Wednesday 27 June 2012
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Council Tax Benefit Localisation
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Philip Dunne.)
It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to have this debate under your chairmanship. I requested it because of my concern about not only the impact of council tax localisation and the 10% cut in subsidy to already hard-pressed local authorities such as mine in Wigan, but the cumulative effect of the welfare benefit changes disproportionately impacting on people in low-paid work. Council tax benefit is widely claimed; some 5.9 million low-income families claim it, more than claim any other means-tested benefit or tax credit in the United Kingdom. It is a crucial benefit for people in work who are struggling to pay rising bills for food and fuel, and contributes hugely to making low-paid work pay.
A consultation paper published in August 2011 made it clear that although no detailed regulations had been published—they have not been published even today—current claimants of pension age will see no reduction in support and that their entitlement will continue to be protected by national rules. Will the Minister say whether any more categories of claimant are likely to be protected by statute? In Wigan in 2010-11, there were 34,000 claimants, and the Department for Work and Pensions paid a grant of £26 million. On current expenditure, a 10% cut would obviously lead to a £2.6 million shortfall, on top of swingeing cuts of more than £66 million already being made to Wigan council’s funding from central Government.
Another issue to be considered in Wigan is the number of pensioners claiming council tax benefit. More than 40% of people of pension age are claiming it, so the burden on those of working age becomes disproportionately higher with a potential 20% reduction across all working-age customers, and that is before the protection provided to any other groups that the authority might wish to protect—carers, for example.
It is worth reminding hon. Members that council tax is one of the few debts for which the final penalty is imprisonment. Even with council tax frozen and no cuts in council tax benefit, the number of people seeking help from the debt charity, Consumer Credit Counselling Service, because of council tax arrears rose by more than a quarter in 2011. The cost, both human and financial, of collecting more money from people who are already at their wits’ end and struggling to pay their bills must be factored in by local authorities. My council has identified that collection will be difficult and involve a high level of direct contact. In effect, it is saying that it could cost more to collect than the amount collected.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. She echoes many of the points that have been made by my local authority, Trafford council—particularly about the cost of collecting council tax and management of the benefit. It has pointed out that as housing benefit moves to universal credit, the current team that processes both benefits in the local authority will not be able to shrink by the same sort of proportion as the value of council tax benefit will, so it will become extremely inefficient. Some 80% of current benefit staff will have to be retained, but only for a rump of processing. Does that make cost-effective sense for councils?
I welcome this debate. Has my hon. Friend seen the announcement by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on this very point? It said:
“The poll tax experience showed how difficult it can be to collect small amounts of tax from low-income households that are not used to paying it.”
Is that not the scenario that we are getting back into?
My right hon. Friend must have read my notes, because I am coming to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It warned that limiting spending will give councils an incentive to discourage low-income families from living in the area. As in the past, they will be left to chase desperately poor people through the courts for small amounts of unpaid tax. During the 1990s, I worked in an advice agency; I can honestly say that I do not want a repeat of the poll tax debacle. That policy, like the current one, involved the poorest people paying the most in the most deprived boroughs.
When I look at the options being considered by Wigan council, I despair. Wigan has an excellent council with an enviable track record of working with employers, and a very active local chamber of commerce that provides new employment opportunities and supports existing businesses. However, given the difficult economic climate, and despite active promotion of employment and growth, Morrisons recently announced the closure of Rathbones bakery, with 160 job losses. Any closure or relocation of a major employer places an increased burden on already hard-pressed councils, and insisting that they collect a small amount of council tax from people adds to that burden and puts them in an impossible position.
The issue is compounded by the fact that the grant is predicated on the amount of benefit in the previous year, so any large influx of people into the council tax benefit system will have a destabilising effect on the council’s budget. Indeed, there may be a perverse incentive to encourage such people to leave the borough—a return to the poll tax scenario.
Wigan and similar local authorities have stark choices. They could abolish backdating for working-age customers, but savings would be minimal. They could abolish the second adult rebate, but the savings would also be minimal. They could establish a weekly minimum payment of £1 upwards, but again the savings would be minimal. They could change the capital disregards on a sliding scale, penalising people who save, but, once more, the savings would be minimal. They could disregard income from child benefit, maintenance payments and disability benefits, but that would hit the most vulnerable the hardest and could be open to challenge on grounds of discrimination.
Such a move would certainly save money, albeit with the greatest cost falling on the most vulnerable. Awards could be capped at a percentage of liability, which could deliver savings, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said, given the huge increase in the number of council tax bills, collection would be very difficult because some people would be paying council tax for the first time. That would lead to an increase in collection costs. Again, there are echoes of the poll tax.
The new scheme would have to be in place by January 2013 with the IT changes completed and ready to go online. Is the Minister confident that the IT systems will be in place in time for an introduction in 2013? My local authority certainly has worries about that. It wants to know how progress of the IT systems will be monitored, and how they will be supported in their introduction.
Another issue that localisation of council tax benefit raises is its relationship, or not, with the universal credit. The credit is supposed to simplify the benefits system, reducing the number of different benefits and means tests. Keeping council tax support separate and allowing it to vary throughout the country surely undermines that simplification. Universal credit was supposed to rationalise work incentives by replacing the jumble of overlapping benefits with one single means test. That may vary throughout the country, so how will people judge how well work will pay, if it does, in different areas? Will the Minister explain how work will always pay, given that a localised scheme will be introduced prior to the universal credit? How will the two line up and interrelate?
That is not the only change that will affect working families in April 2013. For those who also claim housing benefit—let us not forget that seven out of eight housing benefit claimants are in low-paid employment—the outlook is even more bleak. The under-occupation penalty or bedroom tax will also come into effect. Wigan has a shortage of one-bedroom properties, and more than 8,000 residents are under-occupying. They will be unable to move, because we simply do not have one-bedroom properties, so they will face a minimum 15% reduction in housing benefit—approximately £12 a week.
The increase in deductions for non-dependants is already increasing by approximately 30% a year. In 2013, the deductions will be almost double what they were in 2010.
It is interesting that my hon. Friend mentions the non-dependant deduction in relation to housing benefit. Was she as surprised as I was that the Prime Minister said in a speech on Monday that it was dreadful that housing benefit was lost if an adult child went into work? He did not seem to realise that his own Government had just substantially increased the deduction.
Yes, that was somewhat surprising.
This is a difficult period in which to be a young person. The single room rent changes for the under-35s looking to rent privately are coming in, limiting housing benefit to £57.73, when a one-bedroom flat in Wigan costs approximately £90 a week.
Singly, any one of the changes will affect people on a low wage in a way that is extremely hard to cope with; cumulatively, they could well deliver a fatal blow. It is well reported that only a small decrease in income will push a struggling family from the position of just about managing to pay their bills to that of not coping, and sinking into unmanageable debt.
Mr Howarth, you would not expect me to miss an opportunity to remind hon. Members that the advice agencies that were hitherto there to help people and rescue them from that struggle are also struggling, and that the removal from the scope of legal aid welfare benefits and most debt work will have a significant impact on those agencies. That is coupled with the local authority reductions in funding, which could be even larger given the measure under discussion and the cuts that local authorities may have to make. There may be little or no support for people who could face the loss of their liberty due to council tax arrears.
As the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government stated:
“The proposals for the localisation of council tax support seem to us to provide an illusion of delegation with a minimum of real discretion, virtually guaranteeing that the funds available to support working-age…people will be squeezed.”
These hard-working families are already squeezed; councils are squeezed; and it is inevitable that, yet again, the poor and the vulnerable will suffer.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing the debate. Being out of circulation for a month or two has not lessened my concerns about this issue. I want to place those concerns on the record again.
In the debate, we are considering three distinct aspects, but they are getting tangled up with one another. One is the localisation of council tax benefit. As a Liberal Democrat, I am firmly in favour of as much localisation as possible. Indeed, it is difficult to disagree with it, but the constraint of having to protect all pensioners—a laudable aim—clearly puts great pressure on some councils.
Let me give the example of East Dorset, part of which I represent. There, it is estimated that the impact of the cuts in council tax benefit for those in work will be something like a 33% reduction. We do have these differentials.
The concerns that the hon. Lady is raising on her local council’s behalf are shared by the London borough of Bromley, which has a large retired population and an increasing ageing population. The impact that she mentions is, in Bromley, in the order of 25% for the working-age population. That is a concern that they share, too.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The point is one that we need to keep reinforcing. As the hon. Member for Makerfield pointed out, what is happening is not true localisation, because councils have very little flexibility. Although I am certainly up for the localisation of council tax benefit, what we have before us at the moment—of course, it has still to be discussed fully in the other place—is not delivering what we want.
The second strand is deficit reduction and the cut of £500 million. That is a distinct aspect, even though it has a knock-on effect on the whole picture. I shall return to that in a moment. The other strand is that the Government have made it possible for councils to raise additional income through the empty homes premium and the flexibility to increase council tax on second homes. Again, I applaud that, but we all know that even though the sum of money that could be raised is £500 million, things will not match up council by council, so we do not have a complete solution to the problem that we are discussing, although some help is available.
I feel very strongly that, as the Local Government Finance Bill and all its implications are being discussed in the other place, there must at the very least be consideration of some transitional measures to help the people who will be hit. They will almost certainly be the low-income working families. Those people are right on the margins and just trying to improve their lot a little, but they get well and truly clobbered. As people have pointed out, that goes against the principle of universal credit, and I think that across the House we do support the principle of universal credit.
I cannot help but refer to the fact that £500 million was found yesterday to defer the increase in fuel tax. That will help our hard-pressed constituents, but, as I understand from “Newsnight”, it was found in underspent budgets. My message to my hon. Friend the Minister is this. Please can he go and have a look at those underspent budgets, because at the very least a transition would help some of our very vulnerable and well deserving people. They are hard-working, but are going to be in quite a trap over the next year.
Of course, if we do not make reductions in council tax benefit—many authorities will not want to do that—we move to cuts in other services, so the effect knocks on and on. I even had representations from my fire authority on Friday. It was concerned about potential cuts in its budget as a consequence of what is happening. It is an enormous issue. Everything sounds simple and laudable to start with, but as we work through all the implications, there is a strong case for at least looking for some mitigation measures. I hope that the Minister will put pressure on his colleagues. I know that the issue will be hotly debated by all parties in the other place. I hope that we will have an improvement in the situation.
Order. It might be helpful if I explain that the first of the two Front Benchers will be called at 10.40 am. There are rather a lot of hon. Members wishing to speak. If Members exercise a self-denying ordinance and stick to five minutes, we should be able to get everyone in. I will leave Simon Danczuk with that thought.
Thank you, Mr Howarth. I welcome the debate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for securing it. My comments will concentrate on two things: first, the purpose of the policy change and, secondly, the impact that it will have on our constituents.
One would like to think that Government make such changes to improve services, to improve people’s lives and to improve decision making. Unfortunately, this change does little to improve matters, because of how the policy is being introduced. If I were a cynical person, I would argue that the change is about saving money and redistributing money away from poorer areas. The Government have cut the funding for council tax benefit by 10%, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) pointed out. That is a saving of £500 million, but surely that is an arbitrary figure. It is another example of the Government making decisions without evidence. It is not based on fact. Why is it 10%?
I understand from the Local Government Association that the Government estimate a decline in the number of council tax benefit claimants in 2013-14 of about 12%, but as the Local Government Association states, it is not clear why the number is expected to decline. Perhaps the Minister can shed—[Interruption.] Yes, the number is probably going to increase. If the Government’s other predictions are anything to go by, in terms of unemployment, economic decline and the amount of money that the Government need to borrow, surely the number of council tax benefit claimants will increase. The Government are pushing their cuts on to local government to administer. That is the reality. Not only that, but because they have protected certain groups, such as older people, areas with higher need will carry a greater burden. That is after local authorities have had funding cuts of 19% over the past two years.
Let me point out that the public are not daft. The local government settlement, public health funding, the new homes bonus, repatriation of the business rates and now council tax benefit are all skewed towards better-off areas. In effect, the Government are stuffing money into the back pockets of wealthy local authority areas. That is the reality of the policies they are pushing forward. The public can see exactly what they are doing and they see that it is unfair.
The Government are also shifting risk. That cannot be dressed up as localism, because the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has given himself powers to prescribe who receives the benefit. Unhappy with wheelie bin collections and council newspapers, he gave himself more power. For such a big guy, the Secretary of State is obsessed with the minutiae of local authorities. He has the power, but local councils carry the risk. When the Department for Work and Pensions managed the budget, it was based on annually managed expenditure. When it transferred to councils, it was based on a cash-limited funding pot, so all the financial risk has switched from central to local government.
The other risks associated with the policy concern timing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) pointed out. Will councils be ready in time? Is the software ready and appropriate? What happens if local groups challenge the decisions made locally? All the change is happening in a short time frame, when local authorities face unprecedented cuts and other major changes to their financial systems.
In conclusion, the issue is not only about systems and whether the power lies with central or local government; what concerns me most is the impact that the change will have on hard-working families—people who are not that well-off and people who struggle to make ends meet. Everyone here knows that in many towns and cities across the country, local councils will have to do the Government’s bidding when it comes to increasing the amount of council tax that working families pay, because council tax benefit is being cut. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, of which I am a member, said
“The proposals for the localisation of council tax support seem to us to provide an illusion of delegation with a minimum of real discretion, virtually guaranteeing that the funds available to support working-age unemployed people will be squeezed.”
I rest my case.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on the case that she put forward in opening the debate today.
I would go further than my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and say clearly that the measure is not about reforming the benefit system or creating a fairer system, but a cynical move by the Government to impose crude cuts on individuals who can least afford it. It is a cynical way to cut the money given to local councils.
As we have seen, and heard from my hon. Friend, local authorities, including my own, are facing a massive financial squeeze. The Government were not satisfied with the in-year cuts that they placed on Tameside and similar authorities. Tameside has had to reduce the budget over three years by almost £100 million, which has a major impact on what a local authority can do. It is not only Tameside; the picture is mirrored across the country. The areas most in need feel the pinch the hardest, which means that their local authorities’ capacity to help them is greatly diminished.
A Government proposal such as council tax benefit localisation affects real people. The figures from Tameside council show that in 2011-12 nearly £20 million— £19.3 million—was spent on council tax benefit, which is 32,245 claimants. A 10% reduction would amount to £2 million. According to the Government, among those claimants, the 13,569 pensioners, who received £8,481,078-worth of council tax benefit, are protected, which means that the squeeze is forced on 7,990 families with dependent children, who last year received £5,288,698-worth of council tax benefit. Those are the same families with dependent children who are being attacked at every level of Government policy, not least through the reduction and removal of tax credits.
Does my hon. Friend agree that among those who will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of the measures will be the bailiff agencies? There has already been a significant increase in the use of bailiffs to recover arrears from the kind of low-income families that he mentions. My local authority used bailiffs 30,000 times over three years for council tax and housing benefit. The faster the population churn, the more likely it is that bailiffs will be used. Using bailiffs for very small amounts of money—huge for the families concerned, but small for the bailiffs—is likely to lead to yet another surge in the sector.
I agree with my hon. Friend completely. I know from my casework the pressures that are put on local authorities to collect the money owed to them and to collect it quickly. They utilise all tools at their disposal, including bailiffs, which brings great distress to families who simply struggle to find even small amounts of money. It pushes them further into poverty. I totally accept the point she makes.
What has been completely lost by the Government in all the debates that we have had, most recently in the consideration on the Floor of the House of the Local Government Finance Bill, is that council tax benefit is an in-work benefit. Listening to Ministers at the Dispatch Box, one would think that the changes were all about the feckless poor, who do not deserve the benefit, and about removing money from them—the undeserving poor. I will not get into a debate about the deserving and undeserving poor—I leave that to the coalition parties—but I know from my constituency that a great number of the people who receive council tax benefit are in work. They are in low-paid, and often part-time, work. If we are to create a benefit system that is about making work pay, the way to do it is not to go ahead with such measures.
The Minister and I share a local authority. I have mentioned Tameside.
On the in-work benefit point, does my hon. Friend not think that it is an absolute nonsense that the Government say that the 10% reduction will strengthen local authorities’ incentive to promote employment and growth in the local economy, given that those who receive the benefit are already working? As he said earlier on the cuts, local authorities do not have the money left for the job and growth promotion tasks that they might have wanted to do.
My hon. Friend is right. That shows what nonsense many of the statements of the DCLG are. It makes no logical sense.
My constituency shares a local authority with the Minister’s. One of the perks, I suppose, of having a cross-borough constituency is that I can quote two councils. The Minister will know that, even in Stockport, which is by all standards a much more prosperous borough than Tameside, there are areas of deprivation and social need. There will also be families in low-paid work, who will feel the squeeze from measures such as the one we are debating. From a local point of view, therefore, I urge the Minister to listen to Stockport council, which has concerns about such measures, and wants them to be thought through better before they must be implemented.
I agree with the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) about localism. We all believe in localism—certainly those of us who came through local government. I spent 12 almost happy years on Tameside council, which was a great training ground. However, if we are to make localism work, it must be genuine. The council tax benefit reforms are, I fear, localising the cuts and the blame, not genuinely localising a scheme of council tax benefits. That is because the Government have made the false assumption that all councils have a level playing field. Tameside council is completely different from Stockport council. It has a different level of ability to raise income and supplement loss of income, whether that is through localisation of the business rates or raising extra council tax, to pay for services or shortfalls in budgets such as council tax benefit. I urge the Government to consider their proposal carefully, because they are clobbering the working poor.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this significant debate and I pay tribute to her. She has highlighted an important issue.
I want to follow on from some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). I agreed with many of the comments of the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who made them in a calm and reasoned manner and highlighted the effect of benefit changes on the working-age population. I thank Durham county council, my local authority, for furnishing me with some figures to suggest the scale of the impact in my area.
The Consumer Credit Counselling Service reports a rise of almost a third in the number of people who rent their homes and seek advice on council tax debts, and a rise of more than a quarter across both renters and owners. That dramatic increase comes as a result of the worsening financial situation for ordinary people, particularly in my area, that is made tougher by the plethora of coalition Government policies, which seem to be hitting the poorest hardest. By scrapping the existing council tax benefit system at the same time as cutting funding for benefits, the Government will only exacerbate the financial problems that ordinary families face in areas such as Easington.
Ring-fencing council tax benefits for pensioners is, on the face of it, an idea to protect some of the most vulnerable, but the other side of the coin is that the impact on working-age households will be all the more severe. Indeed, just before the debate I twittered that I hoped to catch your eye, Mr Howarth, and one of my constituents, Madeleine, contacted me and asked me to be at pains to point out the impact on people like her—single adults in work who are claiming council tax benefit.
There are 43,710 homes in the former Easington district council area that makes up the bulk of my constituency, 13,800 of which are in receipt of council tax benefit. That amounts to almost one third of households. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, council tax benefit is the most comprehensively claimed benefit. It is claimed by 5.9 million households across the UK, a rate that is higher than for any other means-tested benefit or even tax credit. The plans to force local authorities to deliver a localised benefit system will create unfair disparities between council areas and regions.
Welfare benefits are, in the main, determined at a national level; I am referring to the determination of benefit levels and qualifying entitlements. However, the present proposals have the potential to undermine the fairness of the overall benefits system. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has made it clear that the proposals mean that councils must choose between cuts in essential services, cuts to benefits for working-age households or a council tax rise. Sir Merrick Cockell of the Local Government Association has highlighted a starker choice for councils:
“They can either cease helping the working poor, or continue to support them by taking money from other services or putting up council tax”.
A report by the LGA yesterday suggested that by 2020, because of external pressures—principally meeting the costs of adult social care—local authorities are likely to provide only those services that they are statutorily obliged to provide. Not only is the coalition shirking its responsibility and passing the buck to local government; it is cutting funding by 10% for good measure— £500 million, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said.
The policy of localisation of council tax benefit is completely at odds with the Government’s rhetoric that there should be no increase in council tax. Durham county council has 63,000 claimants and an estimated spend of £55 million for 2012-13. Almost half of claimants in Durham are pensioners, who the Government stipulate will face no cut. Therefore the burden will clearly fall on the one quarter of claimants in County Durham who have dependent children; the one tenth of claimants who are in work on low wages; and those who are out of work and looking for work. The latter group has grown in number, particularly in the north-east and especially in my constituency, under the policies of the coalition Government. Indeed, the DWP’s own research shows that 3 million households currently entitled to claim council tax benefit do not do so. That figure is likely to rise in tough economic times.
It is true that pensioners are protected, but the proposals place only an “expectation” on councils to protect vulnerable groups. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, that throws up a raft of other problems. Indeed, Durham county council is not alone in its concern that councils may face a legal challenge owing to local interpretations of which groups should be treated as more vulnerable than others; my hon. Friend mentioned carers.
Other concerns include the danger that as the financial burden will now fall on local taxpayers, should costs increase owing to conditions largely outside a council’s control—I might mention the rising cost of adult social care—the impact on services, benefits or rates will be overwhelming. The proposals are inherently unfair and go against the grain of the Government’s plan for a streamlined benefits system. It is not acceptable for the Secretary of State to wash his hands of his responsibilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I make heartfelt apologies to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and to all hon. Members for not being here at the start of the debate. We had a bit of a train crisis meeting, so I apologise for my delay. I will make a short contribution because I am conscious that many others wish to speak.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and I have written to the Secretary of State asking for more clarity on this matter. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us that today. If not, perhaps he could put out further notices clarifying the definition of what is “vulnerable” and what is a “vulnerable group”.
At the moment, council leaders and officers are struggling with how this system will look. Initially, the view was pessimistic, but that is often the case when there is a cut in funds, and there has to be a redistribution of the pot. In constituencies such as Suffolk Coastal, a significantly higher proportion of the population are pensioners. There are concerns that the impact of the measure on people of working age will be considerably more, given that pensioners will see no impact on their council tax benefits.
However, I say as a supportive Back Bencher that there is a challenge on us all to try to do things with the welfare state. We should see the issue as a way to encourage our local government partners to be part of the solution, which is to attract businesses and employment and to make the system a key part of encouraging people to get out to work.
I know that, through circumstances beyond her control, the hon. Lady was not here for the early part of the debate. The point that has been made over and over again is that council tax benefit is an in-work benefit. Many of the recipients are deemed, as those who are disabled are, to be incapable of working. Therefore, the argument that councils can mitigate that by attracting more employment fails at that basic level.
I understand why the hon. Lady says that. [Hon. Members: “Because it is true!”] Hon. Members should allow me to develop my argument. The average wage in Suffolk is considerably lower than that of counties nearby. It is probably lower than that in Lancashire and possibly lower than that in Liverpool, where I grew up.
District councils must try to attract higher-quality, skilled businesses to our area, so that they are not solely reliant on tourism and agriculture, which traditionally pay fairly low salaries. This system is part of a mechanism to encourage local councils to attract such businesses. With more businesses in an area, there will be a greater retention of business rates, with district councils, not county councils, taking 50% of such rates. Perhaps this measure is a blunt stick to encourage local councils to do their bit and to help their residents get higher skills and higher-value employment. We may be using a blunt stick to achieve that, but the aim is to say to local councils, “You have a role to play in the economic benefits for your area, and you should not simply be a processing house for benefit claims.”
Mr Howarth, I said that my speech would be short. I have taken one intervention, and I now leave it to other hon. Members to continue the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this important debate. I want to make three points. The first goes back to something that the Communities and Local Government Committee said in October, following the evidence that we took last July. We were against not the principle of the changes but the way in which the Government were going about them. Importantly, we said:
“We recommend that the Government delay the introduction of the new Council Tax support system by a year or more, if consultation with local authorities indicates that this would reduce the risks inherent in introducing many complex changes concurrently.”
That is an important point. Since then, the Local Government Association has repeatedly said that it has concerns with the timetable. In its briefing to us, it said that it urged the Government
“to give councils the necessary time to do this in the most considered, flexible and cost-effective way possible.”
In January, Capita wrote to all the local authorities for which it provides services, saying that it did not think that it could deliver the necessary systems in the time scale. I do not think that that advice has changed. Certainly, when I spoke this morning to Councillor Bryan Lodge, the cabinet member for finance in Sheffield, he said that the advice had not changed. When we had the debate on the Local Government Finance Bill in January, it was interesting that the Minister did not draw attention to that letter from Capita, although he was well aware of it at the time.
What is the situation now? Are the Government saying that despite all the concerns of local councils, the LGA and service providers such as Capita, they believe, in their wisdom, that this can all go ahead on time and without any problems—not just for councils and the administrators, but for the people who receive the benefits at the end of the line?
I just think back to Sheffield in 1999 when we had privatised the housing benefit service and transferred it to Capita in a rushed and botched way. I remember the constituents, often elderly, coming to my surgeries in tears not because they had done anything wrong but because the administration of their benefits was in chaos and, as a result, the arrears on their council tax and rent had risen. They were distraught because they had never been in arrears in their lives. I worry that we will go back to that situation.
The responsibility will be not with local councils but with the Government who will push this through on an unacceptable and unattainable timetable. I say to the Minister that it is not too late to stop. I am talking about not the intention but the ridiculous timetable on which the Government have embarked. If this was simply a question of localism and of saying to local councils, “Do it the way you want,” there would not be a problem.
I am a member of the Select Committee and have something to do with the production of its report and the idea behind it. I have always recognised that this is something of a complex area.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are some very real technical complexities in putting this system in place, but there is also an appetite among Ministers for shared systems and projects across large local areas? For example, in Hampshire, there are 16 different district councils, so a shared scheme across the area would make a lot of sense; it would save money in administration and so on. Necessarily, though, it will be a complex system to put in place, with legal agreements that will need to be considered and thought through. A little more time for that might also be very welcome.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; we will get a better scheme for having it slightly later. The savings will be better, as will the service to our constituents.
I say to the Minister that if this was simply a question of saying to local councils, “Get on and devise your own schemes,” they could do it. The problem is that they do not know how to devise a scheme in respect of the advice and detailed regulation that come from Government, because they have not got it yet. It is because the Government are insisting on regulating the details of a localised scheme so closely that they are in these difficulties.
I have two further brief points. One is about the 10% cut. If councils cannot devise their own schemes, they will have to opt for the existing scheme, which means that they will have to find the 10%; £4.5 million in Sheffield on top of the £200 million of cuts that the council is trying to make. That goes for every council in the country—cuts on top of cuts. That is the problem that the Government are forcing on local councils. There is the invidious choice of finding this money from other services, which are already being cut very substantially, or making the cuts in the benefits of people of working age on top of the cuts in benefits and working tax credits that those same families are having to take. It is the cumulative effect on those families that the Government have done no proper analysis of.
Finally, we still do not know from the Government how the administration of the system will work. They are localising council tax benefit and centralising housing benefit. There is a simple arrangement now for people whose income changes: they go down to the local council and speak to someone. In Sheffield, there is the home visiting service for the elderly and disabled, where someone comes along and helps them sort out both benefits. Now we will have a council tax benefit that we go to the council for and a housing benefit that we will have to go online for—or on a telephone to someone in Jobcentre Plus. For elderly people, that will be an impossible arrangement.
The Government say they will talk to local councils to find a way forward. As I understand it, there is no clear idea from the Government about how these two complex benefits will be arranged in the future when we will have two completely separate systems that people have to go through to get their problems sorted out.
Diolch, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this important debate and on making a very informative speech. She speaks with great authority on these issues, as a former worker in the Citizens Advice service, a service that I am also very proud to have worked for before entering this place.
I will concentrate my remarks today on the effect of these proposals on Wales. Of course, I should begin by saying that I am not opposed to the devolution of council tax benefits to Wales; normally, I would be here in Westminster Hall strongly welcoming that move. However, it seems inherently wrong that it should be done with the insistence that a 10% cut be made to the amount of benefits that can be provided. Essentially, we are telling some of the most vulnerable members of our society, who currently rely on benefits to maintain their standard of living, that they will get less in future.
No justification has been provided for the cut at a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet and when the median income is declining sharply, as we saw from the HBAI, or households below average income, figures released recently. Following a week in which tax avoidance by multi-millionaires was the main news story, it is depressing that we are once again debating measures whereby the UK Government are attacking the living standards of those at the bottom of society—working people who require additional support.
There are 328,000 claimants of council tax benefits in Wales, making it one of the most widely claimed benefits in Wales. In my own local authority area of Carmarthenshire, there are 19,090 households that receive council tax benefit in one form or another—approximately 23% of all dwellings on which council tax is charged. Sadly, though, and at the risk of upsetting the colleagues around me today, I must say that the Labour Government in Wales have spent more time on scoring political points against the Tories in London than on developing solutions to the problem of a 10% cut.
The cut was first announced in the summer of 2010—immediately after the general election—and yet two years later, and only months before its implementation, the Labour Government in Wales are still complaining that they do not have the necessary information. Last week’s meeting of the Welsh Government with the Secretary of State for Wales was, according to media reports in Wales, not overly fruitful, although perhaps the Minister can update us on that meeting when he sums up later.
We are still waiting for the Welsh Government to announce their position on this cut, although hopefully they will do so soon, given the publication last week of a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which made a number of suggestions. The IFS said that, to meet the 10% cut, the Welsh Government could impose a straight “salami slice” that would reduce the amount of support for all claimants. Alternatively, they could make reforms that would reduce the amount of support for council tax received by those living in higher-banded properties. They could introduce reforms that means-test support for council tax more aggressively, or introduce a reform to the current discount for single residents, changing underlying council tax liabilities.
We have yet to hear the Welsh Government’s response to the IFS report, but they have said that they face a challenging budget and will simply pass on the cuts in one form or another to Welsh local authorities. Given that Labour said in the election for the National Assembly of Wales that they would shield Wales from Westminster’s cuts, it is a gross dereliction of duty for it simply to pass those cuts on. That “challenging budget”, after all, comes as a result of Labour’s failure to reform the Barnett formula when they were in power in Westminster.
In the meantime, the Scottish Government have announced that they will protect recipients of council tax benefit from the cuts. The contrast between a strong Scottish National party Government in Scotland and a lethargic, supine Labour party in Wales could not be clearer. My party strongly favours fiscal responsibility and accountability for the decisions made by the Welsh Government, but this 10% cut should not be passed down to Wales by the Con-Dems and nor should it be passed on to the people of Wales by Labour.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for calling this debate. My contribution will follow on neatly from that of the last speaker, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), because I will talk a bit about the situation in Scotland.
When I came into the House two years ago and this whole debate about localism began, I was wont to go around saying to my colleagues, “Huh! We’ve had this for the last three years”—I think that was how long it had been by that point—“and it isn’t working.” That was because the Scottish nationalist Government had introduced in 2007 a policy of localism, although they did not quite call it that and they did not perhaps talk about it in quite the same way as others. However, the impact has been exactly the same as elsewhere.
The problem is that talking about delegating decisions to local authorities is all well and good, but if at the same time the financial squeeze is put on, that is not real delegation of power. That is what we have seen in Scotland; we have now seen it for five years. We have had a council tax freeze, which nobody has been able to break out of. It is a very populist notion. I know that people think, “Oh, that’s great, you’re freezing the council tax,” but we must remember that those who receive council tax benefit—the poorest and most vulnerable people—got absolutely nothing from it. The measure is actually highly regressive, and it is also cumulative year on year.
In that financial strangulation, a council tax freeze is applied. Then, as has happened in Scotland this year, local government starts to be given less money and is told, “There you are, it’s over to you for all sorts of decisions.” That has been very damaging and very difficult for local government. Although some local councils in Scotland embraced the notion of a council tax freeze at the outset—wrongly, I think, and my own Labour group on the City of Edinburgh council, although they were then in opposition, pointed out the flaws in the notion right from the beginning—most of them have now realised that the situation is very difficult for them indeed. Without a local area having the power to raise its own resources and have control over its finances, localism is not really localism, and that is the root of a lot of the problems that we have discussed this morning.
Obviously, Scotland faces the same situation as other places, in that the money is simply being cut by Westminster. What the Scottish Government have done about that so far is disappointingly limited: they have said they will not impose the 10% cut, although the cut will be coming from London. That sounds good on the surface, but only half of that money is coming from Scottish Government funds; the rest will come from local government. Therefore, local government in Scotland is experiencing the squeeze in exactly the same way as local government in other places.
The Scottish Government made that announcement shortly before the local government elections in May and said, “We will be saving Scotland from this 10% cut,” but they did not say that that will have an impact on other services, and that half of the money to deal with the cuts will be found from local government, which already has reduced resources. To anybody who thinks that the Scottish Government have some magical way out of these difficulties, I would say, “That is just not the case.”
I regret the fact that, at the moment, there is still a lack of clarity in Scotland about how the proposal will work in future, how it will be developed and how a new form of benefit will come out of the present situation. It is all too easy for the Scottish Government. Their line on most things at the moment is to say, “Well, if you vote for separation, everything will be solved.” It’s land of milk and honey stuff, but a lot of the problems that I have mentioned will still be there.
I hope that in the next few months the Scottish Government will not wait for this nirvana that they claim is to come but instead will start to think seriously about how we create a proper benefit in Scotland for all the groups who receive council tax benefit. For example, the current system for council tax benefit has some details that we do not want to lose. On carers, the current structure of council tax benefit includes a carer’s premium, which makes a difference to many households with caring responsibilities. We have just had carers week, and a lot of warm words have been said about carers. Let us hope, however, that all local authorities up and down the country that will be affected by this change—both the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government will be creating a new form of benefit—do not forget carers.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I draw attention to the interest that I have declared in the register.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this debate, which highlights what I consider to be a very instructive example of how not to effect change in social policy. We can have arguments about the merits of localising council tax benefit, and those arguments have been deployed today. Some people believe that the change is important as part of a localist agenda; others believe there is a problem in separating the administration of housing benefit from the administration of council tax benefit. Those arguments are perfectly legitimate, but let us put them aside for a moment and assume that making the change is a sensible route to follow. How would this Government—if they were an intelligent, sensible Government—go about making it?
There are three fundamental objectives. The first is to be clear about the policy, so that everyone involved knows exactly how the change will work, what the expectations are, and what the success measures will be—how it will be judged a success or otherwise. The second key objective is to have detailed consultation with everyone affected. As we have heard, the number of people receiving the benefit is approaching 6 million—no other benefit has more recipients. Such a consultation should identify any especially adverse impacts on particular groups, contradictions between elements in the policy that could have perverse effects, and any other such anomalies, so that the policy can be refined and then work effectively. Thirdly, there needs to be plenty of time, to enable the change to be introduced in an orderly and well-planned way.
The Government have failed all three tests. That is an extraordinary comment on how they, looking increasingly like a bunch of incompetents, have approached the issue. Although the objective of localisation is clear, the policy is still wrapped in ambiguity. How will the arbitrary 10% cut that the Government are imposing—a cut that runs against any principle of sensible policy change—be implemented if the Government’s objectives are to be met? Those objectives are that pensioners and other vulnerable households should be protected, and that there should be no work disincentives. I challenge the Minister to tell us—he has failed to do so when previously challenged—how any organisation can make a 10% cut in the overall benefit level while protecting pensioners and without creating work disincentives. Protecting pensioners will result, on average, in a 16% cut to others, substantial numbers of whom are in work. We still wait to understand the detail. Why is the policy not clear, even now?
Consultation, the second objective, has been notable by its absence. A few local authorities are beginning to consult with their residents, but they are shackled because the full details of the scheme are not yet available. The legislation is still only part way through Parliament—in the upper House—and the regulations have not been published. Local authorities are trying to do the right thing but are unable to do so properly, and the vast majority of the population, therefore, have very little idea of what will soon hit them.
That brings me on to the third criterion, the implementation timetable, which is, perhaps, the most lamentable failure of all on the part of the Government. The scheme must be implemented from April 2013, which means that councils must have all arrangements in place by the end of January next year, which is just seven months away. Before that, they must carry out detailed consultation, to ensure that all groups in the area are aware of the implications, and they then need to refine their policy to take account of the results. They also need to brief software suppliers, put the administrative arrangements in place, and do all the publicity, so that people know how the new arrangement will operate and, indeed, as the Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) rightly highlighted, to ensure that people understand how the complex new arrangements, which will involve different applications for housing benefit and council tax benefit, will work. All that must be done in seven months. In the best possible circumstances, with the regulations published and everything clear, that would be a tall order, but in the current situation, where we do not even know what the law will require, it is impossible. That is why people are saying, “It is simply beyond the scope of any reasonable local authority to be able to administer this without administrative chaos.”
I remind the Minister of what happened when housing benefit was introduced. His party was not part of the Government at that stage—it was a Conservative Government—but the process was highlighted at the time, in the early 1980s, as probably the worst administrative fiasco in the history of the welfare state. I put it to the Minister that he is now part of a Government who are moving in a direction that could well receive similar criticism in seven months’ time, when they try to put in place, with an impossible timetable and a lack of clarity on policy, a series of measures that will have far-reaching effects on the income levels of large numbers of people. This is a shambles. It is not how administrative or social policy should be carried out, and I sincerely hope that the Government will listen to all the appeals to delay the measure, to allow proper time for the administrative changes to be made in a proper way.
Thank you, Mr Chairman, for this opportunity to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing such an important and timely debate. I also congratulate everyone who has contributed so far, and I agree with every word they have said.
Time is short, and it is difficult to put every argument forward. As a former councillor of 28 years in the London borough of Ealing, I am only too well aware of the impact that this Government policy will have on those least able to bear the financial consequences of the irresponsibility of the bankers and the Government’s failed economic policies.
Before I address directly the localisation of council tax benefit, I want to remind the House of the cuts that local government is already struggling to deal with, as a result of the Government’s decisions to cut too deep and too fast. Local government across the country is taking a 28% budget cut, a much greater cut than for almost any other arm of Government. In Ealing, the council is faced with an £85 million cut over four years, which is more than 30% of its controllable budget. It has found 70% of the cuts through creating greater efficiencies, cutting out waste, renegotiating contracts, increasing its income, cutting back on senior management and finding new ways of working. Only 30% of the £85 million cuts have fallen on front-line services. That is what a Labour council can do when faced with an unprecedented financial challenge, made worse by the Government’s economic incompetence. But, as the cuts continue to roll in, it can only do so much.
The Government’s scheme to give councils the responsibility for delivering council tax benefit while cutting the funds to pay for it by 10%, is just the latest additional financial burden that councils face. The Government are also telling councils that they must protect pensioners from any cuts to their council tax benefit, which is a good thing, but, with the 10% cut in the grant, other groups of council tax benefit recipients, including the working poor, will receive cuts of up to 40% in their benefit, depending on the number of pensioners in their area. Where does that leave the Government’s policy to make work pay? In tatters, I suggest.
In addition, the grant, reduced by 10%, is a one-off settlement, which means that councils will have to bear all the risk of any future increases in council tax benefit take-up caused by the loss of local jobs. That is a considerable risk, given the current fragile state of the UK economy and the ongoing crisis in the eurozone. The eurozone could fall apart at any moment, and cause a further wave of financial turmoil and job losses. What should a council do if a major employer experiences difficulties and goes to the wall, creating significant job losses and a huge take-up in council tax benefit? On top of the already draconian cuts it is dealing with, it will have to cut other services to meet its council tax benefit obligations.
This is localism of the worst sort. The Government are giving the responsibility and the risk to local government, but are cutting the budget by 10% and telling councils who they should give the benefit to. True localism would give councils both the financial means and the freedom to decide how to administer the benefits, and to whom.
Local government is already bearing the brunt of the Government’s failed austerity programme, and this cut is a cut too far. It will hit the already vulnerable, including the working poor, and it flies in the face of everything that Members on this side of the House believe, and of what the Government profess to believe. The Government are out of touch, and are cynically trying to blame local councils for the cut that they themselves are choosing to make. The public will see through that, and the blame will lie fairly and squarely with the Government, unless they U-turn yet again.
I shall be extremely brief. It is a serious mistake to miss council tax benefit out of universal credit. Universal credit was supposed to be universal, but if council tax is not included, it will not be.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, will universal credit be counted as income in the means test for council tax benefit? Secondly, will local authorities have access to universal credit data when calculating people’s council tax benefit? Thirdly, does the Minister accept, as has been made clear in this debate, that many councils will not be in a position to implement the new system in time for April next year?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this debate, and all my other hon. Friends who have spoken. They are too numerous to mention individually in the time available, but all of them have expressed concern about the unfairness of the policy. It is unfair even according to the standards of the Government, who seem to have elevated inequity into a policy position.
The policy represents a circle that is impossible for councils to square. The shift from annually managed expenditure to cash-limited expenditure, coupled with a 10% budget cut—while pensioners must be protected, which we support—means that the brunt of the cuts will fall on the most vulnerable people in the community. Who are those people? Many of them are poor working families. The cuts that they will bear—entirely arbitrary, depending on how many pensioners are in the local authority—will range from 13.4% to 25.2%. The national average will be 17%. If councils try to protect other vulnerable groups such as disabled people and carers, as the Government default scheme suggests they should, the cut for working families could be as much as 40% of benefit.
The Government trumpet that they have taken people out of tax by raising the tax threshold. Those gains, such as they were, have already been wiped out by increases in VAT and changes to housing benefit and tax credits. For many poor families, they will be wiped out yet again by the increase in council tax. The sad thing is that the Government do not even recognise the existence of such families. The Minister for Housing and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), said to the Select Committee that
“if somebody is in work they will not be receiving the benefit because they will not need to”.
How wrong can one be, and how wilfully blind? A parliamentary answer that I received from a Department for Work and Pensions Minister, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), told me that 743,600 people are non-passported recipients of council tax benefit and in work. There are others on passported benefits, of course, who are in part-time work.
Looking at the local authorities of which my hon. Friends have spoken, there are 3,430 such people in the Wigan borough and more than 2,000 in my own. Stockport has 2,860, Tameside has 2,830, Rochdale has 2,900 and County Durham has an incredible 5,810. Do the Departments talk to one another, or is this, as most of the Opposition believe, a piece of Government spin designed to convince everyone that the benefits go to people who are out of work?
The implication, of course, is that people are out of work through their own fault. That would be nonsense even if it were true, given that there is a double-dip recession and 2.6 million people are unemployed, but it is not true. The benefit often goes to families trying to do the right thing by going out to work for low wages because they believe in the value of work and in setting an example to their children. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said that councils that pay higher wages can attract more businesses. That is interesting, given that Government policy is clearly to depress wages in many areas of the country by targeting regional pay in the public sector. They are driving wages not up but down.
Who else will be hit by the legislation? There is no protection at all in the Bill for people with disabilities—even those in the support group for employment and support allowance, who are not expected to seek work even if it is available, which in the current double-dip recession is unlikely. Nor is there any protection for those in the work-related activity group, who by definition are not expected to seek paid employment to increase their income. How ludicrous it is, then, for the Government to claim that their purpose is to spur councils on to create more jobs when many of the people affected are in work or defined as unable to seek work.
Another group who will suffer, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), is carers. Carers are defined by the national insurance credit regulations as caring for 20 hours a week or more for someone in receipt of certain benefits. Carers are the people whom the Prime Minister called the unsung heroes of society in 2010. Now they will be rewarded with a council tax increase. What are they supposed to do? If they stop caring and go out and get a job, the state will pick up a burden costing millions of pounds for the social care that they were providing. A tax increase for carers and disabled people and a tax cut for millionaires—nothing could better sum up the Government’s distorted priorities.
As some of my hon. Friends have mentioned, as with the Government’s plans for business rates, the poorest areas will be hit hardest. I have already given some figures. The number of people in Manchester who are in work and receiving council tax benefit is more than 8,000. In Liverpool, it is more than 6,000. In Salford, a much smaller authority, it is 3,500. By contrast, South Bucks has 420, Melton has 440 and the City of London has 40.
That means that councils with a lot of people in that category are being hit by a triple whammy. First, defaults will rise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield reminded us, that is an imprisonable offence. Secondly, it will be much harder for councils to mitigate the effect on people in work, simply because there are more of them. Thirdly, they will lose a significant amount of money from their local economy, as people try to make up the shortfall with income that they would otherwise have spent in local shops and businesses. My own local authority, for instance, will lose £1.3 million. Wigan will lose £2.6 million, Tameside £1.9 million and County Durham a whopping £5.5 million.
Is it not true that from an individual rather than a collective point of view, the cuts will actually fall hardest on those areas with the oldest demography rather than the greatest poverty? That is where the most distortion will happen. Collectively, there are areas with more people in receipt of benefit, but of course the budgets reflect that already.
Actually, they do not. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Local Government Finance Bill, he will see that its impact falls on the poorest authorities in the country. I have no doubt that there are difficulties in some areas with pensioners, but let me give him figures on what some of the wealthier areas will lose: Hertfordshire will lose £293,000 and Melton £246,000. Like the rest of the Government’s financial initiatives, this is designed to hit the poorest areas most—and, of course, it transfers all the financial risk to local authorities.
If more pensioners claim, as is likely under this system, that will be a good thing, but the money will have to be found in a cash-limited system. If unemployment increases, especially if a big employer closes down, the money will have to be found either from the poorest people receiving benefits or from cuts in benefits elsewhere. When the Government say that they wish to include council tax in the local business rate system, they fail to say that safety nets will kick in only if a council’s income falls between 7.5% and 10% below the baseline.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on launching the debate, and the many colleagues who have contributed to it. It will be extremely challenging to answer all the points raised, so I will pick out what seem to me to be the key ones. It is time that will limit what I am able to say, certainly not the strength of the arguments.
There has always been recognition in the House that welfare spending needs to be targeted properly and that more needs to be done to tackle poverty by getting people off benefits and into work. Part of achieving that, and part of the Government’s strategy for doing so, is to return control over council tax support to councils and for local authorities to have the freedom to decide how to help provide for the most vulnerable in their communities.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman meant to say council tax benefit, which is what we are debating. I certainly accept the figures given by the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones). Of course, some of the recipients of the benefit are in work. That is not in doubt or dispute.
I remind Members that council tax benefit expenditure more than doubled between 1997 and 2010. Much of this debate has centred on two different but overlapping things: localisation, which, on the whole, Members present seem to approve of; and the reduction in the total amount of money being distributed, which, on the whole, they seem to disagree with. I understand the difficulties that this creates, but I remind Members that the reason why we have to reduce central Government spending is the inheritance that the Government received in 2010.
No, I will not.
At that time, there was a gap of £400 million every day between the amount being spent by the outgoing Government and the amount they were receiving, in tax and other receipts—£400 million was being added every day to the national deficit. The measure we are discussing is part of the Government’s strategy to put this country’s finances back on a firm footing. As has been noted, it consists of a reduction of £500 million per year—not per day—as a contribution to closing the gap between public expenditure and public income.
That brings me to the contributions of hon. Members representing constituencies in Wales and Scotland. In both those nations, the allocation of the reduction is strictly in accordance with the Barnett formula, and that reduction is no more ring-fenced in its decrease than any increase under the formula. It is entirely a matter for the Welsh and Scottish Administrations to decide how to proceed on the schemes in their respective countries. It is important to make that point.[Official Report, 17 July 2012, Vol. 548, c. 1MC.]
That brings me to the many points that have been made about the implications and ramifications of the reductions. I want to illustrate how far wide of the mark some of those comments were by reference to a point made by the hon. Member for Mackerfield.
No, I will not give way on any points, because I want to proceed.
In another part of the Local Government Finance Bill, we are giving Wigan metropolitan borough the capacity to change its current discounts and exemptions for empty homes and second homes. Wigan metropolitan borough, which I am sure the hon. Member for Makerfield would agree has considerable social and economic problems, will be able to raise £2,173,854, if it chooses to exercise its discretion fully. The difference between those two figures is £43,000 in Wigan’s favour; under the Bill, it will have capacity to raise more revenue than it will lose.
That important point very much undermines the arguments made by a number of Members. It brings a sense of reality—[Laughter.] The nature of things is that very few Members of Parliament have detailed experience of local government finance systems; they are highly dependent on the advice they receive from local authorities and their senior finance officers. If Opposition Members asked their individual local authorities how much they would be able to increase their income if they took advantage of the Bill’s proposed discounts and exemption changes, I think that, almost without exception, those Members would be substantially surprised.
In my remaining two minutes, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her comments. I welcome her back, because she has been absent from the House for some time. She has not lost her touch. She made it very clear what she thinks about the issue and has been consistent and persistent in making her point. The authorities in Dorset and Poole can, if they choose to, offset the reduction in support for council tax benefit via changes to the exemptions that they levy.
The hon. Member for Makerfield made a point about the schemes that local authorities will introduce, but I am sure that it will be obvious to her that Wigan can continue with exactly the same scheme as it has now, if it wishes to do so. If it continues with that scheme, it will not need the guidance and support that we have already issued to local authorities on all the relevant matters. Indeed, some local authorities are already carrying out public consultations on alternative schemes and will have them in place by 1 April.
Human Rights (Kashmir)
It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I welcome the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne).
This is a short debate on a very controversial and difficult issue that concerns an awful lot of British citizens who have links with Kashmir. One or two colleagues have asked whether they may make interventions and, as a courteous chap, obviously I say yes, but I want to get most of my points across first and the Minister must have his time to reply. I fear, however—I mean no disrespect, having sat in his chair—that the Government line on human rights in Kashmir is not likely to change as a result of anything I say today. To be fair to the Minister, that line has not much changed in recent years in any case.
To put some points on the record, I am not attacking India per se. I admire India, its democracy, its rule of law and its vibrant culture, and I wish it well, but precisely because I do like and admire India, where I think that there is grievous fault I have an obligation to point it out. I do not want to go into the long history of Kashmir and the original UN resolutions, which were violated when the Kashmiri people were not allowed a plebiscite—as the UN had instructed—or their independent say on their future status 60 or more years ago.
I strongly welcome the dialogue initiated a year ago between the Foreign Ministers of Pakistan and India, which has certainly led to a helpful increase in communication and trade between Kashmir on the Indian side and Kashmir on the Pakistan side. Unfortunately, because of continued violence in Indian-occupied Kashmir—35 people have been killed since January—that trade and the opening of bridges and bus communications have been placed under threat.
I do not intend to get into much discussion of the general problem of terrorism. India is absolutely right to lay charges against Pakistan and individuals and organisations in Pakistan in connection with the Mumbai massacre and other assaults on the integrity of India, just as Pakistan is right to express some generalised concern about the more than half a million soldiers directly on its border—a situation that is bound to increase military tension. If for any reason we had an army of half a million Europeans stretched between Ostend and La Rochelle and if all their manoeuvres were predicated on invading England, as all the Indian army manoeuvres are predicated on invading Pakistan, we might get a bit twitchier.
I do not want to go back into the history of the 1980s and what we can now see, historically, as the disastrous decision of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush to create the Islamist jihadis as part of the cold war campaign against the Soviet Union. We sowed dragon’s teeth when we gave them weapons to hit at the Soviets: the jihadis took those weapons home and have stayed in possession of them ever since, giving birth to al-Qaeda and successive waves of Islamist terrorism.
I do not want to go into the history of why, after the Russians left Afghanistan, there was no concrete western help, in particular to resettle the millions of refugees for whom Pakistan had to take some responsibility.
I shall make a bit more progress in my speech, even though my hon. Friend is one of my closest colleagues and friends.
Most estimates put the Indian army present in Jammu and Kashmir since democracy was suspended there in 1987 at between 500,000 and 600,000. The estimate of the number of people who have died largely if not exclusively as a result of the behaviour of the Indian army—there has also been terrorism on the side of Pakistani and Kashmir militants—is put at between 60,000 and 80,000. Indian soldiers and security forces operate under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act—one of the most iniquitous laws anywhere in the world—which prevents effective prosecution of actions undertaken in the name of Indian security in the region. Those 60,000 to 80,000 people killed—the equivalent of 10 Srebrenicas—represent far more Kashmiri Muslims dying at the hands of the Indian army than all the Palestinian Muslims who have been killed in the middle east conflicts of the past decade, and yet the world is silent.
The Foreign Secretary is always ready to lecture the Israelis on human rights abuses, as we have seen recently, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, but on Kashmir there is complete silence. There are 32,000 widows in Kashmir, 10,000 unaccounted-for, disappeared people and 100,000 orphans as a result of Indian security forces’ handling of the problem in the past few years.
I will make some progress and then give way as much as possible. I am a courteous person but, please, let me make some of my points.
I am greatly concerned about the 10,000 disappeared people. In Latin America, there was great publicity about the disappeared victims of various military operations, in particular in the 1970s and ’80s, and yet the 10,000 Kashmiris who have disappeared after being taken away by the Indian authorities, never to return, get no publicity or world concern.
The Indian lobby in Britain, as we know, is one of the most influential, pervasive and well financed in the world. Pakistan also has its spokespersons, but the people of Kashmir are largely voiceless, save for some interventions, notably from my noble Friend Lord Ahmed of Rotherham. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) is another tireless champion of Kashmir. His early-day motion 2607, tabled earlier this year, draws attention to the horrible discovery of mass graves of some 6,000 men near the line of control, the border that separates the two Kashmirs. In Europe, we recall Katyn and Lidice with horror, but on the mass graves in Kashmir, we hear barely a word.
I have tried on several occasions, both since he has been in government and when he was the Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in opposition, to get merely a single word of concern from the Foreign Secretary. Frankly, I had more chance of getting England’s footballers to score from the penalty spot than I had of getting the Foreign Secretary to speak out for the human rights of Kashmiris. The official Government position is clear. The long-standing position of the UK and what spokesmen say is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, one that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or to mediate in finding one—
Let me finish telling hon. Members what the spokesmen say—that we welcome the positive steps taken by Pakistan and India to build trust and confidence.
Frankly, that is not good enough. In relation to many other areas of the world, we have a position and we are prepared to speak out, but on Kashmir we are utterly silent. Kashmir is the far away place in the world of which we would prefer to know nothing and of which the Government certainly say nothing. Let me be clear that the same admonition applies to the previous Government. I remember my right hon. Friend, the late Robin Cook, early in his days as Foreign Secretary, thinking that Kashmir was an issue of some concern. When he tried to raise it, however, he was abused in New Delhi and some ugly pieces were spun by Indian media and propaganda.
I shall give way in a moment. He was traduced to the point that he effectively shut up on that issue—[Interruption.] There are 21 minutes to go, so I hope that there is time for everyone to speak.
I am making a point about the present Government but, believe me, it applies also to the last Government. I see Kashmir as one of the great issues of concern for the Muslim community around the world. That is certainly true in my constituency where the problems in Kashmir are constantly reflected in the Pakistani papers printed here in Britain—the Jang, The Nation, the Dawn—and on PTV, which many of my constituents watch. British citizens hear daily reports of the unpleasant behaviour, and sometimes much worse, by the Indian security forces. The issue is of great concern to British-born citizens, and we do ourselves no good as a Parliament by pretending that it is simply something that can be solved by a little exchange of words between Islamabad and New Delhi.
Human Rights Watch has a number of recommendations. It wants to initiate
“an impartial investigation into reports that the Eighth Rashtriya Rifles Battalion in Doda has been responsible for summary executions…rape, and other assaults on villagers”,
including the disappearances to which I referred. I do not want to go into details of the rape allegations, which are particularly distressing, but it is very clear that if any of that had happened in territories near Europe or in the Balkans back in the 1990s, the International Criminal Court would have been involved. People have been sent to the court accused of far lesser crimes than those committed by the people responsible for what has happened in Kashmir on the Indian side.
Human Rights Watch says that
“all reports of extrajudicial executions, ‘disappearances’, deaths in custody, torture, and rape by security forces and unofficial parliamentary forces in Kashmir are investigated promptly by a judicial authority and those responsible should be prosecuted in civilian courts.”
It says that the Indian Government should disarm
“and disband all state-sponsored militias not established and regulated by law and prosecute members of such groups who have been responsible for extrajudicial killings, “disappearances”, assaults, and other abuses.”
It also says that the Indian Government should establish
“a centralized register of detainees accessible to lawyers and family members (something promised since 1993 but not delivered)”,
and provide much better
“police training, perhaps after consultation with international experts, on gathering adequate evidence for rape prosecutions. Medical workers who have examined and treated rape victims should be protected from abuse.”
Those recommendations all come from Human Rights Watch. Britain could play a part in that, as could the European Union.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. I will be brief. As hon. Members will know, the EU and India are five years into negotiating a complex free trade agreement in which the issue of human rights will soon rear its head. Given that the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister for Europe in the previous Government, where does he stand on inclusion of an essential elements clause mandating protection of human rights in any eventual agreement? The previous Government made a particular exception for India, allowing the Commission to continue to negotiate with a view to not having an essential elements clause, one that appears in 120 other agreements around the world. Would the right hon. Gentleman recommend that the EU includes one going forward?
I certainly would. Alas, I was not Minister for Europe during the period to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Governments occasionally make mistakes, and that did not come under my purview. However, he makes a powerful point, and I hope that the EU authorities who are listening, including Baroness Ashton, will take it on board. I will send her a copy of the debate, and perhaps the Minister will write to her underlining the cross-party agreement on the point.
The information has been readily available on the websites of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for a number of years. The figure is an estimate. Let us say it is 70,000 or 60,000. Even if one person is subject to disappearance, rape or torture, that is one too many, so quibbling about the numbers does the cause of justice no good.
I am very willing to condemn, and have regularly publicly condemned, terrorism emanating from Pakistan and the blind eye that Inter-Services Intelligence and the Pakistani Government, in different shapes, and the Pakistani Parliament have turned to Pakistan-generated terrorism. I have said that to leading Ministers and to General Kayani face to face in Islamabad, so my record, I hope, is reasonable on this issue. I believe that it is right that on behalf certainly of British citizens I make this point. This is not an intellectual human rights conference. I make this point on behalf of very many people in my constituency who are very concerned that we are not getting justice for the Kashmiri people.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. This issue is of great concern to a large number of my constituents as well. May I underline the point that he made? We do stand accused of double standards if we give prominence—rightly—to human rights abuses in so many other places in the world, but appear silent on the vital issue of Kashmir.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I raised the question of Yulia Tymoshenko, and the Prime Minister told me last October in the House that unless she was properly treated and released from prison, it would be an issue of grave concern to the UK. Then finally it was announced that Ministers would not go to Ukraine for the football. This Minister pointed out, quite rightly, that it was unlikely that attending the final would need to be on the agenda.
Frankly, if we make such a statement about a woman who should not be ill treated but who is alive and seeing doctors, why are we silent on Kashmir? Why are we silent on Kashmir? Why are we silent on Kashmir? That is what my constituents are saying, and I hope the Minister will address that.
I have said to all the colleagues who have written to me that I have no problem with hon. Members intervening. It is up to the Minister, because it is his time, whether he wants to allow other colleagues to come in, but certainly I acknowledge that my hon. Friend did contact me with a request to intervene.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent contribution on this important issue. I have visited Kashmir. There is always a lot of emphasis on discussions and talks between India and Pakistan, but does my right hon. Friend agree that what is missing is the fact that we rarely listen to the people of Kashmir themselves?
I am grateful for the chance to conclude this short debate and it is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on giving us this opportunity. It is a slightly unsatisfactory version—sort of a Twenty20 version—of a parliamentary debate, in which the finer points are not developed as much as we would like. But it is better than having no opportunity at all.
The promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy, so I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that central point. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made absolutely clear our determination to pursue every opportunity open to us to promote human rights and political and economic freedom around the world.
As the Foreign Office Minister responsible for human rights, I can state with complete confidence that we do not shy away from raising human rights issues with countries where we have genuine concerns about what is happening. The Government have made a commitment to promote human rights consistently. I recommend to all right hon. and hon. Members the Government’s fairly recently published annual human rights report, an extremely comprehensive document that records the type of work that we are doing.
Does the Minister not accept that, ultimately, human rights violations can be resolved and solved only by a political agreement and that even the most frozen conflict—that is the appropriate word for the area around Kargil—can be thawed? We have on the table the Simla agreement, signed by the leaders of both India and Pakistan in 1972. Is the policy of the Foreign Office to support the implementation of the Simla agreement, which provides a way forward for both peace and human rights in this troubled area?
I am grateful for the intervention. Having put on the record the Government’s unequivocal commitment to a human rights policy on a global scale, let me get to how we see the India-Pakistan relationship and the nub of this question. I will take on board the intervention that the hon. Gentleman has made.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Other Members raised the point that there is no dialogue between the Indian Government and the Jammu and Kashmir people. I hope the Minister agrees that there is a democratically elected Government of Jammu and Kashmir, who work closely with the Indian Government. I believe that the Government recognise that. Does he agree?
I was pleased to visit Azad Jammu and Kashmir on a private visit—Mirpur and Dadyal. I met the press club of Mirpur. Does the Minister agree that it is important that the free press of Azad Jammu and Kashmir should be able to report freely any human rights abuses, so that we get accurate reporting and information? That is what is keeping Syria on the news agenda. We need more such good-quality journalism from Kashmir.
I thank the Minister for giving way yet another time. I look forward to the answers to the interventions.
Does the Minister agree that there is a massive difference between what is going on in Jammu and Kashmir and in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir? In Jammu and Kashmir, there is free access for the press, Amnesty International and every other international body that wants access to see what is going on. In Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, what is almost a lawlessness still prevails. The human rights issues that the right hon. Member for Rotherham raised seem to be one-sided. The problems of the region as a whole should be looked at.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for allowing me to pioneer a new format for debates. I am conscious that a lot of Members want to put their core points on the record, and I was keen to give them the opportunity to do so. A number of points were raised, some of which were assertions of fact; whether those points were on England’s likelihood of progressing or something else, I am happy to stand by them.
Let me put the Foreign Office’s position on the record, and people can draw conclusions from what I say. The United Kingdom enjoys close relations with India and Pakistan; they are both long-standing and important friends of the UK. The Foreign Secretary visited Pakistan earlier this month to underline Britain’s commitment to a deep, long-term strategic relationship with Pakistan. He held wide-ranging discussions on the strength of the bilateral relationship, the importance that the UK attaches to upcoming elections in Pakistan and the UK and Pakistan’s mutual interests in promoting stability in the region. Of course, the UK enjoys a warm, forward-looking strategic relationship with India, the world’s largest democracy. We have regular contact, including when the Prime Ministers of the UK and India met at the G20 summit in Mexico last week.
We recognise the importance of a strong relationship between India and Pakistan, which is why the Government welcome the renewed engagement in recent months between India and Pakistan. We have seen a series of high-level talks this year, including a visit by President Zardari to India in April, when he met Prime Minister Singh, and we welcome new Pakistani Prime Minister Ashraf’s pledge to continue to seek better ties with India. The commitment of both leaders from both sides to improving bilateral relations is laudable, and we support it.
Substantive progress has been made in the relationship, in particular in recent steps taken by both countries to liberalise trade. We hope that both sides will take further positive steps to develop their engagement. Ultimately, however, we recognise that the relationship between India and Pakistan is one that they themselves will need to build and the pace of dialogue is for them to set.
On Kashmir, the nub of the debate, the Foreign Secretary has stated previously in the House the position of successive British Governments on Kashmir. That has been consistent—that any resolution must be for India and Pakistan to agree, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. As India and Pakistan are currently making efforts to build confidence in all aspects of their relationship, it is important that they be given space to determine the scope and pace of that dialogue.
I fully understand the strength of feeling about the issue among many people in Britain, including those in the House. However, no matter how well intentioned, any attempts by the United Kingdom or other third parties to mediate or prescribe solutions would, we believe, hinder rather than advance the progress that many people wish to see.
The Government continue to monitor closely developments in Kashmir, particularly with regard to the human rights situation on both sides of the line of control. As the House knows, Kashmir has been plagued by militancy in recent years, which has undermined the security and prosperity of the Kashmiri people. We continue to call for an end to external support for violence.
It is encouraging to have seen a significant reduction in violence in Kashmir over previous years. We all recall the violent protests that occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir during the summer of 2010, when more than 100 civilians were killed and a number of security forces personnel were injured. During the unrest, there were allegations of excessive use of force by security forces against protesters and allegations that protesters themselves had used violence. We sincerely hope that the cycle of violence is now coming to an end.
We recognise that there are human rights concerns in both Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We are aware of reports from organisations such as Amnesty International on the large number of detentions in Indian-administered Kashmir, and we have been following, too, the work of the State Human Rights Commission on reports of unknown and unmarked mass graves. Prime Minister Singh has made it clear that human rights abuses by security forces in Kashmir will not be tolerated. We welcome the decision by the Indian Government to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, to pay a fact-finding visit to Kashmir in March. I understand that the State Human Rights Commission is considering how to pursue the findings.
Prime Minister Singh’s appointment of three interlocutors to engage with a wide range of interested parties to help resolve the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir was a welcome initiative. The Indian Government have recently published the interlocutors’ report, which sets out a range of confidence-building measures, including addressing some of the human rights concerns that we have discussed today. I understand that the Indian Government will take a decision on how to implement the report after a period of consultation.
As for action by the United Kingdom specifically, the officials in our high commissions discuss and raise issues in Kashmir regularly, both with the Indian and Pakistani Governments and with contacts on both sides of the line of control. Our resources from the so-called conflict pool also support work promoting human rights, conflict prevention and peace-building efforts.
Highlights of activity under the conflict pool include support for Track II dialogue to help build confidence and create a constituency for peace as well as support to strengthen civil society networks and media development to support peace initiatives. As part of UK bilateral aid to Pakistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir also benefits from support to promote economic growth, health and education.
Sorry; the hon. Gentleman did raise that important specific point. Over the past few weeks, we have seen greater co-operation at European Union level on human rights policy and big advances in how we project the consensus view from across the European Union on advancing human rights around the world. That has been an important component of EU agreements. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the specific details with regards to the free trade agreement that has been negotiated with India. Obviously, we also want to see that agreement take effect.
I will put a copy in the Library of the House of Commons.
In conclusion, it is clear that a resolution of the dispute over Kashmir must be for India and Pakistan to find, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is for that reason that we should welcome the progress made of late to build confidence between the two sides, but we recognise, too, that there remains much to be done. Through our bilateral contacts with both India and Pakistan, we will continue to encourage the steps they are both taking in strengthening their relationship which, as both sides have themselves agreed, will enable discussion on long-standing bilateral issues such as Kashmir.
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
It is a pleasure, Mr Betts, to serve under your chairmanship today. It is also a pleasure to see so many hon. Members from all parties and backgrounds here to speak in this important debate. I hope that, unlike many debates in this place, this will not be a party political debate, and that we can work together to commemorate an important event. Unfortunately, due to the parliamentary timetable, the House was not sitting on Saturday 23 June, on which date Alan Turing was born exactly 100 years ago.
Last week, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart)—it is a pleasure to see him here—made an application, which I and others supported, to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate in the House to commemorate that centenary. It was a pleasure to support that application, but the Backbench Business Committee, in its wisdom, decided that that route was not the best one, and proposed this one instead. I am delighted to have secured this debate to discuss Alan Turing, and the things he did, and the things we did to him.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important and excellent debate. Does he agree that although this is an excellent forum for discussing the achievements of Alan Turing, it would be good to see more great scientists celebrated on the Floor of the House?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She is, of course, right. She and I both work to try to promote science, technology and engineering in the broader sense. It is a shame that in this country we do not always recognise scientists—the Clerk Maxwells as much as the Alan Turings. There have been a few links with the House: I have previously spoken to the hon. Lady about one of my predecessors, Isaac Newton, who was the Member of Parliament for Cambridge university. His contributions in the scientific field were perhaps greater than his political contributions. I hope that we will be able to mark the contributions of people in the academic and scientific fields in the years to come.
We have now the opportunity to debate a truly remarkable man and, sadly, a truly depressing chapter in British history. Before doing so, I want to mention Professor S. Barry Cooper of the Turing centenary advisory committee. He has worked tirelessly to spur this debate, and to run a number of events throughout the country to commemorate the life of Alan Turing.
I also want to thank the library of King’s college, Cambridge, which has been a fantastic resource. Alan Turing was a fellow there, as well as a student, and it continues to preserve and promote the life and times of that exceptional man, and his contribution to the modern world. We will not have time today to cover everything that he did, and I invite hon. Members to come and visit the wonderful library at King’s if they wish to know more.
Last Saturday, people throughout the world, including the good people at Google who changed their doodle for the day to a Turing machine, celebrated the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth. The purpose of today’s debate is to contribute to those celebrations, to mark them with our parliamentary brand, and to draw the Government’s attention to the need for us to remember and to commemorate his life in further ways.
In Turing’s famous 1950 article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, which set out the famous Turing test—the test of a machine’s ability to exhibit human behaviour, he concluded that we could see only a short distance ahead, but that we could see plenty there that needs to be done. I suspect that politicians of all colours agree with that statement. If one phrase encapsulates his thinking, his brilliance, and the tragic circumstances in which he was forced to live and die, it is that. He looked at the world around him, exposed what was in front of him, and set a generation of scientists and mathematicians down paths that have changed our world. The tragedy is that no amount of intelligence or foresight could insulate him from a society that was determined to suppress him, and a country that so cruelly mistreated him. Today, we have an opportunity to honour his life and his achievements. One hundred years after his birth, we have a chance to try to put right what the country got so badly wrong.
A citizen of the world from an early age, Turing was born in India before boarding in England. His intellect was recognised very early, and by 16 he was reading Albert Einstein and extrapolating from his work. In 1931, he matriculated at King’s college, Cambridge, having won an open scholarship to study mathematics. By 1935, he had a first-class degree and a fellowship there. He was just 22. In the following year, he published his first seminal article.
I am sure that many hon. Members would like a complete run-down of how the Turing machine revolutionised the theory of computation, and the understanding of mathematical proof through hypothetical computing machines. We are limited by time, and other hon. Members want to speak, so I will refrain from referring to everything that Turing tried to do, but his contribution to human knowledge before reaching his 25th birthday was profound.
After the publication of Turing’s article, he was awarded a visiting fellowship at Princeton, and obtained his PhD. But it was during the war that he first began to have a tangible effect on our country and the world around him. The day after the UK declared war on Germany, he reported to Bletchley Park. He had previously worked for a year part-time for the Government’s code and cipher school, the predecessor to GCHQ. When war broke out, he dedicated himself to the defence of a country that took him for granted.
Turing was immediately assigned to the cryptanalysis of Enigma, the most crucial code-breaking programme of the war effort. So valuable was his contribution to the security services that the papers remained secret and were released only in April this year. They show just how many breakthroughs Turing made in the race to break Enigma. A fascinating question is whether any other human could have made the contributions he made at that time. He was awarded an OBE for that work, but his work remained top secret.
Turing’s contribution to cryptography had a profound impact on the war, but perhaps his most lasting contribution was to computing as a result of his work on cryptography, and the articles he wrote in peacetime. Phrases such as the Turingery technique, the electro-mechanical bombe, and the Banburismus process are hardly commonplace, but they revolutionised our understanding of computers and what they could make possible. Turing’s work directly influenced the creation of the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. Another fascinating example of which we should take heed is how hard it is to work out what the results of research will be when it starts.
After the war, Turing began work on the automatic computing engine, the pilot of which influenced the construction of the first commercially available computers: English Electric’s DEUCE and the American Bendix G-15. For those achievements, we owe him a huge debt
In the late 1940s, Turing moved to Manchester, and turned his attention to more abstract work in mathematics. Having revolutionised cryptanalysis and modern computing, he then turned to the philosophy of computing and came up with ideas for problems that are still unsolved today. Part of his 1950 paper, to which I referred earlier, created the Turing test. It was designed to ask how to tell the difference between a computer and a human. The test is, essentially, whether someone can reliably tell, without seeing what is happening, whether they are communicating with a computer or a human. Online communications provide a number of examples of it sometimes being hard to tell what is responding but, so far, no artificial intelligence can reliably pass the Turing test.
A version of the test is used daily by millions of people around the world. CAPTCHA—the completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart—is the catchy name for those words that are typed on websites to show that someone is a human and not a computer program. The theory behind that—it is used to secure things across the web every day—is directly influenced by his article 62 years ago.
Turing’s contribution to our understanding of artificial intelligence is no less significant. His idea about how to tell whether a computer can “think” is vital to the modern theory of artificial intelligence. That is not all. In his later years, he worked in mathematical biology—a field that I used to dabble in when I was doing research—and particularly morphogenesis, which is how embryos develop into the organisms they eventually become. He also worked on Fibonacci numbers in plant structures, and his general contribution to the concept of pattern formation is still considered central to the field and has applications in how zebra patterning occurs and many other fields. Again, no one could have foreseen from Turing’s early work where it would lead today, and what would come out of it.
We could spend hours of parliamentary time talking about every one of Turing’s achievements, and I freely admit that I have missed out a huge number of them. Perhaps a full six-hour debate, and many volumes of Hansard, would be enough to list everything that he did, but I hope that the brief summary that I have given provides some tribute to him. But we are not here just to mark Turing’s scientific achievements, or his contribution to the defence effort during the war. Whenever we talk about him, we must discuss how he was treated towards the end of his life, and how he was forced out of the world to which he had contributed so much.
In 1952, Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. His crime was admitting to a relationship with another man. The way it came about is particularly sad—it should never have come about in any way—in that the relationship with the man was, in fact, with somebody who tried to burgle his house. When he reported it, the police became interested in the crime that he had committed by having a relationship with a man in the first place.
When he was convicted, under the laws of the time, he was given a choice of imprisonment or a “cure”—the rather barbaric cure of chemical castration. Faced with two awful choices, he chose the latter, perhaps in the hope that he could continue to live a meaningful life with his liberty at least intact. None the less, he lost his security clearance—essential to all the work that he was doing—his work and even the freedom to discuss his work with colleagues. He lost his right to live his life.
Two years later, in 1954, he died from cyanide poisoning at the age of 41. We have no idea what he could have achieved if he had lived a fuller life. One of the great tragedies is that we did not even give him the honour of a conclusive inquest to understand exactly what went on. We still debate, including in the past week, the circumstances of his death and whether it was suicide or an accident. Some suggest that he created a deliberately ambiguous scenario in which to die. We do not know; we did not check at the time.
A number of tributes commemorate him. His code-breaking machine was commemorated on a stamp. Last week a new plaque was unveiled in my constituency at King’s college, and there are others, which I did not have the chance to look at, in Manchester and on his childhood home. There are academic conferences, symposiums and colloquiums galore, as well as workshops, public lectures, films, art, opera, plays, books, concerts and poetry. The Olympic torch bearer in Manchester ran past his statue to mark it. There has been some interesting discussion about the coming Olympics; I mentioned Turing in the parliamentary links day on the link between science and sport, but I had not realised then that he had entered the Olympic marathon trials in 1948 and come fifth. That would be a challenge for most scientists, computer scientists or engineers today, and one which I will certainly not try to replicate. Nature ran a full issue about Turing. Overseas, Obama has spoken about him and how important he was.
In 2009, the previous Government issued an official apology. I pay tribute to that and am grateful that it happened, but there is still a lack of official recognition for one of the greatest Britons who ever lived, whom Time magazine selected as one of the hundred most important people of the 20th century. That lack of recognition is particularly apparent when we think that it was our Government who so cruelly mistreated Turing and who failed to treat him correctly. We owe it to him to do something further on the centenary.
I accept that the way he was treated as a homosexual was not unusual to him. There is a long history in this country of treating homosexuals in a way that we would now consider completely and utterly unacceptable. I am pleased that the Government have taken steps on the broader issues, with, for example, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which allows the Secretary of State to disregard criminal convictions for homosexual acts by consenting adults. I am pleased that that will now happen to ensure that a person will not be considered as having committed, been charged with, prosecuted for or convicted of a criminal act for such activities. It is important because there are people still alive who bear comments on their Criminal Records Bureau checks about activities that we would certainly not consider criminal now.
There is a lot that we should be doing. The centenary is a good opportunity to mark our debt to Alan Turing and the errors we made as a country. I am sure that hon. Members will talk in more detail about the need to do that. There is a call, supported by a very large petition, for him to be granted a full pardon. It would not change his death or the way that we stopped his work from continuing, but it would be an important sign that the Government accept that Governments made a mistake in the past. It is important to many people who are still affected by the historical decisions that we made.
It is also suggested that Turing be commemorated on a banknote. I accept that banknotes are not the responsibility of the Minister, but I hope that he will listen to that proposal and pass it on to those who print the banknotes. Those two simple acts would make amends for the way in which British society treated such a great man, and embed his story and work into our national consciousness. I hope that the Minister will agree to those suggestions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way a second time. I agree with the points he makes so eloquently and movingly. Does he agree that Alan Turing, given his life and achievements, would be a much better name, and indeed brand, for technology and innovation centres, which have been named “catapult centres”? Catapults are rather sloppy bits of engineering that have the habit of destroying what they project. I will be writing to the Secretary of State to make that suggestion. Will the hon. Gentleman support it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I share the concern about catapults. The idea of a catapult satellite centre seems particularly odd. That is not how I would choose to launch a satellite into orbit. It is worth saying that from an energy efficiency perspective, trebuchets—a slight variant on catapults—are extremely impressive, so there is some interesting technology in that area.
I share her concerns about the name. There is an issue with technology and innovation centres. We could talk about them for about 10 minutes, I suspect. Hermann Hauser, the constituent of mine who came up with the proposal for technology and innovation centres, suggested “Clerk Maxwell centres”. I know that the Select Committee on Science and Technology suggested “Turing centres”. I do not mind which it is. There is a strong case for both and I hope that we can honour both. Either would, in my view, be better names than “catapult centres”. I suspect that renaming scientific research centres is not part of the Minister’s purview, but I hope that he will look carefully at the other suggestions made and, whatever hon. Members suggest, I hope that he will pass them on to the appropriate Ministers for consideration.
Whatever the response, I hope that the Government will take the chance to recognise that in the centenary of Turing’s birth we have the opportunity to celebrate someone whose contribution to our society and world has hitherto not been sufficiently marked. He showed the world the infinite potential of human ingenuity and the machines that that ingenuity could make possible. He changed our world and our society. He showed the world how machines could help humans, and we treated him in the most inhuman way. I look forward to a full debate from hon. Members, who I thank for coming to mark such a great man, and to a full response from the Government. We owe him no less than our full discussion.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate and making such an excellent and rounded speech about Alan Turing. I suspect that the Hansard reporters are greatly relieved that the hon. Gentleman did not go into more technical detail on some of his papers.
Before I move on to the main body of what I want to say, may I say that the hon. Gentleman is right? The Science and Technology Committee is disappointed that the catapult centres were so named, rather than “Turing centres”. “Catapult centre” is a ludicrous name. If there is anything that this debate should do, it is to integrate the story and memory of Turing more into our national consciousness. The name would be one way to do that. I have certainly tried to do it in Manchester.
I am not usually given to hagiography and apologies or pardons to dead people; they have their place, but I do not see the point. Such is the extraordinary story and tragedy of Turing, however, given both the distinction of his mathematical and scientific mind and the tragic end he came to, that almost anything we can do to commemorate him is worth doing. People may disagree, but of all British scientists, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Alan Turing are probably the most distinguished. There is tough competition. In Manchester alone, we have John Dalton, Joule and Thomson. One can go round the country to see what a fantastic scientific pedigree it has. In my reading of Turing, what he did and the depth in which he thought about problems puts him in that league of the most distinguished.
I really want to make some personal comments about Turing. Although I came from Manchester, I had never heard of him until I was reading a popular book on science and mathematics; it was really more about Gödel and Hilbert. I looked up Turing’s name and found his story, which was so devastating that I set about doing two things.
At the time I was leader of Manchester city council, which was at the centre of the campaign against clause 28 and of anti-discrimination policies across the board. In almost every speech I made, whether it was about the age of consent or clause 28, I told the story of Turing. It was one way of bringing him into evidence. In doing that, I came across a number of people who had worked with him. I was privileged to talk to them about his work and how they had been affected by the man himself and the quality of his work.
I will tell one anecdote about Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, who was one of those people. Hon. Members may not have heard of her, but she was a distinguished mathematician who led the Conservative group on Manchester city council for a period in the 1970s—which, I am pleased to say, was a pretty thankless task. She had chosen not to go to Bletchley Park during the war because she was having children, but she worked with Turing at Manchester university after that.
What happened to Turing had a huge impact on the 1970s. In the mid-1970s, there was a free vote on Manchester city council to set up the first gay centre in the country. The Liberals, as they were then, were not represented, but the Conservative party and Labour were and both had their bigots. Dame Kathleen’s experience of knowing Turing meant that she was one of the leading Conservatives who voted for the centre, which was not a popular position in the party at the time. There is a straight line running back to that vote in respect of some of the progressive policies that we followed in Manchester.
I did what I could. I supported the raising of funds for the statue of Alan Turing in Sackville park, and we held a moving commemoration there last winter with the author of the main biography of Turing. At one stage, I was also given the delegated power to name the road that now runs past the Etihad stadium in east Manchester. I took the opportunity, against competition from a lot of other names, to call it Alan Turing way. That was in line with every other great scientist who has worked in Manchester, and some who have not, who have had roads, streets and buildings named after them. I was proud to have done that.
I want to finish by saying that the brutality of what happened to Turing at the end—it was more typical of what happened in the 1950s—makes us realise that, although there is little progress in some parts of our society, we have moved on in other areas; we have become much more humane than we were then. I recently spoke at a memorial service in Manchester for a gay activist who, sadly, had died. After the campaigning he had been through in the 1970s and 1980s, he was astonished to find that as he was dying the Cabinet had a policy in favour of gay marriage. It was an extraordinary transition in British society.
I have mentioned a number of great British scientists with whom Turing is comparable, but there is another scientist of a much older vintage who reminds me of him. Archimedes used his profound scientific knowledge to invent a number of instruments with which to defend his city in exactly the way that Turing helped this country to survive and win the second world war. Estimates vary on how much impact Turing’s work had, but he could have saved many hundreds of thousands of lives and shortened the war by two years. When we have a very great scientist who is comparable with Archimedes, we should all work hard to commemorate him, whether it is on bank notes, buildings or roads. His is a profound and sad story.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this debate and on his full and eloquent tribute to a man whom I regard as a national hero. I am glad that we have this opportunity to pay a tribute to his life and work and to debate the controversial issue about his crime. It is significant that we have this 100-year anniversary in which we can talk about what he contributed both in terms of his work in the war and his ongoing academic work at Cambridge and Manchester. I am glad that Members from those cities are attending this debate.
In the latter part of my speech, I will talk about the issue of a pardon. However, I want to begin by highlighting Alan Turing’s great achievements. My own connection and interest in him and his work is through Bletchley Park, which I am lucky to have in my Milton Keynes South constituency. The comment of the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)—that he did not know about Alan Turing’s work until relatively recently—is significant, because it mirrors what has happened to Bletchley Park itself.
After the war, very few people knew what went on at Bletchley Park. I have met some of the code breakers who worked there, including a husband and wife team who did not know what the other was doing, such was the secrecy of the work. No one is to blame for the fact that for many years after the conclusion of the war, there was no recognition of the work that went on there. The code breakers all signed the Official Secrets Act. Much of the work that they were doing was still of significance at the advent of the cold war. It is not surprising, therefore, that not much was known about it.
Only relatively recently has there been rightful publicity and commemoration of the importance of the work at Bletchley Park. I want to put it on the record that I am full of praise for the current chief executive of Bletchley Park Trust, Iain Standen, and his predecessor, Simon Greenish, who have done an enormous amount of work to save the site in the first place, because it is literally falling to bits in places, and also to turn it into a major heritage site on the computing and wartime code-breaking side where people locally, nationally and internationally can come and learn about the work that was done there.
My hon. Friend mentioned that for many years, Turing’s work was not known outside very narrow academic circles. Last summer, I had the pleasure of bringing a family friend, a professor of artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon university in Pittsburgh, to Bletchley Park. For him, it was like coming to see the holy grail; the first academic paper on artificial intelligence was there. It is, in academic communities, a significant exhibition.
The fight to get the Turing papers at Bletchley Park is an interesting story. “Big society” is a phrase that is much debated and much maligned, but the story of the Turing papers is an interesting example of how different parts of the community can come together. The papers were being put up for auction at Christie’s and there was a real risk that they would be lost overseas. But through a combination of a grant from the national lottery, a generous donation made privately by Google and thousands and thousands of individuals making small contributions, the money was raised to save the papers.
There is a splendid exhibition of the papers and about Turing more generally at Bletchley Park. Putting on my “tourist information” hat, I encourage Members to visit. If they go to the constituency of my hon. Friend to look at the King’s college library, they can quickly pop over to Milton Keynes to visit Bletchley Park. When we get our east-west rail link, they will be able to do so in double-quick time, but that is another matter.
I want to remind the House about the significance of the work that Turing did at Bletchley Park with his code-breaking team. The German Enigma codes were the backbone of the German military intelligence system. It was thought that they were unbreakable. The odds against anyone who did not know the settings for the Enigma machines cracking the codes were 150 million million million to one, but Turing managed it through his own brilliance, that of his team and his construction of the Turing bombe, the machine that helped to speed up the deciphering process and that substantially reduced the odds against breaking the codes.
It is well documented and argued by historians that Turing’s work in cracking the Enigma codes, and thus understanding German military movements, certainly shortened the war by up to two years. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the outcome of the war might have been very different if that information had not been gathered. How many lives did that information save, both among the armed forces—Army, Air Force and Navy people in combat—and among the citizens in British cities that were being bombed? For all the people who were butchered in the Nazi extermination camps, how many more hundreds of thousands of people would have perished if the war had been lengthened or the Germans had won? That is the significance of Alan Turing’s work. He was a hero and it is absolutely right that we pay tribute to his work.
My hon. Friend has said that there are conferences up and down the country in honour of Turing; there is one at Bletchley Park this weekend. There are statues and parks named after him, and scientific buildings may be renamed after him. All these things can be done.
I also want to echo the campaign to have Turing recognised on the new £10 note. I know that it is not quite within the Minister’s gift to do that, but I want to put my support for that campaign on the record. There is an e-petition in support of the campaign and I understand that it has more than 16,000 signatures at the moment; even more may have been added since I last looked, but 16,000 is itself a substantial number.
As well as being a very visual commemoration of Turing and his achievements, putting his image on a bank note would be quite a neat way to pay tribute to him. That is because modern bank notes are designed in such a way that they cannot be forged; their code has to be unbreakable. It would be very neat that a code-breaker should lend his face to a bank note. It might be a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, but it would be a neat way of paying tribute.
As my hon. Friend also mentioned, the biggest thing that we can do as a country to honour Turing’s name and his achievements is to clear his name of the so-called “crime” for which he was convicted. I echo the praise for the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), for giving an apology to Turing; that was absolutely the right thing to do. But it was only a step in the right direction. There is certainly an appetite among the public to do more. There is another e-petition to clear Turing’s name, which at the last count had more than 35,000 signatures.
Since raising this matter in the House on a number of occasions, I have received many letters and e-mails, from people locally and across the country, expressing support for clearing Turing’s name. I have not received one letter or representation saying that his name should not be cleared. If the House will indulge me for a minute, I will read out a small paragraph from one of the letters that I received, from a couple—Mary and Alan Preen. They wrote:
“At one of the most difficult times in this country’s history, Alan Turing did not shirk or fail his country when asked to serve. However, the same cannot be said of his country, for at the hour of Turing’s need we failed him totally. We are utterly ashamed of the attitude and actions of our country to hound a hero of the free world to his death.”
That is very profound and absolutely right, and most of the other letters that I have received about Turing have expressed similar sentiments.
I have raised the issue of a pardon for Turing or clearing his name in some way in the House on a number of occasions. Thus far, it has been resisted by the Government, on two grounds: first, that it would create a precedent in law; and secondly, that however much we now dislike the reason for which he was convicted, it was according to the law of the land at the time, he was fairly tried and there was no accusation of a mistrial or anything like that. I understand those arguments, but I do not accept them. I will make three points briefly to explain why.
First, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the Government have made welcome steps in this area, through the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, whereby a person who has been convicted of or received a caution for an offence under section 22 or section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, or earlier corresponding Acts, can apply to have that conviction or caution disregarded. That is absolutely right, and I would argue that it is a logical step to extend that legislation and allow it to be applied posthumously.
Secondly, there is precedent for taking steps to clear the names of people who have been convicted in the past. In 2006, more than 300 soldiers who were shot for military offences in world war one received a group pardon. I do not want to debate today whether the proposed pardon for Turing should apply to all people posthumously who were convicted of a similar crime; that is a debate for another occasion. But the fact that a wrong done to those who were serving their country has been righted surely creates a precedent for pardoning Alan Turing.
Thirdly and finally, and I hope the House will forgive me for making this point, even if there is a fear about setting a legal precedent, surely it is not beyond our ingenuity to create some law that clears Alan Turing’s name, and his only. If the fear of setting a legal precedent is a real and genuine one, surely our collective wisdom can overcome it. I am not a lawyer, but there are many lawyers in Parliament; my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), who is sitting very close by in Westminster Hall today, is a lawyer. Surely he and his legal colleagues could devise some wording in law to clear Alan Turing’s name.
I also want to point out that in the other place Lord Sharkey is preparing a Bill on this issue. I wish him every success in getting it through and if it proceeds to the Commons, I will certainly heartily support it. I urge the Government at least to find the time so that his Bill may be fully debated in both Houses. That is within the Government’s gift, and it would give Parliament a chance to express its view on this matter.
The debate about clearing Alan Turing’s name will go on, but for now I will conclude by remembering and paying tribute to his life and work. He was a national hero; he saved thousands, if not millions, of lives; and he pioneered the computing age, on which we all now rely.
I begin by adding my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this important debate at this particular time, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth. The level of detail about Alan Turing’s life that he went into suggests to me that schools could do worse than look at today’s Hansard and use it as a history lesson on the life of one of our greatest ever scientists.
I also pay tribute to my noble Friend Lord Sharkey, for his work in the other place, and to my colleague on the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who has done an awful lot and was trying to push the debate as well. I should pay tribute, too, to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who did an awful lot in his time as leader of Manchester city council to push the case of Alan Turing.
Interestingly, at a 100th birthday celebration at the weekend, the lord mayor, who lives close to the road that was renamed Alan Turing way when the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton was council leader, recalled that, when it was renamed, many people in the area asked, “Who is Alan Turing?” Over time, however, the simple fact of renaming it meant people got to know about him. We may think that something is trivial and does not matter; but just renaming a road led to many Mancunians getting to know much more about Alan Turing and his life.
My final tribute is to Andy, in my office, who has done hours of work on the subject of pushing for a pardon or disregarded conviction. Often we do not give credit to the people who work for us and do research behind the scenes, in this place or our constituency offices.
I first got involved in the campaign in the previous Session, when I was contacted to support the e-petition calling for a pardon for Alan Turing, submitted by William Jones in Manchester in November. In the first two months, the petition got more than 20,000 signatures, and I agreed to take up the issue in Parliament, tabling an early-day motion. In February the campaign went to the Lords, when Lord Sharkey questioned the Minister about whether Alan Turing would be pardoned. He was informed that it would be inappropriate, because Alan Turing was fairly convicted under the laws of the time. Further parliamentary questions uncovered the fact that more than 75,000 people were convicted under the same laws between 1894 and 2004.
A pardon is the forgiveness of a crime and the cancellation of the relevant penalty. It does not mean that the conviction is quashed. I understand that two conditions are needed for a pardon: moral innocence and legal innocence. The view of the Government has been that since Turing was fairly convicted of what was a crime at the time, legal innocence cannot be justified.
Having failed to persuade the Government to issue a pardon, we considered the possibility of getting justice for Alan Turing through a disregarded conviction. That is probably what most people think of as a pardon, because it wipes the slate clean. It means that the records are changed, so that it is as though the person did not commit the offence, and was not charged, prosecuted or sentenced.
The original campaign was for a pardon, but actually a disregarded conviction would be better. That might have been possible—and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South talked about this—through amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. However, it proved impossible, partly because the slow workings of Government meant that we were unable to get agreement, with i’s dotted and t’s crossed, to including it in existing measures.
We have not given up. There are plans, as my hon. Friend mentioned, to introduce a private Member’s Bill in the Lords. I understand that that is due to be presented in the next few days, and we hope to get Government support for it. In the meantime, in the Commons, I have submitted a further early-day motion in this Session, to commemorate Turing’s birth 100 years ago:
“That this House commemorates Alan Turing on his birthday, 23 June, for his many mathematical and scientific breakthroughs including the vital contribution he made to Britain's war effort by inventing the machine that broke the Enigma code; regrets that following his years of national service, he received a criminal conviction for having a sexual relationship with another man; deplores the fact that he was forced to take oestrogen therapy or be sent to prison if he did not comply; expresses profound sorrow that he went on to take his own life on 8 June 1954 at the age of just 41 years; recognises that so far over 34,000 people have signed the e-petition on the 10 Downing Street website calling for Alan Turing to be pardoned; calls therefore for a posthumous or disregarded conviction to be granted; and acknowledges the huge and unnecessary suffering that he and so many other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have had to endure.”
I hope that colleagues on both sides of the House will support the motion—in spirit if not by signing it, if they do not or cannot sign EDMs. I hope that the motion will help to ensure that in 2012 we can put right the wrong that was done. That is very long overdue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this important debate, which provides us with a forum in which to consider the past, draw lessons for the future, and, most importantly, pay tribute to one of the world’s finest minds.
For eight years, I served as a councillor for the ward of Little Venice in the city of Westminster. In that capacity, albeit in a small way, I was first able to pay tribute to the remarkable work and life of Alan Turing. On 23 June 1998, I was involved in the unveiling ceremony of a blue plaque on the Colonnade hotel in London, just off Warwick avenue, which denotes the house where Turing was born.
That day, appropriately, marked the 50th anniversary of the world’s first working computer, which ran in Manchester on 21 June 1948. Having undertaken a reasonable amount of research, I was stunned to learn that at the tender age of 22, while at King’s college Cambridge, Turing had developed a hypothetical mathematical device, which is commonly referred to as the Turing machine. His calculations, in turn, provided the foundation for modern computer science. His genius is unquestionable, and one can only speculate about what more, in the absence of bigotry and prejudice, that great man might have gone on to achieve.
On the day after the ceremony, 22 June 1998, the House of Commons voted to equalise the age of consent at 16. The modest ceremony at a central London hotel to mark Turing’s life and scientific prowess occurred virtually in tandem with cross-party efforts to ensure equality before the law, and equality of esteem. I hope that those two events will serve as a reminder that, whatever our political differences, we can and should agree that councils, Parliaments and Governments must seek to liberate talents and never oppress them.
In his maiden speech in June 2010, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) rightly paid tribute to the extraordinary work of Turing and the teams of code breakers at Bletchley Park, in his constituency. He did so again today, with great eloquence. It is not an overstatement to assert that the efforts and expertise engaged in cracking the German Enigma code fundamentally changed the duration, and possibly even the outcome, of the second world war.
My hon. Friend also welcomed the national apology from the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), which sought to
“right the wrong against the brilliant code breaker and mathematician”. —[Official Report, 17 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 1082.]
In 1952, as we all know, Turing was convicted of gross indecency. The courts presented him with a terrible choice: imprisonment or probation with awful conditions attached. The conviction was also to bring about a lifetime restriction on Turing. Post-war, he had an extremely high level of security clearance, as he continued to work for the Government and their agencies. The conviction was to prohibit him from working for the Government—effectively, for our country—ever again.
To avoid prison, and no doubt with the desire to continue some of his work, Turing chose probation. The probation was, however, conditional on his subjection to a course of hormonal treatments that were designed to reduce libido. He underwent a chemical castration via oestrogen hormone injections, and within two years he was dead. On 12 June 1954, he was cremated at Woking crematorium in my constituency. What a terrible waste. What a ghastly last two years, in the life of a man who had given so much to this country.
We have had a fitting debate to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, godfather of computer science and pioneer of artificial intelligence, whose wartime efforts at Bletchley Park were responsible for saving countless lives. He is a national hero. He deserves to be in the pantheon of national heroes. I regard it a great honour to add my voice, again, to the tributes that we have all paid him.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate. I hope that Members will bear with my voice; I am a little croaky this afternoon.
The hon. Gentleman gave a very good overview of the life and work of Alan Turing, including the infamous and famous Turing test, which we all love when we log on to websites and have to type the characters. It is a nice testimony to Alan Turing that every part of our lives these days is touched by his influence. We also heard very good contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) and the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and for Woking (Jonathan Lord).
The word “genius” is overused—it is a little clichéd, as is “hero”. Nevertheless, it is correct to use them when talking about Alan Turing, and the millions of lives that have been saved as a result of his work. Sadly, the state’s behaviour towards him is, to say the least, shameful and needs to be put right.
I first came across Alan Turing’s work when, many years ago, I moved to a place called Milton Keynes—more specifically, to Bletchley—to take up a job with the Inland Revenue. Every morning, I walked past this huge expanse of an estate, with a high fence around it. It all seemed very strange. Curiosity being what it is, I started to inquire about what the place, Bletchley Park, was and, as Members will know, once one starts to inquire about such places, one soon develops a bookshelf lined with every book going on the subject—code breakers, Enigma and so on. It is a fascinating story, and a testimony to the incredible work done by many people, but especially by Alan Turing.
We have heard that the mission to decrypt the coded messages from the Enigma—the German military typewriter-like cipher machine—was hugely important. Turing had the ability to pit machine against machine. He produced the prototype anti-Enigma bombe, which he called Victory—I think that began in the spring of 1940—and the bombe machines effectively turned Bletchley Park into a cipher-breaking factory.
As early as 1943, Turing’s machines were cracking an estimated 84,000 Enigma messages each month—two a minute. No wonder the Prime Minister of the day called the information that came from them, “ultra”. It was ultra-important and, as I shall explain, ultra-significant.
I apologise for joining the debate late. I want to mention Alan Turing’s partner, Tommy Flowers, who made a massive contribution to the Enigma work. He was a General Post Office engineer, who put electronics into telephone exchanges. I had the privilege of meeting him in the last year of his life. We were trying to get him an honour, but he died too soon. He was the person who used the electronics and the valves. I give all credit to Alan Turing, genius that he was, but the beginning of computing would not have happened without Tommy Flowers either.
I was going to mention the Colossus machine that Tommy Flowers worked on, and I will come on to it in a moment.
Turing personally broke the form of Enigma used by the U-boats that were preying on the crucial north Atlantic merchant convoys, which were full of essential supplies for Britain. Churchill’s analysts stated that Britain would soon be starving if the supplies could not get through. Turing also searched for a way to break into the torrent of messages suddenly emanating from a new, and much more sophisticated, German cipher machine. The British code-named the new machine “Tunny”, and many people have said that the Tunny teleprinter was the forerunner of the mobile phone networks that we all enjoy today.
It is probably worth pausing here. The computing power of the mobile phones that many of us have on silent in our pockets or squirreled away somewhere, is much more advanced than that of the machinery that Alan Turing, and indeed Tommy Flowers, were putting together. Even more remarkable is the fact that the likes of Tommy Flowers used GPO telephony valves, wiring and systems deliberately because they did not want to draw attention to the fact that they were building the code-breaking machines. They were constrained, therefore, because they had to base their work on the sort of equipment that was available in any telephone operating system, and that is testimony to the importance of what they did.
Turing’s breakthrough in 1942 yielded the first systematic method for cracking the “Tunny” messages, which enabled the allies to get detailed knowledge of the German strategy—and that, without doubt, changed the course of the war. It was also the seed for the sophisticated Tunny-cracking algorithms that were incorporated into Tommy Flowers’s Colossus, which was the first large-scale electronic computer. With the installation of 10 Colossus machines by the end of the war, Bletchley Park became the world’s first electronic computer facility.
Turing’s work on Tunny was the third of three strokes of genius that he contributed to the attack on Germany’s codes, along with designing the bombe and unravelling the U-boat Enigma. It has been argued that his work shortened the war by not up to two years, but anything up to four. If Turing and his group had not weakened the U-boats’ hold on the north Atlantic, the D-day landings could have been delayed by a year or longer, because the north Atlantic was the route that ammunition, fuel, food and troops had to travel to reach Britain from America.
Any such delay, of course, would have put Hitler in a stronger position to withstand the allied assault. Fortifications along the French coastline would no doubt have been stronger, Panzer armies would have been moved into place, more V2 missiles would have rained down on southern England, and on the ports and airfields, thereby supporting the invading troops. Each year of fighting in Europe is estimated to have cost an average of 7 million lives, so it would not be far off the mark to quantify Turing’s contribution as 21 million lives saved. That gives an indication of the magnitude of his work.
The hon. Member for Cambridge helpfully detailed the post-war work that Alan Turing did, and I will not delay Members by rehearsing it, but it does bring me on to the appalling circumstances of his arrest, prosecution and sentencing. One has to take stock and question why a man who had done so much to save lives—possibly 21 million, perhaps more—was treated in such a way. When one reads the books, it feels like an underhand way of investigating Alan’s life. Reading them, despite the benefit of history, I started to wonder why he was treated in such a way.
As has been mentioned, the former Prime Minister officially apologised in 2009 for how Alan Turing had been treated—I draw right hon. and hon. Members’ attention to that apology; it is worth looking at—but the campaign has rightly continued since then. Numerous commemorations and international events have been held throughout the centenary year. The Google doodle was mentioned, Royal Mail has issued a commemorative stamp and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) drew attention to the work done with Manchester city council involving the Olympic torch and so on. Many events have taken place to recognise the fantastic work done by Alan Turing.
However, we are always brought back to the cul-de-sac that is the 1952 conviction. Hon. Members have given it a lot of thought, and work is going on in the other place on a private Member’s Bill. On legal precedent, are we as a Parliament not about setting legal precedent? Is that not our job? Is it not what we do every day in this place? We come up with new laws, improve laws, change laws and, where they are wrong, correct them. The posthumous conditional pardon in November 2006 of the soldiers shot at dawn was the right thing to do. It was absolutely correct. I am sure that even if that does not set a precedent, it might give us a clue about how to get around the issue.
I hope that Lord Sharkey’s Bill in the other place will find its way through Government time to be considered. I also hope that when the Minister replies, he will confirm that when a private Member’s Bill comes forward in this House, it will be looked on favourably by the Government. I certainly hope so. Whatever we do after this debate, one thing is certain: we must find a way to recognise and in some way pardon Alan Turing for what happened, so that we can hold him up as the hero he was.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this wholly appropriate debate during the centenary of one of the greatest Britons. I apologise if I cover a little of the same ground about Turing’s achievements. Such is their scale that, like my hon. Friend, I will be giving only headlines in the time available. I am also grateful to Alan Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, for helping my officials and me to get it right. Any mistakes will be entirely mine.
The perspective of history can be a wonderful thing. Decades later, the profound legacy of a brilliant and original mind largely unknown to his contemporaries can be referenced by the President of the United States in Westminster Hall, as Alan Turing was by President Obama last year. Year by year, our understanding grows of how important his contribution has been to our society. It is an astonishing legacy of global importance. One can only feel awe at the brilliance of his intellect and admiration for the magnitude of his achievements. They throw into the sharpest relief the appalling way he was treated by his own contemporary society, a fate he shared with tens of thousands of other gay men of his era. However, the shame, anger and embarrassment properly felt by today’s society at the extreme contrast between his service and his oppression, recorded in the previous Prime Minister’s unprecedented formal apology, still leaves us wanting to find ways to atone and to recognise his awesome achievements. A number of hon. Members have expressed their desire to do so in different ways. I was delighted to learn that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) has been able to do so by naming Alan Turing way. I am delighted that when the opportunity presented itself, it was Alan Turing whom he chose to honour.
Turing was one of the top mathematical minds of all time. He successfully applied his mathematical genius to numerous other scientific disciplines while throwing in the unique ability to combine successful practical application with brilliant theoretical understanding. Turing was a fellow of King’s college, Cambridge in 1935, and his time at Princeton from 1936 to 1938 has been appreciated properly by our American cousins. His 1936 paper invented the concept of the universal machine, which underpins the computing revolution. Turing’s success in America makes all the more impressive his decision to return to England in 1938. He understood the threat that his country faced and, critically, the contribution that he could make to our defence through encryption and code-breaking.
From 1939 to 1944, Turing was almost totally engaged in the mastery of the German enciphering machine Enigma and other cryptological investigations at Bletchley Park. Turing made a unique logical contribution to the decryption of Enigma and became the chief scientific figure, with a particular responsibility for reading U-boat communications. Turing’s contribution was undoubtedly crucial. I endorse the analysis of his importance made by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart); the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) made similar points. I do not demur from any of them.
In March 1944, Turing’s principal focus moved to encryption and voice scrambling with the Foreign Office at Hanslope Park, enabling secure communications between the Heads of Government directing the war. That work contributed directly to his development of electronic computing at the National Physical Laboratory and the university of Manchester, including the design of the Pilot ACE, the first modern computer in this country, delivered in parallel with computer development in the United States.
In his free time, Turing became a notable marathon runner, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned. But for an injury, he would probably have been invited to be a member of the British team for the London-based Olympics in 1948. His personal time of two hours and 46 minutes was barely 11 minutes slower than that of that year’s gold medallist. That rather lesser-known achievement is particularly apposite, as we are holding this debate in a year when the Olympics return to London for the first time since 1948.
Alan Turing continued to serve his country at what had become GCHQ, but after his conviction for gross indecency, he was categorised as a security risk and excluded from doing the nationally important work that must have given him great satisfaction. It is difficult to imagine the devastation that he would have experienced as his country switched from seeing him as a profound national asset to seeing him as a serious liability. By today’s standards, the security policy applied to Alan Turing seems criminally stupid, but in the atmosphere of the time—there was the defection of Maclean and Burgess, and the McCarthy witch hunts in the United States of America—it was tragically unexceptional. The atmosphere in both countries is relevant, as Turing had been an emissary to the United States in November 1942, possibly charged with assisting the Americans to address their cipher challenges and the U-boat menace then threatening their coastline. He was probably also involved in the security of transatlantic communications between Roosevelt and Churchill. That Britain possessed such impressive skills was due not least to Turing’s own efforts. Given that such extraordinary abilities existed in one man, one can but imagine the hysterics of the security apparat on both sides of the Atlantic, reinforced by the profound, ignorant and accepted commonplace prejudice of the time.
In what were to prove the final years of his life, Alan Turing used his understanding of mathematics and interest in process to develop a new and ground-breaking theory, the mathematical theory of morphogenesis: the theory of growth and form in biology. His writing on this, published in 1951, is regarded as the founding paper of modern non-linear dynamical theory. My hon. Friend might have been able to elucidate that if he had the time, but I am certainly not able to do so. Some of the theories the publication contained about the occurrence of the Fibonacci sequence in sunflowers are now being tested on a huge scale in the Manchester Turing sunflower project.
Alan Turing’s achievements have rightly earned him the description of the father of computing and artificial intelligence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South and others have said, we have no way of knowing what further advances he might have made had his life not been cut short. His achievements make him utterly unique and, as such, he warrants singling out in the way that we are doing in this debate.
That his exceptional public service should have been rewarded with what appears to us to be a grotesquely unjust conviction for gross indecency has led to the question of whether our sympathy should take the form of a retrospective, posthumous pardon. I will discuss that in more detail in a moment.
That the then offence was in private, consensual and revealed to the police by Turing himself, who had been a victim of real crime, reinforces the appalling unfairness he suffered. The only victim of Turing’s “crime” was Turing himself. The first point is that the law has been changed—indeed, it was first changed 45 years ago—but the conduct that led to Alan Turing’s conviction was only deemed to no longer be an offence after Edwina Currie’s amendment became law in 1994. When Alan Turing was arrested, he is said to have stated that he expected a
“Royal Commission to legalise it”.
It has taken a very long time. Progress over the past two decades has been immense, but more remains to be done.
In fulfilment of our coalition agreement, the Government introduced the disregard provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. They are designed to let individuals get on with their lives, free from having to disclose convictions for homosexual activity where it was consensual and the other person was over 16. There are certain other circumstances in which convictions for those offences have to be disclosed under vetting checks, even though the activity is no longer a criminal offence. The Act allows individuals who have such convictions or cautions to apply to the Home Office for them to be disregarded, thus removing their practical effects from their lives and allowing them to move forward without the burden that the records currently impose.
The provisions are specifically designed to give practical assistance to the living, whose daily lives and, indeed, employment prospects may be affected by the record of a conviction on the police national computer. Extending them to the deceased would be impractical and serve no purpose. In truth, we could be looking for records going back to the 1800s. In many cases, those records may not be held, or may not provide enough information to make sure that the person in question would qualify for a disregard. There is also the question of the impact that disregarding posthumous convictions would have. It would be an attempt to rewrite history. Would it involve changing officially held records? Should we destroy historical evidence of the unjust suffering that many underwent, which would hinder academic research? Those concerns apply to a general pardon of all those, living and dead, who have such convictions. That is why the Government followed the path of a disregard in the Protection of Freedoms Act.
That brings us to the question of a pardon, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge and addressed in detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech). Free pardons under the royal prerogative of mercy were formerly the usual means of recognising that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the convicted person was innocent. Over the past century, however, developments in legislative avenues of appeal have significantly reduced the need to resort to the royal prerogative. Generally, applicants or, in the case of the deceased, their families, have the right to appeal to the relevant appeal court and can also ask the Criminal Cases Review Commission to review their case. The grant of pardons under the royal prerogative is now extremely rare.
It is the long-standing policy not to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy where a person was correctly convicted under the laws that existed at the time. The applicant must be technically and morally innocent, as my hon. Friend has said. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South has said that we should clear Alan Turing’s name. A pardon under the royal prerogative of mercy would not actually affect Alan Turing’s conviction; only a court can quash a conviction and, in that sense, clear someone’s name.
Much as we now feel it outrageous that Alan Turing’s behaviour was treated as a criminal offence, he was guilty of the contemporary offence. To grant him a pardon under the royal prerogative would change the basis on which such pardons are normally given.
If Alan Turing were pardoned, there would be tens of thousands of other people in respect of whom demands for like treatment could be made. Those persons could include about 16,000 living individuals with convictions for homosexuality, and many times that number of deceased victims. The living can benefit from the Home Office’s recent disregard provisions, but both they and the families of those who are deceased, or others on their behalf, could seek a pardon, too.
The Department’s problem is that it is extremely difficult to make a sensible analysis that could be relied on. The living can apply to have their convictions disregarded, but I would think that more than 100,000 people have been convicted of these crimes over two centuries, so the potential scale of applications is enormous.
There is also the question of justice. The sex offences of which Alan Turing was convicted are still capable of being offences in certain circumstances where the other party was under age or the sex was non-consensual. In such circumstances, a pardon would be not only inappropriate, but wrong. The records for some older cases would no longer be available, and the way such offences were recorded would make it difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a pardon was in fact justified. It is to avoid that problem that the Government have gone down the route of a disregard by application.
It is also worth noting that the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy has changed over time. Centuries ago it was exercised by the monarch in an unfettered way. In modern times, however, the exercise of the prerogative is not exercised by Her Majesty personally but on the advice and recommendation of a Secretary of State, and it is therefore subject to judicial oversight. Whenever someone makes qualitative judgments on such issues, the prospect of review of the reasonableness of a decision is opened up.
I appreciate that the Minister is in a difficult position. The advice he received from his officials will have gone through the reasons why it is difficult to follow the routes proposed, but I wonder—I put this to the Minister in a genuine spirit of finding a way through—whether he could instruct his officials to find an alternative way to reach the same conclusion. Turning the issue on its head, perhaps the Minister will consider, at a later date, talking to his officials to ask them to find an alternative route.
It may come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman, but Ministers in the Ministry of Justice and a number of other senior Ministers in the Government have given their personal attention to the issue. We share exactly the same desire of every hon. Member present to find a way of making atonement and recognising the unique and singular achievements of Alan Turing. The formula that the previous Administration alighted on was the formal apology from the Prime Minister. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South himself remarked, it is for Parliament to set legal precedent, and opportunities for Members of Parliament in either House to take their own measures were alluded to.
I am trying to make clear to the House the issues that every Administration have had to wrestle with, and the possible consequences of different courses of action. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members present that the matter has received the closest possible attention from Ministers and officials; it continues to do so and will continue to do so in the light of the debate today and the contributions of hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South drew the parallel with the Armed Forces Act 2006, which pardoned a group of first world war servicemen, but that was itself a carefully considered response to an unusual situation. The legislation expressly leaves conviction and sentence unaffected, and specifically states that the prerogative of mercy is not affected.
It has been a privilege for me to reply on behalf of the Government in the debate. It has been of particular importance to me, because my mother served at Bletchley Park during the war. When she finally felt able to speak of her work—like everyone else of her generation, she took her duty of secrecy seriously, and it was only when watching documentaries on Bletchley Park on television that she felt that she might be able to share with her family some of her own experiences—she bore first-hand testimony to me and other members of my family of Alan Turing’s importance. The truth is, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South and my hon. Friend made clear, that everyone in the Chamber and in this country owes Alan Turing a profound debt of gratitude for our political freedom. In my case, that debt is personal, albeit indirectly.
The debate has been an excellent way in which to pay tribute to the great Alan Turing on his centenary. All of us want to find more ways of marking his enormous achievement and service to our country and of continuing to atone for the disgraceful way in which the society of the time treated him.
Lineside Vegetation (Network Rail Policy)
I am pleased to have an extra few minutes for this debate, Mr Betts. A number of colleagues have contacted me who wanted to raise local matters, either through interventions or short contributions. I assume that that is in order.
I was very pleased to have secured this debate. I applied for it because I represent Islington North, an inner city constituency that has very little open space and parkland—so we value what we do have very much indeed. Network Rail runs a number of services through the constituency, both on the north London line and the mainline from King’s Cross to Edinburgh; it is that line that I want to speak about.
A couple of weeks ago, Network Rail arrived to do what was basically some lineside vegetation maintenance work. That work, however, turned out to be quite considerable. Network Rail clear-felled and completely cleared a considerable area of lineside vegetation, including cutting down trees that had nesting birds in them. Rather ominously, the workers also had large supplies of cement and concrete with them. It was not clear what they were for.
The area of track is adjacent to the Emirates stadium and very near to one of our prized local possessions, the Gillespie park nature reserve and ecology centre, which was the result of an effective campaign 20 years ago to have the area made into a park. Local residents were annoyed and alarmed about the work for a number of reasons. First, they value their open space, the vegetation and the ecology of the area. Secondly, they were astonished at the pervasive work that was being carried out. They contacted Network Rail, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Islington borough council and me. I have to say, in praise of them, that they all worked very well together. Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green councillors and local activists held a small demonstration outside Network Rail headquarters. Eventually, after an intervention by the local authority—the police were also fully informed—Network Rail ceased doing its work.
The reason why I was concerned about the work is that London, like all major cities, has limited numbers of open spaces. We value our open spaces. We also value the ecological diversity of our city and of the United Kingdom. Railways—and there are 2,000 hectares of railway land in London—represent a very important source of biodiversity. They are a very important means by which migratory birds, animals, foxes and others travel in and out of the city, enhancing the general ecology for all of us.
If we plant a tree, it is a good thing, but a tree on its own has a rather limited benefit. Two trees together have a much greater benefit, and a string of trees form the possibility of a migratory route. Railways form that migratory route. Clearing that piece of land and breaking up that route is damaging to the ecology not just of the immediate neighbourhood but of London as a whole.
I hope that Network Rail understands that. I hope that it will also understand that we are all responsible citizens who use the railways and want them to be run safely. I recognise that leaves on the line, overhanging branches and all such vegetative growth can be damaging to the railway system and must be controlled, but that control is meant for the area immediately adjacent to the lines, not way back on the embankments. In fact, railway embankments are made more stable by the vegetation on them, and less so if they are cleared.
I wrote to Network Rail concerning the local issue. I shall quote from my own letter to the community relations adviser:
“I have today received rather alarming reports of works by Network Rail around the tracks by Ashburton Triangle, close to the Emirates Stadium. I am told that trees and other vegetation have been stripped, displacing insects, small mammals and nesting birds. This operation appears to be similar to the destruction that took place on the Drayton Park sidings last July.
I should not need to remind Network Rail that these strips of land provide a vital wildlife corridor linking the Borough’s few green spaces—
I cite some of them, before continuing:
“Whilst I appreciate that Network Rail has to manage rail sidings and needs access points to the tracks, I consider such wanton devastation without reference to the local community to be quite unforgivable.”
I referred in my letter to an incident that happened last year. After that, there were discussions and meetings between the local authority, local environmental activists and the ecology sector, and an agreement was reached with Network Rail that it would in future inform the council and appropriate local agencies when it planned to do work and that it would plan its work in a way that did not destroy nesting habitats and sites. June is still clearly the bird-nesting season—someone only needs to watch the excellent “Springwatch” on the BBC to know that.
I got a reply—very rapidly, I have to say—from the route managing director for LNE, the London north-eastern line:
“We removed vegetation in the Drayton Park area (consisting of buddleia, brambles, shrubs and young trees) up to 10 metres from the railway line”—
that is a considerable distance.
“In addition, we cleared vegetation from the top of the embankment, including the area surrounding the substation. These works were part of operating a safe and efficient railway. A daily visual check for nesting birds was undertaken”—
it was not undertaken efficiently, because there is photographic evidence of nests being destroyed.
“The work at Holloway involved the removal of vegetation up to 15 metres from the railway”—
that is nearly 50 feet from the line.
“I understand this involved the removal of shrubs and a number of trees”—
I went to visit the site last weekend, and the trees removed were pretty substantial.
“We also cleared some vegetation to the boundary line and behind the overhead line foundations…Clearly there was no intent here to do anything other than manage our railway requirements. Given the concerns expressed, I have postponed all the current vegetation clearance in this area with immediate effect.”
I am pleased that Network Rail has postponed the clearance with immediate effect, and thank it for doing so, but it should never have done such work in the first place. It should have operated in a way that is synonymous with looking after our local environment.
I want an undertaking from Network Rail, and I look forward to the Minister’s being able to get that undertaking. Network Rail should understand the terms of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which protects nesting birds and sites of special environmental and scientific interest, one of which is included in where we are discussing. Network Rail should be fully aware of the need to work with and not against local authorities and local people, because we value such sites.
When I raised the issue, I was surprised at the number of people who contacted me from all over the country who have had similar experiences. Colleagues present today have been told of similar experiences in their own constituencies, and their own experiences were then broadly similar to mine.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate, which could be packed out because, sadly, there is an “A to Z” of victims throughout the country. In my patch, Winchmore Hill was among the first victims. After an experience similar to his, we were assured of notice, but notice was not given, so Grange Park has become one of the most unfortunate victims of what I call Network Rail’s environmental vandalism and neglect of the local environment, with the destruction of a great swathe of trees and natural habitat—way beyond the immediate area concerned with mitigating safety risks.
I understand that there is no legal requirement on Network Rail to consult with residents on maintenance work, because it is just part of the operational licence to mitigate safety risks. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need properly to protect the local environment and to ask the Minister how we can ensure that Network Rail is held properly to account, and is open and honest about its plans? It is a prolific and persistent offender that needs to be brought to account. We must ensure that its responsibilities are, yes, to mitigate safety, but also to protect the wider local environment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I understand his concern. I have seen the railside areas in Winchmore Hill, which are a fantastic reserve for natural life and should be protected and preserved.
In January, the London Assembly’s environment committee produced an interesting document, “On the right lines? Vegetation Management on London’s Railway Embankments”. It is an all-party document. The chair of the committee was Murad Qureshi, and it included contributions from Green, Conservative and Liberal Democrat members. It made some good and helpful proposals, pointing out:
“Local people…contacted the Committee about the level of information and communication provided by line operators”,
which is an ongoing problem. It also said—it rather surprised me—that
“Both Network Rail and Transport for London seek to give at least one month’s advance warning…but apply two weeks as minimum. However, they don’t monitor complaints specifically relating to prior notification of works.”
I think they should do that. I suspect that what I have picked up from active and responsible people in my constituency has been picked up all over the country by people in a similar situation, such as the constituents of the hon. Gentleman.
The committee is also calling for a
“standardised written engagement processes with local communities”
to be improved to
“give more detail and a clearer rationale to help the general public…understand and accept the operators’ proposals of line-side work.”
Furthermore, it says:
“Several residents and boroughs have reported concern about the level of communication and information offered by the helplines run by Transport for London and Network Rail. Managing line-side land is usually beyond the scope of local authority guidelines or strategies; as a result, boroughs often refer residents with enquiries or complaints to these helplines”.
That is not the case in Islington, because the council engages very much with local residents, Network Rail and Transport for London on those matters.
In summary—I want others to be able to contribute to the debate—I put on the record my thanks to the local people who live in the Drayton Park area of Islington for their assiduous work in ensuring that, in addition to having Gillespie park, we protect the natural environment alongside the railways.
I want Network Rail to understand that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 means something. It is there for a purpose. It is there because, as a nation, we value nesting birds, our biological diversity and the ecology in London that is improved by the natural corridor of linesides. Network Rail must manage the railway, and they must do so safely, but there is no need to clear 10, 15 or 20 metres back from the line to do that. If it is cheaper for it to clear-fell once every five years, that is a wrong policy. It should carry out annual maintenance and annual maintenance checks. That is what I want it to do.
When the Minister responds, I hope that she will acknowledge the work that has been done by many local authorities, including mine. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds drew the matter to our attention, and I hope that she will seek a meeting with Network Rail so that it can be acquainted with the strong views that we in the House hold about the preservation of our natural environment and our belief that railways have a part to play in that.
I say all that as someone who is passionately pro-railway. I am not making a criticism of the railways; my criticism is of a specific management decision and a specific management method that Network Rail has used when it should be doing something much more environmentally sensitive.
I thank the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this important debate because, like many others, this is a big issue in my constituency. Many people are deeply concerned about the fact that there seems to be no way of getting real dialogue with Network Rail, or proper redress when things go wrong.
I want to raise two points. First, the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have stressed the importance of Network Rail’s consulting residents, and it is important that they do so in an up-front way. A problem in Brighton was that it circulated a letter to some, but not all, residents, the headline of which was something like “Vegetation Management”. That sounds like a nice bit of pruning from time to time; it does not sound like clear-felling trees, which is what it ended up being. The letter was rather misleading for people when they first saw it, and the consultation must be very clear in its intent.
Secondly, I have a question for the Minister. Where is the real oversight of the impact of Network Rail’s policies? A few weeks ago, I submitted a parliamentary question to the Department for Transport, asking what information the Department holds in relation to things such as environmental assessments and community consultations. I also asked what estimate there was of the number of trees that had been felled in the past five years, and during bird breeding seasons; on how many occasions British Transport police had investigated complaints about tree-felling; and what estimate had been made of the total area of trees to be felled in the coming five years. I had a very short reply, which essentially said that the Department does not keep that kind of information because it is the business of a private company.
I then asked similar questions of Network Rail and received a very unhelpful letter, which pointed out things such as:
“trees grow in soil, which is the naturally occurring residue from thousands of years of weathering of the underlying strata.”
Most of us know that trees grow in soil and that, from time to time, for serious safety reasons, they need to be felled, but the letter did not answer the underlying questions about when and why Network Rail takes decisions on whether to prune or cut down, how often it plans to do that in the future and the level of consultation it plans to hold with local residents. For many people, particularly in urban areas, the trees around the railway are a vital part of the green space, and they care about them deeply.
Notwithstanding the fact that safety must take priority, I am concerned that Network Rail is acting far too swiftly—from a cost perspective and not from a genuine safety perspective in many cases. I would like to hear from the Minister what action we can take to try to hold Network Rail to greater account.
I want to make just a few comments. This is very much the debate of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and we want to hear from the Minister.
People up and down the country have been asking that very same thing: how can we properly hold Network Rail to account? In my constituency, vegetation management—a euphemism employed in relation to the Winchmore Hill embankment—was used to fell trees and habitat. Network Rail was only really cajoled into doing any assessment in relation to the bats in one of the trees. That was the only statutory obligation to do any kind of formal environmental assessment. That happened repeatedly.
I got assurances that the company would consult, and notify me of any further works on the lines, and then—lo and behold—Grange Park suffered huge environmental destruction. The area is called Grange Park, but the word “park” might as well be taken away considering what happened. It is extraordinary and desperate how ancient trees were felled, never to be replaced. One can see only the visible destruction of the trees, but natural habitat was also lost. People’s view was completely destroyed by Network Rail’s actions.
After public meetings and a lot of cajoling and hard work on the part of active residents and myself, the new Network Rail chief executive, David Higgins, took his responsibility seriously and met with me for a long time. It is a credit to him that he showed respect and concern, accepted what had happened and apologised. He stated in a letter to me in June 2011:
“Network Rail takes its social responsibilities seriously. Clearly there are lessons we can learn about how we engage with communities when we need to undertake intrusive works. Although consultation in formal terms is not practicable as we will often have little room to digress from the engineering solution being proposed, many misunderstandings can be obviated through early community engagement.”
Those are good words, but sadly we have seen since that lessons have not been learned. That continues up and down the line, in London and beyond. Whitstable is a recent example. There has been great concern about what has happened there.
My concern is that Network Rail is hiding behind its statutory responsibilities—its operational licence responsibility—to mitigate safety risks. In earlier correspondence from the community relationships manager, it stated:
“we have to mitigate safety risks. Therefore most of the work we undertake does not require consultation. However, we consult with local authorities and statutory bodies when working within or near particular sites; such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”
The company can hide behind such words and not accept its duty of care to local residents and the local environment. That is what happened in the case of Grange Park, Winchmore Hill and other places.
We need to do better. Network Rail has responsibilities to the public, the taxpayers and, yes, to rail passengers, as well as to the local environment, but it has not taken those responsibilities seriously. It has mitigated some of the issues in Grange Park and it has helped to plant some native shrubs, but it cannot undo what has happened and it cannot provide true restoration and restitution. It has come grudgingly to the table but it needs to do a whole lot more. We need to see it being held to account.
We also want to see whether Network Rail should be subject to environmental impact assessments, because of what my constituents had to suffer. There was a major infrastructure project, so I ask the Minister the following question: please can we bring it out into the open, to ensure that we have a proper process of consultation, information and care for the environment?
It is unusual for a half-hour Westminster Hall debate to get trailed on the “Today” programme, but the media interest does not surprise me because this is an issue of real importance for our railways and our environment. Therefore I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. He asked me to pay tribute to the residents and the organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that have fought campaigns on this issue. I am happy to do so. It is very important that we get this issue right.
I must start by acknowledging that Network Rail, as a private sector company, is not owned by the Government and therefore Ministers have no power to instruct or direct it. Consequently, although I am happy to respond to the points that have been made in this debate, I should emphasise that tree and vegetation management policy is an operational matter for Network Rail, over which we—as Ministers—do not have any power. Nevertheless, I fully appreciate how important this issue is and the concern that communities feel about Network Rail’s treatment of lineside vegetation.
I have raised this issue on a number of occasions with Network Rail, including with those at the very top of the company; I have raised it with Network Rail’s chief executive, Sir David Higgins, and its director of operations, Robin Gisby. I have raised the specific case of Grange Park; I fully acknowledge the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) in that regard. The pictures on the internet of Grange Park are more like the pictures that one would associate with rain forests being devastated by illegal logging than pictures of a leafy suburb. I therefore fully understand the concerns of local residents. In response to the points made by all hon. Members in Westminster Hall today, I am happy to raise this matter again with Network Rail and I will keep up the pressure in relation to it, as I do on a regular basis. I should also point out that some of my constituents have had similar concerns about lineside tree clearance by London Underground. That is a different organisation, but the concerns of the people affected are similar to those of the people affected by Network Rail.
To be honest, I always face a dilemma in this regard, since I care very much about both the provision of safe, reliable and affordable railways, and trees and the conservation of the natural environment. Of course, that is a dilemma that Network Rail faces on a daily basis. I fully agree with everything that has been said today about how important it is that Network Rail exercises care and good judgment when balancing those competing concerns. Efficiency and cost are a consideration, but environmental concerns also have to be taken seriously too. It is also very important that Network Rail engages effectively with the communities and local authorities that are affected by vegetation management, and of course it is essential that it complies with the relevant regulations relating to conservation and wildlife habitats.
Regarding the specific points that were made about the works adjacent to lines in north Islington, near the Arsenal stadium and the Gillespie park nature reserve, I am concerned to hear that the hon. Member for Islington North felt that Network Rail’s actions were so disproportionate and destructive in that area. Department for Transport officials have raised this case with Network Rail. As we have heard, in response to the concerns expressed by residents, Network Rail’s route director, Mr Phil Verster, suspended vegetation clearance in the area. I gather that he has asked a senior member of his team to contact Islington council to discuss what has happened and what went wrong. The aim is to agree a mutually acceptable method for sharing Network Rail’s work plans in the future.
As regards work during the bird nesting season, I can confirm that the company is bound by the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended. Network Rail must ensure that it does not contravene the legislation put in place to protect birds while they are nesting. It should be noted that the legislation allows work to be undertaken where needed for safety reasons.
Turning to the more general issues raised today, Network Rail is tasked with managing over 30,000 hectares of lineside vegetation along 20,000 miles of track. That makes the railway a major natural resource, which needs to be managed at all times of the year to keep it safe. Trees growing within the railway corridor between the railway boundary fences are the responsibility of Network Rail. I am afraid that there is no escaping the fact that trees next to the railway, especially if they are relatively tall, can be a potential risk to train operations and public safety. If they fall over the track or into the overhead wires and cables on electrified railway lines, it can lead to severe train disruption, with major delays and service cancellations. There is also the risk that falling trees could cause accidents.
Factors, such as the steepness of cutting slopes, soil conditions and the nature of the vegetation, can all be relevant to the degree of risk at particular locations. In certain circumstances, trees and bushes need to be cut back in certain areas, because low branches and foliage can impair train drivers’ views of signals. For safety reasons, track workers need to be able to see and be seen by trains, to be able to move to a safe place when a train approaches.
Reliability issues are not confined to instances of falling trees, of course. Delays caused by leaves on the line lead to understandable annoyance and frustration for the commuters and passengers affected, not to mention the economic damage of transport delays. Leaf fall can have a significant effect on train performance and is a significant cause of delay in the autumn, generating public pressure for preventive action. The rail regulator highlighted the contribution of vegetation management to the industry’s successful management of train delays last autumn.
In developing its vegetation management policy, Network Rail tells me that it has worked with organisations such as the RSPB, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage. Its priority is to operate a safe and reliable railway, and tree clearance must be a part of that. It has a duty to provide, as far as is reasonably practical, a railway free from danger and obstruction from falling trees.
Recognising public concern on the issue, I have emphasised to Network Rail how important it is that it strikes the right balance between providing a safe, reliable and affordable network and addressing local community and environmental concerns. Although the majority of work is carried out responsibly, the company acknowledged again today that in some instances it has fallen short of the standards it sets itself. It accepts that there are lessons to be learned.
In particular, the Government urge Network Rail to engage proactively and effectively with local residents, local authorities and MPs in advance of carrying out works. It has recently revised its consultation process—no doubt seeking to learn lessons from the experiences that hon. Members mentioned—to enable key stakeholders to be informed of intended maintenance operations in good time.
I am pleased with the Minister’s response and I am grateful that she will raise our issues with Network Rail. We had exactly those undertakings from it less than a year ago in Islington, and we assumed that it was acting in good faith and would mend its ways in future, because it did similar things on the North London line. Will she tell it in clear terms to please be straight with communities and tell them what is going on? That way, they will understand what is happening, without the kind of double dealing that we had before.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It has been raised with Network Rail on various occasions over a period of years. I was trying to remember the first time that I raised it—it was certainly over a year ago. It is important that Network Rail focuses and that we see real change.
There is progress. Network Rail has advised that the number of complaints about vegetation management has fallen. The hon. Gentleman thought that it did not collect that information; I think that it does, but I will check. I was given to understand that it did. Requests to cut back overgrown trees and vegetation now exceed complaints about vegetation management.
However, there are undoubtedly remaining instances in which Network Rail has failed to provide anything like comprehensive advance notice of the nature and timing of its intended work programmes. Network Rail acknowledges the shortcomings that have occurred. For example, it accepts the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that when it does communicate with residents, it sometimes fails to convey the scale of the works that will be undertaken. It is reviewing its communications strategy and working with the Tree Council to improve its lineside vegetation management, and with a view to developing more sustainable solutions to the challenges that it faces in reconciling environmental concerns with keeping the railways running safely. Network Rail has acknowledged that it needs to do better, and I will be urging it to do so.
As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, there are important ecological issues to be considered. Network Rail needs to take care to avoid unnecessary tree felling. I recognise fully the concern that people feel when they see trees being cut down next to railway tracks. Network Rail’s first duty is to ensure the safe running of the railway, but it must also have regard to the environmental, social and quality-of-life importance of the conservation of trees and wildlife corridors. This debate will provide a timely reminder of the importance of engaging with MPs, local communities affected by vegetation management and local authorities. I will ensure that all the points made in this debate are conveyed to Network Rail at the earliest possible opportunity. I have enjoyed the chance to debate an important issue with hon. Members.
Question put and agreed to.