolish all NHS targets. Let us be quite clear: that would mean that there would be no minimum waiting times, no fall in the waiting lists, no ability for people to see cancer specialists within two weeks and no maximum waits in accident and emergency. That might get him a round of applause from certain parts of the medical profession, but it is not in the interest of patients.
The Prime Minister asks who he should listen to. I will tell him who he should listen to: the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, who says:
“I have never seen so much money wasted…It must be a personal tragedy for Tony Blair. In the recesses of his mind, he must be saying: ‘What the hell has gone wrong?’”
Hospitals are closing, 27,000 jobs were lost in the last year, thousands of junior doctors are being lost by the NHS and public confidence in Labour is at an all-time low, so would the Prime Minister advise his successor—he can ask him now; it is a bit like proximity talks today—to keep the Health Secretary in post?
These are decisions for my right hon. Friend. However, let me point out that, while the right hon. Gentleman says that we have lost thousands of jobs in the NHS, there are now 250,000 more people employed by the NHS. He says that hospitals are closing, but the biggest hospital building programme is now under way. When we came to power, more than half the NHS stock had been built before the NHS came into existence, but the figure is now less than 25 per cent. We have more doctors, lower waiting times and smaller waiting lists. All that the right hon. Gentleman is doing is simply supporting groups that are opposed to change, which I understand. However, the changes are delivering better outcomes for patients. When we get, as we will, at the end of next year to a maximum in-patient and out-patient wait of 18 weeks, including diagnostics—when we effectively abolish waiting in the national health service—it will be because of the decisions taken by this Government and in spite of the positions taken by him.
Everyone in the NHS and the country will have noticed that the Prime Minister has hanged his Health Secretary out to dry. Does he not realise the damage that it does to have a lame duck Health Secretary in post for another month?
Let us look at another Minister who is not up to the job. Last week, the Minister for Housing and Planning told us that the court case against home information packs was “completely groundless” and had no impact on policy. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told us that the court case was the very reason why they had to be all but abandoned. Will the Prime Minister advise the next Prime Minister to keep the Housing Minister in post?
I most certainly will not advise—[Interruption.] I will not advise abandoning the programme or the home information packs at all. It is extraordinary that the Conservative party is opposing energy performance certificates—[Interruption.] Yes, it is absolutely typical. The right hon. Gentleman says that he cares about the environment, but when there is a specific measure to help the environment, he opposes it. He opposed the climate change levy and he now opposes energy performance certificates. He cannot say where he stands on nuclear power or any of the issues in today’s White Paper. The fact of the matter, as ever, is that when it comes to serious politics, we take the decisions, he makes the gestures.
Everybody knows that energy performance certificates could be introduced anyway—that fig leaf is not even green. Last Wednesday in the House of Commons, the Housing Minister—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister should listen—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Well, he is not going to be here much longer.
The Prime Minister’s Housing Minister led us to believe that there were 1,100 registered home inspectors ready to go. Yesterday, it was admitted that there were fewer than half that number. Never mind what the next Prime Minister is going to do; what on earth is the Minister still doing in her job?
First, let me say that more than 3,000 people have passed their exams and can now get accreditation. Now that the court case has been dealt with, those people can come forward and be accredited. I thought that it was amazing that the right hon. Gentleman said that he supported the energy performance certificate. As he supports its introduction, is it not sensible to make the introduction at the point of sale of a house so that buyers can see what measures they can take to protect the environment? After all, as all the environmental groups point out, 25 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions come from households. Why is the right hon. Gentleman opposed to this measure if he supports the energy performance certificate?
I know the walls of the bunker are pretty thick, but has the Prime Minister not noticed that this policy has completely collapsed? He told us that he had so much to do in his dying weeks, yet home information packs are in chaos, he set up a Ministry of Justice without even telling his Lord Chancellor, and he is doing nothing to stop the cuts, the closures and the plummeting morale in the health service. The chairman of the British Medical Association resigned on Sunday and he will leave office on Friday. Is not that an example that the Prime Minister should follow?
I think that it is instructive to look at what both parties have been doing this week. Today, we have the energy White Paper—a major task to ensure that we have energy security for the future. Yesterday, we had the draft Local Transport Bill, which allows us to reregulate the buses and introduce local road pricing. On Monday, we had the planning proposals, which are supported by industry and, incidentally, opposed by the Conservative party. And we have digital X-ray imaging for the national health service. That is what we have been doing. What has the right hon. Gentleman been doing?—trying to persuade his party that grammar schools are not the answer to education. I happen to agree with him, but frankly that is an argument from the stone age. Therefore while the Labour party has been getting on with the serious business of politics, he cannot even take his party with him on that issue.
Will the Prime Minister invite the Chancellor of the Exchequer to accompany him to the European Union summit? Does he realise that not to do so would appear churlish and discourteous and that the British people require that the Prime Minister-elect be there, accompanying him and sharing in decisions that cannot be reversed?
I assure my hon. Friend that the position that is taken in the European summit will be the position of the Government. We have already set out that position: we do not want a constitutional treaty; we want a simplifying amending treaty, and I am sure that we will manage to get it.
I join the Prime Minister, once again, in his expressions of sympathy and condolence.
Can the Prime Minister explain why, in his manifestos of 1997, 2001 and 2005, he did not seek a mandate for renewed generation by nuclear power stations? Why is he so hellbent on nuclear power now? [Interruption.]
Sorry, I missed that one. [Interruption.] No, I do not think that that is reasonable.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will explain today, we are 80 to 90 per cent. self-sufficient in oil and gas at the moment, but that will decline—completely in relation to gas and largely in relation to oil. In addition, a lot of our fleet of power stations will become obsolete and our nuclear power stations will become obsolete. If we want to have secure energy supplies and reduce CO2 emissions, we have to put nuclear power on the agenda. If people are not prepared to do that, I would like them to explain how we will manage to reduce the dramatic decline in our self-sufficiency that I have described, and how we will be able, through wind power or renewables, to make up the huge deficit that nuclear power will leave. If we are about serious policy making, we have to confront and take decisions on those issues.
It came out very clearly in the Cabinet Office review of 2003. Why is the Prime Minister so committed to nuclear power, in a way that suggests that he disregards the issues of risk, cost and toxic waste? Where is the investment in wave, wind and tidal power and clean-coal technology, which would give us a secure, non-nuclear future?
First, we are boosting renewable energy significantly, but let us be absolutely clear: we will not be able to make up through wind farms all of the deficit from nuclear power—we just will not be able to do it. In addition, we have had nuclear power in this country for more than half a century without the problems to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman draws attention. I also urge him to look round the world. He will see that at the present time—I think that I am right in saying this—there are something like 70 to 80 new proposals for nuclear power stations, and that is for a perfectly sensible reason. Every country round the world is looking at two problems: securing energy supply with sufficient diversity, and reducing CO2 emissions. The reason why we should look at nuclear power as an option is that if we do not, we are—in my view, for reasons of ideology—simply putting it to one side when plainly many others around the world are coming to the opposite conclusion.
I am sure that the whole House will wish to extend its sympathies to my constituents, Bill and Julia Hawker, whose 22-year-old daughter Lindsay was murdered in Japan some two months ago. Although the police over there have been doing their best to apprehend the killer, they have not been successful, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised the issue yesterday in a visit to Japan. May I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to talk to the Prime Minister of Japan, to put his authority behind the effort to ensure that the killer is caught, and to ensure that the Japanese state police are involved? Finally, I ask him to get the Prime Minister of Japan to invite someone from the UK police on to the case as an observer, so that they can provide a good link back to Mr. and Mrs. Hawker, who need some essential support.
First, may I join with my hon. Friend in extending my sympathy and condolences to the Hawker family? As he knows, the Foreign Office has been closely in touch with the family throughout, and it is important that we continue to provide all possible assistance. I also understand that the Japanese authorities are treating it as a major case; there are something like 100 police officers or more working on it. However, I will reflect carefully on what my hon. Friend is saying, both in relation to the Japanese Prime Minister and in respect of any help that the British police can give, and I will come back to him on those points. In the mean time, I assure him that we will keep in the closest possible contact with the family.
I do support the Barnett formula, as a matter of fact. It is there for very specific reasons, and it has been there for almost 30 years. Let us be absolutely clear: as well as the extra investment that has gone into Scotland, with the Barnett formula applying there, there has been extra investment in education and health, not least in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He need only look around to see the massive amount of investment in, for example, new health care facilities in his constituency, schools in his constituency, and programmes such as Sure Start and the new deal. Of course, the Barnett formula will no doubt continue to be an issue of dispute, for the Conservative party at least, but I think that we have put a major amount of investment into our public services, and that investment is paying off.
May I ask the Prime Minister to intervene personally in the debate, or rather the litigation, between the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers—the miners’ union—and the Government relating to knee injuries suffered by ex-miners? Will he please request Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry to engage constructively, so that we can try to avoid long drawn-out litigation? If he were so to intervene, I would be the first to congratulate him on his term of office, and to wish him a long and happy retirement.
In respect of that particular court case, I would have to see what it would be proper for me to do by way of intervention. I think that I am right in saying that over £3 billion has now been put in as compensation for people, particularly miners, over the past few years. We are aware of the NACODS dispute, and we are aware of the sensitivity of it. I will see what it is possible for me properly to do, but he cannot take it as a firm commitment until I have looked at the degree to which I am able to help.
I obviously agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the regeneration money that has been put into our inner cities, particularly the housing programmes and pathfinder project, has produced tremendous benefits. Some 35,000 homes around the country, including 1,800 in east Lancashire, have benefited. Of course, that is absolutely typical of the way in which the Lib Dems and the Tories get together, as they do not have the proper facility to make sure that those things count, or that the money is properly used and invested in some of the poorest communities in the country, which is one very good reason, without reverting to the previous question, why Lib Dems and Tories do not make a very good coalition.
First, in respect of Queen Mary’s, I understand that no decisions on its future or, indeed, of any hospital in the area have been made, so the hon. Gentleman is somewhat premature in his condemnation. Secondly, in respect of his attack on PFI, there have been 26 PFI and hospital schemes in his strategic health authority, with a value of £1.7 billion. Twenty-eight LIFT schemes have opened and 13 are under construction in his strategic health authority. I do not know whether he speaks for his party on this issue, but if he is signalling Conservative opposition to PFI, he should know that we would never have achieved the renewal of our hospital stock without it. It is absolutely essential, as it ties companies down to delivering budgets on time and on cost. The reason for the budget deficit is the same in many parts of the country: hospitals and NHS trusts must live within their means, and it is right that a system of financial accountability should be introduced. If he is trying to say that PFI has not delivered for his constituency, I suggest that he take a look around it.
We do support the aims of the right to read campaign—[Hon. Members: “Reading!”] —and the Royal National Institute of the Blind is quite right in saying that it is a very important issue. I understand that a feasibility project is being conducted by the Department of Trade and Industry and the RNIB. We are obviously not in a position to publish the conclusions yet, but I know that when we can do so we will want to do everything we can to encourage the project. The question is obviously one of cost and working out how that can be properly done. However, we support the general aims, and the feasibility project will be concluded shortly.
At 10.42 on Sunday morning, my office answerphone picked up a message from the congregation of Gilgal Baptist church during their morning service. They asked me to bring a message to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that they should continue to force through the standards and changes in the millennium development goals. What answer can I take to them?
As we said in the White Paper that we published in July 2004, we judged at that time that we needed fewer destroyers and frigates because of the reduced conventional threat and because of the improved technology of the new warships that are now coming into service. We are therefore putting more resources into programmes such as the future aircraft carriers and the Bay class landing ships, which will be vastly more capable and versatile than the ships that they are replacing.
That is indeed what was said in 2004, but what was said in 1998 was that we needed 32 frigates and destroyers. The warships then were just as technologically advanced as the ones referred to several years later. When it comes to believing the Prime Minister or believing successive First Sea Lords who have said, in and out of office, that we need 30 frigates and destroyers, I know which I would believe. The Prime Minister has cut them from 35 to 25. Will he now guarantee that he is not going to cut them further by mothballing another six frigates and destroyers?
The hon. Gentleman asks why the situation is different as between July 2004 and 1998. It is true that in 1998 we said that there should be 32 such frigates and destroyers, and in 2004 we reduced that number to 25, but we then increased the number or the capability of the alternative vessels.
The hon. Gentleman should wait for the answer before he shakes his head; he may shake it afterwards. As a matter of fact, we are the party that has increased defence spending, whereas his party cut it by 30 per cent. The amount of money that we are putting into the new warship programme, which is huge and amounts to £14 billion over the next few years, is exactly the same as was predicated back in 1998, but we are spending it differently. That is change, and very sensible too.
Energy White Paper
With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the energy White Paper and the consultation on the future of nuclear power, which I am publishing today. Copies of these, together with several accompanying papers, are in the Vote Office.
As I said last year, we face two big challenges: first, the need, with other countries, to tackle climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions; and secondly, the need to ensure that we have secure and affordable energy supplies. Both are vital for our future prosperity; both are global issues calling for action internationally as well as action here at home.
The evidence supporting the need for urgent action on climate change continues to mount. Sir Nicholas Stern’s report last autumn underlined the importance of acting now, and together with other countries. If not tackled, climate change poses catastrophic humanitarian consequences and economic costs.
Meanwhile, world energy demand continues to grow. It is expected to be 50 per cent. higher by 2030 than it is today, and it is likely to be met largely by fossil fuels for some time to come. That means rising greenhouse gas emissions and greater competition for energy resources, which has massive implications for both climate change and security of supply.
Here in the UK, our reserves of oil and gas are declining. Although significant amounts remain in the North sea, production has hit its peak and is now falling. As we made clear, we will make the most of our reserves, but as our economy grows we will become increasingly dependent on imports in a world where supplies are concentrated often in less stable regions. We need to take action to manage those risks.
In the next few years, energy companies will also need to replace ageing power stations and other infrastructure, so we need to create the right conditions for that investment to get timely and increasingly low-carbon energy supplies. The White Paper sets out a long-term framework for action to tackle those challenges at home and abroad.
The White Paper sets out our international strategy, which acknowledges that we need to tackle climate change and energy security together. Influenced by the UK, the European Council has agreed to a new strategy, including commitments to competitive markets, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, more renewable energy and a central role for the European Union emissions trading scheme as a potential basis for a global carbon market. We also need to influence the wider international community, notably in getting a consensus on the post-2012 Kyoto framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also sets out the measures that we are taking here at home. We have already published a draft Climate Change Bill—which, for the first time, would impose a legally binding duty on Government to reduce the amount of carbon that is produced—as we work towards our target of achieving at least a 60 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. We are the first country in the world to do that.
Faced with such challenges, more is needed. The first priority must be to save energy. The White Paper sets out a range of measures to help us to become more energy efficient and cut energy use. Consumers need better information about how they can save energy. Next year and the year after, any householder who asks for them can get free, visual real-time displays that show the amount of electricity that they use. In parallel, we will work with the industry to ensure that consumers have visual displays, together with smart meters, in 10 years. In addition, better and clearer energy bills will help.
It is estimated that leaving electric appliances on stand-by uses about 7 per cent. of all electricity in UK homes. That is equivalent to the electricity generated from two 600 MW gas-fired power stations or from more than 1,500 2 MW wind turbines. We will work with industry and others to improve the efficiency of domestic appliances to phase out inefficient goods and limit the amount of stand-by energy wasted.
If we are to make a genuine difference to reducing energy demand, we need a stronger obligation on energy companies to provide their residential customers with energy-saving measures. The White Paper therefore proposes that from next year they double their current effort, and from 2012 we aim to transform the way in which they see their relationship with their customers, shifting the focus to the provision of energy services, increasing energy efficiency and saving carbon in the home, rather than simply selling them gas and electricity.
We will also require big organisations such as supermarkets, banks or hotel chains and large public sector organisations to limit their emissions and set tougher standards for the homes that we build and the products that we buy. We need more low-carbon generation of electricity and heat. We want to encourage the enthusiasm of individuals and communities to generate their energy locally, for example in homes or schools, through solar panels and wind turbines. We are therefore introducing a range of measures to support that approach. As part of that, we will remove the barriers and simplify the licensing regime so that more communities can the follow the example of Woking, including by developing combined heat and power schemes.
However, we still need large-scale energy investment. In the next 20 to 30 years, we need new generating capacity equivalent to approximately one third of our existing capacity. Our aim must be to ensure that companies have a wide range of options available so that we can retain a diverse energy mix, which is good both for our security of supply and will help us to move to an increasingly low-carbon economy.
Renewables are crucial. We are strengthening support for renewable electricity. The reform of the renewables obligation is essential, and means that by 2015 we expect that around 15 per cent. of our electricity supplies will come from renewables—that is triple the current amount in only eight years. In transport, the road transport fuel obligation will save a million tonnes of carbon a year. We want to double it only if we can be satisfied that it is sustainable to do so.
New technologies will also help. We want British-based business to be at the forefront of new green technology. That is why we set up the Energy Technologies Institute, which brings public and private investment together, now with a minimum budget of £600 million. We will launch a competition for the demonstration of carbon capture and storage, which has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power stations by as much as 90 per cent., which is important as we will rely on gas and coal power, including coal mined in the UK, for some time to come. Details are set out in the White Paper.
We want to save energy, and we want low-carbon sources of energy. That is why we will do everything that we can to encourage renewables such as wind, wave and tidal power. But that alone will not be enough if we are to minimise our costs and risks. Alongside the White Paper, we are publishing a consultation document on nuclear power, so that we can take a decision on whether companies should have that option when making their investment decisions. We have reached the preliminary view that it would be in the public interest to allow energy companies to invest in nuclear power. Before making our decision, however, we are consulting further. The White Paper makes clear the complexities of the challenges that we face in terms of climate change and energy security. There is no single answer to those challenges. As wide a choice of low-carbon options as possible is needed, so that we do not become over-reliant on any one form of electricity generation.
Nuclear is an important part of our current energy mix. We get about 18 per cent. of our electricity from nuclear power stations, which are a low-carbon form of generating electricity. That provides a regular and steady supply of electricity, whereas electricity generated from most renewables is, by its very nature, intermittent. Every year, a modern nuclear reactor saves about 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere, compared with an equivalent gas-fired station.
Most nuclear power stations are set to close over the next 10 to 20 years at a time when we know that demand for electricity is going up because of economic growth. Quite simply, in the public interest we need to make a decision this year on whether we continue to get some of our electricity from nuclear, because new stations take a long time to build. If nuclear is excluded, there is every chance that its place will be taken by gas or coal generation, which emits carbon. Yes, carbon capture and storage, if it can be developed, would help, but at this stage we cannot be certain—there is no commercial-scale operation of carbon capture and storage on power generation anywhere in the world.
Although we want more renewable energy as part of the mix, it, too, is controversial. There are more than 170 applications in the planning process at the moment. It will be for the private sector to initiate, fund, construct and operate new nuclear plants and cover the cost of decommissioning and its full share of long-term waste management costs. There are important issues to consider, including waste, and those will be examined in the consultation, which will run until October.
Our measures, including those in the White Paper, put us on track to make savings of carbon emissions of between 23 and 33 million tonnes by 2020. If we meet the upper end of that range, it would be the equivalent of removing all the emissions from every car, van and lorry on Britain’s roads today. By saving energy, encouraging new timely investment in gas import and storage infrastructure and maximising recovery of UK reserves of oil, gas and coal, our measures will also help security of supply.
We cannot become a low-carbon economy in a single step. Further measures will be needed if we are to achieve our long-term goals in the light of further international agreements in Europe and more widely. The White Paper sets out a framework for action to enable us to make real progress now towards tackling climate change and ensuring secure and affordable energy supplies. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. At its heart, however, there is confusion. The Government say that certain things must be done, but their policy, at best, says that they might be done. The current Prime Minister says that the replacement of nuclear power stations is back on the agenda with a vengeance. The future Prime Minister says that a new generation of nuclear power stations will be built across the country. The most that the Secretary of State says, however, is that nuclear plant could be part of the future energy mix, and that it is for the private sector to take decisions over new nuclear power stations.
Whatever the rhetoric, nothing in the White Paper will guarantee that a single nuclear power station will ever be built. Where has the vengeance for nuclear power gone? Are the Government saying that nuclear new build will definitely happen, or not? How many new nuclear power stations will definitely be built as a result of the White Paper? How can the Secretary of State deliver a UK-wide energy policy if Scotland rejects nuclear power? If the Scottish National party has rejected both nuclear in principle and wind in practice, is the SNP’s policy anything other than utter lunacy?
Business will invest in nuclear power only if it knows its costs. It needs certainty about carbon, decommissioning and waste. There is no greater clarity on those issues today, so what will happen if no one comes forward to invest? Over a year ago the Prime Minister said of new nuclear build that
“if we don’t take these long-term decisions now, we will be committing a serious dereliction of duty”.
Today in The Times he says merely that we must consider it, so what decisions have been taken to address that dereliction?
Last July we set out our objectives. We called for a cap and trade scheme for CO2 based on auctioned rights, for site and type licensing, and for reform of the renewables obligation and the climate change levy. In addition, we said that there must be long-term certainty for investors. As we keep on saying, if this could lead to broad agreement between us and the Government, that would be good for Britain.
In today’s announcement, there are detailed proposals for banding the renewables obligation, but these will not overcome its central flaws. On what basis, therefore, has the Secretary of State assessed and then chosen to reject the considered alternative put forward by Ofgem?
Hidden in the statement is bad news about carbon capture. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his failure already to agree a pilot project for it means that any prospect of it happening has been seriously delayed? Is it not the truth that far from being on the edge of happening, carbon capture is about to be deferred and endangered? How on earth will carbon capture ever happen if it is still clobbered by the climate change levy? When will the Government remove the perversity of keeping a dirty tax on a clean process?
On strategic infrastructure projects, we welcome site and type licensing and the streamlining of the planning process. However, we have grave concerns about entrusting that to an accountable quango.
Our policy statement last July called for the greater use of carbon trading. A broad and rational regime for carbon trading is crucial to incentivise low carbon technologies. We therefore welcome the Government’s announcement that they will broaden the scope of carbon trading to cover a greater number of businesses. We think permits should be auctioned. Will the Secretary of State tell us how and when they will be?
Climate change is the greatest threat that we face. That is why we supported the Government in signing up to tough EU targets on emissions and renewables in March, but at present we get just 2 per cent. of our total energy from renewables. Raising that to 20 per cent. was always going to be challenging, to put it mildly, but is it not true that today’s plans will, at best, get us only about halfway to that target? Is it not the case that despite the clear wish expressed in the White Paper to encourage local and decentralised energy, there is almost nothing that amounts to a robust policy that will make it happen? Again and again, the White Paper wills the ends, but does not provide the means.
In households, smart metering could greatly increase energy efficiency and help customers to export electricity back into the grid, but the Government are supporting the limited clip-on visual electricity displays. Does this intervention not pull the rug from under the real smart meter market? Why are the Government going for the most basic option, when real smart meters would help to stimulate the microgeneration industry?
Today’s announcement has already been twice delayed. It is Labour’s third White Paper, following dozens of consultations, and it is the product of their third energy review under their ninth Energy Minister. It offers nothing definite on nuclear or anything else. It heralds the potential collapse of carbon capture. It continues an irrational regime for carbon penalties and incentives. It provides little or no prospect of hitting renewables targets. It does not offer the security that we need. Ten months after the energy review, it is still content-free, not carbon-free.
Although the hon. Gentleman undoubtedly received my statement, I am sorry that, yet again, he did not have an opportunity to read it before he responded to me. Let me start with nuclear. As I understand his position now—I may have got it wrong, because it seems rather different from his position 12 months ago—he is berating the Government for not having said today, “Look, we’re definitely going ahead with nuclear.” That comes from the hon. Gentleman, who at the beginning of last year said:
“From about the age of 12, I have had an instinctive hostility to nuclear power.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 779.]
This is the man now urging us not to consult or do anything other than press on with it. His policy, as I understand it, is that nuclear should be deployed only as a last resort. In other words, only when it became clear that we cannot meet our obligations through renewable or other means would the hon. Gentleman say, “Okay, let’s consider nuclear.” That seems to me to be absolute nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the renewables obligation. I know that it is Tory policy to get rid of the renewables obligation, yet it has meant that we have doubled the amount of wind farm energy over the past two and a half years and that we are on track to reach the target of 15 per cent. by 2015—triple the current amount, as clearly set out in the White Paper. The Tory policy is to get rid of it. On top of that, Tory councils up and down the country are objecting to wind farms. [Interruption.] Let us take the London Array—one of the largest offshore wind farms in Europe to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I consented. Who is objecting to it? Tory—[Interruption.]
The point is that in respect of both nuclear and renewables, the position of the shadow Secretary of State is muddled, confused and full of contradictions.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the European emissions trading scheme. We wholeheartedly support it and believe that it should be tougher. It has an auctionary element to it. I am sorry, of course, that from the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, it is in Europe, but there we are. That is just one of the things we have to deal with.
In relation to carbon capture and storage, we have taken a step forward that no other Government have taken. We are in discussion with about half a dozen large institutions that are interested in seeing it developed. Yes, it does take time. Nowhere in the world is a commercially operating CCS system in place, but we are determined to ensure that Britain is in the forefront of this technology, which is why I have been able to announce further details in the White Paper.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports our proposals on planning—although that was not immediately obvious on Monday afternoon when the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who speaks for the Tories, rather gave the opposite impression. As to decentralised energy, which is important, measures are proposed to remove some of the barriers that stand in the way of decentralised energy. We want to encourage that—for individuals and for schools, for example.
The hon. Gentleman criticised us for not having a commitment to the installation of smart meters. I therefore invite him again to read my statement and the White Paper, which both make it abundantly clear that we want smart meters introduced for business and companies. Yes, it takes time, because it does not make economic sense to go into everybody’s house tomorrow morning, rip out existing meters and install others just like that. On top of that, as I said earlier, from 2008-09 any householder wanting a free visual display to see how much electricity is used will be able to get it. The hon. Gentleman, rather like me, has been in his post for about a year. We are now two years into this Parliament and it is quite clear to me that the Conservatives still do not have an energy policy.
I thank my right hon. Friend for putting forward such a thorough and courageous White Paper, which really provides what we need. I am particularly pleased that he has exposed the gesture politics that passes for energy policy on the Opposition Benches. Will he tell us how soon it will be before the methodology for the siting process for the new nuclear stations is brought forward?
First, we have to consult on the principle of ensuring that nuclear remains an option that can be considered by generators in the future. We want to consult on that. In parallel, we are also publishing documents relating to licensing and siting. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that nuclear is a controversial and difficult issue, but I am quite clear in my mind that it is important to have a mix of energy supply so that we do not become over-dependent on one particular source. It really is important that we do not become over-dependent on imported gas, which is bad for the environment and very worrying for the security of energy supplies in the future.
On our analysis, by 2050 we can reduce emissions from the power-generating sector by 94 per cent. entirely without nuclear power. Bringing in nuclear has the effect only of displacing renewables rather than gas, so nuclear brings no advantages on climate change and no advantages in security of supply in the long term. All it does is leave us farther away from a completely renewable system.
Does the Secretary of State agree that carbon capture and storage will provide a better interim technology than nuclear to keep emissions low and plug any gaps in the supply system while wind, wave and tide technologies are brought on-stream? Has he not read—on the basis of his statement, I do wonder—the words of Scottish and Southern Energy on carbon capture last week to the effect that all the technology is proven at the desired scale, so we are demonstrating the ability to integrate technologies? Did not the Government sign up to a binding EU commitment on CCS by 2020? Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that CCS is more compatible with a rapid increase in renewable forms of energy and with microgeneration, because it can accommodate variations in load—the intermittent energy that the Secretary of State mentioned—while nuclear does not do so efficiently?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have accepted a binding commitment for 20 per cent. of all energy, not just electricity, to come from renewable sources by 2020? In his White Paper, he targets 15 per cent. of electricity by 2015, so could he please somehow integrate those two statements? Does his document on the future of nuclear power continue to assert below-market price financing for nuclear power, as he did in earlier documents and appears to continue to do today? Given his strong statements in favour of nuclear in the media today, does he think that his consultation will be seen as genuine?
Will the Secretary of State also confirm that by 2050, the effect of nuclear would be to reduce the percentage of electricity generated using gas from something like 19 per cent. to something like 15 per cent., and that that negates completely any argument that nuclear would significantly increase security of supply?
Finally, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s adoption of our proposals for a cap and trade scheme on energy efficiency and for smart metering, but why has he missed the chance offered by the White Paper to take firm action on social tariffs for vulnerable consumers? There are so many areas where the Government have made or could make U-turns, so why have they chosen to make a U-turn on the one policy that they got right the first time round?
I agree with the hon. Lady in what she says about renewable energy. I want to see far more of it, particularly wind or wave power, as and when the technology allows it, but I am sure she would agree that, although there are some interesting developments on wave power, it is still very much in its infancy. On wind power, she will not be surprised to hear me say that her words would carry a great deal more credence if Liberal Democrat councillors up and down the country were not objecting to just about every wind farm that ever comes up for consideration. They also object to any power line that would carry the energy from the wind farms to where it is needed. It is a problem that all politicians must face: we can be in favour of something in principle and in favour of a good idea like renewables, but we then have to back the means to make it possible. As I said in my statement, more than 170 applications for wind farms are now blocked in the planning system—many of them by Liberal Democrat councillors, so the hon. Lady should have a word with them about that.
Let me deal with some of the hon. Lady’s further points. The 20 per cent. commitment on renewables and energy was entered into by the Heads of Government at the European Council. It is a European target. We discuss it in the White Paper and refer to the fact that we need to take account of it. We support what Europe is trying to do, and the allocation of the 20 per cent. target among the 27 member states will, I suspect, be a matter of some debate—not necessarily in this country, but certainly in some others—particularly in respect of what exactly constitutes a renewable and how it will be allocated. It is important for Europe to act in a number of ways. It is also committed to liberalising the energy market in Europe, which is very important.
On the cap and trade proposals for business, I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomes them. It is important for supermarkets, banks and large-scale public sector organisations to be brought into the scheme. They are not in it now, so it is important to help us meet our objectives.
In relation to the whole question of nuclear, yes I have changed my mind. I used to be sceptical about nuclear power, but two facts have changed my mind. First, it is now clear that the rate of damage being done to the climate by carbon emissions is such that we need to do something about it, and nuclear is a low-carbon source of energy. Secondly, I am increasingly concerned by that fact that, as we obtain less and less oil and gas from the North sea, having to import more gas from areas of the world that are sometimes not politically stable could put our security of supply at risk. The Liberal Democrats might be willing to do that, but I am not.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that renewable energy sources have a vital role to play. He will be aware, however, that there are apprehensions that the production of certain imported biofuels is environmentally damaging and can even have a negative effect on net emissions of greenhouse gases; in other words, it can increase them. What steps are being taken to address that issue?
My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly good point. Most of us would like to see more biofuels, and I referred in my statement to our commitment to go to 5 per cent. in relation to petrol and diesel. He is also right, however, to say that their production must be sustainable and that we must not damage the environment elsewhere by growing those products. We are having discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about how that will work, and how we can be satisfied that the production of biofuels does not result in the destruction of forests, for example. My right hon. Friend has made a very good point, and we are alive to the issue.
Although I am not sure that it was wise of the Secretary of State to pre-empt his statement to the House on the “Today” programme this morning, may I congratulate him on the calm way in which he stood up to the simple rudeness of John Humphrys during the interview? I did not disagree with anything that the right hon. Gentleman said in that interview, subject to my studying the detail of his proposals. Does he understand my concern, however, that the policy framework that he has set out in the White Paper—when I come to read it—will be insufficiently robust to guarantee his own commitment on renewables, never mind the European commitment, or to provide the incentives for private sector investors to invest in the new generation of nuclear power stations that I believe is necessary?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I look forward to hearing his next interview with Mr. Humphrys in the light of what he has just said. He must let me know when he is on.
I am convinced that the renewables obligation has made a real difference. The changes that we are announcing today, which will band the obligation to provide greater incentives towards new technologies such as wave power, will also help. We have had a lot of discussions with the industry about this, and I believe that this proposal will provide them with the certainty that they need to carry on increasing the amount of renewable energy.
The House is well aware of the history of our debates on nuclear power. Earlier this year, the High Court held that we needed to carry out a far more thorough consultation, and I have no problem with doing that. Indeed, when hon. Members have had a chance to read the consultation, they will see that it is very thorough and that it goes into all the matters that I hope the public will want to know about. We need to reach a view at the end of this year. I am encouraged by the fact that a lot of the large generators now acknowledge the economics of change; they know that there is going to be a carbon price. We would like that to be tougher than it is at present, but I think that they can see the general direction of travel, which is important. I hope that the proposals that I have set out today will provide us with a framework that will help us to meet our energy needs over the next 30 to 40 years, while at the same time putting us on a path towards reducing the amount of energy that we consume. To my mind, that is absolutely critical.
My right hon. Friend’s predecessor stood at the Dispatch Box about 18 months ago and said practically the same things as my right hon. Friend has said today. We seem to have had review after review over the past two or three years before arriving at this situation. May I urge him to get on with making some decisions about our future energy needs? Regardless of the decisions on nuclear power, one of our future energy sources will be coal. We will have to burn coal for some years to come. Will he give further encouragement to advanced clean coal technology, and particularly to the fluidised bed system, a waste-to-energy production method using obliteration on a fluidised bed?
I understand perfectly what my hon. Friend is saying. I think that I am right in saying that a good deal of work has been done in his local council area on biomass. A lot has been done in the past 18 months. Apart from anything else, we have almost doubled the amount of energy that we get from wind farms in just over that period, which is important. There have also been developments in the European Union emissions trading scheme. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that we will depend on coal; we do so very substantially at the moment. Two things are necessary to get cleaner coal—although that is a comparative term in relation to carbon emissions—and to move to carbon capture and storage. I should have dealt with this point earlier, because it was raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). It is true to say that the technology to capture, transport and store the carbon exists, but it has not actually been joined up on a commercial basis yet. That is why I am so reluctant to say, “Let’s abandon nuclear now.” These things might never become available. I have said on many occasions that we should not put all our eggs in one basket. It makes sense to have a sensible mix, and it would make no sense at all to put off these decisions in the hope that they will not come back to bite us one day.
The Secretary of State talked tantalisingly in his statement about local power generation and decentralised power, but—apart from just now in response to a question—he made no reference to biomass or biogas, both of which are renewables that we can produce from our own resources. One of the obstacles to their production is the fact that the renewables obligation is difficult to access for small-scale generators. Is there anything in the White Paper that will make it easier for those generators to access the renewables obligation, so that our biomass and biogas industries can really get going?
On the hon. Gentleman’s general point, the banding of the renewables obligation will help biomass production. We are also publishing further proposals today that I hope will help in that regard. I take his point about small-scale applications, and I hope that we can do something to encourage that industry. I urge him to look at the White Paper and at the separate paper that we have published on biomass. I hope that that will be of help to him, but I would be happy to discuss the matter further.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Will he share with the House his thinking on social tariffs for vulnerable consumers? I am sure that he is aware that during the recent debates in the House and in Committee on the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill, which will introduce the national consumer council, a great deal of concern was expressed about the fact that suppliers are simply not passing on reductions in wholesale energy prices timeously to some of the poorest consumers. It was also felt that Ofgem either does not have teeth or chooses not to act in the face of that disgraceful behaviour, which is clearly undermining the Government’s positive policies on fuel poverty and inflation.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. We have made a commitment to reduce fuel poverty, and the increase in wholesale gas prices, which was reflected in the price that consumers paid over the past 18 months, has set back progress quite substantially. The fact that wholesale prices are now coming down as a result of action that has been taken over that period is encouraging, but there are further things that we need to do. There is a discussion in the White Paper about social tariffs. As my right hon. Friend will know, different power companies have taken different approaches to this issue, but we want them all to take action because they have a real obligation to do so. I want to make it clear that if that does not happen, we might well have to consider legislation to ensure that further action is taken. We are also introducing other measures that will take about 200,000 households out of fuel poverty over the next few years. I urge my right hon. Friend to look at the White Paper, because we are determined to tackle this very real problem.
Given the time that it takes to plan and build a new nuclear power station, and the urgency of this issue, how can the Secretary of State justify 10 years of prevarication through serial reviews and consultations? Will he tell us what was so inadequate about the previous consultations that we now require yet another one? How long will it be before the first electricity from a new nuclear power station flows into the grid?
I have some sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says, but if he is right about that, leaving nuclear generation as a last resort— which is his party’s policy—must be even worse. As for why we are consulting again, I urge him to read the report of the February court judgment, which explains at some length why that was necessary. I readily accepted the need for further consultation, and we are now going into a degree of detail that did not feature in the earlier consultation.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: the process takes time. That is why I think a decision must be made one way or another this year, and why I want to consult. I accept that the issue is controversial and that hearts and minds have still to be won, but I am persuaded by the evidence that nuclear generation needs to be part of the mix. I believe that it needs to be an option. However, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, that view is not universal, especially in his own party, and it is not shared by his party’s Front Bench.
I have reservations about nuclear power. What does my right hon. Friend think about the construction of a Severn barrage, which would have major environmental hurdles to overcome but would make a huge contribution to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions?
That proposal, too, is mentioned in the White Paper, and my hon. Friend will know that the Sustainable Development Commission was asked to examine the implications.
The Government would like to encourage tidal power. There are environmental issues, and one that has not yet been properly addressed is the balance to be struck between the impact on, say, the River Severn and the environmental gain that would result from not putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere. Part of our problem is that the European directive does not attach enough weight to the alternative to encouraging more tidal power.
I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said. She has raised an issue of which Ministers are well aware, and I urge her to read the White Paper.
The statement will not end investors’ uncertainty. The delay over carbon capture and storage, yet more announcements of a competition that seems to have been announced many times before, and the very fact that the Government seem still to be attracted to nuclear generation cause uncertainty among those who wish to invest in non-nuclear carbon-free generation, because they do not know where the Government’s strategy is going. The Government should give non-nuclear carbon-free generation and carbon capture and storage a real chance to develop before diverting investment from that new industry.
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Not a single generator has come to me and said “I am not going to build a wind farm until I know your position on nuclear generation”. I think that most generators would say that it is sensible to have a mix, and to ensure that we have renewable energy and more of it. As the hon. Gentleman is close to some Liberal Democrats who are objecting to various Scottish developments, let me add that if they are serious about wind farms, perhaps they should think again about objecting to every application that comes along.
I believe that we should consider nuclear, gas and coal generation. As I said earlier, putting all our eggs in one basket does not make sense. I understand that the Liberal Democrats oppose nuclear generation—although I think the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) takes a rather different position, which is why he is no longer a spokesman on these matters—but I suggest to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) that if he took a sensible view not just on climate change but on security of supply, he would recognise that it makes sense for us not to become over-dependent on imports from difficult parts of the world.
I think that you would stop me if I attempted to answer for the nationalists, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I will say this. At present, more than a third of Scotland’s electricity comes from nuclear generation, and there are at least 10 to 20 years of life left in one of its two nuclear power stations. One way or another, a substantial amount of Scotland’s electricity will be generated by nuclear power, and as far as I know the First Minister will not be switching off his light for a third of the time to try to get himself out of that.
Planning and section 36 consents are a devolved matter and we do not propose to change that. But let me repeat that the Scottish nationalists, who tell us that they want more renewables, object to wind farm applications—perhaps more than anyone else—every time they come along. One Minister in the Scottish Executive Administration opposes installation of the power line that would carry the electricity from the wind farms down to where it is consumed. The nationalists cannot go on saying no to nuclear generation and no to renewables: that is the way to switch off the lights.
Can we assume from the answer that the Secretary of State gave the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) that if any new nuclear power stations are recommissioned in the United Kingdom, they will definitely be in England rather than Scotland as a result of the devolutionary process?
No. All nuclear power stations will be decommissioned at some stage. Scotland has two nuclear power stations, due to be decommissioned in 2011 and, I believe, 2023. Torness was the second last nuclear power station to be built in this country, Sizewell being the last. My point was that the nationalists’ position seemed rather contradictory, and I think that the Conservatives north of the border agree.
Does the White Paper give any illustrative figures for the true cost of nuclear generation, including the costs of future decommissioning and radioactive waste management? Is it not a complete fantasy that the private sector will build new power stations without assurances that the Government will step in if things go wrong?
I can see that my hon. Friend has yet to be persuaded of my argument. The answer is yes: the White Paper goes into the costs at some length, and makes it absolutely clear that the industry will have to take account of the costs of decommissioning and long-term storage.
I have said several times that it is for the generators to come forward and make proposals relating to whatever form of generation they consider appropriate. People ask what has changed. Two or three years ago nuclear generation did not seem attractive, but more and more generators now think that it must be an option because of the economics, the carbon price, climate change and the knowledge that Governments will have to deal with it, and security of supply. As I have said, if we do not do anything we will be in grave danger of becoming over-dependent on gas from areas that can pose great difficulties, because we are subject to the sometimes unpredictable whims of foreign Governments.
Earlier today the Prime Minister made it plain that the Government favoured a large nuclear generating capacity, and I agree with that. The Secretary of State’s statement, however, told us only that the Government would seek to encourage private-sector investment. That is not the same thing. Will the Secretary of State tell us what proportion of generating capacity he thinks should be nuclear-based, and what steps he will take to encourage the private sector to make that investment?
I am sure that the Prime Minister and I are in complete agreement on that, although I was not present at Prime Minister’s Question Time.
We have made it clear that if new nuclear plant is built, it will be built in the private sector. Proposals will be presented and planning permission will be sought in the usual way. The consultation document discusses all the issues relating to waste, the economics and so on. But, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), whereas in the past there was not much interest in nuclear generation, there is now a growing interest among generators who want to be sure of a proper mix and diverse energy supplies.
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of opening a methane extraction plant in my constituency, on the site of the former Hickleton colliery. It is run by a company called Octagon Energy, and it produces enough electricity in my constituency to power 5,000 homes for the next 20 years. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that plants such as that will be able to qualify for the same tax incentives and assistance as those producing other forms of renewable energy?
We want to encourage development of that kind. There are many examples of methane being captured to provide energy for towns or for local businesses.
I urge my hon. Friend to look at the results of the consultation, and at the banding. We want to encourage various forms of energy generation to ensure that there is diversity, and that we can recycle as much as possible. I hope that my hon. Friend will find that helpful.
Is the Secretary of State aware that there are now 500 offshore wind turbines either under construction on, or planned for, sites in the Wash or off the Norfolk coast? They are less intermittent than onshore turbines, and they have critical mass and carry huge public support, in stark contrast to the various applications for sporadic onshore sites, which are far less efficient, do huge environmental damage and are universally unpopular. What can we do to get these onshore turbines offshore?
The first thing that the hon. Gentleman could do is tell the Conservative members of Swale borough council to withdraw their objection to the cable that links the offshore wind farm on the Thames to the land where the electricity will be used. He could help me in that, as he probably has more influence with them than I do. However, he makes a serious point. Offshore wind farms have a great deal of potential because there might be fewer objections. Of course, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others might have concerns, but we were able to address them in respect of London Array and other offshore wind farms. We have to face up to the fact that offshore wind farms can be as controversial as onshore ones. However, I would like there to be more renewable energy. Our country is not as far advanced as it should be on that; we are seventh in the world, but we should be higher. As every little helps, if the hon. Gentleman could have a word with the good people of Swale, I would be most grateful.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that an application has recently been made to build a clean-coal power station in my constituency? It will be a £2 billion project that will burn in excess of 6 million tonnes of coal per year. Sadly, all that coal will be imported even though the site of that power station sits on top of the great northern coalfield where in excess of 500 million tonnes of coal await exploitation. Does my right hon. Friend not think that we should be burning that coal?
I would like our reserves in this country to be recovered and burned. However, the Government cannot tell generators that they must burn UK coal and that they cannot burn imported coal; the generators must reach decisions on that. There is a lot of coal in this country that is still available to be mined. That is a resource and we should consider exploiting it, especially as we are sometimes increasingly concerned about the difficulty in importing coal and gas. I would like British coal to be mined where that is environmentally acceptable and economically viable.
When the price of carbon and electricity falls to such a level that private nuclear generators can no longer cover their costs, can the private investors expect to be rescued as was the case in respect of British Energy four years ago, or will they become insolvent?
In a welcome move, the Secretary of State set up the coal forum to inform future policy on the contribution that UK coal could make to a balanced energy policy, but he does not appear to have taken up its suggestion on a statement of need in relation to the role of UK-produced coal in the future. If that is the case, why has he not done so? As he knows, the coal industry is important in my constituency. What comfort can it take that its needs have been recognised in the White Paper?
Let me add to what I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy). We want to encourage the extraction of UK coal where that is economic and environmentally acceptable. We looked at the question of a statement of need; as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) knows, we have been discussing that in the coal forum for some time. There are tensions in various parts of the country, especially in relation to open-cast mining between people who want to recover more coal and those who have well established objections to open cast. We have tried to strike a balance on that. As I have said, I hope that we can continue to extract UK coal because that adds to the general mix and balance. We looked at the statement of need and we thought that it would not help in this regard, but I hope that what is in the White Paper does help.
Speaking on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I can say that there is much in the energy White Paper that we can support, particularly on renewables and energy efficiency. Indeed, we believe that energy efficiency should be given the highest priority. However, there is a large white elephant in the room in the form of nuclear power. It will come as no surprise to the Secretary of State that the majority of people in Scotland oppose nuclear power, and the Scottish Government will not allow the building of any new nuclear power stations in our country. The Secretary of State has also rightly said that for the foreseeable future we will have to continue to burn a lot of fossil fuels. I note what he said about carbon capture, but by my reckoning this is the sixth time that that has been announced, so why cannot he just press ahead with the Peterhead project, which is up and ready to go? Could he also tell us—
On the Peterhead plant, I know that the leader of the Scottish National party has a particular interest because it is in his constituency, but the Government cannot simply plump for one project without giving other people who are equally interested, and who also have plans, a chance to put forward their proposals. The nationalists’ position on nuclear power is muddled. I noticed yesterday that their energy spokesman could not even say whether the existing nuclear ought to continue. I would have thought that that should be absolutely clear. In relation to the future, I have already said that the Scottish Executive have devolved powers, and we are not proposing to change that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point on renewable energy, but he cannot have it both ways. His party has been talking about local referendums for wind farms. It also objects to almost as many applications as are made, and it objects to power lines. It cannot have it both ways. It says no to nuclear, but it also says no to renewables. It must adapt from being in opposition; it is now the Administration in Edinburgh and it should show that it knows how to stand up and take decisions.
Britain is the windiest country in Europe. My right hon. Friend’s Department has identified many sites around our coasts for offshore wind farms, which can make a major contribution towards achieving the 20 per cent. target in respect of renewable energy, but too many such developments are bogged down in the long and tedious consent process and some are facing real obstacles. What is there in the White Paper that will help those developments to proceed, through streamlining the consent process and removing some of the obstacles?
The best place to refer my hon. Friend is the planning White Paper that was published on Monday. Attention has been focused on big infrastructure projects such as airports and nuclear power stations. It takes far too long to get consent for wind farms; far too many different sorts of consents need to be obtained. That is why I hope that all the Members of all parties who say that they want there to be more renewable energy—more wind farms, both onshore and offshore—will back the proposals in the planning White Paper that would make that possible.
In terms of today’s White Paper, I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to confirm the importance that he attaches to inputs from the devolved Administrations and regions of the kingdom. Does he have any particular plans to improve the dialogue and liaison between his Department and the devolved Governments and other areas as we move matters forward in the coming months?
First, let me congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new role. I want there to be close relationships between the devolved Administrations and ourselves. As was the case last week in advance of the announcement on post offices, this week in advance of the announcement on energy I or my ministerial colleagues spoke to Ministers of the devolved Administrations—or offered them the opportunity to speak in one case. It is important on matters such as energy, in which we all have an interest, that we all work together.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier today in Prime Minister’s Question Time the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) referred to St. Mary’s hospital. I think that he meant Queen Mary’s hospital. He said that it might be closed. However, there are no plans—
Order. Mr. Speaker has made it clear on several occasions that we must not use points of order for the continuation of debate. If the hon. Member feels that the record needs to be corrected, there are other ways in which he can attempt to do that.
Mr. Graham Allen presented a Bill to provide for the drawing up of a written constitution for the United Kingdom; for its consideration by the people and Parliament of the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 114].
Media (Transparency and Disclosure)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require media organisations to disclose certain information about any payments made by them to individuals for the contribution of those individuals to articles or broadcasts in which they are involved; and for connected purposes.
It is important that Britain retains a robust and free press. It is one of the safeguards of our constitutional freedoms and part of the mature framework of checks and balances that keeps us safe from tyranny. Many of the countries to which I travel in my work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy would give their right arm to have an independent and rigorous press like ours. Yet there are occasions when the great British media overstep the mark and throw around their unprecedented power to influence and shape events and their ability to make or break careers and lives, without exercising proper responsibility or accountability. Too often, media stories are fabricated, exaggerated or sensationalised; too often, there are hidden agendas; and too often, we do not know enough about the integrity or motivation of the primary source of a story. In particular, we do not know whether anybody was paid for that story.
It would be a big job—possibly beyond the scope of any party, Government or Act of Parliament—to put the media back in their box without damaging their essential freedom and the modest measure I bring forward today does not attempt to do any such thing. My Bill is designed to deal only with the fact that the reader or listener or viewer is rarely told whether a source of information for a story was paid, and if so, how much. Why is that relevant? Imagine the situation in a courtroom where a judge or jury is trying to assess the evidence in a complex set of facts. Imagine the sudden revelation in court that a crucial eye witness has been paid for his evidence by the defence. That evidence would be immediately discounted: nobody would believe a word that witness said, even if they had been telling the truth—because concern over a possible mercenary motivation would rightly undermine confidence in the reliability of the testimony.
Why is it different in the media? In a story about an alleged neighbour from hell, a bullying boss or an unfaithful wife, I want to know if the neighbour, the employee or the husband—the persons making the colourful allegations—have been paid for their stories. Why? Because it will help me to decide what weight to give to their evidence. It will help me to make a better informed decision about motivation and veracity and whether the subject of the allegations should rightly be the object of my distrust and scorn. Ah, people argue, but this is not a court of law, this is simply a story on the TV or in the press. It is just harmless entertainment. But it is not entertainment for the hapless target of that story—countless dozens of them everyday, both celebrities and ordinary people alike, the victims of cheque-book journalism. What about the law of defamation, surely that can be used to protect people? It is an expensive exercise and beyond the means of all but the very rich to sue a mighty media organisation for libel, with no legal aid being available. Even stories that are horribly distorted and lampoon people unfairly can contain a modicum of truth, sufficient to enable the media’s sharp-suited lawyers to bat away all but the most determined of litigants.
Sadly, the Press Complaints Commission is of little use. More often than not, it reveals itself to be a toothless tiger and a self-congratulatory organisation that persistently fails those who seek its assistance. That means that the print press in particular is effectively free of regulation, despite the enormous power it wields over the perceptions we hold of the events and individuals that shape our lives. That is not a new problem. Even the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte observed ruefully:
“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets”.
The pen is truly mightier than the sword when it is wielded by the media.
I am not saying that the media should not pay for stories. I am not saying that people should not accept payment for selling their stories to the press. I am simply saying that the viewer or the reader or the listener should be told whether money has changed hands to put that story together, and if so how much. In this age of maximum disclosure and transparency, is it reasonable that the reader should any longer be denied that crucial information? My belief in more media disclosure is only one reason why I do not support the Bill that passed through this House last Friday, and I very much hope that it falls in the other place.
I was interested to see in The Mail on Sunday on 29 April 2007 that at the end of an article entitled, “We loved each other like older people do”, a disclaimer appeared stating that
“Valerie Beech has received no payment for this interview.”
If The Mail on Sunday believes that information to be relevant when no money has been paid for a story, why is it not relevant when money has been paid? Why not force all media by law to make that clear every time? Compare that example to the recent Lord Brown case. Was it right that it had to be dragged screaming and kicking from Associated Newspapers, days after the allegations about his private life were first unveiled, that his former friend Jeff Chevalier was paid substantial sums of money by Associated Newspapers over a significant period of time for his story? Surely, the very first time that that story broke we, the public, were entitled to be told that tens of thousands of pounds in cash or kind were paid to extract that expression of grief from a jilted lover.
We live in an age when the media is immensely powerful. It can make or break careers and lives. The media have much more influence on Government policy, on how the country is run, than a humble Back Bencher like me. Indeed, the media have more influence than most junior Ministers. The rules for transparency and disclosure for elected representatives are stringent, and rightly so. We go on an overseas trip to view poverty in Malawi paid for by a charity and we are hounded if we do not disclose that fact. Sometimes, we hound each other over such trivial matters, and that is an issue on which we should all reflect.
Remember the outrage that was rightly expressed in the media when it emerged years ago that at least one of our colleagues was willing to accept cash to ask questions in this House? We rightly took the view that such mercenary motivation was not to be tolerated in the nation’s Parliament. However, we have this powerful beast prowling around our country trashing lives and pronouncing their judgments and the reader does not have the first idea about how their stories were obtained and how much blood money was paid for the destruction of a reputation. It is time to bring that to an end. It is time for more transparency.
Naturally, the media must be allowed to protect its sources, and that is a principle we should respect. My Bill does not demand the disclosure of the source’s identity, simply a sentence at the end of each broadcast or article stating whether or not the cheque book had been used, and if so how much. Then, the reader could make a better informed judgment about whether or not the story should be believed.
There is a particular problem, which I do not have time fully to consider today, and it relates to the police. Many sensational headlines emanate from some police officers who, within five minutes of a celebrity arrest, are apparently on the phone to their favourite reporter shopping the person concerned for cash—a person who is innocent until proved guilty, as we should remember. It happens every day. The editor of The Sun, Rebekah Wade, in her evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 11 March 2003, admitted that newspapers pay the police for stories. Often that is illegal, but whether it is or not, the reader should be told when it happens. Perhaps that is a problem that should be tackled through other means.
The eminent editor of The Guardian newspaper, C. P. Scott, wrote in 1921 that
“Comment is free, but facts are sacred”.
That is a seminal statement of the values of a free press. Somewhere along the journey from 1921 to today, that concept of a news media in which facts are sacred has mutated into “entertainment is king”, and on that modern altar, private lives and public reputations are sacrificed for 24 hours of amusement and titillation. The spirit of C. P. Scott has been lost and with it trust in that vital and serious pillar of our democracy. I believe that my Bill, far from harming the media, can help to restore lost confidence in a noble profession.
Let us celebrate the robust and vivid character of the fourth estate, but let the media be sensational and responsible in equal measure. Let them work within the framework of disclosure and transparency with which all of the rest of us have to comply. Let us be told—did they pay for that story, and if so, how much? I commend my Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gary Streeter, Angela Browning, Sir George Young, Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Colin Breed, Mr. David Curry, Mrs. Janet Dean, Mr. David Burrowes, Mr. Greg Pope and Ms Karen Buck.
Media (transparency and Disclosure)
Mr. Gary Streeter accordingly presented a Bill to require media organisations to disclose certain information about any payments made by them to individuals for the contribution of those individuals to articles or broadcasts in which they are involved; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 111].
[12th allotted day]
Scottish Parliamentary Elections
We now come to the main business. The first of the Opposition motions is about an independent inquiry into the conduct of the Scottish elections. I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House considers that the rejection of 146,097 votes in the constituency and regional elections to the Scottish Parliament, the equivalent of over 1,000,000 in a UK general election, to be totally unacceptable and an affront to democracy; notes that the number of rejected ballots exceeds the winning majority in several constituencies and that different formats of the regional ballot paper were used in different parts of Scotland; further notes that serious concerns have been raised about the issuing of postal ballots for the elections and the electronic equipment and processes used for counting votes; further notes that repeated advice not to hold the local government elections under the newly introduced single transferable vote system on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections was ignored by the Scotland Office and the then Scottish Executive; calls upon the Secretary of State for Scotland to accept responsibility for the failures in the conduct of the Scottish Parliament elections and to apologise to the people of Scotland; further notes that the Electoral Commission is to carry out an inquiry, but considers that such an inquiry should be independent of the Commission, which had a significant role in the conduct of the elections, if public confidence in the electoral process in Scotland is to be restored; and accordingly further calls upon the Government, working in conjunction with the Scottish Executive, to instigate such an inquiry.
It would be remiss of me not to use this first opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on his appointment as First Minister of Scotland and to wish him and his new Scottish Executive well as they discharge the responsibilities devolved to the Scottish Parliament. As I have said before, I believe that the Secretary of State for Scotland will rue the Government’s failure over eight years to put in place appropriate mechanisms for dialogue and interaction between London and Edinburgh. However, that debate is for another day. I understand that today the First Minister is expected to make a statement on his programme for government. I shall watch with interest to see whether he makes any reference to the conduct of the Scottish elections, given his previous support for an independent inquiry.
The House will recall the statement by the Secretary of State on 8 May about the conduct of the Scottish parliamentary elections. That statement proved to be wholly inadequate, not least because the Secretary of State failed to take responsibility for the conduct of the elections. He also failed to give the apology to the people of Scotland that I, and many on both sides of the House, demanded. I could not have agreed more with the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) when he described the conduct of the elections as “an embarrassment” and added:
“we owe the people of Scotland an apology.”—[Official Report, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 33.]
That apology is still not forthcoming. Instead, the Secretary of State has sought to use the Jack McConnell approach to the cost of the Scottish Parliament: everybody is to blame, so nobody is to blame.
The Secretary of State has already initiated an independent inquiry into this matter. Does not the Conservative party’s choice of the subject of the Scottish elections have more to do with wishing to avoid its war about education and grammar schools, the issue of the patient’s passport, which is set to be ditched, and the issue of the economy? The only thing that the hon. Gentleman’s side could reasonably say would be, “Well done Labour!”
If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government have set up an independent inquiry, he is mistaken. They have not; they have referred the matter to the Electoral Commission. We regard this debate as one about an issue of great importance to the people of Scotland.
During questions on his statement, the Secretary of State seemed to suggest that the then figure of 100,000, cited in the media as representing the number of rejected ballots in the Scottish elections, was too high. In fact, the figure turned out to be too low, by nearly 50,000—there were 146,097 rejected ballots, the equivalent of 1 million in a UK general election. If that is not an important issue and an affront to democracy, I do not know what is.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some papers were deemed to have been spoilt because the first, single-Member ballot space was blank? That need not have been a mistake. Voters for the Green party, the two Trotskyist parties or the two religious extremist parties might have decided not to vote in the first-past-the-post section because there was no candidate for them.
I agree that there is a differentiation to be made between spoilt and rejected ballot papers. One thing on which Members across the House will agree is that the guidance to returning officers on what is a rejected ballot paper must be much clearer.
Since the Secretary of State’s statement, further information about the use of different ballot paper formats in different regions of Scotland has come into the public domain. We Conservatives believe that the case for a fully independent inquiry is now even more compelling if public confidence is to be restored in the democratic process in Scotland.
I conceded that the Conservatives did not object to the single ballot paper. However, I said that we made it absolutely clear that the ballot paper should not be used on the same day as another ballot paper on which people were encouraged to make more than one mark. That is clear.
Today’s debate is a further opportunity for Members to highlight their concerns. It is also an opportunity for responsibility to be taken and an apology to be made. We do not seek to score political points, but there are clearly deep concerns on both sides of the House. We are not calling for the elections to be rerun; nor are we calling for the Secretary of State’s head, as others may have done—at least not yet. We simply want the Government to accept responsibility for the debacle on 3 May. They should apologise for it to the people of Scotland and hold a full and comprehensive inquiry, independent of the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders.
On that point, I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Electoral Commission has responsibilities that it is now carrying out, and it has gone a bit further in by involving Mr. Gould. However, the hon. Gentleman specifically asks the House to support the appointment of an independent inquiry. No doubt he has costed that, so will he say what would be the cost and who would bear it? Would it be Westminster or the Scottish Executive?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, any costs would be a subject for the discussions—now regular, I understand—between the Scottish Executive and the UK Government. To date, the debacle has cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds. The matter must be put right if we are to restore integrity and confidence in the electoral system in Scotland.
May I ask for clarification from the Conservative Front Bench? The issue is important. The Conservative party motion calls for the UK Government to initiate an independent inquiry. The hon. Gentleman said that he would welcome the initiation of something by the Scottish Executive, and the First Minister has pledged that. Why does the hon. Gentleman want the UK Government to initiate a parallel inquiry?
As the hon. Gentleman knows but may not accept, the UK Government are responsible for the conduct of the Scottish elections and the Scottish Parliament is responsible for the conduct of the local elections. My view, and that of my party, is that this Parliament and the Scottish Executive should work together, and not in conflict, on such issues.
As I was saying, the purpose of such an inquiry would be to determine why so many electors were disfranchised from having their votes counted, why there were significant delays in the issuing of postal votes and why the arrangements for the counting of votes were so unsatisfactory. Most importantly, we want to ensure that this ludicrous situation is never allowed to happen again, in Scotland or anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I am thinking of the operational aspects of the elections and the holding of two elections on the same day under completely different voting systems.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen the briefing prepared for today’s debate by the Electoral Commission? It outlines the terms of reference and method for the inquiry that Ron Gould has been asked to undertake. Will the hon. Gentleman indicate for the benefit of the House whether he would add anything to the terms of that inquiry?
That the Electoral Commission issued that document at least restores my faith in the impact of Parliament in requiring the production of that information. The hon. Gentleman does not understand the point of our motion, however. The point of this debate is that we want the inquiry to be independent of the Electoral Commission.
People keep referring to the Electoral Commission and many of us have observed its work since it was first established. I am sure that Sam Younger is a very nice man—I have had long chats with him. However, Sir Alistair Graham, appointed by the Government to look after standards in public life, criticised the
“lack of courage, competence and leadership”
in the Commission’s “regulatory and advisory approach” and said that it
“should have shown greater focus and courage in alerting the risk to the integrity of the electoral process from legislative changes”.
He went on to recommend a change in statute to streamline and refocus the Electoral Commission. That is the point: the Electoral Commission does not have a good record, which is why we want an independent inquiry.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. A further, specific point is that the Electoral Commission was a key stakeholder in the process and played an instrumental part in the design of the ballot paper.
Nobody can argue that a 700 per cent. increase in the number of rejected ballots since the last Scottish parliamentary election is acceptable. There can be little doubt that the changes in the conduct of the election had a detrimental impact on the ability of electors to have their vote counted. The report on the London mayoral election, reinforced by the Arbuthnott commission, showed that that was entirely predictable if two elections using different voting systems were held on the same day, especially when both ballot papers were in a new format. I and others raised that issue with the Secretary of State and his predecessor on numerous occasions, but the response was always to brush aside such concerns and carry on regardless.
There is no evidence that any one political party or candidate was disproportionately disadvantaged by the number of rejected ballots, but it cannot be satisfactory that the number of rejected ballots exceeded the winning candidate’s majority in more than 20 per cent. of constituency contests. In Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, for example, there were a massive 2,521 rejected ballots compared with a majority of 1,382. If “rejected” ballots had been a registered party in Glasgow Shettleston, it would have come third, with 2,035 votes—about 12.1 per cent. of the total votes cast.
Such figures strike at the heart of the United Kingdom’s reputation for the conduct of elections, which was an example of best practice to the rest of the world before the Labour Government began meddling with the electoral process. Compared with many countries throughout the world that want to hold democratic elections, Scotland and the UK have the expertise and technology needed to conduct elections in a successful and professional manner, but only when the advice of professionals is taken and adhered to.
It is self-evident that the Electoral Commission has a duty to report on elections and its statutory review of the Scottish elections is welcome—but as part of a wider public inquiry, not instead of it. The basic premise of natural justice dictates that the same organisation should not be responsible for all lines of investigation when, as I have said, it played a significant role in the elections; in particular, setting out recommendations for the design of the single ballot. The Electoral Commission employed Cragg Ross Dawson to undertake research that was used as a basis for deciding on a single ballot paper. It could certainly be argued that the commission put an over-positive gloss on that report in its letter of early August, seemingly omitting to disclose the finding that the single paper option was more likely to lead to errors, and thus contribute to a higher number of invalid votes. If the Secretary of State has actually read the report, perhaps he will use this opportunity to clear up the media speculation in that regard.
The Electoral Commission also ran the “Vote Scotland” campaign jointly with the then Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive to ensure that people knew how to vote correctly. Before the elections, the commission repeatedly appeared in the media to reassure people about the process, especially the issuing of postal votes. Only an inquiry that is not conducted at the behest of a stakeholder will satisfy the desire for an impartial investigation into how many people were disfranchised.
No one would disagree that a debacle took place on election day, but I think the professionals created the problem, so it would be very unwise to say it was all the Electoral Commission. The matter is going to the Electoral Commission, so we should see what happens before we take the next step. I do not accept that people were not disadvantaged by the situation; parties must have won when they should not have won. Perhaps the easiest thing would be to go back to the Conservative policy—first past the post across the board for both local government and Scottish Parliament elections.
In the new spirit in Scotland of parties working together, perhaps my party could discuss that issue with Labour. I was surprised that Mr. McConnell succumbed to Liberal Democrat demands to introduce the single transferable vote, when combined Conservative and Labour votes in the Scottish Parliament at the time could have defeated the proposal.
The hon. Gentleman has to explain to the House why he concludes that just because Ron Gould has been appointed by the Electoral Commission he cannot be independent of the commission. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is some connection between Mr. Gould and the Electoral Commission that puts a question over his impartiality or independence? If he cannot provide such evidence, the logic of his position is that if the Scotland Office appoints somebody to conduct an inquiry, that person will not be independent either.
The hon. Gentleman and his party made it clear in their amendment, which was not accepted, that they support the role of the Electoral Commission in that process: we do not. We believe that the inquiry should be independent of the commission because it is a principal stakeholder in the process. [Interruption.] I have made that as emphatically clear as I possibly can.
As I said before, although the Conservatives did not oppose the introduction of a single ballot, we never agreed to its use on the same day as another ballot paper on which the making of more than one mark was actively encouraged.
No, not at this point.
Voters were told that they had two votes, but it appears that a large number of them interpreted that information as the need to mark two crosses in one column instead of one in each column, thereby rendering their vote invalid in each election. Is that really surprising when the explanation of the STV system was that it gave people more than one vote?
Any inquiry must also address whether the use of candidate names in party descriptions for the regional vote may have misled voters into thinking they were voting for their preferred constituency candidate.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. However, he will be aware that all the names on the ballot paper were sanctioned in advance and all party names were ratified. He says that people may have been misled. Will he consider the language he is using?
If the hon. Gentleman listens, he will hear me say that some people argue that it was a political masterstroke for the Scottish National party to designate itself as “Alex Salmond for First Minister”, but the question is whether the appearance of that designation on the top left of ballot papers was a cause for confusion. Whoever conducts the inquiry, they must address that issue.
I must make some progress because we have a limited time for the debate.
There can be little doubt that the presentation of candidate names and party logos was compromised on many ballot papers. There was an attempt to accommodate the names of too many candidates on a defined size of ballot paper. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the elderly and people with sight problems, in particular, struggled with the instructions. Worse still, ballot papers issued at polling stations in Glasgow and Lothian did not resemble the sample papers previously shown to parties. It is a fundamental tenet of our democracy that a person voting in Shetland, for example, has the same format of ballot as a fellow citizen voting in Linlithgow. It is now clear that ballot papers across Scotland lacked uniformity. We regard that as entirely unacceptable—on a par with Florida’s hanging chads.
As I voted in Moffat, I naively assumed that people voting in Edinburgh or Glasgow would be presented with the same form of ballot paper, but I was wrong. In the regions of Glasgow and Lothian, ballot papers had different instructions from ballot papers in other areas of Scotland. The arrows telling people in which columns to put their crosses were removed. Not surprisingly, those two regions recorded the highest number of rejected ballots: a staggering 7.85 per cent. in Glasgow and 5.2 per cent. in the Lothians. Only an independent inquiry can get to the bottom of those kinds of decisions.
We need to know from the Secretary of State how decisions were made on the final design and layout of ballot papers. Did he see the final variations in the ballot papers for all constituencies and regions across Scotland? Did he sign off the decision to remove the instructional arrows from the ballot papers in the Glasgow and Lothian regions? More importantly, what level of consultation did he undertake with political parties, candidates, returning officers, DRS and the Electoral Commission before making the decision? Why did he give precedence to the electronic counting process rather than to candidates and electors? I have no doubt that if market research had been undertaken on the final ballots, they would have been rejected outright—had the research documentation been read by the Secretary of State.
No doubt the use of e-counting in the elections played a major role in the decisions to change ballot papers. Electronic counting was introduced as a means to an end. It was adopted initially, it was said, to shorten the amount of time taken to count local ballots, because counting votes manually under the new STV system would take days rather than hours. But it is quite clear that e-counting became a means in itself in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where, instead of altering the ballot papers by deleting instructional information, there should have been a manual count if the machines could not cope.
The willingness to change fundamental aspects of the election process to suit the needs of electronic counting and DRS—its operator—has compromised the integrity of the electoral process. We must ask ourselves the serious question of whether, after these events, e-counting can give everyone the confidence that the election count is being carried out appropriately. Many candidates complained in the media that they had no idea of the outcome of their election until a few minutes before it was announced—unlike what happens with the traditional hand count.
May I deal briefly with postal ballots? Every right hon. and hon. Member from Scotland will have heard from constituents who were unable to vote owing to the late arrival of postal ballots. That is simply administrative incompetence striking at the heart of the democratic process. We may never know how many electors were disfranchised by the postal vote debacle, which saw probably hundreds of people unable to return their ballots in time. It is ironic that postal votes arrived on polling day and that the only way to make them count was to take them to the polling station—if the elector was lucky enough to be at home to receive that vote. The Government have always known about, and encouraged, the trend of more and more people opting for a postal vote. The election date was hardly a surprise and there is no excuse for not putting arrangements in place to guarantee that, at least from an administrative perspective, postal voters received their postal ballots on time.
There can be no doubt that the Government had a genuine opportunity to work with the Scottish Executive to reduce the possibility of voter confusion. The key to that would have been to decouple the two elections, as many people advocated. That is the view not just of the Conservatives or the newly appointed Scottish Executive, but of the Government’s own Arbuthnott commission, which recommended it. The Electoral Commission made the scale of the difficulties clear during the evidence that it gave to the Local Government and Transport Committee of the Scottish Parliament. The Arbuthnott commission summed up the arguments perfectly, saying that holding the elections on separate days would
“reduce the complexity of voting, potentially reduce voter confusion and keep the number of invalid votes to a minimum. It would also reduce administrative complexity in the planning, management and counting of the elections, and enhance the transparency of the electoral process, especially allowing attention to be focussed on local issues.”
It is ridiculous of the Secretary of State and his predecessor to argue that only the Scottish Executive were responsible for the date of the local government elections, when obviously holding those elections on the same day would have an impact on the Scottish Parliament elections. He may have no influence with the Scottish Executive now, but he did then. When I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, I introduced the Local Government Elections Bill to do just what I have been talking about, but Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Ministers thwarted constant attempts to get the Bill through. Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament will continue to pursue the cause and will look to the new Scottish Executive for support this time around.
The high level of rejected ballot papers in the local council counts compared with the last elections—the level almost tripled—is also unacceptable. The system is certainly not the great triumph that the Electoral Reform Society or the Liberal Democrats would have us believe. The confusion, in terms of which councillor does what, has not even begun. Even if STV is accepted, what can be the purpose of holding such elections on the same day if, as was shown in the London mayoral elections and voting in Northern Ireland, having two separate systems in operation always exposes us to the risk of a disproportionately large number of people having their ballots rejected?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the proposal that the investigation should also look at the impact of alphabetical position on candidates’ success rates and at the impact of not grouping candidates from the same party together on the ballot paper? Those issues are an important aspect of the review, but they have not been included so far.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. All the flaws of the STV system, which the Liberal Democrats advocate again today, were highlighted at the time of the introduction of the process in the Scottish Parliament. Just as Rhodri Morgan in Wales appears to be willing to accept that sort of arrangement, Labour in the Scottish Parliament accepted the introduction of STV.
Whatever our view of the outcome, the conduct of the Scottish elections cannot be described as a success in any way, shape or form. That was and is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland and no amount of trying to divide up the blame can hide that. It is time to take responsibility and to apologise.
Our motion sets out a basis on which to restore confidence and faith in our electoral system not just in Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom. We want the serious issues that arose at these elections to be exhaustively investigated, independently of all stakeholders responsible for conducting them. We also want proper consideration to be given to decoupling the Scottish parliamentary and local council elections, to reduce both the possibility of voter confusion and the number of rejected ballots. I urge the House to support the motion.
I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
‘notes that a statutory review of the Scottish Parliament elections is already underway conducted by the Electoral Commission as required by Parliament; further notes that, at the prior request of the then Scottish Executive, this review will also cover the Scottish local government elections; welcomes the appointment of an international authority on the management and organisation of elections, Mr Ron Gould, the former Assistant Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, to lead the review; further notes that his terms of reference include examining the role of the Electoral Commission in the preparation of the elections, as well as matters relating to postal ballot delays, the high number of rejected ballots, combining Scottish local government and Scottish parliamentary elections, and the electronic counting process; and believes that this statutory review which is now in progress should complete its report in order to inform decisions in relation to any further steps which may be necessary or appropriate.’.
The substance of today’s debate is not whether lessons will be learned or answers will be given in the light of the difficulties encountered in the Scottish elections, but how that process will happen. In the days following 3 May, there were calls for a whole variety of inquiries and reviews. Some called for a judicial inquiry, while others called for a committee of inquiry that should be chaired by an international political figure, such as former President Mary Robinson. The Conservative motion calls for yet another form of inquiry: a joint exercise with the Scottish Executive. Let me thus begin by reiterating the Government’s stated position.
We have never suggested that we will not countenance further inquiries. Instead, we argue that it is right on balance to let the statutory review led by Ron Gould report before deciding on the next steps. The motion calls for an independent review of the conduct of the Scottish elections. It also calls on me, as Secretary of State for Scotland, to accept responsibility and to apologise to the people of Scotland. As I will set out, a review is in progress that is independent of the Government and headed by an international authority on elections. As Secretary of