House of Commons
Tuesday 23 October 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Good afternoon, Mr. Speaker. The number of people killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads has fallen by 33 per cent. in the last decade and the number of children killed or seriously injured has fallen by 52 per cent. in the same period. However, there are still around 3,000 people dying, and nearly 30,000 being seriously injured, every year. Clearly, we need to continue to work hard as there is always more to be done on road safety.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. May I suggest that he looks at the regulations that prevent local authorities from putting traffic-calming measures in place on classified roads, such as City road and Frog lane in Wigan? If we can put such measures in place, we can help the Government to drive down the number of terrible accidents and serious injuries throughout the country.
My hon. Friend has a strong point to make on additional speed restrictions on urban roads. A Transport Research Laboratory study showed that in 20 mph zones accidents fell by 60 per cent., child accidents by 67 per cent., and cycling accidents by 29 per cent. We have devolved the responsibility and authority to introduce the zones to local authorities, and I know that many authorities across the country are taking advantage of those regulations.
But is the Minister aware that the number of deaths on our roads could be cut by several hundred a year, and the number of serious accidents by over double that number, at a stroke if we were to abolish the ridiculous ritual whereby we put our clocks back every autumn, thus plunging the country into mid-afternoon darkness? Will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State to see whether she can persuade the Cabinet to allow Britain to remain on British summertime throughout the year in the interests of road safety, albeit initially on a trial basis?
I seem to remember answering that question last year, when I was a junior Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry and responsible for time. [Interruption.] Somebody has to be the Minister for time, and I’m your man. The evidence that was presented showed clearly that there was a strong split in the country between those in favour of the change and those against. The statistics on road accidents, compelling as they were, were not entirely convincing. I seem to remember that we tried the arrangements that the right hon. Gentleman suggests, as did other European states, and we all reverted to the time zones that we currently use.
Motorcyclists are particularly badly represented in the figures. I understand that some 20 per cent. of casualties and serious injuries involve people on motorcycles. Will my hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to address that problem?
As my hon. Friend suggests, motorcyclists continue to be disproportionately represented in the casualty figures. We have been working closely with representatives from the motorcycling industry and with user groups. Indeed, I have met three such groups in the past three weeks. In 2005, we published the Government’s motorcycling strategy, which sets out a range of actions to make motorcycling safer, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: 600 of the 3,000 people who were killed in the last year for which figures are available were motorcyclists, and that is just entirely wrong.
I have one of the most dangerous roads in Britain, the A59, in my area. On one part of it, where sadly there have been deaths and serious injuries, there have been calls for a roundabout, but I am told by the county council that there are insufficient funds to build it. The council has put up a lot of cones, but accidents still occur. Will the Minister please look seriously at using all the fines from speed cameras to improve road safety on some of our most dangerous roads?
The hon. Gentleman obviously knows his area well, and raises the case of a particular road. The money that is raised from speed cameras is recycled. Local authorities can spend it as they wish. There is a priority system for dealing with accident blackspots, which is used by the Highways Agency and other authorities. If he wishes to drop me a line on the issue, I will certainly get information to him on the latest position in respect of the road that he is concerned about. Obviously, where we can take action to reduce accidents on particular roads, we ought to make sure that it is taken.
May I offer a Welsh solution to an English problem? Will my hon. Friend visit my constituency and see the first-class 20 mph zone that has been created outside Rhyl high school by North Wales police and Denbighshire county council, using money from safety cameras? It is one of the most comprehensive 20 mph systems in the country, with initial warnings, secondary warnings and a camera.
As a Londoner I hate to disillusion my hon. Friend, but he is describing not a Welsh solution but a local authority solution. As I mentioned to our hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) only a few moments ago, we have passed regulations to empower local authorities to do exactly what my hon. Friend’s local authority has done, because it brings benefits to the whole community and in many instances improves traffic flow routes as well. We want 20 mph zones to be introduced where they are appropriate. They clearly are effective. They cut accident rates, which means that we can protect our communities and particularly our children. I would encourage every local authority to engage with its community and see whether they are relevant for them.
The encouraging headlines belie a grim statistical trend. One in six deaths on the roads are associated with drink driving. That has increased from 460 in 1998 to 540 last year. Does the Minister think that by presiding over a reduction in traffic police numbers and not making drink driving a key performance indicator for police forces, the Government are sending out all the wrong messages and contributing to the problem, not to the solution?
The hon. Gentleman raised that very point in Westminster Hall last week and we had an interesting discussion. I was able to reassure him that after our recent efforts to campaign against drink driving, there were more breathalyser tests in recent times. We liaise closely with our colleagues in the Home Office to make sure that enforcement is as high up their agenda as it is on ours. The hon. Gentleman says that one in six fatalities are caused by drink driving. In one in three fatalities, speed is a contributory factor. I am not in any way minimising that. We must take into account all the reasons why fatalities occur. There are far too many, and we both agree that as a Parliament we want to be seen to be doing all we can to encourage better driving on our roads.
The latest figures show that there has been a 37 per cent. decline in the number of fatal and serious child casualties in Stockport. There is still more work to be done, but will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of the local road safety officers and the many initiatives that they are pursuing, including their valuable preventive work in schools?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in commending the activities of the officers of her local authority. As I have mentioned in the past few answers, 20 mph zones and action at local level by local authorities can save lives. All of us in the House would encourage that.
National Express East Coast Ltd has been awarded the franchise to run the east coast main line rail service from 9 December 2007. Its plans for Peterborough include additional car parking spaces, cycle storage, passenger information equipment and a refurbishment of facilities.
The Minister will know that the redevelopment of Peterborough railway station is vital to the regeneration of the city centre in Peterborough. Will he give an undertaking that he will prevail upon Network Rail to work speedily and closely with key stakeholders in Peterborough, including Peterborough city council, Opportunity Peterborough and other private developers, to ensure that we have a 21st century railway station not too long into the 21st century?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. His concerns for his railway station and the economic driver that it can be for his community is echoed by many Members of the House. Network Rail’s proposals for Peterborough station are entirely a matter for him and Network Rail’s private sector partners. However, I would be more than happy to convey to Network Rail the hon. Gentleman’s concerns that that work should be progressed early.
Heathrow (Security Delays)
It is paramount that the UK’s aviation security regime is properly enforced. It is also clearly important that passengers are not unnecessarily inconvenienced by security measures. At Heathrow, as at all other airports, the Government are working closely with the industry to ensure that both objectives are fully considered.
Given that we have seen another summer of long queues, and that the Airport Operators Association says that the queues are too long, too intrusive and that good will has been lost on the part of passengers, does the Minister accept that it is now time for some sense and proportionality? By my nail scissors, there are none at the moment.
I am delighted that the right hon. Lady is in her place asking questions; I am only disappointed that she has already declared her intention not to stand at the next general election. The whole House would agree that we will be the poorer for that.
The right hon. Lady referred to delays in security queues at Heathrow, but I make no apology for the fact that we need robust security measures to counter a real and serious security threat. I accept, of course, that at times there are delays and inconvenience for passengers, but we should bear in mind the facts: despite some of the news coverage, queues in central search areas are routinely running at less than 10 minutes for 95 per cent. of the time. However, if we can make sure that a robust security regime remains in place, I am determined that we should make progress on the issue. That is why earlier this year, in the summer, I convened an airline and airport operators security summit and why we have set up a working group to see what improvements can be made.
I have been going through Heathrow and Gatwick a few times in recent months on my journeys to Europe. On the way out, I have never had to wait more than 10 minutes between check-in and buying a book in Borders. On the other hand, on the way back there have been intolerable third-world queues at immigration. That is not my right hon. Friend’s responsibility, but will she have a word with the Home Office? Seeing the businessmen of the world queuing up to enter Britain, as if they were in some third-world country, is shaming and not a good advertisement for a modern UK.
My right hon. Friend is a seasoned traveller and well used to dealing with some of the inconvenience that there clearly is for passengers at Heathrow. As he says, such matters are rightly for the Home Secretary, who takes a close interest in border control. I understand that there are more front-line border officers than ever before; their being there doing that important job is preventing thousands of illegal immigrants from entering the UK every year. The Home Secretary keeps such issues under review and will take action if that is required.
Does the Secretary of State accept that robust security is one thing—we all support that—but unintelligent security brings security into disrepute? Will she look again at some of the knee-jerk regulations brought in last year in the wake of the scare? I do not want my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to lose any more nail scissors.
Despite my respect for the hon. Gentleman, I do not recognise his characterisation of the situation at all. The one-bag rule was introduced for extremely good reasons—there was a serious, real and ongoing threat to our national security. The UK restriction was intended to limit the number of X-rays per passenger. There was a clear choice: introduce the one-bag rule or stop planes flying altogether.
We keep such issues constantly under review, of course. I am absolutely clear that if we can make progress, we should; I am determined to work with the industry to see what alternatives are possible. However, let me be clear to the House: before sanctioning any change, I will have to be satisfied that it would not have an adverse impact on security.
Like me, Mr. Speaker, you are a regular traveller on planes, as you come from Scotland on a weekly basis. The experiences of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) are nothing like ours; we have to wait for up to three quarters of an hour to go through security at Heathrow. It is a joke. It is down to the inconsistencies; we have to deal daily with bad management at that airport. However, I have an answer for you, Mr. Speaker. You should use London City airport, where security is far better, airline services are of a far higher standard and people do not lose their bags as they do at Heathrow every time they travel.
I certainly sympathise with my hon. Friend, but we need to be clear about the fundamentals of what is happening at Heathrow, which is the world’s busiest and most congested international airport and is operating way beyond its capacity. For example, I understand that its runways are operating at about 98.5 per cent. capacity, which reduces resilience and leads to delay.
As a Government, we have a clear response to that—we need to build more capacity. In the short term, terminal 5 is coming on stream, and in the medium term there will be the new terminal to replace terminals 1 and 2. In the longer term, the Government’s policy is that we need new runway capacity at Heathrow—consistent, of course, with local and environmental constraints, as set out in the 2003 White Paper. I look forward to hearing what the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) says about that.
I think the Secretary of State’s answers show that she has spent too much time in the VIP lounge and not enough time with real passengers. The CBI has warned that Heathrow hassle is an increasing threat to inward investment in the UK. Chicago Tribune readers voted the airport the worst in the world, and anyone who has travelled knows what a deeply unpleasant experience it can be. When is the Secretary of State going to start knocking heads together to get something done to improve the quality of service at an airport that is rapidly becoming a national embarrassment? We think that passengers deserve better.
Actually, I think that passengers deserve better. That is why the Government have the very clear policy position that if the local environmental conditions are met we should have a third runway, which would preserve Heathrow’s place as a premier international airport. The hon. Lady, however, seems to be torn from pillar to post. On the one hand, she is being advised by her one of her right hon. Friends that yes, we need more capacity at Heathrow; on the other, she is being advised by another right hon. Friend that we do not need any increase in capacity at all. Which will she do?
The Secretary of State cannot wash her hands of responsibility for the state of Heathrow today. The Government are part of the problem, when they should be part of the solution. Why do they think that 45-minute waiting times at immigration are acceptable? Do they not recognise that long queues are in themselves targets and security risks? Will they admit that their one-bag rule, which the Secretary of State defended again today, is not in place to preserve safety but because of inefficiency? Why do we have to put up with the one-bag rule in this country when no other country in the world does?
There is a very clear answer to this: we have a more serious threat than other European countries do. The EU sets minimum standards which we have decided to exceed in order to limit the number of X-rays per passenger. That is for very serious reasons: we want to protect the public. If the hon. Lady is saying that I should lift the one-bag rule without regard to the security consequences, that is a totally irresponsible position. Of course we need to do better, and we keep these issues under review. Earlier in the summer, I convened a summit with the airport and airline operators. We have set up a working group to examine what progress can be made. I am optimistic that we will shortly be in a position to make progress, but first and foremost must be the security requirements of people in this country.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that part of the reason for long queues at Heathrow and throughout UK airports is the personal searches that take place of passengers by security staff, which are, I have to say, particularly intimate and intrusive. Will she work with the airport authorities to find some form of technology that could also be used in other countries to make these searches less intrusive?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the potential of better and more sophisticated technology. Indeed, at Heathrow, as in Glasgow, we are trialling sophisticated security screening technology and more sophisticated X-ray technology that may reduce the need for some of the intimate hand searches and may also lead us to a situation in which we can consider changing the restrictions that are currently in place. However, as I have already said, the first priority must be preserving and maintaining the security of the travelling public. Provided that we do that, I clearly want to make progress to improve the passenger experience.
Airedale and Wharfedale Lines
Earlier this year, the Department supported capacity improvements which have maintained longer trains on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines. In addition, the rail White Paper published in July set out the Government’s intention of buying a capacity increase of 53 per cent. for peak hour commuter trains serving Leeds between now and 2014.
Although I welcome the extra carriages promised by the Minister, lines are overcrowded now. Providing carriages many years in the future is not good enough; we need them now. Will he tell me how many of those extra carriages will be on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines, and what work will be done to ensure that infrastructure is in place to cope with extra carriages, such as longer platforms?
The hon. Gentleman should be careful when listening to the propaganda put out by his Front Benchers. The spending commitments in the White Paper that was published in July included a commitment to 1,300 new carriages. Those carriages will be rolled out throughout the network from next year, not 2014 as suggested by his Front-Bench spokesmen. Network Rail’s strategic business plan, due at the end of October, will tell us where capacity will best be provided, and a final decision on the allocation of all the carriages will be made at the beginning of the new year.
Does my hon. Friend accept, however, that the Airedale and Wharfedale lines are victims of their own success? We have refurbished stations such as that at Guiseley, new rolling stock that replaces 40-year-old, slam-door cast-offs inherited from the last Government, and ever increasing numbers of passengers. Does he recognise that in order to overcome major problems with overcrowding we desperately need extra capacity, and extra car parking provision at stations such as Guiseley to reduce the pressure on surrounding neighbourhoods?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Being a Minister with responsibility for rail at this point in the history of railway services is a privilege because the problem that I have to deal with is one of inexorably rising rail patronage. Under the last Conservative Government, however, particularly in 1982, a record low number of passengers were using the network. In the past 10 years there has been a 45 per cent. increase in patronage, which is in no small part down to the role the Government have played in investing in the rail industry, and in ensuring that our economy encourages record numbers of passengers to use the rail industry to get to jobs that did not exist under the Tories.
As the Minister will know, the Airedale and Wharfedale lines, and the other local Leeds lines, need something like 100 additional carriages, and that need is evident throughout the country. Would he please clarify where the 1,300 promised carriages will go? If they are to be delivered early next year, have they already been ordered? What impact will there be on disputes over the future of rolling stock leasing companies? What will the timing be, and when will local lines know about it, so that they are in a position to plan? When can passengers look forward to having a small chance of finding a seat?
If I have inadvertently misled the hon. Lady about the delivery time scale for the 1,300 new carriages, I apologise. I said that a rolling stock plan would be finalised early in the new year. The 1,300 new carriages will be delivered between next year and 2014. She will be disappointed if she expects major changes to the structure of the industry as far as the rolling stock companies are concerned. I believe that the current structure of the industry is fit for purpose and that the rolling stock companies are doing what they intended to do, so I do not envisage any change to that structure. Through the current industry structure, we can guarantee those 1,300 carriages—an increase of more than 10 per cent. on the current level of rolling stock on the railways. That is the biggest single step change increase in capacity for the rail industry since the end of the second world war.
The rail White Paper was published in July. It sets out the resources we intend to make available to the rail industry and the increases in capacity, as well as safety and performance, that we expect the industry to deliver in return. In addition to this, we have given the green light to Crossrail to relieve congestion on both rail and underground networks.
I am grateful for that answer, and the decision on Crossrail is particularly welcome. The c2c train operator on the Fenchurch Street line has done an excellent job. It is one of the best performing in the country and has improved reliability while keeping down ticket costs. However, overcrowding on that line is unacceptable and unsafe. My constituents who try to get on those trains at Benfleet station have difficulty finding seats. What will the right hon. Lady do to encourage further investment so that we can get more rolling stock, and will she support my campaign for an additional terminus station at Canvey Island?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks about Crossrail, which is a historic achievement under this Government. I understand his concerns about overcrowding—it is precisely for that reason that we are making the investment in capacity that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has just outlined.
I also understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire for his constituents to benefit from Benfleet and Canvey Island. I know that c2c, a good operator, is already examining options for ways in which it might increase capacity on those routes.
The hon. Gentleman campaigns for a new station on Canvey Island; I understand that that is an expensive route to take. However, as he knows, if he comes up with a robust business case, with improved and significant private sector investment and a high level of benefits to cost, the Government will consider it.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows about overcrowding on the west coast main line. The train on which I travelled yesterday from Carlisle was horrendously overcrowded because of the cancellation of an earlier train. However, overcrowding is a day-to-day problem on the west coast main line. I do not understand why Virgin Trains proposes to run a train from London to Glasgow with only one stop at Preston, missing out Carlisle. That will put extra pressure on the other trains in the area in order to reduce the time by only three minutes. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Minister responsible for rail to meet me to discuss the matter before the timetable is agreed?
I shall certainly ask my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail to meet my hon. Friend—I should be delighted to do so. I am sure that he welcomes the £7 billion investment in the west coast main line upgrade. It has transformed the prospects for the route and means that far fewer people now choose to fly between London and Manchester but instead, like me, take the train. Of course, problems with overcrowding remain. They will be taken into account in any forthcoming spending plans. However, my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail assures me that, given that the timetable is not yet finalised, he is happy to have discussions with my hon. Friend.
The right hon. Lady will know that congestion on the west coast main line is partly due to the fact that the trains have nine carriages. That is an increase of one on the original plan, which was for eight carriages. Negotiations are going on about providing a further two carriages to make 11 in all. However, Virgin Trains asks what profit is in that for the company if its franchise is to last only a short time. Will the Secretary of State look at the matter afresh and realise that if Virgin Trains is to provide two extra carriages per train at its expense, it needs a longer franchise period?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that such negotiations are never easy and that train-operating companies often come to the Department with requests for extensions to their franchises. He should consider the specific request that he mentioned in that spirit. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail assures me that he is optimistic that a deal about the extra carriages will be done. The west coast main line will benefit from greater train frequencies and more rolling stock as we deliver the single biggest increase in investment since the war.
Does my right hon. Friend realise that, on the overcrowded Hove to London line, Network Rail is about to remove the trees from the cuttings? Is she or a member of her ministerial team willing to come and speak to representatives of my constituency, of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and experts from the university of Sussex, who are worried that the risk of landslip on that crowded line is greater than any danger posed by leaves on lines?
I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend champions the concerns of her constituents. I understand that a meeting is already in the diary for tomorrow, when she will meet my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail. I am sure that she will use that opportunity to discuss those issues and ensure that the best solution is reached.
Buses (Antisocial Behaviour)
The 2004-05 British crime survey showed that around 1 per cent. of regular bus users had been a victim of a crime or antisocial behaviour on a bus. However, any level is too high and we continue to work with operators, local government, trade unions and other agencies to tackle the issue.
Does the Minister agree that the issue is not just about crime? For many people, buses are becoming no-go zones. I was at the launch of the Surrey coalition for disabled people, a group that, among others, has raised with me the fact that buses can feel hostile and unpleasant. There is no point in extending free access to public transport, particularly buses, if people do not feel safe to travel on it. Does the Minister agree that it is a matter of discipline, respect and civil behaviour?
The hon. Lady is right that we must do all that we can to ensure that travelling by bus becomes the first choice, rather than the last resort. As I have said, the percentage of people who have been a victim of crime or antisocial behaviour is quite small. However, it is important that we continue, for example, to install CCTV. In London, every bus has around six cameras, to ensure that the police can take up issues where they are reported, while there are 360 extra police officers in London dealing with antisocial behaviour on buses. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, the safer Guildford partnership is looking at a number of issues, including how to make travelling on public transport safer. There is also the STOP—safer travel on buses and coaches panel—campaign, which is looking at what else we can do to overcome any problems that arise.
My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that the number of attacks on buses is quite small, but that does not stop the public having a genuine apprehension, particularly on late-night services. Is not one solution to bring back the bus conductor, even though that would be at a cost to the bus operators?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. However, we should remember that the role of bus conductors was to allow passengers to buy their tickets, not to act as security guards. We should also remember that when conductors were employed in London they were the most assaulted members of staff, so reintroducing them is not the answer. However, it is important that we should continue to look at what further measures we can take, such as installing CCTV cameras, and ensuring that people report incidents to the police and that the police can follow them up. In that way, we can ensure greater safety.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of a survey conducted by the Birmingham Mail into bus use by passengers in Birmingham, which found a considerable increase in antisocial behaviour where the Tory-Lib Dem council had cut down on routes? Will she point out to the council that its duty is to increase passenger usage, not decrease it?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the role of local authorities in encouraging bus use. One of the things that we are doing through the draft local transport Bill is giving local authorities greater powers, which will make it easier to introduce quality partnerships, for instance, and if necessary, to introduce quality contracts, to ensure that local authorities provide the local transport that local people want, particularly bus services.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when people mention antisocial behaviour on buses they are generally referring to young people, particularly in London, where they enjoy concessionary fares? Although there is no excusing antisocial behaviour wherever it occurs, does she agree that we should avoid demonising young people, because that might result in our restricting access to certain services to which they are entitled like everybody else?
My hon. Friend makes the extremely important point that we should not demonise young people. He might have heard some comments recently about the “scourge” of
“some obstreperous kids…abusing the privilege of free travel”
and using buses as
“glorified getaway cars for their criminal escapades”.
I am afraid that those remarks were made by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). I hope that that does not mean that the Opposition are now backing, as the hon. Gentleman seems to be doing, the withdrawing of—
Transport Expenditure (Yorkshire)
The Department for Transport’s spending on transport services—road and rail—has increased by 77 per cent. over the six years to 2007-08 in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, up from £330 million in 2001-02 to £590 million in 2007-08.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but will she tell the people of Yorkshire just how long they can expect to be rooted at the foot of the league table for her Department’s transport spending? Will she also tell the people of Leeds why £350 million to transform transport in Leeds has been deemed too expensive, even though it fulfils the criteria set out by the Department, but £16 billion on the Crossrail system in the south-east is deemed good value for money?
Something like £1 million a day is being spent to support Northern Rail. As I said, local transport funding for road and rail in Yorkshire and the Humber has increased by 77 per cent., and local transport funding itself has doubled in the past seven years. It has increased from £75 million in 2001 to £156 million in 2007-08, while £250 million of investment has come through the TransPennine Express franchise. The hon. Gentleman needs to remember that it can be difficult to make comparisons between the spending per head in the different regions, because of the amount that might already have been spent on big strategic road networks or on rail. Overall local transport funding in Yorkshire and the Humber has doubled, and the spending on roads and rail has increased by 77 per cent. I would like to know whether the hon. Gentleman feels that Lib Dem policies would produce that kind of—
Duchy of Lancaster
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
Helping more of the most excluded adults to obtain a job as well as a home is a key priority across government through the socially excluded adults public service agreement.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. There is a particular difficulty with people who have chronic psychiatric problems. Will she tell the House what action she is taking to get those individuals back into the workplace and to educate employers about the benefits of employing those people?
My hon. Friend has a long track record of speaking up for that group of people, and I share his view that a home and a job are an important part of getting them back on track. I can offer him some good news. Through pathways to work, we are giving people assistance to manage their condition. We are also helping them through the increasingly successful local employment partnerships, involving more than 100 companies such as M&S, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which want to see such individuals skilled and ready to work and are prepared to offer them work. In addition, there is the recently announced jobs pledge, through which we will work closely with employers to get about 250,000 of the most disadvantaged people into work.
The Minister will be aware that, since 1997, the number of people living in severe poverty has increased by 600,000, that working-age poverty has increased and that the number of young people not in work or full-time education has risen by 20 per cent. Perhaps we should therefore not be surprised that, last week, the Government decided not to publish their usual annual Opportunity for All report. Instead, they simply slipped out the bare indicators on the Department for Work and Pensions website with as little fanfare as possible. Was last Thursday thought to be a particularly good day to bury bad news?
The figures have been published and they are on the website, which is open and available to everyone. I do not recognise the position that the right hon. Gentleman describes. We have more people in work and in decent homes than ever before; we have lifted 600,000 children out of poverty; and we have seen major increases in income and educational achievement. The whole point about the public service agreement is that it is a Government commitment to go even further.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I would like to emphasise something that I know my hon. Friend supports: we are working closely with employers through a particular programme to overcome the stigma that exists and to encourage understanding of such conditions.
Is my hon. Friend aware that people with learning disabilities and those on the autistic spectrum are often the most excluded from employment, yet when they get into the right work, they can be the most loyal and most effective of workers? What more can we do to help that group of people to identify the right employment opportunities and get into work?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is true that those who have been most excluded sometimes have a lot to offer. The challenge for us is not primarily about job opportunities—on any given day, there are some 660,000 vacancies—but the fact that we need to raise the game in skills, training and support that can be tailored to individuals such as those identified by my hon. Friend.
The third sector review published in July set out a vision for how the Government can work in partnership with the sector to support its work in four key areas: building stronger communities, transforming public services, creating social enterprise and speaking up for the people they represent. The office of the third sector is financing that with over £500 million of investment and by working with Government Departments to make it happen.
I am grateful for that answer, but I do not know whether it amounts to policy objectives. I hope that the Minister will join me in congratulating many in the voluntary sector on whom the Government are completely dependent, particularly in respect of delivering their care programme. I am thinking of the Leonard Cheshire homes in my constituency, which do a fantastic job for disabled young people. Will the Minister promise that the Government will not stand in the way of the voluntary sector, but work with it to enable it to continue to deliver the excellent work that it does?
I definitely join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work of Leonard Cheshire all around the country as well as in her constituency. The third sector review, which has been widely welcomed, including by Leonard Cheshire, is aimed precisely at creating the right environment for the third sector, in recognition of the inspiration that it provides. The Government can help the third sector by providing the right conditions, having the right funding in place and, in particular, providing stability of funding, which is crucial for organisations around the country.
My right hon. Friend will know from his visits to Hammersmith and Fulham that we have a very active third sector, as I was reminded last Friday when I visited our volunteer centre. Under the energetic leadership of Marion Schumann, it is now the biggest in London. What can my right hon. Friend do, however, about the local Tory council? From 1 October it has imposed swingeing cuts on advice to the black, minority and ethnic sector, and from next April it promises cuts in the voluntary sector of up to 26 per cent.
My hon. Friend makes his point in a very eloquent way. I very much enjoyed an Adjournment debate a few months back in which we discussed the situation in Hammersmith and Fulham. The Government can do some things and we are strengthening the framework for local government so that it has better relations with the third sector. The truth is, however, that the ultimate sanction is to vote them out.
The Big Lottery Fund is the primary source of funding for third sector organisations. They campaigned to protect it, and we are protecting all the money going to that sector. The Big Lottery Fund has made that clear and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome it.
The third sector in Tameside in Stockport is increasingly taking over responsibility for providing public services, often using one-off grants or other forms of external funding. What efforts are being made to ensure that sustainable funding regimes are put in place for such organisations, so that community groups can plan with more certainty for the future?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about what happens to third sector organisations. I had the privilege of visiting third sector organisations in Stockport, his neighbouring constituency, where I saw their good work. It is precisely through new objectives that measure the performance of local government in relation to third sector organisations that we hope to make a difference to the stability of funding provided.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will salute and champion the role of the third sector in the delivery of aid to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged children on the planet. This is not a request for public funding: will the Minister simply pay tribute to the extremely important work undertaken by the Schools for Africa project, which is engaged in mobilising the enthusiasm and voluntary initiative of thousands of schoolchildren across the country, in enabling the provision of decent-quality books and equipment to children in the developing world whose opportunities are few and far between?
Let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing championing of the need for the right amounts of overseas development assistance. I think that he would join me in suggesting that it is extremely good that we are on the way to the 0.7 per cent. target, which is an extraordinary achievement for this country. I also want to pay tribute to the voluntary work done to support aid organisations. The non-governmental organisation overseas aid sector distinguishes itself by speaking up for changes in the law and policy, and by campaigning in relation to the developing world, and we also very much want to protect that.
My right hon. Friend might not be aware that I was on the management committee of my local citizens advice bureau in the early 1990s, when the CAB and other organisations were condemned by Conservative Ministers for behaving in ways that were deemed to be political. There was an assumption that those organisations could not campaign to get the law changed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that was political correctness gone mad? Does he also agree that this Government’s policy towards the third sector should involve no such restriction on campaigning?
My hon. Friend has a distinguished record in championing the rights of the third sector. I did not know about his history of involvement in his local CAB, but he makes a profoundly important point. We had an illuminating debate on the matter last Thursday. While the third sector review champions the right of voluntary organisations to speak up, campaign, draw on their experience and say how they want policy to change, it is becoming increasingly clear to third sector organisations around the country that the Conservative party has great doubts about that.
The Minister has correctly said that the growth of the third sector, which is welcome, must not replace adequate funding of public services by Government. At the Lewes Victoria hospital in my constituency, however, the league of friends increasingly spends money not on fripperies but on essential medical equipment. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the third sector does not engage in work that the public sector should do, and that we do not effectively have postcode funding based on the strength of the third sector?
I do not know about the local example raised by the hon. Gentleman. I point out to him, however, that the health service budget has increased in the past 10 years from about £30 billion to more than £100 billion. Historically, volunteers have played an important role in relation to the health service, without, as far as possible, substituting for what paid members of staff do. At a local London hospital I had the privilege of meeting volunteers who add to what paid staff can do, and I agree with him that that must be the objective.
In the third sector review published in July the Government stated that they could
“see no objection—legal or other—to a charity pursuing”
“wholly or mainly through political activities”.
In last Thursday’s debate I asked the Minister if it was his view that a charity should be allowed to devote 100 per cent. of its resources to campaigning politically, to which he replied:
“No, that is not my view.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 989.]
Will the Minister therefore clarify what is the view of the Government? Should a charity be allowed to pursue its purposes wholly through political activities—yes or no?
In this we are guided by the Charity Commission. If the hon. Gentleman had done his homework, he would have read the April 2007 Charity Commission document on the matter. Question 11 asks about a small charity that might for a temporary period devote all its resources to campaigning. The Charity Commission view is that that is all right, and that is my view, too. However, it goes on to say that if in the long term that becomes the sole activity of an organisation, then that is not acceptable. It is becoming increasingly clear that while we want to protect the independent voice of charities, the Opposition want to go back to the 1980s—
If the voluntary sector is to be more successful in bidding for public services, is it not the case that it must improve its bidding, its marketing of itself and demonstrate its track record, and also that it must have more robust forms of governance and clearer lines of accountability to its stakeholders? What are the Government doing to enable it to capacity build in those regards, so that it can have a better track record in winning public service contracts?
Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The investment that we are making through Capacitybuilders in this spending review is precisely about building up the capacity of third sector organisations, so that they have the skills to be able to supply public services and fulfil contracts. Also, the Futurebuilders programme is investing in public services. The third sector accepts its responsibility to demonstrate the accountability my hon. Friend talks about, and to have the necessary skills and expertise.
Is the Minister not aware that the voluntary sector in this country is often assisted financially by local authorities, and that that is money well spent? Is he not further aware that many local authorities—not least Cheshire county council and Macclesfield borough council in my constituency—are under-resourced and do not have the opportunity or ability to help voluntary organisations such as the Crossroads association in Macclesfield, of which I am patron? They want to do more, but they do not have the money. Will the Government ensure that local authorities are adequately resourced?
The hon. Gentleman is a long-serving and distinguished Member of this House, but it sounds as if he is making a request that goes beyond my remit: that we should spend a lot more public money on local authorities. I shall pass on his thoughts to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I point out to him that how much local authorities prioritise the work that they do with the third sector is a matter for their discretion. Many local authorities have a distinguished record, and I urge others to follow their example.
Small community organisations are an essential part of a strong local voluntary sector—indeed, they are a key part of a strong and thriving community—and support for their work is a Government priority. The office of the third sector has created the £30 million community assets fund, which will help community groups to take on the ownership and management of assets. It is also introducing a new £80 million programme of small grants for small community and voluntary organisations and a £50 million programme of endowment grants to help local foundations to provide an enduring source of funding.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. In Hove and Portslade in my constituency, the Sussex multiple sclerosis treatment centre, a charitable organisation set up and run entirely by MS sufferers, was charged VAT on its building work to enlarge its centre. We were eventually able to get the VAT written off, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be of particular benefit to all charitable organisations if there was VAT exemption for such third sector organisations?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on achieving the write-off. In any application for a local authority grant to pay for refurbishment or repairs, third sector organisations are very much encouraged to include the costs of VAT, so that every such organisation gets the full cost recovery from grants of that kind. On the wider question, there is a generous package of tax relief and tax exemptions for charities, but broader questions about VAT are a matter for the Treasury. I shall bring her point to the attention of my Treasury colleagues.
Areas in my constituency rank in the top 10 per cent. of deprived communities. Last Friday, I discussed one particular project that is seeking funding both to develop volunteers to help others and to help alleviate deprivation in Skelmersdale by increasing access to advice and skills by way of information and communications technology facilities. How will the Government’s investment in the third sector help such organisations?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her excellent work as a champion of voluntary organisations in her constituency. Through Capacitybuilders, the Government are providing some £85 million-worth of investment over the next three years to local and national organisations to give advice and support, including on administration and skills, on making use of computers and on the internet. I would recommend that as a first step the organisation that she mentions goes to the Capacitybuilders website or contacts its main switchboard. We can provide her with the details about that. Many local authorities and businesses often provide surplus computers and equipment to voluntary organisations, and she might like to pursue that avenue too.
I am afraid that it is not my position to condemn one council or another. This Government have made it clear to local authorities that we expect them to provide sustainable, long-term, three-year funding in compliance with the Compact, which applies across the country. They should also ensure, as part of the local government performance framework, that local third sector organisations thrive in every local area across this country in line with this Government’s objective of ensuring that we have a modern, 21st-century third sector that delivers, and stands up and campaigns for the needs of people in communities.
Voluntary organisations have an important role to play in the design, development and delivery of public services. That is why in areas such as child care provision, recycling and employment services we are promoting the sector’s role. Third sector delivery will not be used by this Government as a cut-price alternative to properly funded public services.
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman, because lots is happening. If one looks around the country at the different services provided by the voluntary sector, from recycling to pathways to work, the offender management service to child care provision, one sees that in a whole host of different areas the third sector is increasingly playing a role in public services. There is further to go and we want to encourage it.
Before I call the statement, may I say that a practice has come in that hon. Members are reading supplementary questions? I am not going to single out any hon. Member, but they should hear what the Minister has to say and respond accordingly. Questions should not be prepared beforehand. We are well into this Parliament, and the practice should not continue.
Scottish Elections 2007
I would like to welcome the publication of the Electoral Commission report into the conduct of the May 2007 elections. Earlier today, Mr. Gould, the head of the commission’s independent review team, launched the report at a press conference in Edinburgh. The House will appreciate that I am not in a position at present to give a definitive response to all the recommendations or options that touch on the Secretary of State for Scotland’s responsibilities for the elections to the Scottish Parliament. As is standard with these reports, I will of course respond formally in writing in due course.
In May, my predecessor, the Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), made a commitment that the Government would update this House in the light of the publication of Mr. Gould’s report. In making this statement today, I am honouring that commitment.
In the main, I believe that the report is a valuable contribution to the analysis of what went wrong in administrative terms in the period leading up to and including the night of count for the May elections. I do not agree with every aspect of Mr. Gould’s analysis and I shall explain that in more detail shortly. But my one main message for the House today is that it is my principal objective to ensure that, in the interests of the voter, we will never again face the problems we saw on 3 May.
Mr. Gould’s report offers several recommendations about how to achieve that objective. Importantly, he recommends that elections to the Scottish Parliament and to local government in Scotland be decoupled and no longer held on the same day, and it is my understanding that the Scottish Executive had signalled at an earlier stage their intention to look seriously at that.
A positive decision on decoupling would, I think, be welcome, but none the less I am here today to tell the House that I can accept a number of the core recommendations in the report. First, Mr. Gould recommends that electronic counting should in future be restricted to local government elections, and I am happy to accept today that electronic counting will not be required for separate Scottish parliamentary polls. Secondly, on ballot paper design, Mr. Gould proposes that we should revert to two separate ballot papers: one for the regional vote and one for the constituency. Although I may not agree with all Mr. Gould’s reasoning in reaching that recommendation, I see advantage in reverting to the two-page arrangements for future Scottish parliamentary polls and so I accept that recommendation. Thirdly, the report proposes a longer period between close of nominations and polling day, and I am minded to accept that proposal. Fourthly, Mr. Gould has emphasised the importance of consolidating the relevant legislation governing the administration of elections. I am minded to accept that recommendation as it relates to elections to the Scottish Parliament. Fifthly, Mr. Gould has proposed that electoral legislation is not applied to any election held within six months of a new provision coming into force. Provided suitable safeguards can be found, as Mr. Gould’s report encourages, I am prepared to accept that recommendation for elections to the Scottish Parliament.
Mr. Gould has also brought forward a very substantive option, designed in his view to tackle the fragmented nature of responsibility for all the elements that go into the conduct of elections. The creation of a chief returning officer with statutory powers would be a significant alteration of our present structures. I have an open mind on that, but would wish to see a wide-ranging debate among all interested parties about the implications of our moving to such a radically different structure of accountability.
The topic of the overnight count is clearly an issue of concern to Mr. Gould. He recognises that there are advantages and disadvantages to overnight counting, but concludes by recommending that, if polls continue to close at 10 pm, there should be no overnight count of the ballot papers. To abandon completely overnight counting for parliamentary elections would represent a major departure from well-established precedent. I am not convinced that such a change would necessarily have any great benefit for voters, but I am willing to hear the voices of those with a different view.
Mr. Gould devotes some time in his report to what he calls
“the use of ‘naming strategies’ by political parties to seek an advantageous position on the regional side of the Scottish parliamentary ballot sheet”.
He refers to that practice as “sloganisation” of party names and recommends that legislation be amended to
“minimise the possibility of confusing or misleading voters while facilitating a level playing field for all political parties”.
We will consider that recommendation alongside the others to which I have already referred.
I wish to offer a preliminary comment on the recommendation about assigning responsibility for both elections to one jurisdictional entity. Mr. Gould concludes that the “Scottish Government” would be the best logical institution. I have to say that at present I am not persuaded that Mr. Gould’s analysis of that point necessarily supports his conclusion. What we are surely looking for is improved planning and preparation for what in future will be two quite distinct sets of elections. The decoupling of parliamentary and local government elections should create clarity in terms of responsibility and accountability. That said, Mr. Gould’s recommendation is simply that preliminary discussions should take place, and I am willing to give that serious consideration. There are clearly lessons to be learned and changes to be made, but I do agree with Mr. Gould when he says on the final page of his report that
“it is important not to lose sight of the many positive aspects and good intentions of those involved in assembling and conducting the 3 May 2007 elections.”
Mr. Gould sets out the range of interconnected interests that are essential to getting right the various elements in the election process, but he has concluded that the fragmented nature of that planning process was itself a cause for flawed decisions. I acknowledge the Scotland Office’s role in the overall process and can say now that we have lessons to learn from the systemic failures that occurred. The changes that I have announced today are the beginning of the process of correcting those failures and rebuilding trust in the electoral process.
There have been different interpretations of what Mr. Gould means in his report by the phrase “partisan political self-interest”. We now have the benefit of Mr. Gould's additional comments at his press conference today, where he confirmed that
“party self-interest in this context is not necessarily related to one party”.
Mr. Gould’s clarification reinforces my own reading of the report. For example, at several points—specifically, on pages 17, 18, 26, 48, 107 and 113—Mr. Gould advances the argument that too much of the detail prescribing the administration of the Scottish elections was set out in legislation, and was therefore the subject of excessive debate and prolonged discussion among politicians. In his view, much of that detail should be left to electoral administrators to decide, in order to reduce the role that “political interests” play in setting the administrative framework.
The design of the Scottish parliamentary ballot paper was one example raised by Mr. Gould. The approach taken by the Scotland Office was to consult fully on the idea of a combined paper, including with the political parties, the Electoral Commission, returning officers and accessibility groups. Subsequently, and following further statutory consultation with the Electoral Commission, the order that included the ballot paper was debated and approved by Parliament. If that consultation was too inward looking and not focused firmly enough on the voter, as Mr. Gould suggests, I apologise and commit to learning the lessons for the future.
The changes announced today, and those that I have committed to consider further, should give Scottish voters confidence that the experience of 3 May will not be repeated. Specifically, the commitment to use two separate ballot papers for the Scottish parliamentary poll and the removal of the need to use electronic counting outside the Scottish local elections will make elections in Scotland simpler and ensure that future polls are not defined by administrative problems.
I have decided, as part of the necessary action in respect of recommendations affecting my responsibilities, to respond positively to an approach from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee to consider the report and let me have its views. I am grateful to the Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar), for his proactive approach.
In addition, I wish there to be further parliamentary debate in this House and will initiate wider discussion with ministerial colleagues and with the wide range of interests involved in electoral matters. That would include the Electoral Commission and Mr. Gould and his team, if possible. I believe that those are important steps to take before we finalise views to be set out in our final written response to the report.
I commend Mr Gould’s report to this House and look forward to more extended debate on its findings in due course.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for the advance copy that he let me have. Although the inquiry was not held according to the terms that we sought, Mr. Gould is a leading world expert on the organisation and management of elections, and is a person of impeccable independence and expertise.
The Secretary of State’s apparent suggestion that everybody is to blame, and that therefore no one is to blame, simply will not do. It is time for the Scotland Office to take responsibility for failing the people of Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman is also the Secretary of State for Defence, and today he has been forced to come to the House to defend his predecessor, who is, disappointingly but perhaps not surprisingly, absent. However, the right hon. Gentleman has scant chance of success, because there can be no defence to the conclusion of an independent reviewer, who says that both the Scotland Office—the Scotland Office, Mr Speaker—and the Scottish Executive were frequently focused on partisan political interests in carrying out their responsibilities, overlooking voter interests and operational realities. Furthermore, what was characteristic of 2007 was a notable level of party self-interest evident in ministerial decision making.
Does the Secretary of State agree that such behaviour is tantamount to attempting gerrymandering in the worst traditions of Tammany hall politics, and that it demonstrates complete contempt for the democratic process, laying bare the inner workings of the Labour establishment for all to see? Is not the position rendered even worse by the fact that the former Secretary of State was also Labour’s Scottish election co-ordinator?
The Secretary of State knows that when candidates and agents break the rules for their advantage they go to prison. What sanction does he propose for Ministers who seek to make rules for their partisan advantage? If the Government cannot be trusted with the basic democratic duty to run elections fairly and without political interference, what can they be trusted to do?
On 23 May, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South promised to apologise if the review found fault with the actions and decisions of the Scotland Office. The review has revealed not only partisan decision making but serial incompetence: Ministers unable to pass legislation in time, unable to take decisions in time and unable to communicate with their counterparts in Scotland; decisions taken against all advice and two different elections with two different voting systems on the same day, with votes to be counted electronically through the night. The fact that the election was not an even worse shambles is due to the work of returning officers and their officials, who should never have been treated in such a cavalier manner.
The current Secretary of State has said that he is not in a position to give a definitive response to the report, but what is required is for his predecessor to give the apology that he promised, and the definitive response the House requires. In the light of that response, we shall judge whether his predecessor is fit to continue in public office. However, what is absolutely clear from this damning report is that in future no one should ever again hold ministerial responsibility for elections simultaneously with responsibility for the conduct of their party’s campaign, and the Minister should immediately be stripped of those responsibilities in the Labour party.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising the appropriate qualifications that Mr Gould brought to the job. Nobody reading the report can say that it is not robust and challenging; it has 120 pages. However, it is perfectly clear from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution from the Dispatch Box that he has not had the opportunity to read them all yet—[Interruption.]—or to absorb them all.
I caution the hon. Gentleman about quoting discrete parts of the report out of context, even though I am about to do just that to give the House an example of the danger of doing so—he may want to take particular note. I shall quote one sentence, from page 120:
“Almost without exception, the voter was treated as an afterthought by virtually all the other stakeholders.”
The hon. Gentleman’s party falls within the definition “all the other stakeholders”—[Interruption.]
The Conservative party’s response makes my point. If you are going to comment on the report—[Hon. Members: “We.”] If one is going to comment on the report, one should at least take the time and trouble to read all of it. Moreover, it would help if hon. Members had listened to Ron Gould when he introduced the report and was asked the very questions that lie behind the observations. In response to a particular question, he said:
“So I don’t think I would absolve any party”.
He was asked about gerrymandering and said:
“‘Party self-interest’ in this context is not necessarily related to one party.”
It behoves us all as the political classes—[Interruption.]
Despite the endeavours of the hon. Gentleman and no doubt others, I am focusing on making sure that what happened will not happen again. The response that I have given today will, I think, ensure that it will never happen again, because I anticipate that the Scottish Parliament will exercise its power to decouple the elections. However, it chose not to exercise that power before these elections; it kept them together.
To return to the report, Mr. Gould made clear what the phrase that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) relies on so heavily actually means. Mr. Gould had the opportunity to single out individuals, but he does not call for anyone to resign. He says that no was being singled out for blame. These were complex issues. People acted in good faith and we have to move forward.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this country has the fine tradition of announcing election results as soon as possible? Will he assure me that he will maintain this tradition?
Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the statement of Alex Salmond, the First Minister, was intentionally misleading when it appeared on the ballot papers in relation to the regional list? Will my right hon. Friend take up the recommendation from Ron Gould that the party name should appear on the ballot paper in future elections?
My hon. Friend chairs the Scottish Affairs Committee and has suggested that the Committee consider the report in the detail that its complexity requires. He raises two important points, both of which I dealt with in the statement. I agree that overnight counts are a long-standing part of our democratic and political process. There is an expectation among the electorate that they will have the results of parliamentary elections immediately after the polls close. That necessitates overnight counts and I do not think that it is any more difficult for machines to count votes overnight than it is for them to count them during the day. It might be more difficult for people to do that, but my experience of elections is that overnight manual counts have been very successful for decades.
I am prepared to consider my hon. Friend’s point on that issue, as I am prepared to consider the recommendations about the designation of parties. However, there will need to be consultation and consideration on the nature of the recommendations.
I also thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Ron Gould is to be congratulated on the report. It is a thorough and authoritative analysis of what happened in May and he has clearly defied those who said that he would not be able to produce such an independent piece of work.
I regret to say, however, that the Secretary of State’s statement today raised almost as many questions as it answered. He is right: all parties had a role to play in this process. Only one party, however, took decisions—his party and that is a fact from which there is no hiding.
The role of the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), requires close examination. Essentially, the Secretary of State has come to the House today to say that a wee boy done it and ran away, which really is not good enough. It has been observed that the Scotland Office does not have much to do. In fact, the organisation of elections is the only executive function that it retains. The Gould report is a detailed and damning critique of the Department’s failings. Today, it seems that another Department has been added to the list of those that are not fit for purpose. It is regrettable that the Secretary of State is not prepared to acknowledge today that the logical and sensible next move would be to give the Scottish Parliament control over its own elections. The Secretary of State says that he is yet to be persuaded of that, but he does not offer any reason why the law should continue to defy logic in such a way.
The report is about more than administrative failings in the electoral process; it is about the politics that led up to that process. The Secretary of State has already referred to Mr. Gould’s comments, and expanded on Mr. Gould’s reference to “partisan political interests”, but the House should be aware of the whole paragraph in which that phrase is used. It speaks of Ministers who
“were frequently focused on partisan political interests in carrying out their responsibilities, overlooking voter interests and operational realities within the electoral administration timetable. At worst, the Ministers disregarded the highly negative and disruptive influence on the elections caused by their delays in arriving at key decisions. At best, they either overlooked or were poorly advised with regard to the serious operational consequences that could and did result.”
It is clear from that paragraph that the process within the Scotland Office was removed from the normal Government process. Some personal explanation by the Secretary of State’s predecessor is therefore required.
The Secretary of State will be judged on how he responds to the report, and on whether he ensures, in the interests of the voter, that we will never again face the problems that we faced on 3 May, but the matter does not end there. The conclusion that I draw from the report is that the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South was responsible for a crisis that brought into question the fundamental integrity of our electoral process. It is wrong that he should evade responsibility simply by virtue of taking on a new job in Government. A villain who has left the scene of his crime is still a villain. He must explain his actions to the House, and if no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming, the Prime Minister should remove him from Government.
I refute entirely the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Scotland, now Secretary of State for International Development, in any way acted according to party interest in making the decision. I accept that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) quotes the report correctly. He does not misrepresent the report, but there is not a jot of evidence in it that supports that assertion. The issue of party interest therefore requires further explanation, and I suspect that that is why the media explored the issue with Mr. Gould this morning, when he introduced the report. I have quoted the explanation that Mr. Gould gave, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows exactly what that explanation was. I cannot go beyond that. If people want to understand what the phrase means, they have to look at it in the context of the whole report, the constant references to the issues throughout the report, and indeed Mr. Gould’s explanation.
Let me deal with the issue of the recommendation on who should have sole responsibility for the elections. The issue is covered in one paragraph on page 111 of the report, which says:
“As long as the responsibilities for the decisions which have an impact on the Scottish parliamentary and local government elections are divided between the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government, it cannot be guaranteed that these electoral processes will be conducted effectively, due to the fragmentation of the legislation and decision-making in this context.”
That is in the context of combined elections.
There is no question but that that is exactly what it means. The report goes on to make the recommendation that there should be exploratory discussions
“with a view towards assigning responsibility for both elections to one jurisdictional entity”.
If the elections are to be decoupled, those circumstances will change. I am happy to have those discussions, but we should recognise that if other recommendations of the report are accepted, they will change the environment. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing for it, he must argue from the evidence in the report, which is small, easily accessible and able to be understood.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh Scottish parliamentary constituency had the highest number of spoiled constituency ballot papers? I thank him for his constructive response to the workmanlike report from Ron Gould. Will he confirm that not only that report but the Arbuthnott report recommended that the elections to local authorities in Scotland and to the Scottish Parliament should be held separately, so the Scottish Executive certainly needs to give that careful consideration? Finally, may I thank my right hon. Friend for pointing out that for the Scottish Parliament we do not need electronic counting of the ballots?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s contribution, and I can answer yes to all the questions that he poses. I was aware of the comparatively high number of spoiled ballot papers in the constituency that he identifies. No individual constituency is investigated in the Gould report, because the authors of the report determined that the parameters within which they would be working would not explore the outcome or validity of the election. I suspect that that is why they avoided the detailed consideration of any individual constituency. However, their interpretation of the reasons why there were so many spoiled ballot papers essentially comes down to the fact that the two ballots were combined on the one piece of paper, and confused the electorate.
Just where is the Secretary of State’s predecessor this afternoon? Why is he not at the Dispatch Box, apologising? How can he continue to be the Secretary of State for International Development, going round the third world lecturing on parliamentary democracy, when he has been caught with his hand in the till?
I entirely refute the claim that my right hon. Friend has been caught with his hand in the till. That is not what happened. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should read the whole report. There is, for example, a suggestion that parties’ self-interest was served by holding a count overnight. How can that possibly be to the advantage of any individual party? It is perfectly clear that it was considered to be to the advantage of party politics, as opposed to the advantage of any party. I defy any hon. Member to explain how a count overnight could be in the interests of any individual party.
The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) asked where my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is. The answer is that he is making his way back from the United States of America, where he was attending a meeting of the World Bank, delivering a policy which all of us would wish him to continue to deliver, with the expertise that he has shown.
In the local government elections, most of the spoiled votes were due to people marking their ballot paper with crosses instead of 1, 2 and 3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there was nowhere near enough advance publicity regarding this vital change to the electoral process? Will he ensure that that does not happen in the future? Will he also reconsider his position in relation to electronic counting machines, and ensure that they, and DRS, never again play any part in any election?
There is a recommendation about education—and if the elections are decoupled, as we anticipate that they will be, it will be much easier to educate the electorate about an individual election in future. That is the responsibility of the devolved Administration. It will have to decide how that goes forward, and who, if anyone, it will contract with for electronic counting of ballot papers—if it agrees that that is necessary. For my part, I think that the decoupling of the elections of itself, and the recommendations of the report, makes it clear that there will be no necessity for electronic counting in elections, either for this Parliament or for the Scottish Parliament.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and welcome the work of Ron Gould and his colleagues. On behalf of the Scottish National party, I particularly welcome the sensible suggestion that in future the management of the Scottish elections should be the Scottish Government’s responsibility.
I hope that everybody in all parties agrees that the integrity and impartiality of the management of elections has to be uppermost among our responsibilities. In the case that we are discussing, that responsibility lay with the then Secretary of State for Scotland, who is not here, and the present-day Minister of State at the Scotland Office. We learn from the report—this is the crunch point in the exercise of ministerial office—that Labour Ministers
“frequently focused on partisan political interests…overlooking voter interests”
That is a scandal in a western European democracy. The charges are extremely serious—when will Ministers take responsibility and do the honourable thing by resigning?
I have already dealt with that issue. I repeat that I entirely refute the idea that my right hon. Friend or my hon. Friend acted as the hon. Gentleman describes. I pray in aid the whole report, and the explanation that Ron Gould himself gave to questions; I cannot answer for him, but I can refer to the answers that he gave. He takes the feet from the interpretation on which the hon. Gentleman relies. Given the constraints and circumstances of this opportunity in the House, it might behove the hon. Gentleman better to have accepted the obvious criticism, explicitly made, of how his party behaved in the elections; that might have given his position more credibility than it has.
As one who was on the ground that day, I should say that we all let our constituents down, because there was a need for a more professional and better-informed public information campaign. That focuses on the work of the Electoral Commission; that issue has to be addressed, as well as the professionalism of returning officers. Whoever is First Minister—Alex Salmond or Donald Duck—clarity has to be brought to the list system, so that such situations do not happen again. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that the consultation process will be speedy, so that any recommendations that he accepts will be brought in well before the next election? The system could then be tried and tested, and our constituents will not suffer in the same way again.
I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that he and the voters of Scotland expect—that this will not happen again. The report makes key recommendations; I expect that the Scottish Executive will act on at least one, and I will act on the others. The combined effect of the acceptance of those recommendations will ensure that such things do not happen again.
Other issues have been explored, of course. They may not have been directly responsible for what happened on 3 May, but the investigation has revealed a number of things that could be considerably improved. I have listed them, I accept that we will take them forward for discussion, and I have committed to doing some of them.
I do not speak for the Electoral Commission, but I understand that it has made it clear that it will learn lessons, which I am sure will relate to voter identification. We will have to deal with the issue of clarity of party identification, given the report’s analysis of its effect. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the report has criticisms of all those involved in the political process; frankly, a mature approach requires all parties to accept that.
Some of us in this House believe that the position of Secretary of State for Scotland is an important, honourable and ancient one. Is not this debacle—this tragedy for democracy—evidence that the Prime Minister, and the previous Prime Minister, has shown little regard for the people of Scotland? Indeed, it is an insult to the people of Scotland that the position of Secretary of State for Scotland should be tagged on to the position of another Secretary of State within the Cabinet. However capable the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessor, who is now Secretary of State for International Development, might personally be, it is obvious from the debacle that we see before us that one person cannot carry out both of those onerous duties. Will the right hon. Gentleman take the message to the Prime Minister that this House believes that not having a full-time Secretary of State for Scotland is an insult to the people of Scotland?
The hon. Lady brings a degree of personal knowledge of such conflicts to the question, as at one stage she was shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, although at the time she represented an English constituency, which she still does—[Hon. Members: “We are all British.”] I understand that. [Interruption.] If Opposition Front Benchers could just contain themselves, I am making the very point that they are making a noise about, which is that many of us in this House have been called on at different times in our political careers to be able, in nominal terms, to do different things. It is the ability to be able to deliver that is the test. I do not accept the hon. Lady’s point, but I do accept that we all have an interest in ensuring that the very positive recommendations of the report should be taken forward as quickly as possible.
While I am on my feet, I remind the Liberal Democrats that they, too, were in government in Scotland, and had responsibilities when these decisions were made; they were part of the decision-making processes that combined to create what people have called a perfect storm.
Many of my constituents felt extremely short-changed by the whole election process, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s recognition of that on behalf of the Scotland Office. I look forward to similar apologies from all the other parties concerned in due course.
Will the Secretary of State look into the role of returning officers? He may be aware that they receive substantial payments in addition to their roles mainly as chief executives of councils in Scotland, although officers at a lower grade often do the actual work. Will he consider whether there is a better way of organising things, rather than through the current returning officer system?
When Members who have not read the report in full—they appear to be here in substantial numbers—get a chance to do so, they will find the part about the professionalisation of returning officers, where some important recommendations are made. I think that those of us who have experience of having to deal with returning officers in the context of elections would welcome some of the professionalisation that is suggested. This is properly a matter for my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers at the Ministry of Justice. I will ask them to examine the matter carefully to see whether we can take forward these recommendations to meet the objective that Ron Gould sets out.
A sensible silk would start his plea in mitigation with an apology, but we have not had a scintilla of a shadow of a suggestion of an apology from the Secretary of State. Is that simply because he believes that there is absolutely nothing in the report for him and other Ministers to apologise for?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong on two counts. I am not a senior counsel, so I am not a silk. And secondly, I did apologise. When he reads the official record, he will see that I used the word “apologise”.
Although there is much to be commended in the report’s conclusions, one area is not highlighted as I would want it be—the part about the different forms of election. There are four different systems in operation, and surely it is time to return to one: first past the post. Secondly, in connection with an earlier point made by my right hon. Friend, may I say that electronic counting is the worst way to count votes? That was the worst experience I have had at a count; I could see absolutely nothing taking place that made any sense. As a consequence, we have what I describe as a democratic deficit, which must be addressed.
In my statement in response to the report, I made it clear that we do not anticipate using electronic counting again in parliamentary elections for which we have responsibility. The decision to have a different system of voting in local government elections was one made, quite rightly, by the Scottish Parliament in the exercise of its devolved powers. As I am a supporter of devolution, I support its right to make that decision. It behoves all of us to accept the reality as far as voters in Scotland are concerned, and to ensure that we conduct elections in a way that takes account of the confusion that might be generated. We should also use existing agencies to ensure that voters are educated so that they understand the systems and what the active exercise of their vote means, however they do it. If people understand that, they will use their votes appropriately.
The Secretary of State indicated that on the back of this report he will have a period of reflection and consultation. Does he intend to use that opportunity to reflect and consult on the operation of the postal ballot system? In 25 years’ experience locally, I have never known an election at any level where I have heard from so many people who felt effectively disfranchised because of the vagaries and shortcomings in the operation of the postal ballot. People are being excluded, not least in a vast area such as the highlands and islands, where family or work commitments can change at comparatively short notice. Will he include that important issue in the forthcoming consultation process?
I can immediately contrast the right hon. Gentleman’s constructive contribution with that of his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who for a moment forgot that the phrase “Scottish Executive Ministers” in the report refers to Liberal Democrat Ministers as well as Labour Ministers.
When someone has achieved at least some of their ambitions, as the right hon. Gentleman has, they can retire from ambition—but perhaps the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is not in that position yet.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. There is an interesting chapter in the report about postal votes, which collects evidence of experiences that a number of us have seen acted out in our constituencies, in this election and others. If I have understood the report correctly, the principal cause of the problem with postal votes in the 3 May election was the combination of the ballot papers and the bulk of paper to be handled, how it came out of the post and whether it could be scanned into the electronic system. I do not think that those circumstances will be repeated. They certainly will not while I have responsibility for elections to the Scottish Parliament, so they are unlikely to happen again. There are, however, other recommendations and advice for returning officers that should be studied carefully. Those fit into the category of recommendations that I think it better to refer to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Justice. If there are proper lessons to learn, they are not just for Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom.
Given the smooth running of elections to this House, when the Secretary of State makes his final report, will he find room for a section that draws the main lessons from the events that we are considering and addresses them to those who wish to change elections to the UK Parliament, especially those who advocate a combination of constituency and list systems?
Just say yes.
I am tempted just to say yes—but I do not want this to move from a statement on the Gould report on the conduct of the elections to a debate about electoral systems. However, personally, I think that there is much in what my right hon. Friend says.
To save the Secretary of State from pointing it out, I start by saying that I am English and I represent an English constituency. For years I was proud of the United Kingdom’s electoral systems and of the fact that people all over the world looked to us for the way in which to conduct proper elections. Then a judge said that postal vote fraud in England would disgrace a banana republic, and now Labour Ministers are accused in an independent report of trying to corrupt the electoral process. When will someone resign, or are the Government totally without shame?
The report does not suggest that any Minister tried to corrupt the electoral process. [Hon. Members: “It does.”] It does not. I defy the hon. Gentleman to show me where the report states that, even if a sentence or two is taken out of context. I rebut the suggestion that any part of the report even hints at that. Ron Gould certainly did not say that today when he was asked in his press conference what phrases meant.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman, an English Member and fellow Unionist, feels it appropriate to ask questions about this matter because it is of interest to him, and to this Parliament. I agree with him that we should do everything that we can to protect the integrity of our electoral system. However, the report makes no suggestion that anyone was at fraud. The administration failed; there is no suggestion that anyone was at fraud. Hon. Members who interpret the report in that way misrepresent it.
I am glad to hear the Secretary of State emphasise that the lessons in the report go beyond Scotland, because we are not considering simply a little local Scottish difficulty. Some of the issues, especially sloganising party names, problems with postal votes and the construction of the ballots, are covered by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. If the Electoral Commission does not have the discretion to deal with those issues, especially ruling some party names and slogans out of order, we need to examine the legislation, which covers the UK and all the elections in it. It is important not to lose sight of that in our discussions.
I agree with my hon. Friend. That is why we have already committed to feeding in to the Green Paper on consultation and constitutional matters some of issues that this valuable report raises. There are lessons for all of us who are involved in politics about getting, in our debates and discussions—which, of necessity, as Ron Gould says, we will approach from a party political point of view— the right mix between such an approach and the voters’ interest. The point at the heart of the report is that the political classes got that balance wrong. That may be a function of the way in which we have dealt with such issues historically. Perhaps we are now at a turning point for the way in which we should tackle them in future.
Following what my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy) said, may I tell the Secretary of State that the problem for many people with postal ballots was not their complexity or whether the form fitted the envelope, but the fact that they never saw them, because they did not arrive in time?
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) referred to electoral systems. The single transferable vote system for local government had far fewer problems than the system for election to the Scottish Parliament. May I therefore recommend to the Secretary of State that the right thing to do is simplify the electoral systems by ensuring that they all use STV?
Let me say two things to the right hon. Gentleman, who I think was making a party political point dressed up in another way. First, the failure to get the ballot papers printed and distributed in time for postal votes was, in my interpretation of the relevant chapter of the report, also a function of the fact that the ballot paper was a combined paper produced using a centralised print scheme, and the fact that the bulk of the numbers could not be processed. It all comes back to the combination of the two papers, in my view. The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced politician and he will have a chance to read the report at his leisure and come to his own conclusions, but that is my view, on two readings of the report. We might even have a chance to ask Mr. Gould whether that interpretation is right.
Secondly, when I looked at the comparative number of spoiled or rejected papers under STV as opposed to those in the Scottish Parliament elections, which uses the first-past-the-post system and the additional member system, I came to the same conclusion that the right hon. Gentleman did. However, more careful consideration might suggest that the system of auto-adjudication under STV may have masked the number of people who did not enter their votes properly on the STV ballot paper, because it accepted votes with a cross on them, if there was only one cross. We need to be careful about coming to conclusions from a partial interpretation of the ballot papers, as there may be hidden mistakes made by people that did not come out in the rejection system.
A sequence of events normally precedes a disaster—I say that from an old miner’s point of view—and we saw a number of sequences of events, which resulted in probably the worst debacle that we have seen for many years. It ill becomes all parties first to argue that they want an independent review—many of them also questioned whether it was really going to be independent—and then, now that that independent review is here, to call for one person’s head. A sequence of events means that everybody has to take some blame for what happened. I look forward to the debate that we will have, because I for one will have my say on what went wrong. I believe that thousands upon thousands of Labour voters were disfranchised in that election. We should have won that election, and I still believe that we would have won it if all the votes had been recounted, as I said at the time.
I commend my hon. Friend for his contribution. He has distinguished himself in the House as a Member who is prepared to lay criticism wherever he thinks it should lie, in debates to which he contributes. His point about the integrity of the report as a whole is an important one, which I have been stressing all afternoon. When Ron Gould specifically says that no one should be singled out for blame, it defeats me why people interpret his words in order to do just that.
When a public opinion research company was commissioned to do research into the Scottish Parliament ballot paper, it found that
“the rejection rate of 4 per cent. was significant as this was close to the actual rejection rate in the 3 May election.”
Following that report, the Electoral Commission recommended to the Secretary of State’s predecessor that further consideration be given to combining both votes on one ballot paper. Why did the Secretary of State’s predecessor reject that advice? Was it because he had already decided that, for party political advantage, he wanted a ballot paper with that design?
If the hon. Gentleman is going to make that sort of allegation, he at least has the obligation to say what the party political advantage could be for any party in having a combined ballot paper. If he can explain that to me, I will give some credence to his assertion. He will have the opportunity to do that somewhere else, outside the Chamber. He surely has the analysis in his mind and he should be able to tell me what it is. I challenge him to do that, because I cannot for the life of me see how any individual party is advantaged by a combined ballot paper. If he could even give me some indication through his body language whether he has any reason, that would help. [Interruption.] Right—I suspected that.
Let us deal with the issue of advice. The fact is that the testing was carried out, and that it apparently revealed a certain level of error. Despite that, however, the Electoral Commission, which carried out the work, reported it back to the Secretary of State and strongly recommended the combined ballot paper on the basis of its research. It did the work, and it recommended—[Interruption.] Part of the problem for the hon. Gentleman is that the letter containing that recommendation exists. It just so happens that Mr. Gould, although he was offered it, did not come to look at it. That is not necessarily a criticism of him. It is a criticism of those who seek to extend his conclusions beyond what they will sustain, which is exactly what the hon. Gentleman is doing.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the inconsistency of approach of returning officers throughout Scotland towards recounts in the elections in May. Does he agree that, irrespective of whether an electronic or a manual system is being used, it is appropriate that recounts should be available, particularly when a result is close?
I know that there was great concern about the fact that, on the same night and in pretty similar circumstances, one officer in charge of a poll decided to have a recount while another said that to do so was impossible. That caused a degree of concern, and I believe that all democrats should be concerned about it. Because of the constraints that Ron Gould and his team put on themselves during the review, however, they could not look at any of those constituencies individually. Perhaps it was better that they did not, because they did not want to open up the validity of the outcome of the election, and I think that most of us would want to accept that. However, this does not alter the fact that the whole thread of their recommendations on the professionalisation of returning officers ought to deal with that kind of inconsistency, and it is to be hoped that we can establish a process that professionalises them to the point at which all voters and all these kinds of decisions are treated in the same way across the country.
May I urge the Secretary of State to give a more thoughtful response to the cogent points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing)? The reality is that this monumental mistake—I nearly said “cock-up”, but that would have been unparliamentary—was made, and was known to have been made, at a time when there was a full-time Secretary of State for Scotland. What sort of message did it send to the people of Scotland subsequently to make Secretary of State for Scotland into a part-time post? For that matter, what message did it send to the armed forces to do the same thing to the post of Secretary of State for Defence? It was a very bad message indeed to send to both constituencies.
Factually, the hon. Gentleman is incorrect, but it would serve no purpose to point out when there was a full-time Secretary of State and when there was a part-time one. That is irrelevant. The point that he is making is that we should not have a part-time Secretary of State for Scotland. However, the people of Scotland, for whom he purports to speak, are much less exercised by this issue than he is. I suspect that he is making the point for party political purposes, rather than out of any consideration for what is in the best interests of the people of Scotland.
Returning to the issue of manual and electronic counting, does my right hon. Friend agree that the return to a manual count would be the biggest and most significant way of restoring the electorate’s faith in the system? It would be much more significant than having professional returning officers.
The presentation of ballot papers that voters can clearly understand, and that do not confuse them by the way in which they are combined, will be the single biggest advantage for voters in the future. Making all these comparatively straightforward, simple decisions now will ensure that this never happens again; my hon. Friend is perfectly correct about that.
To return to the issue of the postal voting chaos that disfranchised many of my constituents, I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State is keen to extend the time frame for elections, but that is not the only issue that needs to be looked at. What action does he plan to take on the ineffectiveness of some of the private companies involved in running the elections, particularly in regard to the postal ballot? Presumably, those companies were contracted on the basis that they knew when the deadlines were and when they needed to have the postal ballot forms printed in order for them to be delivered in a timely manner. Given that some of those companies have a poor track record on working on elections—not only for Scotland but for the Greater London authority in 2004—what does he intend to do about this?
The report addresses those issues and brings to the attention of those who need to know it that these contracts were made with penalty clauses. They should have been carried out in a professional manner and if they were not, it is a matter for the contracting parties to take forward the redress to which they are entitled. More importantly, we now have some significant experience of handling postal votes and we should be getting better rather than worse at doing it. I note that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) is in his place on the Front Bench and I am sure that he is listening carefully to this discussion. I propose that these important potential lessons relating to postal votes and associated matters be transferred to the Ministry of Justice. If there are lessons to be learned and actions to be taken, voters right across the UK should benefit from them.
This has clearly been an embarrassing, difficult and uncomfortable statement for the Secretary of State for Scotland—and rightly so. The right hon. Gentleman said in his statement:
“If that consultation was too inward looking and not focused firmly enough on the voter, as Mr. Gould suggests, I apologise and commit to learning the lessons for the future.”
I would like to give the Secretary of State an opportunity to expand on that apology, which is very narrow. It is conditional and focuses only on the consultation process. Will he take this opportunity to make the situation less uncomfortable for himself by apologising further—beyond the limited and conditional apology that he has so far provided?
I am entirely content with the words in my statement. I am entirely content that they respond in a positive way. When we all reflect on what happened and the criticisms that have been made, we will be able to go far beyond the places where Opposition Members have been trying to focus their questions to me this afternoon. We all have something to learn from this, and that includes the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who I am sure will be receptive.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. It is heartening that, as a result of the business statement last Thursday, the first debate on Burma ever to take place on the Floor of the House is scheduled for Monday 29 October. Pursuant to that fact, have you received an indication that the debate will be opened by the Foreign Secretary? As Chairman of the all-party democracy in Burma group, I am very concerned that if it were opened by anyone other than the Foreign Secretary, it would send a very serious message of weakness and indifference to the butchers of Rangoon.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the question of who the Government decide will lead for them on any particular debate is not a matter for me.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the light of the seriousness of the issues debated in today’s statement, the content of the Gould report and the previous undertakings given by the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), will you confirm that it is in order for a Cabinet Member to come before the House to make a personal statement? Can you advise us whether any such request has been received?
The contents of today’s statement will no doubt be digested by the entire House, but the Government’s reaction is entirely a matter for them.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance, as I fear that I may have inadvertently misled the House. I had not realised that the predecessor of the Secretary of State for Scotland was also a part-time Secretary of State for Scotland, albeit that he was not simultaneously a part-time Secretary of State for Defence. Is there any way that I can set the record straight on that matter?—[Interruption.]
Order. We have had enough explanations of everyone’s jobs today. Let us move on.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a national body to promote and enforce packaging reduction; to make provision for the disposal of packaging by certain retailers; to establish binding targets for the reduction of packaging; and for connected purposes.
Packaging is part of our everyday lives. It protects the products we buy, provides information to the consumer and acts as a marketing tool to boost sales. Much packaging is essential: we would have a problem getting a pint of milk or baked beans home without it. Much of it, however, is not. Even in our environmentally conscious times, packaging has recently been growing, not falling. We now send 5 million tonnes of packaging to landfill every year. We need to take a serious look at the packaging that fills our supermarket shelves, and ask how much of it is necessary, and how much is wasteful, needless and excessive.
Both economically and environmentally, packaging comes at a price. Families spend about £470 a year on packaging. We see unnecessary packaging every time we visit the supermarket, in the form of shrink-wrapped cucumbers or individually packaged bananas. Often, consumers do not have the option to buy a product without the excessive packaging. Today, the Local Government Association announced that council tax payers face fines of up to £3 billion if we fail to cut the amount of waste thrown into landfill. Consumers are paying three times over for excess packaging. We pay the cost of the packaging at the checkout, we pay increased council taxes and landfill taxes, and we will all pay the environmental cost of more waste going to landfill for years to come.
The Government have taken some, albeit limited, steps to tackle excess packaging. EU regulations on producer responsibilities and the essential requirements of packaging have been adopted into UK law. WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme—has taken positive steps on research into minimising packaging. However, the waste strategy for England, published in May, was a missed opportunity. It includes a handful of measures on packaging, such as higher recycling targets, but no real ideas on how to get to the heart of the problem; it contains new targets but no fresh thinking. We should go much further.
Supermarkets have taken some steps to cut back on packaging and reduce waste. Sainsbury’s came top in a survey that I carried out this year of Easter egg packaging, for reducing to a minimum the often gross amount of packaging that usually accompanies Easter eggs. Waitrose has taken steps to pilot plastic-bag-free stores, requiring customers to bring their own reusable shopping bags.
Across Government and industry, the movement to curb excessive and wasteful packaging has shown signs of life, but is in serious need of a growth spurt. My Bill sets out steps to be taken in five areas to cut excessive packaging and reduce waste: reform of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Courtauld commitments; augmenting the power of trading standards officers; creating a new national body on packaging; placing responsibilities on supermarkets to tackle the problem; and encouraging the reuse of plastic bags.
The Courtauld commitments are voluntary agreements brokered by DEFRA to reduce packaging levels. Ninety per cent. of the UK grocery sector signed up to them, and agreed to stop the growth in packaging waste by 2008 and achieve an absolute reduction in packaging waste by 2010. That sounds promising, but if we look below the surface, problems start to appear.
In answer to parliamentary questions, I have been told both that each Courtauld signatory “declares” its total packaging use each year, and that information on the annual total packaging use of each signatory is “not routinely collected”. Which is it? How are we benchmarking progress towards the targets? Another parliamentary answer tells me that a draft protocol is being consulted on with a view to it being agreed and implemented “in this reporting year”. If packaging growth is to be stopped as soon as next year, however, surely the means of reporting progress should be well established by now. How will future success be measured if there is not already a clear benchmark?
The Bill proposes that the Courtauld voluntary measures be translated into binding targets. Similar steps have been taken in other EU member states. The Courtauld targets are sensible, but we must reinforce the system so that they are given genuine priority, rather than lip service, by companies.
We already have legislation against excessive packaging. The problem is that it is not working. In theory, trading standards officers can combat excess packaging using the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2003, which stipulate that
“packaging volume and weight be…the minimum adequate amount to maintain the necessary level of safety, hygiene and acceptance for the packed product and for the consumer.”
Since the introduction of those, and their predecessor regulations nine years ago, there have been just four prosecutions for excess packaging. I have surveyed trading standards services around the country, and they are clearly finding it difficult to build a case for enforcement using the regulations. Wiltshire county council says that
“there are numerous problems with enforcement”.
West Berkshire council says that
“these regulations are difficult to enforce given the definition of what is excessive.”
South Ayrshire county council says
“there is little real impact that the regulations are having on reducing the problem.”
It is far too easy for businesses to show that they are complying with the regulations. Product presentation and brand image are taken strongly into account. If producers can find any evidence that sales have dropped as a result of a packaging size reduction, they can use packaging that is larger than necessary. A packaging arms race has begun, with ever bigger branded boxes jostling for space on supermarket shelves, and the consumer is left to pick up the tab for both the packaging and its disposal.
Even if the regulations were well worded it would make no difference, because trading standards departments are told not to bother. Last year the Rogers review described the policing of excess packaging as a “non-priority”, and no mention was made of packaging in the 2005-06 statement of central Government priorities for the trading standards service. The current regulations need technical amendments to prioritise the reduction of excess packaging over the needs of marketing departments, and Government need to stop ignoring the issue and provide some leadership.
My Bill calls for the establishment of a national body on packaging to support trading standards departments. It would work with them to tackle large-scale producers of excess packaging, and would offer a more co-ordinated and systematic approach to the problem. Such a national body could also place more emphasis on proactive packaging enforcement than trading standards departments, which tend to act only on specific complaints from the public.
If supermarkets and other retailers are to drive change and reduce packaging, the ball must be in their court. They must be given an incentive. Consumers should be empowered to take action and return unwanted packaging to the point of sale. The Bill requires large retailers to provide an in-store deposit point for the disposal of excess packaging before the customer leaves the store. Broadly speaking, packaging that can be removed by the customer before he or she leaves the shop is excessive, whereas packaging that must stay on the product if it is to arrive at the customer’s home in adequate condition is necessary. Making retailers take back the excess packaging that they force on consumers will send the message, loud and clear, that if they do not want to deal with it, they should not put it on the shelf in the first place.
Disposable plastic bags are a highly visible symbol of wasteful practice on the part of supermarkets. An estimated 17 billion plastic bags are given away annually by United Kingdom supermarkets—enough plastic to cover an area the size of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and west Yorkshire combined. Some countries have attempted to tackle excessive use of disposable plastic bags by introducing bag taxes, but evidence of their effectiveness or otherwise is mixed. Supporters of the idea point to the example of Ireland, where a 15-cent bag tax resulted in a 90 per cent. reduction in plastic bag use, but critics argue that the alternatives to plastic bags are heavier, and that the additional carbon emissions from transporting them offset any gains.
A better alternative to a plastic bag tax would be requiring supermarkets to participate in a deposit scheme for carrier bags. It would take the form of a levy—say 10p—paid on a bag at the point of sale, which would be redeemed when the bag was returned to the store. The charge would encourage customers to use bags sparingly, and in practice customers bringing the bags back would reuse them until the end of their useful life, when they would redeem the deposit or receive another bag. Attaching a redeemable deposit value to the bags would also create an incentive to reduce plastic bag litter.
We face many huge environmental challenges, and packaging is just one small but important part of a much bigger environmental picture. Outside the Chamber, I have found huge support for my campaign to cut excess packaging. The Independent and groups such as the Women’s Institute are running similar campaigns. The reaction both of my constituents and of people who have contacted me from around the country has been overwhelmingly positive In circumstances such as these, when a clear case for action is backed up by strong public support, the onus is on Parliament to act. Both the environmental and the economic costs make this an issue that must be tackled urgently.
The Government have recently come under fire for stealing policies from other parties. Lest my Bill does not receive sufficient parliamentary time during the current Session to progress to Third Reading, I invite the Minister to feel free to adopt the good ideas in it—and I promise that, rather than criticising, I shall be delighted.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Jo Swinson, Chris Huhne, Susan Kramer, Andrew Stunell, Norman Baker, John Barrett, Jenny Willott, Peter Bottomley, Bob Spink, Derek Wyatt, Mark Lazarowicz and Mrs. Sharon Hodgson.
Jo Swinson accordingly presented a Bill to establish a national body to promote and enforce packaging reduction; to make provision for the disposal of packaging by certain retailers; to establish binding targets for the reduction of packaging; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Thursday 25 October, and to be printed [Bill 165].
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Sustainable Communities Act 2007
Greater London Authority Act 2007
Further Education and Training Act 2007
Building Societies (Funding) and Mutual Societies (Transfers) Act 2007
Crossrail Bill (Carry-over)
[Relevant document: First Special Report of the Crossrail Bill Committee, Session 2006-07, on the Crossrail Bill, HC 235.]
I beg to move,
That further proceedings on the Crossrail Bill shall be suspended until the next Session of Parliament:
That if a Bill is presented in the next Session in the same terms as those in which the Crossrail Bill stood when proceedings on it were suspended in this Session—
(a) the Bill shall be ordered to be printed and shall be deemed to have been read the first time and second time; and
(b) the Bill shall be deemed to have been reported from the Select Committee and to have been re-committed to a Public Bill Committee; and
(c) the Standing Orders and practice of the House applicable to the Bill, so far as complied with or dispensed with in this Session or in the Session 2005-06 or 2004-05 shall be deemed to have complied with or (as the case may be) dispensed with in the next Session.
That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House.
This motion is technical in nature, and will ensure that the Crossrail Bill continues into the next Session. If enacted, the Bill will allow for the construction of the scheme. It is a hybrid Bill. It was introduced on 22 February 2005 and received its Second Reading on 19 July 2005 with a majority of 375. The Select Committee, ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), commenced its work on 17 January 2006 and completed its—unenviable—task on 16 October 2007, having convened for an impressive 84 sitting days, including a few evenings, and having considered more than 200 petitions. I am sure the whole House will once again join me in thanking the Committee, as well as the Clerks, Hansard reporters and doorkeepers, for their dedication, professionalism and enthusiasm during the past 21 months.
The motion’s purpose is simple. It will ensure that the Bill can be carried over for consideration in the next Session and that all the work that I have briefly described is not wasted. Carrying a Bill over from one Session to another is, of course, well precedented; indeed, this Bill has already been carried over from one Parliament to another.
If the motion is passed, there will be no curtailing of scrutiny in the next Session. There will be the usual opportunities for Members to consider the Bill line by line during the Public Bill Committee stage. Allocation of places on the Committee will be on a first come, first served basis. I urge Members to speak to their Whips as soon as possible if they wish to secure a place. I can say with confidence that the Committee’s deliberations will be measured in days or weeks, rather than months.
Whatever outstanding reservations Members might have about aspects of the project, I do not believe that anyone wants the Bill to be infinitely delayed or, worse still, cancelled, which is what could happen if they object to the motion before us today. I remind the House that there will be a Select Committee in another place to consider remaining concerns of petitioners. With that in mind, I commend the motion to the House.
London is the global city: it is the city of world finance, international tourism and the 2012 Olympics. It competes not nationally or continentally, but internationally and globally, and it therefore needs infrastructure of the highest global stature and highest standard.
I note that this debate can continue until 10 o’clock. An invitation to speak is a temptation to politicians, and the carry-over motion debate in the last Session unexpectedly lasted for two and a half hours. We should resist that temptation this afternoon.
Earlier today in the House, the Secretary of State for Transport said that Crossrail was a triumph for this Government, and it is certainly the case that if the Bill is enacted that will be a triumph for them. However, I should add that that was a failure for a predecessor Labour Government, because such a project was first mooted in 1948—in order to alleviate overcrowding on the Circle and Central lines, which might prompt some participants in today’s debates to say, “Plus ça change.”
This motion commits the Bill to Committee. We have been there several times before, and let us hope that this Committee stage is more fruitful and that Crossrail is built and being used in 13 years’ time—which is how long ago the last Committee stage was—and not just being talked about.
As the Minister also said, the motion is essentially non-controversial and aims to carry the Bill over into the next Session. The Bill proves the convention that hybrid Bills usually last for more than one Session; this one is probably close to creating records because, as he has said, it has spanned not only one Session but one Parliament. Conservative Members echo the thanks to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale), his Committee and all colleagues who served on it.
The Bill will have taken a long time to reach Committee when it does so in the next Session. In my short time in the House, we have had four debates on the Floor of the House on this and several major arguments, the first of which was over the location of stations—there will now be a station at Woolwich. There have also been arguments about the route—latterly, where to begin it and where to end—about where to have sheds and about funding: who, how much and when. The Government, the taxpayer, the fare box and business were always going to be involved in that, and with all due respect, the Government cannot escape the criticism of dalliance. The suggestion made in the previous Session that the financing be reviewed by Sir Michael Lyons was nothing more than a blind alley.
A deal is now in place, but it will need examination and further clarity. Londoners are already wondering how large the sum is on the cheque that the Mayor has written on their bank accounts. I hope that the Minister will listen carefully and that we will be able to explore the deal carefully in Committee. I am glad that he is making a note of that.
Throughout the parliamentary process, the Conservative party’s position has been to back Crossrail in principle and to ensure that the Bill’s passage through its parliamentary process is as quick as we can possibly allow it to be. That was our position and will remain so. We look forward to Committee, Report and Third Reading. We want those to be swift so that the mental work that has been done on this vital piece of infrastructure can be reflected in the physical work that needs to commence. We support the carry-over motion.
I do not intend to detain the House for any length of time, but it is right that a few additional comments should be made in support of the carry-over motion. I agree with the Minister’s proposal and his remarks about the importance of the Crossrail scheme and the good progress that is being made. I emphasise how vital it is for the future of not only London and its economy, but the whole country. There is little doubt that without Crossrail, transport and traffic in London would grind to gridlock within a short time. Crossrail is vital to the long-term success of our capital city and the economy of our whole country, so it is good news that the scheme is progressing and that a firm timetable is in place to ensure that trains will begin to run from 2017.
I agree with the tribute that the Minister paid to the members of the Select Committee and to its Chairman, because they have done a magnificent job. They have had to put a great deal of time into this—84 sittings and more than 18 months’ work, which is hard work by any standard—and they have made a significant impact. As the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) mentioned, their stalwart efforts have resulted in a station at Woolwich; it is now an integral part of this scheme and that was not the case when the Bill was first presented. It is essential to Crossrail, vital for the regeneration of the Thames Gateway and will be a considerable net contributor to the scheme because, as the Committee pointed out, the cost-benefit analysis is particularly favourable in respect of Woolwich. Common sense has prevailed, and the Select Committee has done its job successfully in ensuring that this provision is incorporated in the Bill. That is warmly welcomed in south-east London. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) is present, because I know that he, too, will wish to congratulate all involved in this progress.
The final comment that I wish to make concerns the funding package. Major progress was made in the recent announcements by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, in his pre-Budget statement, about the funding basis for Crossrail. The hon. Member for Wimbledon was a little churlish about Sir Michael Lyons, because his report came forward with the proposal for the supplementary business rate, which is an integral part of Crossrail’s funding package and has made this possible. It is a big project and the funding is substantial, so it is right that the package should be robust. By seeking support from several different parties, rather than having the cost all falling on the public purse, we have a better prospect of ensuring that the scheme proceeds and is properly funded.
I congratulate the Government on reaching this stage, and the Committee on its magnificent work. I wish the Bill well in its progress to the statute book and the process of constructing this hugely important new rail link in London.
I echo the Minister’s comments about the good work done by the Committee. Remarkably, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), whom I appointed to serve on the Committee on our behalf, still speaks to me. I give credit to the Committee for ensuring that its work has been relevant and suitably challenging.
I could, I suppose, spend some time giving a brief history of Crossrail, although perhaps not going back to 1948. Suffice it to say that perhaps the most recent emergence of Crossrail was back in 1989, with the central London rail study, which was, regrettably, rejected in 1994 by the then Conservative Government. However, to give them credit, they did ensure that there were protected alignments, so that when the project re-emerged, the route was safeguarded. That was very welcome.
I agree with the Chancellor that Crossrail is essential for the competitiveness not just of the City of London, but of the whole country. I certainly welcome the progress that has been made to date, and I would not want to impede that progress. However, just as the Committee states in the conclusion to its report on page 56 that it is
“concerned that members of the public may struggle to locate information that is relevant to them”,
hon. Members may have struggled to identify information that is of concern to them, especially about the financial framework that has been put in place to ensure that Crossrail proceeds. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to give us some reassurance on that point. For example, the pre-Budget statement refers to the resources that were allocated in the comprehensive spending review to allow the commencement of the main construction of Crossrail. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the phrase “main construction” is simply used to demonstrate the phases in which the work will be done, which would start with the main construction, and is not an indication that all that will be affordable is the main construction, and other components might not be afforded. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that does not represent wriggle room for delivering only part of the project, not the totality of it.
The pre-Budget statement also contains a reference to the Department for Transport contributing around one third of the total estimated cost of up to £16 billion. Is there a defined upper limit on that contribution, given that the statement is a little vague about the Department’s contribution? We need clarity on the £16 billion and where the funding will come from. It is regrettable that hon. Members have had to try to piece together the financial framework from different sources—principally the media—as opposed to having a clear breakdown. My understanding—and I hope that the Minister will confirm it—is that £5 billion will come from Government grants, as stated in the PBS—
Order. I am reluctant to stop the hon. Gentleman, but he is now giving the Minister a shopping list and may be leading him astray. I remind the hon. Gentleman, and anyone else who may wish to contribute, that this is a carry-over motion and comments should be restricted to whether the Bill should or should not be carried over.
Thank you for that intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My point is that the Minister is seeking the House’s support for the motion that would enable the Bill to be carried over, but to get it he must set out Crossrail’s financial framework. I shall be very brief, but we know about the £5 billion from Government grants and the £5 billion from the supplementary business rate, and about the £5 billion that will be borrowed against Crossrail’s fare takings from 2017. We understand that the Secretary of State secured an additional £1 billion from the City, and that that comprises £300 million extra from the City of London, £400 million from Canary Wharf and a contribution from BAA.
I hope that the Minister will confirm that that information is correct, as it is key to whether the House should support the Bill being carried over. I do not see how the project could proceed if the financial package is not in place.
Crossrail is desperately needed in London. It will provide the heart bypass operation that London’s transport system needs, and offer people another transport route that will mean that they do not have to rely on the heavily congested arteries that exist already. When he responds, I hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy us about the financial package that stands behind the Crossrail project, as that will enable us to make progress and to approve the Bill being carried over into the next Session.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), I want to congratulate a number of people who have been responsible for getting us to this point. First, I should like to offer my warm thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister, who has approached the matter in such a friendly and open-minded way. All of us in south-east London are delighted that the Government have finally accepted the force of our argument that there should be a station at Woolwich, and that that station is now included in the scheme.
I should also like to congratulate the members of the Committee—and in particular its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale)—on the way that they carried out their deliberations and took on board the arguments from the south-east London community about how essential a station at Woolwich is. I should also like to put on record my congratulations to my local authority of Greenwich. Working with local people, it has led the campaign and also brought the business community on board. We would not be celebrating today without the contribution made by those who will benefit directly from the development of a station at Woolwich.
I should also like to put on record my congratulations to the Mayor of London, who has fought so hard for Crossrail. His support for a station at Woolwich may have been a bit belated, but he got there in the end. We never tire of saying that the score is now 3-0 to Greenwich on major infrastructure projects: we won the arguments on the docklands light railway and the Jubilee line, and now we have won the one about Crossrail.
The Crossrail project is essential to Woolwich’s development as a hub for my community in south-east London and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, for the country’s economy. The scheme must go ahead.
I shall end with a question for the Minister. I am grateful for the written answer that I received today, the final paragraph of which states:
“Main construction of the scheme would begin in 2010, and we expect the first trains to run in 2017 as part of a 12-month build up to the full Crossrail service.”
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but we in south-east London are a bit sensitive and are aware that words are open to interpretation. When he responds to the debate, can he confirm that the full Crossrail service will include the south-east extension and the station at Woolwich? I know that it will, but it would be nice to have that on the record.
In conclusion, I congratulate everyone who has brought us to this juncture. Finally, the south-east extension and a station at Woolwich are fully part of the Crossrail scheme.
For a project that is unlikely to cost less than £16 billion, ongoing questions about the need for Crossrail are legitimate. At a time when the Government have slashed plans for large-scale tram and train-link programmes outside London and the south-east, the amount being put into London might seem perverse. As a London Member, I have always supported Crossrail, but it is important that we go through the arguments at this juncture. My constituents ask, “Why on earth do we need to have a further link running across central London?” There are relatively few votes in this issue for me or, I suspect, for any other London Member. Constituents who live in the firing line are perhaps rightly fearful of disruption, damage and inconvenience when the project is finally built.
I believe, however, that there is a great need in central London for the project, not least because of the big problems with capacity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) pointed out, the project has been mooted for well over half a century, and only the Bakerloo line is running at less than full capacity. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), a number of other tube lines have been extended north and south over the central area in the past 30 or so years. However, it is not practical simply to extend branch lines and bring more people into central London without the capacity-building that Crossrail will offer. It will be a proper addition to the infrastructure within the central district of the City and the zone 1 area, including the west end, which is increasingly important in commercial terms.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington rightly makes the case about funding, but in previous Sessions the funding package was by no means in place. Indeed, the numbers being bandied around at that juncture were £10 billion to £13 billion, which makes me all the more sceptical about whether the project will necessarily remain within the budget of £16 million. That is the way of things with large-scale infrastructure projects.
I am sure that the Minister will have something to say about funding, but it appears that it is finally in place. The City of London corporation provided the vital piece in the jigsaw at its meeting at the beginning of October, although I appreciate that there are concerns about the precipitate decision that was required by the Treasury. However, it was always clear that a fairly substantial financial contribution would be required. My understanding is that there will be a one-off lump sum of £200 million and that the City of London corporation will lead efforts to raise a further £150 million from the City’s financial sector.
The fact that the hon. Gentleman is using figures that are slightly different from mine reinforces the need for the Minister to provide some clarity. Members need to know that the financial package that has been put in place will be recession-proof. Until we see the figures, we do not know what we are dealing with.
That is a legitimate point, but the discussion has been going on for some years without any firm funding being in place.
I also pay tribute to Canary Wharf, which is putting up a considerable sum—a rather larger sum than the City of London corporation, if rumours are to be believed. It will receive the benefit of a station in the Billingsgate market district of Canary Wharf, and that will undoubtedly make an immense difference to Canary Wharf’s capacity to build to the south and on South Quay. There will be a proper transport network for all those who wish to work or, indeed, play in that part of London.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) pointed out the immense value of getting the transport infrastructure right. Although I am reasonably sceptical of the figures being bandied about, there are estimates that City businesses lose more than £1 million a day because of transport delays. The net benefit of Crossrail will apparently be £30 billion over the next 60 years, and that does not even include its contribution to taxation. I accept that the figures might have been plucked from the sky, but it is essential to compare them with the large costs that will be incurred. The project will also help to create great prosperity and, as others Members have pointed out, the economic success of central London is essential. All recent surveys of businesses within central London have put transport failings and, in particular, public transport failings at the top of the wish-list of problems to be overcome. Crossrail is a positive step forward.
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will forgive me for touching on one last point. I have ongoing concerns, on behalf of my constituents, about the route. I have discussed my concerns on many occasions, and many petitioners have had the opportunity to put their case during previous deliberations. The process will, no doubt, continue as the Bill goes to the House of Lords and proceeds through its stages, assuming that the carry-over motion is agreed today.
Without the funding, there was a big risk of a blight on the entire area—a risk that predates our discussions on the Bill. In many ways, it goes back to 1994, when various reserved areas were put in place. That has made life difficult for people living in Mayfair, the Barbican and Bayswater in my constituency, and, I suspect, for people in many other parts of London. They felt that the prospect of those works would lessen the value of their properties, and that a great deal of disruption was likely in the districts in which they lived. I hope that the Bill will move on with great speed. Clearly, there will be great inconvenience for many people who live in central London, or in the other parts of London that will be affected, but the benefits will be terrific in the years ahead. I am glad that Members of Parliament across the House, who perhaps recognise that there will be relatively few votes in the issue come election time, accept that there will be a greater benefit to the capital, and to the commercial and economic interests of the country.
I support the carry-over motion. It is no coincidence that, as Members reminded us, the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill submitted its report to the House today. I am one of the 10 Members who served on that Committee for the best part of two years. I hope that it will not disappoint the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) too much if I do not entirely take his suggestion that we should resist the opportunity to speak. I will speak on the Bill, at least for a little while, as it has been such a major part of our lives for so long.
I hope that in this debate on the carry-over motion, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will permit me to talk a little about the work of the Committee, and the strengths and weaknesses of the way in which that work was undertaken, because I think that it might help right hon. and hon. Members if they understand how we came to be at this stage and the work that we have done. Of course, I share the Minister’s hope that that work will not prove to have been wasted. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) reminded us that the House had a Crossrail Bill before it on a previous occasion—the Crossrail Bill that collapsed in 1994. Those of us who have spent the best part of two years on the Bill that we are discussing today will want it to fare better than the other Bill did, and will not want it to collapse. Of course, we are very much heartened in that hope by the fact that the Government have given such a firm commitment to the scheme, seem to have a credible funding package in place, and seem determined not to let the Bill collapse, as its predecessor did. Those of us who have spent so long living with the Bill feel that that makes our efforts appear worth while.
Undoubtedly, Crossrail is an exciting scheme. The Minister used the word “unenviable” when he described our task, and I have to say that sometimes in the past two years it has not seemed quite so exciting. Since 19 January 2005, we have met to discuss the Bill up to eight times a week, and sometimes during parliamentary recesses. There were 84 days of public meetings, and sometimes there were three separate sittings a day. We have considered 205 petitions in total. That has not always seemed exciting. There was a mountain of paperwork. We had to consider some 413 written submissions, and evidence bundles began to fill Committee Room 5. At times, rather than feeling enthusiasm for the project, we felt somewhat disheartened and rather irritated by the process to which we were subjected.
I am afraid that I will speak for a little while longer. I want to begin by considering the way in which the members of the Committee were selected. Those right hon. and hon. Members who have had a chance to have a look at our—
Order. I hate to reduce the hon. Gentleman’s time addressing the House, but we do not need to go down that line at this stage unless it is very pertinent to why the Bill should be carried over.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I entirely accept your guidance on that matter. There will no doubt be other occasions on which I shall be able to refer to that strange and unsatisfactory part of the process.
We as a Committee were charged with a quasi-judicial role in relation to the Bill. We provided an audience for petitioners, and we were successful in concentrating the efforts of the promoters and the petitioners to reach agreement, often outside the Committee Room, and in taking a view of the particular circumstances of those who petitioned against the Bill. That enabled us to make sensible proposals with regard, for example, to the traders in Smithfield, whose situation is undoubtedly different from that of many other traders who might be affected by a similar Bill.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) reminded us, we had the opportunity to argue forcefully and successfully, supported by him and other right hon. and hon. Members, for the station at Woolwich, and we proposed amendments to the Bill to enable a station to be built. We picked up a wide range of other issues, some as major and significant as the way in which Liverpool Street station should be modified, and some apparently trivial but important to the people affected by them, such as how people’s back gardens would be affected and whether a couple of metres of land should be taken. That may be significant to them, but not of the same significance to the scheme as matters such as Liverpool Street.
We have been able to respond appropriately to the cases put to us. To some extent we were hindered by the fact that the Committee can only be reactive in its response. It sits, essentially, to hear petitions and respond to petitioners against the Bill. It cannot be proactive. Although we took opportunities to make visits and to examine more generally some of the matters before us, issues about how hybrid Bill Committees operate could usefully be re-examined in the light of our experience, before a similar scheme comes before the House, possibly after a gap of some 10 years, as with the present Bill.
As is evident from our report, we hope that the Committee in the Lords will consider the fundamental issue of the public, Members of the House and, ultimately, Members in another place fully understanding what the Bill requires, as opposed to what it permits. We as a Committee felt that a list of amendments and undertakings was not sufficient. There should be an opportunity for Members and the public to gain a better understanding of what is permitted and what is required by the Bill.
I gave one example when I referred to Liverpool Street station. Although the Committee was anxious that that should be dealt with in a particular way, as a result of the process that we had gone through we could not be certain what would be delivered when the promoters built in the area. Similarly, the major triumph for the campaign for a station at Woolwich merely permits a station to be built there. In conjunction with that permission having been granted, the Government have gone to great lengths to ensure that an appropriate consortium is brought together and a funding package is made available to enable a station to be built, but it is not, as I understand it, a requirement of the Bill that such a station should be provided. That is an example of one of the issues that the Committee thought should be borne in mind both as the Bill continues its passage and more generally when we consider how hybrid Bills are dealt with in future.
It would have been useful if the Committee had had an opportunity, like Public Bill Committees, to hear evidence on some of the issues. We could have done so in respect of ground-borne noise, the compensation code, freight—we have specifically suggested that the other place might wish to consider freight—or whether a floating-slab track was appropriate. Such issues could usefully have been the subject of evidence sittings at the outset. Those sittings would have enormously helped the Committee to consider the significant number of petitions, although we did do that, and to do its job consistently throughout the process. They would have enabled Members who could not attend all sittings to understand the wider picture.
The Committee has come to the end of the process and we are enormously grateful for the support of the staff of the House: the Clerks—particularly the excellent Committee Assistants—and the various parts of the House administration, which have helped our work. We were enormously helped by the promoter’s counsel, who enabled us to understand some of the issues that in an ideal world we would have wished to explore independently. They helped us to make the system work flexibly.
As I hinted earlier, there are issues for the House on how Committees dealing with hybrid Bills should be appointed in future. There are questions about the powers given to them and—as is evident in our report—about the instructions given to them. I hope that despite those issues, the House will feel that we have done our work conscientiously, well and thoroughly. I hope that we have helped reassure the House that the Bill can be carried over with confidence.
It is appropriate that the carry-over motion should have come from the Committee, with our report, to the House, and that backing and funding should be being given just as the last hybrid Bill to have been successfully steered through the House—that for the channel tunnel rail link—is having such a dramatic impact at St. Pancras, where the link will soon open. I speak with confidence on behalf of the majority of the Committee’s members in saying that I hope that what we have produced in the past two years to take forward the Crossrail Bill will ultimately result in something that will equal the importance of the channel tunnel rail link—not only to London, but to the infrastructure of the United Kingdom in general.
I am another veteran of the saga—and, indeed, of the Jubilee line extension process, the saga before it, which involved a private Bill and carry-over, and lasted a long time. We all owe colleagues who volunteer or are volunteered to serve on such Bills our thanks, and we do that without exception in this case. They have no direct interest, as the issues do not bring constituency benefits.
I support the motion. With this sort of measure, it is imperative that the job is done properly, which requires use of the system for carrying Bills from one Session to the next. That is what has been proposed and it has the unqualified support of all the voices that I have heard so far from around the House.
I should like to add three things about what remains to be done in the continuing debate and about why we need to complete that debate. First, we need to follow up the questions about funding posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). The Bill is about plans and powers to build, but it does not automatically deliver the money to build—that has to come from elsewhere. The worst possible outcome would be that we carried the Bill over to the next Session, it completed its stages in Parliament and received Royal Assent, and there then remained some uncertainty about funding. There has always been Government resistance to this being a publicly funded enterprise, for reasons that I understand. It is welcome that the City of London recently announced that it is going to contribute and that the Canary Wharf company has put something into the kitty, as it did for the Jubilee line extension. Given that this is a private Bill, which is not quite the same as a Government Bill albeit that it has Government backing, I hope that the Minister will say that as well as Government support for the process he will offer his Department’s support to ensure that the funding continues to come together so that by the time the Bill receives Royal Assent we will know the funding is in place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is not only the potential scenario whereby the funding package is not agreed but one whereby part of the funding package is provided to enable the main construction to happen, perhaps the tunnel from Liverpool Street to Paddington, but not to complete the extremities?
That element is absolutely imperative. I see the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) in his place. This proposal is not just for Paddington to Liverpool Street—it is to link the lines west of Paddington and the places east of Liverpool Street, and it has to be a complete package.
Secondly, the timing of this carry-over motion is intriguing. We might have had it as one of the last bits of business this Session with a general election coming the day after. We had an announcement by the Prime Minister and others on the Friday before the famous Saturday when Mr. Andrew Marr told the nation that we were not going to have a general election: a slightly odd ambassador for the Prime Minister, but there we are; cometh the hour, cometh the man. On that day, the Prime Minister was very clear that the funding was in place. A week later, the Mayor of London appeared to be rewriting the funding script in a press conference at City hall. Will the Minister not only give the undertaking that funding can be examined in Committee but ensure that by the time we start that process he has had all the key players round the table to ensure that the Government are satisfied that our London regional government, the private sector contributors and the UK Government have all their ducks in a row?
Thirdly, this is potentially a momentous year for London Transport because we are about to see the opening of the cross-channel rail link in its new terminus. I have to say that that particularly disadvantages my constituents and those of my neighbours, because getting to Waterloo is fantastically easy and convenient, as indeed it is from here, whereas getting to St. Pancras is less easy and convenient. However, we fought that battle and the die has been cast. If that opens on schedule, as I hope it will—I think that it is all teed up to happen—it is important that we have not only the international connections but the national connections east, west, north and south. Some of us have always said—I deduce it in the words of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster—that this cannot be done without giving thought to the communities who live along the line covered by the Bill. The Minister will know, although it is not his particular responsibility, that we have had the mother and father of battles south of the river to ensure that the Thameslink proposal—a north-south access route to improve travel through London, which was originally called Thameslink 2000, and is a good proposal in principle—did not have a major destructive impact on the area around Borough market in my constituency, which is a conservation area and an historic part of central London. I am still not convinced that what is proposed will satisfy the double requirement of the national interest and the local one.
If the Crossrail Bill is to be carried over and receive Royal Assent, it is a prerequisite that the interests of the communities that bear the burden of construction, and the disruption that it will cause, are properly heeded. It is no good having a fantastic line under London, with great east-west links from one side to the other, while the centre of London is disrupted unrealistically and excessively in the interim. By definition, there will be huge disruption during the next few years because of the Olympics, which I support. There will be the works for the north-south Thameslink route, and there has been work on the St. Pancras line. Crossrail is a good project, but the money needs to be in place, and the communities affected should experience minimal disruption and receive some of the benefit.
Crossrail is a line of benefit to London and the United Kingdom as a whole. I wish it well, but there are significant remaining questions to be answered.
I rise, as other hon. Members have, to support the carry-over motion. None of my comments should be construed in any other sense than that I am really pleased for my colleagues in south-east London, and I congratulate them on their successful campaign for the Woolwich station. It will enhance the Crossrail scheme, and I am pleased that the Committee has gone down that route.
I am delighted for London as a whole, but as a Reading Member, hon. Members would expect me to express some disappointment that the Committee report makes scant reference to the evidence given by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) and myself, petitioners from the Reading area, and the Thames Valley chamber of commerce. In fact, I was somewhat surprised to find that the Select Committee report is incorrect, and one of my reasons for speaking today is that I wish to put that fact on the record. The report refers to:
“Petition No. 65 – Michael Salter MP”
and goes on to refer to the Olympic games and the funding package. Actually, my evidence on 5 July did not touch on any of those subjects. My evidence resulted from a petition that I presented on behalf of the Reading Evening Post, and major businesses in the Reading area, including employers such as Microsoft, Foster Wheeler Energy, Yell, MCI, Reading borough council, Reading chamber of commerce, Transport 2000 and around 250 local businesses, residents and commuters. The petition was quite clear. It says:
“We the undersigned are concerned that the Crossrail Bill currently before Parliament includes provision for the western terminus to be located at Maidenhead rather than Reading and that no provision is made for a western rail link to Heathrow airport. It is our view that these two measures would yield significant benefits to the Reading area and enable Crossrail to properly realise objectives to “connect the UK”. We also urge Parliament to ensure that the final Crossrail scheme does not impede the current high speed rail services into Paddington from Reading and the West.”
On the summary page of the Committee’s report it says, quite clearly:
“The Committee has only commented on cases where it deemed necessary. It all other cases, the Committee was satisfied with the undertakings and assurances offered by the Promoter to the Petitioner.”
No member of the Select Committee who was present on 5 July can have been in any doubt that there was a serious question mark over the assurances and undertakings given by the promoter, because there is no case for locating a western terminus for Crossrail at Maidenhead. The motto of Crossrail was, from memory, “Crossing the capital, connecting the UK”. I have no beef with Maidenhead, but one cannot connect anywhere with it. Reading is the second busiest station outside London, and is second only to Birmingham New Street in that regard. It is a major rail hub.
If there is to be a terminus significantly west of London, it has to be in Reading. The hon. Member for Reading, East, other petitioners and I made the point that Crossrail is a stopping service. We currently enjoy a good, fast, high-speed train service into London from the west. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) is nodding, and I know that hon. Members from Bristol and Wales share our concern. If a stopping service from Maidenhead interrupts the successful high-speed service into London from the west, Crossrail will impede a major transport artery.
If Crossrail comes west of Paddington or Ealing Broadway, it should go to Reading. However, it can come to Reading only if we upgrade the infrastructure. That case was made on 5 July and should have been included in the Select Committee report, but has not been. That is regrettable.
I want briefly to consider the potential rail link to London Heathrow. It is nonsense that Reading, which is at the heart of silicon valley—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is rehearsing arguments that have probably been heard previously. He knows that he must relate his remarks to why the Bill should or should not be carried over. Perhaps he would like to do that.