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Commons Chamber

Volume 462: debated on Friday 29 June 2007

House of Commons

Friday 29 June 2007

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (motions to sit in private):—

Orders of the Day

Crown Employment (Nationality) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen’s Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is my fifth attempt to get this Bill through Parliament. I managed to get as far as Report stage a couple of years ago, but this time I hope to break that record and get to Third Reading—if not all the way through. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), the Chief Whip, was here to give the Queen’s consent and I congratulate him on his appointment. We only knew we had Queen’s consent at two minutes past 5 last night. I do not know whether that was due to difficulties in the Department or problems at the palace. I presented the Bill on 18 December and named today’s Second Reading date well over six months ago. I wrote to the Department on 22 March asking it to get Queen’s consent. It wrote on 24 May and Queen’s consent came though at two minutes past 5 last night. We might have had a constitutional problem if the consent had not been given, but all’s well that ends well and I am pleased to say that we can proceed with the Bill.

I have been persistent because the real problems that the Bill seeks to address remain. The purpose of the Bill is to remove the existing restrictions placed on the employment of non-UK nationals in civil capacities under the Crown. In place of the current system, the Bill would open up to applicants of any nationality all civil employment under the Crown, apart from such positions as would be rightly restricted to UK nationals—about 5 per cent. of the total—under rules made by the Minister responsible for the Department concerned. Before I talk about the detail, let me make it completely clear that the Bill does not deal with asylum, immigration, work permits or anything like that. It does not affect the requirement for non-UK nationals to get leave to remain and permission to work in the UK.

The hon. Gentleman said that if the Bill became law, the number of posts reserved for UK nationals would be 5 per cent., but, if my memory is correct, the last time he addressed the House on this issue he said that the figure would be 10 per cent. Will he clarify which figure is correct?

I am happy to do that. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The figure was previously thought to be 10 per cent., but as I describe the legislative history of the problem, he will see why the Government now consider the figure to be around 5 per cent.

The rules restricting the employment of foreign nationals by the Crown have their roots in legislation from more than 200 years ago. The Act of Settlement of 1700 provides that no person born out of the kingdoms of England, Scotland, or Ireland, or “the dominions thereunto belonging” should be capable of enjoying any office or place of trust, either civil or military. Over the years, that prohibition has been amended and does not apply to Commonwealth citizens, citizens of the Irish Republic, or to British protected persons employed in a civil capacity. Section 6 of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919 provides that no alien shall be appointed to any office or place in the civil service of the state. “Alien” is a rather archaic term, but is defined in section 51(4) of the British Nationality Act 1981 as a person who is neither a Commonwealth citizen, nor a British protected person, nor a citizen of the Republic of Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I introduced a Bill in 2004 with similar provisions to those in his, albeit in the context of a civil service Bill that would have defined a civil servant and set out the way in which the code would work on a proper statutory basis. Why has he introduced such a sparse Bill, rather than going for a more comprehensive measure, given that he says that what a civil servant is must be pretty crucial to the whole process?

I recall the hon. Gentleman’s Bill and that we were boxing and coxing on much the same day. A private Member’s Bill should be short and relatively uncontroversial if it is to have any prospect of making progress. I think that his civil service Bill would have given effect to the recommendations of the Public Administration Committee, but a private Member’s Bill of such magnitude had little prospect of success. However, if the hon. Gentleman is still of the same view, my Bill, which is shorter and deals with a distinctive aspect of the issue, might have a little more prospect of success.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, perhaps, given that this is the hon. Gentleman’s fifth go, he is not correct.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, I have never come high on the ballot. The Bill has appeared in various forms and has morphed from a ten-minute Bill to a Bill presented and back again. However, it has never had any priority. I am pleased to be in pole position on a Friday, for once, because that is a record for the Bill. Let us see how we get on.

During the second world war, defence regulations permitted the temporary employment of aliens if no suitable British subjects were available. Those provisions were replaced by the Aliens’ Employment Act 1955, which relaxed the prohibitions so that aliens could be employed if they were either appointed in a country outside the UK, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man in a capacity appearing to a Minister to be appropriate for aliens, or employed in accordance with a certificate issued by a Minister with the consent of the Minister for the civil service. For a certificate to be issued, either there must be no suitably qualified UK nationals available to do the work, or the alien must possess exceptional qualifications or experience to do the job. Certificates last for five years and must then be renewed. In 2006-07, only 66 people were employed under those certificates, 37 of whom were in the Ministry of Defence. That compares with 67 in 2005-06 and 57 in 2003-04. The number is thus pretty static and well below 100.

The European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 1991 amended the 1955 Act to allow nationals of member states of the European Community, and their spouses and certain children, to take up civil employment under the Crown, except for “public service” posts within the meaning of the EC treaty. The rights of nationals of member states of the EC were extended to nationals of member states of the European economic area by section 2(1) of the European Economic Area Act 1993.

Against the background of a possible legal challenge in the European Court of Justice, further changes were made in 1996 to put Irish and Commonwealth citizens on the same footing as all other non-UK EC nationals. An amendment to the civil service management code was made to restrict Commonwealth and Irish nationals from being employed in posts that were reserved for UK nationals.

The most recent change was the European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 2007. That was in large part to give effect to the St. Andrews agreement of October 2006. The Northern Ireland civil service was disproportionately affected by the prohibition on Irish nationals applying for reserved posts, which, in the Province, amounted to a quarter of the civil service. In annexe B of the agreement, there was a commitment to:

“bring forward separate legislation before the end of 2006 to reform entry requirements to ensure access for EU nationals to posts in the Civil Service.”

As we know, that took until 2007, when the order amended the Aliens’ Employment Act to define more clearly and restrictively the categories of posts that could be reserved and reduced them to such areas as security and intelligence, defence, diplomatic and Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts, and border control and immigration.

The order opened up about a further 70,000 posts to Commonwealth, Irish and EEA nationals—in addition to UK nationals, of course—through the reduction in the number of reserved posts to about 5 per cent., or some 27,000 jobs altogether. I think that that is the detailed answer to the question asked by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). However, the same basic rules apply. The order has no effect on Commonwealth, Irish and EEA nationals in relation to “public service” reserved posts, although that is probably quite right given that we have reduced the number of such posts to a minimum. However, more importantly, there are restrictions on aliens taking any post in the absence of a certificate under the 1955 Act. There are restrictions on an alien spouse of a UK national, who remains ineligible for appointment to the civil service, but not the alien spouse of an EEA national.

The effect of the existing rules is that foreign nationals may be employed abroad in any civil post under the Crown, including in the diplomatic service, if a Minister considers that appropriate. However, when we consider civil employment under the Crown in the UK, Commonwealth citizens, British protected persons and nationals of member states of the European economic area can be employed in posts that are not public service reserved ones, while nationals of all other countries may be employed in UK non-reserved posts only if one of the very rarely issued exemption certificates is in force.

Some 95 per cent. of civil service posts in the UK are thus available to Commonwealth, Irish or EEA nationals. The remaining 5 per cent. of posts that require the special allegiance of public service are entirely reserved for UK nationals, yet other nationals are pretty well entirely excluded from everything, even if there is no good operational reason for doing that. Only posts that are operationally necessary are now reserved under the definition based on the EC treaty.

Attempts to define public service posts must follow EC case law and are subject to judgments of the European Court of Justice. As a matter of UK law, EU nationals can now be admitted to civil service posts, but they cannot be admitted to ones that the European Court regards as

“employment in the public service”.

Although the European Court interprets employment in the public service narrowly, it has nevertheless taken the view that officials involved in the collection of taxes, for example, are employed in the public service. As a result, UK law stated that an EU national could not generally be employed in Revenue and Customs because such a post constituted

“employment in the public service”

within the meaning of article 39(4) of the EC treaty. The exception from the 1919 Act thus did not apply and a criminal offence was committed if such a person was so employed. However, such people are now generally permitted to be employed in Revenue and Customs because of the effect of the 2007 order.

Let me try to bring all this complicated law together and summarise it. The net effect is that it is a criminal offence, even if it is done by mistake, to employ an EEA national in a “public service” reserved post. It is also a criminal offence to employ any alien in any civil service post at all, apart from when one of the tiny number of certificated exceptions is in place. While, under freedom of movement provisions, it is legal to employ in a non-reserved post the alien spouse of an EEA national living in the UK, it remains a criminal offence, rather bizarrely, to employ the alien spouse of a UK national without an exemption certificate. While this all sounds very legalistic and technical, I believe the anomalies can best be illustrated by example.

As I have said, the Bill would not change the rules on asylum and immigration or work permits in any way. My constituency, like many others, has long-standing communities from such places as Iran and Iraq. They mostly comprise highly skilled professionals, many of whom were senior public servants in their home countries before fleeing persecution by those dictatorships as refugees many years ago. If they retain their nationality, they and their children, who might know no other country than the UK, are entirely barred from Government posts. They have a lot to offer, and experience of working in our civil service would stand them and their home countries in good stead if democracy returned to their home countries and they ultimately wanted to go back to contribute to them.

Hendon has large Israeli, Chinese and Japanese communities. More recently, communities from Afghanistan and Somalia have been established. UK citizens have married people of those nationalities. If such married Israeli, Chinese and Japanese people retained their own citizenship, they would be barred from jobs in the Department of Trade and Industry, or whatever it is now called—the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—in which their language skills and knowledge of their home countries would be invaluable for promoting UK exports, for example. However, if their spouses were French, not British, they would not be barred from such a post.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the late Eric Forth was not a fan of the Bill. One of his concerns about it was that Crown employment should be for those who are loyal to the Crown. It can be argued that UK or Commonwealth nationals owe that allegiance, and in the case of the EU we have pooled our sovereignty. However, for nationals outside those three categories, the situation is not quite the same. What can the hon. Gentleman say on the issue of ensuring that public servants in the new category that he wants to create have loyalty to the Crown?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it is important to recognise that many jobs in the civil service are pretty mundane. We are not talking about the very small number of important jobs in which that is a crucial concern. We are not talking about the 5 per cent. of jobs that should, for good reason, be reserved for UK nationals alone, and from which EU nationals, for example, would be excluded. One has to consider the civil service in the round. We should bear in mind the hundreds of thousands of people who work for it and the different forms that that work takes. The issue is probably less important in relation to those jobs. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will concede that the anomaly to which I have just referred is bizarre: a spouse of a French national could work in the civil service under the freedom of movement provisions, yet the spouse of a UK national could not.

Yes, absolutely. Another point is that the contract between the employee and the Government would require loyalty to the Crown as one of its conditions, would it not? I believe that the civil service management code would require that. Although the obligation would not come from the person’s nationality, it would be there as a matter of contract.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. For example, the police service, to which I am sure he is referring, has dealt with that issue. The police service is ahead of the game in that respect, as in so many others. I first raised the nationality anomaly in the context of the police regulations many years ago, and the matter was dealt with in the Police Reform Act 2002. Subject to proper immigration status, competence in English, and with certain reservations for sensitive posts, nationality is not a barrier to joining the police, but of course an oath of office applies. That is probably the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question. He makes an important point about contractual obligations. Obligations relating to loyalty would apply to any employer, although I fully accept that employment by the Crown has a slightly different status and is in a slightly different category.

The anomaly is perhaps best illustrated by the case of the notorious Abu Hamza, the fundamentalist. He has UK nationality, at least until the Home Office’s efforts to remove his nationality come to fruition, if indeed they ever do. If he was not in jail, he could in theory be employed in any post in the civil service, including the reserved posts. I doubt that he would want to apply, or that he would stand much chance of getting a job, but in theory, every job in the civil service is open to him. However, an American national who is the widow of a British 9/11 victim would be entirely excluded from Government employment. That sort of anomaly is simply not right, and it cannot be allowed to stand.

In our country, some 780,000 residents of working age are not UK, Commonwealth, or EEA citizens, and are thus excluded from civil service employment entirely. I have the honour to represent a constituency in London, which is a diverse world city, but 330,000 people in London, or 7 per cent. of its working-age population, are entirely excluded, not just from the higher echelons of the civil service, but from even applying for the most junior social security clerk’s job. It is no wonder that we have difficulty filling civil service jobs in the capital when so many of my fellow Londoners are entirely out of the equation. In cities such as London, it is important to have a wide diversity of people working in the jobs through which the civil service comes face to face with members of the public, because those members of the public will be from different ethnic backgrounds. Language skills and knowledge of those backgrounds will be very helpful in dealing with the needs and requests of customers, or whatever they are called in the latest civil service jargon.

My Bill tackles the bizarre and discriminatory anomalies by sweeping away the existing complex, interlocking legislation, and replacing it with a simple amendment to the Act of Settlement, so as not to prohibit the employment of any person in any civil capacity under the Crown. It also empowers Ministers to make rules in respect of nationality requirements for certain categories of posts—that is, posts for which it is clearly necessary, and in the national interest, for the job to be reserved to a UK national. As we discussed earlier, when I started this marathon, it was thought that that was about 10 per cent. of posts. Now it is estimated that only about 5 per cent., or 27,000, civil service posts need be reserved. It is expected that the Bill would open up the remaining 95 per cent. of posts to selection on merit, regardless of the nationality of the applicant, enabling us to build a civil service that reflects the diversity of the society that it serves.

Over the years, support for my proposals has grown. The civil service trade unions have supported it, and the Public Administration Committee said in its report that it was a “much-needed reform”. The Bill has the support of the Commission for Racial Equality and, I think, the official Opposition, who we will hear from soon. I hope that it also has the support of the Liberal Democrats. I believe that the time has come for progress. I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that it will receive its Second Reading today.

I had intended to say, “We have had an excellent debate,” but we have not got that far. We heard a good opening salvo from the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). As he knows, I proposed a similar measure in 2004 as part of my Civil Service Bill. I should point out that when the prohibition was put in place in 1700, the civil service was very different, with a much narrower focus, and the world was completely different in many ways. Obviously, the Commonwealth and the EU had not been thought of, even distantly; they were not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Given the narrow focus of the civil service in those days, the prohibitions were probably justifiable; world conditions were very different. Over the years, there have been amendments to the provisions but, again, the conditions in which those amendments were made were very different from conditions today.

The European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 1991 was the most recent major change. It allowed nationals of the European Community and their spouses and children to take up specific civil employment jobs. In 1996, an amendment was made to the civil service management code to place restrictions on Commonwealth and Irish nationals, so that they could not be employed in posts reserved for UK nationals. That put Commonwealth and Irish nationals in the same position as nationals of other member states of the European economic area. The outcome of the developments that I have just outlined is that foreign nationals can be employed abroad under the Crown in civil posts, if it is considered appropriate. In the UK, non-reserved posts are limited to Commonwealth citizens, British-protected persons and nationals of EEA member states.

Would the hon. Gentleman like to hazard a guess on what the legal position might be of a Commonwealth citizen employed in the civil service, if his home country were suspended from, or chose to leave, the Commonwealth? Would his service contract be annulled? Would his employer be committing a criminal offence?

That raises an important question, because obviously at the time when the contract was concluded, the person met all the contract’s requirements. The hon. Gentleman is right that if the underpinning statutory basis for the person’s employment had gone—in other words, if he was no longer a Commonwealth citizen—it is arguable that he might lose his job. That sort of case probably does not come up often, although it could do. For example, the issue of whether Zimbabwe should be suspended from the Commonwealth has been discussed. Of course, many citizens of Zimbabwe live in the United Kingdom, and could take up the opportunity that we are talking about. The issue is a real concern. When the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) responds to the debate, he may wish to help us with that, because, personally, I have not found the answer. He is nodding, so I believe that he will consider that in detail.

Is it not sadly the case today that British citizenship is no guarantee of loyalty to the Crown? The perpetrators of 7/7, for example, were all UK citizens.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. When the provisions were put in place, it was assumed as a matter of course that a British UK national would be loyal to the Crown, and that one could rely on that loyalty. That underpinned the measure, and it was not necessary to go beyond that. These days, the civil service management code expressly states that there is a contractual loyalty to the Crown. That requirement is imposed on civil servants, so extra protection is provided by an enforceable duty. It should not be a matter of legal nicety that British citizens should owe a duty to the Crown. After all, this is an important, free, democratic society, and it is a beacon to the world. In the 1980s, when countries to the east were looking to the west, the UK was very much seen as beacon of hope in terms of personal freedom and other freedoms such as economic freedom. One of the best things to have happened in our political lifetime is the fact that countries under the Soviet thrall are now free countries with their own democratic tradition, and are part of the EU. That is a good step forward.

When I introduced my Civil Service Bill, I wanted to provide an encompassing measure that explained what a civil servant was; that put the civil service code defining the role of the civil servant into law and made it a statutory requirement; and explained the roles of Ministers, civil servants and special advisers more clearly. We still need to do that. The hon. Member for Hendon may say that that is a much broader measure and that he wants to pursue one particular aspect but, in fact, it is all part of the same overall set of issues, which are important to our country. If we are looking at the role of a civil servant and who can be employed in the civil service, it is a bit odd to look at one issue, rather than at the whole picture. Notably, the Public Administration Committee thought that a larger measure was needed, which is why I introduced my Bill.

Something else that has changed since I introduced my Bill is the fact that the categories of reserved post that can be undertaken only by UK citizens have been altered, and the number of such posts reduced. That is why 95 per cent. of the posts are available more generally, rather than 90 per cent. My late right hon. Friend, Eric Forth, always opposed the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, because he thought that if someone wanted to come and live in this country and work in the civil service, they should follow a particular route. He said that foreign nationals desperate to work in the civil service could

“obtain a legitimate reason to be in this country through work permits or other routes; secondly, seek indefinite leave to remain, which follows naturally on the work permit; and thirdly, and most crucially, seek British nationality…they are very welcome indeed in this country as people with skills and a contribution to make.

Why are those people apparently unwilling to take those important steps”.—[Official Report, 20 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1228.]

The Bill would affect those who want to work under the Crown overseas, but in the UK, as the hon. Member for Hendon said, it is unreasonable to say that a citizen of Mozambique can work in the civil service but an American, for example, cannot do so. If an American is married to a British citizen they are not allowed to undertake such work, but someone from Mozambique can do so. Such distinctions applied to equally worthy individuals are very much a case of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Although my late right hon. Friend had a point, if we look at the reality of the Bill, we can see that it offers opportunities that are widely available in the EU and the Commonwealth. To add Americans, for example, to the list of eligible citizens is not a huge change.

For the sake of accuracy, does my hon. Friend not acknowledge that part of the reason our late friend, Eric Forth, opposed the Bill had nothing whatsoever to do with its contents? As it was introduced by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), he took the view that the assassin of many other Bills should have a taste of his own medicine.

Yes. It is true, too, as the hon. Member for Hendon said, that the first time that he introduced the measure, it was competing with my Bill. Our late right hon. Friend was not a fan of my Bill, either, but he thought that if one Bill was going to fall, it should not be mine but the hon. Gentleman’s. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: a certain animus was involved, although no doubt there was admiration as well.

The Opposition believe that the hon. Gentleman’s measure deserves a Second Reading. Some of my colleagues would certainly like to raise issues about its details, but the Front-Bench team support Second Reading.

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on his persistence on this important matter? The anomalies that he identified justify the changes that he proposes. The purpose of my contribution is merely to clarify a number of points, not unlike the purpose of the observations from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). The intervention that he accepted from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) illustrates the nature of matters that I should gently like to pursue with my hon. Friend.

When I read the explanatory notes to the Bill and listened to the informative history lesson of rights in the civil service from 1700 onwards, I was slightly amused as I wondered about the historical position of the Welsh. I presume that at that time they were counted as being part of England, and as my hon. Friend’s Bill rightly refers to

“persons born outside the United Kingdom”,

it neatly closes any doubts about the rights of the Welsh to become civil servants. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred to our good friend the late Eric Forth, who was a consummate parliamentarian. He worked both for and against measures on which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon worked on Fridays, and he was a great advocate of the Friday process, for which we respected him. I shall not seek to emulate his oratory on the details, but I should like to pursue one of the themes that he raised. Clause 2 may provide the answer to the intervention by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. Subsections (1) to (4) refer to rules that may be made. I presume that if the rules were made, they would deal with the kind of detail that concerned the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

For the sake of clarity, I should point out that I was suggesting that there is an anomaly in the current rules, which would be extinguished if the Bill made progress.

Indeed, provided that the rules are appropriately worded.

I am interested in how the rules would work in practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon may wish to intervene on me or explain when he winds up the debate. The Government may also wish to reflect on the matter. The word “may” is extremely important. This, I promise the House, is the very short version of what Eric might have spoken about for an hour without being caught by the Speaker for repetition, hesitation or deviation. The loophole that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and everyone else wants closed requires the rules to be established, so the House would expect the Government to make rules that create equality among people who could legitimately aspire to be civil servants, in the spirit of the opening speech from my hon. Friend and the response from the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire on behalf of the official Opposition.

The Bill enables the Government to take the necessary steps, but I assume that my hon. Friend and the House expect them to do so, in order to close the loopholes that have been identified and remove other anomalies that may have crept into the current rules as a result of the contradiction between national and European law. My hon. Friend has done the House a service, and we should welcome his efforts. I earnestly hope that the Bill will progress through its next stages, and that my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify the Government’s intention to remove the current anomalies within the framework of this excellent Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on yet again having the opportunity to present the measure and on speaking to it in such brief terms—quite out of the usual for his Friday morning contributions, but he covered the ground perfectly adequately and his intentions are clear to all of us.

I shall refer briefly to the Civil Service Bill mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). We are still in desperate need of a proper civil service Bill. It is extraordinary that the Government have not yet seen fit to table one. The hon. Gentleman’s was a valiant attempt as a private Member’s Bill, but the matter needs to be addressed by Government. I hope that the Minister, whom I warmly welcome to her new responsibilities and congratulate on her appointment, and her colleagues in the Cabinet Office will see such a Bill as the first priority for the newly convened Office. I hope that they will recognise the necessity for legislation in the next Session in order to regularise the position of the civil service.

I apologise. May I join in the welcome to the hon. Lady, who will make a tremendous addition to the Cabinet Office team?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have promised a civil service Act since about 1997, yet somehow it never seems to happen?

The hon. Gentleman is right. I must be careful not to divert my attention from the Bill, but his comments are relevant because such an Act would undoubtedly contain the measure before us, were it to have been drafted before the passage—as I hope it will be—of the Bill. We must wait for events.

The present situation is self-evidently an anomaly. I would have some sympathy with those who might oppose the Bill if the position was that only British citizens were allowed to hold posts in the civil service. That would be an understandable, though not an entirely reasonable or correct, position. I would even understand it if the regulations specified British or Commonwealth citizens, on the basis that at least there would be a shared stated loyalty to the Crown. All citizens of the Commonwealth share our monarch as their head of state.

However, it is beyond the limits of common sense that the rules extend the right to be employed in the civil service to citizens of the European economic area, who cannot be said to have any loyalty to our Crown, although I understand the point made by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire about pooled sovereignty, and to citizens of the Irish Republic, even before the accession of our country or theirs to the European Union. Let us recall that citizens of the Irish Republic have deliberately forsworn loyalty to the Crown and will make that abundantly clear, and properly so, in the context of their republic.

As we know from the latest regulations, the rules also allow people who fall into neither of those categories but are married to or in a familial relationship with a person who is a citizen of the European economic area to be considered for employment under the Crown. The test of loyalty to the Crown has not the slightest relevance to those people, so the present situation is nonsense. I share the view of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that the question of loyalty is a question of contract—of the terms of employment of the Crown. That is what ought to matter, plus suitability for the post—the merit of the case.

The hon. Member for Hendon did not make the point, but it is worth making in debate, that the Bill removes none of the conditions or obligations for entry to the country, work permits or leave to remain. All that regulation remains in place, so we are not talking about people emerging out of nowhere to be civil servants in this country. We are talking about people who have a legitimate reason to be here, have legitimised their presence in this country and are available to work in any capacity other than as an employee of the Crown.

The Bill has great merit. I do not know why we have to decide that Mozambique is the exemplar of a Commonwealth country. I suppose that it is because it is the most recent one and because it does not share a history with the United Kingdom, being a former Portuguese possession, but it is a welcome entrant to the Commonwealth nevertheless. But the idea that a Mozambiquan and not a Montanan can be a member of the civil service does not make a great deal of sense to anyone who considers the matter for even 30 seconds.

I hope that the Bill will make progress. If the hon. Member for Hendon can enlighten me on the vexed question that I asked in an intervention on the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire as to the employment status and circumstances of a person who had been a Commonwealth citizen but was no longer one because his country was no longer a part of the Commonwealth, I would be interested—

No, I have not, but the point may go a little wider than the hon. Gentleman says. If, for example, someone were to lose their status for any other reason, the same issue would arise. For example, what would be the legal implications if someone who had had UK nationality lost it for whatever reason or changed it, having at the time when they took the employment had the correct nationality? The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) may have researched that, but it is an important point.

I share the view that it is an important point. There is a distinction between something that is essentially ad hominem—that somebody has chosen to relinquish their previous citizenship or has had it removed for a reason that is specific to that person—and the fact that a person’s country has ceased to be a member of the club that we call the Commonwealth, either by virtue of a decision of the rest of the Commonwealth or a decision of the Government of that country. Of course, that has happened—we have had examples of countries either leaving the Commonwealth or having their membership suspended. Therefore, it is not an entirely frivolous example. Whether the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote was suspended when their country was suspended from the Commonwealth was a question that I put in the context of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, but answer came there none from the Department for Constitutional Affairs. We wait to see whether the Minister has a briefing so compendious that it encompasses that point, but given that this is her first day in her new job, I do not expect her necessarily to have the answer in her head.

What I have said is sufficient to show that I support the Bill, and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to do the same this morning. I hope that it makes progress so that we can clear up a small but significant anomaly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on introducing the Bill. This is his fifth attempt. As hon. Members know, he is something of an expert on private Members’ Bills and this Bill is testament to his skill and tenacity.

It is an honour for me to reply to the debate today—my first morning as the new Minister with responsibility for the civil service—and I thank hon. Members for their kind comments of welcome, which are much appreciated. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), for his excellent work in this regard, which I know was appreciated both inside and outside the House.

In the spirit of unanimity that we have found this morning, I am delighted to confirm that the Government support the Bill. It represents some sensible legislative tidying up to bring civil employment under the Crown, and in particular the civil service, in line with legislation applying to other employers, thereby enabling job opportunities to be offered to all who have the right to live and work in this country.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on her new post. I think I can say on behalf of the Opposition that she will be missed in transport debates.

When was there last a prosecution under the present law of someone being so employed who should not have been so employed?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his characteristically generous and warm comments, and I shall be happy to write to him with an answer on that point.

The rules governing eligibility for employment in the civil service on nationality grounds are complex and time consuming to administer, and as Britain changes as a country they look increasingly out of place. Any country, including our own, will want to put national security at the forefront when considering who is eligible for employment in sensitive posts. But the question before us, and the matter with which the Bill skilfully deals, is whether the rules as they stand on eligibility for employment in the civil service generally give us a system that does this essential task and enables the civil service to draw on the widest possible pool of talent, which I am keen to see.

Businesses in the United Kingdom economy benefit from the energy, creativity and talent of people of many nationalities who contribute enormously to our economic well-being and national prosperity. The Bill’s intention is to ensure that our civil service can do the same, while keeping in place essential protection for posts of a sensitive security or diplomatic nature.

About 5 per cent. of civil service posts are reserved for UK nationals only. The remaining 95 per cent. of posts are open not just to UK nationals, but to Commonwealth citizens, and to European economic area, Swiss and Turkish nationals and certain of their family members irrespective of their nationality. Other nationals may exceptionally be employed in the civil service only in the very limited circumstances set out in the Aliens' Employment Act 1955; that is, to certain overseas postings, or if granted an alien's certificate in respect of their employment. During 2006-07, only 66 aliens' certificates were in force throughout the civil service. Those arrangements are not consistent with our wish to build a civil service that reflects the society it serves and to attract the best of people.

In a nutshell, the Bill would give individuals the opportunity, irrespective of their nationality, to be considered for the vast majority of posts in the civil service, and in other posts of employment under the Crown. Appointment would continue to be subject to the existing rules of selection on merit, and the pre-appointment character and security checks undertaken in respect of all new appointees regardless of nationality would continue to apply.

The House should also be reassured that nothing in this Bill will change the requirements regarding eligibility to work in the United Kingdom generally. Requisite work permits will still have to be in place and there will be no question of individuals bypassing the immigration process.

The Bill will still allow certain posts to be reserved for UK nationals by giving to a Minister of the Crown, or to any person or body to whom that power has been delegated by a Minister of the Crown, the power to make rules imposing nationality requirements in respect of certain posts or categories of posts. It is intended that this power will be used only in respect of posts where considerations such as national security, intelligence, border control or diplomatic representation would apply, thereby requiring the posts to be reserved for UK nationals. This is assessed at no more than 5 per cent. of all posts within the civil service.

As this is a private Member’s Bill, section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which requires a statement of compatibility with convention rights where a Minister of the Crown is in charge of a Bill, does not apply. However, as a matter of good practice, it falls to me to express the Government's views on compatibility. The Bill will relax the current restrictions on eligibility for employment on nationality grounds in the civil service and in other posts of employment under the Crown. In doing so, it will not breach the provisions of the Human Rights Act.

Under clause 2, the reservation of certain posts to employees who are UK nationals will be authorised by rules made by a Minister of the Crown or by any person or body to whom that power has been delegated by a Minister of the Crown. The intention is that any such rules will preserve the rights of existing employees, and provision is made for that in clause 2(4). Indeed, any rules would have to comply with the convention under the provisions of the Human Rights Act. On those grounds, the Bill will be compatible with the convention.

On Queen’s consent, I also need to signal that the Bill has been subject to consultation with Her Majesty the Queen, as it has two identifiable impacts on the Crown. The first is the more technical of the two, but it will be of particular interest to this House. It is that the Bill will result in the existing royal prerogative in relation to the fixing of nationality rules under Orders in Council being replaced by a power for a Minister of the Crown to make rules and to delegate that power, as appropriate, to any person or body. In that way, the royal prerogative will be replaced by a power conferred by Parliament.

The second impact is that, as the Bill will extend to employment in any civil capacity under the Crown, it will also apply to the royal household. Employment in the royal household would therefore be open to people of all nationalities, unless rules similar to those planned for the civil service were put in place. Under the terms of the Bill, it would be possible for any such rules in respect of the royal household to be made by a person or body acting under a delegation from a Minister of the Crown. Accordingly, I can confirm that I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Crown Employment (Nationality) Bill, has kindly consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of debating the Bill.

I want briefly to refer to some of the points raised by hon. Members in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller)—a very fine constituency represented by a very fine Member of Parliament—raised the issue of the rules to deal with anomalous situations. His contribution was helpful and constructive, and I can tell him that the Bill would remove existing restrictions and anomalies on eligibility for employment in the civil service on nationality grounds. If the Bill is passed, the Government intend any rules made under clause 2 to relate only to the small percentage of posts that will be reserved for UK nationals.

I notice that the new Leader of the House is with us. I shadowed her for some time at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and on behalf of the Opposition may I say that she made a major contribution and that we welcome her to her new responsibilities? I also congratulate her on her victory in the deputy leadership contest for the Labour party—it was a cliffhanger.

I concur with all the hon. Gentleman’s comments. If I may speak on behalf of the Leader of the House, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous welcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon discussed the timetable for Queen’s consent. A request was sent to the palace, which allowed ample time for consent to be given. I assure my hon. Friend that the Department kept on top of the matter in order to ensure that we would obtain Queen’s consent in time for today, and I am delighted that that has happened.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) asked about allegiance to the Crown. It is a matter of employment under the Crown that a civil servant owes allegiance to the Crown, whatever their nationality.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked about the employment status of a Commonwealth citizen whose country leaves the Commonwealth. I am happy to write to him on that important point.

In conclusion, the changes that the Bill will introduce are deregulatory and will be welcomed by Departments and agencies. The nationality rules, as they affect employment or holding office in a civil capacity under the Crown, have been the subject of critical correspondence from MPs for many years, and I am glad that the Bill will receive cross-party support today and that the Government support it.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her new appointment and, more importantly, on her support for the Bill. I hope that this is the start of an excellent relationship and that we will take the Bill through Committee, should it find the favour of the House. As nobody has opposed it, I hope that it will.

The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) asked when the last prosecution for illegal employment took place. I suspect that there has not been one, because the civil service makes the necessary checks to ensure that it does not employ people illegally. I am sure that a permanent secretary would not like to be in the dock for employing somebody who should not have been so employed. I made that particular point to show how serious the restriction is and what would happen if someone were employed unlawfully.

My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the Bill’s compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998. As Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I was very pleased to hear her say that. The Committee has not scrutinised the Bill yet, but bearing in mind my views about that Act, I would be surprised if the Committee did not endorse the Bill as a measure that enhances human rights rather than simply being compliant.

I listened to what my hon. Friend had to say about Queen’s consent. I know that her Department was hassling the palace, because I was hassling her Department by e-mail and phone. If the difficulties were not in the Department, then presumably they were at the palace.

Presumably the Bill cannot apply to three members of the royal household, namely the Treasurer, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Vice-Chamberlain, who are also Members of this House.

I assume that that must be the case. Those offices under the Crown are probably distinct from employment in the civil service, which the Bill addresses. Those posts could become reserved positions, if they are important to national security. The answer to the right hon. Gentleman is that if those posts are not reserved, they ought to be.

If those posts were to fall under the Bill, there would be an employment relationship. That would be a disqualification under the Disqualification Act 1975, and the office holders would therefore cease to be Members of the House.

The hon. Gentleman is right—it is a bit like the Chiltern hundreds. I would hate to see my hon. Friend the pairing Whip disappear because he was employed rather than undertaking an office of profit under the Crown.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that any elected Member of this House would have to comply with the Representation of the People Act, so it would not be open to someone outside the EU or the Commonwealth to come here as a result of the Bill?

We are heading off into the realm of fantasy. If we had to address that situation, I am sure that we could deal with it in regulation. I will not try to work out exactly who is or is not entitled to sit in this House—I am not sure whether Commonwealth citizens are entitled.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked what would happen if a country were to leave the Commonwealth. I suppose that the same issue would arise if a country were to leave the European Union. In such circumstances, the contract of employment would be void because of its illegality under existing employment law. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth), who is a professor of law, may correct me if I am wrong—it is a little while since I did my employment law in this respect—but I think that that would probably the be the answer. It would become illegal for them to be employed and the contract would be void with no rights of enforcement for compensation.

I recollect that under the Aliens’ Employment Act 1955 the Minister for the Civil Service is able to give his consent and so would be able to intervene in an unusual case where there were compassionate circumstances.

The certificate could be granted only in very restricted circumstances—that is, if no UK national was available to fill the post or if it required some very high level of skill. The hon. Gentleman might be right in certain circumstances, but the generality is that the right to a certificate or the power to grant a certificate may not apply.

I do not want to prolong this erudite discussion, but the answer may be that the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919 provides that no alien shall be appointed to any office. The person would qualify at the point of appointment; it does not say that they should not be employed.

The hon. Gentleman may be right. That issue might be for the House of Lords were it ever to arise. I sincerely hope that it does not, because it would probably bankrupt the civil service unions. Of course, under my Bill it would not arise, as the hon. Gentleman conceded in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). The avoidance of such arguments is another good reason why the Bill should proceed.

On the question of why there would be the power to make rules under the Bill, the answer lies in my introductory remarks. Because the current law is so complex and has developed over such a long period with so many amendments and amendments to amendments, we have ended up with an enormous, complicated chain. The Bill would provide the flexibility to change things as and when circumstances may change, without having to go through the whole rigmarole of hoop jumping that has got us where we are today.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) indicated support for the Bill on behalf of the Opposition. I take his point about the Civil Service Bill, but, as I said, the problem with that was that it was a very big Bill that was not really appropriate for private Members’ legislation. If there were to be such a Bill, there is a strong argument for saying that the Government should introduce it. I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman’s Bill did not progress because it was not really suitable as a private Member’s Bill, as I am sure he would privately concede.

The number of reserved posts has fallen primarily as a consequence of the European Communities (Employment in the Civil Service) Order 2007. If the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire wants to look at the detail, articles 2(6), (7), (8) and (9) set out the extent of the restrictions, which are common-sense restrictions that clearly involve some thought as to what is necessary for operational reasons.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the late Eric Forth’s point about the question of nationality. The late Mr. Forth and I used to joust across the Floor of the House on most Fridays. We had mutual respect and, I think, a degree of friendship and acknowledgement of each other’s skills in trying to frustrate Bills or, in my case, trying to get them through. I do not think that he tried to get his own Bill through, but he certainly used certain techniques to get his hon. Friends’ Bills through. He used to come in on a Friday morning to see the lambs to the slaughter. It was a question of who had had the common sense to try to consult a little beforehand about the tactics that should be involved. We used to enjoy those exchanges and compliment each other. I would take it as a compliment if Eric Forth were trying to frustrate my Bill, and I think he would take it as a compliment that I managed to get as far as Report stage two years ago. Let us see how we get on with this particular measure today and in the next few weeks.

The substantive point concerned nationality. Of course, it now takes some time to get UK nationality, and rightly—it is not something that should be handed out with the rations or in a box of cornflakes. It is important to recognise that some people may want to keep their own nationality with the long-term object of returning to the home countries from which they fled as refugees. In those circumstances, it would be good for our country to be able to offer them posts in the civil service and to gain their experience of overseas methods of administration. Equally, it would be good for them, should they be able to return to their own countries—on the restoration of democracy, for example—and become re-engaged in their service, to take with them the experience of the British civil service, which I think is the best in the world, and thereby enhance those countries’ administration. Leaving aside refugees, we may want to be able to help countries in other parts of the world through mutual secondments and exchanges whereby people are employed in the respective civil services, again to gain that experience for the purposes of spreading good practice. At present, that would be very difficult.

I think that I have dealt with most of the points raised in the debate. I hope that the Bill will find favour with the House and go into Committee. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Historic Counties, Towns and Villages (Traffic Signs and Mapping) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

I am delighted to be given a second opportunity to talk about the Bill that I am putting before the House for its Second Reading. It originated as a ten-minute Bill. I am thrilled that it has come up again and delighted to be able to present my argument to the Minister.

Essentially, what needs to happen in our country is the restoration of identities at every level, whether it be a county, a town, a village or even a local community or small hamlet. Everybody is proud of where they come from—I certainly am. As the Minister knows, our new Prime Minister represents the town where he grew up and lived in his younger days, and so do I. It makes a Member of Parliament particularly proud to represent their home town. I hope that the House will understand when I say that Members who represent the local community where they went to school and were brought up understand it more than if they are parachuted into a constituency with which they have few links.

I have deep-rooted links to my constituency and to my county of Essex. I am proud to come from Essex, but Essex is a particularly obvious example of how local government administrative changes over the years have ripped counties apart and put pieces of them into other areas—in my case, into Greater London. My part of the country is not the only place so affected: there are many examples of the red pen of the bureaucrat in Whitehall decimating local identities and taking away real meaning from towns, villages, communities and, indeed, counties. If we fail to understand and acknowledge the history of this country, the traditions, the roots and everything that was founded so many centuries ago, and if we allow short-term ideas to get in the way of upholding those traditions, the country will be the poorer as a result. The main purpose of my Bill is to restore identity.

When I travel, as I do all the time, from Westminster to my home town of Romford, it never ceases to anger me that there is no sign to say that I am crossing the historic county boundary of Essex. The Minister may know that the boundary is the River Lee, which was the historic boundary of Essex for many centuries before the local government changes of the 1960s and 1970s, yet there is no indication of that.

I know from speaking to many people in my part of the country that they are proud of their local identity and angry about being branded part of “Greater London”. They understand that, for administrative purposes, there are occasionally reasons to create a regional administrative authority; there is also a purpose in creating an electoral boundary. However, those boundaries are only for administrative and electoral purposes and should never be allowed to take away the true identities of counties, towns, villages and communities the length and breadth of this country. That is exactly what has been happening since the changes were made.

I can disagree with hardly a word that the hon. Gentleman has said. I know his area quite well because I have relatives who live just outside his constituency. However, will he make clear what boundaries he proposes to use? If we went back to the 1974 boundaries and included the Wirral and Stockport in Cheshire, I would describe that as an historic boundary. However, that has the potential to create some confusion now that Greater Manchester is such a well established concept. According to which years is he setting his boundaries?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I am not going to go through the history and origins of every county and how they should be recreated according to historic boundaries—I probably could do that but it would take too long. The Association of British Counties lists the historic boundaries. For the hon. Gentleman’s benefit, let me say that, according to that organisation, the historic boundaries of Cheshire would include Chester, Stockport, Birkenhead, Wallasey, Runcorn, Macclesfield and Crewe.

Parts of the country have changed radically over the years and have a city identity. For example, it is hard to say to people in some parts of central London that they are in Middlesex, although the traditional boundaries of Middlesex include central London. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) is present because he has campaigned tirelessly to ensure that the historic boundary of the county of Middlesex is properly recognised. Indeed, the inspiration for my measure is the ten-minute Bill that he presented in 2002. Many hon. Members feel strongly about the matter.

The boundaries that we should recognise will always be open to debate, but we should be able to examine each one carefully and base the decision on geography, history, tradition and local feeling. We know what our constituents feel in their hearts about their area. Everybody in Romford says that they are from Essex. They understand that, for administrative purposes, we are part of the London borough of Havering, which is part of Greater London, but that does not replace our traditional, county identities, which I am promoting today.

My hon. Friend mentioned “hearts” and I therefore thought of Hertfordshire. When one enters Hertfordshire or Bedfordshire, a sign indicates that and the names of the towns are mentioned as one travels in and out of them. Is the problem that he identifies specifically a London problem? If not, what are the main problem areas?

The whole country is affected in different ways. Before the 1960s and 1970s, especially 1974, the historic county boundaries remained almost unaltered for nearly 1,000 years. They have been discarded only in the modern era. Those who know far better than us and our constituents—those who sit in Whitehall Departments—suddenly decided to rename things.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. However, we can resolve the matter simply. Existing local authorities, county councils or local government do not need to be changed as a result of the Bill. The measure is about marking on the map and through traffic signs traditional identities so that, as one enters a county, town or village, one knows exactly where one is, divorced from the administrative name of the borough or county council.

Given that I represent the beautiful East Riding of Yorkshire, I support everything that my hon. Friend says. For a time, that area was told, against its will, that it was no longer the East Riding but part of Humberside—a name that no one in the East Riding accepted or wanted.

Will the Bill enable signs to include an emblem, motif or coat of arms? Many people would like their local emblem—whether a white rose or a coat of arms that relates to an area—to be displayed on the sign.

Hertfordshire traditionally included places such as Barnet and Enfield Chase, which are on the other side of the M25. Does my hon. Friend suggest that those areas, which are now in London boroughs, should display signs that state, “Welcome to historic Hertfordshire”?

Let me first deal with the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) made. Part of the reason for the Bill is to restore historic identities, and a town or a county crest is essential to that. I find it annoying when I travel around London and see London borough logos. My town of Romford has a wonderful historic town crest, which includes the River Rom, a Roman eagle—Romford was originally a Roman town on the way to Colchester—and the crown of St. Edward. Those are historic Romford symbols, which date back centuries. Yet what happened? When the London borough of Havering was created, the traditional town crest was ditched and a big “H” for Havering was introduced. That lasted for many years, but I am pleased to say that attempts have been made to restore a more traditional image as part of the borough logo.

Two or three years ago, I decided that I would restore my local town crest. When I first became a Member of Parliament, I found the county books in the bookcases near the Terrace. I asked to borrow the one about Essex and found the old town crest of Romford. I took it to a company that produces badges and managed to get a local business to sponsor the production of the Romford badges. I had 20,000 produced and gave them to every school and local organisation, and every local resident who wanted one. Every single one has now been taken. People wear them—they are proud of being from Romford and of their traditional town crest. I must now have more produced. Nobody wears a London borough of Havering logo—that has no link to people’s emotions or sense of pride. They are proud of their town and their county identity, and I object to the loss of county identity.

I am sure that the effects have not been so bad in Hertfordshire, but I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that I recently visited Enfield, and I must have crossed the old boundary, because I saw a sign, which must have been 30 or 40 years old, saying “Welcome to Middlesex”. I know that parts of Barnet, Enfield and other areas of north London would be in Hertfordshire, and I am sure that they would feel a strong sense of identity as well. The provisions in the Bill would not take away the reality of their being part of Greater London. Greater London is an administrative region, not an historic county. It has been established for administrative purposes such as local government and the provision of police, fire and civil defence services. We can divorce all that from historic identities.

England has no Government or Parliament of its own, but it is a country. No one denies that England exists. We have the flag of England, and we see signs as we cross the boundary from Scotland to England that say “Welcome to England”, and quite rightly so. Identity exists at every level: country, county, town, village, hamlet and community. All those levels of identity exist, so why should not we allow local people to have that identity and to be proud of it?

I am somewhat surprised to hear my hon. Friend talk about England in those terms. I do not think that I have ever heard a Minister talk about England. They talk about Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the regions. Perhaps there should be a sign at Dover that says “Welcome to the regions”.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and valid point, although I suspect that it was slightly tongue in cheek. I do not believe that we should have a sign saying “Welcome to the regions”. I have said, and I shall keep saying, that a region exists purely for administrative purposes, whether to do with the Government, the European Union or whatever. No one has loyalty to a region or, these days, to a London borough. People have loyalty to their town or their county—the true place from which they originate.

Would it not add enormously to the hon. Gentleman’s argument if, in seeking to define these strange boroughs of Havering, Tameside or Kirklees, or my own borough of Sefton, it were done in terms of the historic counties, because they are the only names and locales that people can understand and identify from afar?

I am not sure of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, to be honest. Would he like to clarify it?

Part of the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that the names that he wishes to popularise and to make more widespread use of are the names that are traditionally known and identified, and the names that people commonly understand. If I am asked to identify where Havering is, I have to be told that it is in Essex, and I have to know where Essex is first.

I think I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He gives the example of Havering. Other examples include the neighbouring borough of Redbridge, or Waltham Forest—a made-up name for an area comprising a bit of Walthamstow and a bit of Epping forest. Instead of giving it a proper name, people have created what I consider to be an artificial identity. That can cause enormous confusion and the areas suffer as a result.

If we capitalise on a town or county’s identity for tourism, business or other reasons for promoting the area, people will understand what we are talking about. If, however, we have to explain that part of an historic country is not part of the administrative county, we create a muddle and a mess and a lot of confusion. Why should we allow this state of affairs to carry on? Why cannot we just acknowledge the importance of divorcing the administrative purpose of a county, town or borough from its historic identity, and ensure that the signage reflects that?

The signage in Romford, for example, should say “Welcome to Romford”, not “Welcome to Havering”. When people go to Romford market, they do not look for Havering, they look for Romford market. People travel to shop at Romford market all year round. It is an incredible place. It is very hard to campaign there, because I meet people from a huge area of London, Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent. They come to Romford market, but when they enter Romford, the sign says “Welcome to Havering”. My proposal is simply common sense, but for many years the idea has been completely ignored.

My hon. Friend is right to say that people are confused. My constituency, for example, is partly urban, centring on Milton Keynes, and partly rural, centring on the old part of Buckinghamshire to the north. The whole constituency is now part of the unitary authority of Milton Keynes, but those who live in the north still consider themselves to be part of Buckinghamshire. They still come under the lord lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, and they still have the Buckinghamshire fire authority, yet, technically, they are no longer part of Buckinghamshire. The situation is confused even further by the Royal Mail, which insists on putting “Bucks” on all the postal addresses. It is confusing for many people.

It is confusing. My hon. Friend is completely correct. It does not need to be confusing, however. There would probably not even be any cost involved, because we could gradually replace the signs as they needed to be replaced, and thereby restore the identity of local people.

The historic counties were never abolished; they are still in place. No measure has ever been passed in this House to abolish 1,000-year-old counties; they still exist. I am arguing that we should recognise those historic boundaries, clear up the confusion and reverse the loss of identity. This is a popular idea across the country. Anyone who understands what we are talking about realises the importance of the proposal. People rarely object to it. I honestly hope that the Government will take on board what I believe is a sensible proposal to ensure that we restore local identity and get rid of the confusion that has existed since the 1960s.

The hon. Gentleman referred to parts of Enfield and Barnet being in Hertfordshire, but I will argue later that they are in Middlesex.

The hon. Gentleman knows Barnet far better than I do, and I will not presume to dictate identities to other hon. Members who are proud of their counties and towns. I am an expert on my part of the world; I know exactly which river, which street and which area fits into which county or town. I know my area and the hon. Gentleman knows his. We can all work together to ensure that when the provisions of the Bill are implemented, as I hope they will be, the identities are correct. Over many years, people have taken a lazy approach to creating administrative areas. They have not taken local identities into account, but simply pushed areas together without any consideration for what local people feel or for what history shows them. That is what we now need to put right.

I have talked a lot about counties, and I could say a lot more, but our time is limited today. Looking around the Chamber today, I see many hon. Friends from Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Somerset and Buckinghamshire, and I see you, Madam Deputy Speaker. According to the Association of British Counties, Halesowen is part of the historic county of Worcestershire. I am sure that many people in our constituencies would celebrate the day on which their local county identity was restored. The counties would remain under the existing local government administration while being able to celebrate their historic identity.

That point also extends to towns—I have referred to Romford many times, and I shall not do so continually, but I happen to understand the nature of my town. It is also important that the communities and villages in each of our constituencies are given recognition. Ward and electoral boundaries sometimes remove identities. There are many examples of that, but I shall give the example of the ward in which I live: Pettits, which was created a few years ago in the London borough of Havering. The ward was given its name because a road called Pettits lane runs through it—I happen to live off Pettits lane. Pettits ward, however, is not a community; it has no identity. It has a chunk of Collier Row, which is in the north of my constituency, two thirds of an area called Marshalls Park, which is where I live and went to school, one little chunk of a large area called Gidea Park, and the whole of a community called Rise Park. It is a hotch-potch. Locally, everything is being referred to as belonging to Pettits ward: the neighbourhood police team is referred to as Pettits ward neighbourhood—neighbourhood!—police team, but nobody understands what that is about. People refer only to their local communities—if they live in Rise Park, they say that they live in Rise Park; and if they live in Collier Row, they say that they live in Collier Row.

Boundaries, whether local government boundaries set for administrative purposes or ward boundaries set for electoral purposes, are then used by other authorities, such as the police, to impose that identity at another level. In the neighbouring borough of Barking and Dagenham, there is a sign saying, “Welcome to the Whalebone ward”. There is no such place as Whalebone ward in Barking and Dagenham; it is just a road. There is Chadwell Heath and Marks Gate.

I am sorry to talk about such local areas, but it is obvious that all that is going wrong. The Government need to return to common sense and an even keel. Local identities, town identities and county identities should be properly recognised. We can then all celebrate those identities. I know that that will be popular with the people whom we represent. The solution is to divorce historic identities from those that are created purely for administrative and electoral purposes.

As a native of a severed county who would very much like its northern part to be brought back into a clear Somerset identity, I strongly agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Does he agree, however, that his Bill does not require the Post Office to recognise the historic identities? In terms of the acceptance of new local boundaries, the greatest mistake of the Heseltine reforms was that people were told that they did not live where they always knew that they lived, and had lived all their lives.

It is vital to make that clear. My Bill does not contain such a requirement, but I would certainly support that. Fortunately, in my area the identity of Romford, Essex, is still reflected in the postal address. Other parts of Essex, however, have lost that identity and have London postal districts. The muddle and confusion need to be dealt with.

This is not a difficult matter to resolve, but to put it right requires will on the part of the Government, and a little time to reconsider the proposals, which I support, from the Association of British Counties and to work with local councillors, Members of Parliament and local groups who understand the subject. The process has gone on for several decades. For a thousand years before that, there was no problem. I propose that we address the matter as soon as we can, so that future generations do not lose their identity. We can resolve the problems, because the development is relatively new. In 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, however, it may be too late, because the knowledge will have gone. Now is the time to restore the identities of which we and our constituents are proud.

My Bill has the support of Members on both sides of the Chamber. It is on an issue that should unite us all. It will strengthen the heritage and culture of the country, restore our history and give identity back to communities, villages, towns and counties. It will not affect local government, but it will ensure that the history of the country is not forgotten or left behind, and that once again we can be proud of our identity. To my mind, that is something worth supporting. I commend the Bill to the House.

I rarely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but on this occasion he is making a valid point. This matter has been raised a great deal in my constituency, as I shall describe to the House. I struggle with his notion, however, that what he is trying to do is simple. It is not. It is a complicated matter. It is a worthy cause, but I advise caution about arguing that it is simple. The Bill would have regulatory impacts, which would impose burdens. Given that Members on both sides of the House are signed up to the agenda to try to remove burdens on both public and private sector providers, we need to think carefully about that. I say that not to try to kill off his Bill, but merely to flag up an observation.

The hon. Gentleman’s description of how well his exercise to promote the crest of Romford was received was intriguing. I must go and look at that book, because the coats of arms of communities have an interesting history. The main town of Ellesmere Port in my constituency is a much newer town than the other half, Neston, which has a heritage going back hundreds of years. Ellesmere Port was the port of Ellesmere in Shropshire, and is a relatively recent title—it has only a 200-year history. If it had kept its original name, it would have confused the postman even more, as it would have been called Whitby—currently a ward in my constituency and the address of my constituency office. In some cases, as in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, history can go back hundreds of years, whereas in others, post-industrial revolution history has created an identity.

My own little campaign to persuade the Post Office not to provide all my constituents with a Merseyside postcode—the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) also referred to this issue—but to revert to a Cheshire postcode, was extraordinarily popular. A very good friend of mine, now Alderman Stewart Hayward, led that charge. We eventually persuaded the Post Office that we were in Cheshire, not Merseyside. Even on today’s boundaries, that is a matter of fact, and it was supported by a huge number of people. In discussions with the Post Office, we ensured that the change happened in a way that did not impose cost burdens on businesses—for example, M64 became CH64. We made the change neatly, and there was a transitional period, which the Post Office carried on for a considerable time, when we used up headed notepaper and so on. No one had to go off and spend heaps of money. Such things can be done practically, example by example. In a global sense, however, it might be a tad more complicated than the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) suggests.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that my constituency, which is also technically in Merseyside, has a Preston post code. That arrangement has been made on more than one occasion.

The hon. Gentleman should fight for a Southport post code. I am sure that there could be such a thing if the Post Office set its mind to it. He is right, however.

The biggest argument in favour of the Bill relates to tourism. The county of Cheshire is an enormously popular tourist destination for all sorts of good reasons ranging from the Jodrell Bank telescope to the National Waterways museum in Ellesmere Port and the historic town of Chester and its zoo. Amazingly, my constituency attracts 7 million people a year just for shopping purposes. They come to one shopping location. My hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt like to know that a large number of our parliamentary colleagues shop there. When she visits, I shall show her.

One she cannot refuse. To go back to the subject of the previous Bill, I also want to show the Minister the destinations where I want civil servants to be relocated.

Tourism is hugely important. I am in discussions at the moment in which I find myself in relatively close harmony with my good friend the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). We are arguing roughly the same thing, which is that the county council’s proposals in response to the debate on local government reviews are wrong. I am in favour of splitting the current county council, for administrative purposes, into two unitary authorities. In reading out the list of historic towns that comprise old Cheshire as it was prior to 1974, the hon. Member for Romford rightly referred to Birkenhead, which is in Merseyside, and Stockport, with is in Greater Manchester. A more recent example is Halton, which historically is half in Lancashire and half in Cheshire. It spans the river and is an unusual unitary authority, connected by the Runcorn bridge and, thanks to the Government, soon to be connected by a second major crossing. Warrington spans the river further upstream.

Nevertheless, in what is perceived by people as being the county of Cheshire, we have a common fire authority and police authority that cover the current county council of Cheshire, Warrington and Halton. The two big authorities operating on a pan-authority basis works pretty well. However, when we have discussed with the business community the merits of splitting Cheshire down the middle—a case that I hope the Government have listened to carefully—we have come to a conclusion based on the economic situation. Part of the population faces eastwards towards Manchester and slightly south-eastwards towards Stoke. The rest of the population—my constituency, the city of Chester and Vale Royal—faces westwards towards the Welsh boundary and northwards towards the Merseyside boundary. That is why in the east of the county, AstraZeneca, and in the west of the county, Shell, have supported the notion of splitting.

We have discussed that idea with the business community. I was recently privileged to sit in a meeting of the business ambassadors in Cheshire. The representative of the tourism industry, which is significant in the county, said, “Yes, but”—and the but is exemplified by the Bill. We need to find a way to identify the historic unit that we describe as Cheshire, plus or minus Birkenhead and Stockport—that is the debating point—and to protect that identity for purposes such as tourism. That is a feasible proposition, but we need to be flexible and not impose a single set of rules, because we would come up with illogical outcomes.

Madam Deputy Speaker, your recall of the Welsh changes might be better than mine, but I seem to remember that back in the days when I was in school, which was a very long time ago, my old atlas had a county called Flint Removed. [Interruption.] I am certain that I have the name right, but I am looking around for someone who is more knowledgeable. There were some strange geographical constructs that were quirks of history. Some boundaries have changed a considerable number of times, as has the one between north Wales and England. If we said that we should go back to the original boundary and push it back to Offa’s dyke, I suspect that our friends in the Welsh Assembly would think that that was not a terribly good idea. If we took the hon. Gentleman’s speech literally, that would be the consequence.

However, the hon. Gentleman is making a serious proposition. It needs to be thought through in more detail, identifying some of the areas where we know he does not mean to tread, but his point is worthy of more detailed examination.

The corollary of the argument is that because Liverpool was once in the historic county of Lancashire, it would not therefore be in Merseyside, because there was no historic county of Merseyside. A major review would be required.

A major discussion is going on about the concepts of city regions and so on. In terms of improving the economic competitiveness of the great towns and cities in the north-west of England, the debate about administration is important. It does not detract, however, from the observations about my county. I cannot, however, claim to match the hon. Member for Romford or the Prime Minister in terms of historic attachments to my county. I guess that I was covered by the previous Bill when I moved to Kettering in 1977, as an incomer. Cheshire is a county with a tremendous history and it has an identity, but there are some quirks in it, such as the artificial boundary—immediately to the north of my constituency—that denotes the metropolitan county of Merseyside. Wirral is a unitary authority on its own, but I guess that under this well-meaning Bill it could easily be redesignated as part of Cheshire, where, in historic terms, it belonged.

It would be much more difficult to change the boundaries with Greater Manchester to the east, and that is why I urge the hon. Gentleman, if the Bill reaches Committee, to take a flexible approach to the practicalities of finding solutions. Not all the history of the area starts in Roman times; in one or two places it starts before, but many of the boundaries reflect post-industrial revolution history. For that reason, a one-size-fits-all solution is not desirable, because it might lead to some quirky results.

As a statement of principle, the Bill makes eminent sense, but it should be amended to take into account those practical realities. The proposals in the Bill would certainly help the tourist industry. I wish the hon. Gentleman well in his attempts to make progress, and I agree that some of the signage that we see can be a little odd. In my county, we are used to seeing bilingual road signs as we approach Wales. I was slightly confused recently when I saw some road signs that I thought were in Welsh, but they were a bit too far east to justify being bilingual. Then I discovered that they were in Polish—[Interruption.] Well, when I drive down a lane at 40 mph I am focusing on the road, and it requires greater linguistic skills than I have to distinguish between Polish and Welsh. Signage is confusing and should be simplified. We need to consider the overuse of signage in some communities, although that is not the subject of this Bill.

The Bill would be helpful in the context of trying to define sensible historic identities and boundaries that the people in the communities recognise as appropriate. I wish the hon. Gentleman well with it, but I am concerned about the regulatory impact, although there may be a solution to that. If he is prepared to add some flexibility in Committee, to ensure that the Bill addresses the practicalities that arise from the historic changes that are not included, I wish it well.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on introducing the Bill. It is perhaps a self-evident point, but the Bill is not about local government re-organisation. Indeed, it is the reverse, because it is about recognising the historic geographical and cultural entities that underpin this country and inform the identities of the people who live here; successive waves of those who have sought to reorganise local government boundaries have ignored that. They have not understood the relevance of identification with a place and community. It does not matter who empties the dustbins, because that is a matter of the efficiency and effectiveness of local government. People are not defined by the authority that collects their rubbish, but by the place in which they grew up and live, which may be where their ancestors lived—although that is not necessarily the case.

I feel strongly about this issue because I am a man of Somerset. I grew up in Somerset and generations of my family have lived in Somerset. There is a strong possibility that we came a cropper in 1685 because we fought for Somerset against England in the Monmouth rebellion and lost—because the English cheated. There is a huge sense of identity in the county, which was seriously undermined in the early 1970s by the Heseltine reforms of local government. Suddenly, the northern part of an entity that had existed since Saxon times was lopped off and called after the river that runs through Bristol. The new region of Avon never caught the imagination of the people who lived there. As far as they were concerned, they still lived either in north Somerset, south Gloucestershire or the city and county of Bristol.

Avon was an artificial construct, but the signs went up. We would drive from Bristol to Bath and see a sign saying “Welcome to Somerset” although we had been driving through Somerset for the previous 20 miles. Going the other way, we would see signs saying “Welcome to Avon”, although such signs were regularly whitewashed over, because people felt so strongly that they did not live in an area named after a river. People did not use the term “Avon” as their postal address. They were enjoined to do so and told that their address was “Bath, Avon”, not “Bath, Somerset”. People did not use that address; they carried on using Somerset, because they understood the identity they had grown up with—the county cricket team still played at the recreation ground in Bath, and at Clarence gardens in Weston-super-Mare. They knew perfectly well that they were still Somerset people.

There was general rejoicing when Avon finally met its end. The one good thing to come out of the Banham review was the abolition of those completely unwanted new council areas. They were replaced by unitaries, not, in our case, by reabsorption into the administrative county of Somerset, but by Bath and North East Somerset council on one side and North Somerset council on the other. At least people had regained some of the identity they shared with the rest of the county.

Identity matters to people, and when we lose it, we lose something important. In Education and Skills questions yesterday, the hon. Member for Romford asked a question about history, which I followed up with a question about local history. One of the things I notice is that our sense of shared history in a locality is being gradually lost, partly by the exigencies of the national curriculum and partly by the tendency to sweep away previously understood identities. When I take groups of children from Somerset schools around the Palace of Westminster I like to show them things that relate to our history. I show them King Arthur in the Robing Room, King Alfred the great and the scenes from Monmouth’s rebellion on the murals in the Corridor between the two Houses; but a little while ago a teacher took me aside and said, “You know, David, all that is very interesting, but they don’t know what you’re talking about, because they’re not taught it.” Children are taught about the Romans and the Egyptians.

And then the second world war—and the second world war again and again, because it comes up about five times in the history that is taught at present, but children are never taught about the history of their own area. They are never taught about what made us, rightly or wrongly, what we are. Most countries understand that. Scotland understands it. Scotland teaches Scottish history, which is a quite different history from the history of England. In England, however, we have lost that capacity to understand. That is a shame. We are the less for it.

We talk about diversity in this country and we rightly recognise and celebrate it, but we should also celebrate the diversity within the English. We are an extraordinarily diverse nation in ourselves. I have a very small ethnic minority population in my area; historically it is less than 1 per cent., and by far the greatest majority of that minority is Romany. We are mono-ethnic, or perhaps bi-ethnic, because we are Celts and Saxons, too, which still shows through, or it did until relatively recently. Now we have much more immigration, which is a good thing and I do not argue against it. I am simply saying that having some understanding of the roots of our populations is a good thing, as is recognising the strength of the contributions made in an area.

The Bill goes a little way towards that. I do not think that the hon. Member for Romford would suggest for a moment that it is the answer to everything, but it recognises the fact that sticking up a sign because a cloth-eared bureaucrat thinks it a sensible idea to tell people that they are driving into a particular district council area, so it is important for them to know who collects the rubbish, disguises far more important things, such as where people are in the country. To be perfectly honest with the hon. Gentleman, I worry about some of the practicalities of the Bill; no one wants to see a proliferation of confusing signs. I shall get into terrible trouble with my colleagues on district councils for saying this, but I would be happy if every district council boundary sign was taken away; they do no good to anybody. Nobody actually wants to know about those various entities—district councils that are almost all modern constructs, usually named after a geographical feature that they do not actually represent, such as Mendip, which contains only part of the Mendips, and Sedgemoor, which comprises part of Sedgemoor but not all of it. There are many similar areas. Their names are meaningless both to the people who live in the area and to the people who visit it; they give no meaningful information.

Has the hon. Gentleman seen some of the signage in France, which actually tells people about the places they are passing? There may be information about the main industry or about a particularly beautiful cathedral. That relates to the approach he is outlining, so does he think that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) should consider it, too?

The French are better at that. They have a strong sense of local identity and are good at recognising the history of their towns. People are invited to visit a town “with its church from the 14th century and its famous murals”. In America, a much newer country, most towns turn out to be the world capital of something or other. There is no town in America so small that it does not turn out to be the world capital of peaches, furniture, false teeth or something else that people identify with as their significant product, and which they believe makes them world-famous.

On the subject of the plethora of signs in our towns and cities, is the hon. Gentleman aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) has a private Member’s Bill aimed at reducing the number of signs? Given what the hon. Gentleman has said, perhaps he would care to support that Bill.

I did not know about that Bill, and I am not sure where it comes in the order of Bills that are being considered today—if it is being considered today. If it competes with my Bill I shall, in preference, support my Bill, but it certainly sounds like a good idea to get rid of some of the clutter.

When people come down to the west country, they are interested in the fact that they are entering Somerset, Devon or Cornwall. They recognise those places as historic entities. The same is true of other parts of the country. However, people are not interested in a lot of the information that they are currently given. The Bill is a small step.

The issue about postal addresses is also important. Understandably, people get upset about postal addresses. Part of my constituency is in Dorset for postal purposes. Incomers to Milborne Port think that they live in Dorset. They do not know that they live in Somerset, because the postal address is “Sherborne, Dorset.” To them, it is a mystery where they actually live. That is an extraordinary thing. So, that would also be a useful issue to take up.

In some areas, the historic entities are being recognised. Sport has always been reluctant to move away from the historic counties, and rightly so. The lords lieutenant often represent historic counties, rather than more recent entities. Some of them cover not only administrative counties, but unitaries that are within the same historic county. There are signs that some people, at least, understand the situation. The issue is about trying to keep local identity out of the hands of the bureaucrats and the homogenisers who simply do not understand diversity in this country.

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating Friends of Real Lancashire, of which I am a patron, and of which my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) is the president? That group protects the old county boundaries, which include Liverpool and Warrington, which is now considered to be part of Cheshire, and a considerable part of the Lake District, including the town of Barrow-in-Furness.

Of course I congratulate that organisation, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his membership of it. Lancashire is a proud county and a proud part of our history. I have a wholly biased view that categorises counties as either first-class counties or minor counties in cricket, and I always find it hard to get to grips with minor counties such as Hertfordshire. Lancashire is a proper county, like Somerset. [Interruption.] No, I take that back. It has been pointed out that it is not going to help Liberal Democrat votes in Hertfordshire one bit if I maintain that view, so I rescind it entirely.

Whether the Bill gets through or not, I hope that people understand what makes this country tick and what is important to many people. The more uncertainty we have in this world, the better it is that we are rooted in a sense of common identity, principle and history. The historic counties of this country form part of that mosaic and are worth remembering.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on his Bill. While there are practical problems with it, to which I shall refer later, he raises an interesting issue in the House. We live in an era of geographical confusion, yet people still get a strong sense of identity from their original cultural entities: the old counties. Many sporting, social and cultural activities are based on those counties. They are widely used as a popular geographical framework, despite bureaucrats’ attempts to use the more modern local government areas.

The ages and origins of the counties of Britain vary, but most of them, in England at least, predate the Norman conquest and have become the bedrock of Britain’s history, culture and geography. They provide an instant means of reference to different parts of the country; sets of cities, towns and villages; distinctive scenery; architecture; wildlife; industries; pastimes; accents and dialects; tourist attractions; and even the weather. Indeed, while each county might have been originally set up for some public purpose long before the beginning of the 19th century, the counties’ geographic identity was paramount. The counties were considered to be territorial divisions of the country with names and areas that had been fixed for many centuries and were universally known and accepted. At the time of the Napoleonic wars, the counties were the bedrock of the militia. The lords lieutenant were allocated to the counties, including three to the ridings of Yorkshire, my home county.

The era of modern government began with the Local Government Act 1888, which defined a new set of administrative areas in statute, although I do not know how many reviews and changes have taken place since then. While no subsequent Act of Parliament has altered or abolished the historic counties, they are no longer used as a basis for any major public administration. While administrative geography is important in many contexts, such administrative areas can never form a proper geographical framework because their names and areas are subject to such frequent change.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) is no longer in the Chamber because he represents my home area. I am proud to represent a London constituency—indeed, I have lived in London for more than 30 years, which is most of my life—but as the old saying goes, “You can take the man out of Yorkshire, but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the man.” I am proud of both my east Yorkshire origin and roots and my present identity as a Londoner. While I think that my Yorkshire accent has diminished a little, that is for others to judge. When I go back to Yorkshire, people think that I talk southern. However, the accent seems to come back after I have been visiting my mother for a few days.

My home town was first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Bretlinton. The hon. Member for Romford has not said whether the boundaries under his Bill would go back as far as the Domesday Book. My home town of Bridlington was first formally recognised in 1895 when it became an urban district council. In 1906, London’s lord mayor was invited to open new terraces by the seaside. I am not quite sure why the lord major of London was invited—I have never been invited back to open anything.

The borough of Bridlington tootled along pretty well. My grandfather was mayor-elect in the early 1960s, although he unfortunately died before he could take office. My father was the deputy mayor, although I regret to say that he had a fatal accident while on council business. My mother was all set to be mayor of Bridlington in the 1970s, but then it suddenly changed to the borough of North Wolds, contrary to the desire of every single inhabitant of the town. That was certainly against the wishes of my mother, who became the first mayor of North Wolds. She was one of the very few such mayors because the borough was abolished by popular demand in 1981 and the authority became East Yorkshire. Even worse, it later became Humberside. We Yorkshiremen certainly did not identify with being part of Humberside. There were big arguments about whether we could still qualify to play for the Yorkshire county cricket club—not that I was ever good enough to do so. It was the dream of every small boy in my home town that one day they would put on the white rose county’s colours, along with Geoffrey Boycott, Freddy Trueman, Brian Close and all the rest of my childhood heroes, and play cricket for Yorkshire. That was in the days when a person had to be born in Yorkshire to play cricket for their county, and before the days of the foreign player, which have disgraced our county cricket sides.

Order. Perhaps I can prevent the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) from leading the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) astray. May we get back to the content of the Bill?

I was going to mention the fact that Middlesbrough was traditionally in the county of Yorkshire. Thank goodness that those born in Middlesbrough were still able to play cricket for the county of Yorkshire, because Chris Old, the amazing fast bowler—

Order. There has been some levity, but I think that the sporting analogies had better cease, and we should get back to the content of the Bill.

I shall take your strictures on county cricket to heart, Madam Deputy Speaker, but there is a relevance to the Bill: will the street signs around the traditional boundaries of Yorkshire identify those boundaries, so that we can get back to the good old days when a person had to be born in the county to play cricket for it, even if we never won anything until all the foreign players came along? I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who is from Lancashire, was about to intervene—

I am glad that my hon. Friend and I did not get into a war of the roses. Anyway, the important point is that Humberside was rejected by everyone who lived in east Yorkshire, and I am pleased to say that it has since been abolished. There was local civil disobedience of the kind that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned as having taken place in Avon. I remember a chap in the town, Trevor Pearson—I think that he is now dead—who ran the campaign. Although the Post Office insisted on “Humberside” being included on the postal address, no one took any notice, and everybody wrote “East Yorkshire”. I think that the Post Office had a policy of delaying those letters, although the delays might just have been due to its traditional inefficiencies.

The old boundaries were very important. They included places such as Stamford Bridge, which was the boundary between east Yorkshire and the rest of the county, going back, I suppose, to the days of King Harold II and the famous battle of Stamford Bridge. The point is that if there are to be boundary signs, it is important that the deep-rooted local feeling in the counties is recognised. As I have said, I now represent an area of London. It was originally part of Middlesex, which is one of the 39 historic counties of England, and it was the second-smallest county after Rutland, so perhaps the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) should tack an extra clause about Middlesex on to his Streetscape and Highways Design Bill.

When county councils were introduced in England in 1889, part of Middlesex was used to form the county of London, and the remainder formed the administrative county of Middlesex. By 1965, urban London had expanded further, and almost all the original area was incorporated into Greater London, but “Middlesex” is still used informally as an area name, and it is included in some postal addresses; I shall come back to that point later. When talking about historic counties, boundaries, towns and boroughs, the question is how far back we should go. Middlesex was recorded in the Domesday Book. To settle my dispute with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), in the Domesday Book, Middlesex was divided into six hundreds, including the Edmonton hundred, in which Enfield was situated, the Gore hundred, in which Edgware and Hendon were situated, and the Ossulstone hundred, in which Finchley and Friern Barnet were situated. If we go back to 1086, when the Domesday Book was created, we find that I am winning the battle.

I have not studied the issue in the detail that the hon. Gentleman has, but certainly it is my understanding that Southgate in Enfield is the south gate of Enfield Chase, which was traditionally in Hertfordshire. Certainly, parts of Barnet were in Hertfordshire; I know that Sydney Chapman, who used to be the Member for Chipping Barnet, was convinced that part of his constituency was in Hertfordshire at one time.

I may give the hon. Gentleman a small crumb of comfort later, when we start to look at subsequent developments. He might be slightly satisfied with one or two things that I say about the fringes of Barnet, but I do not doubt that the vast bulk of Barnet was within the boundaries of Middlesex.

One of the problems with Middlesex was that it did not have an established historic county town. The assizes were at the Old Bailey in the City, and the sessions house was at Clerkenwell green. Although New Brentford was first described as the county town in 1789, which was the first time that knights of the shire were elected to sit in Parliament since 1701, it did not have a town or public hall in which the election could take place, so the position was rather peculiar. Middlesex county council, which took over the quarter sessions in 1889, was based on the other side of Parliament square at the Guildhall, which will become the site of the new supreme court when it is finally constructed.

There were many market towns, including Edgware in my constituency, but as the county councils were established, new suburbs in north-west London started to grow with the arrival of the railways and the underground in the 19th century. Eventually, district councils were formed, including Hendon urban district council. Barnet was a mixed bag: Finchley was an urban district, but Freirn Barnet was a rural district. It was confusing, and eventually we ended up with the existing boundaries of the London borough of Barnet, which incorporates three earlier boroughs. We have discussed the arms of various places, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford on finding out what the arms of Romford are and putting them on badges for schoolchildren. I have looked up the arms of Middlesex. The blazon of the arms—I shall try to get this right—are

“gules, three seaxes fessewise points the sinister proper, pomels and hilts, and in the centre chief point a Saxon crown or”.

It does not say “or what”; I think that “or” means gold in that context. The Middlesex coat of arms appears on the cricket club colours.

When Greater London was created, Middlesex started to vanish. However, the word is still used in the names of many organisations based in the area, including the cricket club, which is a first-class county team—unlike Yorkshire, it is not in the first division, although I was pleased to see Yorkshire beat Surrey in the first division earlier this season—and Middlesex university, which is largely based in my constituency. The university is starting to expand on that site and it, too, uses the traditional coat of arms.

We have already had a little spat between Hertfordshire and Barnet, and the difficulty of working out where boundaries lie is a problem for the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Romford. Traditionally, rivers were boundaries, but it would be difficult to put a street in the middle of a river. The Thames, the Lea and the Colne were the historic boundaries of Middlesex, and the Middlesex side of the river is still mentioned in commentary on the boat race. We have heard about the postal county. Again, the position is complicated, particularly in Hendon, as part of the constituency has a London postcode and part has an HA postcode, as Harrow was part of the postal county of Middlesex. That creates considerable confusion, as BT, for example, issues phone books for each postcode area. It is difficult for people who want to look up Barnet phone numbers to do so if they live on the Edgware side of my constituency. The council’s office numbers do not appear in their phone book, as it lists only Harrow numbers.

The London borough of Barnet was created as a result of local government reorganisation in 1965. Its historic boundaries include the Edgware road and Watling street, which was a Roman route. The main mediaeval route has since become the A1000, further to the east. There are many other boundaries, too, so may I put to the hon. Gentleman the question of where the signs would go? In parenthesis, I should say that we have our own important local traditions. The Cockney rhyming slang for hair is “barnet”, which goes back to Barnet fair of mediaeval times. At the battle of Barnet, Warwick the Kingmaker was killed and the Yorkists, I am pleased to say, defeated the Lancastrians. We have a mapmaking history, too, and Hendon school is built on the site of the house of John Norden, the 16th-century mapmaker. He would recognise the old boundaries, but not, obviously, the new ones. The hon. Gentleman must answer the question of where the boundary signs would go, bearing in mind those historic distinctions. In London there are distinctive areas such as Hampstead garden suburb, which would see itself as a separate location.

My main concern is not the theory or idea behind the Bill. It is important to remind people of our local history. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, unfortunately schools these days do not teach local history. In my view, they do not teach enough of our nation’s history, either. I hope that sooner or later people will come to recognise the importance of that. It is a unifying factor and part of our identity, locally as well as nationally.

My main concern with the Bill is that it is mandatory. It states:

“A traffic authority must take such steps as they consider reasonable”.

There is a strong argument, perhaps less so in rural areas, that that will create more street clutter. We have far too many street signs already in urban areas. Adding more will create confusion and may be a road safety hazard as people try to work out why a sign is there.

One of the Bill’s strengths is that is does not try to define what is an historic area, but it leaves that to designation, presumably by a statutory instrument. That would create a huge bureaucracy between local and central Government as people try to decide what is to be designated, for the purposes of the Bill, an historic county town or village boundary. That could entail some cost, and putting up the signs will undoubtedly involve cost. I remember the outcry in my borough at the cost involved when the incoming Conservative administration five years ago decided to change all the street signs to a bluish colour—I wonder why. If signs are put up as a result of the Bill, there may be concerns about the burden on the council tax payer.

The hon. Member for Romford has done the House a service by bringing his Bill before it today. He has raised some important issues about local and national identity, but I hope that when he replies to the debate, he can answer some of the practical difficulties in terms of cost, road safety and clutter, and in particular the mandatory nature of his Bill.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). I commiserate with him on the fact that he had to emigrate from God’s own county down to Hendon. He can rest assured that the Opposition will be working very hard to ensure that following the next election, he will have an opportunity to return to those broad acres.

I am pleased that the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has reached Second Reading. It started life as a ten-minute Bill, and such Bills sometimes sink without trace, but it is probably a measure of the importance of its subject matter around the country that the Bill has got this far.

I make no apologies for coming from Yorkshire. They say one should never ask anyone if they are from Yorkshire, because if they are, they will say so in the first five minutes, and if they are not, why humiliate them unnecessarily? Yorkshire has a proud tradition. We have our own flag, with the white rose, our own pudding, our own newspaper, the Yorkshire Post, and now our own regiment, and there are more acres in Yorkshire than there are words in the Bible. Of all the counties in the country, Yorkshire people can be the most proud of their heritage. That is why it is important that there should be signs marking historic county boundaries so that people can be aware of that.

Yorkshire is split into three ridings—the North Riding, the East Riding and the West Riding. Contrary to some popular opinion in the south of England, there is no south riding, except in literature. Within Yorkshire there is tremendous rivalry between the ridings. In my constituency, in Scarborough, people who come on holiday from the West Riding are commonly known as wezzies. They are looked down upon as second class citizens by the people in north Yorkshire. That feeling is reciprocated, but it is a positive and beneficial rivalry from which everybody gains.

It is said that one can always tell a Yorkshireman, but one cannot tell him much. Telling a Yorkshireman that he lived in Cleveland or Humberside did not go down well. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that people in Somerset did not like being told that they lived in Avon. A similar situation occurred in my part of the world, particularly in Humberside, where signs were not just whitewashed over but physically removed by Yorkshiremen who regretted having that name attached to the county that they loved.

When I went up to Cleveland—which as I mentioned was for the purposes of cricket—south of the river, always in Yorkshire, there were big signs declaring Cleveland to be a nuclear-free zone. That always tickled me because not only does Cleveland have a very good radiological unit at its hospital, but in Hartlepool a nuclear power station. Such signs turned people off the new regions. If the Bill is enacted, the traditional county boundaries will be recognised. People like to feel a sense of identity and they do not identify with Humberside or Cleveland, but they do identify with Yorkshire, and that gives them a real sense of belonging.

People in Whitby, recently voted by the readers of Saga Magazine as the No. 1 weekend holiday destination, feel a certain resentment because they live in Scarborough borough council, and they make representations to me that they would like to live in Scarborough and—no, correction—they would like to live in Whitby and Scarborough borough council. But one thing that we can all agree on is that we live in Yorkshire.

In many ways we are in danger of losing our history and heritage by these new county names, such as Kirklees and Calderdale. The people who live there know where they live because it appears on their council tax bills, and they are one thing that people in west Yorkshire do know about. The Bill allows us to claw a little of that history and heritage back.

One of the most tragic cases is in the west of my county where a small number of people find themselves, for administrative purposes, in Lancashire. Can anyone imagine anything worse for a Yorkshireman than being told that he now lives in Lancashire? That is part of the way in which our heritage is being eroded. Restoring the signs would be a good thing.

I am saddened by the loss of many traditional field names. The Bill does not extend to labelling every field, but as farms change hands many of the traditional field names that go back to mediaeval times have been lost. On my farm, where we have been since 1850, we try hard to retain the traditional field names. That is another example of where history can be lost because of changes.

It is a little much to expect new immigrants to this country—people from Pakistan and India, and more recently from Poland—to support the English football team in the World cup or the English cricket team when it is playing Pakistan, or Poland in a World cup match. But it is quite realistic to expect them to identify with the regions in which they live. There is no reason why Polish people who come to the UK—I have many in my constituency—should not feel proud to live in Yorkshire, and signs will tell them exactly where they live. These people have not been taught about English history and this may be an answer to that problem. The Tebbit question was which cricket team do such people support. Many people who have come from India or Pakistan to west Yorkshire will support their own country’s cricket team, and I am pleased that they do, but they can also support the Yorkshire cricket team, not least because we have players such as Sachin Tendulkar, who played for Yorkshire with such prowess. So the answer to the Tebbit question may be to have more emphasis and stress on our traditional county boundaries and market towns, so that people can feel a sense of belonging, albeit that they have lived in the country for only a short time.

I represented Yorkshire in the European Parliament for five years, but it was not just Yorkshire, it was Yorkshire and the Humber. People in the north of Lincolnshire resent that—the part of the world that the Minister represents. If I could digress for one second, I would like to thank the Minister for the decriminalisation of the parking scheme in Scarborough and Whitby, on which we have had much correspondence and which I have raised on a number of occasions.

People who live in north Lincolnshire resent the fact that from an administrative point of view they are now in the Yorkshire and the Humber region. They thought that they had got rid of Humberside, but the region is still referred to as Yorkshire and the Humber.

Our regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, represents not only Yorkshire but north Lincolnshire. One councillor from north Lincolnshire told me, “As far as we are concerned, it is Yorkshire Forward and Lincolnshire backwards.” [Interruption.] A Conservative councillor mentioned that to me. Informing people when they cross the Humber bridge that they are entering Lincolnshire is much more relevant than informing people who live in Grimsby, Cleethorpes or Scunthorpe that they live in Yorkshire and the Humber—“the Humber” is tacked on to “Yorkshire”.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) raised the problem of postcodes, which is especially relevant to people in the north of north Yorkshire, who have TS postcodes. I am not sure whether they are concerned because of their pride in Yorkshire and their desire to have a YO postcode or because their insurance premiums are higher because people think that they live on Teesside. I guess that the same point applies to people who live in Cheshire, but who have Merseyside postcodes. We should examine aligning our postcodes with our traditional county boundaries.

I support the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford and hope that it ends up on the statute book. In years to come, when people enter Yorkshire I hope that they will be proud to see a sign letting them know that they are doing so. I can think of only one downside to the Bill—although we will have signs for people entering Yorkshire giving them the good news that they are entering God’s own county, we will have to give people heading in the opposite direction the devastating news that they are leaving Yorkshire.

This debate is very interesting, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on introducing the Bill.

This debate shows the appetite in this place for maintaining historic traditions throughout the country. Although some people think that this House discusses such issues on Fridays and not at other times, some very serious issues are being discussed across Government and elsewhere about our identity and the whole concept of Britishness. As my hon. Friend has said, our sense of belonging to a nation devolves down to the lowest level of strata, which is just as important, namely the sense of belonging to a community.

As my hon. Friend has rightly said, I am a passionate advocate for Middlesex. Perhaps uniquely among historic counties, we have very little left, except in the hearts and minds of those Middle Saxons who live in the county and who have emigrated. About 15 or 20 years ago, in my part of Middlesex we pioneered, under the guidance of that eminent Middlesex expert, broadcaster and historian, Russell Grant, the setting up of signs, which were sponsored by local businesses, to tell people that they were entering Middlesex. The back of the sign mentioned the sponsors, and I remember my company sponsoring one. I was proud to see that sign, although I think it has unfortunately been removed by souvenir hunters.

There should not be any cost implications. My hon. Friend has stated that the signs should be put in when the old signs need to be replaced. The new signs would recognise the historic traditions of counties. Unfortunately, we recently missed a trick in Uxbridge when the Rotary club, Brunel university and the local council put up some signs saying, “Welcome to Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon: Home of Brunel University”. I maintain that they should have said, “in the Historic County of Middlesex”. It would not have cost any more and would have recognised the importance of Middlesex to our history.

Many Members have referred to new names. Hillingdon is a place, but it became the name of the borough because nobody in the other places in the borough could agree on what they wanted it to be called. Ruislip said it should be the London borough of Ruislip; Northwood said it should be Northwood; Uxbridge said it should be Uxbridge; West Drayton said it should be West Drayton, and so on. It was even suggested that it should be called the London borough of Queensborough because Her Majesty landed for the first time as monarch at Heathrow airport, which is in the borough. Although that would have recognised a royal connection, I think it would have confused people because nobody would have had any idea where it was. There is a similar problem whereby nobody knows where Brunel university is. As I said recently in the debate on the Sustainable Communities Bill, I would prefer it to have been called Uxbridge university, if for no other reason than when large donors in America wrote out cheques they might think that they were donating to Oxbridge rather than Uxbridge—but that is a retailer’s point of view.

These things matter to us—it is not just a case of a few people banging on. Ten years ago, we had just embarked on a by-election that I was lucky enough to win and so end up representing the constituency of Uxbridge. The Labour candidate, who is now safely ensconced in the House for a constituency that is much more appropriate for him in that he was mayor and council leader in Hammersmith and Fulham, made the mistake of describing Uxbridge as being in west London. Without any stirring at all from the Conservative or Liberal Democrat ranks, the local newspaper was full of outrage that this man could describe Uxbridge as being in west London when we all knew that it was in Middlesex. For two or three weeks that became a real issue in the local paper, which exemplifies how much this can mean to people.

Uxbridge and the surrounding area has always prided itself as being on the edge of London. We regard London as being our city, but we also regard ourselves as being rural Middlesex. Unfortunately, a lot of the rural aspects have somewhat dissipated, although any hon. Members lucky enough to visit will know that it has lots of green open spaces and is a very pleasant place. However, it still feels as though it is not quite London. It is the gateway to the Chilterns and has a great history. It would be a good idea for people to be able somehow to recognise that they are entering the historic county of Middlesex, or Uxbridge in the historic county of Middlesex, because that would give its residents a sense of identity that is sadly lacking.

Another issue is that of postal addresses and postcodes. I am not a great fan of early-day motions, but the first one that I tabled was to try to maintain Ickenham as a postal address. That was not simply because the people of Ickenham rightly regard their community and village as an entity, but because of the implications for deliveries. For example, most of Ickenham is now put down as “Uxbridge” because the Post Office likes to call it that, but there is a “Greenway” in Uxbridge and a “Greenway” in Ickenham, and people were getting the wrong things delivered. When one goes online or gives a postcode on the phone, “Uxbridge” immediately appears.

Let me now plead for the village in which I live. Most people who know where I live would wonder why I call the area a village. It is because I am rather old and remember when Cowley was a village. Its identity has almost disappeared. I believe that the children of the Minister for Science and Innovation, who is now sitting on the Treasury Bench, were born in Hillingdon hospital. He therefore knows that Cowley is just alongside the hospital, and he probably also knows that it was a separate place at that time. Unfortunately, the Post Office has taken Cowley off the postal address and only people of a certain age, like me, refer to “going down to the village” when we simply mean going to the newsagent’s. The Brunel students who now inhabit that area look at me rather strangely—as many people do these days; that may be for many other reasons—because I talk about “going down to the village.”

The discussion about identity and maintaining traditions is important, and I know that the subject of historic pub names has previously been raised in the House in that context. I would love to see the Bill on the statute book because it is important that everybody has a sense of identity with something—not only a country or a region but a county and a town. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, who is a champion of Romford and of Essex, and the Association of British Counties, which is doing the same throughout our realm.

After hearing the speech of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), I wanted to participate in the debate. The same controversial topic that he mentioned rages around my constituency. I represent Cleethorpes, which is in Lincolnshire. However, three local authorities cover the historic county of Lincolnshire: Lincolnshire county council, North Lincolnshire council and, to add to the confusion, North-East Lincolnshire council.

It is not only local people who get confused. When I table parliamentary questions that ask for facts and figures about North-East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire, I often get figures for Lincolnshire. Even here, there is confusion about exactly where Cleethorpes is.

For years, Humberside was the local authority. When that was abolished, the area on the south bank of the River Humber, formerly known as South Humberside, became North Lincolnshire and North-East Lincolnshire. However, some young people grew up with the name “Humberside” and do not identify with “Lincolnshire”. Others genuinely loathe “Humberside” and hate “South Humberside” even more. I do not know whether it is down to the Post Office or other services, but when organisations buy mailing lists and databases, “South Humberside” continues to turn up. People do not like getting junk mail, but when they get it with “South Humberside” on it, they write to me saying, “The council was abolished years ago. We live in Lincolnshire.” So there is certainly merit in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill.

Another problem, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby, is that we are also represented by Yorkshire and the Humber. My constituents repeatedly tell me that we are in Lincolnshire, and that the Humber is a river. When Humberside was abolished, people must have said, “Oh, what shall we call the Government region? Ah, yes, we’ll call it the Humber!” That irritates my constituents as well, because there are only three and a half constituencies in Lincolnshire that are in the Yorkshire and the Humber region—Brigg and Goole is split between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. That issue still creates problems. The police force is still called Humberside police, and we still have Radio Humberside.

I have been told by the Post Office that all that is required to avoid confusion when addressing a letter is the postal town and the postcode. My constituents write to me to say, “Why is ‘South Humberside’ still appearing on our mail? Why is ‘Humberside’ still appearing? Why can’t people just put ‘Lincolnshire’?” I write back and tell them that the Post Office has advised me that all they need is the postal town and the postcode. Well, I am sorry, but that does not make them any happier, because the postcode that is used for the part of Lincolnshire that I represent—apart from a handful of houses in the southernmost corner—is DN, which is the postcode for Doncaster, in Yorkshire. People should be able to express their identity on road signs and on their addresses, to avoid some of the daft situations that we end up in.

We have had an excellent debate today, in which we heard from the ancient counties of England. It has been a very pleasant experience, recalling the great history of our nation. Hon. Members will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for introducing the Bill. The subject has previously been aired by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who has also attempted to get such a measure through the House. There was a good deal of support around the House for the principle behind the Bill, although important matters of detail were contested.

The Association of British Counties has been the inspiration for this measure. Its contention is that the counties are an important part of the history, geography and cultural life of our country. It argues that Britain needs a fixed popular geography that is divorced from the ever-changing names and areas of local government. It wants us to have a real sense of history over time, and roots that people commonly understand and that are held to be part of our cultural identity. The point has been made that the fact that we are debating this matter today is excellent timing, given that we are having a national debate on identity and cohesion at the moment.

The issue of postcodes and postal names was raised by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). In my own county of Hertfordshire, we have acquired areas of Cambridgeshire for postal purposes. People in Melbourn, which is in Cambridgeshire, are not at all happy to have a Hertfordshire postcode or to have Hertfordshire as part of their postal address, because they do not live in Hertfordshire. There is also a commercial aspect to this issue, because Cambridgeshire is well recognised as a centre for information technology, and people with IT businesses in Melbourn, Cambridgeshire, find it quite commercially damaging to have to describe themselves as being in Hertfordshire.

Having said that, Hertfordshire is of course a fantastic county with an ancient history. I had an interesting discussion earlier with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about exactly where its ancient borders were. I was in Southgate recently, and I was told that it was originally the south gate of the Enfield chase and traditionally part of Hertfordshire. Indeed, one of the people I spoke to there was Hertfordshire through and through, having a family that was originally based in my constituency and that had moved south to that location. The former Member for Chipping Barnet, Sir Sydney Chapman, was always an honorary Hertfordshire MP as far as the Conservative party was concerned, and he was proud that his area had a Hertfordshire tradition, although he was happy to be a Londoner too. These are important matters, and we should not minimise them in any way.

The Bill would compel traffic authorities to

“cause traffic signs to be placed on or near roads for the purpose of indicating the location of historic county, town or village boundaries”,

to try to re-establish the identity of traditional counties. During the debate, an argument developed about the form of those signs. There is a case for trying to highlight some of the points about an area on a sign. Under the regulations that would be used, Ministers would have powers to designate the sort of information that a sign could display. If people wanted more descriptive signs, such as those used in France, where the presence of fruit growing, a good wine area or a special cathedral is often reflected on signs, that might be possible. That would give our road signs a little more character and better meet the needs of the public and for education.

We heard a good deal about Yorkshire, which is a fine county. I rather shared the sense of sadness that my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) portrayed of the Yorkshireman leaving his county. He highlighted that such signs would bring a tear to his eye. The signs that said, “Welcome to Yorkshire”, however, would lift him to a new level of happiness and give him a great thrill, as would be the case with almost any Yorkshireman. He did not say whether the signs should have a bat and ball on them or some other sporting sign, but he did mention Geoffrey Boycott, a great Yorkshireman. I once played at Headingley, and managed to hit the old pavilion roof, and Geoffrey Boycott was there. That was one of the great moments of my sporting life, although it was only a very amateur match.

The Bill’s frame of reference is provided by the traditional county boundaries, defined with respect to counties set out in the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844. In many instances, those bear little relationship to the current, amorphous local government administrative areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge made that point about his county of Middlesex, which has a proud tradition, with its great Guildhall near the House of Commons, and its rural areas, some of which are perhaps not as rural as they once were—he referred to Cowley in that context. None the less, there is a pride in the county of Middlesex, as we understood from his point about the candidate who described it as being in west London, to the absolute horror of the local media. He did not even have to prompt them to run a campaign that lasted for some weeks.

This might be a good moment to remind my hon. Friend that Middlesex has a Middlesex day in May, on the anniversary of the battle of Albuhera. [Interruption.]

Well, apparently, some Members of the House knew that, as I heard a comment from a sedentary position to that effect. That just goes to show the detailed knowledge in all parts of the House. It is good to know that the county is still cherished and has its own special day, as well as the other attributes that my hon. Friend described.

This is the third attempt to introduce the measure through a private Member’s Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge has had a go, as I mentioned, and the former Member for Taunton also tried in 2004. Both of them rightly paid tribute to the Association of British Counties for trail blazing.

The one thing I am not sure about is the reference to the Ordnance Survey, which is effectively a commercial body. However, the extent to which it would be right to force a commercial body to take a particular action could be considered in Committee. It may be that other mechanisms would be needed to get the map side of the problem sorted out, but one can understand and sympathise with the general aims.

Historic boundaries give us a sense of who we are—a feeling of the great traditions and heritage of the nation. They also have references to the roots of our language, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned. Local people are often greatly attached to the traditional names and boundaries of their historic counties long after they have ceased to exist as administrative areas. I felt a sense of sadness—perhaps other hon. Members did, too—when I heard the hon. Member for Cleethorpes describe young people who did not realise that they were in north Lincolnshire but thought that they were in Humberside, which has no real historical meaning. It is important that young people understand that history.

Similarly, in terms of marking the boundaries of ancient villages and towns, the Bill proposes signs that contain the traditional crest of the town or village. That is an idea with resonance. I was interested to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford had gone to the trouble of researching the crest for Romford and that he gave it so much currency by transmitting it across Romford in the way that he did. I think it is a rather good idea; I might even be tempted to do it myself in parts of Hertfordshire, although I shall have to see how practical that would be. [Interruption.] I am told that I might be able to do it on the communications allowance. That is probably pushing it; it would depend on the information engraved on the other side of the badge. However, we need not go into that in too much detail.

We have to wonder whether signing the boundaries should be the responsibility of the traffic authorities or English Heritage or its equivalent body in Wales. It is part of their mandate to mark historical sites and they are experts in such matters. Perhaps they should have a role in conjunction with the highways authorities. That would be an example of partnership working, something that Labour always welcomes.

I am only thinking aloud, but one thing is for sure: the subject has a resonance in the House. Many hon. Members have spoken in the debate.

I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s argument. I want to put to him an observation that I made in my contribution. I do not know how well he knows the roads from Cheshire into north Wales, but a major road construction is under way, so it is an opportune time to be precise. Would he move the sign that says “England” several miles to the west, or would he leave it exactly where it is? He needs to explain that to help us understand his case.

That is an excellent attempt to get me into terrible trouble. I am not thinking of going down that route. I certainly do not want to steal part of Wales. That would be a bit strong for a Friday.

The Bill—or at least the underlying principles—has attracted a good deal of support in all parts of the House. It is the sort of Bill that needs an airing in Committee. It would be useful to tease out some of the difficulties, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman so mischievously presented to me. It is a Friday and a day for private Members’ Bills. We should give Bills that have a good element of support in the House an opportunity to be considered in Committee.

In 1974, when the reorganisation took place, an official from the Department of the Environment said that the new county boundaries were solely for the purpose of defining areas of first level government of the future. He said

“They are administrative areas and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change.”

The example he gave was Middlesex, and he said that although the county had been swallowed up in Greater London in 1965 and disappeared for governmental purposes, the name still existed for postal and other reasons. He pointed out the affection in which Middlesex was held and also made the point that

“the broad acres known as Yorkshire will remain unaltered despite the different names adopted by the new administrative counties.”

Those assurances were given then, and it is clear that hon. Members on both sides of the House think that those assurances should be fulfilled and we should have a proper respect for the ancient counties, cities, towns, villages and hamlets.

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Bill, which deserves to be fully examined in Committee, where we can see its possible pitfalls, but also its strengths.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on introducing this Bill, which has excited much interest and local pride. I have heard him speak twice now on this issue and I know how passionate he is about promoting his constituency, as many of us are about our own constituencies. I pay tribute to him for that.

For the benefit of the House, I wish to clarify that although Ordnance Survey Great Britain and Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland are two distinct organisations, I will refer to them collectively as “Ordnance Survey” during the rest of this debate.

There is no doubt about the importance of historic counties, towns and villages as part of our history and cultural life. I agree that they provide many people with a strong sense of identity and local pride. Indeed, the continued use of traditional county names and areas in tourism, sport, business, literature and the arts, to name but a few examples, bears testament to that. Of course, we should all be proud of where we come from. However, we have difficulty with the detail of the Bill. It is not appropriate or practical to introduce legislation to require either traffic authorities to include historic information on traffic signs or Ordnance Survey to show the same on its current mapping. The Government therefore oppose the Bill.

The Bill is disadvantaged by a number of critical omissions. It is noteworthy that it does not propose a point in time at which to freeze-frame history, to be represented both on current Ordnance Survey mapping and at the roadside. The Bill is further inconvenienced by the fact that the boundaries of areas themselves have changed many times over the centuries, and in many cases now bear little or no resemblance to their original incarnation. That would also present the difficulty of selecting a boundary date that would be acceptable to all.

A further difficulty is that the Bill would require by law the complex differences between the geography of traditional counties and present-day administrative areas to be represented on current Ordnance Survey maps. That sounds good in theory, but in reality it would not be possible to present that amount of information in a clear, unambiguous and meaningful way. But that is just the beginning of the difficulties. The Bill goes beyond proposals advanced in a previous Bill by suggesting that historic town and village boundaries might also be included on the same map, although again without any clues as to a starting date.

It should go without saying that most town and village boundaries have shifted constantly as a direct result of their economic and demographic evolution. In many cases, residents of the same town may have very different understandings of their town boundary, depending on their age. In London, for example, the area covered by the vast metropolis that we see today bears no relation at all to the myriad unconnected towns and villages that have gradually spread and evolved. Long-time Southall residents in their 80s will hardly share the same view of the boundary of Southall as a teenage resident. So whose memory does the Bill intend to satisfy? The boundaries of such areas—some of which appear in the Domesday Book—would be impossible to track through the ages on one map.

Ordnance Survey’s products give business, individuals and Government the information they need to make key decisions. Ordnance Survey’s primary role is to represent today’s world by providing on its mapping current geographic referencing information, including administrative boundaries and the corresponding electoral boundaries. Ordnance Survey mapping has many uses in commercial, public and private life; it is a working tool for industry and an aid to Government—for example, helping local or national government in debates, discussion and decisions about where to site new developments. It is not a decorative feature to frame and hang on the wall. A key point, which I emphasise to the House, is that the emergency services rely on accurate and up to date Ordnance Survey mapping data to reach the scene of an incident in the shortest possible time. I am sure that the hon. Member for Romford would not want to cause them difficulties in that regard.

I am slightly disappointed to hear that the Government will not let the Bill go into Committee, where some of those points could be examined, but do not the emergency services use postcode information rather than Ordnance Survey maps these days?

I was trying to point out that the Bill’s provisions do not take into account the practicalities of Ordnance Survey mapping, which is not intended for historical purposes; it is a current working tool, which includes use by the emergency services.

There are some extremely well-researched websites with good sources of information about historic boundaries. The Ordnance Survey, on the other hand, should have a forward-looking approach to its work. We should commend it for that work, which includes engagement with schoolchildren, but ancient boundaries are better covered in the information available on the web.

I thank my hon. Friend. Sensible as ever, he reminds us of the point that I wanted to emphasise. Although the Bill is well intentioned and worthy, there are difficulties in translating it into practice. To attempt to represent history on one map would be unworkable. As my hon. Friend suggested, people who want to study historic boundaries on Ordnance Survey maps can easily obtain historical mapping at a reasonable cost from the Ordnance Survey’s archives, or through its commercial partners.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said that we should be looking forward, not back, but if I am correct in thinking that battle sites are marked on Ordnance Survey maps, which surely relates to the historical side of things, is not his argument slightly flawed?

Historic battle sites—although not current ones—are indeed marked, particularly those in Yorkshire.

In terms of the history of the Ordnance Survey, can my hon. Friend confirm that it was set up in the early 19th century to provide military maps for the armed forces? It is thus not surprising either that battle sites are indicated, as are ancient tumuli of one sort or another, or that we can see the ancient county boundaries on which the old regiments were founded.

I bow to my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area and thank him for that contribution.

Turning to the requirement that the Bill makes for historic boundaries to be represented on traffic signs, there are only two distinct categories of sign that may lawfully be placed on the roadside: outdoor advertisements and traffic signs. Outdoor advertisements are defined by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended, as being solely or partly for the purpose of advertisement, announcement or direction. The placing of those signs is controlled by the local planning authority. Traffic signs, on the other hand, are not subject to local planning controls. They are clearly defined in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 and their prescribed purpose is simple: they act as

“an object or device (whether fixed or portable) for conveying, to traffic on roads or specified classes of traffic, warnings, information, requirements, restrictions or prohibitions of any description”.

Clearly that is about getting people and vehicles around safely and efficiently. Traffic signs have no other lawful purpose.

Clearly it is important that there should not be confusion and that local authorities should not be overburdened, but, given that the Minister would be able to specify what the traffic signs could be like, is it not worth at least examining the issue properly in Committee?

Perhaps it would be helpful if I confirmed to the hon. Gentleman that existing regulations already allow the addition of crests, coats of arms and items of geographical or historical interest—perhaps even in the style of “Market Town of Romford”, which may please the hon. Member for Romford. Hon. Members should consider the existing regulations before going down another road—if I can use that expression—which might not be helpful.

Traffic signs must either conform to the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002, which specify the appearance and meaning of traffic signs, or be especially authorised by the Secretary of State. Decisions on what restrictions should be applied and signed, and where, are a matter for local discretion. Decisions about the placing of information signs at particular locations are the responsibility of the relevant traffic and highway authority. The only specific statutory requirement for local authorities to place traffic signs is that they must provide signs that are adequate to indicate the provisions of their local traffic regulation orders, so that drivers will not unwittingly contravene local traffic regulations and be unfairly penalised for doing so—a concern that hon. Members often raise on behalf of their constituents.

To blur the edges with additional, historic boundary signs would bring the risk of confusing road users, thereby defeating the primary purpose for which the signs are prescribed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who are supporting him will bear that in mind when thinking about how to respond. Traffic signs are not provided for commemorative purposes, nor should they be. They are used to guide and control traffic and to promote road safety. They should be used only where they can usefully serve these functions.

I am most grateful for that definition of the utility of traffic signs, but what is the utility of district council signs that welcome people to some administrative area that does not relate to any historical or cultural entity?

We are here to discuss the issue of traffic signs, which, together with mapping, is one of the primary aspects of the Bill, so I will confine myself to that subject. The House has often discussed concerns about the proliferation of traffic signs at the roadside, and hon. Members have raised complaints with me about an unavoidable increase in the number of traffic signs on our highways. The proposed legislative changes required by the Bill are in direct conflict with the fundamental need to maintain the delicate balance between minimising sign clutter and providing signs that meet the changing needs of all local authorities on behalf of the people they serve, at a time when there is pressure to meet the ever-increasing demand as more people seek to use the roads.

That brings me on to the most important issue when considering the consequences—no doubt unintended—of the Bill: road safety. Given the shift of boundaries over the centuries, putting in place additional signs to illustrate superseded county, town and village boundaries might be confusing to drivers. It would also contribute yet more towards unfortunate and unnecessary street and sign clutter.

Traffic signs can be distractions in themselves, so we must minimise their number and keep their message short. The information that they convey must be concise and consistent for all road users and presented in a manner that can be assimilated quickly. For example, it is prescribed that a county boundary sign shall contain a maximum of eight words, not including the place name. We also require that direction signs should not show more than five destinations, or six at most, because even six destinations take up to four seconds to read. Clearly, a car driver speeding at the maximum limit of 70 mph should not be distracted any more than is absolutely necessary. Every moment spent reading a traffic sign is a moment spent without the driver’s undivided attention on the road ahead. It goes without saying that the potential hazards for other vehicles and people on the road are almost endless.

Let me offer the hon. Member for Romford some comfort. I am sure that he has noted that the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill is continuing its parliamentary passage in another place. The Bill will allow local authorities to change the names of electoral areas following consultation. I hope that he will ensure that his party gives the Bill its full support, because it might help to address the point that he is putting forward on behalf of his constituents.

The hon. Gentleman’s Bill is based on sentiment—although I regret having to describe it in such a way. It has been drafted without any consideration of the consequences of what it would achieve. An attempt to represent the plethora of historical county, town and village boundaries in one hit on Ordnance Survey mapping could not be achieved and would only confuse the reader. Further to our discussion about battle sites, let me make it clear that they are shown when they are relevant in a tourism context. There are thus restrictions on the appearance even of battle sites on Ordnance Survey mapping. There would be no benefit in attempting the cartographic feat suggested by the hon. Gentleman, especially given that historical mapping can be obtained easily and at relatively little cost.

Following consultation on the development of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002, we took the decision that only existing boundaries should be marked by traffic signs, not those that have been superseded. I still believe that that was the right decision. Traffic signs should be provided solely for the purposes of road safety and effective traffic management, and should convey clear, concise and consistent information to all road users.

Regrettably, the Bill fails to acknowledge the financial implications for stretched local government budgets of putting in place additional traffic signs. Providing in legislation a requirement for local authorities to place signs indicating the location of what some might regard as obsolete boundaries would be disproportionate and burdensome.

We appreciate and respect the fact that many people, including the hon. Member for Romford, hold their heritage very dear—rightly so. We do not want to take that away from them. However, it is clear that the open road is not the place to conduct a history lesson. I hope that the House will agree that the Bill should be opposed.

I thank the hon. Members who took part in today’s debate, which has been useful and interesting. It has highlighted many issues, and it shows that there is common concern about the issue across the parties, and across the country. That is why I am very disappointed by the Minister’s conclusion. I think that she may have missed the real point of what I am proposing. It appears that she has concluded that if my Bill became law, there would be many more traffic signs posted all around the country—that there would be more clutter, and greater expense. That is not the intention behind my Bill.

The intention is to ensure that our signs accurately reflect the counties, towns and villages that truly exist. To make a point that was ably emphasised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), if what I am proposing is unnecessary, surely the signs that currently exist are also unnecessary. I propose that they gradually be replaced over time, when they need to be. There will not be a huge expense at one go, but a gradual evolution from signs that show the name of a council, to signs that show the name of the town. We also want signs that show the name of the county not to be far away from the traditional boundary that most people accept.

I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s intention. However, the Bill would do something rather different from what he intends: it would impose a requirement on traffic authorities. That is the point that I sought to make.

I re-emphasise the fact that the change does not need to happen in one go. It can take place gradually over a long period. There is no need to replace every sign overnight with a brand new one. New signs can be erected as and when they are needed. If the Minister visits my borough, the London borough of Havering, as I hope she will, she will see a sign saying “Welcome to Havering” as she enters Romford. Havering is a London borough; it is a construction for administrative purposes. The sign should really say, “Welcome to Romford”. It should show the Romford crest, not the borough logo, which holds no meaning or sense of identity for anybody.

The measure is not too complicated. A number of hon. Members have said that the provisions are rather difficult, and that the changes are not easy to make, but I do not accept that. With the political will, and with an understanding of what is needed, the changes can be made very easily over a period of time, and the benefits will be enormous.

The Minister, and voices from all parts of the House, mentioned the importance of history, and said that the matters before us are important, but expressed concerns about the detail. Does my hon. Friend agree that surely what should happen next is that amendments should be discussed in Committee? Surely there is no real excuse for voting against the Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. He is, of course, absolutely correct. It would be a great pity if the Bill did not go to Committee, where we could properly analyse and look into the points that have been made. The Minister acknowledged that there is merit in much of what I propose. Members of all parties have spoken passionately today, and have highlighted many local anomalies and confusions that have resulted from the current situation. To ignore them and let them continue would be completely irresponsible. We have an opportunity today. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) made an important point; I believe that she is from the same county as the Minister—Lincolnshire, I think.

Okay. There is confusion across the country, and although I was aware of the confusion in Lincolnshire, Humberside, and Yorkshire, I did not have detailed knowledge of it. However, I do have detailed knowledge of the ridiculous confusions within Essex and London, and of the loss of identity that has resulted from the current situation.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred to Lord Heseltine’s administrative changes, and said that much of the problem was to do with mistakes made then. He may have a point, but there is cross-party concern about the issue, which we all understand from experience of our locality and the constituencies that we represent. I merely introduced the Bill in the hope that we can make progress and look at the issue properly. Of course, we can make changes in Committee if things prove impractical, as the Minister suggested.

As I said, I am sympathetic to the Bill’s aims. I would be grateful, however, if the hon. Gentleman told the House what assessment he has made of its regulatory impact on local authorities and agencies such as Ordnance Survey. We in Parliament have a duty to look at the regulatory impact of anything that we propose.

Ordnance Survey is a private company—[Interruption.] As far as I am aware, it is an independently operated company, and we have no ultimate power to tell it what to do. At the end of the day, we have to ensure that accuracy is available. At the moment, it is not. Local authorities do one thing, and Ordnance Survey does something else. People have a clear idea about where their identity lies, and that cannot be ignored. The Government, however, appear to have decided that they want to kill the opportunity to take the Bill one stage further and look at it in greater detail—I accept that flexibility is required—so that it is practical, and does not create burdens and expenditure that no one wants.

There is a valid case for the Bill, which is popular and necessary. The British people feel strongly about their identity; we all do, and I certainly do. I hope that we will be given one further chance to look at the matter in greater detail to ensure that the idea is not killed stone dead today. I hope that the Minister understands that unless we address that today, future generations will not have any knowledge of it. All that could be lost, and things would fall into history. Today, we have a chance to restore them and put them back together without undoing the existing system of local government or creating huge extra expenditure or necessarily causing extra signs to be put up—which, as the Minister pointed out, could create clutter and have other implications. I therefore hope that my Bill is allowed to go into Committee. I hope that hon. Members will give it one more chance to go forward, and on that basis I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second Time:—

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members having taken part in the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

Government Spending (Website) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am speaking in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who originally put down his name for this Bill, which originated in the House of Lords. Given his concentration on foreign affairs, however, I have agreed to step into his place.

The Bill would establish a publicly searchable website containing information about expenditure by all Departments and Executive agencies. The idea is not entirely original: the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act was passed in the US in 2006 with bipartisan support, including that of Senator Barack Obama and other leading notables. In the US, any federal expenditure over the value of $25,000 must be recorded and the details must be made available on a website that is accessible by anybody.

The first reason I want to introduce such a website into the UK involves transparency. Where money is spent in the name of the public, it is right in principle that the public should be able to discover what that money has been spent on. That is an entirely sensible principle that should always stand. We should also be aware of evolving public expectations. Debate has raged in this House on recent Fridays about exemptions to freedom of information legislation for matters relating to this House. I have no intention of getting into that particular debate, but I have been struck by the way in which that issue has excited the public imagination. Strong feelings have been provoked, because the public increasingly have high expectations about what information should be available to them. There is a concern about secrecy and concealment, and there is a higher expectation that information will be provided.

Our media are evolving, and they are no longer concentrated in the hands of the few—in some respects, they are in the hands of the many—because of the development of the internet. We have seen the rise of bloggers. At the last US presidential election, for example, individuals with expertise in particular areas were able to participate—who would have thought that knowledge of typewriters used in 1970s army bases would be significant? Amateurs—I do not use the term in a pejorative sense—can engage through new technology in important public debates, but in order to do so they need information.

What better way of providing information is there than putting the details of public expenditure on to a single website, where people can study it and follow the money to see how Government spending is done? That is important not only in terms of transparency, but for the practical reason that we can use the public as a whole to scrutinise public expenditure. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee do a splendid job, but we can in a sense conscript the general public to hold the Government to account by scrutinising expenditure on a website.

The second reason the Bill should be allowed to progress is that it could enable us to achieve greater value for money. At this point, I am tempted to read out a whole list of areas of Government expenditure that seem absurd—a bumper book of Government waste. Although I could do that, I do not want to introduce a partisan point, because such waste will apply to any Government. There is always a way in which public money could be spent more wisely. The more we can scrutinise that, the better, and the less likely we are to have waste. I would argue that there is perhaps more waste at the moment than there should be, but I would rather not get into that; I would prefer to say that the more we scrutinise, the more we can achieve value for money for the taxpayer. The Government spend an enormous amount of money on our behalf—more than £500 billion last year, and it is continuing to rise. It has risen in absolute terms and has risen considerably as a percentage of gross domestic product. The need to scrutinise the value for money that our Government achieve becomes greater as time goes on. The Bill would give the general public, as well as journalists and politicians—it would certainly be useful for MPs—the tools with which to do that.

Let me briefly outline the Bill’s provisions. Clause 1 goes to the heart of the matter—it would require the Treasury to create a Government expenditure website. Clause 2 would give the Government the power to extend that to other public sector bodies, not only Government agencies but any other element within the public sector that receives funds directly or indirectly from a Government Department or Executive agency. Clause 3 would give the Treasury powers to determine content and availability. It would not be appropriate for the Bill to deal with every single detail; it is helpful to set up the framework and then let the details be dealt with by statutory instrument.

Clause 4 provides some important and practical exemptions. Clearly, we would not want to detail expenditure in areas where it would in any way damage national security, the effectiveness of our armed forces, or relations with other states or with international organisations or courts. Clause 5 deals with another practical difficulty with regard to data protection. It provides an exemption in view of the fact that some information would infringe other people’s data rights. Clause 6 would give the Information Commissioner the power to examine the Government’s compliance with the objectives set out in the Bill.

On clause 5, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is his intention to exempt, for example, any payments that might be made to a person in for an industrial injury, which would not necessarily be an appropriate thing to put into the public domain? Indeed, as he no doubt knows, it sometimes enhances the capacity of the two parties—employer and employee—to reach a solution if the matter is kept private.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes an excellent point. I entirely concur. Clause 5 is intended precisely for that kind of circumstance. He provides a useful example that illustrates my point; I am sure that we could come up with others.

Clause 7 would require the Government to provide an annual report to both Houses of Parliament. Clause 8 ensures that any statutory instruments follow the affirmative resolution procedure.

Let me tackle the practical concerns that may arise and perhaps anticipate the remarks of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron)—I join other hon. Members in congratulating on her new post. I do not know whether this morning was a foretaste of things to come—for her sake, I hope not. However, we see the breadth of her expertise today.

Cost will be a practical concern. An obvious remark is that implementing the Bill will be expensive. However, the evidence from the United States suggests that that is not the case. The US estimate for the trial period, from 2007-11, of the cost of the new website is $15 million. Of course, the US is a much bigger economy than ours, but the figure relates to federal, not state expenditure. None the less, if it costs as little there, we should not be too alarmed about incurring substantial costs in the UK. Indeed, there may be potential savings. For example, if matters are routinely put on the website, savings could be made through a reduction in the number of parliamentary questions.

Let me try to help put the US comparison into perspective. The hon. Gentleman said that the federal Administration, not the state Administrations, incurred the cost. Does he know roughly how many transactions are involved in the $15 million expenditure?

I cannot answer that. The website is being introduced now, in the course of this year. I cannot therefore tell the hon. Gentleman the number of transactions. We should explore the matter in greater detail in Committee, but I stress that it is not expensive. Of course, it is difficult to imagine that greater transparency and throwing light on Government expenditure will not identify considerably greater savings when the information is in the public domain.

Another practical point that may be made is that much information is already in the public domain, for example, on the Treasury website, in the Red Book and so on. However, there is nothing as comprehensive or easily accessible in the UK when compared with the US. We all know, as Members of Parliament, that there are times when it can be difficult to go from one source to another, from one Department to another and so on when searching for information. Although various publications exist, we do not have one specific source. Members of Parliament have the privilege of asking parliamentary questions. Again, I could provide a long list, but it would not be a good use of time, of occasions when information about Government expenditure is requested but the answer is that it could be provided only at disproportionate cost. If we build into the system the provision of information on a website, the problem goes away.

Is my hon. Friend aware that large-scale trawls have taken place when a request has been made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and that, for example, health trusts had to provide much information, which proved expensive and distracted them from their work?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We can ask parliamentary questions and make FOI requests. The general public can do the latter, too. However, that can be time consuming for those seeking and those providing the information. It would be better if that process were more systematic. Let me revert to the US example, which may be of interest to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller).

In the US, there is a de minimis requirement that the information is provided if the transaction is greater than $25,000. The Bill would permit a similar provision, which would rule out some of the silly and trivial matters that would cause disproportionate difficulties, while allowing the larger ones to be addressed.

Concern has been expressed about revealing improper information. There are provisions in the Bill to protect personal data and to ensure that national security, our armed forces and our relations with overseas Governments and institutions are protected. That is only right. Given that this is an enabling Bill, there is scope for greater provision for the Treasury to identify particular areas of concern.

This is an important Bill that deserves further consideration. We are living in a time when the public expect to have information and to be able to scrutinise what the Government, of whatever party, are doing. We are living in a world of greater openness and transparency in which more people can participate in the public debate because of the evolution of technology, which is to be welcomed. We are also living in a world in which Government expenditure is considerable. If we wish to enable the public to participate in debates on value for money, and if we want greater scrutiny and greater value for money in public expenditure, the Bill would provide a useful tool for ourselves and the public. It would benefit this country for the Government to have a website setting out their expenditure.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) is presenting an intriguing idea, and I can certainly see the merits of some aspects of his argument. He is right to say that the nature of the media and of the world that we live in is changing. We now live in a world of blogs and of instant camera shots from so-called newsworthy scenes.

A few months ago, I was privileged to participate in a seminar at St. George’s house at Windsor castle, under the chairmanship of Sir David Brown, the chairman of Motorola, entitled “The media in a seamless, mobile age”. Some of the issues that we discussed impinge on what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. The nature of the relationship between the media and the Government, and between the media and the people, has changed. The media have become an immensely more powerful tool. Individuals, through blogs, have become their own publishing houses and can portray information in any way that they choose, and it is sometimes a misleading and inaccurate way. Some of us might accuse The Mail on Sunday of doing that on a regular basis.

There is an argument that the more transparent the Government machinery becomes, the more difficult it is for misinformation to be the order of the day. I accept that point. I have some difficulty, however, with the hon. Gentleman’s evidence about the cost of the provision. I was trying to do some mental arithmetic on the number of transactions in the Government and their agencies that would be in excess of a certain figure. If we use the American de minimis provision of $25,000 and round it up and call it £15,000, for the sake of argument, that would result in a huge number of transactions. I suspect—I am open to correction when my hon. Friend the Minister replies—that that is not comparing apples with apples. The federal Administration in the United States undertake a lot of detailed expenditure in areas of direct federal responsibility, such as defence. That would involve a huge number of figures, but a lot of that would be outwith the scope of the Bill.

If we analyse the number of direct transactions for which the House takes responsibility, because of our different structure I suspect we will find that the hon. Gentleman’s comparison with the United States is not reasonable. For $15 million, we will not get the kind of tool that he wants. The big cost is not the establishment of the tool but the data flows into it. That could only be made feasible through a great deal more integration between operating systems in Government Departments, whereby information from different systems could be integrated at the press of a button.

That would take a leap of faith on the part of Opposition parties, all of which have expressed concern, reservations and opposition to the centralising of data as envisaged in the transformational government White Paper. When the concepts described in the transformational government White Paper bear fruit, the kind of change that the hon. Gentleman suggests would be feasible, and would have a lower impact on the public purse. If, however, somebody offered him a choice between spending £10 million in his constituency or spending it on setting up a central Government website, I know that, as I would, he would regard a brand new hospital, new schools, new roads or more policeman for his constituency as a higher priority.

If the Opposition are serious about helping such transparency to come about, we need them to come on board with the philosophy behind the transformational government White Paper, so that sensible data sharing can take place, with the kind of protections that he rightly describes. In that regard, the role of the Information Commissioner is mission-critical. He may have seen some articles I wrote about that in The House Magazine some months ago. It is possible to create the kind of mechanisms in which the public would have confidence, which would allow data sharing, and which would in turn make his approach perfectly feasible. But I caution the House about leaping into that as a separate, one-off project in isolation. In practice, the cost would be considerably more than £15 million.

I am a fan of transparency—I have always said that if people want to see my office accounts, they are welcome to do so. I have even said that to candidates who have stood against me. We, as public servants, ought to be transparent, and Government Departments should also be transparent. There is nothing wrong in principle with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, he should persuade his colleagues to take a more forward-looking approach to those things that are fundamental to the changes that reflect the world in which we live—a world that has to deal with instant responses in blogs and so on.

People expect Governments to change accordingly. Like me, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt receive dozens of e-mails from constituents who think that because they can press a button and send a message instantly, we have the capacity to reciprocate instantly. I am sure that, as a matter of course, he prioritises his responses based on his constituents’ needs rather than their ability to communicate rapidly.

We must think the proposal through carefully. I would support the hon. Gentleman in keeping pressure on Her Majesty’s Government to improve transparency, but I urge the Opposition to think about my remarks. The hon. Gentleman set out a powerful case for why, if we are to have better governance and more transparency, there is a need to use IT sensibly so that costs are driven down. We do not want a separate system bolted on the end because that would drive costs up, and by considerably more than £15 million in my judgment.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) was here to move the Second Reading of the Bill. I understand why the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) was unable to be present.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire espoused the important principle of transparency, which would make the affairs of the Government and information on the use of public money more available to the taxpayer. The Bill builds on a strong feeling that many of us have, which is that the House is not at all good at scrutinising Government expenditure. The apparatus of the House almost militates against it. We have a myth called estimates day. It is a myth because it is supposed to be the day when we look at what the Government are spending, but we do nothing of the kind. We use it as an excuse for a useful debate on a subject of choice, but we do not examine Government expenditure in any realistic way. The level of scrutiny right through the system is riddled with inconsistencies. There is a lack of information, which is what the Bill is about, and a lack of rigour in applying scrutiny.

We have the National Audit Office, and it does an excellent job, as does the Public Accounts Committee. In many ways, however, our colleagues on the PAC merely scratch the surface of Government expenditure. They look at specific topics that have come to the notice or interest of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the NAO, which they scrutinise in depth and produce interesting points for discussion and lessons to be learned by the Government. The great merit of the Bill is that it would open up that information to anyone who wished to access it so that they could ask the relevant question and do the relevant sums. It is not the Government’s money; it is our money, because it derives from the taxpayer. People should be able to ask why it is being used in a particular way.

When I was involved in local government, one of the great arguments was whether we could have zero-based budgeting and whether it would be a good idea to build up a budget each year from zero, rather than making incremental changes. There is obvious merit in zero-based budgeting, but it is also extraordinarily difficult and, in terms of national expenditure, probably impossible. One of the substitutes is complete transparency about what is being done.

I see the Bill as one of a series of potential reforms, some of which would be of this House. As I have said, I would like to see estimates days and our scrutiny of the comprehensive spending review much better organised and more focused. We should have specialist resources available to Members and those outside—it has been described as the “Office of the Taxpayer”—so that similar resources are available to those scrutinising the Treasury as there are to the Treasury itself. That would enable better scrutiny of the figures on the proposed website, so that Members could better do the job that our constituents assume we do in scrutinising Government expenditure. If we had such a resource to advise individual Members and Select Committees, they could do their job that much better.

Other simple procedural changes could see evidence-taking sessions on the Finance Bill, as other public Bills now have, with the benefit—if this Bill goes through—of serious information about Government expenditure. We would then be able to ask the questions that should be asked in the context of the Government’s expenditure and taxation plans.

There is a raft of reform that would greatly improve our scrutiny of Government spending. The Bill would be a starting point by putting information that is, obviously, known to the Government in the public domain in a much more effective way. However, I have some concerns about the Bill. For example, I am worried about some of the categories of exempt information. I especially note that information could be exempt if it were likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other state, international organisation or international court, because we have heard that one before. If we had a Department of State, say the Ministry of Defence, paying large amounts of money to a dignitary of another state, say a Foreign or Defence Minister of a state in the middle east, it would be wise to put the spotlight of publicity on it, so that we could assess whether it was corrupt behaviour or not.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but I should point out that such behaviour has been illegal since 2002.

That is an interesting point. Let us not be distracted into a debate on that point, but I think that we will find that the Ministry of Defence is still making payments that look very similar to the payments that were made illegal under the 2002 legislation. It alarms many of us that investigations into what could be a breach of the law have been discontinued, but that is a matter for another day. All I am saying is that transparency produces trust because it allows proper scrutiny. Transparency means that the Government cannot do things that they should not be allowed to do. That is the benefit of arrangements such as those in the Bill, and that is why I will certainly support it if the opportunity arises later this afternoon.

I shall be as brief as I can, because I know that the Minister does not want the passage of this important Bill to be held up. I note that she volunteered to be Minister for Fridays because she enjoys them so much.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) on the cogent and logical way in which he presented the case for the Bill. There can be no doubt that the people of our country cherish the freedom of information that they have been given already—we need only consider the outrage that was felt when it was suggested that Members of Parliament might withdraw information that had previously been available. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) referred to his office expenses, but surely knowing what is being spent in our education system and health service is every bit as important as knowing how many paperclips the hon. Gentleman has bought for his office. That is why the Bill is so important.

One of the problems we face is that the Freedom of Information Act is so often honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. The UK is a big company, and companies present accounts to their shareholders in great detail. UK plc turns over £523.4 billion, so people have a right to know what the money is spent on. It is difficult for members of the public and Members of Parliament to operate within the FOA because they do not always know which questions to ask—as Donald Rumsfeld said, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. I am sure the Department of Health and the Treasury hope that many questions will not be asked because the answers might be embarrassing. If we had known beforehand which questions to ask about the release of foreign prisoners, for example, we could have put information about the problems into the public domain.

How often are we told in answer to a parliamentary question that the cost of supplying the requested information is prohibitive? If the Government put the information on the web, we or journalists could do the hard work.

The hon. Gentleman is right—or he will be when there is better integration of datasets across the Government. Is he saying that the Opposition now support the principles set out in the transforming government White Paper?

The Opposition are aware that the Treasury must have some knowledge of what is going on in the accounts of UK plc, and we should like more of that information to be available to the general public.

Getting information from the internet is difficult and costly, but the cost should be borne by the people who need the information rather than by the Government who are searching for it. It has often been said that getting information from the internet is like getting a glass of water from a waterfall, but if the Government put information into the public domain, citizens will do the hard work of finding out what they want to know.

The Bill is infinitely sensible. It would provide a free website so that members of the public and others could find information about Government expenditure going back five years. However, there are some details that we shall need to explore if the Bill goes into Committee, as I hope it will. Data protection has been mentioned and there are provisions on national security, but we should consider the de minimis level for expenditure and a sensible definition of commercially sensitive information. I have often asked for information—for example, on a pharmacy in East Ayton—only to be told that it is commercially sensitive. There could be savings in providing such information on a website, because civil servants would not need to search for it to provide answers to parliamentary questions.

We support the Bill in its aim to make freedom of information a reality rather than just a concept that can in practice be fraught with difficulty and prevarication. As my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor said when he unveiled his “follow the money” campaign in November:

“By allowing the public to follow the money, we would improve accountability for government spending, and increase pressure on the government to justify what it spends.”

Many people reasonably ask where the extra tax they have paid has been spent and how much has been wasted. The Bill would empower each of Her Majesty’s subjects who has access to the web. If the Prime Minister is so proud of his record at No. 11, why should he fear the Bill? I commend the Bill to the House; it is a no-brainer.

I thank the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) for his courteous and kind words about my new position, and for standing in for his colleague, the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). I am sure the hon. Gentleman is most appreciative. I, too, am standing in for a colleague who is well respected in the House and who will do a tremendous job in this role—whoever they are.

The Government have made great strides in openness and transparency in many areas, as we have in promoting value for money, especially in respect of public expenditure. The Government do not support the Bill, not because we have any objections to its apparent aims, but because it is unnecessary and because the burden and costs that it would impose have not been adequately considered. I will elaborate on those points.

The Bill is unnecessary because a huge amount of public spending data are already made publicly available. For example, the Treasury’s public website already contains a great deal of information on public spending. There are copies of the central Government supply estimates for a five-year period, which contain detailed departmental spending plans for particular financial years. There are copies of public expenditure statistical analyses going back to 1999-2000, in which the data are broken down in a variety of ways, including by departmental groups, central and local government, public corporations, country and region, and function. There are copies of the Budget and pre-Budget reports going back to 1998. There is detailed information on Treasury spending controls, including past and forthcoming spending reviews that set budgetary limits on spending by Departments, and there is a public sector finances databank, which is updated monthly and contains runs of data for various aspects of expenditure and finance. That list of available information is quite weighty, but it is by no means exhaustive. It simply gives a flavour of the large amount of public expenditure information that is already available on the Treasury’s public website.

In addition, the websites of other Departments provide a variety of financial information, whether in the form of departmental reports, audited departmental accounts or spending information relating to non-departmental public bodies or Executive agencies. Audited resource accounts for Departments provide the most comprehensive and accurate information on actual expenditure outturn. The Government have made strides to speed up the provision of such information. The faster closing of resource accounts requires those accounts to be presented to Parliament before the summer recess, which I hope the House will welcome. Importantly, departmental reports also provide information regarding public service agreements, to show not only how much we spend, but what we are achieving with the resources. Most public spending data currently made available relate to full financial years—whether outturn or plans.

What is most important is that detailed, accurate and independently audited information about public spending is made available as soon as it is reasonable to do so. Work is already under way in the Treasury to expand further the quantity of expenditure information on the public website, as well as to restructure the information to make it easier to navigate and search. That means that the public website will also hold detailed background and guidance material relating to public spending issues. I hope that hon. Members welcome that development.

A great deal of public spending data, broken down in many ways, is already freely available, but the Bill is unnecessary for a second reason, which is that any interested parties are able, if necessary, to seek further information under the Freedom of Information Act, which the Government introduced in 2000. The Act is part of the Government’s drive towards more open and accountable government. It creates a statutory right of access to Government information, subject of course to the necessary exemptions and safeguards, which strike an appropriate balance between openness and the ability of public bodies to conduct their business efficiently and effectively. The Act is an important and powerful tool and any public expenditure information not already published—a considerable amount is published—could be sought under its provisions. Any refusals of such requests must be properly justified and are subject to scrutiny by the Information Commissioner.

A further concern about the Bill relates to the potential for relatively poor-quality data to appear under the planned process. When the issue was discussed in another place it was stated:

“If information is captured within 30 days of expenditure, it should be capable of being accessed via a website. It does not need to be intermediated through some Treasury information system”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 1402.]

That is all well and good, but the quality of data is vital, not least to a consistent approach. Financial information that has been audited, or scrutinised and validated centrally by the Treasury, is surely of greater value in the long term.

As I have said, the burden of cost that the Bill would impose has not been adequately considered. When the matter was discussed in another place, it was stated that the expected cost of the Bill would be £2 million in the first year and £7.5 million over four years. It was acknowledged that such costs were based on estimates produced by the US Congressional Budget Office of the cost of implementing not dissimilar legislation in the US by 2008. The US estimate suggested that it would cost $15 million to set up and maintain such a website over the first five years.

Does the Minister have any estimate of the savings that could be made under the Bill? For example, civil servants would not have to spend time looking for information to respond to parliamentary questions and other freedom of information searches.

May I respectfully suggest that that might be a question for the Bill’s promoter? My job today is to assure the House of the steps that the Government take to provide the fullest information in the most accessible form to the widest number of people.

Several factors undermine the validity of such a broad-brush approach. The Congressional Budget Office report acknowledged:

“The federal government has many databases to monitor and report on federal spending.”

It also stated that according to the Office of Management and Budget,

“the government currently collects all the information needed to create a comprehensive database on federal spending.”

The US costings make it clear that existing US databases covering such things as federal assistance awards and applications for federal grants would mean that compliance costs would be reduced because the required information was already available. In addition, the US Congressional Budget Office report did not attempt to measure likely compliance costs for those who would have to input the data on the new website. As the report states:

“The bill would require state, local, and tribal governments to provide OMB with information on how they spend money received from the federal government. Such requirements could be costly to intergovernmental entities, but any costs would result from complying with conditions for federal assistance.”

I believe that before making such a legislative change in this country, it would be sensible and prudent to have a clear idea of the extent of the burden and cost that would be imposed.

The central requirement of the Bill is the creation of a new website specifically for spending data, but that could be seen as contrary to the recommendations that arose from Sir David Varney’s review of public service delivery, “Service transformation: A better service for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer”—I hope that we can all unite around that principle. The review was published on 6 December 2006. It is available on the Treasury public website and recommends

“a freeze on the development of new websites providing citizen or business e-services created by departments, agencies and non departmental public bodies”.

As hon. Members will be aware, the pre-Budget report noted that the Government strongly welcomed the report and had agreed to take forward its recommendations.

I urge hon. Members to consider the points that I have made and to join me in concluding that detailed Government spending information is made freely and publicly available and that the costs associated with the Bill have not been properly considered. I ask hon. Members to join me in opposing the Bill.

Let me address two points that the Minister made. She suggested that all the information is already out there. However, surely having one website on which all information—more than is available at present—could be found would bring about greater transparency.

I noted the Minister’s comments about costs. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) pointed out, I have no doubt that the Bill would lead to savings owing to its effects on freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions. More substantially, given the greater scrutiny for which the Bill provides, we would get better value for money. Some of the most egregious examples of Government waste would be reduced because of the pressure that transparency would bring to bear on the Government and the civil service. I am afraid that I am not persuaded by the arguments presented by the Minister. I believe that the House should give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second Time:—

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

Remaining Private Members’ Bills


Order for Second Reading read.


Order for Second Reading read.

bilingual juries (wales) bill

Order for Second Reading read.

access to inland waterways bill

Order for Second Reading read.

protection of adults in care (prevention of harm and exploitation) bill

Order for Second Reading read.

corruption bill [lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

human rights act 1998 (meaning of public authority) BILL

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [15 June], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

retail packaging recycling bill

Order for Second Reading read.

freedom of information (amendment) (No. 2) bill

Order for Second Reading read.

citizens’ convention bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Racism (Universities)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jonathan Shaw.]

I am pleased to have secured an Adjournment debate on the important subject of tackling racism in universities, in particular on the proposed University and College Union’s boycott of Israeli academics, although I am disappointed that in this day and age the issue should need to be debated at all. There is no place for racism anywhere in British society, but it is a particular affront to that society that any racism should persist in our universities.

This subject is hedged in by considerable complexity, not least caused by the need to protect academic freedoms from the clunking fist of Government. Nevertheless, the volume of legislation available to prevent racism on university campuses is considerable. The Race Relations Act 1976 obliges higher education institutions to promote race equality and good relations between different racial groups. The Public Order Act 1986 made incitement to racial hatred a crime, and that provision was buttressed in 2001, and again by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. To those we can add the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced racially aggravated offences, and the Equality Act 2006, to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of religion and belief. If I have missed out any law, I hope that the Minister will correct my omission when he replies.

However, I question whether that superabundance of legislation has borne any fruit. In fact, it may well be something of a hindrance to universities seeking to form policies to tackle racism. From prodigal law it is an easy step to profligate guidance. In November, for example, the Minister issued guidance on how universities should promote good campus relations and tackle violent Islamic extremism. I hope that when he replies, he will be able to update the House on the reception of that guidance by the academic community and outline any further steps that he proposes to take with regard to monitoring the growth of Islamic extremism on our campuses.

Islamic extremism is just one facet of the threat that racism poses to university life. Another, and one that has captured the headlines in recent weeks, as well as providing the catalyst for this debate, is anti-Semitism in British universities. I feel obliged to say that it has captured the headlines for all the wrong reasons. At the end of March the Government responded to the report of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-Semitism. I pay tribute to all the members of the group that produced that report. They have focused attention on an increasingly worrying issue.

Unfortunately, there have been few if any headlines that focus on the report’s concern that police forces are not comprehensively and consistently tackling anti-Semitic incidents; that the Crown Prosecution Service undertakes few prosecutions for racially motivated offences; or that the Home Office does not seem to have conducted dedicated research into the prevalence of anti-Semitism. The headlines have instead focused on the decision by the University and College Union to allow its members to discuss proposals for a boycott of Israeli academics. That shift in focus is unfortunate, because the all-party parliamentary group’s report devoted an entire chapter to the rise of anti-Semitism on university campuses. Anti-Semitism is a serious and growing concern for Jewish students.

As the Union of Jewish Students told the all-party parliamentary group’s inquiry:

“Jewish students have become increasingly alarmed by virulent and unbalanced attacks on the state of Israel, and the failure of student bodies and organisations to clearly and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism when it occurs.”

The UCU’s stance on a potential boycott of Israeli academics is the crowning failure of responsible leadership. I agree with the principle that university governance is, rightly, independent of the Government, but there is also the principle that academic freedom rests on a compact in which society chooses not to intrude on universities, and universities in turn do not seek to carry out a foreign policy. The proposed UCU boycott undermines that very principle. Tony Blair went as far as he could while he was still Prime Minister to register his disapproval of the decision that the UCU had taken.

I pay tribute to the Minister for his commitment to countering the harm done by the UCU to the image of British academia abroad during his recent visit to Israel. I am also grateful for his steadfast reiteration of the Government’s position at yesterday’s Education and Skills questions. I was particularly struck by his observation that

“Education must be a bridge between different peoples, and not a subject of conflict.”—[Official Report, 28 June 2007; Vol. 462, c. 454.]

When he replies, I hope that he will spend a little time developing his idea to hold a seminar in London involving Palestinian, Israeli and British academics. That would be a powerful symbol, and I welcome the idea.

I hope that the Minister also agrees that independence from Government imposes responsibilities on both universities and any organisations that purport to speak for either students or lecturers. If lecturers, in particular, cannot lead by example, then all the guidance and legislation in the world will not make a jot of difference to campus racism. Indeed, as one professor wrote to me recently:

“there should in my view be much more condemnation of academic leaders for failing to assail this movement—Dante on the hottest places in hell being reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in time of great moral crisis comes to mind.”

The boycott of Israeli academics has a long and sordid history. Harvard law professor Allan Dershowitz wrote in an article for The Times that

“the academic boycott resonates with earlier boycotts of Jews. The history of anti-Semitism is in part the history of boycotts of Jews.”

Both the Association of University Teachers and NATFHE have previously proposed a boycott of Israeli academics. The NATFHE motion two years ago called for a boycott of Israeli academics who did not

“distance themselves from their government”,

although how they were supposed to do that without the revival of the Zionist equivalent of the Test Acts was, to the best of my knowledge, left unexplained.

I want to contrast the laudable motion 193 passed at the NATFHE conference in 2005, which suggested inter alia that the union should

“develop programmes with the Commission for Racial Equality and The Board of Deputies of British Jews to educate academics and students about the dangers of anti-Semitism”,

with the myopic, morally repugnant and intellectually bankrupt motion 30 from the UCU’s most recent annual conference. That motion

“condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation”

of the Palestinian territories but fancifully supposes that

“criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-Semitic”.

Those claims are extraordinary, and they are both lazy and dangerous.

As a member of the alumni board of Harvard university, I am acutely aware that the issue has also raised its head on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2002, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard university, deplored the fact that by arguing that Israel should be the target of boycott and divestment policies

“serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.”

It is just a little too easy and glib to say that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, because the odd terminological inexactitude will swiftly turn one into the other.

I pay tribute to representatives from my other alma mater, Oxford university, for attempting to expunge some of the historical rhetoric with an amendment to the motion, but the fact remains that the whole enterprise was never anything more than an example of gesture politics writ large. It wrongly imposes collective responsibility on academics, it is replete with double standards, and it has the ironic impact of silencing legitimate criticism from within the Israeli academic community. As another Newmark, who is the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, but no relation of mine, has said:

“this is a full-frontal assault on academic freedom”

and it

“damages the credibility of British academia as a whole.”

I would add to that sentiment the observation of my own rabbi, Thomas Salamon, who wrote to me:

“boycotts are like book burnings, which indicate the will and force to stifle all debate and thought. Boycotts of this nature endanger democracy and lead to hegemony and suppression of freedoms, only recently thrown off in Eastern Europe. To bunch all Israeli academics together is both against reason and common sense.”

As an advocate of wider engagement throughout the middle east, it pains me that an influential group of people should be seriously advocating disengagement with Israel. When the AUT last proposed a boycott of Israeli academics, the philosophical objection was summed up by the 21 Noble laureates who signed a joint letter that averred:

“academic freedom has never been the property of a few and must not be manipulated by them…mixing science with politics, and limiting academic freedom by boycotts is wrong.”

I wonder how many Nobel laureates voted in favour of the UCU’s motion. That motion is all the more dangerous because it establishes such a poor moral tone for UK academia. When it comes to discouraging racism, intolerance and prejudice in British universities, students have a right to expect strong leadership and high moral tone from their lecturers and their own representatives, as well as from Government.

The proposed boycott by UCU members has cast a long shadow and points to a grave weakness in the architecture for dealing with the difficult interface between legitimate expression and religious discrimination that exists today in UK universities. It has also exposed a failure of leadership which cannot help but strike at the heart of any policy aimed at tackling racism. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) recently characterised the quality of that leadership, in his usual forthright manner, as

“the vapourings of 158 overgrown student politicians.”

He is right. He joined the unequivocal condemnation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts).

Universities UK, through the equality challenge unit, is committed to the challenge of stamping out racism in all its many forms. I hope that the Minister will be able to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to supporting it in that task. Although the unit takes no official position on the UCU boycott debate, it is clearly crucial to the fight against racism and anti-Semitism in our universities. When the question of university anti-Semitism was debated in another place earlier this month, the chief executive of Universities UK, Baroness Warwick, gave a commitment that the unit would publish updated guidance to universities that focused on religion-related hate crimes. I very much hope that that guidance will prove decisive in addressing aspects of racism such as anti-Semitism, which are so often out of the limelight because they are harder to identify and, perhaps, easier to overlook.

The last thing that universities need is more interference from Government. However, does the Minister believe that there is any scope for the new Department responsible for higher education and skills to consolidate the guidance, if not the legislation, that applies to campus racism? On the one hand we have guidance coming from the Government on how to deal with Islamic extremism; on the other, we have forthcoming guidance from the equality challenge unit on religious hate crimes. My concern is that university vice-chancellors are already bewildered by their responsibilities and their powers to combat racism, and that continuing to address the issue piecemeal will do little to improve the situation for students. Perhaps the Minister could also confirm what is being done to bolster the enforcement of existing legislation in order to crack down on campus racism.

As Baroness Deech said in another place during the debate on anti-Semitism,

“Universities are like the canary in the mine when it comes to bad indications.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 June 2007; Vol. 692, c. 1661.]

I encourage colleagues on both sides of the House to signal their support for academic freedom and contempt for anti-Semitism, in all its guises, by signing early-day motion 1603. I also hope that students and lecturers will act decisively to bury this sordid subject once and for all by supporting the “Stop the Boycott” campaign through the website

It appears that there is still something of a bad smell caused by prejudice and racism in British universities, but I hope for a breath of fresh air from the UCU, so that the canary will live to see the light of day.

I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) on securing the debate on an extremely important issue. Given recent events, which he mentioned in his speech, we have a timely opportunity to debate the matter.

I have made it clear in the House and elsewhere that the Government are strongly committed to academic freedom. In that context, we are firmly against the motion for academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics.

Although I respect the University and College Union’s independence, I was disappointed—as I made clear—when it passed a motion that encourages its members to consider boycotting Israeli academics and education institutions. I know that the UCU is still debating the matter. However, it is ironic that the UCU debate may ultimately result in stifling valuable and important dialogue in the future if a boycott is instituted. I profoundly believe that such a boycott would do nothing to promote the middle east peace process. Indeed, I believe that it would do the reverse. That is the fundamental problem.

As the hon. Gentleman said, I recently visited Israel and East Jerusalem, which is part of the occupied Palestinian territories. During my visit, I talked to members of the Israeli Government, including the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Mrs. Livni and the Minister of Education, Yuli Tamir.

I also met academics and students at the Hebrew university of Jerusalem and senior Palestinian academics at Al-Quds university. My strong message—that our Government, universities and academics are dedicated to ensuring that communication channels between our countries are kept open—was well received. I was also able to present, on several occasions, my strongly held view that there are progressives and reactionaries in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories, and that the problem with boycotts is that they make the job of the progressives much harder and reinforce the position of those who wish to take a hard line.

I profoundly believe that education, rather than being a tool to divide us, should help people understand and genuinely connect with each other. It relies on open dialogue. Although discussion and partnership alone will not resolve conflicts in the middle east, there is little hope without them. Education as a means of dialogue is crucial.

Academic boycotts are an anathema to the spirit of collaboration that runs through higher education, especially at a time when higher education is becoming a truly global activity. Across the world, universities are building transnational research links. They are enabling the flow of students and staff between institutions and countries. That is fundamentally a force for good, which expands human knowledge, helps us tackle the great challenges of our time, such as terrorism and climate change, enables millions of people to fulfil their potential, renews communities and builds prosperity.

The Government will therefore continue to explore contacts and engagements with Israeli and Palestinian academics now and in the future. Yesterday, I said during Question Time that, while I was in Israel and the occupied territories, I floated the idea, which we are taking forward, of a conference in London involving Israeli, Palestinian and British academics about the concept of the globalisation of higher education. I do not want to overstate the importance of that initiative but I hope that, symbolically, it can demonstrate the way in which education can and should bring people together.

I welcome the opposition to an academic boycott from across the higher education sector in this country, whether from individual academics or higher education representative groups such as Universities UK, the Russell group, the 1994 group and also—importantly—the National Union of Students. During my visit to Israel and the occupied territories, I was pleased to be accompanied by Professor Drummond Bone, the vice-chancellor of Liverpool university and the president of Universities UK, who, alongside me, was sending out a strong message against the concept of an academic boycott.

It is argued that the UCU boycott move is not motivated by anti-Semitism. However, such specific targeting of Israel can often have a worryingly negative effect on all Jewish people. Many Israelis feel that they are being singled out in a way that other regimes that are not democracies and that have significantly poor human rights records are not. That is one of the problems with the notion of the boycott.

The broader issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are very important to the Government. We deplore all acts of racial or religious intolerance in British society and throughout our higher education system. We are committed to tackling racism, including anti-Semitism. I wholly agree with him when he states that there is no place for racism in our society. It is vital that we continue to engage in open, challenging discussions about racism in our society, and most importantly that we do what we can to eliminate it.

While it is right that people should have the ability to criticise Israeli foreign policy—or, indeed, the foreign policy of any country—it causes me grave concern to hear about instances of anti-Semitism on university campuses. We expect our universities to take the lead in progressive thinking and behaviour. We welcome challenging debate, diverse opinions and disagreements, but not the toxic stirring up of hatred or the deplorable harassment of individuals or groups based on their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality.

It is right that we have a strong legislative framework in place. As well as ensuring due protection to individuals from harm and harassment, it also provides a framework for positive action. It is also right that higher education institutions, as autonomous bodies, are independently answerable to the law and responsible for fulfilling their legal duties with regard to equality and diversity. The law helps us, and I disagree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that it can be a hindrance to enforcing efforts to tackle racism.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which amended the Race Relations Act 1976, was a catalyst in the higher education sector. It ensured that the sector took active responsibility for these matters and that higher education institutions developed a more open and transparent approach to eliminating discrimination. The Act contains practical specifications for implementing change in its duties. The Act also places a positive general duty on all higher education institutions to promote race equality. Those institutions, in all their identified relevant functions, must have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, to promote equality of opportunity and to support good race relations between people of different racial groups. All such institutions must have a race equality policy and an action plan outlining how they are to meet the duty and where further work is required. Having such a framework is genuinely helpful.

Does the Minister honestly believe that Hizb ut-Tahrir promotes racial harmony on university campuses?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, across government, we keep the issue of Hizb ut-Tahrir under review; that is the right thing to do. There is certainly a responsibility on university institutions to act in accordance with the law and to tackle racism.

The Act to which I was referring has also committed all public authorities to a proactive approach. In higher education, this has helped to overturn the attitude that racism did not exist in the sector. The Act requires all higher education institutions thoroughly to examine their policies and activity and to assess their impact on different groups, highlighting areas where action is needed. That is an ongoing process for higher education institutions, which must continue to address emerging issues. That includes taking on board the recommendations of the all-party inquiry into tackling anti-Semitism, as part of holistic work on addressing racism and discrimination.

The Government will continue working on the issues of equality and diversity. We are committed to undertaking a review of discrimination law, and our aim is to consolidate and simplify existing legislation, and extend its operation as appropriate into a single equality Bill.

I wholeheartedly support the work of the Equality Challenge Unit. It provides vital advice and guidance to higher education institutions in their mission to promote equality and diversity. It has helped those institutions take forward their duties under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. It establishes dialogue groups for staff and students on race equality, religion and belief issues, which will help the sector further. Importantly, the Union of Jewish Students, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and the Board of Deputies of British Jews have been invited to participate in those groups.

The guidance provided by both the Department and from within the sector has helped higher education institutions both to understand and to act on the legislative requirements and the complex issues relating to equality and diversity. The Equality Challenge Unit is also in the process of updating the good campus relations guidance, which will be published in July. Again, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman: I think that there is consistency between that piece of work and the guidance issued by the Government. The ECU guidance specifically refers to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and will provide examples of activity undertaken by universities to address some of the issues raised by the all-party inquiry. Today, Universities UK and the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education are hosting a conference that will explore the issue of tackling discrimination on campus.

The hon. Gentleman asked me specifically about the Department’s guidance to institutions on tackling extremism in the name of Islam. It is fair to say that that received a mixed reception, with a lot of support, but also some concerns arising out of a misperception—mainly due to media misrepresentation—that it was an attempt to curtail freedom of expression. Let me make it abundantly clear that our intention was never to inhibit anyone’s ability to criticise Government policy, either domestic or international. The aim of the guidance was rather to tackle the very small minority of individuals who advocate violent extremism. Universities and academics now recognise that. We consulted widely, and regularly with Universities UK, while we developed that guidance. We will continue to work with sector organisations to develop further guidance where appropriate.

On the prevalence of extremism on campus, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, it is important to make clear that the risk of such activity is serious, but it is not, in my view, widespread. My officials are working with a range of university, faith, student and Government organisations to develop new projects and links to existing work on promoting good inter-faith and community relations on campus.

I genuinely believe that the debate has been, and continues to be, extremely important. There are concerns, but the idea that the middle east peace process can be enhanced in any way through an academic boycott is, in my judgment, foolhardy in the extreme, counter-productive, and will do nothing to achieve the ends that, on the face of it, are put forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes past Three o’clock.