House of Commons
Monday 16 January 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Arts and Creative Education
The Government believe that children’s education is enriched through their connection with the beauty provided through the arts. To support this mission, we invited Darren Henley, the managing director of Classic FM, to undertake a review of cultural education in schools and he is due to report shortly. As you know, Mr Speaker, in November we published a national plan for music education worth £200 million over three years.
I am sure the whole House is looking forward to the Henley review, but does the Minister acknowledge that the expert panel on the curriculum review is concerned that the role of cultural and creative subjects in a broad and balanced curriculum is in danger of being lost? Given the significant reduction in postgraduate certificate in education art and design places and the lack of any cultural subjects in the English baccalaureate, is it not right to be concerned?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the E-bac—the core curriculum that we are developing—is sufficiently small to allow space for all kinds of other activities, including those relating to music, art and culture, as well. Certainly, it is the view of the Secretary of State and the whole Government that enriching a child’s education through their experience of art, music and culture is at the heart of good education.
My constituency is one of the hotbeds of creative activity with a very high percentage of artists and creative businesses, and the schools have followed that through. However, I know from recent visits to primary schools such as Brook community primary school, which has excellent enrichment through the arts, that they are worried about future funding and are already having to make cuts in those areas. Will the Minister explain what the Government’s financial policy is to back up the warm words he just uttered?
I mentioned in my first answer the commitment we have made to music. The important thing about that commitment is that we have been very clear over the long term about what schools can expect to receive, and that will help with financial planning. The new music education hubs will help to bring this together. That recommendation very much arose from the original investigation we did. Art is not the study of positive reality; in Ruskin’s words, it is “seeking for ideal truth”. It is that spirit that imbues all this Government do.
Plymouth’s excellent college of art is looking at trying to develop and create a free school aimed specifically at bolstering the arts economy and improving participation in the arts. Would my hon. Friend be willing to meet me and fellow representatives from the college of art to discuss how it can ensure that aspiration becomes reality?
Any meeting with my hon. Friend always adds to my grasp of these matters; of course I will happily meet him. It is clear from his question that he shares our view that having a richer mix of school types will allow the development of precisely the expertise he describes.
The hon. Lady will know, because she is a diligent student of these matters, that this Government established a council specifically to look at the creative industries. I have met that council to discuss how we can work with it to improve links between the creative industries and schools and colleges. She will also know that we have allocated in my area specific funding with that council to develop new courses, new apprenticeships and new opportunities with creative industries.
School Playing Fields
Playing fields are an important part of a school’s estate, and sport is a critical element of any school curriculum. The Secretary of State’s consent is needed to sell school playing fields under section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. School playing fields can be sold only if they are genuinely surplus, with all proceeds being used to improve sports or educational facilities. The Education Act 2011 also gives the Secretary of State power to direct that, instead of being disposed of, the land should be transferred to an academy or free school.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he make sure there is careful scrutiny by both Sport England and his Department of the proposed sale of playing fields at Wareham middle school? There are overwhelming objections locally, including from the district council and the town council, identifying the already overall shortage of playing fields. There is widespread community use of the fields, and there is particular opposition to the site’s being sold for an out of town supermarket and its possible replacement with inferior provision.
The short answer is, yes we will. The long answer is that there has not yet been an application from Dorset county council to dispose of the Wareham school playing field. If such an application is made, the Secretary of State’s approval to dispose of the playing field will be required, and he will take advice from the independent school playing fields advisory panel.
The Minister will know that from 1979 until 1997 the Conservative Government sold off 10,000 school playing fields. After the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the number went down to just 226 between 1998 and 2010. The national planning policy framework intends to water down restrictions on the disposal of school playing fields, which is like a burglar returning to the scene of the crime. Will the Minister ensure that there is no watering down of the restrictions on the sale of school playing fields in the future?
3. What recent assessment he has made of the provision of youth services. (89249)
Local authorities have made significant reductions in funding for out-of-school services for young people this year. However, many authorities are prioritising early intervention to help disadvantaged young people, and are working closely with the voluntary sector to maintain open access youth services. In December, the Government published the Positive for Youth strategy, which sets direction and gives examples of how councils can reform youth services, particularly in challenging and difficult financial times.
I thank the Minister for his answer. According to Experian, after the Government’s autumn statement the third hardest-hit borough was Middlesbrough. Due to the Secretary of State’s cuts, 13 to 19-year-olds in Middlesbrough will receive 15% less spending per head for youth service provision after the top-heavy cuts imposed on the town. Are they a lesser funding priority than a royal yacht?
As I said, many areas have seen some of their spending for youth services cut, but many areas have actually established new smarter partnerships with the voluntary sector, social enterprise and commercial organisations. The neighbouring constituency to the hon. Gentleman’s is a beneficiary of a myplace, with investment of £4.5 million from the Government. That is a hub for lots of varied activities for young people to take advantage of, helping them with careers, training and many other things.
In 2005, when it was Labour-controlled, Northamptonshire county council directly provided its own youth services and managed to reach only 3,000 young people. Now under Conservative control, the council has commissioned its youth services to the voluntary sector; it regularly gets 20,000 young people involved and is one of the authorities with the best value youth services in the country. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the county council on its foresight and good practice?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning such an example of good practice. Frankly, I do not care who the provider is; it is the way they provide the service and whether they are providing the services that young people want at the time they want them. It is about the quality of the service. They may not be able to do it in Labour-controlled Middlesbrough, but apparently they can in Northamptonshire and I congratulate them on it.
The new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has warned that gang crime is now a significant problem in half of all London boroughs, and similar issues affect cities across the country. Good youth work is critical to a successful strategy to tackle gangs and youth violence, yet not only are youth services being reduced, as the Minister has just told us, but the National Council for Voluntary Organisations warned last week that the charitable sector is facing a £1 billion shortfall and many small community youth organisations, including the Stephen Lawrence centre, are at risk of closure. What assessment has the Minister made of the contribution of reduced capacity in council and community youth services to a successful anti-gangs and youth violence strategy?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the problem of gang culture. The Government take it very seriously. The Home Secretary chairs an inter-ministerial group on gangs, on which I represent the Department for Education, but I have to say that some of the very best anti-gang projects I have seen around the country—including in London in places such as Croydon, with “Lives not Knives”—involve the voluntary sector working in partnership with the local authority. They are going into schools working with the victims of those crimes and their families, spreading best practice and saying, “Not in my name”. The very best response to the troubles we saw in the summer was from young people coming together with voluntary organisations, saying, “Not in my name will this sort of violence happen,” and coming up with constructive and positive examples. That is why Positive for Youth is such an important part of the Government’s policy.
Primary School Places
Most local authorities are forecasting an increase in primary pupil numbers over the next five years. Based on data published by the Office for National Statistics, the school-age population is expected to rise during the rest of the decade. My Department will continue to provide capital funding to meet that need.
My hon. Friend is fortunate to have many outstanding primary and secondary schools serving his constituents, and those will be able to expand under the changes that we have made to the admissions code. We have also increased the amount of money available to meet what is called basic need—the growth in primary school places—and we have done so by making efficiencies from the old Building Schools for the Future programme, which, while nobly conceived, was often poorly executed.
The Secretary of State will know that in London the demand for extra primary classes is acute—64% of all the additional places required across the country are in London. How can it therefore be right that in the basic needs allocation London got only a third of the funding available when it has two thirds of the need?
The hon. Lady, as ever, makes an effective case on behalf of her constituents. We looked at the original formula that we inherited for the allocation of money to areas where population growth was forcing schools to expand. We changed it, in consultation with London Councils and the Mayor of London. The new formula that we used was fairer to London, and it was welcomed by Jules Pipe, the mayor of Hackney, on behalf of London Councils, and by the Mayor of London, but no formula is ever perfect, and we continue to look to ensure that Lewisham students can continue to benefit.
The Secretary of State will know, I hope, that the vast bulk of the new entrants for primary school allocations in Peterborough for September 2012 are foreign children whose first language is not English. In his ongoing review of funding, will he concede the resource implications of that and assist a small number of local authorities, such as Peterborough, that face serious teaching and resource allocation issues for children whose first language is not English?
My hon. Friend has bravely and rightly drawn attention to the fact that inward migration flows have had a particularly strong effect on his constituents. On the current changes to education funding, upon which we are consulting, we propose to include additional funding for those schools that have a significant number of students who have English as an additional language.
How many primary school places could the Government fund with the money that the Secretary of State has proposed be spent on a new royal yacht? Does he regret his rushed decision in 2010 to abolish the Labour Government’s primary capital programme and would it not have been better to have reformed that programme to focus on the serious shortage of primary school places?
The hon. Gentleman should have been careful to look at the charts and to navigate out of rocky waters, because the letter that I wrote to the Prime Minister on 12 September clearly stated that I agreed, of course, that the project for a royal yacht—the Future Ship Project 21st Century—was one where no public funding should be provided. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has once again allowed himself to be misled. I support that project because it would provide opportunities for disadvantaged youth from across the country to learn new skills and to take part in exciting new adventures. It is typical of the unreformed elements—
Indeed, Mr Speaker. The Government have found £1.2 billion for new places, half of which is being spent on new free schools. Although 90% of the extra places that are needed by 2015 are in primary schools, the majority of the new free schools announced late last year are secondary schools. Instead of his dogmatic and ideological preference for his pet project, would it not make more sense to allocate the whole of that £1.2 billion to meet the serious shortfall in primary school places?
I am grateful for your advice, Mr Speaker, but I always try to answer the questions that I am asked by the hon. Gentleman—I know that that is sometimes a novel approach, but I believe it to be right.
It is also right to remind the hon. Gentleman, as he reminded the readers of The Observer on Sunday, that the last Labour Government wasted money on Building Schools for the Future. As a result of eliminating that waste, we have made £500 million available this year, and £600 million next year, for primary school places for which they never provided. They failed to look ahead and navigate a way through hard times, and now that there is a captain at the helm who knows in which direction to take this ship, I am afraid that we need less rumbling from the ratings who want to mutiny below deck.
When all that has settled down, we have established a number of local pathfinders to test the best ways of implementing the key reforms, and are providing support to local authorities in developing local provision for children and young people with special educational needs.
We will publish a response to the consultation on the Green Paper shortly. This will set out the progress we have made and the next steps in taking forward our reforms.
Given that two thirds of the August rioters have special educational needs—a rate well above the national average—and that a disproportionate number have been subject to school exclusions, what steps has the Minister taken to ensure that if a child is subject to permanent or repeated exclusion, they are assessed for special educational needs, so that if such needs exist they are catered for and met, and we can ensure that children such as those involved in the rioting can do basic things such as reading?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she feels strongly about this issue, which she discussed with me when we were consulting on the Green Paper. The whole purpose of what we are trying to do with the Green Paper is to focus better on early intervention. She will be aware that, in particular, we are ensuring that the forthcoming guidance on behaviour and exclusions makes it clear that a multi-agency assessment should be carried out if a pupil displays behaviour that does not respond to normal classroom management techniques. We have asked Charlie Taylor to do work specifically on alternative provision and attendance, and all those issues are relevant to the matters raised by the hon. Lady.
While the Warren and Ashley schools in Lowestoft provide first-class education for pupils with special educational needs, research by Ambitious about Autism shows that 85% of adults with autism are not in full-time employment. Will the Minister set out what she is doing to improve the transition from education to work for special needs pupils?
Again, trying to make sure that we have better transition is something on which the Green Paper and our response will specifically focus. That is why are changing the statementing process. A new education, health and care plan running from nought to 25 ought to enable us to think about outcomes and plan right from the beginning—not just as an afterthought when young people reach 16. We should focus much more on outcomes right from the beginning. In addition, there are a number of projects that the pathfinders are doing for us that look at transition. The Green Paper also highlights our proposals for supported internships, which might make a real difference here.
Partnerships for Schools says that Kirkleathamhall special school in my constituency has problems with access, temperature, lighting and ventilation; most of the teaching spaces are too small, and the full curriculum cannot be provided to secondary- age pupils. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this unacceptable situation?
We are trying to go through a process of active learning so that the lessons from the pathfinders do not go into a black box and are not looked at again, but are shared with other local authorities. Local authority groups have come together, so it is not necessarily the case that individual local authorities are working in isolation, but are working with parents’ groups and charities on the ground. We are keen to learn the lessons that they are looking at, and we will make sure that that informs our legislation in future.
Children in Care
The Government are thoroughly overhauling the care and adoption system to improve the lives of looked-after children. We have issued revised care planning guidance, and foster carers and adopters charters. The Prime Minister has announced a package of new policy interventions, including the publication of performance tables. We want to see more stable, high quality placements, whether through adoption, fostering or in a children’s home because final outcomes for too many looked-after children have been unacceptable for too long.
Placement stability is imperative for good educational and life outcomes for children in care. With swingeing cuts to social services nationally, what measures is the Minister putting in place to assure the House that we will not see a culture of commissioning the cheapest care, regardless of quality?
I think the hon. Lady will find that one area of local government spending that has been safeguarded more than others is the safeguarding of vulnerable children, and it is absolutely right that it should be. The most expensive thing is the expense of failure. The bureaucracy that surrounded safeguarding for too many years meant that too many social workers, rather than spending time out there helping vulnerable children, were spending their time in front of computers, filling in processes and forms. We are doing away with all that through the Munro review and through the work that is going on with Martin Narey and others on adoption and on children in care. We need to make sure that children in the care system, through the advantages that we are now giving them with the pupil premium and many other means, have a better chance of catching up and closing that gap, which has been scandalous for far too long.
Given the huge amount of public money invested in children in care, does the Minister share my concern that too many people leaving care have very poor educational outcomes, which reduce their life chances further? Can we avoid another generation of children in care having the state as the worst parent of all?
My hon. Friend raises a good point, which is why at every stage of the journey of that child who comes into care, we are giving them a leg up and additional support. They will automatically all qualify for the pupil premium to give them a chance of catching up with children who are lucky enough to come from their birth family’s home. We are giving them advantages on the replacement for education maintenance allowance. We are giving special bursaries for those few—too few—who go to university. We need to close that gap, and we are giving them priority access to some of our best schools as well. If we can get them better education by giving them that leg up, they stand a better chance of being able to compete with the rest of their cohort in this country, and that has taken far too long.
Stability is crucial for securing better outcomes and adoption has been a key focus for the Government to date, but what steps is the Minister taking to promote, transparently measure and publicly acknowledge success in increasing not just adoptive placements, but much needed permanency for all looked-after children through special guardianship, long-term fostering and kinship care?
The hon. Lady is right to flag up the importance of permanence. As far as I and the Government are concerned, there is no hierarchy of care here. It is what is the most appropriate form of care for that individual child. For most, it is foster care. We need more good quality foster care placements. For others, it is a residential children’s home. We need more good quality placements. But for others—a small number—adoption is the best form of permanence, as are special guardianship orders. I believe there are more children in care at present for whom adoption has not been considered and for whom it would be the most appropriate course of action, which is why we are spending so much time on making sure that we have an adoption system that is fit for purpose in the best interests of those children.
Tackling human trafficking is a key priority for the Government. Last October the Department for Education and the Home Office issued updated practical guidance on safeguarding children who may have been trafficked. This will help practitioners, including school staff, identify children who may have been trafficked and find support and advice. Schools may also cover human trafficking within personal, social, health and economic education if they judge that topic to be relevant to their circumstances.
I congratulate the Government on what they have done so far, but there are a number of non-governmental organisations and charities that would like to go into schools to make pupils aware of human trafficking, the evil of modern-day slavery, and particularly internal trafficking within the United Kingdom. Would the Minister welcome such moves?
My hon. Friend has a noble record on this subject, as co-chairman of the all-party group alongside the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), and the former Member, Mr Anthony Steen. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is most welcome. He is right. I wrote in 1998 that there is no doubt that human trafficking is today’s slave trade and that we will not rest until it is dealt with. I will write to charities as my hon. Friend suggests and invite them to do precisely what he proposes.
Despite efforts to improve awareness, many trafficked children still wrongly believe that their trafficker is their friend. Given that the Minister has rejected the idea of guardianship for trafficked children, can he tell me who is able to instruct a child’s lawyer in cases where the child is too young, too confused, too traumatised or too afraid to do so themselves?
The hon. Lady will know that local authorities retain their responsibilities in this regard and, indeed, allocate a responsible person to deal with such children. I am aware of continuing doubts and problems concerning children being re-trafficked. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—he was too polite to mention this—wrote to the Secretary of State on this subject only a couple of days ago. We will look closely at bringing what the Department does into line with Home Office and local authority practice. We should not rest until this matter is addressed, and we will not rest until children are freed, victims are protected and those who trade in pain and persecution are made to suffer.
Special schools became eligible to apply for academy status in November 2010 and to become academies from 1 September 2011. There are 16 special schools now open as academies in England, four of which are in the south-west, and of these one of the first to become an academy on 1 September 2011 is in North Wiltshire.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right to praise the Springfields academy in Calne, one of the very first special schools to achieve academy status, but does he agree that, although in Wiltshire we have a very helpful and supportive local authority, elsewhere it might be much more difficult for special schools to achieve academy status? What can he do to remove the slightly tortuous and bureaucratic process that the Springfields academy had to go through in order to make it easier for other schools in the same position?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the case of the Springfields academy, which is an outstanding school that does wonderful work for children with behavioural, emotional or social difficulties and those on the autistic spectrum. I am also grateful that the local authority has been so constructive. As he points out, some local authorities are not so constructive. We are working, gently but firmly, with all local authorities from London and elsewhere to ensure that their schools see the benefits of academy status.
There are other mainstream schools in Wiltshire that would very much like to become academies. St John’s school in Marlborough, of which I am a governor, has been trying to become an academy for over a year. The Department has been very helpful in the process, but as we approach the last furlong it feels more and more like wading through treacle. Is there anything I, the other governors and the staff can do to get to a decision so that we can move forward with the programme?
Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that there is sufficient child care locally to meet the needs of working parents, particularly families with disabled children. We want local authorities to keep parents informed about how they are meeting this duty. We are consulting on whether an annual report would enable parents to hold their local authority to account for the availability of suitable child care.
There are duties on local authorities to ensure that sufficient child care is available. I remind the hon. Gentleman that substantially more money— £760 million—is going into child care, particularly in early years for disadvantaged two-year-olds. That is new money that goes to disadvantaged areas in particular, where we know that there has historically been some difficultly in relation to early years settings.
Hard-working parents are being hit by a triple whammy with regard to child care costs: they are getting less support to pay for it because of the cuts to tax credits; costs are creeping up; and places are disappearing because of cuts to local government and the removal of ring-fenced funding. What assessment have Ministers made of the impact of their choices on parental employment, especially among women, as well as on child poverty?
As I just said, substantial new money is going into early years. It is one of the few areas across Government where in fact—[Interruption.] It is two-year olds, but that extra money will of course benefit any of those settings that are working with two-year olds, and most of them will be working with two-year olds as well as older children. It is new money, particularly for disadvantaged areas that might not otherwise have taken two-year olds. I wish that the Labour party, instead of just carping, might sometimes congratulate the Government on putting extra money into disadvantaged areas.
Last Friday I had a meeting with a number of school-based family support workers in my constituency, who are seriously worried about the future of the vital service that they provide. What will the Government do to ensure that such services are not done away with by public spending cuts in constituencies such as mine, where there is a significant amount of disadvantage?
It makes sense for local authorities to invest in those areas. That is precisely why we called the new grant the early intervention grant, and precisely why we are now working with children’s centres, for example, to ensure that they are paid by results, focusing on outcomes and on providing the services that the hon. Gentleman mentions, which we know make a real difference.
Nothing has more impact on a child’s achievement than the quality of teaching that they receive. We are raising the bar for new entrants to the teaching profession, supporting existing teachers to improve and, where teachers cannot meet the required standards, making it easier for head teachers to tackle under- performance.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he confirm what he is doing to allow heads to remove bad teachers and to check on the performance of new recruits, given that teaching in four in 10 schools assessed by Ofsted is rated only as “satisfactory” at best?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All the evidence points to the importance of teacher quality in a pupil’s education. The Sutton Trust, for example, showed that, during one year with a very effective maths or English teacher, pupils gained 40% more in their education, compared with having a poor-quality teacher. That is why my hon. Friend is right that from September there will be new arrangements to help schools manage teacher performance and new streamlined procedures for heads to tackle teachers about whose performance they continue to have concerns.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct that the Sutton Trust has done some very good work on the issue, and it has a new challenging report out this very day, but we all know that the first three years of a teacher’s experience are vital in keeping good teachers in, and passionate about, teaching, so could there be more focus on those first three years, when we lose so many good teachers?
The hon. Gentleman is right, and his experience as Chair of the Education and Skills Committee has come to the fore. All the evidence shows that teachers are driven out of the teaching profession by poor behaviour, which is why we are focusing so much on raising the standards of behaviour in our schools; and that the best mentoring and continuing professional development for teachers is peer-to-peer, which is why we are creating 100 new teaching schools, focusing on not only training and new entrants to the profession, but on developing CPD and peer-to-peer training.
Free Nursery Care
We plan to introduce a legal entitlement to free early education for about 130,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds in September 2013, and we will extend this to 260,000 children—about 40% of two-year-olds—from September 2014. From 2013, about 700 two-year-olds in north Yorkshire and 300 in the city of York are likely to be eligible. Funding is available to local authorities in 2012 to enable them to build towards that.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point that building capacity is key in this area, and we announced the figures for the number of two-year-olds who will be eligible in each local authority partly to help local authorities to begin to plan for that. We have put extra money into the early intervention grant to ensure that local authorities are able to build capacity, and we are working with 18 local authorities to conduct trials on how they might increase capacity, looking at examples of best practice so that we can share it with other areas.
I agree with the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Many child minders are of a high quality, so I would hesitate to sweep all child minders together. Unfortunately, there are issues of quality across the piece that we need to work on. We are consulting on a new basket of measures to ensure that, working with local authorities, we can raise quality. We are aware that there is a particular issue with disadvantaged areas, which often do not have as much choice or as good provision. It is a priority for us to ensure that the two-year-olds who really need this money benefit from it.
The Government are committed to reducing the administrative burden on schools. We have removed the lengthy self-evaluation form, introduced a streamlined inspection framework, removed unnecessary duties and regulations in the Education Act 2011, and cut the volume of guidance issued to schools by a half. We are reviewing all requirements on schools so that they can focus on raising standards, rather than on unnecessary administrative tasks.
Many young people study in FE colleges. Places such as Great Yarmouth college have made great strides forward with clear and decisive leadership. Will my hon. Friend therefore also outline what progress the Government are making in reducing the administrative burden for colleges?
I am always reluctant to list my achievements in this House, as you know, Mr Speaker, at least more than is necessary to keep the House informed of the scale and scope of the progress we are making. Suffice it to say that from June 2010, when I let colleges move funding between adult learner budgets, through the reduction in duties imposed on schools by the previous Government, up to the Education Act 2011, which gives still greater freedoms, we have sought to treat further education as grown up, after it was infantilised by the previous Government.
The Government are to be congratulated on reducing administrative burdens on teachers. Does my hon. Friend, and actual friend, agree that the way to improve standards in the state sector is for it to replicate what goes on in the independent sector? We should allow head teachers to hire and fire teachers, select their own curriculum, and select and deselect pupils.
What we seek is a system driven by demand, pupils who are helped to make informed judgments by the information that they are given, businesses driving the skills system, and head teachers and college principals being free to respond to local needs. That is our mantra and it is entirely in line with my hon. Friend’s intentions and ambitions.
General Teaching Council
The closure of the General Teaching Council for England will have no effect on the ability of teachers to seek redress. The new Teaching Agency will uphold GTCE sanctions and consider whether they continue to be appropriate in individual cases. The right of appeal to the High Court remains the same. Teachers who believe that they have been unfairly dismissed continue to have a right to take their case to an industrial tribunal.
I understand that 300 cases that have been referred to the General Teaching Council, including that of my constituent, Sally Craig, will not be heard before the Minister succeeds in winding it up and will not be referred to the new Teaching Agency. What will he do to ensure that those people are not denied natural justice?
The purpose of the GTCE and the Teaching Agency is not to provide a right of appeal for action taken locally. That is a local decision. The GTCE’s functions were additional to the sanctions available locally. We are removing incompetence from the matters that are referred to the Teaching Agency. It will look only at cases of serious misconduct. Cases that do not reach that bar will not be transferred to the Teaching Agency and will not be investigated by it. The GTCE and the Teaching Agency have never been a second road of appeal for action taken locally.
The Government do not collect data on the number of children living in homes where domestic violence occurs, but existing statutory guidance, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, sets out that children who experience domestic violence will need well targeted support from a range of agencies, as prolonged or regular exposure to domestic violence is likely to have a serious impact on children’s safety and welfare.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I found out about the matter at first hand when I spent a week being a social worker in Stockport. I knew that domestic violence was a problem, but the extent to which it is at the core of many safeguarding issues is alarming for all of us. The use of specialist domestic violence social workers is one way of addressing the problem, and of course the Government produced an ending violence against women and girls action plan last March. The Home Secretary chairs an inter-ministerial group, on which I sit, and we are currently consulting on the definition of domestic violence, which has caused some confusion. The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to feed into that consultation before it closes at the end of March.
My hon. Friend raises a very important and worrying subject. We need to do more work on it and use local safeguarding children boards to help us join up all the responsible agencies. It is another example of where we need genuine cross-departmental and cross-governmental co-operation and joint planning, and the Department for Education and the Home Office in particular are at the heart of ensuring that we address this really horrific problem.
I am pleased that the Minister has mentioned the Government’s strategy on ending violence against women and girls. What steps is he taking to ensure that children, and especially boys, are educated about the absolute unacceptability of domestic violence as part of the personal, social, health and economic education curriculum?
The hon. Lady makes a very important practical point. One of my roles on the inter-ministerial group is to see what input the Department for Education can have in ensuring that children are aware from an appropriate young age of the problems of domestic violence and are taught respectful relationships as part of sex and relationships education and PSHE. There are things that we can do at home, in schools and with the agencies that are there to help prevent domestic violence, intervene and apprehend people who are responsible for that horrendous crime.
Today, one of the powers contained in the Education Act 2011 comes into effect: teachers will no longer be required to give 24 hours’ notice before imposing a detention on a child who breaks school rules. That is a useful new weapon in their armoury in the constant battle to ensure that all children are well behaved and that all students can learn.
What advice would the Secretary of State give to parents in my constituency, where the teaching unions are consistently telling them that if their school converts to an academy or co-operative trust, it will lead to less local accountability and parental control?
I would advise parents in my hon. Friend’s constituency to listen to their very shrewd and effective elected Member, who has consistently pointed out that academy status means not only more resources for students but greater flexibility for teachers and heads and higher standards all round. It is an increasingly welcome aspect of the political consensus that is emerging around academies that so many Labour Members are flocking to their banner.
Can the Secretary of State give the House an absolute assurance that neither he nor his special advisers have deliberately destroyed or deleted e-mails relating to Government business that he has sent or received through private e-mail accounts?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question. As he will be aware, we changed the information and communications technology curriculum just last week, and many of us were brought up when the old ICT curriculum was in place and may not always have been as handy with the cursor as we should have been. However, every single aspect of communications policy in the Department for Education has been in accordance with the highest standards of propriety, as laid down by the Cabinet Office.
T2. My right hon. Friend may remember our discussions about how to help independent day schools increase the number of places available to our brightest, yet poorest, children. In the light of today’s impressive report by the Sutton Trust, will he re-examine my proposals to open up those schools to access based on merit, rather than on the ability to pay? (89274)
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been a consistent advocate for helping disadvantaged children to access excellent schooling. I am encouraged by the work that the Sutton Trust has done, but it is important that we ensure not only that individual children of merit have access to the best schools, but that all children from disadvantaged circumstances have better education. That is why I want to see private schools playing a larger part in the academies programme.
T4. The Co-operative Education Trust Scotland and other co-operative education bodies are doing fantastic work across the UK to support schools and to embed co-operative enterprise education into their curriculum. How are the Government ensuring that schools promote the co-operative model as a viable option for young people who are thinking about starting their own business? (89276)
First, let me pay tribute to the work of the co-operative movement. Since it started in Rochdale, many of us have been inspired by its achievements. I believe that the academies programme and particularly the free schools programme provide an opportunity for the ideals of the original co-operative movement to be embedded in our schools. The idea that all work together for the good of their community and for the fulfilment of higher ideals is one that Government Members wholeheartedly applaud.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the extensive process that parents and schools go through when undertaking testing for special educational needs for children. What advice does he have for parents in my constituency when schools refuse to test their children for special educational needs?
Parents’ views about their child should be central. One thing that we are looking at in the Green Paper is how we can make clearer what should normally be provided in schools and what local authorities should normally provide. It should therefore at least be simpler for parents and teachers to understand whether a child’s needs are greater than those normally provided in the school, and much clearer whether they need a statutory assessment.
T6. The Prime Minister said before the election that there would be no return to selection at 11, so why are the Government making it easier for grammar schools to expand by taking away the rights of local parents to object? (89278)
We are allowing all good schools to expand. I am an unalloyed fan of all good schools, whether they are comprehensive or selective. No new selective schools will be created under the coalition Government, but all successful schools have the right to expand, and any parent who believes that any school is in breach of the admissions code has an expanded right to complain to the schools adjudicator. Good schools doing a better job for more students: that is what the coalition delivers; I am amazed that the hon. Lady objects.
T5. Last Friday, I had the great pleasure to visit Paddox primary school in my constituency, which is an outstanding school where significant improvements have been made in recent years. Parents have told me that much of the positive atmosphere at the school is attributable to the drive and ambition of the head teacher, Brenda Oakes. Does the Minister agree that strong leadership provided by head teachers such as Miss Oakes is essential in delivering a first-class education to all our children? (89277)
I certainly agree with that and add my tribute to that school. The early years of a child’s education, when they are learning to read and to become fluent in arithmetic, are key to their success in secondary education and beyond. I would like to pay our tribute to the work that that head teacher is doing. Government Members agree that the autonomy and independence of head teachers, and their ability to run their schools as they see fit, are key to raising standards. That is what all the evidence suggests internationally. That is the drive behind the academies programme.
T8. As we approach Holocaust memorial day on 27 January, how is the Secretary of State ensuring that lessons from the Holocaust and other genocides, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, are taught in free schools, academies and other schools not bound by the national curriculum? (89280)
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s point. Let me pay tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). His decision to increase funding for the Holocaust Education Trust was one of many good things that he did, and I was honoured to be able to honour a pledge I made before the election to secure its funding. The trips that it offers to schools of all kinds help to ensure that we remember, and that that indescribable evil is never repeated. Let me take this opportunity to affirm the importance of all MPs meeting Holocaust denial and relativisation head on. Any attempt to undermine the singular historic evil of that crime is utterly wrong, and we should unite in condemning it.
T7. Having opened just last September, the West London free school has had more than 5,000 visits from interested parents, its places are now heavily over-subscribed and it has just applied to set up a new, free primary school. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that all goes to demonstrate just how enthusiastic parents are about these new free schools? (89279)
My hon. Friend makes a brilliant case. The West London free school was attacked and criticised by many on the left of the political spectrum. Fiona Millar said that the idea would never take place. Now it is the single most popular and over-subscribed school in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, providing a superb education of a comprehensive kind for all children. I recommend it to you, Mr Speaker, for the future.
The hon. Lady is a long and tireless advocate of the promotion of youth services and she has rightly pointed to the section of the Education Act 1996 that places that duty on local authorities. We are looking to rewrite that duty and streamline it to ensure that local authorities cannot shirk their responsibility to ensure that positive activities are available for young people in their area, and that it is clearly understood.
As part of “Positive for Youth”, I have said that we will look closely at what activities for young people are going on in local authority areas and I invite young people to ensure that they are auditing the youth offer in their areas and reporting back to the centre. That is part of “Positive for Youth” and I hope that she will encourage young people in her area to do that.
T9. British banks employs hundreds of thousands of people and many of them are hard-working young people. Does the skills Minister agree that it would be a fantastic achievement to see an apprentice in every branch of every high street bank, and what can he do to help achieve this? (89281)
There are few greater champions of apprenticeships or learning in this House than my hon. Friend, although I notice my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) sitting next to him, and he is just as worthy a champion. Just this week I will meet banks to discuss exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) proposes. It is right that apprenticeships are seen as a route into the professions, and we will make them just that.
Stockport council estimates that it is notified of only 60% of looked-after children placed in the borough by other authorities. This is not a problem specific to Stockport and, as the Minister will appreciate, it is very difficult for authorities to plan the provision of resources that will achieve better outcomes for children in care without adequate information. What more can he do to make local authorities meet their obligations?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this subject and it is a problem in many parts of the country, especially when children from London boroughs are placed in areas such as my own part of the country. I issued new guidance that came into effect last April, which made it absolutely clear that local authorities have a responsibility to keep children for whom they are responsible for caring as close to home as possible. If children are placed further afield, there must be a good reason, and local authorities must ensure that they maintain the responsibility to monitor how the child is doing. In too many cases, they do not notify the host authority, and I plan to ensure that every authority is reminded of its responsibilities.
Market Field school is in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin). It caters for children with special needs from both our constituencies and from the Clacton constituency. Will the Minister agree to meet the three of us to consider why Essex county council’s promise—made by the previous leader to the head teacher, Mr Gary Smith—has not been carried out?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. I hope to speak to the lead member for children’s services in Essex county council later this afternoon and I shall raise the issue with him. If I do not get satisfaction, I will pursue it. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his well-deserved knighthood.
Now that the Secretary of State for Education has accepted Bolsover Labour party’s campaign for a new school at Tibshelf—a most unlikely Minister, I agree—will he tell us who will bear the cost, how much central Government will pay and how much the council taxpayer will have to pay?
The hon. Gentleman has been a fantastic campaigner on behalf of Tibshelf school and, as he has often pointed out in this House, the school has had to be kept aloft by pit props and is not fit for purpose. We want to ensure that the priority school building programme, to which I think he refers, will provide the resources from the Department for Education’s budget, but we will work with the local authority to ensure that we refurbish the school appropriately. I should stress, however, that final decisions on each school in the programme will not be made until at least next month.
I had a very good morning on Friday when I went to two infant schools. Both say that a larger number of children are coming in with speech and communication problems. What measures will we take in response to Jean Gross’s communications strategy, and how will we make it a priority to support those children at a very early age to resolve such problems?
As the hon. Lady says, there is a very particular issue with communication problems and ensuring that we identify them early. That is part of the reason I am working closely with colleagues at the Department of Health to implement significant numbers of new health visitors and to ensure that we commission services better. The education health and care plan, which will integrate services, will, I hope, make a real difference to children in that position.
The Secretary of State will be aware of my ongoing correspondence with him about Woodlands school in my constituency, which is held up not by pit props but by equally unsightly and unacceptable scaffolding. It seems that the school will be denied any access to the priority school building programme by an anomalous set of circumstances. It does not need extra places, yet the state of the buildings means that it obviously needs priority status and access to funds, but it has been denied that as more than 30% of the buildings are listed. What can the school do? We are due an answer. May we have it soon?
When we had to close the Building Schools for the Future programme, it was inevitable that a significant number of schools in urgent need of repair would be just the wrong side of where the line was drawn. I know that in Coventry a number of schools are in desperate need of refurbishment. The priority school building programme is designed to ensure that as many schools as possible qualify and we will not be able to make an announcement until next month because we want to be absolutely sure that marginal cases such as this school, as it appears from the information the hon. Gentleman has shared with us, are fairly treated.
The Minister is well aware of my support for steps taken to prepare young people for apprenticeships and the world of work, but is he aware that an arbitrary decision about payments due for academic work undertaken in apprentices’ own time towards their qualification might threaten the ability and willingness of small employers, such as Amazon World in my constituency, to take them on?
I am aware of the specific issue my hon. Friend raises. I understand that the problems arose under the stewardship of a Minister in the previous Government, but none the less there are ongoing repercussions and I am happy to consider the specific matters raised by my hon. Friend. He will know that there are now national minimum standards as there is a national wage for apprentices and it is absolutely right that the deal an apprentice gets should be fair and proper.
A university technical college for Dudley would not only transform the education available in the town but help address the skills shortage and rebalance the economy while encouraging young people to pursue careers in high-tech manufacturing. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be as pleased as I am that a bid has now been submitted for the Aston university technical college in Dudley. Will he take this bid from me today and ensure that it is approved as early as possible so that we can get the changes made that we need in Dudley?
Is the Minister as concerned as I am that some teachers in schools today qualified only after re-sitting their basic numeracy and literacy tests on multiple occasions—in some cases, more than 30 times—and what steps will he take to ensure that this is not repeated?
Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), would the Secretary of State like to congratulate the Holocaust Educational Trust, which works tirelessly visiting schools and educating students in the horrors of the genocide of the second world war?
“Lessons from Auschwitz” is a model project, and I am so delighted that in the new year’s honours list the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Karen Pollock, received a long-overdue award. She is one of the unsung heroes of British education, and her work has been absolutely fantastic. I recommend to all Members the opportunity to attend the forthcoming Merlyn-Rees memorial lecture, which the trust is organising and which will remind us all of the timeless enormity of that evil and of the need to remain vigilant to this day.
Individual Voter Registration
[Relevant document: The Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration, HC 1463.]
I beg to move,
That this House recognises that according to the Electoral Commission there are currently up to 8.5 million electors missing from the UK electoral register and that the shift to individual registration is the biggest change to electoral matters since the introduction of the universal franchise; notes that there was cross-party support for the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, which proposed a phased five-year timetable for its introduction with safeguards to protect against a drop in registration levels, but that the Government proposes speeding up the timetable, removing some of these safeguards and eroding the civic duty on registering to vote by not applying the legal obligation to respond to an electoral registration officer’s request for information as exists for the household registration; further notes that, according to the Electoral Commission, if these proposed changes are not implemented properly there could be a reduction in registration of up to 65 per cent. in some areas, potentially leaving over 10 million unregistered voters, and that this would have a negative impact on the list from which jurors are drawn; believes that the 2015 boundary review process risks being discredited as a result of the unregistered millions; and calls on the Government to reconsider its current proposals that will lead to large-scale under-registration.
The move to individual electoral registration is the greatest shift in our electoral system since the introduction of the universal franchise. As a result, there is the highest imperative on us to get this right. There is wide support for the move to individual registration and an acceptance that the current system of household registration is neither fit for the modern world nor suitably robust against the perils of electoral fraud. The move is supported by the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Reform Society and the main political parties in the House. Our concerns are not about the ultimate objective of individual electoral registration but about some of the proposed means of achieving it.
I would like to make a point that I have made a number of times before about the importance of trying to get cross-party support for constitutional change. I am afraid that I do not agree with the wording in the coalition agreement on individual electoral registration—I will come to that later—but I welcome the process that the Government have adopted and how they are acting on this matter. We have had a draft Bill and a White Paper with pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Deputy Prime Minister has said twice on the Floor of the House that the Government are willing to listen to concerns—so too, when giving evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, did the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who has responsibility for political and constitutional reform and whom I welcome to his place. They appear to be keen to reach consensus before the Bill is finally published.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that when individual voter registration was introduced in Northern Ireland there was a dramatic fall in the level of registration? What will be put in place to ensure that that does not happen this time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right to remind the House that in 2002, when individual electoral registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, there was a huge fall of 11% in the number of people on the register. I hope that this Government, like the previous Government, have learned the lessons of those changes. I shall come to that point shortly, if he will allow me.
This is a genuine inquiry: will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House whether a significant proportion of that 11% subsequently rejoined the register, or whether very few did, which would suggest that the 11% were not entirely genuine in the first place?
As ever, the hon. Gentleman raises a good question. The evidence from the experts is that of the 11% who were taken off the register about 5% should not have been on there. There has been increased integrity in the Northern Irish system but there has also been continued instability. Those who were originally taken off but should not have been have not come back on as quickly as we would have hoped. One reason for that was that there was not the carry forward—but I shall come to later.
To be fair to the Deputy Prime Minister, he has already confirmed one concession—that the Government are minded not to pursue the so-called opt-out, which would have allowed people effectively to exclude themselves permanently from the electoral register. We welcome that and are looking for more movement from the Government. In that spirit, we have called this debate—so that the Government can hear, at a relatively early stage in the process, some of the concerns that experienced colleagues on both sides of the House have about the Bill.
I remind the House that it was the previous Labour Government who legislated to introduce individual voter registration, with cross-party support. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 made provision for the phased introduction of a system of voluntary individual registration up to 2015 and compulsory registration thereafter. The full and final move to an individual voter registration system would not take place until after 2015, the intention being to pace the transition, allowing the Electoral Commission to monitor registration levels adequately and guarding against any adverse decline in the size of the roll. There was genuine cause for a cautious, phased introduction. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) has already referred to the Northern Irish experience, but when Northern Ireland shifted to individual voter registration in 2002, there was an 11% drop in the size of the electoral roll. In the aftermath of that dip, lessons were learned from Northern Ireland’s experiences which were built into our phased approach, complete with safeguards.
The 2009 Act received cross-party support. The individual voter registration provisions—in particular, the timetable and the phased introduction—came in for particular praise. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who now sits on the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, but who was then the Conservative shadow Minister, said:
“I am very pleased to have the opportunity to put it on the record once and for all that we agree with the Government that the accuracy, comprehensiveness and integrity of the register and…the system is paramount. That is one of the reasons why we will not oppose the timetable the Minister has suggested this evening…the Electoral Commission, electoral registration officers and others who will be involved in the implementation of the Government’s current plans are concerned that this should not be rushed, but taken step by step to ensure that the integrity of the system is protected”.
She also made a commitment that
“any future Conservative Government would never take risks with the democratic process. They would take absolutely no risks with the integrity or comprehensiveness of the register or with its accuracy.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 108-109.]
The then Lib Dem spokesperson, the former Member for Cambridge, David Howarth, said:
“I do not think that anybody was suggesting that the timetable be artificially shortened, or that any risk be taken with the comprehensiveness of the register.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 112.]
I am afraid that some of this Government’s proposals renege on the cross-party support for the 2009 legislation, raising suspicions—fairly or unfairly—about the motives behind the shift in policy. Somehow, during that frenzied period of coalition building in 2010, the coalition agreement conjured up a specific commitment on individual voter registration, saying:
“We will reduce electoral fraud by speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration.”
That expediting of the process was new, having been in neither of the coalition parties’ manifestos.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of electoral fraud, which we must all do our best to fight. I think there were five or six prosecutions in the recent period, which is not at the same level as Northern Ireland, for example, before the changes made there.
In view of the moderate and measured tone of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments thus far, does he regret telling The Guardian on 13 October 2010 that
“10 million people could lose the right to vote”,
an assertion that has been specifically rejected by the Electoral Commission’s chair, Jenny Watson?
I welcome the fact that the shadow Secretary of State is endeavouring to be so constructive; I think that we all want to work together to improve the system in the national interest. Does he agree that the present system is not fit for purpose in the 21st century, and that we should therefore make progress and not let the matter drift for too long?
I would not disagree with a word of what the hon. Gentleman has just said; the system is not fit for purpose in the 21st century. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has already mentioned electoral fraud, which is a live issue. We are also keen to ensure that the register is complete as well as accurate, and I will come to those matters shortly.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with electoral registers is that while some local authorities are very good at getting people on to the register, others get only about 80% of their local population? Does he also agree that the situation could get even worse as a result of cuts in local government spending?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. To be fair to the Parliamentary Secretary, he recognised that fact when he gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and acknowledged the concerns about constrained resources. Given that local authority resources are not ring-fenced, an obvious area in which to make cuts would be in the work of the electoral registration officer’s team, often at a time when that work is needed the most. There are examples of excellent practice around the country, but there are also examples of comparable constituencies with very low electoral registration levels.
The right hon. Gentleman has talked about electoral fraud, but does he acknowledge the view expressed by the Metropolitan police service that there have been more than 13,000 incidents of financial fraud in which fake entries on the electoral register have been linked to the use of false documents for financial purposes?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The credit reference agencies and the police also remind us that it is important to have an accurate and complete register, because the register is often used for credit checks, as well as by the police and local authorities in the fight against fraud. We want the electoral register to be complete and accurate; if it is not, that can lead to all sorts of problems.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an accurate and complete register is important not only for an effective and fully functioning democracy, but for ensuring that other parts of our Government are working well, including the selection of juries?
This is my first chance to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) to her place in the House. She has had the most recent experience of fighting an election, and will be aware of the dangers of not having an accurate electoral register. She mentioned one of the important civil functions of the electoral register. She will be aware that the disadvantage for people of deciding not to be on the register is that they will not be able to serve on a jury, which can lead to the make-up of juries becoming skewed. Instead of being tried by one’s peers, a person can end up being tried only by those who are on the electoral register, rather than by a jury reflecting all those who are eligible to be on it.
The original justification for the proposals was not to save money, but that has now been put forward as a reason for speeding up the shift to individual electoral registration. This and the partisan nature of some of the Government’s other constitutional proposals, including the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, make some people suspicious of the motivation behind the Government’s proposals. Adding to the suspicion is the speeded-up timetable in the draft Bill, which is the meat of the motion before us. The draft Bill also proposes the removal of safeguards previously agreed by all the parties.
We are concerned about proposed changes to the civic duty involved in registering to vote. Under the household registration system, failure to comply with the request by an electoral registration officer to complete a registration form could result in a £1,000 fine. Despite few prosecutions, the threat of a fine has itself had a positive impact on registration levels, as has been confirmed by electoral registration officers around the country. The warning, written in a bold large font on the front of the letter from the electoral registration officer, served as a genuine motivation to respond. Our fear, which is shared by others, is that removing the threat of a fine will have a negative impact on registration levels.
My right hon. Friend has referred to local authorities that have successfully used the threat of the £1,000 fine to increase registration rates. May I point to the example of Rhyl West, where 2,500 people were registered? The council had a crackdown, which involved placing a warning on the registration form stating that people would be fined £1,000 if they did not fill it in. It explained that failure to fill in the form would result in the chief executive sending a letter to the non-registered person and turning the matter over to his legal department. The level of voter registration went up from 2,500 to 3,500 in one year as a result.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have seen evidence for what he mentions, and the local authority has confirmed that it increased registration rates from 2,500 to 3,500 because of the use of that threat and a rigorous approach. As my hon. Friend suggests, the removal of the fine will diminish the ability of electoral registration officers to do their job effectively, risking damaging consequences for our democracy and society. Although the penalty for not fulfilling the current legal duty is not often imposed, it is not without effect, as has been said. It contributes to a general sense that registering to vote is a civic duty—a responsibility—and not merely an individual right or a lifestyle choice.
The Parliamentary Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister have both declared from the Dispatch Box that the threat of the £1,000 fine is not being removed, since under their new proposals the offence of failing to respond remains for a household canvass. However, the House needs to understand the proposed changes in detail. There will indeed continue to be a form for the head of the household to complete, which is called a “household enquiry form” or HEF, and a £1,000 fine will remain for failing to comply with the request of the electoral registration officer to complete that form. Whereas completing the household registration form as it stands currently leads to those listed being registered to vote by the local authority on the processing of the form, under the new system the HEF is simply a way of capturing data on who might be eligible to vote in a property. That data will then be used by the local authority to follow up each of the named individuals with a personal approach containing a voter registration form. However, there is no legal duty to comply with a local authority request to complete an individual registration form and there is no threat of a £1,000 fine for not responding. We believe that that is a dangerous anomaly in the proposed legislation, which we fear could have a damaging effect on registration levels.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that although some people purposely do not want to be on the register, large numbers might be excluded from it because they have not been helped? I am thinking particularly of those with learning disabilities. Often, those who might be helping people with learning difficulties have a strange view about whether they should be allowed to vote. It is crucial that everyone in our society be enfranchised and that no one is ruled out because they are not given the support that they should receive to ensure that they are properly registered.
My hon. Friend makes her point far better than I would have made it. She will be aware of the representations made by Scope and others. There could be confusion at an early stage when somebody completing the household form assumes, as in the past, that they are automatically on the register, without realising that the individual form they receive also needs to be completed. If we take into account the fact that many people have learning difficulties, that for others English is not their first language and that that these changes are being contemplated at a time when the register arguably needs to be at its most accurate, the position becomes very worrying—even more so if we reflect on the diminution of resources to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) referred.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, let me make the point that 19 hon. Members are seeking to speak in the debate. If I am to have any chance of accommodating that level of interest, self-restraint—in respect of Front-Bench speeches and the length of interventions—will be essential.
I am mindful of your admonition, Mr Speaker.
I am puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman’s views on household registration, given that the Electoral Commission has said that
“The ‘household’ registration system means there is no personal ownership by citizens of a fundamental aspect of their participation in our democracy—their right to vote”.
Is he saying that he is in favour of household registration, whose removal is at the centre of these reforms, or not?
I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands his own position. The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 was quite clear, as some Conservative Members have said. We believe in individual voter registration. What we do not agree with is having an incomplete or inaccurate register, and some of the currently proposed changes could lead to just that.
The absence of the threat of a fine also undermines the data-matching pilots launched recently, which we also welcome. We support attempts to discover the names of those who are not on the register by using other datasets held by the public sector, but the same obstacle occurs—those individuals will at most receive a personalised approach by the local authorities to register to vote but there will be no legal ramifications if they fail to comply with the local authority request. The Minister has previously said at the Dispatch Box words to the effect that he did not want there to be a threat of criminal conviction for failure to respond to a registration form from an electoral registration officer. Let me address that point. We are open to discussion of whether a system of fixed penalty notices for those who fail to complete their registration form might be more appropriate. The Electoral Commission is also in favour of a system of civil penalties as well as a range of incentives to encourage registration. The Minister will be aware that in Northern Ireland, which already has individual electoral registration, the offence for failing to respond to a request from an electoral registration officer has been maintained. Either way, there needs to be some kind of motivation, backed up with the threat of a sanction, if we are to keep registration levels high.
The implications of the coalition Government’s proposals concern us. Although they might lead to a more accurate electoral register in the sense that people who should not be on it will not be on it, they are also likely to lead to a considerably less comprehensive electoral roll. Recent research by the Electoral Commission shows that up to 8.5 million eligible voters currently are not registered to vote—5 million more than previously thought—and it has warned of a risk of a slump in registration levels from more than 90% to 65%. That equates to more than 10 million eligible voters who should be on the register not being on it.
The issue here is the correlation between the likelihood of a person’s registering on the electoral register and their being in the private rented sector, is it not? The rapid growth of private rented accommodation places people at the highest risk of not having the information necessary to be on the register. Would my right hon. Friend support discussion with the Government about how resources could be directed particularly towards the local authorities with the largest private rented sectors to help to target that problem?
My hon. Friend is right to make that point and her view is shared not only by those who represent areas such as those she has mentioned but by the Association of Electoral Administrators, which believes there could be a 10% to 15% drop in suburban areas and a drop of up to 35% in the areas she has mentioned. The Minister said some very encouraging words when he gave evidence to the Select Committee and I look forward to hearing what he says in his response about resources and how he can target the finite resources he has on the areas that need them the most. Experts are as concerned as my hon. Friend that young people, students and people with learning disabilities and other forms of disability, as well as those living in areas of high social deprivation, are less likely to be registered. Some of those groups are already the most marginalised in society.
Many of us will have experienced examples of stretched electoral registration officers and limited resources, and there is a real concern about the impact of cuts to local authorities and budget pressures on the Electoral Commission at a time when they are needed the most. Those concerns are compounded by the fact that the 2015 boundary change enshrined in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 will take place on the new register composed of individual registrations. Although the draft legislation contains a safeguard—an effort to ensure the 2015 general election is not undermined by a significant decline in registered electors—which we welcome, there is no such safeguard for the boundary review, which will take place later in the same year. Given that the general election and the boundary review are due to take place in 2015, it seems odd to choose 2014-15 as the period for introducing individual electoral registration. It would make more sense to begin the process later or at least to extend the period of its implementation. Alternatively, registration under the current system could be carried forward for the boundary review, as is proposed for the 2015 general election. None of those options should cost any more than the Government’s current plans.
It is the Government’s and indeed Parliament’s intention to equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies. Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that if the changes to those electorates as a result of individual voter registration were, even entirely properly, to be in any way unequal across different locations, that could result in the creation of unequal constituencies and in the Government’s failing to meet that objective?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. In seats where there is a large number of students there could be a bigger slump than in areas where there is a large number of owner-occupiers. There could be a second major boundary change in five years, if there is a big slump in those on the register. Bearing in mind that the register is used to determine boundaries, the changes could lead to some of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman alluded to. If the formation of new boundaries goes ahead, with 10 million missing voters—not my figures but those of independent experts—it risks another substantial upheaval of parliamentary constituency boundaries to deal with that large loss of voters.
We should not forget that the electoral roll is not used simply for election purposes and for drawing boundaries; the register also performs an important civil function.
The shadow Minister was making a point about the impact of the changes on the next boundary review. Has he been able to estimate the consequences of under-registration on this side of the water? The measures will not apply to Northern Ireland, which has already taken its hit and is recovering, but they could lead to an increased number of seats being allocated to Northern Ireland under the constituency formula, in turn inflating the size of the Assembly, which is based on parliamentary constituencies.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Members laughed during his intervention, but he is right to remind us indirectly of the formula by which seats are divided up. I am sure that when the Minister responds he will address the hon. Gentleman’s point, because an unintended consequence of reducing the number of voters is that the formula may lead to the changes he mentioned.
It will be more difficult for people who are absent from the roll to get credit checks, undermining their ability to apply for loans or mortgages, and it will be more difficult for those trying to prevent money laundering to check identities. The lists from which juries are drawn would be compromised. One of the fundamentals of our justice system—that defendants should be subject to trial by their peers—would be threatened. If individuals are given the right to opt out of registering to vote, by implication they could opt out of jury service, which currently is rightly deemed a civic duty.
On the point about people being denied a loan or a mortgage if they are not on the electoral register as a result of the changes, is not the simple answer that they can register? The changes would not prevent anybody from getting a mortgage, but they will prevent people from getting a mortgage illegally.
That is one of the benefits of an accurate and complete register, but the changes could lead to debtors, or the police or councils, not being able to chase people because they are not on the register. Council tax benefit and housing benefit fraud is often caught when people are seen on the register. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is individual choice and that consequences flow from that, but he fails to recognise the civil functions and the benefits to society of a complete and accurate register.
The electoral register is used by local authorities, and sometimes Departments, to help them in their duties related to security, law enforcement and crime prevention—for example, checking entitlement to council tax discount or housing benefit. The register is also used to ensure that political parties and candidates can contact electors to try to persuade them to vote or—dare I say it—to get involved in party politics. The Government’s current proposals could lead to a number of unintended consequences that no one wants to materialise.
The concerns are not just coming from the Opposition; the Electoral Reform Society is unhappy that registration is simply a matter of take it or leave it for individuals. The cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has produced an excellent report, for which I thank the Committee, that calls for it to be an offence to fail to complete a voter registration form, although perhaps only for a period of time during the transition. Like the Electoral Commission, the Committee has rightly called for a full household canvass in 2014, and echoes our concerns about the 2015 boundary changes. We welcome some of the Committee’s other main recommendations.
We recognise that there is a problem with the current electoral register, both of accuracy and completeness, and I genuinely look forward to working with the Government to safeguard the integrity of our electoral system and to improve registration levels in the move to individual voter registration. I hope the motion will be debated in a spirit of consensus and that it will be supported on both sides of the House.
It is good to be having this debate at, I think, the third time of asking. Before I explain the rationale for our proposals and deal with the motion, I want to thank the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) for the tone in which he has engaged with the debate. I have certainly engaged with it in such a way, and I do not think that he will mind if I point out that his party did not adopt that approach from the beginning. Last autumn, the right hon. Gentleman’s party leader said that we were making registration individual rather than household, and that the Labour party was going to go out and fight against that change, stating:
“One of the most basic decent human rights…is the right to vote.”
I absolutely agree, but I do not know why he wanted to campaign against our proposals.
The shadow Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), said at the Labour conference that our proposals were
“a shameful assault on people’s democratic rights”,
and that Labour would expose and campaign against them. I thought that that was nonsense at the time. Clearly, the right hon. Member for Tooting thought so, although he could not say so, and he has adopted a much more sensible tone.
Finally in that vein, in an article on the Labour Uncut website, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), said that the Conservative-led Government had taken the Labour Government’s proposals—these are his words, not mine—and
“infused them with its own distinctive venom.”
I have been accused of many things, but never that.
People got carried away with those remarks, which were rather absurd, and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has returned to a more sensible tone whereby we can debate these sensible proposals. There is a lot of agreement on the move to individual registration, which will improve our system, and we can consider our specific proposals and the response that we make to the Select Committee report. I am happy to conduct the debate in that spirit.
In view of the fact that the Electoral Commission is saying that there may already be as many as 8 million people who are entitled to be on the register but are not on it, is it not, shall we say, counter-intuitive for any of us to discuss proposals that are likely to reduce the number of people on the register? Surely the objective of the Electoral Commission and the rest of us should be to maximise the number of people who are entitled to take part in our democracy legitimately. Individual registration is not likely to achieve that, particularly as it is in response, apparently, to just six prosecutions for electoral fraud.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s conclusion, which is that we should try to maximise the number of eligible voters—obviously, people who are on the register are entitled to vote—but I do not agree that individual registration is likely to reduce that number. To return to the matter of Northern Ireland—I shall expand on this later—given what we now know about the register in Great Britain, which is that about 85% of voters are registered, that register is in no better shape than that in Northern Ireland, where individual registration has already been introduced, as have a number of measures on continuous registration, such as data matching, which we propose to have at the same time. There is good evidence that if individual voter registration is introduced properly, with some of those other measures, a register may be achieved that is both more accurate and more complete than the one we have today.
In general, I am happy with my hon. Friend’s proposals, but the one thing in the Opposition motion that strikes me is the abolition of the sanction if people do not register. We do not believe in compulsory voting, but up to now we have always believed in compulsory registration. Will he reassure us on that specific point?
Let me come to that point in a moment, because I want to spend a little time on it, if I may. If my hon. Friend does not think that I have addressed it, I shall be happy to take another intervention from him.
Let me run through one or two parts of the motion that are defective, and which lead me to urge my hon. Friends to oppose it. I hope that I shall do so with the same tone with which the right hon. Member for Tooting introduced it. It is true that we supported the proposals for individual registration in the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009, but it is worth reminding the House that the previous Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to include them. They were not in the Bill when it was introduced in the House of Commons, which is why we voted for a reasoned amendment. In fact, they were not in the Bill at all when it left the House of Commons, although by that stage the Labour Government had made a commitment to include them, and they were introduced in the other place.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), who was leading for us on the issue at the time, said:
“I am glad that at the eleventh hour the Government have, at last, agreed to move ahead with individual voter registration, albeit in what still seems to be a lamentably leisurely time scale. They committed to the principle of individual voter registration many years ago, but a bit like St. Augustine, they seem to be saying, ‘Make me chaste, but not yet.’”—[Official Report, 2 March 2009; Vol. 488, c. 695.]
My right hon. Friend made it clear that we approved of the decision to proceed with individual registration, which we thought could be accomplished earlier. We said that it would be our intention to do so, but that is not what the right hon. Gentleman said. On page 47 of our 2010 manifesto we made a commitment to
“swiftly implement individual voter registration”.
It is not fair—or, at least, it leaves out something quite important—to say that there was complete cross-party consensus on that measure.
I was one of those who did not want the previous Government to introduce the measure, but consensus was gained and it was introduced. That consensus has now been destroyed for the sake of a single year. The Government have shattered that consensus across the country—not just in Parliament but outside, too. Why do so just for one year? Is it anything to do with the 2015 election and the boundary freeze date of 1 December 2015?
No, it is not. If the hon. Gentleman will listen, we have introduced proposals having learned from the experience of Northern Ireland, for example in the carry-forward, to make sure that we minimise the risk of any drop in the registered electorate before the 2015 election. Between that election and the drawing up of registers for the next boundary review, there will be another full household canvass. There are therefore good safeguards in the system to make sure that the general election and the 2015 boundary review are held on the most accurate and complete registers possible. I shall say a little more about that later.
I do not think that it is correct to say that the Government have eroded the civic duty of registering to vote. It is not an offence—this comes back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made—not to be registered to vote. It is an offence to refuse to provide information to an electoral registration officer on the household canvass form when required to do so. We do not propose to change that, but I must note that there is some doubt about how effective that is, given that about 15% of electors are not registered to vote. I shall say a little more about that later.
I accept that the way in which we phrased our original proposals, with regard to the opt-out and some of the language that we used—I said this when I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform—could have led people to think that we wanted to weaken the extent to which we felt citizens had an obligation to register to vote. The Deputy Prime Minister and I have both said that we are minded to change that provision when we introduce our Bill. To be fair, the right hon. Member for Tooting acknowledged that.
We are retaining the offence of not responding to the household form. The logic is that if someone does not respond, they affect not just themselves but perhaps other people’s right to vote. That is why we have kept that proposal. We then faced the question, in the returning of the invitation to register, of whether we really wanted to create a criminal offence and criminalise people for not registering to vote. First, I start from the position of thinking that that would not be effective. The evidence at best, if I am being generous, is very mixed about whether that is effective. Secondly, we do not want to clog up the court system with a huge number of these cases. In Northern Ireland, where someone correctly said the offence of not returning the individual form exists, the provision has in effect become meaningless because when it was used in court and someone was prosecuted, the court gave them a slap on the wrist with a fine of 1p. The provision has effectively become unusable.
The evidence that I gave earlier from Rhyl in my constituency was that in the poorest ward in the whole of Wales—there are 1,900 sub-wards in Wales and this is the poorest—registration went up 2,500 to 3,500 in one year because of the threat of the fine. If the Minister does not want to make failure to register a criminal offence, how about a fixed penalty notice of £70 or £80? If people are determined to stay off the register, that is up to them, but they would face a £70 fine. If that happens time and again, perhaps he would consider making it a criminal offence after two or three times. How about that?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that. He made exactly that point at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions on 15 November and my right hon. Friend said that we would look into it. Indeed, I did. Although the numbers did broadly increase as the hon. Gentleman says, they did not do so over a year. The increase in the electorate in Rhyl West from 2,474 to 3,531 took place over a period of nine years—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I have the number of electors registered in front of me. I will not bore the House by reading them out, but the increase took place over a period of eight years, so I am afraid I do not think he has got his facts quite right.
I implore the Minister to look again at this. Clearly, if failing to send back the annual survey is to incur a penalty, it seems illogical not to insist that failing to send back the individual form should also incur a penalty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said, some sort of fine that is clearly expressed to people, rather than hidden away in the small print, is a tremendous incentive to return the form. The absence of a penalty seems like a missed opportunity.
Let me skip ahead to a quotation a little later in my remarks, which is relevant. There is a purpose in doing as the hon. Lady suggests only if it is effective. The evidence from the Information Society Alliance, for example, in its survey shows that compulsory registration —in other words, saying that people have to register or there will be a penalty—does not
“yield registration rates notably above those achieved in countries without compulsory registration.”
So it is not particularly effective. If I were persuaded that it was, I might look at it again. I certainly do not want to criminalise millions of people.
The current system, where failure to respond on the household registration form carries a penalty, is not noticeably effective because, as we now know, 15% of electors are missing. The single biggest reason why people are not registered to vote is that they move house frequently. One of the things that we need to do, which I will come on to, is to look at ways in which we can track people more quickly when they move house and get them registered to vote.
From the perspective of individuals in households, I am concerned about what appears to be duplication under the new system. There is a household form and an individual voter registration form. This seems to go against the red tape challenge and from an individual’s point of view seems over-bureaucratic. I am worried that that will confuse people.
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, and I will come on to it when I speak about the modified canvass in 2014. Registration officers made the same point about why it was not a good idea to do a full household canvass in the traditional way in 2014 and then immediately write to everybody with an invitation to register. Their view was that as well as being costly, that would end up confusing people, which is why we set out a modified canvass, on which people also have strong views. I shall deal with that in more detail later.
I am grateful for the tone of the debate so far. I have a constituency in Southwark where we probably have about a 25% turnover of electorate every year. I am therefore very clear in my view that it ought not to be a criminal offence if people do not send back the form, but that there ought to be an incentive to do so and failure to do so should be subject to an administrative penalty. That changes the culture and means that everybody understands that the obligation is to register—not to vote, but to register and give themselves the right to vote when the time comes. I am clear that we need that culture shift.
I have listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the turnover of electors in his constituency. I am very clear that we want a consistent outcome from the process and for as many people as possible to be registered, but in order for that to be effective we might need to allow electoral registration officers to adapt their approach, depending on the nature of the constituency. In areas such as his constituency, or Tower Hamlets, which I have visited, where the turnover is 40%, a completely different methodology is adopted, for example by visiting every household in the first instance, rather than sending out forms. Such an approach would not be adopted in constituencies where there was much less turnover. We must allow electoral registration officers that flexibility in order to get a consistent outcome.
I have two more points to make on the motion before saying a little more about our proposals. The right hon. Member for Tooting referred to 10 million people being removed from the electoral register. He originally used that figure in a piece in the comment section of The Guardian on 13 October 2010. The Electoral Commission responded and made it clear that it did not state that 10 million people could lose the right to vote as a result of our proposals. I simply do not think that his claim is a realistic assessment based on any kind of evidence at all. I also gently point out that there is a mistake in the motion when it states that registration rates could fall by 65%. I think that it meant to say that registration rates could fall to 65%, because that is the number that some people have bandied about, but that is not what it says.
The motion relates to the 2015 boundary review, by which I mean the boundary review that will start in 2015 and use the 2015 register. As I have said, after the next general election there will be a full household canvass in 2015, at which those who have moved house since the previous registration will be invited to register. I think there is a good process in place to ensure that that register is as full and accurate as possible.
On the Minister’s point about the views of the Electoral Commission, did not the chair of the commission say on 15 September:
“It is logical to suggest that those that do not vote in elections will not see the point of registering to vote and it is possible that the register may therefore go from a 90 per cent completeness that we currently have to 60-65 per cent”?
She did, but she was talking about our proposal to allow voters to opt out by having a simple tick box on the form. We listened carefully to what the chair of the commission said, as did others, and the Deputy Prime Minister and I have confirmed that we are minded to change those parts of our provisions. The thing that she was concerned about that might have a direct effect, because people might tick the box, could also send out the message that we were less interested in people registering to vote. We have already accepted that that could have those consequences, which is why we have said that we will change it, and I think that that acknowledgment has been welcomed by the commission and its chair.
My final point on the motion is about the way it finishes by simply stating as a fact that moving to a system of individual registration
“will lead to large-scale under-registration.”
I simply do not think that there is any evidence to support that proposition. The motion is not quite in the spirit and tone with which the right hon. Gentleman introduced it. When the debate finishes, I urge my hon. Friends to oppose the motion, but to do so in the same constructive spirit with which he introduced it.
Let me say a little more about our proposals. I am happy to take interventions, but I will try to be mindful of your point, Mr Speaker, about the number of Members who wish to speak. I am pleased that the overall shift to individual registration is supported by all parties in the House—it was in all three main parties’ manifestos. The Electoral Commission supports it, as do the Association of Electoral Administrators, a wide range of international observers and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, whose Chair was present for the earlier part of the debate. There is much cross-party agreement on the principle and I recognise that we are effectively arguing over the detail.
The old, or current, system, involving the old-fashioned notion of a head of household who registers everyone else, is a little out of date and, as Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged, gives one person the ability to affect other people’s registration. We do not adopt that approach in other areas where people interact with the state, and the Electoral Commission has stated very clearly that the
“‘Household’ registration system means there is no personal ownership by citizens of a fundamental aspect of their participation in our democracy—their right to vote. This is too important to be left for anybody other than the individual”.
The Government agree, and I could not have put it better myself.
There is also a risk of fraud. The issue is not just about the fraud that actually takes place, but the risk of it, and even international observers, when they come and look at our system, note that we are very lucky to have a relatively low level of fraud. That is not because of our system, it is despite our system, and we would not be doing our jobs properly if we left in place a system that was open to fraud, even if we have been fortunate enough not to have had a huge amount of it to date that we know about.
I do not necessarily accept the proposition that fraud is a major issue in Britain, but the reason for making the suggested changes within this time scale—that they were so important that they had to be speeded up—does not get away from the fraud that can be perpetrated, for example, by someone simply turning up at a polling station and saying that they are somebody else. In a flat-share situation, somebody may not have registered, but, if somebody else has and they have moved away, the former can turn up and say, “I’m Joe Bloggs, and here I am.” As long as they are the right gender, they are able to vote, so if fraud is such a major issue should we not look at what happens when people turn up at the polling station?
That point has been made, and I looked at it when I visited Northern Ireland, which, for historical reasons and for the reasons it introduced the system ahead of us, requires people to have a form of photo ID when they vote. When that was introduced, it meant that many people were not able to vote, but it is now working smoothly. It has been suggested to us that we should adopt that system. The Government have decided not to do so, but we will listen to the evidence, as it certainly happens in one part of the United Kingdom. As far as I understand—I stand to be corrected—it currently works pretty smoothly, and for those electors who do not have their own form of photo ID, such as a passport or driving licence, there is a specific and very simple electoral ID card, with no database behind it, which they can use to prove their identity—and their age, for all sorts of other interesting purposes that to young people are probably more attractive than being able to vote.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and there was a certain amount of fraud in the early 2000s. That is why the previous Government, to be fair and to their credit, tightened up postal voting and introduced the system of requiring identifiers, whereby an individual has to have their date of birth and provide a signature. We can at least be sure that the person who requested the postal vote is the person casting it, but of course it does not give us any confidence in that person being the real, genuine person who lives in that house, as someone may have created a fictitious identity. We can be sure that the person who requested the postal vote is the person casting it, but they could do so on the basis of a completely fictitious identity. Postal voting has been tightened up, and that is good. It is something that we supported and which the previous Government did.
Another reason for speeding up the system is that running parallel systems—the current system and the new system—was likely to be rather confusing and was, I have to say, going to cost a significant amount. We are investing a significant sum in getting this right—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) just lets me finish, we are going to spend £108 million on moving to the system of registration, so we are fully funding the move, and by not trying to run it in parallel with the current system we have saved £74 million, which, given the state of the economy and the public finances that we inherited, a point that I will not labour, is not an insubstantial factor to bear in mind. But it is not at the expense of ensuring that we have a secure and accurate register.
The reason for the carry-forward was to ensure that people who had been registered to vote but had not registered once under the new system did not suddenly discover that they were not able to vote at the general election. The carry-forward was a check. In an ideal world, one would introduce a new system and not bother having the carry-forward. It was a safety net.
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), although postal voters provide identifiers, those do not provide any confidence or evidence that the voter is a real person. They provide confidence that the person casting the postal vote is the person who applied for the postal vote, but they do not get around the problem of people being able to create fictional identities and carry out postal vote fraud. We therefore did not think that it was sensible to extend the carry-forward to postal votes. There will still be carry-forward on the register, so people will still be able to vote, but we will not carry forward people’s absent vote. We do not think that that is likely to cause an enormous problem. The hon. Member for Caerphilly should wait for us to respond to the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the not-too-distant future, because I think he will be reassured by our answers.
As I made clear to the House in my statement last September, we are focused as much on completeness as accuracy. We instigated and funded the independent research by the Electoral Commission to see what state the current registration system was in. That should make us pause to reflect. When we have discussed this matter previously, there has been a complacent view that everything is fine, that there are not many problems, and that we are at risk of tampering with the system and causing a problem. The fact is that the current system is not as good as people thought it was.
I made the point that in Northern Ireland, where individual registration was introduced and where it now has a number of continuous registration mechanisms, such as putting back the carry-forward and using data matching, the system is now as complete as and more accurate than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. That demonstrates that if we do this well, learning the lessons from Northern Ireland, looking at things such as data matching and carrying out the proposal sensibly by having pre-legislative scrutiny and listening to what people have to say, we will not damage the registration system, as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd said, but have a more accurate and complete register over time than the one we have today.
For people such as me who are unaware of events in Northern Ireland, will the Minister inform the House how long equalisation took to take place?
What the research has shown about the drop in the register in Northern Ireland is interesting. Some of the drop was expected because, after all, part of the point of introducing the system early in Northern Ireland was that it was understood that a number of people on the register there did not exist and we wanted to get rid of them. However, it is not clear that the drop in Northern Ireland was any larger than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, there may well have been a drop in those who were eligible to vote because they did not go through the slightly increased bureaucracy. However, most of that seems to have been fixed by reintroducing the carry-forward, so that people who did not register the first time around are not penalised. We have learned from that. Having had Northern Ireland go first and having learned the lessons from what it has done, we can be reasonably confident that we will not run into the same problems.
I am also pleased that, as the right hon. Member for Tooting said, we have gone about this in a conciliatory way. We published a White Paper last year. We then published draft legislation, consulted on it and asked the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to do full pre-legislative scrutiny on it. The Committee has taken evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, including me. It has raised a number of concerns, some of which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. The Government will respond shortly to the Committee’s report. I urge all hon. Members, particularly those who are interested in this subject, to look at our response because it will address a number of the issues that were raised. Hon. Members can be confident that we will not run into those difficulties. For example, we have already mentioned the carry-forward, and we will not require people to re-register all their details every year if they do not move house. They will simply have to confirm that they have not moved. In Northern Ireland, people have to go through the whole process every year.
I have referred a few times to data matching. We have examined other public databases in a number of local authorities to see how successful we can be in finding people who are not registered to vote. We are in the process of finalising our assessment of that programme, and the Electoral Commission will also be doing so having worked closely with us. I am confident that it will demonstrate that we can use those extra data, as happens in Northern Ireland, to improve the register.
Younger people have been mentioned, and we want to ensure that we allow people to register online in a secure way, which will particularly help younger people. To pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), it will potentially also help people who are disabled and find it easier to use electronic methods. I absolutely agree with her that people with learning disabilities are entitled to register to vote and to cast their vote. From my experience of working with Scope and attending its reception immediately after the election, and of talking to people with learning disabilities, particularly younger people, I know that they are just as able as anybody else to understand the issues involved and make decisions, and nobody should tell them that they should not. I wanted to put that on the record in strong support of what the hon. Lady said.