House of Commons
Wednesday 25 February 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Duchy of Lancaster
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
On behalf of the Labour Front Bench, I offer our sincere condolences to the Leader of the Opposition and his family on the tragic loss overnight of their son, Ivan. The House will have an opportunity to offer its thoughts and prayers after this Question Time.
I have received correspondence from affected charities and met representatives of the Save Our Savings group of charities on 27 January.
I think it would be appropriate, on behalf of my colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches, to extend our sincere condolences to the Leader of the Opposition.
The Parliamentary Secretary knows that, in addition to the thousands of individuals who stand to lose considerable sums of money in Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander, 27 charities collectively stand to lose some £50 million of investment. Does he agree that such a loss to those charities will be a considerable financial burden and have a significant impact on them? Will he therefore agree to redouble his efforts to ensure that the charities, as well as individual investors, have their funds returned in full?
The hon. Gentleman knows that a process of administration is taking place and that a compensation scheme is available for smaller organisations that count as retail depositors. I have agreed to meet a delegation of Members of Parliament to discuss the matter further, and I will be happy to have him along if he wishes to be included in that delegation.
I join colleagues in sending condolences to the Leader of the Opposition and his family at this sad time.
Only four months ago, the Government said publicly to residents in Hampshire that Naomi House children’s hospice in our area would continue to receive support at a difficult time, when it had lost money through the collapse in the Icelandic banking system. Why has that promise of help now been withdrawn?
I do not accept that the Government made a promise of financial help to Naomi House in particular, but efforts are being made. I have had discussions with the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) about Naomi House to try to broker a local solution with the strategic health authority. Discussions are continuing in relation to Naomi House.
I know that many hon. Members are deeply saddened by today’s news about the Leader of the Opposition.
The Parliamentary Secretary has already mentioned the process of administration that is taking place with Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander. Many of the depositors with savings above the £50,000 financial services compensation scheme limit have had their deposits returned to them in full. In addition, the Government are fully covering deposits through the online Edge accounts. Why are those depositors being treated so generously when the 27 charities stand to lose every penny of their £50 million of savings? Will the Parliamentary Secretary add my concerns to those of other hon. Members when he meets Treasury colleagues—hopefully—to take up the issue on behalf of those who have raised anxieties?
It is important that we do not get into too much scaremongering and talk about charities losing every penny. A process of administration is taking place and, although it takes time, it is not the case at this stage that those charities have lost the sums of money that were invested in the bank.
I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the words of the head of lending at Charity Bank. He said:
“Any charity that has funds stuck with Icelandic Banks, and is watching its cash flow slowly drying up, is unlikely to be an attractive proposition to a commercial bank in current market conditions. We are part of the banking sector but as a charity we also want to be part of the solution.”
I therefore encourage charities to look elsewhere also for opportunities to cover any shortfalls while the administration process is under way.
On behalf of the Conservative party, I thank the Parliamentary Secretary and other hon. Members who have expressed sadness at the death of Ivan Cameron. His was a tragically short span of life, but one filled with a great deal of love. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will draw strength from the House’s condolences.
Until now, the Treasury has done nothing for a significant number of charities, which have lost money in the Icelandic bank failure, so charities such as Naomi House face having to cut back their good work just when it is most needed. Let me make the Parliamentary Secretary an offer. We support the principle of a short-term Treasury loan fund to help sound charities, which face genuine hardships as a result of lost bank deposits. Will he work with us to develop cross-party consensus on a measure that will have minimal cash-flow impact on the Treasury and deliver real help to a vital sector of society?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the matter, but we need to separate the budget from the issue of help in the short term. I have already made it clear that there are attempts in the case of Naomi House to look at brokering a local solution. Those discussions are ongoing and we will be carefully monitoring the situation of charities more generally.
The Government recognise the role that volunteering can play in personal and professional development. Earlier this month, the Government announced a programme to provide access to around 40,000 work-focused volunteering opportunities, which is in addition to the Government’s £925 million Train to Gain scheme, which is available to build the skills of staff and volunteers.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. Given that we will need between 80,000 and 100,000 volunteers for the Olympics and 70,000 for the Commonwealth games, as well as more volunteers if we get the rugby and the football, is it possible to develop, through a national vocational qualification or the diplomas, a more professional volunteering system for people at school?
There are already a number of volunteering initiatives in schools, which have been highly successful. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government have invested a great deal in volunteering for young people through the v programme. His suggestion about qualifications is an interesting one that we should explore further.
Volunteers are the backbone of our society. Some organisations, such as the Scouts and the Guides, are experiencing great difficulties in getting people to commit to help. What more can the Government do to support efforts to establish regular volunteering as a social norm?
The Government are doing a great deal to encourage volunteering, including through our investment in the v programme for young people and the up to £10 million that was announced in the recession action plan to support volunteering for people who might become unemployed during the recession. I feel quite strongly that volunteering is a positive thing, not least because there were not many jobs in south Wales when I left university in 1982, in the depths of a different recession. For me, volunteering was a way to gain new skills and an opportunity to get into employment.
My right hon. and hon. Friends will be aware not only of the high levels of deprivation in Stoke-on-Trent, but of the fantastic work that the voluntary and third sector does and the extremely committed people who are part of it. However, a lot of the professionals, as well as the helpful and keen amateurs who are part of the voluntary and third sector, have been telling me recently that they are facing difficulties not only in identifying what funding is available, but when it is available, as they often discover that it has already gone because it was not advertised very well. What reassurances can my hon. Friends on the Front Bench give me that the funds that are made available, which are fantastic, will be advertised in a much more robust way?
We are in the process of developing a brand new portal of information about the funding that is available to voluntary organisations, the details of which we hope to announce in the near future. In my hon. Friend’s area of Stoke-on-Trent, the grass-roots grants programme—the innovative £130 million Government programme to get grants to small organisations—is investing more than £700,000. I recently announced some changes to the rules to make it easier for organisations to apply, including through matching funding backdated to the beginning of the financial year.
On behalf of my colleagues and myself, may I join those who expressed condolences earlier to the Leader of the Opposition?
Does the Minister agree that probably the most significant opportunity to promote volunteering in a generation will occur in the run-up to the Olympics? A crucial element of ensuring that volunteers come forward is that they should do so from across the nation—so that volunteers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland come forward to show that the Olympics are here for all the people of the United Kingdom.
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. He will not be surprised by that, as just last week he attended, with me, the British-Irish Council in Cardiff, at which we discussed the voluntary sector and its importance to the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England. He is absolutely right: the Olympics are a one-off opportunity and we should ensure, as we are doing, that we spread that opportunity widely around the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland.
I acknowledge the Department’s support for organisations in my local authority area such as vflex, which is working on developing volunteering opportunities, but I would like to emphasise that in the current economic situation young people could well find it even more difficult to find suitable employment. It is therefore much more important than it might have been in the past to ensure that volunteering opportunities exist, so that those young people can maintain their social skills and business discipline. Will the Minister therefore make an assessment of the impact of the economic downturn on young people, and develop policies that will enable volunteering to help to meet those problems?
I can do better than that. I can tell my hon. Friend that we have announced in the recession action plan in the past couple of weeks investment of up to £10 million, in collaboration with the Department for Work and Pensions, to provide access to 40,000 work-focused volunteering opportunities, in particular for young people who find themselves out of work during the recession. Of course, we will monitor closely how that is working, and the impact that it is having on young people and on volunteering.
All of us are now seeing hundreds of people every week in our constituencies losing their jobs, in pretty well every sector of the economy. These are people who never, even in their wildest nightmares, expected to be out of work. They want to remain active, and to continue to be challenged intellectually, and one way of doing that is through volunteering. Will the Minister have a conversation with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that, if people can clearly demonstrate that they are looking for work, and accessing websites in an attempt to find work, the number of hours’ volunteering that they can do each week will not be restricted by artificial constraints? It can lead to enormous frustration for people who have lost their jobs and who want to volunteer when they are told by Jobcentre Plus that they cannot do so.
As I said earlier, I recognise strongly and personally how important volunteering can be at a time of economic downturn. We are working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that there are no restrictive rules to stand in the way of people who want to volunteer as a way of gaining confidence and skills and of making good use of their time if they happen to fall out of work. In addition, our recession action plan is offering a brokerage service to create 40,000 additional volunteering opportunities for people who become unemployed.
I associate myself strongly with the words of the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who has spoken for all of us.
The social enterprise sector goes into 2009 with unprecedented strength, but we believe that it could be stronger still. That is why we are ensuring that social enterprises have access to the help that my noble Friend Lord Mandelson is providing for the business community, and why social enterprises will benefit from the help for the third sector that was announced by the Prime Minister a week or two ago. It is also why I have set an objective for our policy of growing the social enterprise work force by 25,000 over the next couple of years.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. I certainly agree that small businesses that are social enterprises are one way of using the skills of those who are being made redundant in the work force, and of getting them back in order to lead the recovery. Will he tell the House what funds the Government are putting in to meet the targets that he has identified?[Official Report, 3 March 2009, Vol. 488, c. 5MC.]
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he does to champion this agenda. The number of those in the social enterprise work force has grown by some 25 per cent. over the past 10 years, and that has not happened by accident. It has happened because we have doubled the public income going into the third sector—into social enterprises, voluntary groups and charities—up to £11 billion over the past 10 or 11 years.
If we want to grow the social enterprise work force still further over the years to come, however, we shall have to back that commitment with investment, rather than cuts. That is why we are providing £250 million-worth of investment through Futurebuilders, and why the Department of Health will provide £100 million-worth of investment funding through its social enterprise fund. It is also why the Department for Children, Schools and Families will route money through social enterprises into organisations working with young people, and why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has announced her intention to set up an organisation to champion the social enterprise agenda. We believe that social enterprises can grow, but not on their own. The Government must do their bit to help.
When I talk to people about setting up new social enterprises, I also ask them about the use of a community interest company as a suitable legal vehicle for their business. I am surprised by how few people still are aware of their existence and suitability. I know that company law is another Department’s responsibility, but will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring that advice is available on the existence of community interest companies, and on how to set them up?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that community interest companies are a very effective way of getting social enterprise work up and running in communities up and down the country. They are quick and easy to set up and inexpensive, because standard memorandums are available. The legislation that underpins community interest companies was brought into effect in 2005. Already there are about 2,500 of them up and down the country. Three years into the policy, it is a good time to see whether we can make it easier still to set up such companies, so my noble Friend Lord Mandelson will shortly commence a review of the regulations to consider whether the caps on equity and dividends are right. We can then guarantee that we are making it as easy as possible to get these companies set up. We will do everything that we can to promote them.
We all support social entrepreneurs, and I commend the Government for the extra resources that they are putting in at this difficult time, but has the Minister noticed, as I have in my area, that there can be a lack of co-ordination and collaboration between different organisations in the third sector, sometimes leading to duplication and waste? Does he ever challenge social entrepreneurs on this issue, and if he does, does he think that they are getting any better?
There can be challenges of co-ordination between public agencies, but there can also be such challenges between social enterprises and other voluntary groups. That is partly the inspiration for the £16 million of funding that we announced in our third sector action plan a week or two ago, which will make it easier for charities and voluntary sector organisations to get the advice that they need in order to come together. May I say, though, that it is important for local authorities to play their part. A survey a week or two ago provided quite a lot of feedback about the track record of different authorities and how well they are doing to support social enterprises. One of the conclusions was that local authorities in some parts of the country could do a great deal more. I am sure that that is a shared political agenda between us.
In the north-west, there is an organisation called Wheels2Work, which assists young people in particular who live in remote rural areas who do not have their own transport and where there is no public transport to access training, employment and further education. Unfortunately, the Northwest Regional Development Agency is ending its generous grant to that organisation at the end of this financial year. That means that it will have to withdraw all those scooters from the young people who are able currently to get to work, training and so on. Will the Minister look at that and give some encouragement not only to me in seeking to help them, but to the Northwest Regional Development Agency to continue its funding?
I will of course look at that and see what more can be done to help. We are very clear that the support provided to the business community should be available and must help social enterprises, just like any other business. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would therefore be a backward step to shut down RDAs, which are, of course, at the sharp end of delivering much of this help. I know that he, too, will welcome the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to give social enterprises the right to bid where they show that they can deliver back-to-work programmes more effectively than the Government. That is surely the right thing for us to be doing.
A group of students in my constituency have set up Vanilla Galleries as a way to exhibit their work after they have left college. That is a fine example of a social enterprise. Will the Minister tell us what success he is having with Departments across Government to mainstream social enterprise and co-operatives as a way of encouraging people to move into the workplace? Many examples of such enterprise need the Government to respond positively and see them as a solution, not as a last resort.
That sounds like yet another example of where a social enterprise in one of our constituencies is making a real difference not only to the wider delivery of public policy, but to a large number of young people. We have to ensure that right across Government there is a shared commitment to increasing the number of people who work in the social enterprise sector. Crucially, however, we have to back that commitment to increase the sector’s work force by 25,000 not with cuts but with real investment—investment that is routed through to social entrepreneurs right across Government.
The whole House will agree with the Minister about the importance of social enterprise and the huge contribution that it makes to addressing social problems. It is great that so many people want to commit their energy, skills and drive to this terrific cause. But is not the problem with the growth of social enterprise a lack of access to capital? When does the Minister expect the social investment bank envisaged in the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008 to be set up, and how much capital does he expect it to be set up with?
I welcome what appears to be a shared commitment. I do not consider that weaning social enterprises off public support should be an objective of public policy, because I think that public support is an important part of the mix, but I also think that it should be accompanied by increased help from the private sector. We now have the requisite legislation in place, but the conversations with banks are more complicated this year than they were last year, because there is a wider agenda for Government to advance. Regulations are now being discussed with the banks, however, and I hope that substantive progress will be made in getting the social investment bank up and running this year.
It is good to hear that there is some progress, but the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act gained Royal Assent in November last year, and people now expect to see at least the setting up of the framework. Given the effect of the recession on the most deprived areas, is not the answer to encourage more social enterprise by establishing social enterprise zones in those areas? Why do the Government not simply adopt our proposals?
We continue to be open to any ideas that we think would help create a flourishing social enterprise sector, but that policy ambition must be backed by investment. I do not agree with the notion that we should somehow cut the Cabinet Office budget by £100 million, because that would close down 400,000 volunteering opportunities and about 2,500 small local charities across the country which rely on our support. As I have said, we have a complicated argument and a complicated agenda to present to the banks this year, but I am determined to ensure that our conversations about the creation of a social investment bank do not get lost in that wider set of ambitions.
We think that many of the 25,000 jobs that we want to be created in the social enterprise sector will come through spinning out the work of public servants from the public sector, but if that work is to be conducted effectively in the future, it is clearly vital for the terms and conditions enjoyed by staff working in the public sector to be preserved. My noble Friend Lord Darzai undertook a great deal of pioneering work, ensuring, for example, that NHS staff who wanted to take spin-outs could carry with them important benefits such as pension rights. Protection of that kind will be vital if we are to make this transition effective and good for all.
Civil Service Employment
I send my condolences to David and Samantha. Their loss will be immense, but I hope that they can find comfort in the knowledge that the thoughts and prayers of all of us are with them today.
I do not want to predict what will be in the Budget, but overall we continue to expect and to achieve efficiencies in the civil service. We will create posts in some services, such as Jobcentre Plus, to respond to the downturn, and where possible we will move existing resources to those services.
I thank the Minister for his condolences, which are warmly appreciated on this side of the House and, I am sure, across the whole House.
The National Audit Office estimates that the cost of recruiting civil servants could be cut by as much as 68 per cent. In the current tough economic conditions, private sector firms would have no choice but to follow that course. What action will the Government take to ensure that the NAO’s recommendations are followed?
We are still considering the NAO report, but the hon. Gentleman is right: there has been a digital revolution in how the private and public sectors can recruit staff. I hope that we not only learn the lessons raised in the NAO report, but create some digital solutions that will help drive down costs and ensure we have attractive packages on offer to potential civil servants.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Lance Corporal Stephen Kingscott, Marine Darren Smith and Private Ryan Wrathall have all given their lives in the service of our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to their families and friends. Time and again our service personnel show us their courage and commitment. They are dedicated men and women who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for our country and in the interests of a safer world. They shall not be forgotten.
I know that the whole House will want to express our sorrow at the sad death this morning of Ivan Cameron at the age of just six, and our condolences go out to David, to Samantha and to the Cameron family. I know that, in an all too brief young life, he brought joy to all those around him, and I also know that for all the days of his life he was surrounded by his family’s love. Every child is precious and irreplaceable, and the death of a child is an unbearable sorrow that no parent should ever have to endure.
Politics can sometimes divide us, but there is a common human bond that unites us in sympathy and compassion at times of trial, and in support for each other at times of grief. Sarah and I have sent our condolences to David and Samantha, and I know that the whole country, and our thoughts and our prayers, are with David, Samantha and their family today.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Stephen Kingscott and Marine Darren Smith, who were killed in Afghanistan, and to Private Ryan Wrathall, who died in Iraq. Whenever we read out such names, it is a reminder that whenever death comes, or however it comes, it is a devastating loss to the families involved. That is why I want to thank the Prime Minister on behalf of David and his family for his very generous and, I know, heartfelt words and for the private condolences that he passed on this morning. I also want to thank the Prime Minister for suggesting that we suspend the normal exchanges of Prime Minister’s questions, and the Speaker for agreeing to that exceptional action, which is deeply appreciated by David’s friends and colleagues in every part of the House. As much as anyone in the House, the Prime Minister will understand the dimensions of this loss—which, as he has said, is something no parent should have to endure. I spoke to David a little while ago, and he has asked me to pass on his thanks for the sympathy already expressed by so many colleagues in this House and beyond.
Ivan’s six years of life were not easy ones. His parents lived with the knowledge for a long-time that he could die young, but that has made their loss no less heartbreaking. They also wanted me to say, once again, how hugely grateful they are to the many NHS and care workers, who not only did their utmost for their son this morning, but have helped him every day from the moment he was born. We should remember today that many thousands of other families are deeply grateful for the dedication, support and love of these highly professional people. We know how much their help has meant to the Cameron family. Ivan, their son, suffered much in his short life, but he brought joy and love to those around him, and, as David himself has said in the past, for him and Samantha he will always be their beautiful boy.
May I add my condolences to the family and friends of the three servicemen who died serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. May I also say a few words on behalf of my party leader, my parliamentary colleagues and my party to extend our deepest sympathy to the Cameron family for the loss of their son, Ivan, this morning. Everybody in the House will have experienced bereavement, but there is something especially sad and shocking about the loss of a child. We all recognise that that is especially difficult to cope with. This is a personal tragedy that transcends all party barriers, and I simply express the hope that the family are given the space and privacy to grieve and cope with the tragedy that they have experienced.
Driving Instruction (Suspension and Exemption Powers) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Willie Rennie, supported by Ms Katy Clark, Mr. David Hamilton, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Nick Harvey, Jo Swinson, Danny Alexander, Gordon Banks, John Barrett, Mr. Adam Holloway, Mr. Alan Reid and Linda Gilroy presented a Bill to provide for the suspension in certain circumstances of registration and licences relating to the provision of driving instruction; to make provision about exemptions from prohibitions concerning registration (including provision about suspension); to make provision about compensation in connection with suspension; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 65).
Renewable Content Obligation
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
As the House resumes its sitting, I add my heartfelt condolences to David and Samantha Cameron on the tragic loss of their son, Ivan.
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the establishment of minimum levels of recyclates in designated products and classes of product; to establish a scheme for the certification of designated products; and for connected purposes.
Recent press reports about waste mountains piling up, because of the collapse of markets for recovered waste as raw materials for new production, are wide of the mark. Most recovered waste continues to be sold at reasonable prices, although it is fair to say that there has been a considerable falling off in the price for cans, PET plastic, paper and cardboard. Those are the sinews of recovered material in the UK and the vital ingredient in ensuring that the waste hierarchy is maintained.
That hierarchy, long adopted as the guide to waste management practice, indicates that the best way to reduce waste is to avoid creating it in the first place; if it is created, it should be possible to recover and reuse it. If not, and if it is organic, the waste can be composted and, further down the hierarchy, used for energy recovery. Only after all other uses have been considered might residual waste be disposed of in landfill.
The press reports perhaps gain more credibility than they deserve because they reflect an underlying question often asked about recovered waste: what happens next? If all the efforts of recovery are lost because nothing does happen next, the point of those efforts will come into question. Where recyclates are concerned, the establishment and development of markets for the raw materials that come again into existence are a vital part of the process.
As a country, we have been doing well in recent years on the issue of recovering waste. Landfill is reducing significantly, waste growth is slowing and, in the past 10 years, recycling and composting have quadrupled. The recycling of packaging has doubled. Those are impressive gains on the picture 10 years ago of overwhelming reliance on landfill, with the consequent huge waste of usable resources and the huge loss of opportunity to replace virgin material coming into the production cycle with recovered, already-used raw materials. It also represented an enormous cost in carbon emissions, but we still have a long way to go. We are still landfilling far more of our waste than virtually any other country in Europe and we face ambitious targets for the further development of the recovery of waste over the next 10 years.
By 2020, we should be recovering 75 per cent. of municipal waste and rapidly reducing to a minimum residual municipal and commercial waste that goes to landfill. That means, quite simply, that we will need to find ever more widespread markets for the resources that we are recovering. An increasing range of products will have to have a substantial element of recovered materials in their content. If we do not find markets for this resource, it will inevitably tumble down the waste hierarchy—high-grade waste such as food standard plastic will be mixed with low-grade plastic, and recyclates that could be used for manufacture will be used for energy. At worst, pre-collected and sorted waste with no market for its potential will return to landfill.
The Daily Mail and its like tell us regularly, and usually erroneously, that carefully collected and sorted waste is all going into a big skip and thence to landfill. It is true that a good proportion of that waste is exported for reuse and does not enter the domestic product cycle, but some of this is justified in the long term. For example, we produce far more scrap metal as a country than we could conceivably use for metal manufacturing, so it makes sense to export clean metal for manufacturing abroad. The recent dip in markets was very much a phenomenon of demand for exported waste and indicates that the international market is perhaps a less reliable way to go than has been assumed. Yet today we rely on this market to remove much of our sorted waste.
As regards glass, we export 250,000 tonnes a year out of 1.5 million tonnes recycled. We export more than half the 8.6 million tonnes of paper and card that we recycle. Two thirds of plastic packaging and almost 80 per cent. of metal is exported. We can imagine what the loss of these markets might do to the stream of recyclates coming through the system on a continuous basis. That will not happen, of course, but to keep up with the expanding stream of recyclates, we need to export more, as matters stand, and in some instances to export more where identical virgin material is coming through our docks the other way to enter the production cycle.
My ten-minute Bill, which should perhaps be more exactly and accurately entitled the recyclate content Bill, would provide a way to face up to this future and emerging problem for our waste with confidence and with secure markets, primarily here in this country, for the results of our efforts to recover and reuse our waste streams. It would enable the Government to specify levels of recyclate to be included in the production of designated products on sale in the UK. In short, where a product or a range of products was designated by the mechanisms contained in the Bill, it would be required, as a condition of sale, to have the right amount of recycled content within it.
This might be thought of by some as a sudden and irrational flight of fancy—“That would never work!” Yet it does already, in goods and services that we all buy and use. The renewable transport fuel obligation, or RTFO, requires producers of fuel in the UK to include in their products an aggregate of 2.5 per cent. renewable fuel this year, rising to 5 per cent. by 2010—that is, the addition of biodiesel or bioethanol to mineral fuel. If someone switches their lights on, the product that they will be using and buying—electricity—will have, as a requirement of sale to them, a defined element procured from renewable sources. The Bill, then, would not introduce a new concept or restrain the market but instead provide a level playing field for the makers of designated products and, as in the case of the RTFO and the renewables obligation, a buy-out price or the opportunity to purchase credits if someone does not or cannot comply. Those exceeding their targets in recyclates have an opportunity to benefit by trading additionally with those who do not.
There are enormous opportunities for the use of recyclates in products, usually at or near the cost of finding the raw materials from virgin sources. The issue is largely the will to do it and to break the “first mover” cycle of those who say that they cannot supply recycled content products because they cannot get reliable supplies of raw material and, on the other hand, those who say they cannot reliably supply recyclates for manufacture because people will not include recyclates in products. This is of course not true for substantial sections of industry: many manufacturers work hard at including renewables. I applaud the work of those engaged, for example, in the Courtauld commitment on industry recycled content. I commend the work of the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, which successfully matches up companies that have what they regard as waste with those who can use precisely that waste as a resource in their processes—exactly the sort of circular metabolism set out by the Bill. The work of the Waste and Resources Action Programme in encouraging and developing markets for recyclates is also tremendously important and could be greatly enhanced by a recyclate obligation, increasing on a slope as the market firms and the procedure becomes a commonplace.
What might suitable designated products be? We can think of glass bottle manufacturing using sorted cullet, glass wool for insulation using mixed cullet, road-making material using ground glass and recycled aggregate, breeze block manufacture using recovered ash, street furniture and similar products using recycled low-grade plastic, and yes, items such as recycled high-grade plastic milk bottles. There is also, of course, the manufacture of cardboard and the production of paper, even newsprint—currently highly recycled but using, in some cases, material that we send to Canada and which comes back to us as newsprint. There is a long and wide-ranging list, and the task of the mechanisms set out in the Bill would be to set recyclate content levels achievable from supply of waste and introducible economically into the product cycle.
How Members should not get me wrong: the Bill does not seek to address failure, or a crisis. It seeks to secure the future for successful recycling in the UK by closing the loop, by making sure that as much as possible goes back into the loop of production, consumption, recovery and presentation for reuse, and by making that closed loop resource-thrifty in a world where we are depleting resources such as oil, from which we make plastic a million times faster than we are replenishing it, and carbon-thrifty in a world where we have to reduce radically the amount of carbon we emit to keep the world habitable. It will do so by using the mechanism of market-shaping to secure the market, and in so doing, it will secure our future recycling requirements.
Question put and agreed to.
That Dr. Alan Whitehead, Mr. Martin Caton, Colin Challen, Mr. David Drew, Emily Thornberry, Mr. David Chaytor, Mark Lazarowicz, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Chris Mullin, Paddy Tipping, Dr. Desmond Turner and Mr. Elliot Morley present the Bill.
Dr. Alan Whitehead accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 8 May and to be printed (Bill 64).
Saving Gateway Accounts Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
Saving Gateway accounts
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 12, page 1, line 19, at end insert—
‘(4) If a person was eligible to receive a notice of entitlement by virtue of section 3(1) but had ceased to be eligible before the notice of eligibility was issued, then the person is still entitled to receive that notice.’.
Amendment 3, page 2, line 16, clause 3, after ‘(2)’, insert
‘or the person is aged between 18 and 65 and has an annual income of less than that prescribed by regulations;’.
Amendment 4, page 2, line 35, clause 3, leave out ‘subsection’ and insert ‘subsections (1) and’.
Amendment 13, in page 3, line 3, clause 3, at end insert—
‘(8) The Treasury will each year lay before Parliament a report which sets out the number of people who—
(a) are eligible to hold a Savings Gateway account by being entitled to each of the benefits and tax credits listed in subsection (2) above;
(b) are aged between 18 and 65 years old and earn less than any amount prescribed under regulations made under subsection (4) above; and
(c) have opened a Savings Gateway account in that year.’.
This group of amendments focuses on eligibility, a topic that we discussed at some length during what were relatively short Committee proceedings. Today provides an opportunity to retrace two issues covered in this group of amendments. First is the issue that we debated on the first day of the Committee proceedings about what happens to those who move on and off benefits during the time it takes to send out notices of eligibility. The second issue relates to the fact that the Bill is designed to encourage people on low incomes to save, and the Government use benefit entitlements as their proxy for that group. We need to understand the difference between the number of people who are entitled to receive benefits that effectively passport people on to the savings gateway account and the number of people in the low-income group. I set out two different approaches in amendments 3, 4 and 13 to address that issue.
I shall deal first with amendments 11 and 12. As I said in my opening remarks, they arise from a debate that we had in Committee. The Bill sets out the requirement for someone to be issued with a notice of eligibility on the relevant date, and we debated in Committee at some length what happens when someone becomes eligible for jobseeker’s allowance at the start of a period just after the last batch of notices have been sent out, then ceases to be eligible for that allowance before the next batch are sent out. Given that the notice of eligibility drives the ability to open a gateway savings account, we identified in Committee the risk that people who have moved on and off benefit between those two dates of issue may well, although eligible to open a savings gateway account in principle, miss out on that opportunity because they did not qualify on the date that the notice was sent out. That is why amendment 12, in particular, focuses on that matter. It would insert a new subsection (4) into clause 1.
That matter was left hanging in Committee. The Economic Secretary assured us that
“we do not want to stop people who fit our normal criteria receiving support under the Bill”.––[Official Report, Saving Gateway Accounts Public Bill Committee, 3 February 2009; c. 47.]
I have tabled amendment 12 to take that matter a little further today. Since I tabled it, and perhaps even triggered by that, the Minister has kindly written to the Chairmen of the Public Bill Committee and circulated the letter to other Committee members, stating that people who ceased to be eligible by the date on which the notice of eligibility was sent out would still receive that notice. We are grateful for that clarification, but it would be helpful for that to be on the record in the House rather than in a letter. I am sure that he will want to make that clear.
Amendments 3 and 4 are the first way in which we wish to ensure that people who would be eligible for the saving gateway by virtue of being on low income are picked up by the system. As I said, the Government have used eligibility for certain benefits as the criteria for eligibility for the gateway. That means that only people in receipt of those benefits can take part and qualify for a saving gateway account. There may be people on low incomes who do not qualify for benefits and who will miss out as a consequence.
In Committee, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) tabled amendments intended to increase the number of benefits that would enable eligibility. My amendment takes a different direction. It would set out in the Bill the fact that the group that we are targeting are people on low income. It is worth remembering that some categories of people on low income are ineligible to receive some of the qualifying benefits. For example, somebody who is unmarried, childless and under the age of 25 does not qualify for tax credits. A person on low income below that age would not have a route to access saving gateway accounts, and the same applies to a married couple under that age. In considering how to implement the idea of providing an incentive for those on low income to save, I wonder whether the Government have considered the number of people who fall outside the specified categories and who, despite being on low incomes, will not be eligible because they cannot claim a benefit.
I appreciate that there is a cost attached to my suggestion, because the method that the Government have adopted builds on data that the Government hold either at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or the Department for Work and Pensions, and it is relatively easy to use the existing databases to send out a notice of eligibility. It would be much harder for the Government to capture people on low incomes who do not qualify for benefits, and it would require a new apparatus of means-testing and forms to be completed when making a claim. The Government might argue that the cost of that additional apparatus is disproportionate to the benefit that it would confer on a new group of recipients, in addition to the costs that would arise through more people saving and qualifying for matching contributions.
The amendment is probing rather than one to be pressed to a vote, but it is also meant to be almost a reserve power that the Government could deploy if they believed that the proportion of people who are brought within the scope of the saving gateway through qualifying for the benefits in clause 3 is too small compared with the total population of people on low incomes whom they feel should benefit. A Government could deploy that power in future.
Part of the challenge is that we do not know what the gap is. We do not know how many people should be eligible on the basis of low income and how many are eligible through passporting benefits. Amendment 13 tries to establish the populations as well as identifying the take-up of the savings gateway account in a particular year. It is important to ascertain the effectiveness of the scheme’s take-up rate. Perhaps the Economic Secretary will be so taken with the logic of amendment 13 that he would like it to be in the Bill.
Amendment 13 is insightful, but proposed new subsection (8)(b) refers to those aged between 18 and 65. In a week when a 13-year-old has fathered a child, will my hon. Friend encourage the Economic Secretary to consider whether people would be eligible at 16 or even younger? I do not suggest 13 as an appropriate age, but 16 might be.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I wish I had consulted him before tabling the amendments—perhaps I could have benefited from his wisdom in setting a more flexible starting date for the benefits. I am not sure how 13-year-old fathers fit into the benefits system and whether, as a consequence of claiming tax credit, they would be eligible for a notice to be issued to them under the Bill. However, my hon. Friend makes an important point about understanding who will be excluded from the measure through the Government’s criteria. It is important to tease that out from the Economic Secretary today. I do not believe that we addressed it specifically in Committee. Given the aim of the measure, which is to encourage people on low incomes to save, it is important to understand how many people who are on low income but not eligible for benefits will be excluded from participating in the saving gateway account.
The five amendments are straightforward. Two of them give the Economic Secretary the opportunity to put on record the assurances that he gave the Committee in writing. The other three try to probe how many people will be excluded from participating in the Bill, despite being on low income, because of the route that the Government have chosen of using qualification for existing benefits to establish their entitlement to the saving gateway account.
The Committee stage was consensual, but that does not mean that the Bill could not be improved a little, certainly by one addition. My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary will recollect that I tabled an amendment in Committee to include recipients of carer’s allowance among those who were eligible for saving gateway accounts. The Liberal Democrats tabled a similar amendment. I have not tabled such an amendment on Report, and Mr. Speaker would rule me out of order if I sought to debate the merits of including carers in the scheme.
I believe that the amendments that the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) has tabled, however, would bring some carers within the ambit of the Bill and make them eligible for the saving gateway account. Amendment 13, which calls on the Government to publish an annual report of account recipients or those who are eligible for the accounts, would allow us to calculate how many carers had been excluded from such accounts, even though we would rather want such people to get the accounts.
I am using that proposal as an excuse to give my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary the opportunity to tell us, hopefully, that the Government intend to table an amendment at some point in the Bill’s passage, presumably in the other place, to include recipients of carer’s allowance. I understand that he might wish to limit the provision to carer’s allowance recipients of working age because, after all, saving gateway accounts are aimed at people on low incomes who are of working age. I would be happy to accept that, but I would be most grateful if he confirmed whether he intends to table such an amendment.
Having said that, I apologise to colleagues in all parties and to the Economic Secretary; a group of girl guides from my constituency wants to see me at 1 o’clock and I know that hon. Members will not want me to disappoint them. If I do not hear my hon. Friend’s response, I assure him that I will read it assiduously afterwards, and I will be back as soon as I have spoken to my constituents and presented them with the awards that they have come here to receive.
I hope that my hon. Friend can comment on the important issue of carers’ eligibility to take up the wonderful opportunity that the Government are giving those on low incomes.
Without the distraction of girl guides, I can give my full attention to the important considerations before us. I have some sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) about carers and I am interested in the Economy Secretary’s view, because carers seem to be a group that could be included, and many people who fall into that category but not into others that would make them eligible, would appreciate such a gesture. If the Economic Secretary could outline the cost implications of extending the scope of the Bill in the way that the hon. Member for South Thanet suggests, that would be interesting for everybody who has followed the Bill’s passage.
The points about eligibility, which amendments 11 and 12 cover, have already been made, and I have nothing to add to the comments of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), who tabled all the amendments in the group.
I have some sympathy with amendments 3 and 4. I assume that the motivation is to try, when possible, to avoid introducing legislation that creates poverty traps, which lead to what some people call a benefit culture, whereby those who are able just to provide for themselves but are on low incomes are eligible for far fewer benefits or means of support from the state than those who do not make that effort. The former come to regard themselves, with some justification, as being penalised for just about managing to provide for themselves, while others, whom they perceive as striving less hard to be self-reliant, qualify for a greater range of benefits than them. If that is the motivation, I have some sympathy with it, because it is a justifiable grievance. However, there are some concerns, and it would be interesting to know the Economic Secretary’s estimate of the number of additional people who would be covered if the amendment were accepted. Would it be a small top-up or are we considering having many tens or even hundreds of thousands of extra people? Obviously, that would have considerable cost implications.
The hon. Member for Fareham cited the example of someone under 25 without children not qualifying for the tax credits. However, I am struggling slightly to think of large numbers of people whose incomes mean that they would be caught by the amendments but are not eligible for benefits. If people can give further examples, that would be interesting.
I suppose that, as a spokesperson for an Opposition party, I should support amendment 13, because Opposition parties are always in favour of the Government being compelled to make more reports to Parliament. Were I pushed to take a view, I suppose I would say that the amendment was a good idea, but I would not be surprised if the Economic Secretary perceived it as a bit onerous. When we pass legislation, we tend to forget about it and move on, but it would be useful and interesting to know how successful the legislation has been and how many people have been enticed by the scheme, so I hope that the Economic Secretary will engage constructively with amendment 13.
A number of hon. Members have pointed out that there was a high degree of consensus on the Bill in Committee. One area where there was perhaps less consensus, and where there is still lingering disappointment, is the extent of continuing parliamentary involvement in and scrutiny of the Bill. I suspect that that sense is likely to arise again today over the third group of amendments, given that we spent considerable time in Committee considering whether much of the delegated legislation should be subject to affirmative or negative resolutions. The essence of that debate also applies today; indeed, it is what lies behind amendment 13, which I am happy to support.
We on the Conservative Benches recognise that the Government want the Bill to have in-built flexibilities, but it is crucial that Parliament should know whether the Bill is a success. Amendment 13 goes to the heart of that. It is right for Parliament to know whether the Bill is working. There is a need for a proper debate. There has been much discussion about eligibility, including on Second Reading and in Committee, and even already this afternoon. There was also quite a lot of discussion about the appropriate financial limit and, I recall, some probing questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) in the witness sessions of the Public Bill Committee. I would ask that amendment 13 be supported, because it would introduce a welcome element of report-back on a central part of the success criteria of the Bill.
Let me begin by adding my condolences to those expressed by other right hon. and hon. Members to David Cameron and his wife on their tragic loss.
The amendments in this group cover three areas, relating to eligibility and the notices of eligibility. Amendments 11 and 12, which the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) covered, deal with the circumstances in which a person has ceased to be an eligible person but has not been issued with a notice of eligibility, and they seek to ensure that such a person will be sent a notice. We discussed that matter in Committee, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and I have since written to explain and clarify the position. The purpose of clause 1(3)(b) is to allow the commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to issue a notice of eligibility to a person who is not an eligible person on that date, but who was eligible for the scheme at an earlier date as determined by them. We have now got to the bottom of the matter. People will be sent a notice of eligibility automatically. Therefore, amendments 11 and 12 are not needed, because the issue is already covered in the Bill.
Amendments 3 and 4 relate to eligibility for the scheme. As hon. Members will know, the saving gateway is targeted at people of working age on lower incomes. The hon. Gentleman’s amendments seek to ensure that people in that group who are not entitled to one of the qualifying benefits and tax credits listed in the Bill would still be eligible for a saving gateway account. We have carefully considered the best way of determining eligibility for the saving gateway, including whether it should be based on a means test or on passporting from benefits and tax credits. Again, we rehearsed some of those arguments in Committee.
We believe that passporting is the most simple and effective method available for determining saving gateway eligibility. In particular, passporting will mean that people will not be required to fill out a form or complete a means test to prove that they are eligible for the saving gateway. Instead, they can automatically be sent a notice of eligibility. We also believe that the majority of our target group—working-age people on lower incomes—will be eligible for the saving gateway through the system of passporting set out in the Bill. We expect about 8 million people to be eligible.
A number of hon. Members asked about the specific numbers who might be included if amendments 3 and 4 were accepted. The best figures that we have available are based on taking those on low income to be individuals with incomes of up to £11,000 and couples with incomes of up to £16,000, which is approximately in line with the highest incomes of those claiming one of the qualifying benefits and tax credits. Using that as our yardstick, we estimate that around 4.5 million people of working age on lower incomes will currently not be eligible for the saving gateway through passporting.
However, more than half that number—2.7 million—are eligible for one of the qualifying benefits and tax credits; they just have not claimed them. An important issue of take-up is involved. We are actually talking about 1.8 million people who would not be eligible for those credits who, if they could claim them, could open a saving gateway account. However, this is of course a particular point in time. Many of those of working age who are on a lower income but are not eligible for one of the qualifying benefits and tax credits are likely to become eligible for a saving gateway at some point in their lives. That is an important point.
The amendments would introduce a means test alongside passporting. We have carefully considered that option, too. I accept that it would give some additional people a way of accessing the saving gateway, but it would also introduce extra complexity and costs, and we do not believe that they would be proportionate. First, there would be extra costs for HMRC, estimated at about £2.5 million a year and reducing to about £1 million a year in a steady state. Secondly, there would also be an increased compliance risk in operating a means test, as individuals would be allowed to open a saving gateway account without having previously been through Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC checks to establish their eligibility for other benefits or tax credits. Inevitably, some accounts would be opened but would subsequently have to be closed, in cases where people who would not otherwise have been eligible had mis-stated their income. That would be burdensome for providers of saving gateway accounts.
Thirdly, having two methods of determining eligibility for the saving gateway could be confusing and would certainly add complexity to the system. Some people who are eligible through passporting may think that a means test was required and be put off applying, for example. There are therefore several downsides to introducing a means test alongside passporting. It is also important to remember that although some working-age people on lower incomes may not be eligible for those qualifying benefits or tax credits at a particular point in time, people’s circumstances change. For many people, therefore, it will not be a case of missing out on eligibility; rather, it might be one of having to wait until they qualify. Also, people will be able to have only one saving gateway account in their lifetimes in any case.
Members of the Public Bill Committee will remember that the experts who gave evidence were positive about the eligibility criteria and the approach that the Government have adopted. Citizens Advice, for example, compared the system of passporting with the alternative, which Teresa Perchard said was
“an expensive system of targeting, recruitment and application,”
“load costs on to the accounts and will also be a barrier to take-up.”
She also said:
“If the intention is to attract people to save for the first time in their lives, or in their family’s history, the Government have come up with an approach that gets the balance right.”––[Official Report, Saving Gateway Accounts Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2009; c. 7, Q15.]
I appreciate the point that the hon. Member for Fareham has made. Indeed, I have a lot of sympathy with what he has said, because we want people on low incomes to get the savings habit. However, there are a number of practical downsides to introducing a means test alongside the approach of simple passporting, which is why we have taken the decisions that we have.
The last point that was raised on eligibility related to whether people would be eligible at the age of 16 or even earlier. I want to make it clear that, in using a passporting system, we will be depending on the eligibility criteria for the underlying benefits. Some of those will have an age limit of 16; others might have other age limits. However, we are not doing anything in this legislation to change the age limits.
Finally, I will deal with amendment 13. I agree with the hon. Member for Fareham that the saving gateway should be carefully evaluated and monitored. However, I do not agree that it would be appropriate to set out in the Bill an information requirement of the type that he suggests. Similar legislation, such as that relating to individual savings accounts, contains no such reporting requirement. However, as hon. Members may be aware, HMRC publishes details annually on individual savings accounts subscriptions and valuations, as well as a more detailed distributional analysis of the scheme. A similar approach might well be appropriate for the saving gateway; that will need to be considered in due course. However, we do not believe that it is appropriate to set down in the Bill an inflexible commitment to publish certain data.
As for the data that the amendment would require, I recognise that they might allow some basic calculations to be made about the take-up of the accounts or the coverage of the scheme. At best, however, they could give only a partial evaluation of the scheme’s success, against measures such as the take-up of accounts. As hon. Members will appreciate, our objectives for the scheme are far broader than could be encompassed by the metrics that the hon. Gentleman proposes. We could not assess the success of the scheme purely against those factors, because a broader range of factors than those detailed in his amendment will need to be considered. I therefore hope that he will not press it to a vote. I assure him and the House that we want to ensure that information will be made available and that the saving gateway scheme will be properly monitored and evaluated.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) asked about the carer’s allowance. I was going to address that matter on Third Reading, but I am happy to confirm that I am certainly minded to table an amendment for consideration in the other place that would ensure that people of working age in receipt of carer’s allowance should be able to qualify for opening a saving gateway account. It is my understanding that the cost involved would be about £5 million in 2012-13, and a few million in subsequent years, but based on our discussions in Committee and on further reflections and discussions with other groups, I believe that extending the qualifying benefit in that way would be a good thing to do. I hope to be able to table that amendment at a subsequent stage.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments, and I am glad that I was able to get back into the Chamber in time to hear them. When Ministers show themselves to be open minded and genuinely reasonable, we ought to put on record how grateful we are to them. I should therefore like to record my thanks to my hon. Friend, and I am sure the thanks of all those carers who will get a positive benefit from the opportunity of having a saving gateway account, assuming that the Lords and then this House agree to his amendment. I thank him very much.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. It is right that the Government should always be open to listening to arguments, and when we find good, persuasive arguments, we ought to respond to them. That is what I have tried to do here.
I have listened to the arguments on amendments 11 and 12, which I think are unnecessary, and I hope that the hon. Member for Fareham accepts that. On his amendments 3 and 4, I have a lot of sympathy with wanting to extend the target group, but I do not want to introduce a means test alongside a simple passporting system. We have a good basis for proceeding as we are at the moment. There is a strong case for encouraging greater take-up of qualifying benefits, and that has been an objective of the Government. We will need to continue to persuade people who are entitled to claim benefits actually to do so, and then to go on to open a saving gateway account.
I appreciate the probing way in which the hon. Gentleman spoke to amendment 13. It is right that we should monitor and evaluate the saving gateway account. It is also right that we should provide sufficient information to people. We will do that, but I do not think that doing so in the way that he has specified needs to be put in the Bill. That is not the normal way in which we do things. I therefore hope that he will not press his amendments to a vote.
I thank the Minister for the way in which he responded to the amendments, and for his suggestion that an amendment will be tabled in the other place to include those in receipt of carer’s allowance, which demonstrates the Government’s ability to listen to proposals made in Committee.
I am pleased that the girl guides of South Thanet did not detain the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) for much longer; otherwise he might have missed hearing about that concession. I am sure that a girl guides badge is winging its way to the hon. Gentleman for being punctual and timely in his appearances, both in and outside the Chamber.
I am pleased that the Minister put it on record that clause 1(3)(b) covers the circumstances that we debated in Committee. It was not clear what circumstances the subsection applied to, so it is useful that he made it clear that it applies to a situation in which people cease to be eligible for qualifying benefits between the times at which the notices are sent out.
On amendments 3 and 4, the Minister helpfully set out the scale of the challenge that we face. He said that 8 million people will be eligible by virtue of qualifying for the benefits in question, but that there were 4.3 million people with incomes of less than £11,000 for a single person or £16,000 for a couple—
I will come back to the Minister’s 4.5 million, because his maths did not quite add up. I had a figure of 4.5 million as well, but he then said that 1.8 million people would not be eligible and that 2.7 million were not taking the benefits up. There are 12.5 million people who would qualify for the saving gateway account on the basis of their income or their eligibility for benefits, and half of them are effectively excluded because they do not take up their benefits. There are 4.3 million on low income who might qualify if a means-tested scheme were introduced, and 8 million are eligible by virtue of claiming the qualifying benefits. So there is a large number of people on a low income to whom the scheme will not be relevant at the moment.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) mentioned the tension between those who are on benefits and those who are not. This topic crops up in our surgeries and our correspondence. People ask, “Why are they entitled to that when they are on benefit?” and “Why aren’t I entitled to it?” We need to consider the equity involved, and to get the balance right.
I just want to be clear about the numbers of people involved. Our estimate is that 8 million people will qualify for a saving gateway account. We estimate that about 4.5 million working-age people on lower incomes will not qualify through passporting, 2.7 million of whom would qualify if they decided to take up the qualifying benefits. My suggestion is that if they are not at the moment taking up qualifying benefits to which they are entitled, they might not want to fill in a means test. That leaves out 1.8 million people, who represent a real issue. We would like to provide assistance to them, just as we would like the 2.7 million people to get the benefits to which they are entitled and to consider opening a saving gateway account. I hope that this intervention has provided some information so that we are all talking about the same numbers.
Indeed, I was coming on to the issue of the 2.7 million people who are eligible to claim those benefits but do not take them up. It is important to take that into account as we look to any extension of the scheme. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) said, there is a tension resulting from differences in perceived levels of entitlement. However, if 2.7 million people are eligible to take up these benefits but do not do so, I share the Minister’s view that they are unlikely to go for a different form of means-testing to open a saving gateway account. Our debate on numbers has been helpful, because it has shown the scale of the problem. The additional costs that would be incurred by having to set up a means-testing scheme lead one to question whether there is sufficient merit behind the argument to extend the scheme to people on low incomes who are not currently in receipt of benefits.
I also accept the point about the flow of people through the system. We touched on that issue occasionally in Committee, and it certainly applies here. The Public Bill Committee debated the issue of people coming on and off jobseeker’s allowance and we discussed a contribution-based benefit for those on low incomes. People will qualify for these benefits at different points in time, raising the question of the best time to capture them. Until people receive benefit, however, they will not be eligible for a saving gateway account.
The Bill is a partial solution to encouraging people on low incomes to save. It is probably the most cost-effective solution, but it is not necessarily the ultimate answer, as more work needs to be done to encourage people on low incomes to save, particularly those who are not eligible for this scheme. Perhaps the Financial Inclusion Taskforce could work on how to target that group.
Amendment 13 was intended to probe different means of identifying whether the scheme targets all those on low incomes. As the scheme is evaluated, I hope that the mismatch between eligibility through the passporting route and the proportion of the population on low incomes who are eligible will be a central feature because it will enable us to determine whether the scheme needs to be refined, not just in respect of the additional benefits but in relation to whether other ways can be found to roll out the saving gateway account to meet the needs of those who do not currently qualify for it.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 5, in page 3, line 33, at end insert—
‘(1A) Conditions imposed under subsection (1)(a) shall have regard to
(a) location of the provider’s premises;
(b) the provider’s commitment to financial education; and
(c) the provider’s willingness to expand access to broader financial services.’.
This second group of amendments deals with two particular points. Let me deal with amendment 5 first. The seven lines of clause 5 are designed to deal with the fact that account providers need to be approved. Subsection (1) refers to the conditions that might be imposed on “an approved account provider”, but there is no further description in the Bill—much of it gives enabling powers—or the explanatory notes of the conditions that a provider might be required to fulfil.
We had some debate in Committee about the type of providers that we should encourage—or discourage—to take part. I am not going any further down that road, although the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) might want to enter the debate on this group to make those points again. It is important, however, that published guidelines are available to provide some clarity to providers about the conditions and their application. Pilots have already taken place, so it might be possible to draw out three conditions, which the Government might like to reflect on for approving providers.
One point that came out of the evaluation was the importance of the branch network. The take-up of saving gateway accounts in the pilot increased in relation to the closeness of people to a branch of HBOS—the organisation involved in the pilot. If we are to encourage take-up, we need to think about an account provider’s branch network. So far, the only group that has expressed a clear intention to participate is the Post Office, which has a strong, if diminishing, branch network. It would fit the bill as a good provider. Access should be easy; people should be able to take their certificate somewhere close to where they live. The more barriers we put in the way of access to the provider, the harder it will be to get a decent take-up of the saving gateway account.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Apparently, these banks are managed on an arm’s length basis, but it appears from press comments about the assets insurance scheme that strings are being attached to the receipt of such support. The Minister might like to think about my hon. Friend’s suggestion and attach a further string. Participation in a saving gateway account scheme might be a reasonable concession in return for the receipt of protection of apparently £500 billion—indeed, it would be a small price for banks to pay. The Minister might like to discuss with his colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform whether this is a feasible concession for the banks to make and whether the Government will press for it. One would like to think that, as part of their broader responsibility, financial services organisations would take very seriously a commitment to broaden access to financial services products and view it as a way of fulfilling that obligation. Paragraph (c) of my amendment stipulates as one of the conditions for approval
“the provider’s willingness to expand access to broader financial services”.
It is an elastic and loose term, but I hope that when the banks and other financial institutions are thinking about whether they want to be a provider, they will bear it mind as part of their obligations.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His answer to my question might mean that I will not need to make a further contribution to the debate on this group of amendments. One possible effect of the hon. Gentleman’s amendment is that it might be used to exclude small friendly savings providers, such as credit unions, as they do not have the wider access to other banking services that the amendment seems to require. It might also prevent the Government from targeting these accounts through Post Office Counters—something that might help to keep some of the post offices in all our constituencies open. I hope that that is not the intention, but will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is simply a probing amendment and that he does not intend to limit these accounts to the big banks? If that is his intention, I will certainly want to vote against it.
We want there to be as many providers as possible. We want the widest possible geographical network. I do not want the amendment to be used to restrict provision to a single provider, such as the Post Office, or to exclude such bodies as credit unions, because this is part of the market that they exist to serve. If, for instance, a bank or building society decided to offer saving gateway accounts in only half its branches, I am not sure that either the hon. Gentleman or I would find that particularly acceptable. The condition can be used in different ways to maximise the inclusiveness of the product.
I am not sure I agree. The amendment refers to conditions, and to the need to have regard to the location of the provider’s premises. It does not say that we can only allow big financial services companies with loads of branches to participate. It poses the question “Will all branches in a network participate, or only some branches?” Its purpose is to probe some of the conditions that might apply when potential providers are encouraged to come forward.
But the wording of paragraph (c) would empower the Government to limit provision to organisations that are willing to provide access to a wider range of financial services. Organisations such as credit unions that could not provide that wider access would be covered by that paragraph, with the result that the Government or a future regulator might prevent them from providing saving gateway accounts.
In the course of discussion about financial inclusion, it has frequently been observed that some institutions are not very keen on encouraging access to financial services products. We want such institutions to commit themselves to widening the range of services available to people who are at present financially excluded. We do not want them to cherry-pick saving gateway accounts and not offer other products to those people. I do not intend to press the amendment to a vote, but it will depend on how the Government choose to use their powers to determine access to financial services products. I want institutions that participate to be committed to financial inclusion. I do not want them to view the saving gateway account as a product in isolation in which they are currently interested, while not being particularly interested in broadening financial inclusion.
Credit unions, as organisations, are committed to financial inclusion. That is the essence of their activities, as is clear from the extension of their offer of savings accounts to include current accounts and their offer of loans consisting of relatively small amounts. Part of their mission is financial inclusion, and I certainly do not believe that paragraph (c) seeks to exclude them. What they may not be able to offer is access. We need to ensure that providers operate in as many locations as possible, are keen to support financial inclusion, and are committed to financial education. One of the issues that emerged from both the public evidence session and the evaluation of the pilot schemes was the need to offer financial education along with saving gateway accounts. The hon. Member for South Thanet will recall, as I do, discussion of whether the accounts should be interest-bearing. Teresa Perchard of Citizens Advice pointed out that if they were not, it should be explained to people what they should expect at the end of the two-year period when their account rolled into a current or basic savings account.
Many factors will help to make the product successful. Three of them—the provision of easy access to account providers’ premises, commitment on the part of providers to educating people in order to improve financial awareness, and a commitment to financial inclusion—could prove particularly powerful in that regard. We should ensure that those who are considering putting themselves forward as providers share the commitment to tackling financial exclusion. That is part of what the Bill is about, and it is no good having providers who are not interested in it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is now reassured about the purpose of this probing amendment.
The amendment refers to
“location of the provider’s premises”.
Given that more providers are using the internet, has my hon. Friend ruled out web-based providers? Does he believe that providers need a physical location? Having met a good many homeless people, I know that there is a high level of internet penetration. The internet provides a secure way for those without a stable location to manage their finances. Before meeting those homeless people, I had been under the impression that the web base was more for those with a little more money.
That is an interesting question, and not one that we explored in Committee. Perhaps if my hon. Friend had listened a little more carefully in Committee, he would have raised the point then.
The system that we are discussing is based on a notice of eligibility. I had always assumed that a piece of paper would be posted to people, who would then present it to an account provider over a counter. However, like my hon. Friend, I have been contacted by a number of people who are homeless but have internet access. They might indeed prefer to manage their money in that way.
I do not know whether the Minister has had any discussions with potential account providers about how they might supply a web-based service. A point that emerged both from our debates in Committee and from the evidence sessions was that the greater the burden of cost imposed on potential providers, the fewer of them there would be. That is, to an extent, relevant to amendment 6. If we require providers to offer a web-based service, that may involve an additional cost making participation less attractive to them.
We must get the balance right. We want to encourage a wider range of providers because we want eligible people to have physical access to saving gateway accounts, perhaps not on every street corner but within a reasonable distance of where they live. That will mean ensuring that the cost to providers is appropriate, and it is possible that a requirement to provide a web-based service might deter them from participating because of the extra cost. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us whether any providers are interested in supplying such a service, which, of course, might pose challenges in the context of financial and digital exclusion.
Let me now turn to amendment 6, which proposes the deletion of clause 11(2)(e). Again, it touches on the costs issue. Regulations made under the Bill will set out how information will be filed by account providers. I am wary that we might create too much prescription on providers and therefore force up costs, and I wonder how permissive or relaxed the regulations will be in respect of the type of information providers will be required to produce for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
Amendment 5 is intended to probe the issue of the guidance that will be offered to providers and what conditions might be attached to them. We are keen for providers to offer commitments on access and on financial inclusion and education. I hope the Minister will recognise that our intention here is to encourage the success of the scheme—rather than to restrict the range of providers, as the hon. Member for South Thanet seemed to think, or hope.
Let me begin by saying that, despite the discussions we have had in Committee and today, I agree with the hon. Gentleman: I want the accounts to be provided through as wide a range of organisations as possible. I was saddened by the attitude of those representatives of the banking industry at the evidence sessions who seemed to say, “We may not be interested in providing these accounts, because there may not be enough profit in it for us.” The purpose of these accounts is to help people who would not otherwise have got the saving habit to acquire it. In any other sphere of activity in the markets of this country, that would be welcomed as increasing the customer base, yet bank representatives were sitting there saying, “We’re not sure we’re interested in expanding our customer base.” Given the money we have given to the banks recently, and the debt most of us think they owe to our society at the moment, I would have thought that they would have been falling over themselves to say, “We want to help.”
I would not, perhaps, put it that strongly, but, absolutely, that is broadly what I am saying. One of the reasons for our current problems is that we have lost the saving habit. The Prime Minister has made that point in recent weeks when he has spoken about people saving prior to taking out a mortgage and about whether or not it is a good thing that people have 100 per cent.—or 100 per cent. plus—mortgages, so never developing any saving habit or any notion of thrift prior to taking on the obligations of a mortgage. My understanding from contributions from Members in all parts of the House is that what we want the saving gateway accounts to encourage those people who would otherwise not have developed a saving habit to see the merit of doing so. Given our society’s current problems as a result of the banks’ activities, I would have thought that it would be absolutely on point for them to say, “Okay, we now accept that we need to do more to help people get that saving habit. We accept it is our job to get people to think about thrift. It is now our job to make people think they can’t always come to the bank and get 100 per cent. or 120 per cent. mortgages, and that they will actually have to put a bit of their hard-earned cash aside each week and save up for some things prior to borrowing the balance of the money.” When we were taking evidence, the banks should have come to us and said, “We don’t see that there are huge amounts of profit in this, but we do see that it is absolutely our duty to provide these accounts. It is absolutely our duty to be providing financial education and training and support to people who need it, and it is absolutely our job, whether or not these things make money for us, to provide them and to do so willingly and to provide a good service.”
To that extent, I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), but I do not want credit unions and the Post Office to be excluded from providing such accounts. I do not think that is the intention of the hon. Gentleman’s amendments—indeed, he has made it clear that they are probing amendments—but the Post Office and credit unions can play a role. Credit unions tend to be small and to provide a good, almost pastoral, service to some of their customers. They are in a position to say to people, “Let’s sit down and talk about your budget. Let’s talk about where you’ve got some extra money, and about the benefits of saving.” The saving gateway account represents a big opportunity for credit unions and the Post Office, and I do not want anything to be done that would exclude them. I am happy to note that the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that that is not the intention of his amendments, and I think we have all-party support for how we want the accounts to operate.
I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman should propose in his amendment 6 to “leave out paragraph (e)”—I assume, again, that it is a probing amendment. I would have thought that making an option for electronic filing was a way of reducing costs for those who provide these accounts. If the effect of the amendment would be to prevent the Government from allowing people to file their returns electronically, we might be inadvertently increasing costs. I suspect that is not the hon. Gentleman’s intention, and I agree with him that our objective must be to keep the administrative costs as low as possible so that there is a plurality of providers, who are willing to provide the broad range of services that we want those who take out a saving gateway account to have.
I must say that I do not see the point of amendment 5, unless its purpose is to make it clear that we want competent, reputable financial institutions to provide those accounts. I am sure that we all agree that that is desirable, especially given that significant sums of public money will be involved. I share the view of both previous speakers—I think there is general consensus on this point—that we wish to see the broadest possible number of providers, and I would very much like credit unions to be among them as they offer a different type of service, and one that some of the potential customers may feel particularly comfortable with. I would therefore regret it if the amendment were to restrict the scope for, or inclination of, credit unions to provide the service, as the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) feared.
Although the hon. Gentleman has said that he wants to see a wide range of providers, I hope that by expressing our enthusiasm for credit unions we do not sound unenthusiastic about banks providing the service, because I think the one great advantage of banks doing so is that that feeds into the mainstream banking and saving system people who otherwise might not participate at all in normal banking arrangements. That lack of experience acts as a barrier to participation in financial services among wider society. There are some people in my constituency and elsewhere on very low incomes who do not have a bank account or have one but use it in a very limited fashion. Those of us, like everybody participating in this debate, who get used to a monthly salary being paid direct into our bank account should occasionally step back and reflect on how little in cash terms we actually see of the money we have been paid. Most of the money flows in and out of the banking system, and quite a small proportion is withdrawn in cash.
People who are generally better off or in longer term employment get used to how banking systems work and become confident with them. Some people who have less money or who have not been introduced to formal banking by becoming a customer at a younger age may have less confidence in the system. I do not mean confidence in the banking system as a whole, because we all have less confidence in that than we did a year ago: I mean confidence in the experience of being a depositor in a bank or having a savings account. That would be a longer lasting virtue of the Bill, because we are seeking to inculcate the savings habit in the people who take up the service. If they do not maintain that habit beyond the two years in which the Government will provide substantial financial inducements to do so, the Bill will not have succeeded to the extent that we all wish. To that extent, I hope that banks are to the fore, for altruistic reasons and because I share the view of the hon. Member for South Thanet that it will be in their commercial interests to try to widen their customer base.
Who knows whether somebody who opens a savings gateway account may end up being a prosperous customer? After all, that is the basis on which the banks push offers at students. It is not because students have very much money to deposit in the bank. Rather, the banks hope that the students will become good customers in the future. It may be that some of the people who choose to take up this option become more lucrative customers, and even those who do not become so wealthy could still be good customers in other ways, even if the total amount that they deposit with the bank is less. I hope that banks will participate. We want as wide a range of providers as possible and I hope that all those providers will be reputable. In so much as this amendment was designed to probe all those issues and stimulate a useful debate, I hope that the Minister feels that it has done so.
We are approaching a new age of financial responsibility as a result of the current downturn in the financial markets, and we will see a separation of banking services. Investment banks will become separate from retail banks, which will, in their purest form, have to get used to much smaller profit margins. So the traditional reasons for not entering the markets that are the subject of the Bill will eventually disappear.
All banks publish voluminous annual reports, and at the back they include corporate social responsibility statements. There is no better way for the banks to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility than by seizing this initiative and driving it through their branch network. At the moment, banks are rightly held in very low esteem by the vast majority of people and banks need to make some headway in the community. Traditionally, banks have ignored low income groups in favour of chasing those people whom they deem to be more profitable—those who can take out significant mortgages or rack up large credit card debts.
I do not want to see any financial sector excluded from delivering these accounts. I sincerely hope that the Post Office is involved in their delivery, because for many people the post office is their local shop and at the centre of their community. I also hope that credit unions play their part in delivering these accounts, but the credit union sector is still small—although it is growing—and many communities will not have a local credit union over the next decade or so. So banks will have an important role to play in delivering these accounts.
I am sure that when the whiz kids in the banks sit down and look at the accounts they will conclude that they will not make a lot of money out of them. Indeed, banks might make a small loss in delivering the accounts. However, that should not deter them. We have heard many declarations of contrition for the banks’ failures in the past year and the failures that undoubtedly lie ahead, but if they are to restore confidence, the provision of these accounts would be a good place to start. I hope that banks will seize the opportunity to volunteer to be at the forefront of this initiative, instead of being dragged to do so.
These amendments cover two distinct areas, but they have in common that they both relate to the requirements to be placed on account providers. I wish to stress that the Government want to maximise customer choice and access, and we are keen to secure as broad a range of appropriately qualified authorised account providers as possible. That includes the Post Office, credit unions, banks and building societies.
The Bill Committee heard from representatives from a variety of potential providers, and the message was that while their members support the objectives of the saving gateway, they want to consider carefully any costs associated with the provision of saving gateway accounts before committing to offer them. It is similarly important to remember that most of the requirements that we impose will apply equally to all approved providers, from the large high-street bank to the smallest mutual society. We must therefore ensure that the requirements that we impose on saving gateway account providers are appropriate and proportionate, as they will affect the number of providers that opt to offer the accounts.
I immediately took a more charitable interpretation of amendment 5 than did my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). I thought that the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) was trying to be helpful and to probe our intentions. As drafted, the Bill already provides the coverage for conditions and requirements to be imposed on account providers in the areas mentioned in amendment 5. I agree with all the opinions that have been expressed about the importance of appropriate access to account providers, to financial services and to financial education. However, there is nothing in those points that makes them particular to people who decide to open a saving gateway account. As hon. Members will be aware, the Government support a wide range of measures and initiatives to improve financial capability and widen access to financial services. That covers some of the points made in the amendment.
As hon. Members will see from the draft regulations, we have restricted the conditions that we propose to impose on providers to those that ensure that they have the appropriate regulatory permission and can offer and operate accounts as set down in the Bill and regulations. That strikes the right balance. It is important to guarantee the saver regulatory protection and consistency of account features, while ensuring that the conditions on providers are not excessively burdensome.
An important point was made about local branch access. We want easy access for people to open accounts. The draft regulations provide that account holders must be able to make account deposits in several ways, including in cash. That is likely to mean that providers must offer a counter service, or similar. However, nothing would prevent the offering of saving gateway accounts that could be opened electronically. We have had discussions with potential account providers who want to deliver the saving gateway accounts in several different ways. We believe that providers should be required to accept cash deposits, which might make things difficult for a web-based provider. However, it may be possible for a provider to have a web-only account for some customers, if those customers prefer that.
Let me turn to amendment 6. I should explain to hon. Members that we consider the requirement that an account provider’s returns and declarations should be submitted electronically to be a reasonable and proportionate requirement on providers. It is not only consistent with broader developments in Government practice, but central in many cases to the smooth operation of the scheme and the prompt payment of match amounts earned by savers.
We set out in the consultation document that we published at the Budget 2008 that we intended to make online filing of returns the only means of sending returns to HMRC. We asked in that consultation document whether that would cause any problems for any particular groups of providers. The response to the suggestion of mandatory online filing was very positive—most providers recognise the benefits of that. Indeed, those benefits are considerable both to providers and to HMRC. Online filing is quicker than submitting and processing papers returns, more cost-effective and more accurate, as well as being more environmentally friendly than a paper-based system. The hon. Member for Fareham did not make a great deal of that amendment, so I do not need to explain in much further detail why we think that there is not a problem in the industry with electronic filing. The consultation confirmed that.
I think that I have addressed amendments 5 and 6. I recognise that they are probing amendments and I hope that the comments that I have made were helpful.
It has been useful to debate the nature of the providers and the terms and conditions that we would expect as well as the things that we would expect providers to do. I want to press forward on the issue of cash, because Mark Lyonette of the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd mentioned the cost of processing cash payments, which was potentially significant for credit unions.
Although I recognise the importance of having facilities available for people to pay cash, when it comes to reducing the cost to the providers of providing the accounts, the deductions that can be made electronically through direct debits, standing orders and pay packets clearly reduce the cost of collection to providers and are a further way of encouraging a larger number of people to participate. Having said that, I know that the Portsmouth Savers credit union not only operates a counter facility through its branch but works through PayPoint, too, spreading the network of payment points widely through the catchment area that it supports. Clearly, there are ways in which credit unions can expand their accessibility in a way that is not available to some other institutions.
That is an interesting suggestion. One issue that credit unions face is the availability of access points and how to provide different methods of access. I am not sure that my caseworker would welcome responding to constituents’ correspondence as well as acting as a bank cashier, but that is a matter that I will explore with her. Accessibility is important, as the pilots demonstrated. Part of the rationale for tabling amendment 5 was to tease out some of those important issues that will underpin the success of the savings gateway account.
On amendment 6, the Minister confirmed that there is widespread support for the use of electronic filing by account providers. He said that most respondents welcomed mandatory electronic filing, and I would assume that the sort of systems that bodies such as credit unions are putting in place would be capable of making electronic filings of their returns and if they are, that is welcome. My amendment was a plea for a degree of discretion where systems are not up to electronic filing and where the cost of updating systems might be a barrier to credit unions and other institutions that are prepared to offer saving gateway accounts. Based on the debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment 2, in page 4, line 19, at end insert—
‘(6) After the first exercise of the powers in subsection (5), the Treasury will be required to consult interested parties on any changes to those regulations and lay a copy of the report on this consultation before Parliament before any further regulations are made.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment 9, in clause 27, page 13, line 4, after ‘(4)’, insert ‘, 4’.
Amendment 10, in clause 27, page 13, line 4, after ‘(4)’, insert ‘, 6’.
Amendment 7, in page 13, line 7, leave out ‘The first’.
Amendment 8, in page 13, line 10, leave out subsection (6).
This group of amendments tries to address one of the issues that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) mentioned on Second Reading, which is the fact that the Bill is an enabling Bill and contains a large number of regulation-making powers. I think that he said that there were 29, and virtually every clause contains at least one regulation-making power. The Government have already published some draft regulations, and the amendments try selectively to enhance the parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations. I accept that there are circumstances in which the negative resolution is the appropriate route, when matters are relatively uncontentious, but I have suggested a number of areas where I felt that the affirmative procedure might be more appropriate given the implications for the taxpayer of changes to some of the criteria in the Bill.
First, let me deal with amendment 2. Clause 6 is about eligibility and it talks about people being able to open a saving gateway account having received the notice of eligibility. When we discussed the clause in Committee, there was some discussion of the regulations under subsection (5), which are very permissive and enable people to have more than one saving gateway account at any one time or more than one over their lifetime. They also restrict the number of saving gateway accounts that someone might have. We know that the intention of the Minister and the Government is that people should have only one saving gateway account and that was the consensus that was underlined in Committee and in the evidence-taking sessions that we had before the Committee scrutinised the Bill line by line. Sharon Collard and Brian Pomeroy, among others, made it clear that if people have not got into the savings culture through one account, it is unlikely that being offered further opportunities will enable them to develop the habit of saving.
Amendment 2 proposes that once the Government have made their first regulation to limit accounts to one per person, there should be a proper consultation if they seek to make any subsequent changes. The consultation should consider whether there should be more accounts and a copy of it should be laid before the House before any further regulations are made, to ensure that the House is aware of the outcome of the consultation before it is made.
Amendments 7 and 8 refer back to clause 14, which gives the Government the power to make regulations for the treatment of the accounts in the context of income tax and capital gains tax. Again, the Government’s intention is that the accounts should be free from income tax and capital gains tax. However, the Bill states that although the first regulations made under the clause will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, any subsequent changes will be made under the negative resolution procedure. Given that subsequent changes could make accounts subject to income tax or CGT, it is appropriate to build in a safeguard requiring proper parliamentary scrutiny, so that any subsequent orders would be made by the affirmative rather than the negative process.
Amendments 9 and 10 deal with other parts of the Bill that allow changes to be made by the negative procedure. Clause 4 is important, as it determines the maturity period that applies to saving gateway accounts and the maximum amount that can be paid into an account. The draft regulations published by the Government set the maturity period at two years and the maximum monthly payment at £25. Any amendment to those terms would be made by the negative procedure, but lengthening the maturity period could lead to increased costs to the Exchequer as people build up higher balances that would be subject to the 50p in the pound matching process.
Similarly, increasing the monthly payment from £25 to, say, £30 or £40 would also lead to increased costs to the Exchequer. We believe that both processes should be subject to the affirmative rather than the negative procedure. That is a reasonable extension of the affirmative procedure, and it would provide some safeguard for taxpayers.
Amendment 10 makes a similar point in connection with clause 6. In amendment 2, we ask that a report be laid before Parliament when the Government propose a change to the number of accounts that can be held. In amendment 10, we argue that any subsequent use of the power after the first use should be subject to the affirmative rather than the negative procedure because, again, the cost to the Exchequer will be greater if the rules are modified to allow people to hold more accounts.
As the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) rightly said, on Second Reading I spoke about what I consider to be the Bill’s excessive flexibility. I said that the Government would be able, through regulations and without sufficient reference to Parliament, to change quite fundamentally how the Bill works in practice, and I maintain that that is still the case.
I can understand that all Governments like to have some flexibility. Legislation probably benefits from a degree of flexibility, especially if there are financial considerations that mean that the Government may need to manoeuvre to some extent to respond to events. However, we are sent here to represent our constituents and to make sure that Bills are scrutinised properly, and there are a very large number of moving parts in this Bill. The word “mockery” is too strong, but it undermines the scrutiny process if Bills brought before us for our approval have so much scope for interpretation by Ministers at a later date.
I continue to hold that view about this Bill. I regard it as broadly benign, but a wider principle is at stake. However, I shall not detain the House unnecessarily, as I agree with all the accurate and wise comments made by the hon. Member for Fareham. Rather than making them all again, I shall confine myself to saying that I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly.
I hope that I can convince the House that the Government’s approach to what is put on the face of the Bill and what is contained in secondary legislation—as well as to what is subject to the affirmative and negative procedures—is fair, reasonable, proportionate and appropriate.
This group of amendments covers two points. Amendments 7 to 10 ask whether the exercise of some of the regulation-making powers should be subject to the affirmative rather than the negative procedure, whereas amendment 2 would introduce a requirement for the Government to consult interested parties and report to Parliament before using one specific power in the Bill.
I shall begin by responding to the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban)—and, by default, I suppose, to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne)—on amendments 7 to 10. As I have said a number of times, we believe that the current use of delegated powers is appropriate. The important features of the savings gateway, including the list of qualifying benefits and credits and the method of calculating maturity payments, are all set out on the face of the Bill. However, many of the details of the operation of the saving gateway are relatively technical and our view is that they are best tackled through secondary legislation, because that provides the flexibility that will allow the scheme to be amended in the future to ensure that it continues to meet its objectives.
We know that those objectives have the broad support of the House, and we want them to be amendable without the need for further primary legislation because we also know that that can suffer from the pressure of parliamentary time. We think that we have struck the appropriate balance, and I shall explain our approach to the House.
The first use of all but one of the delegated powers in the Bill will be subject to the affirmative procedure. We think that that is the right thing to do to allow appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of the details of the scheme that is being introduced. However, subsequent use of most of the powers in the Bill will be subject to the negative procedure, as that will provide the necessary flexibility to make minor or technical changes to the scheme.
Of course, we can debate which changes are minor or technical: hon. Members might have different views, and it is right that the Government be probed about such matters. However, I want to explain that there are four exceptions, under which each use of the regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure. They include all three delegated powers relating to eligibility, which is clearly a central feature of the savings gateway. It is therefore right that any changes should be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.
The same is true of the match rate—the amount of maturity payment earned for each pound saved. The power to set that amount in regulations under clause 8(1) is therefore the fourth delegated power that will be subject to the affirmative procedure on each use. All the key parts of the savings gateway architecture are therefore either on the face of the Bill or subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Moreover, all changes to eligibility and the match rate will be subject to the affirmative procedure.
Yes, indeed I can. Moving from a match rate of, say, 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. would be a major decision, with serious cost implications. We think that our figure for the amount that can be paid in monthly is appropriate, and we anticipate that future adjustments will be needed only to keep pace with inflation, or something similar. We are therefore talking about two different matters: we think that a change in the match rate would be a fundamental redesign of the scheme, whereas updating for inflation would not be. As a result, it is more appropriate that such updating should be covered by the negative procedure.
But the Bill gives the Minister the power to double the monthly contribution by means of the negative procedure. We do not know how much people will save, but that could have the same financial impact as doubling the match rate and leaving unchanged the amount that can be saved.
That is true; that is how the legislation is worded. If a future Government decided to double the match rate without consultation and without agreement, I am sure that people would pray against the regulations. Our clear policy intention is to update the monthly deposit limit, but we do not at the moment foresee making a fundamental change, such as a change to the match rate. That should be debated, and be subject to the affirmative procedure.
For the life of me, I have never understood why the Opposition always make that point. If the Government cannot afford something, they will not lay the regulations before the House, and if the Opposition do not like a measure, they can pray against it; it will then be debated in the same way as regulations introduced under the affirmative procedure. Will my hon. Friend confirm that Cabinet Office guidelines require a public consultation before regulations are laid before the House? That means that interested parties would have their say even before the regulations were laid before the House.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is perfectly possible for people to pray against regulations introduced under the negative procedure; indeed, that happens quite frequently. I am simply making the point that a change to the match rate would be a fundamental change to the design of the scheme. As to updating the monthly deposit limit in the light of changes to inflation, inflation is low now, and under this Government, it will continue to be low and sustainable, but we need the ability to update that. A minor, technical amendment that updates the scheme in the light of inflation is more appropriately handled through the negative procedure. The hon. Member for Fareham and I will have to differ on the issue, but I hope that on reflection, he will not see it as a major issue that he wants to press to a Division.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of tax relief. I understand his concern about the possibility of a future Government taking away the tax-relieved status of the saving gateway using the negative procedure. We have been very clear that the saving gateway will be free of income tax and capital gains tax, as is provided for in the draft regulations. I am happy to confirm that we have no intention of reversing our position. Of course, if a future Government were to choose to do so, it would be open to Members to pray against the relevant regulations, but it is not sensible to require all regulations relating to tax relief for the saving gateway to be subject to the affirmative procedure. Some of the regulations may be simple, technical provisions to reflect changes in the tax system more widely. We need to differentiate the policy intention from any fundamental change in policy; that is why the legislation is framed as it is.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the length of the saving gateway account maturity period. I can see where he is coming from. He is saying that if we increase that length and increase the monthly limits by the negative procedure, it could have as significant a cost impact as a change to the match rate. We agree, but the policy intention is to keep the match rate as it is. On the length, the intention is to evaluate the scheme properly once it has run for a period. If it is right to make changes in future, we will want to do so. Allowing the flexibility to make changes of that kind, so that we can ensure that the scheme continues to meet its objectives, is sensible contingency planning on the part of any Government. It is right that the measures should be subject to the negative procedure.
That brings me to amendment 2, which relates to the number of saving gateway accounts that a person can have in their lifetime. As I said on Second Reading and in Committee, our intention is that people should be able to have only one saving gateway account in their lifetime. That is reflected in the draft regulations. The saving gateway aims to kick-start the saving habit, as we know. It is therefore right that it should be a one-off account. Brian Pomeroy, the chair of the Financial Inclusion Taskforce, said during the Committee’s evidence sessions:
“it is right that they get only one shot, because the basis of the scheme is that it should be a kick-start.”––[Official Report, Saving Gateway Accounts Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2009; c. 18, Q38.]
I think that the hon. Member for Fareham agrees with us on that point. However, we believe that it is right, and sensible contingency planning, to maintain some flexibility on the issue and to give this and future Governments the freedom to allow people more than one account per lifetime, if that is thought reasonable at a later date.
Amendment 2 would restrict that flexibility by requiring the Government to consult interested parties and to lay a report of that consultation before Parliament. That would be an unusual requirement for legislation to impose, and it is not necessary. If we wanted to consider a change to the number of accounts that a person could hold in their lifetime, I am sure that we would want to consult on the idea. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) says, under the normal procedure and the guidelines followed in such cases, we would consult. We would want to make sure that any change was effectively targeted, which would mean consulting and talking to various bodies. We have shown in recent years that we are keen to take the views of interested parties into account, when it comes to the design of the saving gateway. Indeed, it has been pointed out that we have hardly rushed into introducing saving gateway accounts. There has been extensive consultation and dialogue, and we are continuing to discuss with various providers how the accounts will be implemented, as the House will be aware.
I do not believe that the Government’s flexibility should be restricted in the way proposed in amendment 2. Nor do I think that the changes proposed in amendments 7 to 10 strike the right balance when it comes to what should be covered by the affirmative procedure, and what by the negative procedure, so I hope that the hon. Member for Fareham will seek leave to withdraw his amendment.
The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) asked why Opposition Members argue for the affirmative procedure; it is because we want increased parliamentary scrutiny. We know that it is more convenient for the Government to get their business through with as little grit in the process as possible. That is why Governments tend to prefer the negative procedure.
Given the ministerial experience of the hon. Member for South Thanet, I suspect that he knows exactly why Governments prefer the negative procedure. Of course, we will treasure his remarks, just in case roles are reversed in the next couple of years and he then argues in favour of applying the affirmative procedure.
Well, I do not think that the two are in any way correlated. There is a debate to be had about what the level of parliamentary scrutiny should be. The Minister’s explanation of why he rejects the amendments indicates that there is a fine line to be drawn, because there are areas where technical changes could be subject to the negative procedure. Part of the issue is that there are some instances where the Government could make a minor, technical change, such as a change to some detail in the tax treatment of saving gateway accounts, or a fundamental change.
What we lack in the Bill and in the procedure of the House is a way of distinguishing between a significant change and a technical change. As the Minister said, there could be a change to the monthly contribution limit just to index-link it. We would all agree that that would be a relatively minor change, which could go through on the negative procedure. However, the Government could make a significant change to double or halve the monthly contribution, which would be far from a technical change. It would be a substantive change, and the Opposition would have to go through the negative procedure by praying against the regulation.
The Minister commented that he viewed my amendments more charitably than did the hon. Member for South Thanet. Perhaps I view the powers that the Government have under the Bill less charitably than I should; perhaps I see the opportunity to make significant changes and emphasise that opportunity rather than the possibility of making minor technical changes. On balance, I would prefer more parliamentary scrutiny with the capacity to make a significant change that could have an impact on the account, and I would prefer to err on the side of caution, rather than make it easier for Governments to get business through. However, I appreciate the points that the Minister made, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Transfer of funds on account ceasing to be Saving Gateway account
I beg to move amendment 1, in page 7, line 9 , at end insert—
‘(1A) Subject to subsection (1B), funds in the account will be transferred into an account which pays interest at a rate which is equal to or greater than the rate paid on funds held in an Individual Savings Account as set out in the Finance Act 1998 (c. 36) operated by the Savings Gateway Account provider in question.
(1B) Where an account provider does not operate an Individual Savings Account, the amounts will be transferred into an account that it provides which—
(a) has no penalty for the withdrawal of funds without notice; and
(b) offers a rate equal to or higher than the highest interest rate offered on other accounts operated by the provider.’.
The final amendment covers an important point that we discussed in Committee. Clause 16 deals with the transfer of funds when an account ceases to be a saving gateway account. It is a significant element of the Bill because it creates a clear expectation of what should happen when an account comes to an end, and should be seen in the context of ensuring that people are given as much incentive as possible to continue the savings habit which they will hopefully have developed over the two-year period.
In the pilot programme, the default option was a savings account with a very low interest rate. That is a better option than defaulting into a current account, not only in terms of the interest that someone might earn, but because a savings account might discourage them from withdrawing the money, whereas if it is lumped together with their existing current account balance, there might be a greater incentive to spend it.
The amendment seeks to reflect some of the concerns expressed about the default option. The intention behind the Bill is to ensure that when the account comes to the end of its two-year period, there is a roll-over into an individual savings account. I sought in Committee to make that mandatory. A number of objections were raised, which I try to reflect in the amendment.
In the evidence-taking session there was some debate about whether an ISA was the appropriate default option. Teresa Perchard from “Which?” expressed a preference for a plain vanilla savings account because of some of the complexities attached to ISAs. Matthew Wakefield from the Institute for Fiscal Studies was more open to the idea that the account should default into an ISA. One of the other arguments made in the evidence session—by Adrian Coles of the Building Societies Association, I think—was that some providers might wish to default a customer into an account with a much higher rate of interest than an ISA. That would be a positive move, but in most cases the ISA rate is higher than the rates generally offered on instant access savings accounts.
Others made the point that some potential account providers did not offer an ISA. One can imagine a credit union, for example, not offering an ISA, and I would not want credit unions to be excluded from the provisions of the Bill, so my alternative suggestion is that where a provider does not operate an ISA, the amount should be transferred into an account where there is no penalty for instant withdrawal without notice, and which offers a rate equal to or higher than the best rate offered on another savings account.
If somebody is rolled into an account that offers the best possible rate for that saver, it is meant to be an attractive option and to ensure that rather than the money being lost to a current account at the end of the two-year period, it rolls into a savings account and that we get the best possible deal for the saver by mandating that it should be an ISA or, where that is not offered, an account with a rate equivalent to the best rate that the provider offers.
What happens when the account matures is, as Alan Cook from the Post Office said, a critical issue. It will help to influence the way in which people manage their money in the future. The more we can do to ensure that the default option is an account such as an ISA which offers a good rate of return and a sense that the money is set aside, the more likely it is that we will encourage people to continue to save in the future.
I agree with the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) to this extent: all the accounts must have a default option. People should be told what that is when they go into an account. They should be told that at the end of the two-year period, they will have choices. It should be made explicit that there is not one option, but a range of choices that they can make. They should be told that if they do not exercise that option, the provider has a default option, which should be explained.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are many people for whom the best default option will be an ISA, from which they will get the best rate of return. Equally, many of the people at whom the scheme is aimed will not be payers of income tax. We won today a kind concession from the Minister that carers, for example, will be entitled to saving gateway accounts. Those people may envisage a very long period of being a carer; if so, they will therefore not be income tax payers in the near future. For them, a different type of account may be preferable to an ISA. For example, a national savings and investments account, where payments are made without income tax being removed from the account, might be the best and most convenient option for them.
I hope that people will decide for themselves when they go into saving gateway accounts whether they are likely to benefit from an account that defaults to an ISA or an account that defaults in some other direction. It is even possible, as we discussed in Committee, that the Post Office will act in partnership with other organisations to provide saving gateway accounts. The Post Office might be able to offer a plurality of choices into national savings and investments accounts or into ISAs as a result of such partnerships.
To the extent that the hon. Gentleman intends to ensure clarity about offering choices at the end of the saving gateway accounts, and to the extent that there will have to be a default option, I agree with him. Where we part company is on his belief that for everybody an ISA will be the best option. For many of the people on very low incomes whom we are discussing, that will not be the case. I want to see a range of providers who cater for that market, as well as for those people who would benefit from an ISA.
There are three broad areas of consideration in respect of this issue, and we touched on them during our early deliberations; I think that we broadly agree on all three. The first is that people who take out the accounts should be able to access their money in full whenever they wish to. We agree on that, but the principle is important. Although we do not want them to access the money as that would rather undermine the purpose of the scheme, many of them would be unlikely to participate in it unless they felt able to access their money if they chose. We have to be extremely cautious about sending out the message that barriers—even if only procedural, rather than absolute—are being put in their way.
The second point is that the accounts should resemble a normal savings account as much as possible. In Committee, we discussed whether the accounts should attract any interest, as well as statements and all the features with which people with normal bank savings accounts will be familiar. If we wish people to take up the savings habit and the transition into conventional savings accounts once the two-year period has elapsed, we should want the characteristics of the gateway account to represent a normal account; that is desirable in so far as it can be achieved.
The third area relates to the purpose of the entire Bill. Even if the people who take up the option of having one of the accounts decide on occasions to use the money that they have saved on short-term expenditure, the scheme will still succeed if it makes them more likely to be longer-term savers. For me, that is the purpose of the legislation. A significant group of people in society—perhaps, 10, 15 or 20 per cent. of people—have an insufficient stake in their country and society as a whole; I am thinking of their participation in the democratic process and civic society, but the issue is most keenly felt in their lack of stake in the financial future of the country. Even quite modest savings will give such people a feeling that they have something to gain—and even something to lose—according to the fortunes of the country in which they live. It is important that those people do not feel isolated from the mainstream. Any amendments or progress that we can make that encourage people to regard the account as the start of a longer-term trend for their finances, and inclines them to save beyond the two-year period, is to be welcomed—with the caveat that they should not be compelled.
I am sympathetic to the motivation behind amendment 1, but I fear that it is too inflexible. The motivation is good, because it accords with the principles that I have sought to outline. Perhaps, however, there is a means of reaching that point that is superior to going down this rather narrow path. If the Minister knows of such means, I would welcome it. However, I urge him to take seriously the inspiration behind amendment 1, because that will govern whether the legislation is deemed a success in five or 10 years’ time.
The debate about amendment 1 has been helpful because it gets to the heart of what the Bill is about. The ultimate success of the Bill would be achieved if people changed their behaviour and were encouraged to save, so it would be unfortunate if we left the post-savings gateway account period in any degree of uncertainty. That would affect two of the Bill’s long-term-success criteria, outlined in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). One was about persistency—about whether the Bill will make the culture change happen. The second was about the increase in net wealth that ought to come with it. Brian Pomeroy added the criterion of wider entry into financial inclusion.
One of the most telling remarks in the evidence sittings came from Teresa Perchard of Citizens Advice, who talked about how we all feel an inertia about banking—even those of us who are experienced at banking. She said:
“Everybody hates their bank but will not shift accounts.”––[Official Report, Saving Gateway Accounts Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2009; c. 16, Q33.]
That inbuilt inertia is also a good reason for the sentiment behind the Bill and for making the post-account period clearer in relation to what we expect to happen as a result of it.
I sympathise with the sentiment behind the amendment. We all want to ensure that savers benefit from good returns on their savings when funds are transferred out of saving gateway accounts that have matured; we disagree on whether that should be mandated. In many ways, the amendment is a good example of the considerations that the Government need to take into account when designing policy. The hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) will no doubt be familiar with the work of Thaler and Sunstein, whose book “Nudge” discusses the setting of sensible default options. I am particularly interested in the application of behavioural economics to policy making. I recommend the works of Daniel Karmann, as much as I would that of Thaler and Sunstein.
We can have a legitimate debate about how we address the issues. We are all clear on the policy objective, which is to kick-start a savings habit. We want to make sure that the saving continues in the longer term, when the account matures. We want to see saving gateway accounts transferring on maturity to an appropriate account, through which the individual continues to save. The issue is whether we should mandate a default roll-over account into which funds should be transferred when the account holder does not give any instructions about what should happen to their account balance at maturity, or whether there should be more choice and no mandatory requirement. As part of that, we considered carefully whether default roll-over accounts should be ISAs, for example. We have decided against that for a number of reasons, some of which I explained in Committee.
However, I point out again that we have said that we will permit transfers from matured saving gateway accounts into ISAs to be treated as previous-year subscriptions. That is an important point—in other words, those accounts will not count towards the annual ISA subscription limit. That means that savers can continue to save tax free and gain the benefits of ISAs. As the House will be aware, about one in three people in the country—more than 18 million UK adults—already have an ISA account.
The amendment would take a prescriptive route in trying to achieve the outcome by mandating a default account; we have decided to take a permissive approach because we think that account holders may want some flexibility. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) rightly said, account holders may well find themselves in different financial circumstances and have different requirements, so it would not be right to mandate one particular type of account.
Providers may also wish to have some flexibility to ensure that the account into which accounts roll over will be appropriate for their customers. As soon as conditions are laid down for what these accounts will look like, that flexibility would be constricted or eroded. The amendment’s prescriptive approach would also mean additional costs and complexity. It would require the account into which saving gateway funds are transferred to pay interest at a rate at least as good as that of an ISA offered by the provider in question, or as good as any account offered by a provider that does not offer ISAs. I applaud the hon. Member for Fareham for the ingenuity with which he phrased his amendment following the discussions that we had in Committee. However, it does not mention for how long this requirement would need to be met beyond the point of transfer. This would need to be monitored and policed to ensure that it was effective, and that process would add costs and complexity for providers and for Government in administering the scheme. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Alan Cook, the managing director of the Post Office, who said:
“If there is over-prescription, you will introduce extra costs. We do business in different ways with our customers, and we should allow the organisations to play to their strengths.”––[Official Report, Saving Gateway Accounts Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2009; c. 28, Q52.]
We need to take that into account.
I have every sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s intentions. We want to see good rates of return offered to savers, and I am aware of the need to consider the setting of sensible defaults because there may well be inertia and people will not be making active decisions. Nevertheless, I still think that the balance of the argument lies with not being prescriptive, and I want to give two reasons for that. First, under the banking code and the requirement to treat customers fairly, banks or others that offer saving gateway accounts that are being rolled over should be offering interest-bearing accounts that are appropriate to the interests and needs of their customers. Our expectation is that at the end of the two-year period, funds will be transferred into the most appropriate account that the provider offers. Of course, we will want to monitor that very closely.
Secondly, as I stressed in Committee, we want competition and a marketplace. We want saving gateway customers to have good deals that are offered by saving gateway providers. Part of that package should involve setting and offering a good default option for when accounts roll over at the end of the two-year period. The more providers there are, the greater the range of options that are available, and the more competition that there is for savings when saving gateway accounts mature, the better that will be for the customer. We want individual savers to be able to choose what happens when their account reaches maturity. If they do not believe that the default option that is being offered to them by their provider is right for them, they have the right to move their saving gateway account, on maturity, to an account that is more appropriate. Obviously the advice and support that account holders receive as their account nears maturity is critical, and we want to continue to work on that with providers and intermediaries.
The balance of argument that has influenced our policy design has been to say that the obligation to treat customers fairly, the competition and marketplace that we think will be there, and the need to give consumers choice rather than have it constrained for them outweigh a requirement to set a mandatory default option. We will of course want to monitor the situation closely. Everyone would be concerned if it became common practice that people offering saving gateway accounts were then encouraging people, on maturity, to roll over into accounts that provided no or very low levels of interest, or certainly levels that were not competitive.
For the reasons I have set out, we do not believe the prescriptive approach that the amendment proposes is the right basis on which to proceed. I hope that I have explained my reasons for the Government’s decision.
We have chewed this over in Committee and again today. My concern is to ensure that the default option is a good one for saving gateway account holders. Where there is inertia, as there will be for many people, who will not necessarily make the rational choice that we might want them to make, we want them to default into an account that pays them a good rate of interest. I was keen to move down a more prescriptive route to ensure that there is a good deal for those who effectively make no choice when the account matures. We have to be careful about assuming that people always act in a rational fashion, because that is not always the case. I am an accountant by background, and I am not sure that my financial decisions are always rational. People will not always do a whole of market review to see what the options are and decide that National Savings and Investments is the right approach for them.
I am keen to ensure that the default option is a good choice and that people will not do themselves any harm by defaulting into something that offers a rate that is not comparable to an ISA. Even people who are not paying tax are probably better off in an ISA than in a normal savings account. My approach is to say that we should encourage them to take up a good option that should not cause them too much harm. That would not preclude them from exercising choice, in the same way that in personal accounts there is an auto-enrolment process whereby once someone is enrolled they can decide to opt out. The default option is meant to be a positive one on which they can make a choice. This is the same approach. I would not say that someone has to be in an ISA for two years, 18 months, six months or even a week, but once they have gone into it they can then choose, if they wish, where the best home for their savings is.
There would be another benefit from having a vehicle like an ISA as the default option. This goes back to some of the work that Thaler and Sunstein and others have done on behavioural economics; it is about the concept of mental accounting. If someone has some money locked away or put in a separate account, they have to make a conscious decision to access that money. Sometimes people on low incomes adopt a “jam jar”, mental accounting approach to saving. That is why Farepak was attractive. It may not necessarily have been something that most people would accept as a reasonable way of saving for Christmas, but it worked because it was a form of mental accounting in that the money was locked away until it was needed. That is one of the attractions behind defaulting into an ISA. It would be a powerful way of getting people to think about setting their money aside, and it is an account that would do people the least harm to default into, compared with a savings account paying 0.1 per cent. interest, as in many cases at the moment. It would represent a good deal for people who have a saving gateway account that has reached the end of its life.
I do not think that the Minister and I have a huge disagreement; it is a matter of how this is put into practice. He clearly signalled to account providers the sort of options that should be offered to people when their account matures. I hope that the Government will think not only of the choices that they offer to people in the financial education that they put alongside that, but how they ensure that for people who do not make a conscious choice the option that the account rolls into will represent a good deal for savers rather than a less satisfactory deal. That is the driver behind the amendment. We are not far away from the outcome that we want, but there is perhaps a difference of approach in how to get there. However, I am assured that providers will take from this debate the message that there is a commitment on both sides of the House to ensure that people have choice when their account matures, but that where choice is not exercised the default option is a good one. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We had an interesting debate on Report, and I am grateful to all the hon. Members who took part in it, and to the Members of all parties who contributed in Committee. I am grateful for the constructive approach that all sides took in the Committee sittings, and for their approach to the Bill in general. We had some very useful debates and we have made some progress in understanding the Bill. I would also like to thank those witnesses who took the time to give evidence to the Committee.
As hon. Members will know, the Bill will create a national saving gateway scheme from next year. The scheme has two objectives: first, to kick-start the saving habit among working-age people on lower incomes, and, secondly, to promote financial inclusion. Those objectives have been widely welcomed in this House and beyond. The pilots that were run over recent years showed that the saving gateway can achieve these objectives. Sharon Collard, who helped to evaluate the first pilot, told the Committee in our evidence sessions that
“the aim of the saving gateway is to kick-start a savings habit...There is evidence that that can happen.”
We designed the scheme carefully, learning the lessons from the pilots, and during the debate we touched on many major aspects of how the scheme can work. We have, rightly, paid close attention to eligibility, which we discussed again today. I agreed in Committee to continue to consider the case for the carer’s allowance to be a qualifying benefit. As I said then, carers will be eligible for the saving gateway through the qualifying benefits that are already set out in the Bill, but as I said on Report, the Government are minded to table amendments in the other place to ensure that recipients of carer’s allowance who are of working age are entitled to participate in saving gateway accounts.
We looked at the match rate on Report, and at the Government’s proposed contribution of 50p for each pound saved in the scheme, and I believe that all parties, and the witnesses in Committee, agreed that that is the right level at which to set the rate. We covered various aspects of the scheme’s design, such as the monthly deposit limit, the length of accounts and what should happen to the accounts when they mature.
There has also been debate about delegated powers, and the procedure to be followed for their exercise. As I said in response to the amendments of the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), we believe that we have struck the appropriate balance, but we will continue to consider the issue in the light of any forthcoming report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the other place.
These have been useful debates, and we were pleased to have the opportunity to put the Government’s thinking to the test and to put these issues on the public record, as well as to debate them with Members on all sides of this House. I believe that this is an important Bill. The fact that there is such a broad political consensus should not detract from the fact that we are taking steps to establish a national savings gateway scheme for the first time, which will give around 8 million people a strong incentive to save. By giving them a chance to save up to £600, and earn up to £300 from the Government, but also by helping to build a lifetime savings habit and by bringing people into the financial mainstream, the Bill can make a real difference to people’s lives and I commend it to the House.
As the Economic Secretary said, there is broad support for the Bill. He also mentioned on Report how long it had taken to get the Bill on to the statute book. The idea behind it was first mooted in Labour’s 2001 general election manifesto, and it will come into force after the next general election—I do not know whether that is the longest time it has taken a pledge to move from manifesto to enactment, but 10 years is a long time for people to wait.
I should always expect a Liberal Democrat MP to make a reference, wherever possible, in any debate, to proportional representation, but that may take longer to introduce. I suspect that, from the outset, the Bill was far more likely to come into force than his demand for a referendum.
Some might argue that the Bill is a distraction from the economic and financial crisis that the country is facing, but we also need to bear in mind that one in three households in this country have no savings and no cushion against being laid off, or are facing wage cuts or an end to overtime. This Bill serves a valuable purpose in encouraging people, particularly those on low incomes, to save. People on higher incomes have an opportunity to smooth out fluctuations in income and expenses to which those on low incomes do not have access. If the Bill is successful in encouraging people to save, it will enable them to create a modest buffer against variations in income, such as the unexpected expense of being laid-off for a short period. It will give people a degree of financial security that they have not had hitherto.
The Bill is a means to an end. It is designed to develop a savings culture in this country and there is a relatively generous match of 50p in the pound to encourage that culture to develop. A clear belief was expressed in the evidence that we heard that the two-year duration and the match level would be sufficient to start to encourage the development of that savings culture.
I do not believe that the account in itself is enough. Alongside it, we need an emphasis on financial education and other ways of tackling financial exclusion. We need to help people to understand why it is important to save, and although the lessons people learn from the financial crisis will act as a spur to save at the moment, a longer-term change in culture is needed.
We need to ensure that there is an evaluation of the effectiveness of the scheme. We need to demonstrate that it works. There is a significant cost to the taxpayer—it will cost £340 million in the first three years of its operation, falling to £60 million thereafter—so we need to demonstrate that taxpayers’ money is being spent well and wisely, that the Bill has led to people saving money and to an increase in net wealth.
There are some rough edges to the Bill. We talked on Report about the mismatch between the groups of people we want to help and the way in which the Government will deliver the Bill by tackling the issue of benefit entitlement. We understand the practical and pragmatic approach that the Government have adopted in trying to achieve the Bill’s goals, but we should not forget that there will be people on low income who are not eligible for the account, and we need to find ways of encouraging them to save. More work needs to be done on that.
The Bill is a welcome measure that will help to tackle the lack of savings among a small group of people—although it must be said that 8 million people are eligible. The problems families are facing today give a clear sign that we need to do far more work to encourage people to save to provide a cushion for short-term fluctuations to their income, and to enable them to take responsibilities for their families’ futures in the long term. The Bill is a start, but far more work needs to be done to achieve the goal of increasing savings in this country.
This has been an enjoyable Bill to be involved with, and I am grateful to Members of all parties for that. The debate has been good-humoured and largely consensual, and we have done some good work. At worst, the Bill will put about £250 million into the pockets of people on low incomes that they would not have otherwise had. At best, it will encourage some of those on low incomes to get into the savings habit to make their lives a bit more comfortable in the future. I do not believe that any Government other than a Labour Government would ever have contemplated introducing such a Bill. It might have taken slightly longer to get here than we envisaged, given that we first put it in the 2001 manifesto, but the fact that it has reached this stage is most welcome.
Not only have we had an enjoyable time bringing the Bill to this point, we have even won an important and welcome concession from the Government on ensuring that carers of working age will be included in the ambit of the Bill, as the result of an amendment that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has said he will introduce in the Lords. It is not often that Members win a concession from the Government, and I am sure that the Whips will be keen to point out that it was won through argument and persuasion, without the need for blood to be spilled on the floor of the Lobby. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the open way in which he listened to arguments and accepted them, and for saying that he will act to address the matter.
The one thing that we need to think a little more about is the fact that we are all being a little bit po-faced about the objectives of the Bill. The whole purpose of it is to get people into the savings habit, but we seem to be assuming that that will be a positive thing only if they carry on saving everything and keep all their money in the bank. I believe that if we manage to encourage people on low incomes to do some saving, one of the best ways to encourage them to keep saving in future will be if they spend some of the money that they gain on something fun. I would not want us to create an environment in which people think that they have to put every penny of the benefit that they gain from a saving gateway account into another savings account immediately and lock it away there for their retirement. I hope that some of my constituents use it to buy themselves a new pair of fancy shoes or a weekend break with the family. As long as they get the savings habit and carry on saving, the Bill will have been well worth while. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary on his work in bringing it this far.
This stage of the legislative process is a little bit like an Oscars ceremony, as we run through all the people who are worthy of appreciation and thanks. I should like to thank the witnesses who appeared before us in the Public Bill Committee a few months ago, the civil servants for the assistance that they have given and the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) for his thorough and intelligent scrutiny of the Government. I thank the Economic Secretary for the considered way in which he has taken on board all the representations that have been made to him.
The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) is right to draw our attention to the way in which the Minister has found himself persuaded—I shall not call it a concession—by arguments that carers should be brought within the scope of the Bill. That is an important change, which will be appreciated by many people who feel somewhat neglected in other regards or feel that their burdens are not sufficiently appreciated by society as a whole. They will have looked upon our deliberations, and when they come to feel the full consequence of them they will appreciate what has been done.
There are two important features of the Bill, which have been the reasons why it has commanded support from all parties. First, it will provide a buffer for people who otherwise run their finances down, often because they have very little money, to a point where they have no security if there is some external shock for which they have not budgeted. That can make people’s lives difficult. As we have said before, if the washing machine breaks down or some feature of their life is suddenly changed without their being able to anticipate it, those people have no scope to address that difficulty. If the Bill helps in that regard, it is very much worth while.
The bigger objective is to give people who currently have the smallest stake in society a bigger stake, and particularly a financial one. The amounts of money saved do not have to be particularly large, but the people who are enticed to save money because of the Bill will feel that they are participating in a wider collective endeavour and that the actions that are taken in their community, whether by Government or other organisations, have some bearing on their lives. They will then feel that they have a stake in the process, which is hugely important. As I said on Second Reading, it is the equivalent of the share-owning democracy being extended to people in the bottom 10 to 20 per cent. of society. That will bring widespread social benefits if the Bill works out as successfully as we all hope.
Of course, we will see whether we have got some of the details right once the Bill takes effect, such as whether the 50p rate is correct, too high or too low and what people do after the two-year period has elapsed. However good the pilots were, we will never really know that until the scheme is properly up and running. I very much hope that it will succeed, and I have enjoyed participating and wish the Bill well.
The Bill is a small step towards ensuring that this country rediscovers the savings culture. Our long-term prosperity will be built not on spend now, worry about it tomorrow but on savings and investment for the future. This is a small but important step.
We must drive discipline through the income scale. The Bill is about low earners, but the savings culture is relevant to everyone, wherever on the scale they appear, because they all have costly needs and demands. When people lose their job, it does not matter whether they are earning £10,000 or £100,000, they find themselves in difficulties. We must ensure that in future, people put some money aside for a rainy day.
We must remember that although the current financial crisis was not caused by people on low incomes, they are too often paying the price. Credit is drying up at their end of the scale as well, and they are struggling even more to gain affordable credit. As a result, they are being forced deeper into the arms of loan sharks charging exorbitant rates. We talk about putting things on the never-never, but as we know, as soon as someone misses a payment to loan sharks, they are on the doorstep making their life extremely difficult and miserable.
I need to be able to sell the Bill in Broxbourne, because it will be relevant to many of my constituents. I hope that the Minister and his civil servants will put together a pack of information leaflets, brochures and so on so that I can play my part in selling it to my constituents and getting the citizens advice bureau involved. I want to play an active part in giving it the push that it deserves.
I congratulate the Minister on all his work on the Bill. I hope that when he gets back to his office this afternoon the phone will be ringing off the hook, with all the chastened chief executives of major clearing banks calling him up and demanding the chance to deliver this initiative as soon as it comes into being next year. It has been a great pleasure to serve on the Public Bill Committee and to participate in the Bill’s various parliamentary stages. I wish it the best of luck.
The Bill is a mouse of a measure to handle an elephant of a problem. The Liberal Democrats say that this is the Oscars ceremony, but can anyone believe that the Bill deserves an Oscar when it is well below the standard of an amateur production, albeit by a group of professionals who should know better? Indeed, Ministers’ audacity in not realising how feeble the Bill is in relation to the savings problem that they confront takes one’s breath away.
We meet against the background of a huge economic crisis, in which savers are being wiped out daily. If they have risky assets, they are falling in value catastrophically. If their money is on deposit in the banks, the interest rate is now tiny. In the stages of the Bill in which I participated, one of my biggest disappointments was the unwillingness or inability of the Economic Secretary and the Government to tell us anything about how the money would be invested and what sort of return it might earn, yet they have had a decade to prepare the measure. They tell us that they have consulted the savings industry, which will help effect the Bill, but there the Economic Secretary sits, thinking of something else, because he knows that he will get his Bill and he has not a clue about what sort of offer or deal will be available when it is enacted and translated into action on the ground.
It is a disgrace that so many people in this country are so poor that they have no savings. It is a disgrace that a savings culture for such people has not been more actively promoted to give them a buffer and more options and choices in life. It is a common aim of all the parties represented in the House to do something about it. However, do the Government genuinely believe that such a measure will work if interest rates for savers are 0.5 per cent. or 1 per cent.? Do they believe that it will work if all they do is borrow more and more, thus conveying the message that the way to get ahead and have a decent job is to borrow and borrow, not save and be prudent?
The Government are by far the most imprudent with whom the country has ever been cursed. They add trillions to the public debt—[Interruption.] They think that that is funny, but they have the audacity to say to the very poor that they must never borrow, but save, and that the Government will give them a tiny increment from the money that they will borrow on behalf of us all. They cannot even tell the prospective savers what sort of an interest rate they might get on their money.
It is typical of a Government who have lost the plot, who are wrecking the economy and driving us deeper and deeper into gross national debt that they introduce a pathetic, limp, delayed and inadequate Bill and feel proud of themselves.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.
With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 4, 5 and 6 together.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),
That the draft Mutual Societies (Transfers) Order 2009, which was laid before this House on 19 January, be approved.
Employment and Training
That the draft Industrial Training Levy (Construction Industry Training Board) Order 2009, which was laid before this House on 22 January, be approved.
That the draft Industrial Training Levy (Engineering Construction Industry Training Board) Order 2009, which was laid before this House on 22 January, be approved.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)
Question agreed to.
Business of the House
I beg to move,
That, in respect of the Northern Ireland Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.
The motion simply allows amendments to be tabled before Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill next Wednesday. That will be necessary if the programme motion, which will allow all the Commons stages of the Bill to be taken in one day, is accepted on Wednesday.
The context of the Bill is important and, indeed, is the reason for tabling the business motion, which, I hope, is for the convenience of the House. The agreement by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on 18 November set out a process that would move Northern Ireland towards the completion of devolution with the resolution of the thorny matter of policing and justice. That will be a crowning achievement, if we can get there.
The Northern Ireland Bill affects those elements of the November statement and the Assembly and Executive Review Committee report that require primary legislation. The Bill provides a framework for the post-devolution Administration—
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy Leader of the House, but, to echo his first words, the motion is narrow, and we should not start to anticipate the programme motion, which may be tabled at a later stage. If he seeks to widen the argument now, apart from my having the duty to rule him out of order, he would widen the debate to the extent that other hon. Members might want to participate. Then we really would have a problem.
That is of great assistance to my speech. I do not wish to stray into considering the programme motion—I merely wanted to provide some context so that people understand that the only reason for the business of the House motion is to enable Members to table amendments in the next few days. If they are tabled tomorrow, Monday or Tuesday, they could be published before Second Reading. That is not the House’s normal custom. It is necessary only because we hope that the programme motion will be carried next Wednesday. That would enable us to take all the Bill’s stages in one day.
One other point is material. The House requires speed only because there will be further stages after the Bill completes its passage here—namely, a Bill in the Assembly to establish the department of justice and a resolution by the Assembly, followed by Orders in Council, which must then come before the House.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you agreed with me that the motion is a simple one. I recognise that the time scale for the legislation is compressed, but the Government have allowed 10 days between the introduction of the Bill and the debates to ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members can familiarise themselves with the detail and, if necessary and if they choose to do so, table amendments before Second Reading. I hope that the motion has the support of the House today.
I may have been here three and a half years, but your advice is always welcome, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It shows that no matter how long one has been here, there are always things to learn. I will keep my comments brief. We are operating under unusual circumstances, and, in a different context, we on the Conservative Benches would perhaps have taken a different view. However, all things considered, we will be supporting the motion before us.
This debate is about an unusual procedure, although obviously not one that is out of order, because it has occasionally been used before. However, it is an unusual procedure to enable amendments to be tabled before Second Reading. We have procedures in this House for a reason. We have them to allow orderly debate, particularly on legislation, in order to ensure that Members have proper opportunities to raise points that they think are important, that those points are properly considered by the proposers of the Bill—in this case the Government—and that there is a possibility to amend the legislation.
That is why we have the well-established procedure of after First Reading having, Second Reading, which is an opportunity to consider the principles of a Bill. Following Second Reading, we have the opportunity to table amendments, with careful provisos to ensure that amendments are not tabled at the last moment and, therefore, that amendments do not come before the House that hon. Members have not had the opportunity to peruse properly. Then we have the Committee stage, which enables proper clause-by-clause, line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill. Then, again after an appropriate period, the Bill, as amended, is reported to the House, with the opportunity for amendments to be tabled and for further consideration before Third Reading.
We are talking about hon. Members having the opportunity to peruse amendments, but it is crucial that the process should give outside organisations and outside interests the time to look at what has been tabled and therefore the chance to influence hon. Members.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: that is why there should be substantial reasons for deviating from the normal process.
I do not wish to pre-empt the consideration of the programme motion, which we anticipate will come before us next week. However, in considering the motion before us today to enable the tabling of early amendments, which is predicated on the assumption that the programme motion will go through and that it will require the House to consider all stages of the Bill in one day, we should at least have the opportunity to raise our concerns.
The problem with the programme motion next week is that it is like a mafia offer. If we debate the programme motion, protest at how short it is and relate it to this debate, we will be eating into the precious minutes available for Second Reading, Committee and Report. Also there might be statements. It is a charade.
I have a good deal of sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman is saying.
What might be the reason for the proposal to table amendments before the basic principles of the Bill have been considered on Second Reading? There are two possible arguments. One is that the urgency of the matter will be such that a programme motion will receive ready assent from hon. Members once it is put before the House, because the urgency is transparent. However, we know that the deadline to complete the remaining stages of the Bill in good order—as many of us want to do—before Royal Assent is not until the end of March. This is the lightest legislative Session that we have ever had, and there is ample time to give more than one day to the consideration of this important Bill. It could have historic significance for Northern Ireland and we ought to give it proper consideration. The argument that we need to be able to table amendments early because this is a matter of urgency is unsustainable, because it would be quite possible for the House to maintain its normal procedures without difficulty in this regard.
The other, less satisfactory, argument would be to suggest that there was consensus among all those in the House on the objectives and details of the Bill and that any amendments should be tabled early to enable proper and swift progress to be made. I do not believe that such consensus exists, however. Yes, there is consensus on the final objective of the Bill. I doubt whether any hon. Member does not wish to see the repatriation to Northern Ireland of the justice functions to ensure proper devolution. The issue is not the final objective, but the detail.
The Bill is not that long; it contains only five clauses. It would not take long to give any amendments proper consideration in Committee in the normal way. So we are talking about a week—or perhaps two, at a maximum—in Committee. That would not disturb the timetable—[Interruption.] The Minister says that it would, but he cannot deny that we have a window of opportunity between now and the end of March for the Bill to be given Royal Assent—[Interruption.] He says that that is not the case. Will he please tell the House why not?
The Government are very keen to ensure that all the processes to which I have referred—some of which, including the timing, are not within our gift and have to be undertaken by the Assembly in Northern Ireland—can be completed by the summer recess. In order for that to happen, the Bill has to be out of both Houses by mid-March.
I think that the Minister is badly advised on that point. I think that that is not the case, but he will no doubt check the actual terms with his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.
This is a matter of principle. These changes to our normal procedure are being made not for the convenience of the House but for the convenience of the Executive. They have had since November to bring forward this Bill, but they have not done so. Now they are proposing that we table amendments to it before we have even had the opportunity to discuss its basic principles on Second Reading. That is an abuse of the procedures of the House. We have had Northern Ireland Bills where this has been necessary and welcome, because of the need to make very quick progress, but this is not such a Bill. It is not a Bill about which such arguments can properly be made, and I wish to put on record my protest at this abuse of the normal procedures of the House without any adequate reason.
I do not intend to vote against the motion, because to do so would provide a pyrrhic victory. It would prevent amendments from being tabled if a programme motion was passed next week and the Bill was to be considered in a single day. That itself tells us what an abuse of the process this is. If we do not pass this motion today, a Government Bill will be rubber-stamped by a majority in the House without any proper consideration. That cannot be the right way for the House to proceed.
I rise because I have objected to this motion over the past two nights and because I have consistently criticised in this House successive Secretaries of the State for Northern Ireland for pulling the same stunt time and again. They always come to the House saying that legislation must be passed not expeditiously, but in one day. That is repugnant to me, and it should be repugnant to this House, as it makes a total nonsense of what we do here.
Following up the point of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), speaking for myself—I will perhaps elaborate when we debate the programme motion next week—I think that all we needed was the separation of one evening between Second Reading and then Committee and Third Reading. Indeed, it was originally intended that the legislation would be dealt with this afternoon. I put this question to the Minister: why was it not possible to have Second Reading today and Committee and Report on the Floor of the House next Wednesday? That would have been the most appropriate arrangement, and it would have been consistent with what is happening in another place. Time and again, we find that the House of Lords spends two days on such a matter, while the House of Commons goes through the charade of giving a rubber stamp.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who may be interested to know that the provisional business given for another place indicates that it will take Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill on Monday 9 March, and Report and Third Reading on 11 March. The other place therefore has the opportunity to debate the matter properly, while we in the elected House do not.
Yes, and it will not have escaped your notice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that surprisingly there is invariably a statement on Wednesday—we sometimes have two statements—yet we have to finish our business by 7 o’clock. If we have a programme motion to consider and then Second Reading, Committee and Report, the idea that we will have had proper debate is simply a fiction.
Our colleagues from the Democratic Unionist party will legitimately and not unreasonably expect to say something about the Bill, as will Social Democratic and Labour party Members. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is likely to want to come along, and there are other parties—I think the Liberal party speaks here on a proxy basis for the Alliance party. It will be a nonsense.
This motion is necessary to get over the embarrassment; it facilitates the charade of next week. I am not prepared to acquiesce in it by my silence, and we should bear it in mind that my right hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Mr. Hain) and for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) have done this time and again. I support the legislation in principle, but it does not have to be done with a wave of a magic wand; it needs proper examination.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that there is a broad consensus in Northern Ireland about the principle of devolving policing and justice powers, but will he accept it from me that there is also a broad swathe of opinion in Northern Ireland among those who are quite content to allow the present position to pertain for months, if not years, in order to allow what is happening at the moment to stabilise, and only then to proceed in the fullness of time, thus negating the need for the process that is under way today?
I accept, of course, what the hon. Gentleman says; he speaks for his constituents in East Londonderry and he knows the territory—I use the term in the broadest sense to mean the Province—very well. He knows that I accept his views on these matters.
The motion before us basically means that whatever is said on Second Reading will not be able to influence or counsel anyone as to the nature of the amendments they table. What burns me up is that the minutes of Second Reading will be a total charade. What normally happens, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, particularly when it comes to legislation that is not party political, is that people want to reflect on and contemplate the details of what is said on Second Reading. Undertakings are often given, which mean that further amendments will not need to be tabled. Sometimes amendments are needed to probe, but that has to be done before Second Reading—before seeking undertakings from the Secretary of State.
There are undertakings to be sought; let me provide one example. The Bill proposes that arrangements facilitated by it will go on until 2012, and there is a sunset clause. That assumes, however, that the Alliance party will still be part of the Northern Ireland Assembly after the next Stormont general election. The Bill makes no provision for what will happen otherwise. There is a vacuum—a void. I should like the opportunity both to press the Secretary of State on Second Reading and to table an amendment after Second Reading, to take cognisance of what might well prove to be another constitutional crisis in Northern Ireland in 2011.
Like my hon. Friend, I believe that no legislation should be microwaved through the House in this way. The Bill makes changes to—and arguably does injury to, in some cases—at least four pieces of legislation that the House has passed in the last 10 years or so. The Bill will have unforeseen consequences, especially if it is passed hastily and legitimate amendments are not even considered. It will also have foreseen consequences for which no one should wish to provide—namely the collapse, or dissolution, of a Department in 2012, and possibly no Minister’s being appointed after 2011. That is not a sensible way for the House to legislate.
I agree with those comments, which buttress the concern that I have expressed about the motion.
You will have observed in your reading of the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it not only creates a Ministry of Justice, but deals with judicial appointments. I am not opposed to those measures, but they are extremely intricate. In any United Kingdom or, rather, England and Wales legislation, the Secretaries of State on both sides pore over such matters. They chew the cud. They ask for reassurances. All these measures, however, will go through in an afternoon. Moreover, if unamended, the Bill will allow major subordinate legislation to be passed elsewhere, in the form of an order, in an hour and a half.
I wish to acknowledge the courtesy of the Leader of the House, who met me earlier today to discuss the issue at some length. I indicated to the Deputy Leader of the House, by means of a nod and wink, that I wished to know whether there was any news. Apparently there is not, in which case I am disappointed, but I am grateful for the courtesy shown by the Leader of the House in the first place.
As was made clear in the Chamber when I issued a challenge during business questions, the Government argue that this is not merely a matter that requires expedition, but a matter of the utmost urgency. They imply that if the hon. Member for Thurrock frustrates the process he is a dead rotter, because he will scupper the whole architecture of the future of Northern Ireland justice. They also say that they want the legislation to be enacted and up and running by the first anniversary of the creation of the Northern Ireland Executive—and, they say, it is now two years since the creation of the Executive, so we are way behind time. Some people who do not appear in the House are complaining. Well, I do appear in the House, and I want to enact the legislation correctly. As I said to someone this morning, the second anniversary is not 1 May, as the Bill claims, but 8 May. That gives us an extra week in which a day can be allotted for the Committee stage and Third Reading.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extraordinarily powerful speech with which I entirely agree, but I seek his advice on one point. If the House divides on the motion—in which case I shall be inclined to vote against it—might that not mean that no amendments can be tabled? Are we in a Catch-22 situation?
That is why I observed earlier this afternoon that this was like a mafia offer: an offer that I cannot refuse. I do want the opportunity to table some amendments, inadequate though that opportunity is. At least their lordships may pick them up, seeing the nonsense that has gone on in this place. At least we shall be able to flag up some amendments that have not been explored. That does not mean, however, that we should do the ultimate in rubber-stamping and nod the motion through, as we did last night and the night before, without its being made clear to the current Leader of the House that we have had enough, and will refer to this debate on the next occasion when Northern Ireland legislation has to go through its stages in a single day.
I find wholly bogus and somewhat offensive the suggestion that we have to cut, and make a sham of, our practices in order to facilitate the Northern Ireland Assembly. Both individual Members and the body itself have my greatest respect, but with respect, it has plenary Sessions two days a week at most, finishes at 6 o’clock, and will adjourn in June or early July. It has been advanced to me that that is why it is imperative that this mother of Parliaments must fit in with the Northern Ireland Assembly and go through this nonsense. That is not acceptable. I hope that there might be some change even at this late stage, especially given that the Deputy Leader of the House has indicated that the Leader of the House is still contemplating the issue.
Let me explain what I propose: we should have the Second Reading next Wednesday, the opportunity to table amendments after that, and proceed again as swiftly as is sensible and possible to facilitate Northern Ireland Members in particular, so that probably the following Wednesday we would have the Committee and Third Reading.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has made powerful points this afternoon with which my party is in agreement. He says that he has been told that what is proposed is being done in order to facilitate the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am a Member of that Assembly—indeed, a member of the Executive, and there are colleagues present beside me who are in even more senior positions in the Northern Ireland Executive—but I am not aware of any request from the Northern Ireland Assembly to the effect that this legislation has to be introduced on a particular date or that it has to be rushed through in a particular day. The hon. Member for Thurrock made the point that even if this needs to be done speedily, it does not need to be done in one day, and that time can be found in order to allow at least a gap between some stages, which would allow both proper reflection and consideration of some of the issues and amendments to be tabled in the normal way.
Is not the main factor in determining the timing of this matter whether there is an end date? As no end date has been agreed for the devolution of policing and justice, however, is there not plenty of time to have a full debate in this House and the other place, and to allow the Assembly to have legislation?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, he speaks with great authority on these matters as he is the First Minister of Northern Ireland as well as a Member of this House. He makes the point that was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell): the urgency on this matter seems to be coming entirely from one direction—the Government. It is not a demand of the Northern Ireland Assembly or the parties there. The Government must recognise that by seeking to build up a sense of urgency and a sense that these matters must be dealt with within a very constrained timetable they do not contribute to building confidence in Northern Ireland that the matters have been dealt with in a proper, sensible and thorough way.
People in Northern Ireland regard policing and justice and the devolution thereof as an extremely serious issue. It has taken up enormous amounts of time in discussion among the parties in Northern Ireland, because given our history and the sensitivity of these issues, any decision to devolve policing and justice is a very serious step, and it has to be done on the right conditions and when there is confidence in the community. That remains the position.
On the legislation, I take issue with some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). From the perspective of Unionism, and particularly of the Democratic Unionist party, we are content that many of the legislation’s provisions are helpful and an advance on the previous position. I know that the hon. Gentleman sees it as a retrograde step, and I know that he takes issue with Sinn Fein on their negotiating ability on some of these issues—
Order. May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that he should return to the question of timing, which is the issue before the House?
I shall do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The issues need proper consideration, instead of being crammed into a short space of time. They deserve to be debated at length, and there is no reason why we should take only one day.
Time and again when we deal with Northern Ireland legislation—and it seems only to apply to Northern Ireland legislation—it is rushed through in a short time. That is not acceptable. It is not right and it should not happen, especially in relation to this very important issue.
It has been said that this timetable is necessitated by the requirements of the Assembly. As other hon. Members have pointed out, there is no reference or record showing that the Assembly has made such a request or that there is such a demand, and there is no business specifically timetabled for the Assembly in this respect, even though some of us regret that fact. The Assembly and Executive Review Committee has not agreed anything that would suggest that it expects legislation to be introduced within a given time. The relevant legislation in the Assembly would have to be tabled jointly by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I know of no agreement between them to do so or with the Committee to schedule business in the Assembly on that basis. The House therefore cannot rely on the impression that was given by the Deputy Leader of the House in that respect.
I have already indicated that, like others, I do not believe that microwave legislation can be a good idea in any circumstances. This legislation has implications. It will change things that were provided for in various bits of legislation over the past few years, and we need to tease out whether it does so carefully, properly and responsibly. Many of us wish to table amendments that would offer better fall-back positions than the Bill does. The fall-back positions in the Bill are more like fall-down situations, such as Departments being dissolved, left without a Minister or having their functions broken up and distributed across other Departments. Some of us will table amendments that would create a reliable fall-back situation, but in all likelihood there will be no time for those amendments to be dealt with.
What the hon. Gentleman has said, and what DUP Members said earlier, convinces me that it would be unwise for amendments to be tabled before we have had the opportunity to hear what the parties in Northern Ireland have to say about the legislation, but that will not be possible under the timetable before us today.
The hon. Gentleman makes a telling and important point. It may be useful that there is some agreement on that particular aspect, at least in procedural terms, between a party such as mine and a party such as the DUP. We obviously differ on some of the substance of the Bill. For example, my party wants to see the devolution of justice and policing happen quickly, but it must happen on the right terms. We disagree with the DUP about the injury that the Bill would do to previous provisions, including the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, but we share a common concern that if we are to be competent, responsible legislators, we should all have a fair chance to air our views and table amendments. That would be the best approach for the reputation of politics. Legislation for the optics, especially to suit a party that is not here, is not the best way for this House to conduct its business.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), whose speech as a parliamentarian will, I hope, have been noted by those on his Front Bench. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House has taken on board the comments made today.
I am afraid that this is not a one-off incident. Time and again, we have seen the time for Parliament to debate a controversial issue dramatically restricted. It is not in the Government’s interests to do that, as it appears that they are hiding from proper scrutiny. As we have already heard, we are in a Catch-22 situation. If we vote against the motion, no amendments can be moved. I hope that the Leader of the House will have heard the debate and will propose a revised timetable.
This year, the House is sitting for one of the shortest periods in living memory. If we had not had this debate, we would have finished three or three and a half hours earlier than we were required to. The problem is not that there is not time, but that the Government are rushing through something that they do not want scrutinised. The Deputy Leader of the House is shaking his head, so I assume that that means that he has changed his mind and will give more time for proper scrutiny. Failure to do that reflects badly on the Government and does not help their case. If the Deputy Leader of the House wants to intervene and argue against that point, he can, but I am afraid that it is true that time and again the more controversial the issue, the less time we get to debate it.
I call Chris Bryant.
Far be it from me to persuade the Deputy Leader of the House to contribute if he has no desire to.
Question put and agreed to.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On Monday afternoon, this House welcomed 125 British servicemen and women on their return from Iraq. They were members of 7 Armoured Brigade. How can I place on record thanks to the staff of this Palace for welcoming those troops so warmly? A lot of them completely put themselves out, doing things that are unusual in this Palace, such as opening doors to allow people to walk through in a way that was suitable for those servicemen and women in uniform. Can we place on record our thanks to the staff as well as our thanks to our armed forces?
The hon. Gentleman asks how he can put his thoughts on the record. First, I think that we would all sincerely share his thoughts. Secondly, he has put them firmly on the record and has done so well.
Alistair Iain Campbell
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Ian Austin.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns about consular support for British prisoners in foreign jails. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a long history of coming to the aid of British citizens in all kinds of places, suffering all kinds of hardship. Consular and embassy officials stationed around the world are there to help and are truly recognised for their commitment to helping our nationals and their families in times of trouble.
Providing support to British nationals arrested or imprisoned abroad is a crucial part of the FCO’s job. According to the independent charity, Prisoners Abroad, at any one time there are as many as 2,500 British people in foreign prisons. While they are there they face all kinds of conditions that would challenge a prisoner in the UK, too. They are isolated from family and friends, perhaps feeling alone and without easy access to help. In addition, prisoners in foreign jails often have little or no understanding of the language being spoken or the legal system to which they are subject. Although I appreciate that every legal system is different and that the FCO is operating admirably in some of the most difficult parts of the world, the experience of one of my constituents somewhat closer to home has caused me great concern.
In 2000, Mr. Alistair Iain Campbell of Killin was a lorry driver operating between the UK and Europe. A fellow lorry driver, Jeffrey Logan, was found guilty in a court in Boulogne of smuggling 117 kg of cocaine—worth, I understand, about £8 million—after French customs officers had searched his lorry on a return trip to Belgium. Mr. Logan claimed that he had agreed to bring back a package on behalf of my constituent, Mr. Campbell.
As a result of Mr. Logan’s testimony, an arrest warrant was issued in France for my constituent. A trial was set for Mr. Campbell in May 2002 in France, but he alleges that he took bad legal advice from both Scottish and French lawyers, who advised him not to attend the trial. He was convicted in his absence and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, plus a £5 million fine. Mr. Campbell and his family have consistently challenged the veracity of the case against him.
In 2005, the French authorities issued a European arrest warrant for Mr. Campbell, and his lawyers applied to the Scottish Court of Appeal to overturn the extradition request. The Court of Appeal in Edinburgh heard his case in February 2008. It ruled that
“he had deliberately absented himself from his trial”
in France in 2002 and upheld the extradition request. Mr. Campbell then voluntarily presented himself to officials in Scotland, who carried out the extradition to France in March 2008.
The charges levelled at Mr. Logan by Mr. Campbell—and, indeed, vice versa—are of course extremely serious, and this debate is not about the legal case, but I thought that it would be helpful to explain to the Minister how Mr. Campbell came to find himself imprisoned in Villepinte prison, 10 miles outside Paris, since last March. I want to reassure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that all the facts that I have used in my comments so far are matters of public record, and that I have not taken anyone’s name in vain in the House today.
It was during the extradition process that Mr. Campbell and his family first contacted me for help. Since his extradition, I have remained in contact with him via his sister Margaret, and I have the family’s permission to raise his case in the House in this Adjournment debate. Through Margaret, we have received news of Mr. Campbell’s living conditions in prison.
He arrived at Villepinte prison—which is apparently only a short-term holding facility—with only the clothes that he was standing in. He was initially incarcerated in his cell for 22 hours a day, and he has described the sanitary conditions at the prison as “medieval”. He had to buy his own food and toiletries, and the Foreign Office also told me that money transfers were carried out within their three-week deadline—something that I must tell my right hon. Friend the Minister is disputed by Mr. Campbell’s family. For example, they state that money sent on 26 March 2008 did not arrive with him until in the week of 19 May 2008. I emphasise the question of money because French prisons operate differently when it comes to prisoners purchasing their food.
Mr. Campbell is allowed to communicate with his family only by letter. His health has apparently deteriorated, and his sister tells me that he had open sores on his back through lack of clean clothing and because he is allowed to wash only three times a week. For some time he was reliant on the kindness of a fellow cellmate with limited English who fed him and gave him toiletries. His prison social worker does not speak English and, because Mr. Campbell speaks no French and neither the FCO nor the prison authorities would provide a translator, he is suffering serious difficulties communicating with the prison authorities.
Initially, Mr. Campbell asked for French language lessons and to use the prison library. However, because his requests have to be made on slips of paper pushed under the door of the office of the nearest prison officer, he appears to have had no response. It was not until later in his sentence that he managed to gain access to the library and a language teacher, through his own initiative. He hoped to start French lessons last September, although his family have not heard whether he has been successful.
I turn now to the issue of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s involvement. Consular officials visited Mr. Campbell in prison after his arrival there, and I understand that they assured him that he would be transferred to a more modern facility, where he would get basic privileges such as a daily shower and the use of a telephone to communicate with his family. The FCO has since advised that Mr. Campbell would need to apply for that himself. He has now made a formal request to the prison director for a move to a different prison, but has been advised that that could take some considerable time. Apparently, he has heard little news since.
Given Mr. Campbell’s family’s increasing concerns for his well-being, I contacted on a number of occasions my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), the then Minister for Europe. He advised me that consular staff in France raised Mr. Campbell’s health issues with the prison social worker, who advised them that Mr. Campbell knew that he could seek a doctor’s advice at any time. They offered to revisit him to explain that to him. His family have advised me that he has asked to see a doctor on a number of occasions, but his medical problems persist. The FCO was apparently advised that Mr. Campbell had not applied to take part in any prison activities, and that was why he was kept in his cell for such long periods.
In my right hon. Friend’s letter of 28 April 2008, I was told that I could speak to dedicated FCO consular directorate staff in Whitehall if I had any further inquiries. When my staff contacted the consular directorate, they were told that under data protection rules, the directorate was not able to pass on any information about Mr. Campbell’s case or situation to his MP without his express consent. Mr. Campbell’s sister, Margaret, who has financial power of attorney for Mr. Campbell while he is in France, has given me her written permission, although the FCO deemed that insufficient. Despite a number of forms apparently being sent to Mr. Campbell by the FCO, it continued to advise me that it had received nothing in writing from him. Telephone calls to the Foreign Office confirmed that Mr. Campbell had been sent a number of further authorisation letters and return postage-paid envelopes, but they had not been returned as requested. As a result, my inquiries with the FCO came to a standstill. I understand that it has now managed to make contact. Luckily—and coincidentally—it received written permission in time to prepare for this debate.
Mr. Campbell’s family have told me that he is visited weekly by a religious sister—a nun—who is in contact with the family in the UK. She described the prison as “a terrible place”. Mr. Campbell does not get breakfast. Apparently, his first meal of the day is raw food, and he has no way of cooking. There does not appear to be a dining room in the prison, and inmates have to eat meals in their cell. Partly in consequence of that, Mr. Campbell is losing weight. Apparently, clothes sent to him just a couple of months after his imprisonment were too big.
Despite that testimony to the contrary, the FCO has insisted that it understands that the prison where Mr. Campbell is being held is a “modern facility”. I appreciate that standards of prison welfare in other countries may differ from those that we expect in the UK, but I am sure that the Minister for Europe will appreciate that with such a radical difference of opinion on prison facilities and standards, Mr. Campbell’s family are deeply concerned. The family have the distinct impression that the FCO will not take up any other welfare concerns, will not provide any more help or advice, and will not arrange for consular staff to visit Mr. Campbell, even to establish whether he received the authorisation letters posted to him when the issue was in dispute. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified her understanding of those matters.
Alistair Campbell is not that far away from us here in this Chamber. It takes a little over two hours to get to Paris from central London. To put that in context, that is less than half the time that it would take to travel from London to Mr. Campbell’s home in the village of Killin in my constituency. The prison is not on the other side of the world but minutes from the capital of our closest mainland European neighbour and a fellow member of the European Union.
The FCO guidance states that its priority is to make sure that British citizens are treated the same as imprisoned nationals of the host country. Despite numerous attempts to highlight what are, by now, pressing health and well-being issues, the FCO appears to have given differing advice at each turn, passing responsibility from the Minister’s office, which I fully understand, to the consular directorate, and later to the embassy in Paris.
I do not wish to appear too critical, given what I said in my opening comments about FCO support for UK nationals in general, but I feel that in this case a clearer chain of command and communication and a better definition of responsibilities would surely have helped my constituent’s cause throughout this sorry episode. Notwithstanding the numerous question marks hanging over the validity of the criminal charges against Mr. Campbell, his experience gives the impression to his family, rightly or wrongly, of remoteness, confusion or even a general attitude of disinterest within the FCO.
As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, this debate is not a vehicle by which to question the integrity of the process by which Mr. Campbell found himself in such an apparently awful situation. However, it is crucial that we look at the level of support or, according to the family, the lack of it that the FCO has provided to my constituent. I shall therefore look at seven of the guidelines for supporting British prisoners abroad, as they are listed on the FCO website.
The first guideline states that the FCO will
“provide general information about the relevant country, prison conditions and the local legal system, including whether local legal aid is available”.
Mr. Campbell appears to be still in the dark about his legal standing in France. He has received no word on how his pre-extradition detention of some five months in a Scottish prison will impact on his final sentence, what his rights are as a prisoner in a French jail, what assistance is available through the local legal system, or how he is expected to find £5 million to pay a fine when he is serving nine years in a French prison.
The second guideline to which I wish to draw attention is that the FCO
“will provide a list of local lawyers and interpreters”.
As I highlighted earlier, Mr. Campbell has had no list, nor has he apparently received any FCO help in obtaining language or legal assistance.
The third guideline states that the FCO will
“make sure any medical or dental problems are brought to the attention of the police or prison doctor”.
Mr. Campbell’s continuing health problems have been the subject of repeated contact with the FCO, and his family’s concerns remain.
According to the fourth guideline, the FCO will
“take up any justified complaints about ill treatment, personal safety or discrimination with the police or prison authorities”.
As I think my summary of his case makes clear, the Foreign Office appears not to have taken up any of Mr. Campbell’s complaints, according to his family. Fifthly, the guidelines go on to say that the FCO will
“send money to prisoners from their families”.
I have already highlighted the problems encountered by Mr. Campbell and his family in this regard.
Under the sixth guideline, the FCO promises to
“provide information on how British prisoners may apply for transfers to a UK prison”.
To date Mr. Campbell has apparently been told different things in his initial consular visit and the subsequent advice from the FCO. Finally, the FCO states that it will visit prisoners
“once after sentencing and then only if there is a real need.”
Given the details of Mr. Campbell’s case as I have set them out today, I must admit to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I am somewhat unsure what would qualify as “real need”, as those words are understood by his family in Scotland.
There is another issue that is directly relevant to Mr. Campbell’s case and of more general interest, with which I hope the Minister will be able to help us. Under the European framework decision on sentenced prisoner transfers, which is due to be introduced across Europe in 2012, all European nationals will be transferred from prisons in which they are currently held to prisons in their own countries. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend advised us about what preparations are being made to support those prisoners, including my constituent, throughout the process and on their return to this country.
There are organisations out there—such as Prisoners Abroad, which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech—that are dedicated to helping people, such as Mr. Campbell, who find themselves for all sorts of reasons in foreign prisons. The Minister will be aware that Prisoners Abroad relies on Government grants to fund its activities. I would certainly be grateful if she enlightened us about the future funding plans for Prisoners Abroad, so that it may continue to support prisoners, their families and those returning to the UK from incarceration around the world, for the benefit of everyone in our communities.
As I said at the start of my speech, I understand that across the world the Foreign Office works closely to support individuals and it has a close and long-standing relationship with Prisoners Abroad to ensure the maximum support in certain circumstances. Indeed, I recognise that without the FCO much of the work done by organisations such as Prisoners Abroad would simply be impossible. I hope that the Minister will recognise that that example of how good work can be undertaken serves to highlight the apparent failings in Mr. Campbell’s case and why I have raised it this afternoon.
Mr. Campbell and his family are understandably angered by the apparent lack of support that he has received, in the face of terrible conditions and in a country from which, frankly, they deserved and expected better; as I said, it is only a couple of hours’ travel from this Chamber. Sadly, every attempt to intervene on Mr. Campbell’s behalf made by his friends, his family and me, has appeared to make little impact. The basic rights and respect that we afford prisoners here in the UK have gone unfulfilled for Mr. Campbell, and his family feel that they have been abandoned by their own Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) on securing this debate and I am pleased to respond to the points that she has made. As a constituency MP myself, I, too, have for a number of years followed up cases in which constituents of mine or their families and friends have been detained overseas. The situation is not easy to deal with—not for the families in the UK, and not for the person being detained. Furthermore, it is a difficult and sensitive situation for our consular service. I welcome the keen parliamentary interest shown by the House in consular assistance. It is an important matter, and it is important that Ministers and officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office take it seriously.
I will begin by briefly setting out the kind of support that consular staff can provide to British prisoners in foreign jails, before speaking in more detail about Mr. Campbell’s case. Our consular staff aim to contact all British nationals detained overseas within 24 hours of being told about their detention. They will then aim to visit the detainee as soon as possible, if he or she wishes. Consular staff keep in regular contact with prisoners, either by visiting personally or by telephone or letter. How often they visit will depend on local conditions and the prisoner’s circumstances.
In France, consular staff will visit once every 12 months when a detainee is on remand. After sentencing, consular staff in France would aim to visit a detainee once in prison to establish what prison conditions are like. Further visits could be arranged if particular circumstances made them necessary. As my right hon. Friend made clear, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not take any view about the guilt or innocence of any British nationals detained overseas; that is a matter for the detaining state. Our role is primarily one of welfare—to ensure that prisoners are treated fairly and in accordance with international standards. When that is not the case, we can, with the individual’s permission, take up any justified complaints about ill treatment, personal safety or discrimination with the relevant authorities. However, we cannot obtain special treatment for British nationals.
Our staff help to ensure that the detainee has legal representation. They can provide a list of local lawyers who speak English and provide detainees with information on the prison and on local judicial systems. They will also try to ensure that, if necessary, the detainee receives adequate medical attention. If the detainee asks for their family to be informed of their situation, consular staff will arrange for this to be done. Consular staff can help with the transfer of money from the family to the detainee for additional comforts to those provided by the prison, and they can help families to arrange visits. Consular staff will also tell detainees and their families about the charity Prisoners Abroad and how it can help them. Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff work closely with that charity. We provide it with some funding, and we will continue to do so in future; I will refer to that later.
I should like now to direct my remarks to the case in question—that of Mr. Alistair Iain Campbell—which our consular staff in London and France have been following closely. We take our data protection obligation seriously; that is why we do not discuss cases with third parties unless we have specific permission of the British national involved. I am pleased to say that we now have Mr. Campbell’s permission to discuss his case with my right hon. Friend in this Chamber. Having looked over the series of events as to how that permission was sought, I think that in some respects we might have expedited that more quickly. I will take that up with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), who has overall responsibility for consular services, to ensure that she is clear that when Members of Parliament contact Ministers about constituents, we seek to expedite the request for permission by the person being detained as soon as possible.
Mr. Campbell was tried in his absence in Boulogne in 2002 on a charge of involvement in trafficking drugs after being named as an accomplice by a British national who was subsequently convicted of the same charge. The court formally summoned Mr. Campbell to appear for trial and notified him of its findings. However, as my right hon. Friend indicated, Mr. Campbell says that his British lawyer, who consulted a French lawyer, advised him not to return to France or appoint a legal representative to act on his behalf. Unfortunately for Mr. Campbell, his lack of legal representation meant that he did not file an appeal within the specified limits under French law for the period for appeal—that is, 10 days from the date of sentencing. Consular staff were informed in March 2008 that Mr. Campbell was to be extradited to France under a European arrest warrant.
The Government cannot intervene in this type of extradition. There is no role for Ministers in the European arrest warrant procedure, as it is based on a judicial decision issued for the purposes of conducting a criminal prosecution or enforcing a prison sentence that has already been imposed. The principle behind the European arrest warrant is one of mutual recognition. That principle now exists widely within the EU and underpins a number of law enforcement instruments. When one of our EU partners extradites a British national, we cannot intervene; otherwise, we would undermine this principle of mutual trust and lose the benefit of this co-operation.
For the sake of clarity, I want to reiterate that at no point have I ever suggested that there should be political or ministerial intervention in the legal process. I want to ensure that that goes on the record in case an implication is taken from what the Minister has said as to what I asked her predecessor to do.
I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s intervention. I reiterate that at no time has that request been made of any Minister. I merely wanted to put on the record for the House where the lines of engagement are drawn and the very good reasons why they should be like that.
Once Mr. Campbell had been extradited to France, our consular staff provided him with information on the prison and on the local judicial system and gave advice on how his family could send money and clothing to him. Once permission was obtained from the French prison authorities, consular staff visited Mr. Campbell in prison to check on his welfare. At that time, the only complaint that Mr. Campbell raised was that he was unable to appeal the court’s sentence, and he was advised to write to his lawyer to explore any possible avenue to appeal. Consular staff continue to keep in touch with Mr. Campbell and with his family in the UK.
Turning to the specific questions raised by my right hon. Friend, the question of how Mr. Campbell’s pre-extradition detention will impact on his final sentence is a matter for his legal representation to take forward with the relevant authorities in France. A pack of general information was provided to Mr. Campbell on 7 March 2008. That pack included information on the services that consular staff can offer, as well as general details on what assistance is available through local legal systems, such as obtaining legal aid. The information pack also included general guidance on the French judicial system, on how families can arrange visits and financial assistance, and on how detainees can arrange appointments with prison health workers. I would be happy to provide a copy of that pack to my right hon. Friend and, should it be necessary, to the family here in the UK so that they can be assured of, and have access to, the information that was provided to Mr. Campbell.
Mr. Campbell’s lawyer is currently attempting to arrange an appeal and until that is settled, the transfer back to the UK under the prisoner transfer agreement cannot take place. If the appeal goes forward and is successful, I will look into the points my right hon. Friend has made about the arrangements that would fall into place if a transfer was possible under that scheme.
Since Mr. Campbell’s imprisonment, consular staff have monitored his situation and they have been in contact with prison medical staff to ensure that he knows how he can arrange visits with the prison doctor and social workers. Consular staff have spoken to prison staff to satisfy themselves that health workers speak English to ensure that Mr. Campbell has no linguistic problems. Again, if there is any evidence to the contrary, I would be happy to double check with consular staff that that is still the case.
Consular staff also took up Mr. Campbell’s concerns with prison officials once the appropriate permissions had been obtained from Mr. Campbell. We note his complaints about the conditions in the prison. However, consular staff have informed me that the prison came into service in 1991 and that it is regarded as a modern facility. Clearly, there is a large gulf in opinion on this matter, but having been built in 1991 it is obviously not a particularly old building. If we can bring ourselves closer together on that issue, I am sure that it would help everybody concerned.
We have received only one money transfer request sent from Mr. Campbell’s family. Having looked into the matter, I am sorry that, for administrative reasons, the processing of the money transfer seemed to take longer than usual and longer than stated in the guidelines that we set for ourselves. I can only apologise to Mr. Campbell and his family for any distress that that may have caused and assure them that we have now put in place procedures to ensure that our processing times are kept to an absolute minimum.
As I stated earlier, our policy in western Europe is to visit once after sentencing and then only if there is a real need. Consular officers provide prisoners with the contact details of the consulate and details of whom to contact if a problem arises. Prisoners are able to write to or telephone the consulate with any concerns that they have. As I said, consular staff will decide how best to address those concerns and whether a visit is needed.
As I mentioned earlier, we work collaboratively with Prisoners Abroad and greatly value the work that it does. It is an independent charity funded from a number of sources including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, other Whitehall Departments and private donations. The FCO’s current funding commitment to it runs until the end of the 2009-10 financial year.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. I have taken on board her points about the money transfer—I apologise for the delay in that—and the concerns about how to ensure that permission is sought as soon as possible from a person being detained, so that when letters are sent to Members about contacting our consular service, they are not met with a refusal due to the lack of that permission. I believe that that is unfortunately what happened in this case.
I assure my right hon. Friend and the family of Mr. Campbell that consular staff do their best for all prisoners held in such circumstances, and they will continue to monitor his welfare and provide assistance and support where they properly can. I hope that we can close the gap between the family’s perceptions of the conditions and the advice that we are receiving through our embassy in Paris, the consular service and the consular directorate here in the UK.
Question put and agreed to.