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Westminster Hall

Volume 505: debated on Wednesday 3 February 2010

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 3 February 2010

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

Returning Officers (Accountability)

There is a slight problem in that there is about half a minute’s difference between the time shown on the clocks and the time shown on the annunciators, so let me make it clear that I am working from the time on the annunciators.

Before I call Mr. Cairns, let me also explain that I hope to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 10.30 am so that they will be able to speak for 10 minutes each. I hope that Members can help me with that. I should add that when I arrived, the sheet of paper indicating which Members want to speak was blank. I work on the assumption that those who turn up to these debates usually do so because they want to speak. If we count heads, we will see that a bit of self-discipline will probably enable me to call everyone who wants to speak. I call Mr. Cairns.

I am sorry. You can see the state I am in this morning. I consider myself told off.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Frank Roy .)

Good morning, Mr. Wilshire. I thought that you were attempting to keep my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy) here for the whole 90 minutes, which would be very welcome. [Interruption.] He is going already; he only made it to 90 seconds. [Interruption.] I should put it on the record that he agrees with me.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. It is a pleasure to serve under your direction. I also welcome colleagues to the debate, which is about the accountability of returning officers. I trust that that heading is sufficiently wide to allow for a general discussion of all the electoral matters that fall within the purview of returning officers; if not, this will be a short speech, and the subsequent debate will be even shorter.

I want to talk about the performance of returning officers and about how effectively they are regulated and inspected. I also want to touch specifically on the move to shift the timing of general election counts from Thursday nights to Friday mornings. Many hon. Members have a keen interest in that matter, and I see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), who is leading the campaign to save general election night. Among others, I can also see my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), whose specialist subject on “Mastermind” would be changes to the electoral roll, so I will not dwell on that, although I am sure that he will elucidate it in greater detail if he catches your eye, Mr. Wilshire.

I want to say something important right at the outset. Irrespective of whatever criticisms I may make, I strongly believe that the electoral system in this country, where politicians do not run elections, is the right one. Countries where politicians have a direct and controlling influence over the administration of elections inevitably end up with intimidation, corruption and the decaying of democracy. Our system, in which politicians set the broad legislative framework for elections but do not actually administer them, is surely the right one.

Inevitably, that arrangement contains a degree of tension. To what extent should Parliament be prescriptive in the rules that it sets out? To what degree should we leave matters to professional election administrators? The answers at either extreme are obvious. Parliament should legislate for the voting system; returning officers should decide how the count is managed. Parliament should determine who has the franchise; election officers should maintain and update the register. Parliament should set out the criteria for disabled access to polling places; local officials should decide on their location.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is right that there is no political interference by central Government in the work of local authority electoral registration officers. Is he aware, however, that there is some political interference at a local level? One example is Islington council in London. The Labour group there asked the council’s Liberal Democrat leader to put money together for an electoral registration drive before the local elections, but he refused point blank, saying, “This is how we win elections.” There is therefore scope for political interference at local level because budgets can be influenced.

I was not aware of that, although perhaps I should have been as an Islington council tax payer. I am afraid that nothing would surprise me about the Lib Dems on Islington council. They won the last election by only one seat and they now run the council on the basis of the mayor’s casting vote, so they are not particularly good at winning elections. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s comments will be reported to people in Islington.

As I said, it is fairly obvious at the extremes of the argument what should be left to Parliament and what should be left to returning officers. However, in the light of the current controversy about election night, there is some debate about whether the timing of election counts falls within the jurisdiction of Parliament or returning officers. Is the timing of counts a practical and logistical issue and therefore squarely in the remit of returning officers, or is the issue one of democratic principle—the right of voters to find out as soon as possible who will govern them? I will come back to that in a moment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He conceded that the count is managed by the returning officer, but he went on to suggest that there are ways in which we should influence it, and one is surely to ensure that the count takes place immediately following the close of the polls. That has been built into our electoral arrangements for ever and it should be maintained.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s conclusion, and what he describes has been custom and practice for generations. The problem is that the legislation does not stipulate that, and we have left things more open, so returning officers have the freedom to make a choice. Indeed, we have quite properly given them the freedom to make a choice on a whole range of issues. The question is whether the timing of the count falls within the purview of democratic principle or whether it is a practical, logistical issue.

The hon. Gentleman is right to bring the issue before the House, and his debate is timely. I agree that the count should be immediate, but will the Minister advise us whether returning officers do in fact have the last word? We have recently introduced legislation to put in place regional super-returning officers, who will have a degree of control over local returning officers and to whom all local returning officers will report. Could the super-officer give the local returning officer instructions about the timing of the count?

I have had concerns about Chorley. The chief executive issued a statement saying that if the local elections and the general election were on the same day, the votes would be counted the following day. That is going to happen in Chorley, but as far as I can remember, we have always had the count on election night. I wrote to the chief executive, saying that I would like to sit down with her to discuss what she had said, but she replied that she did not want to discuss it. She said, “I’m the returning officer. This is my decision.” That is what we are facing, and it is unacceptable. It is about time that these faceless, unelected people sat down with the elected Member of Parliament to have proper discussions that are open to all parties. That is the way forward. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I do. The high-handed and arrogant approach taken by the returning officer in Chorley is simply unacceptable, and I contrast it with the approach taken by my own chief executive, who is holding a local consultation in Inverclyde. He sent a copy of the consultation document to me and all the other candidates and agents, and he is taking our views into consideration. That is how to approach the issue, although I will save my final judgment until I find out what he actually decides. None the less, that approach is greatly preferable to the faintly dictatorial approach taken by the electoral officer in Chorley.

Does my hon. Friend agree with Mr. Speaker that we should have instant, and not slow-motion, democracy? In my constituency we managed to count the votes at the last election straight away, even though county council elections were taking place at the same time. I do not know why that cannot be done again. What has changed? The old Morecambe and Lonsdale constituency used to go right up to the Lake district and it included Coniston. They managed to count the votes straight away in the previous century; why cannot we do it in the 21st century? It seems appalling.

Order. Before the hon. Member for Inverclyde answers—this is nothing to do with what has just been said—I must point out that in the back row, from Geraldine Smith to Lindsay Hoyle, the microphones are not working. Until things are mended, it would be helpful, if they do not mind, if they sat in the front row.

It would be a parliamentary tragedy if my hon. Friends’ contributions were lost to posterity, and I hope that that can be remedied at once. I am sure that their lungs are capable of making their voices carry, but it is important that history should record their words of wisdom.

My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) is right. Later, I want to discuss in detail why I believe counts can and should still happen on close of poll. There are many reasons, and I shall pick only some, because I suspect that other hon. Members will raise different ones.

Another point is that, in days gone by, turnout was higher. It is sad that turnout is lower, but it was significantly higher a few years ago, and there were more votes to count. There were fewer postal votes coming in, so there were more votes to process and verify on the night. If anything, the argument should be that it is easier, not more difficult, to do an overnight count.

To stay for a moment on the general functions of returning officers, almost every service in local government has at some point been described as the Cinderella service; but none with more truth and justification than electoral services. As a former councillor I can testify, as I expect every former councillor present for the debate can, that electoral services have been a neglected component of local government activity for many years. They are underfunded, understaffed and under-appreciated. They are one of the very few local government functions that is neither inspected nor properly evaluated.

It is fashionable in some circles these days to decry the targets culture as a bad thing, but I adhere to the somewhat old-fashioned view that what gets measured gets done. That is why when I was in the Government I was keen that we should work to establish proper performance standards for returning officers, by which they could be held to account. I was one of the Ministers who steered the Electoral Administration Act 2006 on to the statute book, alongside my right hon. and learned Friend who is now the Leader of the House.

One of the most obscure issues is this: why can Sunderland, for example, announce the result at about 10 minutes past 11, whereas in some parts of the country the announcement is made at about 3 o’clock in the morning? Is it not down to resources? One of the failings in the present system is that the returning officer uses, almost exclusively, local government employees. Surely those responsible should think about that, in relation to the question of when it is possible to deliver a result.

My hon. Friend is right. It is down to resources, and the importance and priority that councils attach to the function. My argument is that that state of affairs is inadequate in this day and age. Councils do not have the leeway to decide whether to prioritise education or social services. They must do so, because that is set out in statute, and they are inspected on those services, whereas in electoral services they are not inspected or, as I shall outline, adequately regulated. It is therefore up to each council whether to attach a priority to them as Sunderland and other councils do. The majority of councils simply do not attach priority to those services.

My hon. Friend was indeed the Minister who helped to introduce the performance standards that are in place—others have not been put in place. However, in relation to those that have been put in place governing the completeness and accuracy of the register, according to a parliamentary answer that I have just received, there are still 66 electoral registration officers who say, on their own assessment, that they are not up to scratch and not performing properly.

We always say these things in debates because we are being nice to each other, but my hon. Friend has been genuinely assiduous—[Interruption.]in burrowing, not boring, away through the detail of the statistics. He makes an important point: currently, the regulatory regime is self-certified by returning officers, with a caveat, which I shall come to in a moment. As he has highlighted, even by their own reckoning many registration officers are not doing as well as they should be.

The Electoral Administration Act 2006 empowers the Electoral Commission to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services. Despite the provision coming into force in September 2006, it took the Electoral Commission until March 2009 to publish the performance standards. Given that they are fairly broad-brush and high-level—they are not particularly earth-shattering—I have no idea why it took a leisurely two and half years to produce them. Nevertheless, we now have them, and they have been used for the first time to assess the performance of returning officers in an actual, real world election—the European poll in 2009.

The seven performance standards are largely common sense. They require returning officers to be able to plan and organise the elections, have robust processes in place, provide appropriate training for staff, identify potential malpractice, communicate effectively with voters, provide clear information for voters, and, lastly, communicate with candidates and agents.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that those performance standards do not include the returning officers’ abiding by the law of the land—the electoral law set in this place for them to apply? They do not have to apply it, because their word is final. If a returning officer wants to ignore the law of the land—that a photocopy should not be used, that a signature should be taken contemporaneously, or that someone saying that they have witnessed a document being signed should actually have done so, rather than signing it fraudulently—it is possible for them to say, “That’s fine. The law has been broken, but I find that to be perfectly okay. I accept it, and therefore it is acceptable and the law has not been broken.” The returning officer who is in breach of the law is completely without regulation.

I am sure that it happens, but it is of course possible to appeal against decisions made by returning officers in the electoral courts. Of course, it must be demonstrated that the decision had a significant impact on the out-turn of the election, which is a fairly high threshold, so to that extent I agree that it might be easier. If electoral returning officers deliberately and wilfully ignore the law that is set out, that is a serious matter, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s elaborating on that, if he catches your eye, Mr. Wilshire.

Sadly, I was not present on those occasions, but I shall be this time.

As I have said, the performance standards are fine and no one could take exception to them. They are all pretty high-level and broad-brush. What causes me concern is how they are enforced. Following the Euro-elections, the Electoral Commission wrote to every returning officer asking them to rate themselves against the standards. It may come as an enormous surprise to the Chamber to learn that almost everyone rated themselves rather good at almost everything. I was just reflecting that if head teachers were told that Ofsted, or Her Majesty’s inspectorate in Scotland, was changing the inspection regime and would be sending everyone a questionnaire about how well the school was doing, there would be huge cheers in staff rooms throughout the country.

In fairness, the Electoral Commission followed up the self-assessment with a series of face to face interviews with a percentage of returning officers. However, on its own reckoning, those interviews were aimed more at consistency in filling out the forms than at getting to grips with poor performance.

This is good: in some 17 cases, the commission asked returning officers to regrade their assessment of their performance. Perhaps unusually, 15 of the 17 were asked to move their initial assessments up a level, and regrade themselves as having performed better than the electoral officers had said. Of the hundreds of returning officers in the country, only two were asked to downgrade their self-assessments by one level as part of that regulatory regime.

I find it hard to take that seriously. Setting objective standards is clearly a step forward, and asking people to reflect on their performance against standards is a good thing. I do not contend that there is massive incompetence in the running of our elections, but anyone who has been a candidate, an agent, a party volunteer or a journalist covering an election count will know that there is a lot of room for improvement.

May I finish the point first? There is a lot of room for improvement, and we all know it, but unless the inspection regime is significantly more rigorous than the one being followed by the Electoral Commission, areas with poor practice will carry on and local authorities will not devote the time, money and personnel needed to improve performance.

I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd.

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. It concerns me that returning officers are self-assessed. I would be intrigued to know what the returning officer did at Chorley. In a marginal seat that we lost, we found that 25 votes had disappeared, but we did not know about it until 10 days later. I still cannot understand where they went; they must be somewhere, but nobody can give us an answer. I wonder how returning officers would mark themselves following an incident like that. My hon. Friend raises concerns that we are all very worried about.

I can help my hon. Friend on that latter point. If he goes to the Electoral Commission website, he will see a table showing how returning officers rate themselves. I have not studied the Chorley self-assessment, but the general trend is that almost everyone did very well at almost everything.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. On the question of assessment, for me the key performance indicator is the number of people on the register. It is quite easy to set performance indicators. According to the written answer to parliamentary question 311930, which gave registration rates in descending order, Kensington and Chelsea has a registration rate of 55 per cent. To be a good indicator, it should be 95 per cent. or even 100 per cent. If registration rates improved, that would be an acid test—proof positive—that the electoral returning officer was performing.

My hon. Friend proves something that I mentioned earlier—that what gets measured gets done. If there is no specific target to aim for, how on earth can one measure whether performance is adequate? You might as well ask whether literature is easily understood; it is a subjective matter, and it is difficult to put a target on it. Getting people on the register is a matter of simple arithmetic.

I am shocked to hear of a registration rate of 55 per cent.; that is an appalling figure. The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea should hang his head in shame. There is no excuse for that. I know that area a little; it has many houses in multiple occupation and many large families, and people move around. None the less, no matter what the council’s political persuasion, it is a matter of shame to have only 55 per cent. registration.

Another difficulty is the relationship of CEOs—they generally act as returning officers—with the controlling political party. They rely on that party to fix their salaries and their pensions; they have a comfortable relationship. My feeling is that they may become politically biased in their work. We should address that point. Super-returning officers could control them, and I congratulate the Government on going in that direction.

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts my very next sentence. As well as an inspection regime that is properly monitored and enforced, instead of one under which people get to say how well they did and are then told, “No, you did better than you thought. Mark yourself higher”, we need a proper inspection regime.

Other steps need to be taken right away. It took two and a half years to get the current inspection regime. I am not confident that we will move any more quickly away from it, but three things could happen soon. First, returning officers should be permanent, properly resourced, senior council officers. The job should not be done by well-paid chief executives moonlighting for a few extra quid.

My hon. Friend asks from a sedentary position how much extra. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South has been mining away at that question; he may be able to tell us if he catches your eye, Mr. Wilshire, so I shall not be drawn on that question.

Secondly, local returning officers should have responsibility for the educational and promotional functions currently undertaken by the Electoral Commission; that would be carried out much more effectively locally. It could be allied to the council’s work in schools, and the community and other literature issued by councils. It would be better than having posters at bus stops, which is an expensive waste of money, although that is what happens with a national campaign. That function and the budget that goes with it should be transferred to local returning officers.

Thirdly, picking up the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd, returning officers should have proper targets for getting people on the register. In Scotland, returning officers should be given responsibility for voter registration, which currently resides with joint valuation boards. Taken together with an inspection regime that has some teeth, I believe that these changes would help bolster the standing of returning officers and council electoral services. In turn, that would drive up performance.

I shall skip along a little more briefly, as I have taken rather longer than I anticipated. I turn to a specific area that I know is a cause for concern for colleagues and others—namely, the timing of the election count. The heart of the current dispute, as I said earlier, is the tension about which decisions should be set out in rules and guidance from Parliament and which should be left to the discretion of returning officers.

Legislation states that the count should begin “as soon as practicable” after the poll. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale said, for decades most of the country have taken that to mean that the count should begin as soon as the polls close at 10 pm. It is no secret that, for many years, returning officers have wanted to move away from overnight counts. Indeed, they made that view abundantly plain to me when I was a Minister in the Scotland Office in the run-up to the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2007.

Essentially, the returning officers’ argument is that many of those in charge at the count will have been on duty since early morning and will not be at their most alert in the wee small hours of the next day, when they might have to make vital decisions. That is a serious point, and it should not be dismissed lightly. However, it is equally well known that as a rule MPs are rather keener on overnight counts, for personal and political reasons.

On a personal level, we want to be put out of the misery of not knowing our fate as quickly as possible. That is only human. The political aspect is equally important. We have a speedy transition of power in this country, which begins as soon as the result is known; not for us the leisurely two-month gap between the election and the inauguration of the American President. It may be only a matter of hours, but it has been our custom and practice for generations, and we should not abandon it without good reason.

Another factor is the undoubted drama and suspense of the overnight results coming in. I was present at the Royal Festival Hall as dawn broke on 2 May 1997, and I can testify to the extraordinary atmosphere of that occasion, which I believe was conveyed to the millions watching at home.

I was going to say that it was never to be repeated, but that is not quite our line. I am sure that we will have a wonderful new dawn on 7 May. I have not blotted out the date of the election. Strangely enough, the Prime Minister has not confided in me.

Similarly, the question that everyone asked for weeks in the aftermath of that election—“Were you still up for Portillo?”—would not have quite the same ring as, “Did your tea-break coincide with the announcement of the result from Enfield Southgate?” My view on this point is that the rules for returning officers should be more prescriptive. Unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, the counting of ballot papers should begin on polling day itself, not the following day.

The issue that I discussed with my returning officer was the authorisation and validation of the postal ballot. Will my hon. Friend address that point?

I will address it as soon as I have taken an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale.

My biggest concern is about the security of the ballot boxes when they are left overnight. We need assurances that they will be properly policed, because that is a real concern.

That is a real concern. It is not one that I was going to cite, but I have seen it expressed elsewhere, and it should be addressed by those places that have opted for the Friday count.

I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe). Returning officers and the Electoral Commission—in its briefing for this debate—cite the new checking requirements for postal ballots as a possible reason to defer the count to the next day. The Interim Electoral Management Board for Scotland makes the entirely unsubstantiated claim that checking the signatures and dates of birth on the postal votes received on the day could add two to three hours to the count, and it offered not a shred of justification about why that should be.

It is nonsense, quite right. In the words of one of my former constituents, “I don’t believe it.” [Hon. Members: “Who?”] A good Labour supporter. The Interim Electoral Management Board for Scotland justifies a possible move to Friday counts by referring to the problems experienced at the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2007, and it quotes Professor Gould, who was appointed by the Electoral Commission to investigate the election, to support its view.

I know quite a bit about what happened in 2007—rather more than I care to know. There were two problems at that election: the unacceptably high number of spoiled ballot papers, and the breakdown of the counting machines. Both problems would have occurred in full had the count taken place the next day. Neither of them were in any way related to overnight counts, and they should not be used as a spurious pretext to abandon overnight counts.

I accept that checking the identifiers on postal ballots is an additional burden, but it should not add three hours to the count. The vast majority of such ballots arrive prior to polling day and can be processed well in advance. Some will come through the post on polling day itself and others will be handed in at polling stations, but there is no reason why, with proper planning, the vast majority of those could not be checked prior to 10 pm, or why they should add significantly to the length of the count.

There are other arguments against moving the count, but I will not make them, because I want to finish now. Contrary to what is occasionally trotted out in some sections of the media, I do not believe that we have a serious problem of deliberate fraud or wholesale incompetence in our elections in this country. When fraud occurs, the weight of the law should be brought to bear. Most of our returning officers take seriously their responsibilities as administrators of our democratic processes, but to deny that there is room for improvement would be complacent. I hope that today’s debate will contribute to the process of improvement in this exceptionally important profession.

Before I call Mr. Pickles, may I say two things? First, we have just under half an hour before I call the first Front Bencher at 10.30, and it looks as though there are at least three people plus Mr. Pickles wanting to speak. Secondly, those Members who like playing musical chairs can now sit anywhere, because I am told that all the microphones now work.

It is a great comfort to know that our words will go out. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) on successfully securing this very important debate. In particular, I should like to say that I enjoy the prospect of a new dawn and people dancing in the streets in May. I do not think that the election is in the bag, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s confidence on our behalf.

I will be brief, but I think the discussion we are having is about something more: the general degrading of politics, of this place and of government in general. It is about officials saying, “We run this, and it is nothing to do with you politicians.” Let me misquote Alexander Pope, “For forms of government let fools protest; Whate’er it administer’d is best”. That seems to be the general view of returning officers, although I accept that not many of them are naturally poetic. Nevertheless, they are saying that the matter is not important.

A letter from the Electoral Commission stated that the count is accurate, that voters have confidence in the election result, and that it is entirely appropriate to have a count on a Friday if it is deemed necessary to ensure an accurate result. What is frequently cited is the increased number of postal votes, particularly those delivered to polling stations on polling day. As postal votes come in during the election campaign, they are checked, verified and put to one side for counting on the night. Machines are available to check the signatures—I have seen them in operation—and those that they cannot verify can be put to one side.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that with a bit of imagination and marketing, all the postal votes could be in long before the count itself?

Sometimes people are away from their homes, and sometimes people feel that it is a bit like filling in tax forms and they can put it aside and do it another day. We must accept that numbers will come in on the day. For better accuracy, I have obtained two comparisons—one from a Conservative seat and one from a Labour seat.

In Haltemprice and Howden, 180 ballot papers were handed in on the day. I cannot believe that officers required an extra two or three hours to count 180 ballot papers; that is clearly spurious. Of course, that might be unusual, so I looked at what happened in a by-election in a Labour seat—Norwich, North—although, admittedly, it is now a Conservative seat. Again, 180 ballot papers were handed in. It is just serendipitous that the figures are exactly the same. Even if those figures were widely inaccurate, and even if we doubled the numbers, I do not believe that they would require a three-hour count. Moving the count has nothing to do with the accuracy of postal votes or the numbers.

If we were to talk to people below the level of returning officer, they would say, “Oh, well, it is rather difficult. People have been working a long time, and they want to get back and watch television. There might be a rerun of ‘Star Trek’ and our folks would like to see that after having a very difficult day.” Well, other people ought to be put in. On grounds of health and safety and the working time—whatever it is called—people cannot work such long hours anyway. Traditionally, we have employed bank clerks, who are very dextrous in getting out the results, and we have used machines. Machines break down, but, by and large, they do not get terribly tired.

Therefore, the change has more to do with administrative convenience and the fact that money, which has properly been given by Government to local authorities for the purposes of election counts, has been hived off in other directions. It is true that the electoral registration officer is a Cinderella service of local government, which is ironic given that it is the fulcrum on which local democracy works.

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s speech for too long because my time will come, but let me clarify the point about funding. Does he support ring-fencing funding for local authorities? I am talking about the money that is given by central Government.

No, I expect local authorities to behave reasonably. We should not stand over them in a nanny state way and say, “This is the money and you must spend it.” Electoral registration officers have been saying for a long time that they need the money. I expect local authorities to express that—regardless of whether they are Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat authorities.

I will give way to the hon. Lady, but this is the last time because I want to make a short speech.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the problem that has been identified is that returning officers are not behaving reasonably and they are using money allotted to them for other purposes. He cannot have it both ways. That money should be ring-fenced if they are not using it appropriately.

I suppose that is the difference between the political parties—we want to set local authorities free and Labour wants to control them. This is an example of how the system does not work, and it is patently obvious that our approach is better. But I digress.

I am trying to arrive at a political consensus.

However, this issue is not about some cheery tradition, or about how lovely it would be to dance in the streets in May, or to stay up all night to watch Mr. Dimbleby, or to watch Sky News give slightly more accurate reports than the BBC. It is about accountability and about the voice of the people being heard.

One of the great joys of our political system is that one is either in office or out of office—there is no intervening period. One moment someone is jumping into the back of their Prius with their red box by their side and the next moment they are topping up their Oyster card. That is a very good system.

I did not want to bring back any bad memories for the hon. Gentleman.

It is different in the United States. Under the presidential system, there is a long period between the presidential election and a new President taking office. Even in local government in Britain, there is an intervening period, but that is not our system at national level.

As I was saying earlier, I am not confident that the result of the general election is known. Clearly, there are three possible results. We are in a perilous economic state and the general election counts will be taking place when all the financial markets are open. I hope that Labour Members will forgive me for saying so, but if by some fluke it looked like we were going to have five more years of the current Prime Minister, I suspect that we might well see problems with regard to our credit rating and the value of gilts. That situation might occur with any political party at any given time, and if it was thought that there would be a hung Parliament, with all the uncertainty that that would ensure, again there might be an effect on the financial markets.

It matters not if these mistakes are made in the middle of the night—traditionally, the BBC has underestimated the number of seats that the Conservative party has taken; it has done that consistently in every local government election for the past five years. Usually at about 4 o’clock in the morning, the truth begins to dawn on the BBC that the Conservative party has taken rather a lot of seats. However, given the issue of market stability, we cannot rely on exit polls. By the time the financial markets open, there should be a clear idea about whether there has been a change of Government.

I want to make a final point about returning officers. Generally, a middle-ranking officer does the work on an election day but it is the chief executive who turns up to announce the result. They enjoy the full glory of that role. I must say that I think that time is starting to run out for the post of chief executive in local government. With elected mayors and the cabinet system in local government, people are starting to ask whether a chief executive is a worthwhile post. I will put that issue to one side for a moment, but any chief executive who cannot organise an election count and who cannot have enough people present to count the votes in a parliamentary constituency once every five years—on some occasions, there may be slightly less time between general elections—should question whether they are in the right job, because organising an election count is relatively easy.

If the good folk of Morecambe and Lonsdale in the 19th century could organise a count with all the problems they faced of fetching ballot papers down from Cumbria by horse and cart—indeed, I have a picture in my own home of Sir Winston Churchill going in a carriage to his own count in Epping—why cannot these modern, rather well paid, rather opinionated and rather self-aggrandising individuals do it?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde on securing this debate. I look to the Minister not to ring-fence money for the count, but simply to say that the count shall take place on Thursday night.

I want to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) on securing this debate. I also want to thank Members from both sides of the House for supporting the two early-day motions that I tabled, in the last Parliament and this Parliament, to save general election night. Both were supported by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles); he was one of the first six names on those early-day motions.

Of course this is an important issue to us all personally, but it should be important to the whole country and not just politicians. How have we reached the point where returning officers who are responsible for only about half the seats in this House have today decided to count votes immediately following the close of polls?

By now, we all know the list of excuses put forward by returning officers for delaying the count; my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde and the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar have referred to them. This issue is not just about the counting of postal votes; if it was, there would be no impact whatever on the time it takes to produce an election result. Returning officers are suggesting that the validation of the postal ballots in advance of the count is causing concern and could cause a delay of the count until the next day.

At the next general election, whenever it is, it is hardly likely that—even with an increase in postal ballots—the turnout will be anything like the high turnouts that we saw in the 1950s and 1960s, which were in the high 70s or 80 per cent. The total number of votes that returning officers and their staff will have to count will be significantly reduced from previous years; it is the validation that is the problem.

When the Interim Electoral Management Board of Scotland issued its consultation paper, it highlighted the problem that

“a significant percentage of the total number of postal ballots cast in each election would be submitted, or would be expected to be submitted, on polling day itself.”

It is very important that the interim board did not give a specific figure about the number or even the percentage of ballot papers that it expected to be submitted on polling day itself. The reason why it did not do that is that, as everyone who has taken part in an election campaign will know, the number of postal ballot papers submitted on polling day—even now, following a vast increase in the number of people who apply for postal ballot papers—is insignificant. Although postal ballot papers have to be validated and the signatures on them have to be checked, it is simply not the case that so many of them are submitted on polling day, before office hours end at 5pm, that they will in any way affect a timeous result.

My hon. Friend is quite right that the postal vote ballot paper is being used as a reason, perhaps as an excuse, for delays in counting. However, another reason is the separation of ballot papers if there is a local government election on the same day as a general election. My own experience of such counts, in both 2001 and 2005, was that it was more than possible to carry out that separation of ballot papers. In our case, if there is a local government election and a general election on the same night, the custom now is to count the local government election ballots the following morning.

My hon. Friend has made absolutely the right suggestion, as far as having elections for two different bodies on the same day is concerned. In Glasgow, it was natural practice that, whenever the Scottish Parliament elections were held on the same day as local elections—as happened until 2007—the local election results were announced the next day and the Scottish Parliament election results were announced overnight.

Another excuse that has been given by returning officers for delaying the count is cost. Returning officers do not mind accepting the extra payment themselves, of course, but they do not want to pay their lower-paid staff the extra money that they would receive for performing overtime duties. Therefore, those lower-paid staff are expected to do the counting in office time on a Friday. That is all very well, except for the fact that those staff who are counting ballot papers on a Friday would normally be doing something else; they would normally be doing their other duties, for which they are paid. When will those duties be carried out if they must now count ballot papers on the Friday? There is no significant cost saving to that; it is a red herring.

My favourite excuse so far is health and safety. I am not aware of many people who count ballot papers fainting or dropping down dead. I am not saying that there are no pools of blood on the floor of the Scottish exhibition and conference centre when the Glasgow seats are counted, but that is largely the result of frank and firm exchanges between candidates rather than a plethora of paper cuts to the people doing the counting. That is another tremendous red herring.

The Gould report, commissioned after the unfortunate delays and problems with the 2007 election results in the Scottish Parliament, has been used as another excuse for not holding election counts immediately after the polls close. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde, who was probably closer to the debacle than he likes to remember—[Interruption.] He was not responsible for it, but is certainly familiar with what occurred in May 2007. As he has pointed out on many occasions, although at the beginning of its consultation document the interim electoral board quoted Ron Gould saying that there should be no more overnight counts, what went wrong in 2007—the breakdown of the counting machines, the confusion over the ballot papers—would have occurred anyway. Delaying the count until Friday would have had absolutely no effect on a single ballot paper.

We have discussed accountability; it is the title of this debate. As my hon. Friend said, the Government cannot and should not run election counts, and returning officers’ operational duties must be seen to be utterly immune to political interference. However, it has been suggested that some amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill currently before the House might be phrased so as to place a duty on returning officers to make every effort to count as soon as possible after the polls close. Will the Minister indicate in winding up whether he believes that such an opportunity might be available next week? I am more than happy to table such an amendment if it is deemed appropriate.

There is arrogance and high-handedness among returning officers, who—certainly in Scotland—are all paid six-figure sums for their day job as chief executive of a council. If they really believe that the job of returning officer is beyond them, if they cannot cope with the responsibility of conducting a punctual count of ballot papers immediately after the polls close, and if their other duties as chief executives of local authorities delivering important services to local people are far too important to allow them to spend much time doing the job of a returning officer, then, as the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, there are other people willing to take up the reins. If they cannot do the job, I am sure that others will step forward.

Why is it important to hold the count immediately after polling? It has entertainment value. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar seemed almost to dismiss that, but it should not be dismissed. A general election count is an important television event. We should not underestimate or dismiss the value of making politics entertaining, and even gripping, at a time when engagement in politics is, by all accounts, fading. My earliest political memory is of keeping my mum company on the sofa during the early hours of a Friday morning after everyone else had given up and gone to bed. Her fascination with what was happening in the country and with the results as the night unfolded was so infectious that it influenced the choice of my current profession.

Another reason is that holding the count immediately after polling is democratic. I cannot emphasise that enough. A delayed count justified by all the erroneous excuses to which I have referred would send out an appalling message that the casting of votes as part of the country’s decision about which party should form the Government is not important enough to do quickly, and is certainly not as important as in the past.

I shall be as brief as possible, Mr. Wilshire. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) on securing this debate and thank him for the praise that he heaped on me. I would also like to recognise other MPs who have campaigned on the issue.

I was first alerted to the issue by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), and a band of us, including my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Mr. Love), for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall), have campaigned on it for nine years. I have tabled 260 questions about electoral registration and, along with other MPs, have had about 10 meetings with the Electoral Commission. I have met every single Minister and Secretary of State and contacted hundreds of my colleagues about the important issue of electoral registration.

We had some success with the Electoral Administration Act 2006, convincing Ministers to alter the balance not just by securing votes to prevent postal ballot fraud but by widening participation. However, I judge success by numbers. Ten years ago, 3.5 million people were missing from the electoral register; today, 3.5 million people are also missing. There has been very little progress on electoral registration officers’ function of ensuring that everybody who should be on the register is on it.

There are many reasons for that. The performance indicators developed by the Electoral Commission are inadequate and rely on self-assessment, which is not always the best form of assessment, even with follow-up. It is not good that it has taken three years—from 2006 to 2009—to determine officers’ performance. When I met the Electoral Commission last year, I asked whether it would write to each MP who had an underperforming ERO. It said that it could not do so. I had to go on the Electoral Commission website, which was not functioning properly, look at each individual authority and determine which EROs were not performing, find out the MPs for those local authorities and contact them to tell them that they had an underperforming ERO.

That should not be down to me as a Back-Bench MP. The Electoral Commission should be engaging MPs, Assembly Members, MSPs, Members of the Legislative Assembly and local councillors to tell them that they have an underperforming ERO. I am pleased that today’s answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled last week has at least named all the underperforming EROs. There are 66 of them, including eight in Wales—Caerphilly, Carmarthenshire, Conwy, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Rhondda, Cynon and Taff and the Vale of Glamorgan—and several in Scotland.

Things are not progressing as they should be. Self-assessment is not effective and needs to be enhanced. Perhaps it is down to a lack of training or ignorance on the part of some EROs. I was informed last week by a colleague that when he asked his local ERO whether he would go on an electoral registration drive, the ERO looked at the wards and said, “Hold on, these are Labour wards. It would be political if I got them on the register.” That is not the case. It is not about benefiting one party or another. The worst performing authority in the country is a Conservative authority. The worst in Wales is a Plaid Cymru authority: it is Ceredigion, with 55 per cent. electoral registration. The issue is not about politics, but about democracy—and a basic building block of democracy is the register.

I tabled a parliamentary question about the funding for electoral registration in England, but the figures are not collected centrally, although they are in Wales. I asked for the figures in Wales and then analysed them in descending order. Lo and behold, the more money spent on electoral registration, the better the registers. Who would have thought it?

Under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, the Government gave £17 million to local authorities for electoral registration. It was not ring-fenced, so the Government do not know whether the money is being spent on what it should have been spent on. We need to follow the trail. The minimum that we should do is allocate the money and say, “This is what you should be spending it on. If you don’t spend it on that, we’ll want an explanation.”

On individual registration, there are currently 3.5 million people not on the register. If individual registration is introduced, we will lose another 3.5 million people; that would make 7 million people. Those are some of the most disadvantaged people in society. A third of the poorest people in the UK are off the register. There cannot be a functioning democracy without those people on the register.

I pay tribute to my local authority, Denbighshire county council, and its electoral registration officer, Gareth Evans. Over the past three or four years, he has put a further 6,000 people on the register, taking it from 50,000 to 56,000. That was done through active dialogue with me and through the support of the local authority. Nevertheless, we still have only a 92 per cent. registration rate according to the latest figures for the United Kingdom, which are there for everybody to look at in the House of Commons Library. I congratulate my officer, Gareth Evans, but 92 per cent. is not good enough, so I wish him the power, the will and the finance to do even better.

Before I call Jo Swinson, I should say to Members that I have also been in the position of being frustrated when I could not be called. I am sorry, but I said that I would call Jo Swinson at 10.30.

Thank you, Mr. Wilshire. I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) on securing this debate and on his thorough and well-argued introduction. We have benefited from his experience of being a Minister in charge of electoral administration and of proximity to the difficulties in the Scottish elections in 2007, as has been mentioned.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) on tabling the early-day motion on this issue and on encouraging Members to hold an Adjournment debate on the subject. I am glad that we have that opportunity today. The over-subscription of speakers in this debate goes to show the interest of MPs in all things electoral.

I will focus mainly on the issues of election night. Before I come to that, I should say that I think returning officers do a vital job. It is not always a straightforward one, and in some cases they have to make difficult decisions and judgment calls. It is right that they should be able to get on with it independently of politicians, within the framework that Parliament sets.

The move towards additional postal voting in recent years has been helpful for democracy. I am sure that when knocking on doors, other hon. Members have spoken to elderly people who are concerned when an election is coming up. For example, we had a by-election in my constituency in December when there were slightly more treacherous conditions and it was getting dark very early. The ability to apply for a postal ballot without the need for huge forms or doctors’ letters has enfranchised many people. Issues of fraud have been raised as a result of postal voting so I welcome that signatures are now required. That raises the issue of verification, but the implementation does not generally seem to have been problematic.

I was shocked by the statistic, given by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), that 3.5 million people are not on the electoral register. That should shock and horrify us all. Being on the register is vital if people are to have a voice and choose who should represent them.

Would the hon. Lady like to comment on the former Liberal Democrat leader of Islington council, who wanted to keep even more people off the register?

I am interested in the damaging allegations that the hon. Gentleman has made about my colleagues in Islington. I imagine he is referring to the events of 2006. As he knows, Islington council holds an annual registration drive, in common with other local authorities. More than 90 per cent. of people are registered. I accept his point that 92 per cent. is not good enough and that we should aim for 100 per cent. However, the evidence that the council is working hard on registration is there.

A press release by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on this matter was the subject of a standards investigation and was branded “unwise”. The Electoral Commission took the matter up and expressed its concern, saying that the press release was misleading. I urge the hon. Gentleman to exercise caution before deciding to go down this route because the matter has been investigated by the Commons authorities. It was found not to be the scandal that he suggests it was.

On the timing of general election counts, we would all agree that accuracy should be a top priority. Clearly, overnight counting has not led to massive problems of accuracy over the past decades. The case of the machines and spoiled ballots in 2007 has been discussed. The problems with the Scottish elections would still have happened had the count taken place on the next day. Neither of those problems is likely to occur in the general election. On spoiled ballots, I am sure that we will be spared the wording “Alex Salmond for First Minister” on the ballot papers. The issue of counting machines will not come into play because under the electoral system used for the general election, the ballots can be counted by hand.

It is likely that the general election will be held on the same day as local elections in England, as has happened on many occasions recently. If the electoral system for Westminster changed to the alternative vote, would there not have to be a rule that that could not happen again? As the Gould report concluded, there should not be two elections using different systems on the same day.

The experience we had in Scotland suggests that holding the elections at different times would be helpful. Fixed-term Parliaments would make that easier. All our other elections are held on a fixed-term basis. If we had fixed terms in Westminster, there would be certainty and this issue would not raise its head.

To find out what the public thought, I used Twitter and Facebook last night to share an excellent Electoral Commission document that states which authorities and constituencies are counting when, based on its study. I asked people what they thought. A few people thought it was fair enough if the count did not take place until the Friday, but the majority of people commented that they wanted the count to take place that night. They said things like:

“Delay is not good for democracy. Things must be seen to be fair as well as be fair.”

That is very important. Another person pointed out the difficulty that political volunteers would have attending the count if it was held on the Friday, saying

“not all employers are helpful about time off”.

I recall hoarding holiday for elections when I worked in the private sector before I came to this place. Political activists face such difficulties. Other people wrote that

“it’s half the fun seeing it all play out like that”

and that the count is such a buzz. Another said that

“overnight counting is sadly 1 of the last interesting features of elections”.

We should bear those comments in mind. Some people really appreciate the count.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) said that the potential impact on the financial markets was important. That is interesting, but I am not sure that I agree completely. He suggested that the traditional element of general election night and the experience were less important. I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, South on that point.

The hon. Lady has misunderstood what I said. My point is that the entertainment value is not as important as the exercise of democracy and the orderly transfer of government.

I accept that point, but the entertainment value does have an impact on democracy. It helps people to engage with and take an interest in our democracy. That is good for turnout and for political engagement between elections, such as people contacting their Members of Parliament and getting involved in politics.

I am sorry, but I have only a short time left and want to make some progress.

Election night is watched by millions of people—not just political anoraks, but those who are interested in current affairs. It often becomes a social gathering with people inviting their friends around, getting food in and making an event of it. I experienced that during the 2005 election, when many people from university whom I had not heard from for years suddenly texted to congratulate me on winning after watching the coverage on television. That is worth preserving.

There are a few circumstances in which it might not be possible to do the count on election night. For example, ballot boxes might have to be taken on ferries or there might be difficult weather conditions on the islands. Everybody accepts that the count cannot take place overnight if there are extenuating circumstances. In general terms, however, we should stick with the system, and returning officers should be encouraged to do so.

The postal vote argument is a total fallacy. As campaigners, we all know that most people fill in their postal votes and send them in as soon as they receive them, which is why when they go out is an important time in the campaign. A tiny percentage of such votes come in on polling day itself. That matter can easily be dealt with without it taking two to three hours. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on how we can encourage returning officers to ensure that the counting takes place on polling night—for the sake of interest in our democracy, to be seen to be fair and to take into account the security concerns raised earlier.

I seriously congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) on initiating the debate; this is really the first chance that we have had to discuss this important issue. I remember well the hard work that he put into taking the Electoral Administration Act 2006 through the House, because I tried to stop parts of it. In general, he knows the subject as well as anyone, and I agree with every word that he said in his speech and with how he set it out. Of course, I also agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles).

The issue must not be dealt with in party political terms. We have not done that, and I think we have achieved consensus this morning. We are all concerned about the inconsistency of the work of returning officers throughout the country and, as a result of research, we are also concerned that returning officers are not accountable to anybody directly. I think I am right in saying that returning officers are accountable to the courts and the electorate by virtue of the Ballot Act 1872. If I am wrong, I am sure that the Minister will correct me. That Act sets out the current law, which has not been changed since. I do not think any of us foresaw the problems that would arise.

The Electoral Commission has spent a long time considering the matter and has issued guidelines. We cannot blame the Electoral Commission for things that might go wrong, because it has limited powers. It is up to the Government to give the Electoral Commission further powers if that is deemed necessary, and that seems to be the direction in which we are going this morning. As other hon. Members have said, the Electoral Commission can, of course, set performance standards, and it has done so.

However, the returning officer is required to justify his actions. We have not yet discussed that point, but we should all be asking returning officers to justify their actions. There are currently 52 returning officers who have informed the Electoral Commission that they will for various reasons not count votes until the day after a general election. What justification have those 52 returning officers given? We do not know, but we can find out. This is an important subject of public interest and the returning officers should be asked to justify their decisions, if not by the Electoral Commission then by each individual Member of Parliament or anyone else who is interested in the matter.

I understand the concerns of the Electoral Commission to prioritise accuracy; indeed, we talked about that during the passage of the 2006 Act, which the hon. Member for Inverclyde took through the House. I have lost count of the number of times that the Minister and I have had exchanges on the matter at the Dispatch Box over the past year. However, we are agreed—I think he will agree with me here—that the accuracy of the register and the integrity of the ballot are the most important factors that we are all aiming for in bringing forward changes to the electoral system.

The hon. Lady mentioned the importance of the accuracy of the register and the integrity of the ballot. Will she assure hon. Members—this is a question I intend to put to the Minister, if he will allow me to do so later—that she and her party are not considering disenfranchising 1 million Commonwealth voters or 700,000 Irish voters?

Yes, of course I can. We have also talked about the comprehensive nature of the register, which is extremely important. Everyone who has a right to vote must be on the register. However, that is a digression, so I will not pursue the issue that the hon. Gentleman is asking me about.

I understand very well the extra duties that we have imposed on returning officers as a result of the new rules on the verification of signatures for postal votes and so on. Unfortunately, as various hon. Members have said this morning, the impression is being given that the duty of a returning officer to make his return as soon as practicable is being interpreted as an excuse for not dealing with the challenges, rather than as a duty to deal with those challenges. The Electoral Commission states

“There are various local factors that ROs will take into account when deciding on the timing of the election count, including: geography”.

Fair enough—in the Western Isles, votes cannot be counted until Friday, and in other places around the country that is also the case. Of course we all understand that and think it is perfectly reasonable. However, in most places it is perfectly possible to have the ballot boxes brought in on time.

The Electoral Commission also refers to the

“availability of staff and venues”.

I just do not believe that it is impossible for a returning officer to find a suitable venue and enough staff to carry out the work that needs to be done to hold an immediate count and result. The security of the ballot boxes has been mentioned by other hon. Members. Of course it is worrying that ballot boxes would be left all night before the vote had been counted. That enormous problem ought to be a balancing factor, but in some cases returning officers appear to be ignoring it.

Finally, the Electoral Commission refers to the

“volume and management of postal votes returned across the constituency”.

That matter has also been dealt with, and I agree with what other hon. Members have said about postal votes. We are talking about a minority of postal votes. Of course, people sometimes come in at 10 o’clock at night just as the ballot closes and hand in their postal vote, but how many hundreds of those will there be in each constituency? Not many.

Knowing the result of the general election is not comparable to waiting until Sunday to see who wins “Strictly Come Dancing.” It is matter of importance to everyone, whether they know it or not. I publicly make the point that I do not believe we are here this morning to speak on our own behalf because we—the people who are deeply involved in politics and political activity—want the excitement of election night. The issue is not about that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said so eloquently, the matter is about the potential transfer of power in this country.

Or not. We have always had a system that is immediate, and that is one of the basic building blocks of our democracy. It matters. That is how we do it here, and the fact that that is being changed because of perceived administrative problems is simply unacceptable.

I now come to the important point: we have a consensus here this morning and, I think, throughout the House. Simply changing how our general elections are run for the administrative simplicity of some returning officers who are accountable to no one is unacceptable. So, what can we do about it? First, let us make it clear that the assumption should be that the count should take place at the close of the poll unless the returning officer can publicly justify his actions in deciding otherwise. In some places that will be easy and in some places it will not. Returning officers have made decisions that they have not been required to justify. Let us now ask them to justify their actions publicly. There has been no update to the precise law on returning officers’ duties since the 1872 Act.

The Minister knows very well that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill has been amended and expanded considerably over the past few weeks, and the Opposition have agreed with much of the expansion that the Government have brought forward; we have co-operated with it. I am considering bringing forward an amendment to the Bill on Report to deal with the matter. It would be far more effective, however, if the Government did that. I give an undertaking that, if the Minister brings forward such an amendment on Report, he will have our support.

I not only congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) on securing the debate, but thank him for doing so. The quality of the contributions speaks for itself, and the fact that attendance has been in the double figures speaks for the great importance that the whole House attaches to the subject. Important questions of principle and practice have been raised.

We heard important contributions from the Front Benchers, the hon. Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). Important contributions also came from my hon. Friends the Members for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe), for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda). We also heard from the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). All of them have made important contributions to the debate—[Interruption.] Of course, I must not forget the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), which was so important that I have a whole sheet of paper devoted to his comments. He has made an important contribution to the matter over many years, and he and I have had many exchanges about it. His hard work has informed the framing of legislation on at least two occasions, so I thank him in particular.

An important point of principle that underpins the whole debate is the position of the electoral registration officer in our constitutional arrangements. The ERO’s position is important in registration, and my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd rightly highlighted how important that is, as 3.5 million eligible voters are not on the register and are therefore unable to vote, which is a scandal. We have to do something about that, and I will come to that point in a moment.

Their position is also important because of the way they conduct elections. That brings us to an important point of principle: they are independent of political interference, and rightly so. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde rightly drew attention to the importance of that. I think that Members from all parties would agree that we in this country are fortunate that our elections are free of corruption and delivered efficiently. There have, of course, been exceptions with regard to efficiency, and there have been isolated examples of corruption, but generally we are very fortunate and owe a great debt of gratitude to those EROs who deliver elections in that way.

However, we cannot and must not be complacent about fraud, under-registration or the issues that have been raised today. Whatever further changes we might have to make—and we have made some already—it is important that they enhance the integrity and independence of the ERO. There is no evidence of widespread problems in that area, although there is widespread concern about election night, to which I will return in a moment. We cannot and must not be complacent.

With regard to what we can do about the matter, the Government have to be careful. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar characteristically reflected his party’s position. He said he wants

“to set local authorities free”—

except, of course, when they behave unreasonably, in which case he seems to want the Government to direct them to behave in a particular way. I know that it is a characteristic of the modern Conservative party to want to be all things to all people at all times, and in all weeks, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale pointed out, they really cannot always have it like that.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman misquoted me inadvertently. He asked me a specific question on ring-fencing, to which I gave a specific answer—no, we do not favour ring-fencing and want to set local authorities free to set their own priorities. That does not mean to say that the Government cannot do so or must abrogate their role, so I would be most grateful if he did not seek to find a political divide on an issue in respect of which there is so much to unite us.

Of course not, but there are divisions between us, and the hon. Gentleman alerted Members to them in his own remarks. I was not referring to the ring-fencing remark. I hope that I am not misrepresenting him, but I think that if he looks at his remarks he will find that he said he really wanted direction to be made in relation to election night. I will return to that point. If we accept that local government should be set free, I think that he will accept that there are limits to what the Government should do in relation to everything, and in relation to election night.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said that local government should be allowed to set its spending priorities according to local priorities, but electoral registration is not only for local government, but for Assemblies, national Government and EU-wide government. The issue is so important that the money should be ring-fenced.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. On the question of the accountability of EROs, we must tread extremely carefully. Anything we do must enhance their independence and integrity. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) drew attention to the theoretical—but on occasion, actual—risk that local government officers, including EROs, can become subject to political pressure.

The risk falls into three categories. First, local officers can become too “comfortable”, as the hon. Gentleman put it, with the dominant political party. Secondly, they can, of course, be pressured by a dominant political party in a local authority. That is not a party political point, as all parties can be dominant in a local authority and the risk arises in all circumstances. Interestingly, when I raised that issue at a recent conference of EROs, one of them stood up and said, “We want protection from councillors who pressurise us, and we want severe sanctions for those local councillors who seek to bully or pressure us to behave in a partisan way.” That is clearly a voice that we must hear.

Thirdly, there is at least the possibility of EROs acting in a directly partisan way. As I have said, there is no widespread evidence that that has taken place at all. The great majority of EROs, and the great majority of councillors of all parties—I make that clear—behave in a way that scrupulously respects the integrity and independence of the system. However, we cannot be complacent, so that is something that all of us must look to improve in future.

My right hon. Friend is right. All returning officers will act in an honest and honourable way, but most people also like the easy option—and the easy option in this regard is counting the votes the next day. The onus, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) pointed out, should be on the returning officer to justify why they cannot count the votes immediately after the poll.

I was going to move on to that point. I agree with my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Epping Forest on that issue.

In the brief time left, I want to make two points. The first relates to the self-assessment of EROs. That is an important step forward. I accept that there are problems with any method of self-assessment, but the crucial test for the performance of EROs in relation to registration will be the delivery of a comprehensive and accurate register. It is not comprehensive and accurate at the moment. The Government have brought forward proposals for individual registration, which should be implemented by 2015. They will be implemented on the basis of a comprehensive and accurate register. The whole country, and not just the House, will judge all those responsible for registration by how far they deliver on that statutory objective. There is no hiding place. That will be measured by an objective test in the near future.

My second point relates to the overnight count. I have heard everything that has been said in the debate and will reflect on it. There is clearly a consensus across the House that all those responsible for delivering the count need to do everything in their power to deliver it overnight. I agree with that from a personal perspective. As the Minister responsible for elections, I have no role in directing EROs to do anything at all, and I want to ensure that everyone understands that I respect their independence.

However, if any are still considering not holding overnight counts, I hope that they will read the record of this debate and reflect carefully on the strength of feeling. At the very least, if they decide not to hold an overnight count, they will have to have extremely good reasons. Whatever happens, they can expect to be rigorously scrutinised, and should realise that this House will take the matter forward after the next election. I have no doubt at all that that is the conclusion that everyone will draw from the strength of feeling in this debate, and I am extremely grateful to everyone who has contributed to it. I have no doubt that it will move the policy on in some way or other in the future.

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for allowing the Minister to finish his comments. They no doubt wanted to hear them, but we should not have done that. We will pause for half a second while those who want to leave do so, and then we will start all over again as quickly as possible.

HIV/AIDS

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of HIV/AIDS in this Adjournment debate. I have discussed these matters frequently with my hon. Friend the Minister in her present role in the Department of Health and in her previous role in the Department for International Development. As chairman of the all-party AIDS group, I have dealt with the significance of the disease overseas and also in the UK.

I wish to concentrate this morning on HIV/AIDS in the UK, and to focus initially on the problems of late diagnosis of HIV status. It is estimated that 27,000 people in the UK are HIV-positive but have not yet been diagnosed as such. Of the 7,000 diagnoses that are done in most years, more than half are classed as late diagnoses, by which we mean that the CD4 count has dropped below 350, which is taken by the British HIV Association as the measure of a late diagnosis.

The significance of late diagnosis and the fact that 27,000 people have not been diagnosed is, first, that when they are eventually diagnosed and get treatment, the treatment is likely to be less successful because their CD4 count has dropped below 350. Secondly, the fact that they have not been diagnosed means that they are likely to continue to engage in the risky behaviour that resulted in their HIV status in the first place. If they are diagnosed, the chances of their changing that risky behaviour will improve. Also, when people go on antiretroviral treatment, the drugs reduce their infectivity, so even if they continue to engage in risky behaviour, the likelihood of their transmitting the disease to somebody else is vastly reduced.

If we could reduce the number of people in the UK who are HIV-positive and do not know it, and end the situation in which more than half the people who are diagnosed are diagnosed with CD4 counts below 350, we would have an opportunity to do something significant in reducing the number of new cases and infections. That is where I am coming from in this discussion.

I know that the Department of Health is working on this matter, and I welcome the work that it is doing. During the Labour party conference in Brighton last year, I visited a pilot that the Department is running there. I visited a general practitioner surgery that was preparing to offer new patients the HIV test in a routine manner—it was not doing so then but should be by now. A similar scheme was operating in a hospital in Brighton—I have discussed this with a number of people—where people were being diagnosed HIV-positive as a result of being offered the opportunity to be tested. The key is to increase the number of people who are tested.

At present, we have a system for routinely offering pregnant women an HIV test, and take-up of that is generally reaching the targets, but I was told about a situation in my region, in Liverpool, where the figures were much lower than in the rest of the north-west. When that was investigated, it emerged that when the medical practitioners in the hospital offered pregnant women the opportunity of a test, they would often say, “It is only if you sleep around that you need the test.” The way in which people were given the opportunity to be tested was changed, and the figures in Liverpool rose. There is a great deal of work to be done.

I would like the Department to focus on this issue in a major way, and perhaps set a target to halve the number of undiagnosed individuals in the UK, which is now 27,000. In London, the NHS has done a great deal of work, setting and focusing on targets to try to reduce the number of undiagnosed infections.

Work needs to be done in a targeted way; there is no simple solution. What one does for men who have sex with men is very different from how one would work with the African community. That raises a broader issue in relation to sexual health services. I remember visiting the local genito-urinary medicine clinic in Preston a few years ago and being told that one had to wait more than a month to get an appointment. When I went back 18 months later, it had a daily drop-in clinic, and I believe that that was a result of NHS targets. Targets can work and make a difference.

In my part of Lancashire, which is a low-prevalence area, there is only the one GUM clinic. It is the centre for people who want to be tested, but it serves a large area from Preston down to Skelmersdale and Ormskirk. Further developments are required, and I know that the matter is being discussed locally. We need to focus on areas with high prevalence, which obviously explains what is being done in Brighton, but we must recognise the need to work in low-prevalence areas as well.

We should also acknowledge that for the many people who are HIV-positive, receiving treatment and living successful lives, the primary contact for health services should be their GP. That has not traditionally been the case for many HIV-positive people, so some work needs to be done there as well.

We need to make it easier to be tested. At present, it is illegal in the UK to do home testing. In the same way that there are home-testing kits for pregnancy, there are home-testing kits for HIV. One can order them illegally on the internet.

I remember visiting a coal mine in Johannesburg where the aim of the owners of the mine was to get every member of staff tested every year, on a voluntary basis. That was the target. Testing was done not by taking a blood sample but simply by taking a mouth swab. Within a short time, one could tell with the mouth swab whether someone was HIV-positive. The test is not as accurate as a blood test, but it is a quick and easy way of doing it, and people can then be tested by taking a blood sample at a later stage.

If we could legalise a good home-testing kit, it would be much easier for many individuals to get tested on a regular basis, and it would go some way towards reducing the number of people—27,000—who are undiagnosed but HIV-positive. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on that point.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his consistent, caring and effective work on HIV/AIDS over many years. Will he explain whether the testing kit would flag up the need for those who had a positive result to get a full and proper test because it would not be definitive in itself? Will he explain why such kits are not legal so that we can understand him better?

Twenty years ago, if someone tested positive for HIV, the odds are that that would have been a death sentence. Therefore, pre-test and post-test counselling was regarded as important. Much less counselling is needed now because in most cases if people test HIV-positive, particularly if they are tested early when their CD4 count is above 350, the odds are that they can be put on antiretroviral treatments fairly quickly, that they can live ordinary, active lives and keep their jobs going, and that the trauma will not be as great as it would have been 20 years ago. HIV and AIDS are now regarded as chronic conditions rather than as a death sentence, which has changed the dynamic somewhat. However, if people assume that they do not need to bother about the risk of becoming HIV-positive because they can take a pill and they will be all right, which is not 100 per cent. correct, that is a slight difficulty.

I want to talk at some length about the stigma, which makes it more difficult for people who are HIV-positive to get access to services. Initially, the focus should be on general practitioner services. More than half of people who are HIV-positive have not told their GP about their status: they get their HIV drugs from a clinic, but their GP does not know about their condition. Given that ever more people are living with HIV and getting older, and getting the diseases and conditions of maturity, there is a problem: if they are on medication for HIV and taking medication for other things, those may not work smoothly together. It is important that the GP is informed and knows about the condition of their patient.

Many HIV-positive people are concerned about confidentiality. There are examples of GPs’ receptionists passing on information and of files for HIV-positive patients being coloured in a particular way. In areas such as mine, which is semi-rural, it would be fairly clear if things were not done discreetly in respect of a handful of HIV-positive patients in a practice. The NHS needs to tackle that issue at GP level, because people should be able to be tested at their local general practice, as I have seen taking place in Brighton. That should become much more commonplace. We should be looking to develop more skills within general practice.

Another thing is common in the NHS. I attended a meeting with the Minister and the Secretary of State with a young man who had been refused access to dental treatment on the basis of his HIV status. I sometimes think that dentists have not really caught up with the changes that have taken place in the past 20 years. It is not uncommon for people to be denied dental treatment or to be told that they must be the last patient of the day because the dentist needs to take special precautions, which is not the case.

I recently received a letter from an individual who complained that although he needed a muscle biopsy medical staff told him they could not take the sample because they did not have the facilities to handle that safely. Again, that is nonsense. The NHS should be able to do that, but obviously there is a great deal of ignorance.

A report from UK People Living with HIV Stigma Index, which I discussed with the Secretary of State, shows that many HIV-positive people feel discriminated against, particularly in health services and more generally. That is not an issue of spite and nastiness, but is to do with ignorance. If a head teacher, out of ignorance, does not respect the confidentiality of a child who is HIV-positive and whose mother has taken them to see the head teacher to explain the need for their treatment and so on, and the parents of the other children subsequently demand that that child is removed from the school, that happens out of fear and ignorance not out of spite towards that child. We need to begin to tackle such issues.

The George House Trust, which is an HIV charity in Manchester—in my area— offered a positive speakers training programme on HIV. It found, when training NHS staff, that fewer than half of the health professionals interviewed were able to identify correctly the routes for HIV transmission from a list of routes shown to them. I spoke to a former nurse who worked at an NHS hospital in the north-west, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive and had some difficulty coming to terms with that. In a short space of time his employment at the hospital was ended because he was made to feel so uncomfortable by the staff whom he had worked with. He currently receives treatment at another hospital some distance away. A lot of the problems are down to the fact that there is still a great deal of ignorance on the part of NHS staff. One would expect that people working in the health service would have the best knowledge, but that is not so at the moment.

I have some data from MORI, which did some polling in 2000 and 2007. In 2000, 91 per cent. of people knew that HIV could be transmitted during sex between a man and a woman without a condom, but by 2007 that was down to 79 per cent. In 2000, 77 per cent. of people agreed that people with HIV deserve the same level of support and respect as someone with cancer. That figure had dropped to 70 per cent. by 2007.

There is growing ignorance about HIV among the general population. In the past, and currently, the Department has focused HIV prevention work on the groups that are most at risk: intravenous drug users, people with an African connection and men who have sex with men. That is good in the sense that it reduces the risk of people becoming infected. However, to tackle stigma, there needs to be a reasonable level of knowledge and understanding among the general population about the disease and how it can be transmitted. That will affect how HIV-positive individuals are dealt with and will lead to HIV-positive people finding it easier in the workplace and easier to deal with health services—and it will make them less fearful of being tested in the first place, which is a problem.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for better training for NHS staff and third sector services. People living with HIV need to be involved in the development of that training, because often they are excluded from this area. The Department needs to work with professional bodies to educate those already employed in the NHS and needs to consider working with qualification bodies to integrate HIV awareness into the medical student curriculum.

There needs to be zero tolerance of any breach of confidentiality, because having spoken to a number of people living with HIV I know that such breaches, or the thought that there could be a breach, stops them telling their GP that they are HIV-positive. Their GP needs a full picture of their medical condition to give them the best treatment and to be the main support.

It is nearly 11.20 am, which is when I intended to finish my speech, so I shall now sit down and listen to the response from my hon. Friend the Minister.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) on securing this debate on a matter that he champions as chair of the all-party group on AIDS, a role to which he brings a sound knowledge and persistence that I and many others inside and outside the House welcome. The debate is timely, because tomorrow I shall host a conference on sexual health. Reducing HIV infections must remain at the forefront of our minds and actions as we start to develop a new sexual health strategy to take us forward in the next 10 years.

We face a number of challenges, which my hon. Friend set out well. We must remember that the prognosis for a person in the United Kingdom who is diagnosed with HIV today is a world away from what it was in the 1980s, when it was a killer with no treatment available and no hope. With the development of highly effective treatment, HIV is now a condition, albeit a chronic one, that can be managed with medication and regular monitoring. However, we are not complacent, and we are still some way from a cure, so prevention remains the most important and effective weapon for tackling HIV.

The difficulty is that although treatment has improved and the death rate is lower, which is welcome, some people have let their guard slip, as my hon. Friend said, when it comes to protecting themselves from HIV. It has not gone away. Treatment is lifelong, gruelling and complex, and people must take precautions to protect themselves and their partners from infection. My hon. Friend made a good point when he said that late diagnosis is the biggest contributor to mortality, but the condition is preventable.

The UK has a good track record of preventing HIV infection, but we want to do even better. Our prevalence rates are comparatively low by European standards, and much lower than in Spain, Italy, France and Portugal. A quarter of those living with HIV in this country are undiagnosed. Figures from the United States suggest that more than half of infections are transmitted by people who do not realise that they are HIV-positive. That is why the Government’s fight to increase detection and reduce transmission of HIV continues. We have increased investment over the past 10 years in national HIV programmes run by the Terence Higgins Trust and the African HIV Policy Network. We are pushing the boundaries by funding eight pilot programmes in HIV hot spots to see how we can normalise testing in places such as GP surgeries, hospitals and community health settings, instead of just in sexual specialist health clinics. I was pleased to hear that my hon. Friend had visited the pilot in Brighton.

My hon. Friend referred to self-testing, and I understand why. I hope that he will welcome the fact that the pilot in Sheffield involved home sampling. We focused on tests being carried out by people in the privacy of their own homes, with diagnosis by experts. That is legal, and takes advantage of the available technologies, but the difficulty is that technology does not at present provide a decent quality test, and we know the consequences of a misleading test. I am optimistic about that pilot and look forward to such a test. I will share the results of the pilot with my hon. Friend.

Our progress is backed by nationwide changes in policy and medical practice. The decision in 1999 to start recommending HIV tests to pregnant women prompted a dramatic fall in the proportion of those giving birth to HIV-positive babies. HIV tests are now standard for sexual health screening, so the proportion of those who voluntarily take such a test in genito-urinary medicine clinics rose from 77 per cent. in 2004 to 93 per cent. in 2008. That shows the benefits to which my hon. Friend referred.

I share the view that the biggest enemy of progress is stigma. HIV still has the power to define someone in a way that other illnesses do not. Too many people with HIV still experience shame and isolation because of the diagnosis, which may manifest itself in discrimination in the workplace, the community and, as was said today, even health services. It is hardly surprising that many people are extremely wary of being tested, and may react with shock or hostility if a GP or nurse suggests an HIV test.

I agree that if we want to increase testing and reduce the number of undiagnosed cases even further, we must demolish stigma and discrimination. That is one of the five goals set out in our national strategy for sexual health, which funded voluntary organisations to produce information for journalists, employers, health professionals and people with HIV. Much of the stigma surrounding HIV cannot be separated from homophobia, and we are acting to root out discrimination and prejudice against the gay, lesbian and transsexual communities. We should not forget that this Government equalised the age of consent, repealed section 28, and passed the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004. Those are landmark achievements that have changed people’s lives by giving them respect, dignity and equality on the basis of who people are, not what they are labelled as.

My hon. Friend referred to his concern about denial of treatment and the way in which treatment is given by some health professionals. People should not be denied treatment by dentists because they are HIV-positive. It is not a bar to access to the full range of NHS health care. People with HIV should be treated the same as everyone else and in the best clinically appropriate way. I assure my hon. Friend that we are raising awareness among the health community, because we know that doctors, nurses and community health teams are important in offering and encouraging more people to take HIV tests, as well as in delivering services.

Does my hon. Friend agree that because GPs and dentists operate as private businesses and are not employed directly by the NHS, the difficulty is that individual dentists and GPs are doing their own thing? It is not as easy to pull levers to tackle such issues as it would be with doctors and nurses working in hospitals or local clinics run by the NHS.

I note that point; it is extremely useful to work with professional bodies. For example, British Dental Association guidelines say that dental practices should treat everyone the same, and that good cross-infection control applies to all of us. Our work with such bodies has been helpful, and we will continue it. The chief medical officer wrote to several royal medical colleges and faculties to highlight the role of all health care professionals in offering HIV tests, but perhaps we could go further in getting them even more on board.

Advances in treatment may have turned HIV from a killer virus to a chronic illness, but we must maintain our vigilance, and do everything possible to reduce transmission. We must encourage safer sex among the general population, which is what our new campaign, “Sex: Worth Talking About”, is all about. We must also tackle the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV. That is vital if we want more people to come forward for testing and treatment.

I am proud to say in the Chamber that our record on HIV and AIDS over the past 12 years has made a difference, but I am deeply conscious that a lot remains to be done. I am keen to work with my hon. Friend, the all-party group and the entire sexual health community to move forward in the years ahead on something that affects us all.

Sitting suspended.

First Capital Connect

[Joan Walley in the Chair]

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for St. Albans, let me say to hon. Members that it might be helpful if everybody could co-operate. I think that there might be a few people who will try to catch my eye, and I would like to call the Minister by quarter to 4.

Thank you, Ms Walley. It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship today in this important debate on our rail services.

In October last year—this will come as no surprise to anybody who has been watching the news—drivers on the First Capital Connect Thameslink route, which serves my constituency and those of many other hon. Members here today, began industrial action. A virtual ban on overtime and rest-day working was imposed due to a dispute over pay. Since then, that action has been causing intense disruption and frustration for hundreds of thousands of commuters who use the route.

In early November, the company informed me that it would be introducing a new timetable that offered only 50 per cent. of the services that usually ran on that busy commuter route. It was not exactly a formal notification. I rang the company one evening and said, “Excuse me, this situation is getting so bad that I need to talk about it.” The reply was, “Don’t worry. It’s going to improve tomorrow and there will be a much more reliable service”. I said, “Oh good. How is that going to occur?” and the reply was, “We have cut the train service in half and we can guarantee that that half will be delivered.” At that point, I decided that a point desperately needed to be raised about the matter on the Floor of the House.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because my constituents have exactly the same problems as the ones she describes, and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. However, my constituents have had not only that 50 per cent. cut, but on the Crystal Palace line, City workers cannot now get to the City without using another form of transport. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is outrageous? To say that there is a 50 per cent. service is to exaggerate just a little.

I am not aware of that particular incident, but I know that commuters in my constituency are experiencing the frustrations that my hon. Friend describes. I am sure the Minister will have plenty of time today to address all points that are raised about the whole route.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way as I know she wants to make progress. She has been leading the campaign not only in this debate but elsewhere, and she should be congratulated. Does she agree with my constituent, Colin Withey, and with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), that the franchise should be removed? A 50 per cent. reduction is absolutely appalling.

I will talk about whether the franchise should be removed or whether it should stay with the company later in my speech. I hope the hon. Gentleman will bear with me and I thank him for his warm congratulations.

The new timetable with the 50 per cent. reduction resulted, needless to say, in chaos. Many passengers at St. Albans and further down the line spent hours trying to get to and from their workplaces in central London. Trains often arrived late, or already full so that people could not get on them, or they were cancelled at a moment’s notice. Platforms were changed at a moment’s notice, meaning that people could not board a train. The situation only worsened last month, with adverse weather conditions causing some of the older trains to become frozen; motors and doors became inoperable and further cancellations occurred over a period of weeks due to the poor weather, as well as the problems with the drivers.

The original problem stemmed from the company’s heavy reliance on staff good will to ensure that it could run its services. The drivers were not contracted for enough hours to run a full service, and their contracts did not include Sunday working. The model was bound to come to grief at some point.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I offer my apologies that I cannot stay for the whole debate because I have a meeting on child poverty shortly.

My hon. Friend has put her finger on the nub of the question. Does she agree that it is up to the Department for Transport in future not to award franchises to companies that rely on good will for overtime to run a scheduled service on which our constituents rely to get to work?

I thank my hon. Friend for his valuable contribution and I will touch on that point later in my speech. I want to know how much Ministers and the Department were aware of that model, as it was bound to lead to failings.

Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). It is not only the company that was relying on good will—the franchise model given by the Government specified that and allowed the company to do it. When the specification was written, there was an innate failure in the Government’s franchising model.

My hon. Friend answers part of the question that I will put to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport later—he might like to agree on whether that was a good decision. I was unaware of it, and it is frankly shocking.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I know that she does a lot of work on behalf of her constituents on the matter. On the franchising process, together with other hon. Members, I have tabled early-day motions to ask questions about termination of the franchise, as many of my constituents feel that the only option is to get a fresh start with a new provider. Ministers have been vague about how much longer they are prepared to tolerate the catastrophic failure of the service before they will terminate it. Is that a question that the Under-Secretary should answer today?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I shall certainly ask the Under-Secretary exactly what he is considering doing. I have heard some strong words from Lord Adonis in the other place about the ultimate sanction of stripping the franchise. I would like to know if those are empty words, and whether, if that were done, it would provide a better option for commuters in my constituency. I am not interested in punishing train companies. I am interested in commuters in my constituency having the service they have paid for and getting to work on time. Ultimately, that is what they want. They do not want bits and pieces of compensation or empty words, threats and promises. They want the commuter services that they have paid for and that First Capital Connect undertook to deliver. I will come to that in a moment, but the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) is right. The Minister needs to discuss the matter in this forum so that people know what is going on.

The bad weather caused faults in trains that were already in need of work and replacement by newer units. I do not have time to add this issue to the debate, but the delivery of the newer units from Bombardier was subject to delays that were apparently due to the recession and the laying-off of workers. Four-car trains were operating when there should have been eight-car trains, which increased the problems along the route, and at some points, people were unable even to get on the trains.

Answers to my parliamentary questions have revealed that the Secretary of State for Transport knew about the action by drivers on the route as early as 26 October 2009. However, the news did not reach the public domain or Parliament. I was not informed about the change of timetable until my conversation that fateful evening of 11 November with the manager of First Capital Connect.

Between 26 October and 11 November, my constituents were thinking that the problems might have been due to swine flu or that there was some other reason why the drivers were unavailable to work. However, Ministers knew about it. I lodged an urgent question to the Under-Secretary and raised the issue of the First Capital Connect service in the House the next day, 12 November. It is rare for a Back Bencher to get an urgent question—I do not know whether the public are aware of that—and I am pleased that the Minister came before us. However, the response was that the Department was “monitoring the situation daily”. I must say that watching the situation did not do any good. It was chaotic.

The Secretary of State for Transport, who has since been criticised for not intervening earlier, did not give a statement on the matter in another place until after my urgent question. Even then, he only repeated the answer that had been given by the Under-Secretary—needless to say, “looking” at the situation.

I, too, offer an apology as I need to leave before the end of the debate. Before my hon. Friend leaves the incidents of 11 and 12 November, does she recall that on the Great Northern line there were no trains on the Sunday, so my constituents who wanted to attend Remembrance day services in London were unable to do so? Notwithstanding the fact that the trade union supported a yes vote on the ballot, is there not a joint responsibility during the drivers dispute? Drivers also played their part, and if the service is to work in the future, unions and management must co-operate in the interests of the public to provide a better service.

I concur completely with those sentiments, and I want to touch on my hon. Friend’s point. We are only too well aware that drivers unions have been pressing for full nationalisation. If we are to think of doing that, we must discuss what the possible reaction would be.

Does the hon. Lady accept that the state railway systems in continental Europe run much better than our system, and that fares are much cheaper, with lower public subsidy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that rather rosy view of life on the continent, but I must say that one of the few rail services that have been repatriated to state control has actually got worse. That is why I am nervous about even suggesting that Ministers get their hands on another rail service.

I wrote to the Under-Secretary on 16 November, after the statement, to urge him to do more than just “monitor” the situation and to ask him to meet the company urgently to discuss its apparent failure to meet its franchise obligations. On 26 November, at business questions, I requested a debate in the House of Commons from the Leader of the House to discuss the problems. In response to a parliamentary question, I was told that the Secretary of State met management in mid-November, but I have no idea what was said. If he has any recall of that meeting, I would quite like to hear about it today. The Under-Secretary did not agree to my request and no debate was granted. This is the first time that we have had a chance to debate the matter in the House.

The overwhelming impression was that the Government were unwilling to take action about the catastrophic delivery of services, which were deteriorating daily. On 9 December, I called a meeting with Mary Grant, the group rail manager at FirstGroup, and all hon. Members affected, so that our concerns about the ongoing problems could be discussed. At that meeting, I urged Mrs. Grant to act swiftly to implement a lasting resolution to the ongoing problems and, importantly, to compensate adequately all passengers affected.

However, commuters experienced even more extreme disruption over the Christmas period, which was very taxing for families, given all that was going on with the weather. Because of the deterioration in services during the period of poor weather and the apparent lack of progress on the reinstatement of a full timetable, I raised the issue again in the House of Commons on 11 January with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who promised to look at ongoing problems. Looking, monitoring, watching and thinking seem to be all the Government have been doing on this matter. My constituents and thousands of others along the route had completely lost patience with First Capital Connect by that stage.

The list of the many things that the hon. Lady has done shows that I was right to say at the beginning just how much she has been working on behalf of all of us. Does she think that if the Government decide no longer to be asleep at the wheel, an alternative approach might be for them to allow other franchises to provide other services? Perhaps there could be additional stops. The Gatwick express is often very empty on the southern part of the route that we are discussing. Perhaps it could be allowed to stop at East Croydon station. That might be a way of at least trying to put some additional competitive pressure on First Capital Connect.

The hon. Gentleman anticipates the later part of my speech. I thank him for his warm words. He is absolutely right. It does not have to be an either/or option. We can have alternative models, and I should like to raise that later.

I wrote again to the Under-Secretary on 11 January and asked him for a meeting

“as a matter of urgency”

to discuss the way forward. I have a copy of that letter with me. I am staggered to say that despite all the chaos, I still have not received a response nearly a month later, so despite the supposedly stiff words uttered to the media by Lord Adonis and harsh pronouncements in the Chamber, it appears that all that is only bluster. The reality is that precious little has been done to avoid the situation or even to deal with it. According to the Minister’s own officials, his response to my letter is overdue according to the Department’s guidelines, yet there is no sense of urgency.

I hope that the commuters who use this beleaguered service take on board the fact that the present Government did not even care enough to try to bring about a satisfactory and early resolution when I gave them numerous opportunities to do so. It appears that they were waiting for the train drivers to make up their minds.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her vigorous and energetic campaign on behalf of all our constituents, which is much appreciated. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and I met the management of First Capital Connect on Monday to complain about this wholly unacceptable service, about which she is so eloquently expounding. Does she agree that one of the most important things is not just punctuality and all the rest of it, but the flow of information to the poor commuters who spend enormous sums of money trying to get from A to B and are then stranded without any information? In the age of the mobile telephone, that is unforgiveable. Will my hon. Friend add that grotesque lack of information to the litany of very effective charges she has laid against the company’s door?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That litany of charges has come through my post box and those of other hon. Members. There has been a lack of communication. As I said, it was through a happenstance phone call that I found out on 11 November that the timetable was to be cut by 50 per cent. The Minister knew and he still cannot be bothered to communicate with me and my office, so I do not think that there is any better communication coming from the Government on the matter. My hon. Friend is right to say that passengers have been treated appallingly. I can only say that through the “Meet the Managers” sessions—I am having one in St. Albans on Friday—managers are becoming fully aware of how absolutely fed-up the travelling public are. I encourage residents in St. Albans and commuters to go along and give their 10 penn’orth, because the managers certainly deserve to hear it.

I want the Minister to explain to me and my constituents why he had no sense of urgency about the matter. What did the Secretary of State agree with First Capital Connect at the meeting he held in November? Why did he not anticipate that the work to rule would cause enormous disruption to the travelling public, and why did he not insist that the message was delivered to commuters, so that they did not labour on, completely in the dark about why train services were so disrupted? When the franchise was agreed with First Capital Connect, were the Ministers aware that FCC was reliant on such a business model? It appears that they were, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). Why did they agree to it?

Were Ministers not concerned that pay negotiations were coming to a head and that a similar pattern of disruption had been experienced by FirstGroup bus services in Aberdeen in July 2009, which meant that its bus services were massively affected by a reduced timetable and lack of reliability? Again, the chaos was due to drivers working to rule in a pay dispute. It was reasonable to conclude that that model might repeat itself in the coming months for the train services of my commuters. At that point, the Minister should have had urgent talks. Ten months of talks was our understanding. He should have had urgent talks to prevent that crash from happening for the train commuters as it happened with the bus services in Aberdeen.

On 13 January, 70 per cent. of drivers who were members of ASLEF voted in favour of accepting the company’s pay offer. There have been siren calls about stripping the company of its franchise, including calls from the RMT to put this and all other train services back into public ownership. I intend to flesh out those arguments, but I am sure that other hon. Members will want to come in on them.

On 13 January, First Capital Connect announced that it intended to operate the full timetable on the Thameslink route from Monday 18 January. However, the “full timetable” included short-form trains, which had less passenger capacity than usual services. When I approached the company, I was told that they were due to end today, 3 February. However, today, there are short-form trains operating. I am now told that will cease by Friday. I can only hope that it is not another false dawn. I hope that the Minister will have had talks with First Capital Connect to see whether he could do anything to get Bombardier to deliver on time, because that is part of the problem.

We must not lose sight of the fact that this situation has been not only hugely disruptive, but costly.

It is not just that trains have been delivered late; they are not delivering the service they are meant to deliver. I gather that at the moment, First Capital Connect trains, the 377s, are breaking down after every 6,000 miles, compared with Southern, which runs the same trains and seems to keep them running for 22,000 miles before they break down. Surely that is another example of how incompetent the company is.

I am not sure whether it is the incompetence of the company or the people building the trains. I am not an expert on technical matters. I am not sure whether it has something to do with the amount of maintenance or the time for which the trains are taken off the rails to be put into maintenance. I cannot comment on that, other than to say that it is yet another unacceptable situation.

The situation that we are discussing has been hugely disruptive and costly to many people in terms of hours wasted and opportunities lost. On 26 January—I am sorry, but there is a great list of things that I have asked the Minister that I do not have answers to—I asked the Minister what estimate he had made of the cost to commuters of the disruption. As he has not yet responded to that question, will he answer it today, please?

I also want to ask the Minister’s opinion about the level of compensation being offered to my constituents, who pay large amounts to travel on such a poor service. Will he discuss that with management at First Capital Connect to ensure that all passengers are adequately compensated? Many passengers currently feel that what is on offer is not adequate compensation. It has been improved, after pressure, but it is still not much, relative to the huge amounts that people pay not to have a service or to have a service that, when they get on it, is so claustrophobically stuffed with other passengers that some people feel it is unsafe.

It has been three weeks since the pay deal was accepted and more than 100 days since the industrial action began, yet passengers are being offered compensation of only 5 per cent. or a maximum of two weeks’ travel if they have a season ticket. If they buy daily tickets, they are being asked to provide proof of which particular train they caught on the day and the delays they suffered, when the company knows only too well that those delays have been crippling. If it has any doubts, it need only look at my postbag or one of the many websites and Facebook groups where passengers pass on their frustrations. First Capital Connect has agreed to pay regular travellers compensation worth 5 per cent. of the value of a season ticket or 10 free days of travel, but a first-class season ticket from St. Albans to London Bridge—a journey of about 40 minutes on a good day—costs more than £5,000 a year, and passengers were disrupted for much longer than the compensation package indicates.

Larry Heyman, partnership and integration manager at First Capital Connect, telephoned me this morning. I know that other hon. Members have been quickly sent a little missive about how much things have improved—and they have improved; things are not perfect, but they have improved. However, as the websites and correspondence show, passengers have yet to be convinced, short-form trains are still operating, some delays are still happening and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) pointed out, the communication about all this is still poor.

Short-forming trains should cease from next week. However, we have had 107 days of industrial action, which resulted in overcrowding and frustration. Should the Secretary of State consider stripping FCC of its franchise? The Minister acknowledged in a letter of 27 January that the work-to-rule was a force majeure event. Was there anything, other than that force majeure event, that the company did or did not do that rendered it in breach of the franchise? I would welcome the Minister’s views.

The franchisee is obliged by the franchise to inform the Secretary of State about what steps it is taking to mitigate the effects of industrial action. At what point was the Secretary of State informed? At what point did the action become classified as force majeure? Will the Minister confirm that it was from the first notification of 26 October? Will he confirm what mitigating actions were agreed with FCC? Will he say whether the cold weather that affected services last month was considered a force majeure event?

The franchise agreement also obliges the franchisee to use and continue to use

“all reasonable endeavours to avert or prevent the occurrence of the relevant event and/or to mitigate and minimise the effects of such event”.

Does the Minister think that the franchisee took reasonable action to prevent the strike and to minimise its effects, given that another part of its group had a similar situation with its bus services? Does he consider more than 100 days of disruption to be restoration

“as soon as reasonably practicable”?

Given the intense failings of First Capital Connect on more than one front, many constituents have called on me to join them in seeking the nationalisation of the franchise. Indeed, I understand that in the past few days First Capital Connect management have been summoned to see the Secretary of State. We are told that the Government could nationalise the company as early as April under a break clause that allows the Department for Transport to remove a company for poor performance after four years. An early-day motion has been tabled calling for the franchise to be nationalised, and 5,000 commuters have signed a petition calling for nationalisation. Public anger abounds on the internet, with 2,291 people having joined a Facebook protest page.

I am concerned that punishing FCC may well lead to something worse. I have no confidence that the Government will make a better job of it. In my dealings with them, they have shown a complete lack of urgency, and there is a poor level of communication.

The hon. Lady talks about punishing First Capital Connect. Given all that she has said, it strikes me that the company is squeezing every last pound of profit that it can out of railway commuters and the Government in order to pay last year’s £1 million salary for FirstGroup’s chief executive and generate last year’s £800 million profit. That is where the money has gone.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should talk to those of his colleagues who helped set the contract. I am not in government, and I was not privy to these franchise agreements. The company paid heavily for that franchise; the Government wanted their shilling. He must bear that in mind when throwing those figures at me. I did not agree the pay contracts, and I did not make the franchise agreements. They were agreed by the Minister’s corner.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Cambridge and Peterborough part of the line has not been quite so bad, but even there people have been telling me that they are thinking of moving home because they cannot rely on the service. Is it right for Ministers simply to brush things aside as if everything was the fault of First Capital Connect? Ministers wrote the contracts, or at least supervised them. Should they not also take the responsibility?

I agree with my hon. Friend. If the cold weather was a force majeure, which is allowable under the franchise agreement, and if the strike—or work-to-rule; call it what you like—was a force majeure, what is left that would allow the Minister to strip the franchise; or is it all simply bluster, words being uttered for the sake of the angry public? That is the nub of my argument. If poor communication can strip the franchise, I would say that the Government should look to themselves; it is no better for them.

No company has ever been stripped of a franchise for poor performance since the privatisation of the rail industry in the 1990s. Connex and National Express East Coast both surrendered their contracts, but that was for financial reasons rather than industrial action. First Capital Connect carries 200,000 commuters a day, a large number of whom are from my constituency. It is vital that we get the very best result for commuters. I am not convinced about the few recent examples of nationalisation; they do not give me any confidence that that is the answer. I would welcome the Minister’s views on the matter. Lord Adonis may speak of stripping the franchise, but how can we be sure that anything else would be better, given that existing franchises have not improved?

The East Coast rail franchise, which is owned by the Department for Transport, began operations on 14 November 2009. There has been a deterioration in punctuality since the Government took it over. Although trains running on time averaged 89 per cent. for most of 2009, punctuality fell to 85.2 per cent. in the first four weeks of ownership by the state-owned franchise, which represents worse performance than First Capital Connect’s. In the following four weeks, 13 December to 9 January, punctuality fell to 67.2 per cent.

Perhaps the Minister would compare that with First Capital Connect before the company starts lobbing bricks about losing its franchise. Although these figures cover only eight weeks, it is the same period during which we suffered disruptions on our train services. We must ensure that that does not happen again. Does the Minister honestly believe that if the franchise was stripped it would not happen again?

In answer to a parliamentary question on 21 January, the Minister stated that the First Capital Connect franchise can run until 31 March 2015, but that the Secretary of State may exercise an option to serve notice. The franchise also contains services that pass through St. Albans which had previously been allowed to stop at City station, to resume stopping there, allowing passengers to vote with their feet. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Ms Walley, but I have missed a page in my notes. However, it will make sense when I get there. Does the Minister believe that the events of the last 100 days indicate that the company should be stripped of the franchise?

One question asked by my constituents is why we cannot have competition on the line, a point raised by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), as it would allow commuters to choose which company they travelled with. Many have mentioned the possibility of using East Midland Trains, a company whose services pass through St. Albans. It had previously been allowed to stop at City station; if it resumed stopping there, passengers could vote with their feet and use services provided by other companies if the usual services had failed.

I have no idea whether that is possible, but has the Minister considered other models? Will the Minister agree to examine other workable possibilities, if he believes that First Capital Connect should not have the franchise? I am unaware of exactly what discussions the Secretary of State has had about removing the franchise or the possibility of retendering. I hope that the Minister will update us today.

It is unclear whether the Government are better placed than the current franchisee to run a reliable train service, especially given the deterioration in services on East Coast trains. However, it is possible that another franchisee would be better placed to run these services. Will the Minister give us his thoughts on that matter? It is clear that the current franchisee has failed to deliver the service that my constituents have a right to expect.

If it is to be allowed to continue running these services, First Capital Connect must be held to account—held to the franchise agreement—and kept on a tight rein. Will the Minister give an undertaking to do that and give some indication of how he can make it happen? The company must demonstrate that it has put systems in place so that such disruptions will not be allowed to recur. The improvements in service that we have been promised since the company took over the franchise must be truly forthcoming. Will the Minister come to the House, within a month, to update us on whether he is convinced that FCC is the company to continue delivering commuter services and that it has in place robust measures to ensure that services are improved?

What is the Minister’s view on the negotiated contracts with drivers? I am totally unaware of what contracts are being negotiated with the new drivers being taken on by the company. If the situation is similar, the problems will happen all over again with the next round of pay bargaining—they will down tools and work to rule. Has the Minister had any discussions with First Capital Connect and other franchises to say that such actions should not be allowed in future franchises and should be stopped as soon as possible?

I continue to meet the management of First Capital Connect to discuss their part in this sorry saga, and to find out what measures have been put in place to ensure that we do not find ourselves in the same position again. Indeed, as I said, FCC management are coming to St. Albans on Friday to face my commuters. Despite the improvements of recent days, they are angry about the chaos that they have suffered and the lack of compensation. It will take a long time before their trust is won back.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing it and on speaking so trenchantly. There may be shades of difference between our views on this matter, but we are both concerned about our constituents—and not only them; many thousands travel every day from Luton to London with First Capital Connect, and so do I. I know that other Members travel from time to time on FCC, but I use it every day unless there are no FCC trains, in which case I use East Midlands. I intimately know the line and how it has performed over the past 41 years, during which time I have commuted daily.

I am a lover of the railways, and a passionate believer in them. Given that we live in an era of global warming and want to prevent climate change, they are the transport mode of the future. I could regale hon. Members with dozens of stories—some of them amusing—about my own experiences on First Capital Connect, but I shall avoid that because it would take too long. None the less, I shall relate one short story.

One night, I was travelling home late and went for the 11.15 East Midlands train. The first stop was Luton and the destination was Nottingham. I thought that there would be no problem with the East Midlands service, but when I got to the station, I had to wait on the platform for a long time, way after the train was due to leave. Then we were told that the driver was not available. He did not have a problem with driving his train, but he could not get to work because he was relying on First Capital Connect to get him from his home to St. Pancras. There was no train, so he could not get to work and drive the East Midlands train, so even then there was a problem. I have many long stories about my experiences with the service. Even in recent times, day after day after day, I have had problems. Trains are indicated on the board and then suddenly disappear, for example.

I am sure what the hon. Gentleman describes is rampant across the whole service. Does he share my disappointment in the Government’s lack of urgency over this matter?

I put down an early-day motion on this matter only yesterday. I want the Government to take away the franchise and reintegrate all the train operating franchises into one rail network again. We might even call it British Rail.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s union leanings, which I find very interesting, but will he condemn the Government’s lack of urgency? The early-day motion was tabled yesterday and the Government have had since October—and perhaps even earlier—to do something about the problem. Does he agree that this has been a woeful performance by the Government, who may well be the ones who will be nationalising what he wants?

I am sure that the Government would be rather worried if I started to speak on their behalf. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will speak for himself in time. Clearly, the logical answer is to take back the franchise, bring it in house and start to run it as a publicly run, publicly accountable public service. That is how railways operate on the continent of Europe; the track and train are integrated into one system. I will continue to argue that case until such time as common sense prevails and we get an integrated railway system in the future.

I have talked about my own experiences, but there are three problems with the system of separating track and train. It is almost as if there are three parallel universes. First, there are the train operations run from West Hampstead and controlled by Network Rail. Secondly, there is an entirely separate universe called train indicators, which bear no relation whatever to what is happening in the real world. It might say, “11.14: on time” but by 11.25 there is still no train. All of a sudden, the indicator says, “Train 1 terminates here” but there is still no train. Then the second train is half an hour later, so I miss Question Time in Parliament. That happens constantly.

There is then the separate universe of the automated announcements that bear no relation to the trains or the indicators, and seem to have a life of their own. Just occasionally, a real human being makes an announcement at the last minute, but, by and large, the announcements say one thing, the indicators say another and the train operations are in another universe again. The system is complete nonsense because of the fragmentation of the railway industry following privatisation. The idea is that we run a competitive arrangement in which one part of the system has to pay fines to another if there is a failure in the service. In other words, one part punishes another.

Moreover, we have a delay attribution system. If a First Capital Connect train is late there may be a delay in its connection with an East Midlands train, which then might have a problem connecting with a cross-country route in, say, Sheffield, and people will miss their connections. If the fault is traced back to First Capital Connect, it can be fined. So First Capital Connect goes out of its way to ensure that it is not blamed, because it does not want to be fined, but someone has to pay somewhere.

Again, if Network Rail has a problem, it will not want to pay the train operating company, so it goes out of its way not to concede any guilt in things that go wrong. All these independent operating elements of our railway system avoid speaking to each other because they do not want to be blamed or be forced to pay fines to each other. The whole system is a complete nonsense. If it was run as one system by a railway industry, we would not have this problem.

It is all because of a mad economic theory, which was explained to me on one occasion by a supposed transport economist—he was quite a nice man. He said the idea was that all the different components of the industry would compete in a market. Market forces would operate and we would have lower costs, lower fares and a better service, because that is what competition does, does it not? In fact, we now have the highest fares in Europe, the least efficient railway network and the highest level of costs, particularly for railway maintenance and laying new track. The opposite is true. I pointed that out to my friend the transport economist. I said, “Your theory does not work because we have had the opposite on every occasion.” He said, “Yes, I am afraid that the theory doesn’t work.”

We have ruined a major economy’s railway system by basing it on a barking mad theory that does not work. I suggest that the way forward is to take back all the franchises, put them in house, build an integrated railway system again and have a sensible railway, as they do in continental Europe. Costs and fares would be reduced, and we would have a much more reliable service.

The hon. Gentleman keeps harping on about the continent of Europe. Perhaps he might cast his mind back to the rail services that we had in the 1970s and 1980s.That is a better comparison. He could even look at the rail services that have been repatriated and are operating now. Let us forget elsewhere and talk about here, because my commuters care about the services and not what is happening in France.

I am very happy to talk about British Rail. The former rail regulator, Tom Winsor, said in this building, in my hearing, that “when BR handed over the railways to the privateers, they were handed over” in good order.” He is not a dyed in the wool socialist like me; he is an objective observer who was a regulator. He also said that British Rail “worked miracles on a pittance”. It was desperately underfunded, but it still managed to run a railway.

A report was produced by the organisation Catalyst, of which I was an active member. It discovered—amazingly—that the highest level of productivity for any railway in Europe happened under BR. BR had to be efficient because it had to work miracles on a pittance and because of the way in which it operated. The problem was that we did not invest enough in the railways and they became backward. We had Government after Government after Government who thought that the railways were dying, were in the past and riddled with trade unions; they did not like the railways. Even so, Mrs. Thatcher refused to privatise the railways. It was John Major who privatised them because he wanted to demonstrate his right wing machismo and that he was harder than Maggie.

This is the second debate in two days in which I have been fortunate enough to listen to the hon. Gentleman extolling the virtues of a past that not all of us recognise. If that is his view of the past, why has there been such a rise in ridership and passengers on the railways post-privatisation and why was patronage declining when it was nationalised?

We have seen a rapid growth in the economy with vast numbers of new jobs, particularly in the south-east of England. The roads are now so crowded that people are forced on to the railways because there is no serious alternative. None the less, people want to travel by rail, but they want decent fares. Public subsidy has multiplied three times since privatisation, so the amount of public money going into the railway system, as well as the private money from fares, has massively increased in that time.

However, people have demonstrated that they believe in railways, which has come as a shock to many of our leaders and particularly to the Department for Transport. People want to travel on the railways, but they want a decent, reliable service, they want to pay acceptable fares and, if they are taxpayers, they want to minimise the subsidy.

I have the hugest respect for the hon. Gentleman, and we frequently travelled home together on the train at night until I was forced into my car by the recent debacle over First Capital Connect. He paints a lovely picture, and we talked about these issues often on the train journey home, but his proposal would take such huge reorganisation and such capital expenditure that it is unrealistic. Our commuters want to know what can be done quickly—in the short term—to make things better, and nationalising the national railway will not answer their problems.

I much enjoyed my train journeys and conversations with the hon. Lady, although we did not talk about railways at the time. Nationalising the railways would save vast amounts of public and private money; all the money that is being shovelled into the maintenance and construction side and the train-operating side, and the £1 million profit that goes to the chief executive, would become part of a nationalised system. There would not be those operations. British Rail ran cash-limited operations, and it saved vast sums of public money.

I would like to speak for much longer, but I have taken more than my time, and many other hon. Members want to speak. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister seriously to consider taking not only First Capital Connect’s franchise, but all the franchises back into the public sector to recreate a national railway system that we can all be proud of and which we can all use every day.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is a regular commuter on the line. I will not follow him down every branch line or get involved in the debate about nationalisation and privatisation, but I recognise much of what he said about the reliability of the First Capital Connect service.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on her stalwart work on behalf of St. Albans commuters and on her general defence of the interests of the people of St. Albans. On this issue, in particular, she has done a tremendous amount of work, not least in securing the debate, and she deserves all our congratulations. To save time, I shall speak about First Capital Connect as it affects my constituents. I endorse all my hon. Friend’s comments, which chime with the experience of the thousands of my constituents who want answers to the same questions.

First Capital Connect serves two lines through my constituency. One is the Great Northern line, which runs through Potters Bar, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) referred to it. My constituents and others on the line were saddened when they lost the service on Remembrance Sunday, and I know that veterans wanted to use the line on that day.

However, it is my constituents on the other line operated by First Capital Connect—the former Thameslink line—who have borne the brunt of the disruption since 10 November. The line serves the stations at Radlett and at Elstree and Borehamwood in my constituency. Those stations are at the southern end of the line, so commuters there are used to trains already being packed when they arrive. It was therefore a tremendous blow when the service was reduced overnight on 10 November from a 100 per cent. service to a 50 per cent. service. Like them, I know from my experience as a regular commuter—I recognise other regular commuters here today, including the hon. Member for Luton, North—that even when a so-called 100 per cent. service operates, the trains are very overcrowded, particularly at peak times.

Yes, of course I will give way to my hon. Friend, whom I recognise as another veteran of the Thameslink line.

Moments before we came into the debate, we received an almost self-congratulatory e-mail from First Capital Connect, which announced that there were only 135 cancellations in the week from 25 to 31 January. It is almost as if those cancellations were the only issue, but as my hon. Friend says, they force more people on to fewer trains, making people late and making their journeys incredibly uncomfortable.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She, too, has defended her constituents’ interests and she is right that our constituents and commuters should not have to put up with low standards, overcrowding, cancelled trains, trains that are not in a particularly good condition and a service that is generally unreliable.

What is more to the point—the hon. Member for Luton, North was absolutely correct about this, as I can testify from my own experience—the trains were unreliable even when a 50 per cent. service was running and the trains were overcrowded. There were still cancellations. A commuter standing on the platform at St. Pancras station, St. Albans station or Radlett station when a train arrived had the feeling that a miracle had occurred. Many of my constituents were much less fortunate than me and would often simply be unable to get on a train at all at Radlett or Borehamwood.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans rightly said, our constituents pay substantial amounts for this service, and there are no alternative lines and no, or only inferior, alternative modes of transport. Like my hon. Friend, my constituents are aware that the model operated by the company behind the service is not sustainable and is likely to result in the consequences that I have described. They are absolutely fed up with their nightmare commuting experience, the overcrowded trains, the cancellations and the lack of reliability. Every day, commuting is a nightmare for them.

My constituents are therefore looking for answers from the debate. As my hon. Friend said, they would like to see a more generous compensation scheme than the one that has been put in place. I accept that the current scheme has been improved, but my constituents need to see further improvements. They also want to hear that they will receive a much-improved, reliable service that is commensurate with the considerable amounts that they pay.

I am grateful to Mr. Neal Lawson of First Capital Connect for accepting my invitation to come to Borehamwood railway station next Wednesday evening, and I am sure that my constituents will have many questions to put to him. I am also grateful for the opportunity to meet Mary Grant beforehand. However, the service as it stands is not acceptable, and the company must face up to that.

My constituents would like to know a little more from Ministers, and I certainly echo the questions that my hon. Friend raised. As the people in charge of the franchises, Ministers have responsibility for these issues. I therefore have some specific questions for the Minister, and I would be grateful if he could reply to them, because my constituents want some answers.

When exactly did Ministers learn that there would be problems on the line? When did they know, for example, that there would be a 50 per cent. reduction in the service? When they did know, what did they do about it? What steps did they take subsequently? Given their current responsibilities, what is their attitude to the service going forward? What improvements do they expect to see?

One improvement, in particular, that my constituents want to see, and which has been mentioned today, is the introduction of sufficiently long trains—eight-carriage trains, rather than four-carriage trains. It is not acceptable for a service with a so-called 100 per cent. timetable to operate with short-form trains, because that continues the problem of overcrowding.

My constituents want to know what improvements Ministers expect in the service and what they are doing to bring about those improvements. They want to know what Ministers are doing to make the quality of people’s lives better, to make their commute less of a nightmare and to give them value for money. My constituents have had a nightmare, which is quite unacceptable, and Ministers must face up to their share of the responsibility for what has happened.

I wish to make a short contribution to the debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). Yesterday, I was pleased to initiate an Adjournment debate in this Chamber about the Thameslink programme and I made a number of comments about the considerable inconvenience suffered by many of my constituents day after day between the middle of November and the end of January.

Now, however, I want to concentrate on four issues: driver numbers, communications, compensation and the future of the franchise. On driver numbers, the Bedford depot is the biggest in the FCC franchise, and I am informed by FCC management and ASLEF that there should be 186 mainline drivers there. A few weeks ago, there were 179 and recruitment was already under way to address the shortfall. However, although the establishment is designed to cover the full timetable, holidays and normal sickness, it does not accommodate training, which is an integral feature of railway operations on the Thameslink network, and therefore of FCC’s business.

Driver training is required for the operation of the Bedford-Sevenoaks franchise that FCC took over, and the 23 new class 377 trains, which have now at last been delivered, and it is also required to cover changes in track, signalling and so on, brought about by the Thameslink programme’s engineering works. Because of that considerable training requirement, ASLEF agreed that its members would work rest days to enable the overall package to be met, but working rest days is voluntary. While there is good will and co-operation, everything is fine, but in the light of what has happened in the past two and a half months, which has been an awful experience for so many thousands of people, it is clear that the voluntary arrangement is vulnerable. There is too much at stake for things to be left as they are. Therefore, there is an urgent need to review the overall number of drivers, as well as other working arrangements.

Both management and unions are fully signed up to the Thameslink programme, and all the improvements in capacity and service for the passenger that it will bring about. Therefore, a more secure means of maintaining normal train operation is needed, as the engineering and other works unfold. Given the understandable lack of public confidence in FCC at the moment, both the company and the unions should look to inform the public about how driver numbers and working arrangements will provide a robust and reliable service in the years ahead. It is also the duty of the Department for Transport to ensure that that is done, if necessary as a condition of franchise.

I want to touch quickly on communications, to passengers at stations and to FCC staff, who can in turn inform passengers and answer questions. Communication has been a disaster in the past several weeks. I am reliably informed that the current passenger information system is a manual one. It is user-unfriendly and it does not function in real time. It is okay if nothing goes wrong on the railway, but the minute something happens it is completely inadequate. It just cannot cope and is now being demonstrated to be, to put it politely, a pretty useless system. FCC has recently agreed to spend money on improving it—a process that will, I understand, take another 40 weeks.

However, there are other, industry-wide issues about communication with passengers. I understand that the Department for Transport has taken the initiative, together with Network Rail and train operators, to address that. I raised that yesterday with my hon. Friend the Minister, and I look forward to receiving his response, if not today, certainly in writing, on what is being planned—not just on Thameslink, but nationally—and when changes will happen.

On the package of compensation to passengers, I have received some e-mails from constituents complaining about the inadequacy of the offer. However, FCC responded very recently to concerns that had been widely expressed about its operations as a whole, as well as the compensation, and it has boosted the offer, as other hon. Members have mentioned. Of course, it is impossible to please everyone on such issues, but now some people who know about the latest improvements have told me that they consider the discount to be generous. That is not my word, but theirs. I understand that the system for applying for compensation has been discussed in detail with the Bedford Commuters Association and the Association of Public Transport Users and has been adjusted accordingly. We shall see how that unfolds.

Finally, I note the calls for FCC to have its franchise terminated, and it is a perfectly legitimate issue to raise, given the scale of the disruption and public dissatisfaction. However, I have come to the conclusion, partly as a result of discussions with FCC management, but also after discussions with ASLEF and the Bedford Commuters Association—and after thinking about the matter myself—that such a measure now would not solve the problem, and would introduce uncertainty when we need recovery of the service. In my view, FCC management has got the message.

I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. I should prefer the franchise to be withdrawn and the service to be brought back into public ownership, but there is a middle route, which the Government took with First Great Western: to issue a remedial plan, which would be monitored by the Minister directly, almost on a weekly basis, to ensure that performance was being improved and set to target.

That is a very sensible suggestion, and I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly, perhaps to confirm that that will happen.

On public ownership, I support public ownership of the entire network. I am not convinced that using the opportunity of the failure of the past two and a half months is the way to approach the issue. The Government should present measures for the renationalisation of the entire system. I think that I shall wait a long time for that, but it would be a better way to go about it than a piecemeal approach.

Despite what people have gone through in the past two and a half months, the time for anger is over. We need to move into a more measured process of delivering for the passenger. Therefore, FCC must address the serious issues that I, and others, have raised, and demonstrate to the Department for Transport and the public that it is on top of the challenge.

I ask the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) to make her remarks brief, so that we can have time for the winding-up speeches and the Minister’s reply.

I shall be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. Given the energy and assiduousness with which she has represented her constituents and dealt with the issue, I cannot but point out that if the Government and the Minister had been half as energetic and attentive, and if there had been a little more pressure on First Capital Connect, some of the problems might have abated a little sooner.

The e-mail that I mentioned in an intervention, which referred to 135 cancellations in the last week in January, included a note stating:

“This is the best …performance…since May 2009.”

That highlights the poor service that not only has been provided on the line in the past few months but to which we are repeatedly subjected. The past few months have been bad, but personally the past five years have not been particularly good. The result may have been a very unsatisfactory situation, but for some of us that has been going on for some time.

I want to name-check Larry Heyman, the customer services manager, who has been between a rock and a hard place, and who has done a fantastic job in trying to communicate with as many people as possible about what was happening. However, communication was, of course, the main problem. People in my constituency would wait for a train for an hour, on the platform where they had been told it would arrive; then, as it pulled into the station, the platform announcement would change, giving them insufficient time to get to the other platform, and the train would go. It is hard to put oneself in another person’s position, but if someone who is late for work and in trouble with their managers and bosses has been standing for an hour on a freezing cold platform, and a platform change is suddenly made without notification, that person will be pretty angry.

That is something that I want to communicate: how angry my constituents have been. My e-mail account has been full. I have been given information via Twitter, e-mail and blogs, on the platform, and in letters. People have been furious. I have heard of people unable to complete training courses, and others who have been threatened by their managers that they would lose their jobs if they continued to be late. Those people have no other way to get to their employment.

The human heartache that was suffered because of how First Capital Connect behaved will not be recompensed by a mere 5 per cent. of the price of a season ticket. That will not give people back their jobs or save their face in front of their employers. It will not put right what they have been through. It will just give them a small amount of financial compensation. That, again, highlights the fact that the Government had no sense of urgency about how the catastrophe affected people’s daily lives. It is a shame on the Government that they did not act more quickly—that they did not find a way to bring in drivers from other providers or other parts of the country, and do something to break the three-month deadlock.

I know that I need to be brief, Ms Walley, so I will make a final point. Regarding the financial punishment, or the loss of the franchise, whatever happens needs to happen not only from a need to punish FCC for what has gone on but as a deterrent across the country to any other rail providers that might think, even for one moment, that they can get away with treating their commuters as FCC treated our constituents. Every rail provider out there needs to know that, if that is how they treat their commuters, this is what will happen. Therefore, something very severe needs to happen to FCC. I do not know what form that action will take, but it needs to happen soon.

I want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate. The issue is clearly of enormous concern to her constituents and I suspect that it is also enormously important to the constituents of all the Members of Parliament who are here today, including me, although I am more of a Southern user than a First Capital Connect user.

All Members who are here today are very familiar with the history of this disaster, or debacle, which began with the issue of driver training and the voluntary arrangement that was apparently in place to provide cover. Shortly afterwards, that was followed by the bad weather, which had a serious effect on FCC and on all the other train operating companies.

FCC has been very unfortunate in that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), who is no longer in his place, said, it has the 377 rolling stock. That stock has a very poor record, with only 6,000 miles between each breakdown. In that respect, I wonder if FCC was sold a pup, because that is a very poor reliability record. Of course, FCC then had the 319 fleet, which was very badly affected by the snow, which is, as it were, the Eurostar defence when it comes to cancelling trains, as it put many Eurostar trains out of operation.

It was those two factors—first, the issue of drivers and the voluntary arrangement to deal with that issue, and secondly, the disastrous performance during the snow—that prompted my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam to table early-day motion 623, which I supported him in. That called for:

“Termination of rail franchise of First Capital Connect”.

He tabled that early-day motion because he and many other commuters believe that FCC has gone beyond the point of no return in relation to providing this service. That early-day motion:

“calls on the Secretary of State for Transport to serve immediate notice to terminate the franchise agreement with First Capital Connect and to offer the franchise to a more capable organisation.”

In my view, that “more capable organisation” could be either another train operating company, if one is interested, or alternatively the state could run the service, to provide a comparator with the private sector, to enable us to see which of the two sectors can deliver rail services most cost-effectively.

Ms Walley, I know that you will not allow me to stray too much beyond the subject of this debate, particularly given the time that I have available, but Members may have been following what has happened with Tube Lines, which runs the tube services, and the disaster that is about to occur in terms of the cost of the services that it is providing. I believe that Transport for London could provide those services much more effectively, much more efficiently and at a lower cost.

The experience that commuters have had on FCC is reflected in my inbox; all Members here today will have had similar messages from constituents. For example, I received the following Facebook message:

“They hike our tickets up, and then give us an appalling service. It is an utter disgrace—either they hire and retain enough train drivers or they hand the franchise over.”

We hope that that issue of drivers has now been addressed. However, when the Minister answers the very long list of questions that have been put in this debate—I will add a few to it myself—he may want to confirm whether he thinks that FCC is now, roughly speaking, dependent to the same extent as the other train operating companies on drivers being willing to work at the weekends, for instance. Alternatively, does he believe that FCC is still in a position where it is more vulnerable than those other companies?

I received another complaint about FCC by e-mail:

“Having lived in Sutton for the past 5 years”—

so, these problems have not just happened in the past six months—

“I have had the misfortune of having to travel on the above route…south London is not best served by public transport…I am sick and tired of the appalling service of FCC.”

Importantly, as other Members have already mentioned, the issue of dealing with employers is raised:

“My employers are getting fed up with explanations of ‘late/cancelled trains’.”

The e-mail goes on to talk about the issue of compensation and how FCC had offered:

“wild and wonderful suggestions of how I should rearrange my journey in order that they are not eligible to pay me £2.”

That issue of compensation is one that FCC could do a lot more to simplify and make straightforward. In other debates, other Members have discussed other methods of compensation. In Berlin, for example, there was an issue with the train service and it was resolved simply by extending everyone’s ticket by a month. That was very straightforward and it required no action on the part of commuters.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Berlin. Two years ago, I was with the Rail Freight Group in Berlin and I talked to the head of German railways. He was railing against the possibility that German railways could be privatised, on the basis of the British experience of privatisation, because it would be a total disaster.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that he has made his position on this issue very clear.

I hope that FCC has learned the lessons from these problems, although I am a little worried about a statement by Mary Grant of FCC. She was asked about the lessons that had been learned and she stated, “You don’t plan for what you expect to happen, you plan for what you don’t expect to happen.” Any business makes contingency arrangements so that it has a fall-back position when what it plans for does not happen.

The communications system is another issue. Due diligence would have highlighted to the company a number of years ago that it could not cope with a significant weather incident. It should have made its investment plans earlier.

Finally, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, in a debate on 28 January, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) said:

“My noble friend the Secretary of State and I are considering all options open to the Government to require radical improvements.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 928.]

At the end of this debate, we need to know what that means, the time scale involved and what options are being considered. Do they include the possibility of curtailing the franchise by 2012? We also need to know if the remedial plan option, for example, is being considered. Finally, if the Government are considering withdrawing the franchise from FCC, what are the trigger points that would initiate that process?

To conclude, I will quote another FCC commuter:

“I do not think that First Capital Connect should be allowed to continue to hold their franchise as their service has never been reliable and the trains are in poor condition.”

At the end of this debate, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he agrees with that commuter and, if he does not agree, what does he propose doing as an alternative to removing the franchise from FCC?

It is a great pleasure to contribute to this debate today, as it was to contribute to a debate on rail in Westminster Hall yesterday, because I have a dual role in relation to rail; I am both a frustrated constituency MP and the shadow Minister with responsibility for my party in this area.

A number of my colleagues have eloquently described a number of problems that they have experienced with First Capital Connect. So far, most of them have come from the northern end of the FCC lines, but a number of the commuters on the Wimbledon loop have experienced exactly the same problems with the poor service from November onwards and indeed with the total shutdown of the service due to snow.

Therefore, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this very timely debate. The number of Members who have made time today to make either speeches or interventions in this debate is a tribute to her. That is a sign of how important this issue is to our constituents. It is to her credit that she has been such a consistent defender of her constituents.

We have had some very thoughtful speeches and interventions. I want to pick up on the point that was made earlier, by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) in an intervention and by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) in her contribution to the debate, about the poor information that was being provided by FCC. FCC should seek to address that immediately. It can be rectified easily. It is a differentiating factor between its service and the services that are provided elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) both made the point that it is all very well for FCC to offer some compensation, but we are talking about the inconvenience suffered by commuters and the need to get to a service that is regular and reliable, which our constituents have a right to expect. That is why this has been such an important debate.

Several hon. Members have said that today they received e-mails from First Capital Connect stating that the daily public performance measurement has dropped below 90 per cent. only once since 18 January. However, we are here to discuss the unacceptable standard over the past few months, not the fact that FCC has returned to an almost acceptable one.

Whichever way we look at it, there are three protagonists in this sorry debacle, but it is the travelling public who have been forced to live at the will and whim of the incidents. Although the drivers’ actions were not technically a strike, it is hard to believe that they were not motivated by the pay talks under way, and passengers became the victims of irresponsible game-playing. The walk-outs on previously rostered agreements hurt the travelling public.

The question for many people—I think that the Minister will want to answer this—is whether it is responsible to let franchises, knowing that those franchises rely on the rostering of overtime and that there is all too often no provision in the franchise to cover Sundays. That is certainly true of FCC, and it is true of others.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the franchises are let on the basis that the Government expect the output specified in the franchise to be delivered by whatever means, not on the basis of what rostering might be proposed by the franchisee.

The Minister is admitting to everybody that he accepts that the Government are prepared to let franchises without full coverage of driver services. I was somewhat surprised when he confirmed to me that the majority of train operating companies rely on rest days and overtime working to deliver not exceptional services but normal services.

The hon. Gentleman said that he believes that a majority of train companies rely on rest day rostering. How many train companies out of the total number do so?

If the Minister cares to write to me again to clarify his letter, I will be able to answer that question. It was his own letter that told me that it was a majority of companies. If he wishes to clarify the letter, I will be delighted to receive that clarification.

Understandably, there has been clamour for First Capital Connect to be stripped of its franchise. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) started to get to the nub of the matter. Stripping a franchise might be possible if the franchisee has broken its franchise arrangements. Will the Minister tell us whether FCC, even under the revised timetable, has come close to incurring performance improvement plans, breach or default? If it had not agreed the revised timetable, would its lack of performance have led to such measures? There are important questions about the performance of the franchise.

The other thing that a lot of our constituents rightly want to know is why they face a poorer service even though the problems that they have experienced have not shown up as particularly bad performance in FCC’s initial numbers, due to force majeure and the revised timetable. Will the Minister indicate exactly what criteria he uses for force majeure and what provisions allow a TOC to introduce a revised timetable? Although events outside the company’s control were involved, making the necessity of such measures understandable, surely the point is that although the revised timetable is in place, our constituents are not getting the service that they expect and should therefore be entitled to compensation anyway. Will he address that point? What consideration have the Government given it?

I am conscious of the time, and I know that Ms Walley wants to call the Minister at a quarter to 4, but I have a couple of questions about the First Capital Connect fleet. Yesterday I asked the Minister some detailed questions about the First Thameslink fleet and he kindly agreed to write to me, but today I have what I hope are some slightly easier questions.

It is clear that First Capital Connect has operated under a considerable burden, partly because of delays in the delivery of rolling stock. Hon. Members have rightly described some of the rolling stock cascaded to FCC as being of lower maintenance provision than previously. Does the Minister accept that the cascade of poorer rolling stock has played a huge part? If the Government had met their side of the bargain and delivered to First Capital Connect 32 non-defective trains, as opposed to the 32 that they actually delivered, what consequences do they believe that would have had during the bad weather?

I am conscious of the time, as I know that the Minister will want to respond in depth, but it is a great credit to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans that she secured this debate and allowed many of us to speak on behalf of our constituents, express concerns to the Minister and understand what remedies the Government intend to take.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate, which I know is of great importance to her constituents, and indeed to many thousands of other rail users across the south-east affected by the severe disruption to First Capital Connect Thameslink services over the past few months.

The hon. Lady mentioned two items submitted to me. On the first item, my office is not aware of the letter of 11 January to which she referred; it appears not to have arrived. On the parliamentary question, I believe that I signed the response this morning.

I thank the Minister for that. I have just skimmed a copy of the letter for the purposes of Hansard. Also, my staff chased up the matter with his office two days ago, and were given an acknowledgement that the response was late in coming.

At times the service has been atrocious, involving delays, cancellations and poor customer care. Passengers have been let down badly—particularly on the Thameslink route, but also, as hon. Members have said, on the Great Northern route—and it is easy to see why so many are angry and frustrated. They deserve better. I want to make it clear that unless things improve radically, the Government will take the necessary robust and rapid steps to ensure that passengers receive the standard of service that they deserve.

The problems at First Capital Connect started in the autumn. As the hon. Lady will be aware, some train operating companies rely on overtime and rest day working to deliver their train services, and First Capital Connect is no different. The current difficulties began when drivers chose not to undertake overtime and rest day working in response to a two-year pay award deal offered by the operator. Such concerted unofficial action by the drivers was highly regrettable, given that talks with unions were ongoing. At a challenging time for the economy, the pay award offered was similar to that proposed by another rail operator—and, indeed, was better than pay deals in some other industries in the UK where workers are accepting zero growth or even pay reductions to secure their longer-term employment future.

As part of the franchise agreement, the franchisee is tasked with using all reasonable endeavours to keep services running and minimise disruption to passengers when rail services are disrupted by staff action. In the first working week in which amended timetables were introduced on the Thameslink route, the operator cancelled 126 trains out of its normal 380 trains, leaving 67 per cent. of trains in service.

The Minister is reiterating the timeline of catastrophe that my speech touched on. I want to know what the Minister did from October, when we were aware of what the drivers were doing. As I understand it, there was no meeting until 11 November.

As has been made clear in statements to the House, Ministers were monitoring the situation from the point at which we were advised that officials had agreed amended timetables with the train operating company.

As the disruption continued, First Capital Connect was progressively able to reduce the planned number of cancellations so that by 11 January this year, 80 per cent. of services were planned to run. The Department agreed the amended timetables to ensure that First Capital Connect could give passengers accurate information on the minimum level of service that would be provided. That was designed to reduce the passenger disruption and confusion caused by short-notice cancellations, and to provide passengers with a timetable—albeit a reduced one—that allowed them to plan their journeys.

In giving that approval, the Department required First Capital Connect to introduce specific mitigation steps to provide the best possible service, including protecting first and last services for all routes; balanced services throughout the day; replacement bus services where appropriate; reinstatement of services where resources were available; and making First Capital Connect tickets acceptable on other routes and transport modes.

I am sorry if it is the last time, because there is an awful lot of detail. It is crucial that we know when the Minister was advised that the situation was becoming untenable. We know that a reduced timetable was agreed to, but on exactly what date did he become aware of how bad the negotiations had become?

I have made it plain that Ministers were made aware when it was known for certain that concerted action had been notified to the train operator, which must have been the week before the implementation of the revised timetables.

The Minister is talking about the reduced train service. The major problem beyond that was that the automated indicator system often bore no relation to the service, the automated voice system bore no relation to the indicator system and, just occasionally, there would be a live voice trying to sort out the mess. Will the Minister address that problem?

My hon. Friend intervened at exactly the right point because I was about to say that First Capital Connect acknowledges that its provision of information to customers, including on customer information systems, has not been good enough. The company is in discussion with my officials on how it intends to improve information provision to passengers.

At the beginning of December 2009, First Capital Connect and ASLEF confirmed that a pay settlement had been negotiated and they gave a joint communication to that effect to staff. The proposed pay settlement was considered by the ASLEF executive committee on 8 December 2009, which recommended its acceptance to members. The official deadline for members to accept or reject the offer was 13 January 2010. First Capital Connect and ASLEF undertook engagements jointly and separately with the train drivers to encourage them to return to overtime and rest day working. Although that strategy paid some dividends with a reduction in the number of cancellations, FCC was unable to operate its full timetable until 18 January 2010.

As if the drivers’ action had not caused passengers enough disruption, severe weather early last month conspired to make a bad situation worse. The snow had a significant impact on the Thameslink route. Network Rail required emergency timetables to operate and there were additional infrastructure and rolling stock problems. At perhaps the worst point, on 7 January, FCC had only 25 units available out of 107 units, which severely hampered services. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department for Transport wrote to the hon. Member for St. Albans on that matter recently. I confirm that all repairs to the damaged rolling stock are expected to be completed by 10 February 2010.

First Capital Connect was not the only train operator to have problems in the snow. The rail industry is conducting a review of how it delivered services to passengers during the bad weather, including the provision of customer information, to ensure that lessons are learned.

I think I just heard the Minister say that the problem was with 173 trains. I believe that in the rolling stock plan of January 2008, First Capital Connect was promised 255 new carriages. How many of those carriages have been ordered? Will that figure change in the next rolling stock plan?

The Minister mentioned that the industry is about to carry out a review into the problems caused by the snow. Presumably, the industry carried out a review after the problems during the bad weather last year. Have any lessons been learned from that review, which must have been carried out about 12 months ago?

That is another interesting question and I will write to the hon. Gentleman in response.

We are clear about the impact of the bad weather on train services and we are equally clear on the performance of the franchise as a result of the drivers’ action.

Throughout this period, the Department has remained in regular dialogue with FCC and we continue to monitor its performance on a daily basis. Indeed, the Secretary of State met with the company this week. Although the services since 18 January are an obvious improvement on those delivered to passengers since the disruption began in October last year, the Secretary of State has made it clear that performance has remained unacceptable in terms of punctuality, cancellations and passenger service. Equally, the compensation package offered by FCC to Thameslink passengers is, in our view, inadequate recompense for the three months of chronic disruption. That has only exacerbated discontent.

We recognise that FCC is introducing new drivers; six started last month and five more are due to begin soon. Further new drivers will become qualified throughout the year and existing drivers will be trained on a wider range of trains. I think that goes some way to answering the question of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about the resilience of FCC.

The Minister is talking about driver recruitment and numbers. I notice that no one has said that they will force drivers to work on their rest days. The situation is clearly vulnerable and uncertain. I suggest that the Minister, train operators and Network Rail consider how all these issues can be changed so that we no longer rely on such a clearly unstable situation.

My hon. Friend raises a reasonable point.

First Capital Connect has started a recruitment campaign for qualified drivers. Its recruitment actions will make First Capital Connect less reliant on overtime and rest day working, and more resilient.

That is not for me to judge. That is a matter for the train operating company to consider as part of establishing a relationship with its customers.

I reiterate that, on current performance, FCC could very soon miss the benchmark levels in the franchise agreement. We have advised the company that we are considering all options open to us under the franchise agreement. Where other franchises have breached franchise agreement performance benchmarks, we have taken firm action to secure improvements in services to passengers. In the case of First Great Western, the remedial plan and the associated £29 million passenger benefits package delivered significant improvements to services.

Will the Minister clarify that he said what I think he said, which is that the company is close to breaching the conditions? My understanding from First Capital Connect is that since 18 January, it is well above the performance improvement plans, well above breach and well above default. There is no possible way in which the Government can act unless they ignore the contract. Will he clarify what he said?

The hon. Gentleman is clearly aware of the generalities of the framework and of the monitoring of cancellation, capacity and service delivery benchmarks under the franchise. A number of thresholds can trigger different types of intervention. We are looking at the numbers that FCC has given us for the period when the revised timetables were in place and for the subsequent period. We will look closely at whether those numbers lead to any need for intervention.

Recently, a remedial plan was agreed with London Midland to secure improvements to its services. We will continue to put customer interests first. I remind hon. Members of our debate yesterday, which was about the improvements that Thameslink passengers will see as a result of the Government’s £5.5 billion investment in the development of the Thameslink service.

University Places (England)

Although the title of the debate refers to university places in England, I shall actually mention places in the UK. If the Minister has prepared his brief just in terms of England, I am happy with that, but it is a broader issue.

It is important to put on the record my belief that we have a truly world-class higher education system. Since the Robbins report in 1963—when I went into higher education—the higher education system has expanded from a small relatively elite system that served some 8 per cent. of the population to a mass semi-marketised system. In England alone, 42 per cent. of our 19-year-olds went into higher education last year. That is something to celebrate; it is a remarkable achievement.

Throughout that transformation, our universities have retained a world-class reputation with four in the world top 10, and 18 in the top 100. What is more, the recent 2008 research assessment exercise reported that 90 per cent. of the research submitted was regarded as of international quality and fell into the top three grades of “world-leading”, “internationally excellent” or “internationally recognised.” Some 150 of our universities had at least 5 per cent. of their research deemed world-leading. What is more, in arguably the most competitive academic fields of science, engineering and technology—SET—we remain second only to the US in our output of research and in many areas, from particle physics to robotics and bioengineering to genomics, our universities are truly world-leading.

This debate is about how we provide the nation with the next generation of brilliant scientists, technologists and academics, but it is also about providing the nation with a graduate work force, which has been recognised as crucial to our economic well-being by Lord Leitch and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. Of course, relatively few of the 1.96 million undergraduates studying in our universities will go into academic careers. Most will find their way into a variety of careers serving the public and private sectors.

However, one thing is absolutely certain: it will be the development of intellectual capital honed in our universities that powers the UK out of recession and helps to resolve the huge global challenges that face us. As someone who has been close to the sector all my adult life, I recognise just how life-changing a university education can be. Few of us in Westminster Hall this afternoon would be here if it had not been for some involvement with higher education. I came from a small back-to-back house in Burnley with an outside toilet and one cold water tap, yet here I am. I am deeply grateful to Carnegie college in Leeds and to Birmingham university for what they have given me. Although I have always rejected the 50 per cent. target set by Tony Blair for the expansion of HE, I celebrate his ambition and that of others that more young people from backgrounds like mine should be encouraged to stay on at school and aim higher than their peers and parents.

However, as Chair of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, I also recognise that simply sending more young people to university is not a sufficient goal in itself. Although I would defend the right of young people to choose both their university and course according to ability, encouraging more people to study science, technology, engineering and maths at school and then at university has become my passion. That passion is shared by many in our learned societies and is constantly promoted in the House through work by the Royal Society of Chemistry and others, to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. It is in the areas of science, engineering and technology that students will have the greatest opportunities to contribute to the nation’s economic well-being and enrich our society.

The hon. Gentleman has been a consistent advocate of our university system for many years. Although he is right to mention the individual opportunities that universities give, he will, no doubt, also acknowledge that the university system helps this country to keep its competitive advantage, create wealth and find solutions for some of the major problems, whether they are medical, climate change or whatever. Does he worry that the main parties, which are threatening hard cuts in public services, could get the big science budgets of universities in their sights? Does he agree that that would be a major mistake for this country?

If that is the case, I agree. The question is how we can avert it and maintain the investment that has gone into UK science, particularly big science—for example, our work at Diamond Light Source, ISIS, the great big particle accelerators and the other major facilities that we maintain. Having mapped out the key areas on which, I hope, there is agreement, I am saddened that the Government threaten to dismantle a decade of investment, encouragement and expansion at a time when we need to turn the tap on, not turn it off—the point the hon. Gentleman made.

Although President Obama is investing billions in fundamental research—in fact, that is the cornerstone of the economic stimulus package in the States—we appear to be going in the opposite direction. Yesterday when I challenged the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee about the funding of science and higher education, it was disappointing that he said:

“What America has not done is what we have done over the last ten years which is to double the science budget and America is trying to catch up in a way that we have been investing consistently in science over these last few years.”

That is palpably not so. Throughout the whole of the Bush years, an equivalent proportion of public funds was spent on science in the US and in the UK—funding was virtually pound for pound in proportional terms. The UK was catching up after the disaster of the Thatcher years, which is when the real damage was done to our science base and our higher education. Frankly, such statements are not worthy of a Prime Minister and a former Chancellor who has done more to support science in his time in Parliament than probably any other member of the current Government.

Although I do not buy into the emotive statements of the Russell group—I am sure that the Minister will comment on them—claiming that the current cuts will plunge the sector back 800 years, the group has recognised that reverse gear is not a sensible option when we are in a race to the top. Perhaps more worrying than the petulant screams of a sector that has done very well over the past decade, is the fact that a number of forces are merging that threaten the ability of the sector to meet the demand for places generated by the success of our schools, our universities and, yes, the Government’s own policies. That has, I think, been supported by all the political parties represented in the House.

It should not come as a surprise to the Minister or to any of us that UCAS applications have risen by 12 per cent. this year. The numbers have been swelled by the 160,000 students who had the qualifications, but not the places last year. The recession means that many 18 to 24-year-olds are seeking to invest in their own futures through higher education, rather than go on the dole. The work of science and engineering communities has resulted in a significant increase in the demand for science, engineering and technology places. Our universities have bitten the bullet and actively sought out new cohorts of students from non-traditional backgrounds and from adults who want to study part-time. That is a huge success story, in which we should all take great pride.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Of course, world-class universities are absolutely crucial to my constituency and, as he says, to the future cultural, individual and economic development of this country. On his reference to all parties, I would like to place on the record my strong support for continuing the big investment that has been made, not only in science, but in higher education more generally. I am very concerned that it should be sustained for the future.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I share his passion for higher education, which is not only because of the constituency he represents, but because he has genuine enthusiasm. The purpose of raising the debate in a non-party political way is to show that the issue transcends politics and that unless we maintain our commitment we will slip down the ladder.

The situation regarding places is worrying. Last year, pressure was put on the Secretary of State and he found 10,000 additional university places in the summer, but he then announced that there would be no funding to go with them, even though they were mostly SET places. Universities cannot deliver science and engineering courses without appropriate funding, and it is nonsense to expect them to pick up that tab. In December, we saw £600 million axed from science in HE budgets, which will affect the area I am most interested in—science. Just yesterday, a further £250 million was slashed from teaching budgets. According to Sir Alan Langlands, the boss of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, that will mean 6,000 fewer places.

The question is whether our universities can cope. Should they absorb the additional places and ride out the storm? Perhaps they can, but with no extra funding and a penalty of £3,500 if they recruit additional students above the quota, few will take the risk. The net impact is that the very students the Government, schools and universities have worked so hard to help gain qualifications and make applications will now be denied access at the gates of our universities.

I visited the university of Huddersfield last Thursday and found that it has done some remarkable work in Barnsley. That town is not noted for the number of its students going into higher education, but there has been a 23 per cent. increase in applications from Barnsley for the university of Huddersfield campus. The quota cannot be met because there is a freeze on places. As places become scarce and entry levels increase, there will be a cascade effect for students down the perceived order of institutions, and it will be the poor, non-traditional students who miss out. That could be one of the cruellest deceptions played on some of our most vulnerable young people. I want the Minister to explain how he will protect the interests of that group.

Other, perhaps more sinister, forces are at work. On 24 January The Sunday Times published an article with the following headline:

“Universities slash places in cash crisis; A funding squeeze will mean thousands of would-be students missing out”.

It was more like a headline from The Sun. Claims that Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, King’s, Imperial and Warwick were freezing places were perhaps not surprising, as they had already said that they would not take additional places unless there was funding. Others, such as the London School of Economics, Essex, Manchester and Edinburgh were cutting places. The university of Edinburgh was allegedly reducing its intake by 1,300—roughly a third of places. Other universities, such as Manchester, made moves to deliberately recruit below the limit to avoid penalties imposed by the Secretary of State. A storm is brewing on student places, and it is one that I want the Minister to address.

Let me be clear that I understand the dilemma for our universities, particularly for those offering SET courses. Are universities to recruit more students, even though the institutions have lower amounts of money, which will damage quality, or are they simply to reject students? That is a real challenge for them. I understand the argument, but the Secretary of State appears to dismiss it. On Monday, Lord Mandelson claimed that the proposed cuts were so minor that universities could absorb them.

Does the Minister agree with his Secretary of State? No one is listening, so he can tell us frankly whether he does. Does he dismiss the claims, particularly from our research-intensive universities, that less money per student means less quality? If he does not dismiss those claims, the issue needs to be addressed. How do we prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers if we cannot offer them appropriate amounts of laboratory experience or access to the most up-to-date equipment?

If it was simply a domestic matter to be resolved by English or UK universities and the Government, perhaps the situation might be a little easier, but sadly it is not. Our higher education system is so widely respected that demand from EU and non-EU students to study here has grown in the past decade at a greater rate than demand from the indigenous student population. Indeed, EU and international students add considerably to our economy and culture and to the diversity of our universities, and they spend roughly £2.3 billion in the local economy in off-campus expenditure, so we welcome them. I would like to put it on the record that the HE sector should be immensely proud of the talent it draws from overseas in an increasingly competitive overseas market.

However, to ask how those increasing overseas applications sit with the general upsurge in demand for UK university places is a legitimate question. International student places are allocated and funded entirely separately from UK places and do not form part of the same quotas set by HEFCE, but does the Minister know of any evidence that suggests that universities are lowering their offers to overseas students at undergraduate or postgraduate level to expand that lucrative market? After all, with no cap on international student fees and the cost of courses currently ranging from £8,500 to £32,000, it is inevitable in the recovery from the recession that most universities will want to attract as many international students as possible. Perhaps the Minister could offer reassurance that he is taking steps to monitor what could be a potential problem for the future.

EU students, however, are a different matter. Under EU law, all EU students in the UK are treated exactly the same as UK students. They count towards the same HEFCE student numbers, face the same £3,145 tuition fees as their UK counterparts and are entitled to the same grants and subsidised loans to cover the cost of fees and living expenses. They also compete for the same places, which is the key point. The UK is an increasingly popular destination for European students, and applications from the EU are increasing at a higher rate than those from within the UK. Last year, although the number of British applicants rose by 8.8 per cent., the number of applicants from the rest of the EU rose even more quickly, by 16.4 per cent.

EU students are drawn primarily to the Russell group universities and those with the greatest international reputation. That inevitably means that UK students applying to those universities are less likely to get in as the level of competition is higher. Although we certainly want to ensure that our universities recruit the most talented students from all over Europe, that must not be at the expense of places for UK students, many of whom simply cannot afford to study at universities far from home.

What can the Minister do to ensure that there are sufficient places available in our research-intensive universities for UK students, who are more likely to stay in the UK after studying and use the skills we have invested in to enhance our country’s economy and skills base? What evidence does he have that graduates who come from the EU go on to contribute to the UK economy? If they do not, what steps is he taking to encourage them to do so?

As an aside, what steps is the Minister taking to recover student loan repayments? Figures published in 2009 revealed that among the 2,240 EU students who have so far become eligible to start paying back loans, only 1,580 were doing so, leaving taxpayers with a potential £3.8 million bill. It would be ironic if UK students were denied places in universities because of competition from EU students and then ended up contributing in their taxes to pay for the loans that were not paid back. I leave him with that little problem.

As usual, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis)—[Interruption.] I think that he might be ringing me as well just to make sure I get the point. He has chosen a topical subject. In fact, this is the sixth debate that we have had, in either Westminster Hall or the House, on higher education and the question of student numbers. The debate is given added relevance, however, by the funding context, part of which he outlined in his contribution. Obviously, that has been against the background of this year’s higher education recruitment round.

I have publicly described some of the reactions to the Government’s announcement in the grant letter written to universities shortly before Christmas as amounting to scaremongering. I note that in his Yorkshire Post article last week, the hon. Gentleman said that it was “academic hysteria and hyperbole”. We agree on that.

It is important that we put all that is written about the savings that we have asked the sector to make— I shall say a bit more about that shortly—against the backdrop of record investment over the past decade. I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman’s article took due note of the generosity of higher education funding settlements in recent years, and of the success of the Government’s policy of enabling many more people to benefit from university education. I am pleased that he mentioned that again today.

The Government’s record on expanding access to higher education in terms of simple undergraduate numbers and the social make-up of the student body is a proud one. Frankly, the achievements of the past 13 years are thrown into sharp relief by the failures of the previous 18. I do not want to be overly political—that has not been the tone of this debate—but we should remember that the unit of resource in universities fell by 38 per cent. between 1991 and 1997. That led to huge class sizes and poor facilities across the country for STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—on which the hon. Gentleman is particularly keen. In fact, he will remember, and may well have been part of, the Save British Science campaign. Things had got to that stage.

We are light years away from that today. The backdrop, as of this moment, is that we have more students in higher education, a broader spread of young people from different social backgrounds in our universities and more students from a British but nevertheless ethnic minority background than ever before in our history. We also have better facilities. Our commitment to a ring-fenced science budget and to research is something of which we can be very proud, and I am pleased to honour and repeat it to the House today.

Statements about STEM have been made this afternoon. I want to remind the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough that, notwithstanding the savings that we have asked the sector to make, it is still the case that public funding in research will increase by 7 per cent. in the next financial year. That is our commitment, and, as the Prime Minister indicated, it does hold up to what we have seen in the United States. Because of where we have come from, our commitment to support science should not be underestimated.

On funding, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least recognise our record and remember that many of the savings that we have asked the sector to make relate to capital spend that we brought forward from last year to this year as a fiscal stimulus—£250 million—and to capital spend that over the period of the Labour Government amounts to more than £6 billion. That is against a backdrop of a capital spend on further education of zero when we came to power, and of much less on higher education than today’s. I hope that when he looks carefully at the grant letter, he will recognise that we have made our decision—obviously, HEFCE was in on the detail of it—in order to protect front-line teaching and our commitment to a ring-fenced science budget.

Much has been said against how that stacks up in relation to university places. The supply of university places for home students has grown, and the supply of fully funded places will grow again this year, but demand for them has grown even faster. In part, that is a product of our policies and schemes such as Aimhigher, but also, given the wider economy, students are looking to higher education as somewhere that they want to be.

The hon. Gentleman knows how much effort the Government have put into helping young people over this period, with our Backing Young Britain campaign and, underneath it, the guarantee of a job, training or work for young people. He referred to the 10,000 places that we brought forward last year and the signalling of our intention that those places should support new industries, the new jobs agenda and the STEM agenda, about which he is particularly concerned.

It is far too early in the cycle to whip up fear about student university places. I was concerned when I was at a school in my constituency this week that those young people, seeing the headlines, will begin to worry that there will not be a place for them at university this year. I say to the sector and to those who are concerned about it that we should be measured in our language.

At this point last year, exactly the same things were being said. Some people said that clearing would last for about half a day. It lasted for weeks. They said that barely 10,000 people would find a place through clearing, but 40,000 students found a place. They said that there would be a terrible crunch and students would be left with nothing. We have more students at university than ever before in our history, and we will have more students at university next year than we have ever had. I reassure the hon. Gentleman about that.

The hon. Gentleman has been keen to ensure that there is no suggestion that quality is not fundamental to our system, so he will understand that it has never been the case in our history that everyone who wanted to could go to university. Demand is rising. At this point in the year, many young people will have applied, but not all those who apply over the autumn and into January eventually make their way to university. Some make other decisions, and that is why we have announced an extra 35,000 advanced apprenticeships. We want young people to take up advanced apprenticeships in new and important technical and professional areas of our economy. We have announced places in further education in new areas and in STEM areas because we recognise that this is not just about higher education. We make a distinction between higher-level skills and higher education.

It is also the case that there are students who get straight As who do not go to university in the year that they applied because they did not get into the course or university that they wanted. They take a gap year or they do some further study and apply again.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, and to shed a bit more light than heat as I stand here in February, by saying that we should see how things go throughout the year, remembering that this year is different from last year. This year, we can at least say that we are not in the grip of and at the height of the recession—we have moved out of it. We remain vigilant about employment, but we are moving in the right direction.

Statements have been made about international students. I was speaking to the leaders of the University Alliance group this morning. They reassured me, as I want to reassure the House, that these are separate markets. We welcome the growth in the number of international students—

Punjabi Community in Britain

I speak as chair of the all-party group on the Punjabi community in Britain. Hon. Members will know that the group was established 15 or 16 years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar) and others. At that point it focused on human rights. In 1997 we expanded the scope of the group to include a range of issues affecting the Punjabi community in Britain. The group is now acknowledged as the voice of the Punjabi community in Parliament.

We have had regular debates and interventions in terms of meetings with Ministers, and we have held seminars and working groups on the environment, health, human rights, nationality and visa issues. As a result of our work we have influenced the Government’s agenda over the past 12 years. We would not have been able to do that work if it was not for the voluntary support from our researcher and co-ordinator, Iqbal Singh, and other colleagues.

From time to time we have had Adjournment debates—this one is relatively brief—to sum up where we are on various issues. We have taken a slightly different approach to preparing for this debate, in that we have gone to our constituents via the Punjabi media, including Desi Radio, Des Pardes and Punjab Radio, and invited them to submit issues that we should raise in this debate.

I appreciate that the list is wide-ranging. We will try to cover as much as we can in the time available. I also appreciate that it puts the Minister in a difficult position in respect of responding to all the issues we raise. We would welcome at least the recognition that the issues have been taken note of, with responses made subsequently if there is no time today.

The first issue is about recognition. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics estimate that there are approaching nearly a million people of Punjabi origin in this country. Punjabi is this country’s second language. The largest proportion of that population is Sikh, yet concern remains that Sikhs are not recognised in the census as an ethnic category. The 2011 census is coming up and is now in preparation, but there is still resistance from the ONS to the inclusion of a Sikh question. Jasvir Singh Rayat, a constituent of mine and a well-known Punjabi radio presenter, contacted me yesterday asking me to mention that. We have had representations on that matter from a number of groups and organisations this week.

On Monday a report was released examining the process used by the ONS to select the ethnic groups for the 2011 questionnaire, and arguing for a change to it to include a separate tick-box for Sikhs. That reflects legal decisions that have been made over years in our courts. The ONS has still to finalise the questionnaire for the census, so will the Minister see whether she can facilitate a meeting with the ONS to resolve the issue? Time is tight, because it is hoped that the questionnaire will be determined at least by the end of February.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem with categories in that the census mentions ethnic groups when it means racial groups? Following the Mandla decision of the early 1980s, Sikhs are not only a religious group in the United Kingdom but are legally recognised by the courts as a racial group. If the ONS got its wording right and understood the difference between “racial” and “ethnic”, it might make it easier for us to win that change to the census.

We have had the argument before. A straightforward face-to-face meeting with the ONS should resolve the matter. We simply want to reflect the legal decisions that have been taken to date.

Secondly, maintaining Punjabi culture and language has been one of the long-standing concerns of the community and our all-party group. Over the past decade, with the support of the Government, but driven largely by the voluntary efforts of the Punjabi community itself, Punjabi culture has not just blossomed, it has permeated our whole society—from dance, bhangra, music, traditional and modern, to film, drama, theatre and television, the most recent programme in that regard being “The Family”, which was almost an addictive watching experience. That has happened as a result of, and thanks to, the major contribution by the Punjabi media.

Desi Radio, for example, is a community radio station funded partly by Government initiatives when it was set up and awarded a radio licence. It has demonstrated by its success how radio can be used to maintain and promote culture. Punjab Radio and others have made their contribution as well. There is a continuing need to support access to radio licences and wavelengths for community radio, and to consider the support that needs to be given to sustain them in the long term.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. Being a Punjabi myself, coming from that region, I should say, as my hon. Friend has, that we have contributed to this country, not only in respect of culture but in other areas, including the political, social and educational fields. Importantly, my hon. Friend will agree that we have exempted the Sikh community in this country from wearing helmets. That means that Sikhs have been legally recognised as a group and a community in the past. It is important that, as my hon. Friend has already said, the Minister takes this matter on board so that we can clear up this point for the future.

Exactly. There is a series of legal precedents, not just on the wearing of helmets, but in respect of the recognition of the status of Sikhs in law and the recognition of other practices, including wearing of the kirpan, which warrants the ONS taking a similarly flexible approach.

My hon. Friend mentioned education. The role of schools in maintaining culture and language is critical. Again, we will all want to pay tribute to the work that has been done by the Government in promoting Sikh schools. The work of Guru Nanak school has been so successful in demonstrating not just how educational standards can be improved, but how that can be done in a way that integrates with the wider community and does not involve a separatist approach.

On culture, may I raise one issue that we have not mentioned before and make a plea in that regard? Culture is more than just music and dance. It is sport as well. We ask the Government to consider how they can assist in promoting specific Punjabi sports. I plead for recognition of what some call kodi and others call kabaadi, which is a sport best described as a combination of rugby played without a ball, all-in wrestling and possibly chess. Kabaadi or kodi is an exciting Punjabi sport, but it needs support from the Government to assist in regularising the institutions that promote and manage it in the UK. Recognition is needed, as is funding support to train people and develop the sport in this country. May I suggest that the Minister goes back to her colleagues and requests that Sport England, or whatever appropriate body, convenes a meeting of all the interested parties to discuss how we can move forward to put kabaadi on a secure footing for the long-term future?

Thirdly, my constituents have asked me to raise the issue of how they can maintain contact with the Punjab and its heritage. British Punjabis naturally want to maintain their contacts with the Punjab and their cultural and religious heritage and, of course, their families and relatives by being able to visit there. A number of continuing concerns have been raised with us in recent years. For example, many British Punjabis wish to visit and perform their religious duties, including visiting Amritsar, the Golden Temple, the Darbar Sahib, but there are worries about the continuing threat to flights into Amritsar international airport from high landing charges in comparison with those at Delhi. May I suggest that the Government urge the Indian Government to do all they can to secure the future of Amritsar airport and maintain its accessibility?

Another issue that we have raised in Parliament this year, which has also been raised in the community, is access to Kartarpur Sahib, the former abode of Baba Guru Nanak Ji, which is a holy site for the Sikhs. Partition more than 60 years ago resulted in Kartarpur Sahib being located in Pakistan, only 3 km from the Indian border but separate from India. We have been lobbying for some time now for Pakistan and India to agree to open up the border at that point to allow free access to this holy place. There has been some dialogue, but not full agreement. Will the Government offer their good offices to assist in negotiating a resolution to the problem, and to facilitate access? That would be very gratefully received by the Punjabi community in Britain.

On visas more generally, issues continue to be raised as constituents seek to ensure that family members from the Punjab visit them for weddings, birthdays and, regrettably, funerals. We welcome the Government’s accession to our long-standing request to open a visa office in Jalandhar, and that has been incredibly helpful, but it needs to be upgraded to a full office to undertake the full range of duties: applications, interviews, decisions and, yes, appeals. Again, it would avoid the arduous burden on British Punjabis and their families of the costly journey to Delhi. Will the Minister review that, and report on it as a matter of urgency, because we have been arguing for that for some time?

It is important when talking about visas to realise that many people come from the Punjab to this country, but visa filing services have no officials from the visa section. Will the Minister take on board the community’s request for an embassy official to be based in Jalandhar to facilitate visa applications from there?

That is a heartfelt issue throughout the community, and my hon. Friend has accurately reflected what we hear from families at our surgeries time and again.

Student visas have been controversial recently, and we are all aware that there have been scams at both ends of the system, with some people who are not students applying for visas. The Government have taken drastic action, but we are worried that those who genuinely want to come here to study may be penalised. The visa application policy for students should be sensitive.

There is also an issue with bogus colleges here taking students on and extracting large fees, but not offering proper educational opportunities. I have come across that problem in my constituency, and have investigated them. A problem with Preston college in Clayton road in Hayes was raised with me this week. It has been taking fees, but not providing the promised standard of education. I would welcome discussion with the relevant Department on how to resolve the issue of student visas sensitively.

The all-party group has been a human rights group for a long time, and we have not dropped that work, which is still a concern of the group and the community. An issue that was raised during the previous debate is the death penalty that still hangs over the head of Professor Davinder Singh Bhullar. There were confessions, but they were produced as a result of torture. The case is not secure, and the death penalty should be removed in India; it should certainly not hang over that man’s head.

The same problem exists in Pakistan with Sarabjit Singh. Amnesty International took up his case, and some of us have been on delegations to the Pakistan High Commission. Will the Government raise those two cases, and the death penalty generally, with the High Commissions of India and Pakistan?

There is a human rights issue in this country with caste discrimination. At the weekend, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) and I were at the Sri Ravi Guru Dass Ji temple in Southall, which has led the campaign to ensure that we outlaw caste discrimination in this country. We have an opportunity to do so in the Equality Bill, and we have tabled an amendment to outlaw caste discrimination. Ministers have said that they are not convinced that there is sufficient evidence of caste discrimination in the UK, so we have provided that evidence. We have also provided them with a fall-back position. If they are still not convinced, they could take a reserve power so that if further evidence becomes available later, they could introduce delegated legislation outlawing caste discrimination, instead of having to wait for primary legislation.