House of Commons
Wednesday 15 September 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
business before questions
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report from the Right Honourable Sir David Hirst, Chairman of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, dated 15 September 2010, in respect of a renewed claim by the Metropolitan Chapter of Benevento for the return of the Beneventan Missal now in the possession of the British Library.—(Angela Watkinson.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
With permission, I would like to make a brief comment about the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), and his deputy, the shadow Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), as this might be their last outing in their current positions. We should put on record our gratitude for the work that they did when in office and for pulling off the great final stage of ensuring that policing and justice were devolved. We all owe them—and everyone in Northern Ireland owes them—a debt.
The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe. The security forces continue to bear down on these terrorist groupings. So far this year, there have been 163 arrests and 56 persons charged with terrorist offences. That compares with 106 arrests and 17 charges in the whole of 2009. The numbers involved are small in terms of the overall population, but not insignificant in some areas. Everyone must play their part in demonstrating that these people have nothing to offer but suffering, damage and the diversion of money that would be better spent elsewhere.
I join the Secretary in State in condemning attacks by dissident republicans on police personnel, property and community. I also join him in thanking the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister for their work in Northern Ireland over recent years.
I would like to move on in respect of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland to today’s findings of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which state that the Ulster Volunteer Force leadership sanctioned the murder of Bobby Moffett and that it could have stopped it if it had wanted. I am sure that the Secretary of State and all Members would agree that that should be viewed very seriously. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it undermines the assurances that we were given about UVF decommissioning? Does he have no concerns that a decision not to re-categorise the UVF ceasefire will send a signal that a planned killing is par for the course and represents an acceptable level of violence? Does he further agree that all this raises the question of when is a ceasefire a ceasefire?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. This was a disgusting murder, carried out at just after 1 o’clock in the afternoon in front of good, ordinary people going about their daily business, and it should be utterly condemned. The IMC report makes clear how extremely serious the matter is, but it does not recommend that we consider specification. We in Westminster, those in Stormont, the police, those responsible for security in Northern Ireland and, above all, the community have to bear down on this small number of people. I pay tribute to the very large number of people who turned out for the funeral, showing what the local community really thinks.
The Secretary of State will be aware of a recent attack by dissident republicans in my constituency, in which two young children almost lost their lives. My understanding is that six or seven people were arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but all were released. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the frustration of my constituents at the fact that no one has been charged for that and other offences, or is it the case that the PSNI no longer has the experienced detectives that it needs?
I am very sympathetic to the problems that the hon. Gentleman has in his constituency. This small number of people are wholly unrepresentative of the community. What they are doing is utterly irresponsible and risks serious damage to lives—it has to be utterly condemned. We have to respect the operational independence of the police. As I cited earlier, arrests are up and charges are up this year. We have had 56 charges as against 17 last year, but it is not for me to interfere with the processes of the police or of justice. The hon. Gentleman has good contacts with the local Minister and this is a devolved matter. If the local judicial system can be accelerated, that is now in local hands; we should not tamper with the independence of either the police or the judiciary.
I also pay tribute to the work of the shadow Secretary of State when he was in office, and I particularly thank the shadow Minister of State for the very courteous way in which he treated me while I shadowed him for a number of years.
Given the pressures of historical inquiries and the inevitable budgetary pressures that all public sector workers and departments are facing, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the PSNI has adequate resources to counter the threats we face—not only from dissident republicans, but from any terrorists in Northern Ireland?
I am grateful for the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee. We will stand by Northern Ireland, and we will do what is right. As for police numbers, we know that there could always be more—there is not a chief constable in the United Kingdom who would not like more—but I am in regular contact with the local Justice Minister, the Chief Constable and those who are bearing down on dissidents, and we will ensure that we do the right thing by Northern Ireland.
I echo the words of thanks to the former Secretary of State and his former security Minister. We had several bruising encounters—some good and others not so good, but very enjoyable none the less.
Let me turn to the dissident threat. Will the Secretary of State give us a progress report on the automatic number plate recognition system that his security Minister announced in the House not long ago? Has it been introduced, and what progress is being made in countering and surveillance activities relating to dissident republicans?
At the previous Question Time, we announced that we had approved the final tranche—the £12.9 million that was required for the new technology, which I expect to have a real impact in bearing down on the small number of dangerous people. Its implementation is in the hands of the local Minister and the Chief Constable. I shall meet them in the forthcoming days and ask how they are progressing, but at the time of my last meeting with them, they were well on the way to introducing the technology.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State and, indeed, other Members who have made generous remarks this morning. I wish the Secretary of State and his deputy every success in their responsibilities.
Dealing with threats to security in Northern Ireland requires full public confidence in a police service that is representative of the community it serves. Although policing has now been devolved, the legal framework for ensuring that 30% of officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland come from the Catholic community remains the Secretary of State’s responsibility. Will he take this opportunity to confirm his commitment to achieving that target as soon as possible?
As the shadow Minister knows, the Patten commitment was to achieve a figure of 29% to 33% by this year. The current figure is 29.33%, so we have achieved the Patten threshold. The renewal of the measure was due to last one more year, and we agreed to that when we were in opposition. What we do next is up to us to discuss with the local Minister responsible and with those who now run the police service, but I hope that we have established enough momentum to ensure that people throughout the community will see joining the PSNI as a worthwhile career, and will be attracted to it.
With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I wish to add my thanks to the shadow Secretary of State and the shadow Minister for the assistance that they have given since we took office.
In Belfast last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary and the Northern Ireland Ministers for Finance and Personnel and for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We regularly meet Northern Ireland ministerial colleagues to discuss economic matters and how we can best work in partnership to stimulate economic growth and encourage inward investment in Northern Ireland.
The economy in Northern Ireland remains delicate. Unemployment rose between March and May. Will my hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that politicians and parties across the spectrum in Northern Ireland do not play politics when making economic decisions?
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I entirely agree with those sentiments. I am pleased to say that these are matters for the Executive. However, I understand that, in his capacity as Minister for Finance and Personnel, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is present—at least, he certainly was earlier—will meet my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury later today, along with representatives of the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales, to discuss financial matters, including the forthcoming spending review.
It is, perhaps, worth my adding that I echo the views of the hon. Member for East Antrim, who has said:
“In some quarters, there appears to be an unwillingness to address the serious financial questions that are being posed. Let us be clear: we cannot dodge difficult decisions in formulating a new Budget. Delaying the Budget process until next spring is not an option.”
That is the way in which to proceed.
What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of deep public spending cuts in the Northern Ireland Executive budget, not only for the public sector but for the private sector, which depends on many of the contracts that are let? What assessment has he made of the impact of the VAT rise on the ability of the Northern Ireland economy to escape from the recession?
The right hon. Gentleman does not, of course, draw attention to his Government’s own cuts of £44 million, and he—and the House—would do well to remember that we are in the current economic situation as a result of the legacy of the previous Administration. There are a number of positive things to say about Northern Ireland, however: there is the increase in the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, and the waiving of national insurance contributions on the first 10 jobs created by a new business in year one will benefit more than 15,000 businesses in Northern Ireland, while reversing the most damaging part of the planned increase in employer national insurance contributions will add a saving of about £80 million in Northern Ireland. The situation is very serious, but it was more serious before the coalition Government put these measures in place. It is not going to be easy, but Northern Ireland must play its part, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, in confronting the deficit and getting the economy going once more, which must be the aspiration of every Member.
What meetings has the Minister or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had with Treasury Ministers—and what representations have they received from them—on public expenditure in Northern Ireland generally, and specifically on the level of block grant to Northern Ireland after the spending review?
I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that there will be a meeting this afternoon attended by his party colleague, the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and representatives of the other Administrations in Scotland and Wales, at which, no doubt, these matters will be discussed in the proper manner.
I asked the Minister what meetings he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had had with Treasury Ministers, not what meetings there had been between Executive Ministers and the Treasury. However, does he accept that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are unique? It is the only country or region in the United Kingdom that is suffering from the dissident terrorist threat—a subject that has already been discussed—and that shares a land frontier with another country, and it is also the only area in the United Kingdom that is coming out of 40 years of violence and terrorism, which has greatly truncated the ability of the private sector to compete. It is also the only area that has already had 3% year-on-year efficiency savings, implemented by the Executive. Will the Minister ensure that the fabric of society and vital services in Northern Ireland are protected by making sure that everything is done to protect the level of the block grant after the spending review?
Let me put the right hon. Gentleman straight: my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet Treasury Ministers regularly and have done of late, not least to discuss the issue that confronts us all to do with the Presbyterian Mutual Society, and we will continue to do so. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, however, in that this issue brings to the fore once more the fact that it is completely unacceptable and unsustainable in the longer term for Northern Ireland’s economy to be so dependent on the state sector—the relevant figures are about 70% as opposed to 30% for the private sector. We have to address that, such as by looking at other ways to kick-start the private sector, not least through corporation tax measures. We have to look at enterprise zones, too. All those things we are doing—
My hon. Friend the Minister of State, the Exchequer Secretary and I met Executive Ministers last month to discuss corporation tax and how the Northern Ireland economy could be rebalanced. We are working closely with them in the preparation of a Treasury paper and shall consult on this later in the year.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for that answer. Does he agree that the problem with the Northern Irish economy is that the private sector is too small, and that reducing corporation tax rates will help boost the private sector and rebalance the economy?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Let me give one figure: 77.6% of Northern Ireland’s GDP is dependent on public spending. That is clearly wholly unsustainable, and our proposal is to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy—which I estimate will take at least 25 years—by a number of measures that could include the devolution of corporation tax rates, thereby allowing the local Executive to reduce them.
In the Secretary of State’s consideration and representations on these matters, will he take particular account of the circumstances of border areas? Is he prepared to receive proposals on cross-border economic zones and their tax treatment, not least in the north-west, so that we can win investment and employment on the back of the cross-border Project Kelvin?
I am open to any ideas that will help to revive the private sector in Northern Ireland, which we all agree is too small. If the hon. Gentleman would like to make suggestions, my door will always be open. However, he should remember that a lot of this is devolved, with the decisions in the hands of his colleagues in the Assembly, and that this is a team game.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister for their kind words. It has been a huge privilege for my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and I to serve the people of Northern Ireland. Whatever my future, which is in the hands of my hon. Friends, the right hon. Gentleman can be sure that we will continue our bipartisan support for his policy.
During the general election, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) talked about targeting Northern Ireland and the north-east of England for special cuts in Government spending. The Secretary of State tried to blunt that with the prospect of cutting corporation tax, but he will know from the Azores ruling that it is legal only if Northern Ireland bears fiscal consequences. What is his estimate of the annual additional cut the Treasury would have to take from the annual block grant to fund a cut in corporation tax to 12.5%?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I would just like to correct an inadvertent comment on my colleague the Prime Minister, who did not target Northern Ireland; he just said, correctly, that it is one of those parts of the United Kingdom that is over-dependent on the public sector. On the question of the corporation tax sums, I say, bluntly, that nobody knows. That is why I am working closely with my Treasury colleagues—in particular, the Exchequer Secretary—to work out exactly the cost. Some international accountancy firms have estimated that, according to the Azores ruling, about £100 million to £150 million would have to be taken off the block grant.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that Northern Ireland is over-dependent for a very good reason: because of the troubles. The answer to the question is contained in the report produced by Sir David Varney for the Treasury, and it is that £300 million would be taken out of the block grant. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that the net cost to the Exchequer for 10 years would be estimated at £2.2 billion. He is a very good sort of fellow, so why does he not level with the people of Northern Ireland? Just as his party’s electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists left them with nothing, just as his party’s talks on the Presbyterian Mutual Society look like leaving small investors with nothing, the promises on corporation tax will result in at best nothing and at worst an invitation to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to wield the axe.
I am sorry that the tone has descended. All my colleagues in Front-Bench positions inherited the odd prawn behind the radiator. We inherited Northern Ireland and a whole bag full of old langoustines stuck under a radiator going at top speed. We face a long-term problem with the economy. The Varney report is, sadly, now out of date. It cited a figure of more than £300 million, whereas the independent Northern Ireland Economic Reform Group, which carried out a detailed study of the benefits that a reduction of corporation tax would bring, gave a lower figure. The fact is that we do not know yet, and we will be studying this in detail and introducing our proposals later in the autumn.
The reaction to the report of the Saville inquiry and to the Prime Minister’s statement to this House on 15 June has been overwhelmingly positive. Since publication, I have also met the families of those killed. I have received no formal representations in relation to the inquiry’s report, other than routine correspondence.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State once again informed the House that he will be meeting the families who lost their loved ones in Ballymurphy in August 1971. Will he assure the House that the issues that cannot be explored by the Historical Enquiries Team will be resolved by a process that is satisfactory to the families?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think that she should understand the sensitivities of these historical cases. Where I have given a commitment—I have a meeting planned with the families—it is appropriate that I talk to the families before I comment further.
Whatever mechanism we adopt to deal with the past, if we adopt any at all, surely it must be consistent. Does the Secretary of State agree that, whereas the Saville report dealt purely with the activities of the troops, soldiers and other activists on the day, the Billy Wright inquiry, which the media attended, seemed to deal with issues before and after the events of the day? We need a consistent approach to try to bring some closure.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why we have launched a process of talking to local politicians and local groups to work out a way forward on how we handle the past. It was clear from the submissions to Eames-Bradley that there is absolutely no consensus, but the hon. Gentleman is right that we must have a process that is consistent. We will be working on that over the coming months.
I met the family of Pat Finucane while in opposition. On becoming Secretary of State, I wrote to the family and invited them to meet me.
The meeting that I had with them in opposition was some time ago. I have a meeting planned shortly and I think that it is appropriate, as I have said on several occasions, that I talk to the families before pronouncing further. The hon. Gentleman knows from his time as a Minister in Northern Ireland how sensitive and difficult this issue is, which is why it was not resolved by his Government.
Surely the Secretary of State will realise that, rather than individual inquiries, it would be better to put the resources into the Historical Enquiries Team so as to allow a swathe of the people who have been injured and who suffered through the tragedies of Northern Ireland’s years of terrorism to find answers to their questions.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Historical Enquiries team is looking at 3,268 deaths on a budget that was originally set at £34 million over six years. We must contrast that with the Billy Wright inquiry on which I reported yesterday, which cost £30 million and looked into one death.
Cross-border Economic Co-operation
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State held discussions on economic matters, which are largely devolved to Northern Ireland, with Irish Government Ministers when he was recently in Dublin. The trade and business development body, which aims to enhance the economy on both sides of the border, is a forum operating under the North/South Ministerial Council that also allows Northern Ireland and Irish Ministers to discuss those matters.
Yes, we certainly continue to study that. It is worth pointing out that despite the economic slowdown experienced in recent years the Republic of Ireland continues to attract major foreign direct investment. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland’s stock of direct inward investment is five times greater than the OECD average. According to one leading accountancy firm, there have been well over 50 investment projects this year alone. It is significant, we believe, when spending is being cut and many taxes are going up, that the one set of taxes that are not being touched in the Republic is the low rates of corporation taxes.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he accept and agree with me that cross-border co-operation is vital for economic recovery in border areas of Northern Ireland? Does he agree that because of the banking crisis there are major cross-border interests that we need to deal with at a British-Irish level?
I most certainly do, bearing in mind that a lot of these decisions are up to the Assembly and the Executive. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt welcome, along with us, the forthcoming investment conference in Washington under the patronage of Secretary of State Clinton, as well as the advance trip to Northern Ireland by her husband, former President Clinton, at which representatives from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be present hoping to attract inward investment, which will benefit the very cross-border communities to whom the hon. Gentleman has alluded.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Kingsman Darren Deady from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment who died on Friday after being injured in Helmand province on 23 August. We are for ever indebted to him for the sacrifice that he has made. We send our sincere condolences to his family, friends and comrades who all miss him very much. He will not be forgotten.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I add my sympathies to those of the Prime Minister?
At a time when we need to maximise growth and restore our public finances, is it not the height of irresponsibility that the unions are planning to go on strike, and should not former Ministers be ashamed of themselves for encouraging it?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Everyone in the country—the trade unions included—knows that we have to cut public spending, that we have to get the deficit down and that we have to keep interest rates down. It is the height of irresponsibility for shadow Ministers to troop off to the TUC and tell it that it is all right to go on strike. They should be ashamed of themselves.
May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Kingsman Darren Deady from 2nd Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment? We honour his bravery and we think of his family and friends as they mourn their loss. May I give my condolences to the Prime Minister and his family on the loss of his father? The words he used to express his love for his father touched everyone. Today, as we welcome the Prime Minister back to his place, I also congratulate him and Mrs Cameron on the birth of their new baby.
Let me ask about an issue that is of great concern on both sides of the House—the trafficking of women and girls for sex. This week, a gang was convicted here in London of bringing girls as young as 13 to this country to be sold for sex. The work of the police and prosecutors has protected young women from that gang, but this evil trade is growing. All parties in the House are united in their abhorrence of it. Will the Prime Minister update us on the work that is being undertaken to stop it?
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady not only for what she said about the serviceman whom we lost in Afghanistan but for her very kind words about my father and our new daughter. I am very grateful for what was said last week by the shadow Lord Chancellor and for the letters that I have received from Members right across the House. It is very touching and heart-warming that people think about one at times like these, so I thank them for that.
Let me take this opportunity to say something about the right hon. and learned Lady, as I think this will be the last time that we face each other across the Dispatch Box. She is the third Labour leader with whom I have had to do battle—she is by far the most popular—and she has used these opportunities to push issues that she cares about deeply such as the one she raises today. She has been a thorough credit as the stand-in leader of the Labour party and I thank her for what she has done.
The issue of the trafficking of women and girls is an extremely important, sensitive and difficult one. I have been to see some of the exhibitions that have been run, including the one by Emma Thompson, about how bad the problem is. We are committed to working across the Government to do everything we can to help the police, to help at our borders and to make sure that we have in place all the laws and systems to bring this evil trade to an end. It is something that, tragically, has grown over recent years. We often talk about how we have ended slavery in our world, but we have not; it is still with us and this is the worst manifestation of it.
I thank the Prime Minister for his complimentary words—it is just as well that I am not wearing a hoodie.
I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman says about human trafficking, and I am grateful to him and the Deputy Prime Minister for working with us on it when they were in opposition. Will the Prime Minister help to build on that work by agreeing that the United Kingdom will opt in to the new European directive on trafficking in human beings, which the Commission proposed in March?
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for raising that point. We are looking carefully at the issue. From looking at the directive so far, we have discovered that it does not go any further than the law that we have already passed. We have put everything that is in the directive in place. I am happy to go away and look again but, of course, as we do when thinking about all the things that we have to consider opting in to, we have to ask ourselves not only what is in this directive and whether we are already doing it—the answer in this case is yes—but what might be the consequences for our security and borders, and our ability to take decisions in the House. That is the consideration that we have to make, and I give absolutely no apology for saying that this Government will look at these things very carefully before signing them.
But the difficulty is that the Government have already indicated that they will opt out of the directive. If we are already complying with it in this country’s laws and practices, as well as working internationally, we should be proud of that and step forward to sign the directive. Will the Prime Minister reconsider?
I have already answered that, but let me make some additional points: first, the directive itself is still being finalised; and, secondly, there are opportunities at any stage to opt in to something of which we approve. However, the key point is that we must examine the directive and then ask whether opting in would add anything to what we already do in this vital area—[Hon. Members: “Yes.”] Hon. Members say yes, but the fact is that we do all the things that are in the directive today, so we then have to ask whether opting in would in any way endanger our borders and immigration system. That is a question that a responsible Government ought to ask, and it is a question that this Government will ask.
The right hon. Gentleman is hanging back on this—he should step forward and sign the directive. The point is that trafficking is an international crime. The traffickers work across borders, so we have to work across borders to stop them. Will he reconsider and opt into the directive?
I have answered the question. The fact is that we have to work internationally. We are working internationally as well as making sure that we have what we need at our borders and in our police service here in the UK. We are also looking at something that the previous Government did not put in place: a proper border police force, which would make a real difference to securing our borders. However, as I said, when looking at such directives, it is right to ask not just whether we are already doing the things that are in them, but what might be the other consequences of signing up. That is a sensible thing to do; the previous Government signed far too many things without ever thinking about what the consequences would be.
I am disappointed by the Prime Minister’s answer. I know that some in his party are irrationally hostile to Europe, but he should not let them stand in the way of stopping human trafficking.
I have one last question before I go. When the Conservatives were in opposition, they regularly complained that we had Prime Minister’s questions only once a week. Now that the right hon. Gentleman knows just how enjoyable the experience is, does he plan to bring it back to twice a week?
It is one of the few things that Tony Blair did of which I thoroughly approve. Quite seriously, having worked for Leaders of the Opposition and Prime Ministers who did Prime Minister’s questions, I think that a half-hour session once a week is good not only so that Parliament can grill the Prime Minister, but so that the Prime Minister can grill everyone in his or her office to find out everything that is going on in government. That is the right way to do these things.
I know that we are not saying goodbye to the right hon. and learned Lady—it is only au revoir—and that she will be the deputy leader under whichever leader the Labour party elects. I note that she can spend some time over the coming days contemplating what to do with the four votes that I think she has in the election, because she is of course a member of a trade union, a Member of Parliament, a member of the Labour party and a member of the Fabian Society. Her position can be combined with her husband’s, whom I believe has another three votes—democracy is a beautiful thing!
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the saddest legacies the Government inherited is the fact that one child in five grows up in a household in which nobody is in work? Does he agree that it is not just an economic but a moral imperative that we should, to coin a phrase, move from a handout to a hand up?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. If we want to tackle poverty, we must go to the causes of poverty. The chief cause of poverty is people being out of work generation after generation and, as he says, young people growing up in homes where nobody works, where there is no role model to follow. That is why we are pursuing the welfare reform agenda so vigorously, because we want to help people to get out of unemployment and into work. We want it to be worth while for everybody to work or to work more than they do now. That is what our welfare reforms, so scandalously neglected by the previous Government, have set out to achieve.
Q2. The proposed £400 million Mersey Gateway project, which will create up to 4,000 new jobs in the area, is under threat because of the spending review, despite the fact that it is strongly supported by business and by all local authorities across Cheshire and Merseyside, including the Chancellor’s local authority. How will cutting projects such as the Mersey Gateway help economic growth in the north-west? (15258)
We are not making any further cuts in capital spending. The hon. Gentleman ought to ask the question of those on his own Front Bench. The Labour party went into the last election with a 50% cut in capital spending in its figures, and did not tell us one single project that would be cut. We have said that that is far enough; we should go no further. We will be protecting capital spending to help to boost the recovery in our country.
Q3. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his excellent speech on parliamentary reform, promised far more free votes in the Committee stage of major Bills. Can he confirm that this bold and courageous policy will apply to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill? (15259)
We have already taken some big steps to pass power from the Executive to Parliament—[Interruption.] Someone shouts “Rubbish.” We established the Backbench Business Committee. The Opposition had 13 years; they never did that. We gave the House of Commons control over electing Select Committee Chairmen. The Opposition had 13 years to do that. It never happened. We will be giving Select Committees further powers over selecting and looking at appointments in the public sector, and I am the first Prime Minister in British history to give up the right to call a general election. As for major parts of legislation set out in our coalition agreement, I regret to inform my hon. Friend that I will be hoping for all my colleagues to support them with head, heart and soul, if I may put it that way, but should there be greater opportunities for free votes, yes, there should be. I remember the previous Government, even on topics such as embryo research and experimentation, whipping their Members, particularly in the House of Lords. That was quite wrong and it will not happen under this Government.
Q4. Given the strategic defence importance of the aircraft carriers, on which work has already started, will the Prime Minister undertake to meet urgently with me, other parliamentary colleagues and workplace representatives so that they can put to him their concerns about reports that the aircraft carriers will be cancelled, before it is too late? (15260)
I am sure my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and his Ministers are happy to meet anyone who wants to discuss the state of the defence budget and the appalling legacy that we have been left. Of all the budgets that I have looked at, that is the one where we were left the biggest mess—£38 billion over-committed, and decisions taken that made very little sense at all. But the hon. Gentleman will be seeing a strategic defence review in which we properly review how we can make sure that we have forces that are right for our country, right for our interests and ensure that we protect our interests around the world.—[Interruption.]
My apologies for missing the joke. Next time I will look more carefully. I did not know that we were allowed props, Mr Speaker, but obviously you take a more relaxed view of these things.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point and the conference—[Interruption.]
My hon. Friend raises a very important point about the millennium development goals, set in 2000 and meant to be completed by 2015, and there is a vital conference, which the Deputy Prime Minister will be attending next week, on that specific issue. This country—this applies to parties on both sides—can hold its head up high, given that we are going to hit the 0.7% target of gross national income going to aid. That means that we will be playing our part in making sure that those vital MDGs are met. It is important, although spending decisions are going to be difficult, that we hold our head up high not only overseas but at home and say, “This is right, to help the poorest in our world, even when we have difficult budget decisions at home.”
Q5. May I join the Prime Minister in sending my condolences to the family of Kingsman Darren Deady, who was a constituent of mine and sadly lost his life last Friday, having been injured in Afghanistan three weeks ago? His senior officer said that Kingsman Deady “was a superb soldier—trusted, respected and an example to others.”He will be sadly missed. Bolton Community and Voluntary Services has already lost £89,000 of grants this year for small voluntary groups—groups often working with the most vulnerable. Many organisations are on the brink of closure because of those cuts. If the Prime Minister believes in the big society, what will he do to save those groups? (15261)
What I would say to the hon. Lady’s local council is what I would say to every council in the country, which is that we all know—and Opposition Members know—that we have to make spending reductions. The Opposition were committed to £44 billion of spending reductions at the last election, and we should say to every single council in the country, “When it comes to looking at and trimming your budgets, don’t do the easy thing, which is to cut money to the voluntary bodies and organisations working in our communities. Look at your core costs. Look at how you can do more for less. Look at the value for money you get from working with the voluntary sector.” The hon. Lady should take that message to her local authority. That is the message that I would take to her local authority, and everyone should try to work in that direction.
Q6. Has the Prime Minister received any representations from Fidel Castro on deficit reduction? Is there any possibility of arranging a trade union conference pass for Mr Castro so that he might be able to enlighten the trade unions on cutting the size of the state? (15262)
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This week it was revealed that even Communist Cuba has got with the programme that we need to cut budget deficits and get spending under control. So we have Comrade Castro on the same planet as the rest of us; we just have to get the Labour party and the trade unions on that planet at the same time.
Q7. Burma and Iran were signatories to the universal declaration on human rights, but there are some men and women who cannot exercise those rights. In particular, Sakineh Ashtiani awaits death by stoning, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned because she won an election. Will the Prime Minister make urgent and renewed representations to the Governments of Burma and Iran in order to free those brave and courageous women? (15263)
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue, and I shall do precisely as she says and continue to make those representations. It is important that we make them not just to those Governments, but to Governments who sometimes take a slightly different view. When I was in India I raised the issue of Burma with the Indian Government, because I think it is important that we talk to the neighbouring states of those countries and make sure that they are campaigning in the same way.
The human rights record in Iran is absolutely appalling. The person to whom the hon. Lady refers is being treated in a completely inhuman and despicable fashion, and we should be absolutely clear that the situation in Burma is an affront to humanity. Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued detention is an outrage. She has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest, and her example is deeply inspiring. All of us like to think that we give up something for democracy and politics; we do not. Compared with those people, we do nothing. They are an inspiration right across the world, and we should stand with them.
Like the last Government, we have promised to act on the litter that defaces our towns and countryside. Unlike the last Government, will we take some real practical action, such as starting a bottle deposit and refund scheme, which a Campaign to Protect Rural England report launched today shows will protect the environment and save local authorities millions of pounds?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting suggestion. Bill Bryson has made this suggestion to me as well because of the success that schemes like this have had in other countries. I will certainly ask his right hon. Friend the Energy and Climate Change Secretary to look at this issue and see if we can take it forward.
Q8. Back in June, Andrew Cook boasted that he was the largest donor to the Conservative party in Yorkshire, yet it turns out that his registered main residence is on the island of Guernsey. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that when he accepted free plane flights from Andrew Cook, he did so having satisfied himself that such a donation was both legally and morally acceptable? (15264)
Obviously it is up to every party leader to make sure that when they accept a donation they make proper checks and do so in the proper way. All the donations that the Conservative party has received are properly set out with the Electoral Commission and other bodies, and we do everything we can to make sure they are accurate; I hope that the Labour party does the same thing.
Q9. Two weeks ago, Bola Ejifunmilayo and her three year old daughter Fiyin burned to death in an unregistered house in multiple occupancy. Often poorly converted, with enormous fire risks, the majority of HMOs in Milton Keynes and elsewhere remain unregistered. What more can the Government do to end this plight and hopefully prevent another tragedy? (15265)
My hon. Friend makes an important point about an absolutely tragic case. As he knows, local authorities are responsible for licensing houses in multiple occupation, and they have the power to prosecute landlords who fail to apply for a licence—and they should do so. There have been too many cases like this. The law is there; it should be used. Our whole approach is to give local authorities the power they need, and the discretion they need, to take action for the good of their communities; that is the change we want to bring.
Q10. Building work is already under way on a new campus for Skelmersdale and Ormskirk college in my constituency, so it was a real shock to find that £4 million committed to the project will now not be available because of the Government’s decision to stop the budgets of the regional development agency with immediate effect. Will the Prime Minister please meet me and those at the college to try to find a way through? The building is already going up, and this would be a real embodiment of a hand up to the young people of Skelmersdale and the start of the regeneration of Skelmersdale. (15266)
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this specific case, and I will go away and look at it. In the Budget, while we did make difficult decisions, and some spending reductions were made, we actually put some money back into college building projects because so many schemes had suffered from the overspending and lack of control over the past couple of years. I will certainly look at her case and see whether a Minister can meet her to see what progress can be made.
In Great Yarmouth, one of our Labour legacies is that we still have one of the more deprived wards in the country. Will the Prime Minister outline the plans he has to deal with one of the legacies he has inherited, which is the shocking breach in the achievement levels of deprived schoolchildren?
There are many things we need to do to tackle deprivation. We have spoken today about the importance of tackling long-term unemployment and joblessness that goes back through generations. Clearly, one of the other things is making sure that children from less well-off backgrounds are getting access to the best schools available. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has announced this week how we are going to try to help children on free school meals to get access to the very best schools in our country, and we want to expand the number of good schools by allowing academies and free schools to go forward. I hope that Labour Members will back those plans. The problem we have is that there are not enough good school places. It does not matter how many different schemes are devised for lotteries or anything else for getting kids into good schools, we need more good school places, not least in Great Yarmouth.
Q11. Talking of schools, on 2 September the Department for Education sneaked out the equalities impact assessment associated with the Building Schools for the Future decision. That assessment showed that the scrapping of that policy had a disproportionate impact on poorer children in our society. Can the Prime Minister explain what is progressive about that? (15267)
One person’s announcement is another person’s sneaking out; I do not quite understand that. Let me tell the person who was largely responsible for designing Building Schools for the Future what a completely shambolic and disastrous programme it was. It took three years and £250 million before a single brick was laid; well, maybe we should assess that. The other thing that we could perhaps assess—it is worth reminding people of this—is the bureaucracy of Building Schools for the Future. There were nine meta-stages to putting in a bid. Each of the nine stages had further sub-stages. This is what a local authority had to do—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Gentleman was responsible for the programme; I am sure this will be a trip down memory lane for him. [Interruption.]
Thank you very much.
Local authorities that wanted to get involved needed a partnership for schools director, a director of education project adviser, a 4Ps adviser, an enabler from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment—[Interruption.] I am sorry the list is so long, but it goes on and on. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] The answer is that it was a disastrous programme, completely overspent and totally out of control. The last Government had announced 50% cuts and had not told us where a penny was coming from, and the hon. Gentleman is largely responsible for it.
Could the Prime Minister confirm that the Minister for Immigration will in the next few days come up with a solution for the English language schools in the UK, so that the good schools can move forward productively while bogus colleges and bogus students are dealt with?
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is working extremely hard on that issue. We all want the same thing, which is to ensure that Britain benefits as a provider of great education courses, universities and colleges that can attract talented people from around the world. But at the same time, we all know that there have been too many bogus colleges and too many bogus students coming here not really to study but to work or for other reasons, and we have to crack down on that. That is what my hon. Friend the Immigration Minister is trying to do, and I am sure he will be in contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) to ensure that that is the outcome of the policy.
Q12. I want to help the Prime Minister to reconsider the fact that we are not signing up to the directive on human trafficking, which, as he may understand, I know a little about. As a consequence, we rely on sections 57 and 59 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. That means that we cannot, for example, pursue or have any jurisdiction over someone who is normally a resident of the UK but is not a UK national, who is involved in human trafficking. More importantly, we cannot have jurisdiction when a UK resident in another EU country is trafficked by a non— (15268)
I will obviously listen very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says, and perhaps he would like to set out in detail why he thinks this is so important. The point is that the UK’s victim care arrangements are already in line with internationally agreed standards, as set out in the Council of Europe convention on trafficking. The UK already does what is required by the proposed directive on assisting victims, so the proposed directive would not improve the provision of victim care. Those are the facts, and Opposition Members need to engage with that point.
Q13. What is the Prime Minister doing to protect manufacturing in the west midlands, and in Coventry in particular? Equally, what is he doing to protect the research and development that a lot of manufacturing companies rely on? (15269)
The most important thing that we can do is make Britain a great place to do business, to set up a business and to manufacture. That is why we showed in the Budget that we are going to cut corporation tax to one of the lowest levels in the developed world, why we are cutting national insurance for every new business that sets up, and why we are dealing with the appalling economic inheritance that we were left by the Labour party so that this economy can grow, have low interest rates and get moving to provide good jobs for all our people. That is what this Government are all about, and that is what we are fixing.
Q14. Is the Prime Minister aware that the last Government took £30 million a year out of our social housing budget to give to their friends elsewhere? Because of that under-investment, one in 10 people in my constituency are on the council housing waiting list. Does he agree that social housing money raised in Harlow should be spent in Harlow, and that Harlow housing money should be for Harlow people? (15270)
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point, which is that in our relations with local government, at a difficult time in terms of budgets, we should be giving it money and taking away the ring-fencing and complications and all the different grants. We should say, “There’s the money. You’re democratically elected, you decide how that money is spent.” That is what people are going to see from this Government, and I think it will be welcomed by local government up and down the country.
Before the election, the Prime Minister said:
“If I am Prime Minister a Conservative and Unionist Government will work with”
the Northern Ireland
“Executive to ensure a just and fair resolution of the PMS”—
the Presbyterian Mutual Society—and continued:
“you’ve done the right thing and you deserve for that to be recognised and rewarded.”
How soon will that pledge be honoured?
I am determined that we will honour that pledge. This is important. I know how angry people in Northern Ireland are when they hear British politicians say, “Of course, nobody lost any savings in the crash.” People did lose money, including in Northern Ireland, and they are right to be upset and angry.
A working group is trying to go through those issues and to find an answer. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is involved in that, and the Chancellor is engaged in the issue. It is not easy, but we are determined to find a solution so that we can give satisfaction to people who lost money in Northern Ireland and who currently feel that they have been let down.
Individual Electoral Registration
With permission, I should like to make a statement on the Government’s plans for the implementation of individual electoral registration in Great Britain—Northern Ireland having introduced such a system in 2002.
It is widely recognised on both sides of the House that the current arrangements for electoral registration need to change. At present, there is no requirement for people to provide any evidence of their identity to register to vote, which leaves the system vulnerable to fraud. Household registration harks back to a time when registration was the responsibility of the head of the household. Access to a right as fundamental as voting should not be dependent on someone else. We need a better system of keeping up with people who move house or who need to update their registration for other reasons. Individual registration provides an opportunity to move forward to a system centred around the individual citizen.
I am sure that Members on both sides of the House are concerned when they read of allegations of electoral fraud, including those alleged to have taken place at elections this year. Although proven electoral fraud is relatively rare, we should be concerned about the impact that such cases have on the public’s confidence in the electoral system. The most recent survey, which was taken after the general election in May, found that one third of people think that electoral fraud is a problem. We can be confident that any allegations will be properly investigated by the authorities, but it is right that we take steps to make the system less vulnerable to fraud, because tackling that perception is an important part of rebuilding trust in our democracy, which is why this Government are committed to speeding up the implementation of individual registration.
Individual registration will require each person to register themselves and to provide personal identifiers—date of birth, signature and national insurance number—which will allow registration officers to cross-check the information provided before a person is added to the register, which should tackle the problem of fraudulent or ineligible registrations.
However, I want to make it absolutely clear that there will be no new databases. The Government’s commitment to rolling back the surveillance state will be demonstrated clearly later today when the House debates the remaining stages of the Identity Documents Bill. Electoral registration officers will check the information they receive from people applying to be registered with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the applicant is genuine. People seeking to access public services are already subject to various similar authentication processes, for example when applying for benefits, and I do not believe such a check, which will help to eliminate electoral fraud, is disproportionate or that it represents an invasion of privacy. Naturally, we will ensure that robust arrangements are put in place to ensure that personal data are securely held and processed by electoral registration officers. Personal identifiers will not be published in the electoral register.
The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 was passed in the previous Parliament with all-party support. At this point, it is worth paying tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who worked tirelessly on promoting that. The Act gave us a framework for moving to individual registration. Introduction was to be on a voluntary basis before a further decision by Parliament—on the recommendation of the Electoral Commission—on whether to make it compulsory from later in 2015 at the earliest, but it is our judgment that that is a slow and very expensive way of doing things.
I am announcing today that we will legislate to implement individual registration in 2014. We will drop the previous Government’s plans for a voluntary phase, which would have cost about £74 million over the Parliament. I believe that there is a far more cost-effective way to familiarise people with the new requirements for registration and—importantly—avoid any temporary drop in registration rates.
We propose that individual registration will be made compulsory in 2014, but that no one will be removed from the electoral register who fails to register individually until after the 2015 general election, giving people at least 12 months to comply with the new requirements, and ensuring as complete a register as possible for the election. From 2014 onwards any new registrations will need to be carried out under the new system, including last-minute registrations. We will also make individual registration a requirement for anyone wishing to cast a postal or proxy vote. That will tackle immediately the main areas of concern on electoral fraud, but it will ensure that people already on the register can vote at the next election and will have more than one opportunity to register individually.
Individual registration also provides us with an opportunity to tackle concerns about people missing from the electoral register, which are held on both sides of the House. But it is important to put this into perspective: the UK registration rate at 91% to 92% compares well internationally, including with some countries where voting is compulsory.
There is a significant number of people who are eligible to vote but not on the register. There is a variety of reasons for this and the move to individual registration provides us with an opportunity to do something about it. Whether a person chooses to register or not should be their individual choice. But we should do everything we can to ensure that people are not prevented from registering because the system is difficult to use or through ignorance of their rights. For example, research carried out by the Electoral Commission revealed that 31% of people believed that they would be automatically registered if they paid council tax. Many of those people may not therefore actually take the trouble to register to vote. As part of introducing individual registration, as well as improving the accuracy of the register, we will therefore take steps to improve its completeness.
I can also announce today that we will be trialling data-matching during 2011—comparing the electoral register with other public databases to find the people who are eligible to vote but who are missing from the register. The aim is to tackle under-registration among specific groups in our society and ensure that every opportunity is available to those currently not on the electoral register. These pilots will enable us to see how effective data-matching is and to see which data sets are of most use in improving the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. If they are effective, we will roll them out more widely across local authorities on a permanent basis to help ensure that our register is as complete as possible. The Electoral Commission will also play a key role in assessing and reporting on the pilots.
I will be writing to all local authorities responsible for electoral registration to invite them to put themselves forward to take part in these trials and I strongly encourage them to work in partnership with the Government on this important matter. Much work is already done by electoral registration officers to raise awareness and encourage people to register, but I will be considering further how local authorities, Members of Parliament and the Government might work together to develop an approach that will make a positive impact on the level of electoral registration.
Registration should be a simple process. We will also be considering how electoral registration can be integrated into people’s day-to-day transactions with Government— for example when they move house, or visit the post office, or apply for a passport or driving licence.
Our proposals will improve both the completeness and accuracy of the register. We will therefore seek to bring forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in the current Session followed by a Bill to introduce individual registration from 2014. The need to improve the accuracy and completeness of electoral registers is an issue on which there is cross-party consensus. As we move forward, it will be important for us to maintain consensus and we will be seeking to work closely on implementation with political parties across the House.
The steps that I am announcing today will achieve change over the lifetime of this Parliament that will safeguard the integrity of our electoral system and improve registration levels. They are an important part of rebuilding people’s faith in our democracy and I commend this statement to the House.
I’m back again.
I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, but not—I am afraid—for most of its content. Will he accept that his announcement today of the speeding up of individual registration, but without safeguards or any additional funding, could undermine the integrity of our democracy and lead to a repeat on the mainland of the Northern Ireland experience, in which the introduction of individual registration led to a 10% drop in registrations and many eligible voters effectively being disfranchised?
The hon. Gentleman referred to the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which was passed with all-party support, and he paid a fulsome tribute—entirely deserved, if I may so—to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), but why did he not go on to acknowledge the reasons the Conservative Front-Bench team endorsed wholly and specifically the detailed timetable in the 2009 Act and the special safeguards and the role for the Electoral Commission, which was spelt out in that Act? Has he forgotten what his own hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Epping Forest, said in the House and has repeated since the general election? She said that
“it is right to take this matter forward carefully and step by step. None of us wants to see a system introduced that would in any way undermine the integrity of our democratic system.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108.]
And is he not also aware of the endorsement of the details in the 2009 Act by the then Liberal Democrat spokesman, David Howarth? He said:
“I do not think that anybody was suggesting that the timetable be artificially shortened”—
exactly what the Minister is now proposing—
“or that any risk be taken with the comprehensiveness of the register.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 112.]
The Minister seeks to justify his announcement today principally by referring to electoral fraud. We all share concerns about electoral fraud, which pollutes and undermines the democratic process, and the last Government, not least in the Electoral Administration Act 2006, took active measures that are working to protect us better against fraud. However, that was not the principal reason for individual registration. That was about giving people rights as individual citizens just as these days people have rights to individual taxation. What is the evidence that initial registration is the principal point at which fraud takes place? In my experience, the principal problems have come not from that, but from personation at the polls of someone lawfully and properly on the register, or from misconduct over postal votes, where the 2006 Act provisions are working, but where further protection could easily be provided by the simple arrangement of banning the publication of the absent voters list in the immediate run-up to, and during, the election.
The Minister complains now about cost and complexity, but given that our scheme in the 2009 Act was the subject of detailed cross-party consultation by Lord Wills, then my right hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon, why was no such complaint made just six months ago? That system provided a key role for the European—I mean the Electoral—Commission—[Interruption.] I had Prime Minister’s questions on the brain, but happily the European Commission is not involved in this at all. The system provided a key role for the Electoral Commission to certify that full steps had been taken, but the Minister’s provisions seek to bypass the safeguarding role of the Electoral Commission. Why is that?
The arrangement set out in the 2009 Act included a voluntary process that the Minister now derides, but has he forgotten that the hon. Member for Epping Forest specifically endorsed voluntary registration in the first instance, making that subject to certification by the Electoral Commission that it was safe to proceed? The Minister claims that our overall registration rates are similar to those of other countries. They may be, but will he not accept that the overall average disguises the fact that, as the Electoral Commission showed, in many areas, especially in inner-urban areas and seaside towns, and among the young and those on lower incomes, levels of registration are much lower than the average, and less probably than in other countries?
There is no need, as the Minister implied, for further data-matching powers. They are already on the statute book and go back to previous Conservative Administrations, with powers for electoral registration officers strengthened by us, as set out in detail in a parliamentary answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). We will work carefully with the Minister to ensure that the data-matching arrangements are effective.
Overall, however, time and again the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have accepted that 3.5 million voters are missing from the register. The burden of the Minister’s statement today represents an admission that the 2010 register will disfranchise millions of voters, yet he is planning to use that register for the new fixed boundary arrangements, which will eliminate any local independent public inquiries. Given that, what possible reason is there for rushing the boundary legislation, except the reason now helpfully and publicly put on the record by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) and the right hon. Friend Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis): that this is being done solely for narrow, party political advantage?
That was a rather grudging welcome, I thought, for our plans.
Let me run through the questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked. His key point, set out at the beginning of his response, was to say that we were planning to speed up individual registration without safeguards, but I do not think that he can have listened to my statement. He specifically referred to the Northern Ireland experience, but what we are doing is entirely because of the Northern Ireland experience, where there was a significant drop in the numbers on the electoral register, albeit one that most people thought was greater than what we could have expected from just removing those who were on the register who should not have been. Clearly we would expect some reduction with individual registration, because there are some people on the register who should not be. However, the Northern Ireland experience is exactly what we are trying to avoid, by not removing people from the register before the next election if they have not registered individually—as I set out right at the beginning of my statement—so I do not think that that issue is valid.
The right hon. Gentleman quoted my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) as saying that she was clear that we did not want to undermine democracy. The whole point of the safeguards and the data-matching that I have outlined, along with the careful way in which we are going to proceed, is exactly so that we end up with a register that is more accurate and more complete than the one that we have today.
The recorded statistics on electoral fraud, which come from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission, show that fraudulent registration is one of the principal examples of electoral fraud, and there was cross-party agreement in the previous Parliament that it should be tackled.
As for the Electoral Commission and the safeguard to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, as I made clear in my statement, the Electoral Commission will absolutely be involved in the process, advising us on the data-matching pilots. We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission and yesterday, when the chair, Jenny Watson, gave evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, she welcomed individual registration, making it clear that it was an opportunity to give individuals responsibility for their vote. She also said that introducing individual registration would enable focused programmes to improve registration rates and gave some examples of programmes in Northern Ireland to encourage young people to vote. We will continue to work closely with the Electoral Commission, which has set out some important principles that we plan to follow.
As for under-registration, I made it clear in my remarks that we think that getting people who are eligible to vote on to the electoral register is as important as dealing with people who should not be on it. That is why we set out the proposal not to get rid of people in the first instance, but to improve data-matching, so that we can put some proactive plans in place to tackle under-registration. However, the boundary review will take place on exactly the same basis as the last one. We will use the existing electoral register, as with the previous boundary review, which took place under the previous Government, but under our proposals there will be more frequent boundary reviews—once a Parliament—so that we use the most up-to-date registration data and seats bear more relation to up-to-date electoral data.
On a positive note, I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s concurrence that he will work with us on the pilots. I shall write to those local authorities this week, and I shall be happy to work with all parties in the House to look at ways of improving electoral registration across the country, so that we have a more complete electoral register.
I thank the shadow Lord Chancellor for his courtesy in telling me a short while ago that he was going to mention what I had said on this matter. As this might really be his very last appearance at the Dispatch Box—we hope for a Frank Sinatra-style comeback, of course—I should like to pay tribute to him and wish him well on behalf of Members on both sides of the House. He will recall that we have argued over this matter for more than five years. The previous Government delayed and delayed, but at the eleventh hour they at last brought in individual voter registration. However, they still built in delays. Of course I have said in the past that I do not want anything to undermine the integrity of the democratic system, and I stick to that, but nothing that the Minister has said today appears to undermine that integrity. On the contrary, he has said that he will proceed carefully, step by step, and he has assured us that he has learned from the Northern Ireland experience. Also, the new system that he has devised will save money as well as time.
Of course individual registration might improve security, but it will also raise the threshold for engaging in the voting process. Is the Minister today announcing a reduction in the amount of money that goes to electoral registration officers? In his statement, it sounded as though he was taking about £74 million away, but could he be more specific about the phasing of the budget for councils?
What I announced was that proceeding with the voluntary phase was going to cost £74 million, and we are doing away with that. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member of the House, and he would not expect me to announce things that are going to be announced in the comprehensive spending review. I am confident, however, that the funds that we need to implement this in a sensible way will be forthcoming.
The Minister’s statement is very welcome. May I ask him to invite leaders of all parties in the House together to maximise our input into getting all those electors on to the list who should be on it? I should like to suggest that this November should be a democracy month, involving a campaign to do that, so that the register published in December has the maximum number of people on it for the immediate and long-term future.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I said in my statement that I wanted to work with local authorities and with Members of the House to promote electoral registration. His second idea is a very good one, and I shall think about it some more and see what we can do, ahead of the registration for this December, to make a significant impact.
In my constituency, five Conservatives were jailed or convicted following illegal registrations. They will probably be the last people to be convicted of that, because Lydia Simmons, whose seat was stolen, still faces a legal bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds, which were not available because the Conservative party did not pay the costs of its representatives. When looking at this issue, will the Minister see whether there are ways of making funds available to prosecute criminally illegal registration in such cases? I should also like to ask whether he is changing the law when he says:
“Whether a person chooses to register or not should be their individual choice.”
I did not think that that was the case in law at present, and I wonder whether his statement is announcing a legal change
The hon. Lady would not seriously expect me to comment on individual cases, particularly when I do not have the details of them. On her second point, people are not legally obliged to register to vote. If they receive inquiries from the local authority—the household registration form or some other inquiry—they are legally obliged to respond to them accurately, but there is no obligation on individuals to register at all. When registration is a household matter, and a person is responsible for registering other people, it is right that that should be obligatory, but when individuals take responsibility for their own registration, it is perfectly reasonable to say that it is up to them whether they choose to register— [Interruption.] We live in a free society, and people are entitled to decide whether they wish to be registered to vote and to cast their vote. That is the position today, and it will remain unchanged.
I very much welcome the Minister’s statement today. He mentioned the checking of national insurance numbers. These are of course available to people who are not citizens of this country or other eligible countries. What sort of citizenship or nationality checks will be carried out on those people?
Electoral registration officers already have to undertake a number of checks to confirm that people are eligible to vote, particularly in different sets of elections. My hon. Friend will know that, for example, in order to vote in a general election, a person has to be a citizen of the United Kingdom or a qualifying citizen of the Irish Republic or the Commonwealth. Those checks will remain as they are now. The checking of the date of birth, signature and national insurance number will enable the registration officers to be confident about someone’s identity, which will enable those other checks to be more accurate.
In these days of value for money and cost effectiveness, does the Minister see any merit in people who are in receipt of a state benefit, and thereby already encountering an arm of the state, automatically being registered to vote? The same could apply to people paying council tax, as he mentioned in his statement.
While we are looking into data-matching, we are also going to look at other public databases—the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned a couple—to see whether, using that information, we can contact people who are eligible to vote but who are not on the register. They could then be contacted to check their further eligibility—their citizenship, for example—and encouraged to register to vote. The hon. Gentleman has made a useful and worthwhile point.
I warmly welcome this statement. It is long overdue, and I am very glad that we are now going to have individual voter registration. I hope that the Government will also make a statement shortly on postal voting. Postal voting on demand has undoubtedly increased fraud. Will the Government look into that, and will they take some action to curb it?
My hon. Friend would not expect me to anticipate future announcements. Today’s proposals represent one stage in improving the electoral system, and we shall be looking at others in the future. I have heard what he has said, and I shall think on it some more.
There are currently 3.5 million people missing from the electoral register, many of whom are the most needy people in the country, and they form a significant part of our work load. Measures have been put in place by the previous Government and this Government, and I welcome the proposals to improve registration announced today. The issue is one of timing. These measures will take time to settle in, and the freeze date for the boundary review is December. In the interests of fairness, bipartisanship and an equitable work load for MPs, will the Minister consider using estimated eligible electorates as the basis for the calculation of new seats in December? Those voters could then be registered when the new measures came into effect, and there would be no fiddling.
I take exception to the hon. Gentleman’s use of the word “fiddling”. The boundary review proposed in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will be carried out on exactly the same basis as previous reviews, using the same electoral register and based on the same data. I acknowledge that there are people who are eligible to vote who have not chosen to register, and that is why we have put in place measures to deal with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) has made some helpful suggestions about what we could do this year, and we plan to fix this. When the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) raised this matter on Second Reading, I responded by saying that we would put in place measures to tackle under-registration, and I hope that he will be happy with what we have announced today.
At the moment, we send national insurance numbers to young people who are approaching their 16th birthday, yet, on the declaration form that goes to the local authority, only those who are 17 and older are identified. How can we ensure that we pick up those who are 16 and over and put them into the registration process in anticipation? Would it be possible to promote this through the schools system? The other thing I would like to ask is about the arrangements that are going to be made to check up on those living abroad. What will happen? Is there any capacity to—
The hon. Lady’s first point was valid. This is indeed something that the chief electoral registration officer in Northern Ireland has been doing—working with schools and also picking up the points the hon. Lady makes about national insurance numbers. In her evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform yesterday, the chair of the Electoral Commission drew attention to the work in Northern Ireland that has been particularly effective at getting younger voters on the register. That is exactly the sort of thing that we will be able to do once we introduce individual registration and make individuals responsible for registering to vote.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said, under-registration disproportionately hits the poorest, the youngest, the most mobile and ethnic minorities in our communities. I welcome the data-matching pilots, but surely it cannot make sense to go ahead with a radical redrawing of parliamentary boundaries before those pilots have taken place. If the Minister is sincere in wishing to conduct a cross-party review, let us have that review, look at the evidence and only then look at a radical redrawing of parliamentary boundaries.
I simply do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. The last boundary review that came into place for the recent general election was done using the existing electoral registers, and at least some people not on them were eligible to vote. I have already responded to that point. I am very pleased to work with colleagues on both sides of the House to ensure that more people who are eligible to vote are on the register. I set that out in my statement and I made it clear that the Government are as interested in the completeness of the register as they are in ensuring its accuracy.
My hon. Friend is taking steps that go a considerable way towards restoring integrity to individual voting, but may I reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), that, given that we value individual booths for privacy at the polling station, the over-extension of postal voting destroys that degree of privacy, at least within households? The Minister should look at this question again. People should have postal votes because they need them, not just on demand.
I hear what my hon. Friend—and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie)—says, and I will think further on it. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) will welcome the announcement in my statement that although we are going to leave people on the register who have not individually registered ahead of the general election, those who want to exercise a postal or proxy vote—the areas of greatest concern—will have had to register individually, ensuring an extra safeguard.
The Minister has outlined some changes in electoral reform, which we are glad to see happening. Whenever we go knocking on doors, as we do every time there is an election, people always tell us at the last minute that they thought they were on the list, but they have moved house and so forth. Is it possible to allow late registration even beyond the time currently allowed?
Our proposals in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which will set fixed parliamentary terms so that election dates become more predictable, should enable organisations such as the Electoral Commission and local authorities to run campaigns to improve registration ahead of specific elections. We will know when the date of the election will be. The hon. Gentleman thus makes a valid point. Under our fixed-term Parliament proposals, it should be easier to deliver what he suggests.
If the Minister wants data-matching, it is not a few paltry pilots that he needs; he could do it right across the country. As to his statement that whether a person chooses to register should be an individual choice and in light of his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), I thought that it was a citizen’s duty to register to vote. Is this for ever going to be known as the Harper doctrine—“If you don’t feel like registering to vote, don’t bother”?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that citizens should register to vote. I said in my statement that we want a complete register, so the Government clearly want the maximum number of people to register. The issue is whether we believe the law should say that someone should register and whether there should be a criminal sanction if they do not. I do not think that there should be. Indeed, in her evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee yesterday, the chair of Electoral Commission said:
“I think the idea that your vote is yours and it is not somebody else’s—you need to take some responsibility for it—will help and enable registration officers to do more work.”
The Government are very clear: we think people should register to vote and we want them to do so, we just do not think there should be a criminal sanction if they choose not to.
I welcome what the Minister said about individual voter registration, which I believe is long overdue. Two of my hon. Friends have already raised the issue of restricting postal and proxy votes, and I would like to add my voice to theirs, urging the Minister to consider reintroducing the restrictions—they were never removed in Northern Ireland—as the key way of tackling electoral fraud in this country.
Again, as with my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester and for New Forest East, I have clearly heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has said. I cannot add anything to what I said before—that I will reflect further on the matter.
Only 84% of registration forms are returned in Newcastle because we are a large city with a large student and deprived population. I have always considered it to be a crime that people should lose their right to vote because of a moment’s inattention. In the new coalition Government’s “big society”, is the Minister saying that there is no obligation to register to vote?
No, I did not say that at all. What I said was that with the current household registration, where one is not just responsible for one’s individual vote but for other people’s too, the law requires that when sent a form or approached for information, one has to give it. When this becomes one’s individual responsibility and the only person affected is yourself, I simply said that I did not think that it should be a matter for the criminal law.
On the issue of why people choose not to register to vote, the most common reason given is that people have moved house so that voting was not high up on the list of things to be done. For an awful lot of people—almost a fifth of those not registered—it happens because they have not bothered. As MPs and politicians, we all have to persuade electors that they should bother to register. Then, when they have registered, the next challenge is to give them a reason for coming out and using their vote at elections—something that does not happen enough today.
Under the Minister’s plans for individual registration, does he intend local authorities to collect as a matter of course individuals’ titles so that those using the electoral roll respectfully to engage with the electorate can do so with due courtesy?
That is not something I thought of announcing today, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that for politicians it is sometimes frustrating when we do not have people’s correct titles and we end up with our individual computer programmes guessing what they are, often getting them wrong. I will think further about this, but we should remember that in view of all the pieces of information we already ask local authorities to collect, process and deal with, which are not essential for voting, we must be careful not to impose extra burdens. As I say, I will think further about it.
Despite my reservations about individual registration, I welcome what the Minister said about data-sharing pilots and I hope he will consider Glasgow as a candidate for such a pilot. However, if we are going to all this great effort to share all these databases in order to identify people who have deliberately chosen not to register to vote up until now, what is the point of the exercise if, having identified those people, we are not going to oblige them to register? What is the point of that exercise?
There are two questions there. On the first, I shall be writing to all local authorities responsible for registration suggesting that they engage with the pilots. The best thing the hon. Gentleman can do is to speak to his council and his registration officer and encourage them to participate. On his second point, quite a lot of people have not deliberately chosen not to register. As I said, one of the key reasons is that people have simply moved and have not got around to registering. Some people do not know how to register. Many would do so if it were easier, and if they were clearer about what they had to do. I think that if we approach them, tell them that they are eligible to vote and explain how they can do so, we will improve the rate of registration. However, in a free society, if someone deliberately chooses not to register to vote, that is a matter for them.
Parliamentary democracy cannot function at its best if nearly 10% of our citizens are not registered. May I urge my hon. Friend to think again? I think most people believe that registration is a civic duty, and that they would be surprised by what he has said today. May I encourage him to make it a legal requirement for people to register when he introduces legislation?
I made it clear that I, too, think that registration is a civic duty. However, making it a legal requirement presents the challenge of deciding what sanctions should apply to those who do not register. I do not think that, in a free society, it would be right to imprison someone who chose not to register to vote, or to hit them with a huge fine. In a free society, people should be free not to register to vote without incurring a criminal penalty.
I cannot help thinking that we are making voting more difficult for people, and placing more and more barriers in their way, when we ought to be making the process easier. We have all observed that during general elections. It applies not just to the young, the elderly and the disabled, but to people who lives in houses in multiple occupation, especially those living in flats in Glasgow and some industrial areas. It will be difficult to carry out data-matching in such circumstances. I am glad that it is to be piloted, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) pointed out, unless it is followed up and the electoral registration officers are much more proactive than they have been so far, it will be a wasted exercise.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. One of the reasons for the data-matching pilots is to enable electoral registration officers to identify people who may be eligible to vote but are not on the register. They can then focus their efforts on that. As I have said, there is evidence that specific procedures to target younger voters and others who are not currently on the register have been very successful in Northern Ireland.
A significant number of United Kingdom citizens living overseas are entitled to vote, but at the last general election a not particularly significant proportion registered or, indeed, voted. How will my hon. Friend ensure that more of them are encouraged and able to register? Could UK embassies, high commissions and consulates be better used to encourage them to register individually?
I have received and replied to a number of written questions along the same lines recently. The Government are considering those issues, and if we have proposals to present we will, of course, announce them to the House first.
Resources will obviously be crucial to the success of the project. A significant proportion of British and Commonwealth citizens in my constituency do not have English as a first language. What additional resources will be given to local authorities such as Leicester to enable them to deal with that important issue, and will the Minister meet a delegation to discuss it?
I should, of course, be pleased to meet a delegation from the right hon. Gentleman or, indeed, from any other Members who wish to discuss these issues. As for the right hon. Gentleman’s first question, he will know that local authorities receive funds from their revenue support grant and other resources enabling them to carry out electoral registration. He would not expect me to make specific announcements about the proposals for funding this project before the spending review, but I am confident that it will be properly resourced.
Is my hon. Friend as puzzled as I am by the argument of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), which appears to be that we cannot adopt fully equal constituencies until we have dealt with the inadequacies of the register over which his party presided, and we cannot do anything to introduce the improvements in the register at any more than a glacial pace? Is not this obstructionism the real attempt to use the electoral system for partisan advantage?
It seemed a bit churlish to point out in my statement that if there were problems with the state of the electoral register, it was not the parties on this side of the House that had been in government for the past 13 years, which is, I think, the point that my hon. Friend was making. Let me make it clear that we want to improve the state of the register, but the fact that it is not perfect should not mean that we cannot continue with the boundary review. The last Government conducted a boundary review, and we are conducting the review of the register on exactly the same basis.
It is worth pointing out that our electoral register contains the names of about 91% or 92% of eligible voters. In that regard, we compare very well with other comparable democracies. However, we are not complacent, and we want to improve our registration levels still further.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) gave the example of Northern Ireland, where individual registration saw dramatic falls, especially in poorer areas. What extra resources will the Minister give local authorities, and—this is very important—will he ring-fence those resources to prevent authorities from spending them on other things?
The hon. Gentleman has raised two issues. The fact that individual registration was implemented overnight in Northern Ireland led to that sharp drop, not all of which was accounted for by the removal of people who should not have been on the register because they were not eligible to vote in the first place, which is one reason for introducing individual registration. It is because we do not want to see a similar dramatic fall here that I announced the safeguard that we would not remove people from the register immediately, and certainly not before the next general election.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s second point about resources and ring-fencing, it is a difficult argument. Local authorities generally take exception to central Government’s giving them ring-fenced amounts and micro-managing what they do. I know that it can be argued that central Government should say that this is a different area, but that is not a view that has been taken so far. I will think about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, but I do not think that the Government will pursue it.
Without simply reiterating the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), I ask the Minister to take on board my deep concern about postal voting fraud. Although I welcome individual registration, I fear that it will not wholly tackle that problem, to which I have referred before.
In my constituency—I must choose my words carefully, because the case is currently being investigated by the Electoral Commission—200 more votes were cast than electoral ballots were issued. I want to impress on the Minister a point that was raised with me recently by a constituent. He said that Labour Members were going from door to door asking if people wanted them to help them to fill out postal voting forms.
My hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on an ongoing investigation, and I will not do so, but he has raised the issue of why it is important to make the accuracy of the electoral register more secure. We intend to deal with the public perception as well as the reality of the fraudulent registrations that have occurred. As I said in my statement, a third of the public are worried about the security of registration in our voting system, and it is important to the maintaining of confidence in our democracy for us to deal with those real concerns.
The Minister has said that the proposed carry-over from 2014 to 2015 is designed to avoid the adverse effects experienced in Northern Ireland, but he has also said that those who carry over will be disqualified from postal or proxy voting. Will that disqualification be noted on the register? Among the groups who lost out in Northern Ireland were the long-term sick and disabled, who made the mistake of believing that being on the standing list for postal votes was the same as being permanently registered.
Those people will not be disqualified from postal or proxy voting, but if they wish to have a postal or proxy vote, they will have to supply their personal identifiers. Those who are already signed up for postal or proxy voting and have already supplied their signatures and dates of birth will have to renew those details from time to time and undergo a verification check. The information will be due at some point in the future in any event, and we are investigating whether we can synchronise the processes to avoid duplication.
I warmly welcome the step to speed up the process of individual registration, but the overwhelming majority of people in the UK do not move from one year to the next. Although I completely agree with having security for the initial registration—supplying national insurance numbers and, most importantly, signatures—because the vast majority of people do not move every year, will the Minister consider sticking with the current position of allowing annual renewals on the list to be done by, for instance, the internet or telephone, rather than having to supply a signature every year?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. People who are on the register, and who have supplied the identifiers and where verification has taken place, will not have to supply the identifiers and go through that check every year if there are no changes to their details. I thank him for making that point, which has enabled me to make that clear to the House.
Data-matching and data-sharing will be key if we are to ensure that thousands of people are not removed from the register as a result of this process. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the pilots will look at as wide a range of data sources as possible? Will he give an assurance that he will look at sources from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions, for instance, and from universities, colleges and schools as young people are often not registered? Will he also consider looking at sources from utilities in the private sector, given that they form an important part of the registration process in Australia?
I thank the Chairman of the Communities and Local Government Committee for raising that point. As well as writing to local authorities, I will write to a number of other organisations, including civil society bodies, in looking for ideas on how to tackle this issue. I said in my statement that we will look at public databases. Other issues arise if we want to look at private databases, but we are considering that too as we want to use a wide variety of sources. As I will be writing to local authorities, I urge hon. Members who are concerned about registration to speak to their local authorities and to encourage them to participate in those pilots. We want a wide range of authorities to take part, and we want to look at a range of data sources because we want to discover which of them are the most effective before we roll this out across the country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the statement. I have listened to what hon. Members have said, and it seems to me that while nobody will be removed from the register, there is a certain amount of uncertainty in respect of eligibility to vote. Through these various registration documents, will the Minister consider giving people a particular number that could be annexed on to the national insurance number?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The whole point of using the national insurance number as the check is that it is a number that is attached to the individual. I think my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) were in danger of anticipating the debate to come on removing ID cards and the national identity register.
Given that one in five people in Britain are functionally illiterate and therefore incapable of filling in forms, and that many more cannot even speak English, does the Minister accept that there will be a systemic deregistration of people? Therefore, will he undertake to ensure that his review of boundaries is done on the basis of population taken from the census, rather than on a corrupted registration based on individual—and, we now hear, voluntary—registration of certain social groups?
Order. May I just say to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that anybody would think he was auditioning to be a television sports commentator judging by the frequency of his sedentary interventions? He had his go much earlier—he did very well out of me. He should now listen to the Minister’s reply.
The whole point of using the data-matching pilots and so forth is so that the electoral registration office can identify eligible voters and encourage them to register to vote. It would not be right to use population data because constituencies should be based on eligible voters and not everyone who lives in a certain area is eligible to vote in parliamentary elections. That is why it is not right to use census data. We should use electoral registration data instead.
Will the Minister look at the specific issue of college and university students who live at both a term-time address and a different address during the rest of the year? Some are registered in both places, some in one place, and others in none. The result is that, as in Leeds North West, the turnout figures are misleading because quite a number of those people have voted elsewhere. I feel this needs particular consideration. May I have a conversation with the Minister about it?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is, of course, perfectly lawful for individuals to be registered in more than one place—they may do so if they occupy two properties, for example—although it is not lawful for them to vote more than once for the same body. The much-quoted survey about people who are not registered did not address one particular aspect of that issue: quite a lot of students who it said were not registered to vote at their term-time address are, of course, registered to vote at their home or parental address. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I would be very pleased to meet him to discuss it.
I am not sure whether the Minister is aware that there is considerable concern about the answers he gave to my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and that that concern appears to be shared by Members of the coalition parties. The Minister has regularly mentioned the Electoral Commission. What consultations did he have with it prior to making his statement? Is it his intention that it will continue to have, as the Opposition Front-Bench team has said it would, the role it was given in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009? If he is serious about avoiding the consequences that arose in Northern Ireland, will he be flexible about the imposition of compulsory individual registration in order to take into account the difficulties that may arise?
We have, of course, been working closely with the Electoral Commission. My officials have been working with its officials, and both the Deputy Prime Minister and I have met its chair and chief executive to discuss these matters. I think I can accurately say that they are content with our approach. We plan to keep them involved in the process: we want them both to assess the data-matching pilots and, as we move forward, to comment publicly on the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register so that there is an independent check on the progress the Government make.
The experience in Northern Ireland has been mentioned on a number of occasions, and one of the lessons from our experience has been that resources need to be put into the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland—or the local councils here in Britain—to get to people who are hard to reach in terms of registration. Can the Minister give a commitment that resources will be available? Also, I welcome the fact that he says his proposals will be achieved on the basis of consensus-building, working with other political parties and having pre-legislative scrutiny, but why does he not adopt the same approach on other important issues such as fixed-term Parliaments?
The right hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions. On the point about pre-legislative scrutiny, I hope hon. Members will be encouraged by that approach. Whether we can have pre-legislative scrutiny partly comes down to timing. Both my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I have explained that point: early in a new Parliament Governments simply have to get on with some things and cannot delay everything. However, we plan to legislate to bring in these proposals in 2014. We will introduce proposals in a draft Bill. Colleagues on both sides of the House will have the chance to scrutinise them, and we will listen to what they have to say before introducing a Bill for scrutiny in both Houses.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Prime Minister’s Question Time, I asked the Prime Minister a question about the future of the Mersey Gateway bridge and the impact of cutting capital projects on economic growth. The Prime Minister said specifically and clearly that the Government were not going to cut capital projects. That seems to contradict what I have been told on the Floor of the House and in letters: that a decision on the Mersey Gateway bridge is postponed pending the review of expenditure. Incidentally, that is in stark contrast to the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme, which is a capital programme, the cancellation of which has badly hit my constituency. Can you, Mr Speaker, arrange for an urgent statement to be made to the House to clarify the position on the bridge because we do not want to be in a situation where the Prime Minister is misleading the House?
I can make no such arrangement. What I say to the hon. Gentleman in response to his attempted point of order is that he is a wily old hand, and some people might think—this could be uncharitable, but it might not be—that he is seeking to continue the debate. He has put his views very clearly on the record, and I have a feeling they will be heard where he wishes them to be heard. Moreover, if he wishes to follow up his grave concern on this matter with questions of one form or another and in other parliamentary ways, it is open to him to do so, and I have a hunch that he will.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I hope that this is in order. I was concerned to read in The Guardian today a statement from Jenny Watson of the Electoral Commission that was based on evidence she gave yesterday. She said that she could not really accept amendments to the alternative vote and boundary change Bill after November and that if their lordships amended it, that would make her life very difficult. Is it right for the head of an Executive agency so to dictate to or tell both the other place and, as their lordships’ amendments come back here, this place what they can and cannot amend and when they can and cannot amend it? You have been very good in bringing Ministers to the House to be held to account by Members, but the Executive consist of more than Ministers; we have these new agencies, the Electoral Commission in this case and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in others, where there are deep concerns about whether MPs can carry out their duties. This new state within a state just does not seem to be accountable and has an awful lot of influence.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I had no idea that the right hon. Gentleman was going to raise it and I have not read the report in The Guardian, but I am a member of that Committee and was at its sitting yesterday morning. What the report describes is not what the chairman of the Electoral Commission said; in fact, it is quite close to a point that I raised in that Committee sitting with the chairman of the Electoral Commission about the significance of the date of 5 November being six months before a proposed referendum. What the right hon. Gentleman has just read from The Guardian is not my recollection of what occurred yesterday, and I thought it was as well to raise that.
Not for the first time, and I am sure not for the last, there is a disagreement on what the evidence is. What I would say to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) and to the hon. Member for Epping Forest is that I am not responsible for what is or, alternatively, is not said by people outside this House. There is, of course, a system for the House to consult external parties, and there is a chance for Members to move amendments on which the views of others have been given. The Bill to which reference is being made is, of course, a Bill that has been committed to a Committee of the whole House, and the situation is that people are free to volunteer their views to the Committee on the Bill. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform is also conducting an inquiry into the implications of the Bill and, doubtless, it will report any views in due course. I see nothing amiss in what has occurred, but in the course of these brief exchanges the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady have placed their views fairly and squarely on the record.
Savings Accounts and Health in Pregnancy Grant Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Mr Secretary Lansley, Secretary Michael Gove, Danny Alexander, Mr Mark Hoban, Mr David Gauke and Justine Greening, presented a Bill to make provision about eligibility for a child trust fund; to repeal the Saving Gateway Accounts Act 2009; to make provision about entitlement to health in pregnancy grant; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 73) with explanatory notes (Bill 73-EN).
Financial Services (Regulation of Deposits and Lending)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit banks and building societies lending on the basis of demand deposits without the permission of the account holder; and for connected purposes.
Who owns the money in your bank account? That small question has profound implications. According to a survey by Ipsos MORI, more than 70% of people in the UK believe that when they deposit money with the bank, it is theirs—but it is not. Money deposited in a bank account is, as established under case law going back more than 200 years, legally the property of the bank, rather than the account holder. Were any hon. Members to deposit £100 at their bank this afternoon or, rather improbably, if the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority was to manage to do so on any Member’s behalf, the bank would then be free to lend on approximately £97 of it. Even under the new capital ratio requirements, the bank could lend on more than 90% of what one deposited. Indeed, bank A could then lend on £97 of the initial £100 deposit to another bank—bank B—which could then lend on 97% of the value. The lending would go round and round until, as we saw at the height of the credit boom, for every £1 deposited banks would have piled up more than £40 of accumulated credit of one form or another.
Banks enjoy a form of legal privilege extended to no other area of business that I am aware of—it is a form of legal privilege. I am sure that some hon. Members, in full compliance with IPSA rules, have rented a flat, and they do not need me, or indeed IPSA, to explain that having done so they are, in general, not allowed to sub-let it to someone else. Anyone who tried to do that would find that their landlord would most likely eject them. So why are banks allowed to sub-let people’s money many times over without their consent?
My Bill would give account holders legal ownership of their deposits, unless they indicated otherwise when opening the account. In other words, there would henceforth be two categories of bank account: deposit-taking accounts for investment purposes, and deposit-taking accounts for storage purposes. Banks would remain at liberty to lend on money deposited in the investment accounts, but not on money deposited in the storage accounts. As such, the idea is not a million miles away from the idea of 100% gilt-backed storage accounts proposed by other hon. Members and the Governor of the Bank of England.
My Bill is not just a consumer-protection measure; it also aims to remove a curious legal exemption for banks that has profound implications on the whole economy. Precisely because they are able to treat one’s deposit as an investment in a giant credit pyramid, banks are able to conjure up credit. In most industries, when demand rises businesses produce more in response. The legal privilege extended to banks prevents that basic market mechanism from working, with disastrous consequences.
As I shall explain, if the market mechanism worked as it should, once demand for credit started to increase in an economy, banks would raise the price of credit— interest rates—in order to encourage more savings. More folk would save as a result, as rates rose. That would allow banks to extend credit in proportion to savings. Were banks like any other business, they would find that when demand for what they supply lets rip, they would be constrained in their ability to supply credit by the pricing mechanism. That is, alas, not the case with our system of fractional reserve banking. Able to treat people’s money as their own, banks can carry on lending against it, without necessarily raising the price of credit. The pricing mechanism does not rein in the growth in credit as it should. Unrestrained by the pricing mechanism, we therefore get credit bubbles. To satisfy runaway demand for credit, banks produce great candy-floss piles of the stuff. The sugar rush feels great for a while, but that sugar-rush credit creates an expansion in capacity in the economy that is not backed by real savings. It is not justified in terms of someone else’s deferred consumption, so the credit boom creates unsustainable over-consumption.
Policy makers, not least in this Chamber, regardless of who has been in office, have had to face the unenviable choice between letting the edifice of crony capitalism come crashing down, with calamitous consequences for the rest of us, or printing more real money to shore up this Ponzi scheme—and the people who built it—and in doing so devalue our currency to keep the pyramid afloat.
Since the credit crunch hit us, an endless succession of economists, most of whom did not see it coming, have popped up on our TV screens to explain its causes with great authority. Most have tended to see the lack of credit as the problem, rather than as a symptom. Perhaps we should instead begin to listen to those economists who saw the credit glut that preceded the crash as the problem. The Cobden Centre, the Ludwig von Mises Institute and Huerta de Soto all grasped that the overproduction of bogus candy-floss credit before the crunch gave rise to it. It is time to take seriously their ideas on honest money and sound banking.
The Keynesian-monetarist economists might recoil in horror at the idea, because their orthodoxy holds that without these legal privileges for banks, there would be insufficient credit. They say that the oil that keeps the engine of capitalism working would dry up and the machine would grind to a halt, but that is not so. Under my Bill, credit would still exist but it would be credit backed by savings. In other words, it would be credit that could fuel an expansion in economic capacity that was commensurate with savings or deferred consumption. It would be, to use the cliché of our day, sustainable.
Ministers have spoken of their lofty ambition to rebalance the economy from one based on consumption to one founded on producing things. A good place to begin might be to allow a law that permits storage bank accounts that do not permit banks to mass-produce phoney credit in a way that ultimately favours consumers and debtors over those who create wealth. With honest money, instead of being the nation of indebted consumers that we have become, Britons might become again the producers and savers we once were.
With a choice between the new storage accounts and investment accounts, no longer would private individuals find themselves co-opted as unwilling—and indeed unaware—investors in madcap deals through credit instruments that few even of the banks’ own boards seem to understand.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Douglas Carswell and Steve Baker present the Bill.
Mr Douglas Carswell accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 November and to be printed (Bill 71).
Business without Debate
[Relevant document: The First Report from the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Appointment of nominated Commissioners to the Electoral Commission, HC 320.]
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6) and Order, 19 July),
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint as Electoral Commissioners—
(1) Angela Frances, Baroness Browning, with effect from 1 October 2010 for the period ending on 30 September 2014;
(2) David Ross Howarth, with effect from 1 October 2010 for the period ending on 30 September 2014;
(3) Roy Francis, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, with effect from 1 October 2010 for the period ending on 30 September 2014; and
(4) Rt. Hon. George Newlands Reid, with effect from 1 October 2010 for the period ending on 30 September 2012.—(Mr Vara.)
Question accordingly agreed to.
Ways and Means
Amendment of the Law
I beg to move,
(1) It is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance.
(2) This Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to value added tax so as to provide—
(a) for zero-rating or exempting a supply, acquisition or importation,
(b) for refunding an amount of tax,
(c) for any relief, other than a relief that—
(i) so far as it is applicable to goods, applies to goods of every description, and
(ii) so far as it is applicable to services, applies to services of every description.
The resolution and the others on the Order Paper enable the House to embark on its third Finance Bill of the calendar year. As Members will be aware, the general election and the need for an emergency Budget meant constrained timetables in legislating for tax measures this year. We have the opportunity in this Bill to examine the technical measures that will benefit from the intense debates Upstairs that I know so many of my colleagues enjoy. I will look forward to seeing many of them on the Benches with me.
The first Finance Bill introduced by this Government legislated for the key measures in our emergency Budget. The Government needed to take quick and decisive action to reassure the country and the markets that we would not allow debt to spiral out of control. However, there remain a number of minor and technical measures that we inherited from the previous Government, which must be legislated for before 2011. The resolutions before us today form the foundation for such a Bill.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that, alongside the Budget, I set out a proposed new approach to tax policy making that we have been discussing with interested parties over the summer. As part of this new approach to making tax policy, the Government are committed to being more transparent and to improving the scrutiny of tax legislation. As a first step towards that, we published all the legislation that will be included in the Bill in draft for consultation on 12 July. Representative bodies described that as a “welcome move” and the consultation has received more than 40 comments, leading to a number of technical changes to the legislation. That approach provides additional scrutiny, which we believe is essential in demonstrating that the Government are genuinely listening to how the tax system can be improved.
Detailed examination of the Bill is for another day, but I want briefly to explain some of what is before us. The Bill will provide for improved treatment of company distributions and ease restrictions on research and development tax credits. It will relieve carers of unnecessary tax and assist trusts to help victims of asbestos exposure. Although small in nature, the Bill will introduce important measures to ensure better compliance with a better tax system.
In conclusion, the Bill on which the resolutions are based will take forward many necessary changes in the tax system that make a difference to the broader public. The Government are making these changes responsibly, having consulted on all the legislation. I hope it will find support among Members on both sides of the House.
I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation and I agree with the welcome, to which he drew attention, for the consultation on and publication online of the proposed measures before the summer break.
There is still no good reason for this year’s post-election finance legislation being split into two Bills other than the Government’s wanting to get key measures on to the statute book before all the Government Members realised fully what was going on—before, for example, they had the change to read the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Budget assessment, published last month, which stated that the Budget was “clearly regressive”, or the analysis published by the TUC just a few days ago, which underlined the same point.
We are committed in the debates that will follow to holding the Government to account on fairness and to scrutinising closely the quality of the legislation that the Government propose, which I hope will reflect the benefit of the consultation to which the Minister referred. The Opposition will be busy once the Bill is in front of us, both on the Floor of the House and in Committee, but we have no reason to oppose the resolutions and we are happy for them to proceed.
Let me go back over the last three Finance Bills that have become Acts. In 2009, we had 127 clauses and 61 schedules—the normal Finance Bill that we have all spent many pleasurable months Upstairs considering. The first Finance Act of 2010 had 70 clauses and 20 schedules, and then we had the very brief Finance (No. 2) Act 2010, which had 11 clauses and five schedules. The Minister tells us today that there is a requirement for a third Finance Bill this year to cover 18 areas—he described them as minor technical measures. It might well be that they are measures that are time-limited to some extent and must be considered. However, my difficulty is that there will be two full years between 2009 and 2011 before we get a full Finance Bill. That Bill is important in terms of scrutiny because it consolidates and brings together all the tax and duty measures in a single Bill and gives Parliament the opportunity to consider in the round the comprehensive impact of all these measures together rather than doing so piecemeal, which is what is being done here, notwithstanding the technical reasons behind that.
I have no particular problem with the measures that are to be debated—I think that some of them will be sensible—but I am looking for some confirmation before I make a final determination on this measure that when we get to 2011 there will again be a full, comprehensive Finance Bill so that we can see all the tax, duty and other financial measures in a single Bill for proper detailed consideration Upstairs over the months it normally takes. I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance that once we have got past this limited No. 3 Finance Bill, future Finance Bills will not be delivered in this way and will once again be full and comprehensive.
I want to make a couple of specific points about the motion. Although I accept that the Minister has said that the Finance Bill will be quite narrow in scope, there are a couple of provisions in the motion that suggest that there could be an opportunity for the Treasury to introduce a series of other measures. The Minister, as is the practice now, tried to set out the context in which the Finance Bill would be set, and obviously the Opposition completely disagree with the Government’s approach.
It is quite clear that a strong dollop of dogma has been introduced into the Government’s financial strategies. Rather than sensibly and prudently address the deficit, the Government are going far further, far faster than is necessary, which is having a dilatory impact on the economy at large. However, that is a debate for another day.
The specific element of the motion that I want to address is item No. 6, the “Collection of income tax on payments”. Senior officials from the Minister’s Department have been giving evidence to the Treasury Committee this morning about the significant concern that has been expressed by many of our constituents about problems with the pay-as-you-earn system in collecting income tax that is owed, perhaps when miscalculations were made. Some reports suggest that 1.4 million people owe about £2 billion, which is an average of £1,400 each.
There is significant concern across the country and I am glad that the permanent secretary and his colleagues have given a concession today about the interest elements being waived, in part, when sums above £2,000 are owed. That prompted me to look carefully at some of the regulations that the Minister has introduced, and I noticed that he laid statutory instrument No. 1879—the Taxes and Duties (Interest Rate) Regulations 2010—which sets out that an individual who owes money to Revenue and Customs has to pay interest on it at 3.5%, but if HMRC owes money to an individual it will pay only the absolute, basic minimum, which I think is 0.5%. That disparity is controversial and many people find it difficult to understand why, in all fairness, there is not a two-way street. I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight this issue; I have prayed against that statutory instrument and I hope that we will find time to debate it.
In general, will the Minister iterate an apology from his Department about what has been happening with the PAYE arrangements? Will he also undertake that concessions will be given on the interest owed on any sums to try to make it a little easier for those who face an unexpected bill to bear that cost?
With the leave of the House, let me respond briefly to the points that have been made. First, the hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) asked whether this Bill sets a precedent for future Finance Bills. The intention is to return to the usual one annual Finance Bill; that is probably enough for most Members of the House—even him. As I outlined earlier, the Bill is needed because of the general election and to take decisive action on the deficit.
In response to the comments of the shadow Minister, I should say that it was important that the Government took decisive action and implemented the measures. Indeed, one reason for the fall in long-term interest rates in recent months might be that the Government have been determined to take decisive action and have demonstrated that by passing legislation to enable us to do so. It is right that we should take further time this year to go through some of the technical measures, and that is exactly what we will do with the Bill.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) asked about the interest regime, the provisions for HMRC in relation to the late payment of tax due and the interest that applies when HMRC owes money. He will know that the provisions in the resolutions and in the Finance Bill are intended very much to tidy up and bring consistency to some areas. The overall interest structure and a unified interest rate was introduced in the Finance Act 2009, which the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) might have taken us through, and we are not departing from what was in that.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the comments of senior HMRC officials at the Treasury Committee this morning regarding the regime for those who have underpaid tax of more than £2,000. HMRC has said throughout that a sympathetic approach would be taken in matters of hardship, but what has been announced today is the intention to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to pay off the underpaid amount without interest or penalties being applied. I am sure that will be welcomed by Members on both sides of the House.
Having responded to the specific points that have been raised in this very short debate, I am grateful that the motions have the support of the House.
Question put and agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the motions made in the name of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Standing Order No. 51(3)).
2. cAPITAL aLLOWANCES
That provision may be made about capital allowances for foster carers and shared lives carers.
3. Venture Capital Schemes
That provision may be made about the enterprise investment scheme and venture capital trusts.
4. Enterprise Management Incentives
That provision may be made about enterprise management incentives.
5. Settlors’ Excess REpayments
That provision (including provision having retrospective effect) may be made amending section 646 of the Income Tax (Trading and Other Income) Act 2005.
6. Collection of income tax on payments
That provision may be made about the collection of income tax in respect of payments from which a person is required to deduct a sum representing income tax.
7. Company Distributions
That provision (including provision having retrospective effect) may be made about company distributions.
8. Real Estate Investment trusts
That provision may be made about stock dividends in connection with Real Estate Investment Trusts.
9. Financing Costs and income of group Companies
That provision (including provision having retrospective effect) may be made about financing costs and income of companies that are members of a group.
10. Consortium claims for group relief
That provision (including provision having retrospective effect) may be made amending Chapter 4 of Part 5 of the Corporation Tax Act 2010.
11. Value Added tax (supplies relating to non-business use of business assets)
That provision (including provision having retrospective effect) may be made—
(a) repealing section 24(3) of the Value Added Tax Act 1994,
(b) about what is to count as input tax, and
(c) about supplies under paragraph 5(4) of Schedule 4 to that Act.
12. value added tax (gas, heat and cooling)
That provision may be made about value added tax in relation to supplies of gas, heat and cooling.
13. Value added tax (aircraft)
That provision may be made about value added tax in relation to supplies of, or relating to, aircraft.
14. Value added tax (Postal Services and transport of passengers)
That provision may be made about value added tax in relation to supplies of postal services, supplies of goods which are incidental to such supplies and the transport of passengers.
15. tobacco products duty (long Cigarettes)
That provision may be made amending section 4 of the Tobacco Products Duty Act 1979.
16. landfill tax (Lower Rate Materials)