House of Commons
Wednesday 27 June 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Welsh Cavalry
Before I answer the question, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the 10 British servicemen who have been killed in action since our last session of Welsh questions, including five who were from, or attached to, the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh. They were courageous and talented soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of our nation, and we will always remember them.
The Army is conducting a study of its future force structure. The outcome of the study will be announced once decisions have been made. Until then, it is not possible to comment on which specific units may be affected.
May I urge my right hon. Friend, on behalf of the numerous constituents who have written to me about the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, to work closely with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to try to ensure that this superb regiment is retained?
I have stressed that the continuation of a strong military presence in Wales is of great importance both to the local communities and to the country as a whole. I proudly display at the entrance to Gwydyr House the emblem of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, which celebrates the bravery and commitment of our armed forces in Wales on behalf of Queen and country. I will continue to give every support to our Welsh regiments, including the QDG.
The hon. Gentleman is well aware that I have fully supported the Welsh cavalry—the QDG. I will take no lessons from a party which, in restructuring the Army, consigned more than 600 years of military tradition in Wales to the history books when it abolished the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales to form the Royal Welsh. I, certainly, will continuously press the Welsh regiments’ case at the highest level, and the hon. Gentleman should take comfort from that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that abolishing the QDG would be almost as bad as abolishing, for example, the Welsh Guards? Will she impress on her Cabinet colleagues the central importance of the regimental system to the morale and effectiveness of the British Army as a whole?
My distinguished hon. Friend has himself served in the armed forces, and I agree with him entirely. On 2 June I attended the home-coming parade and the reception in Cardiff for the Queen’s Dragoon Guards as part of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations, and I know that the morale of units that are so closely associated with Wales needs to continue.
May I first associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the sacrifice made by all the Welsh men and women who fought for this country? They should never be forgotten in the House or in the country.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State could bring herself to comment on the worrying rumours that, while the Welsh cavalry may well be saved following a campaign across the House, the price that we may pay for that is the loss of one of the battalions of the Royal Welsh, with its 700 jobs in Wales?
Let me just remind the House that the last Labour Government left the MOD budget with a £38 billion black hole, and that it has been brought back into balance for the first time in a generation by this Government. I assure the hon. Gentleman—who is a Johnny-come-lately to this campaign—that I will continue to give my undiluted support to our Welsh regiments, but, as I have said, no decisions have yet been made. There is a great deal of speculation, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should make people feel so insecure.
Despite the bluster, the Secretary of State’s silence on the fate of the Royal Welsh will have been heard throughout the armed forces, including those in Afghanistan, where the 1st Battalion is currently serving. Does she not agree that it will be a truly pyrrhic victory for the QDG if a cap badge is saved in Wales but we lose a battalion with several hundred jobs?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but let me repeat that no decisions have been made. Let me also repeat that I will take no lessons from a party that got rid of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales. I can take advice from much better people than the hon. Gentleman.
I, too, urge the Secretary of State to make any representations necessary to keep the Royal Welsh, because it recruits very well in its traditional recruitment areas and any loss of a battalion would limit the opportunities for young Welsh people to join an infantry regiment.
I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. As he knows, there is huge affection for all these regiments. Since the moment I was appointed as Secretary of State for Wales, I have made it my business to visit as many parts of the Army services in Wales as possible, and I continue to support the regiments. This issue is also important as we are seeking to recruit people into the reserves and the Territorial Army. These brigades are a great recruiting sergeant, and long may they continue. Certainly, I will always make that case, although the decision does not rest with this office.
Manufacturing and Engineering
The Government recognise the high importance of supply chains to the manufacturing and engineering sectors in Wales, both of which are significant components of the Welsh economy.
Does the Minister agree that small and medium-sized enterprises are a key part of the economy, both in Wales and England, and that the Government are absolutely right to focus on making sure they are attached to these supply chains, to develop their products and services further?
My hon. Friend is entirely right to highlight the mutual dependence of supply chains that emanate in England and Welsh manufacturing industry, and vice versa. In fact, Airbus accounts indirectly for about 135,000 jobs. The Welsh Government, to whom economic development is devolved, should be keen to foster those supply chains and, for that purpose, should be working very closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
On Friday, I visited the Orb works in Newport, which, thanks to a very large investment in the supply chain by Tata, is now producing world-class electrical steel, which is good news for the work force and for manufacturing in Newport. Steelmakers in Wales are still experiencing a subdued market, however, as yesterday’s news showed, so what more are the Government doing to help steelmaking in Wales?
The Government are very closely engaged with the steelmaking industry via UK Trade and Investment, and I would reiterate the point that, given the news we heard yesterday, it is extremely important that the Welsh Assembly Government should work closely with UKTI to foster that industry.
Does the Minister agree that one of the major challenges facing the Welsh economy is the deficit in exports generated in Wales and imported goods and services from other states, as well as from within the UK? What discussions is the Minister having with Cabinet colleagues and the Welsh Government to expand and diversify the Welsh export base—in particular in manufacturing, once a great strength of the Welsh economy?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to point that out. Over the next few weeks there will be an enormous opportunity for Welsh industry in the shape of the British business embassy, which exporters and importers from all over the world will be attending. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government are now engaging, albeit tentatively, with that embassy, but I urge them to do more.
I have regular discussions with Welsh Government Ministers about the prospects of the Welsh economy and the need for closer working to help create the right environment for jobs, growth and prosperity.
Youth unemployment in my constituency has gone up by 16% in the last year—not helped by the Government’s scrapping of the future jobs fund. Is it not time that the Welsh Secretary took lessons from the Welsh Government and emulated their jobs growth scheme, started in April, with the aim of creating 4,000 jobs?
I agree that if there are lessons to be learned from the Welsh Government, we must learn them, but the hon. Lady must remember that unemployment is a matter for both the UK Government and the Welsh Government, and under the last Labour Government youth unemployment in Wales rose by 73% over the Parliament.
Yes; my hon. Friend knows that the Government have shown that they have listened and are willing to help motorists further with their cost of living by acting at a time when the pump prices are still at historic highs and deferring the increase to January. I pay tribute to him, as he has of course played a great part in the campaign and has, in part, brought about this change by the Government, which will be welcomed throughout Wales, by businesses and families alike.
The Secretary of State talks about creating the right environment, and I agree with her on that. She will also recognise that in north-east Wales, Cheshire and the Wirral there is a common travel-to-work area. Will she put her support behind the campaign to improve and upgrade the Wrexham to Bidston line, as that would help to service that travel-to-work area and create the right environment?
The hon. Gentleman and I used to serve on the Select Committee on Science and Technology together, and I know that he is a constant champion for improving the travel arrangements in and around his area of the country. I have always supported the Wrexham to Bidston line, but I have always prioritised the electrification of the valleys lines and of course that unfinished business of getting the electrification down to Swansea. The electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line would be close behind that.
Tourism is a crucial sector in the Welsh economy, not least in mid-Wales and Ceredigion. The contrast between the procession of the Olympic torch and the floods that we suffered in Ceredigion could not be any starker. I am appreciative of the Secretary of State’s visit to Ceredigion last week. Will she reiterate the message that the county council gave her, which was that Ceredigion is very much open for business?
I was delighted to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to visit his constituency and look at the aftermath of the floods. It is when the media have left that it gets most difficult for the people who have been affected. I was impressed by the way in which that community has got itself back on its feet, and it certainly is open for business. If anyone is reading the record of or listening to these questions, they should know that his constituency of Ceredigion is one of the best places to take a holiday and that it really is open for business.
The hon. Gentleman and I share the same concern about youth unemployment. The unemployment rate in Wales remains unacceptably high at 9%, but I would have thought that he welcomed the fall in unemployment in Wales for the fourth month in a row. It means that the economy is moving in the right direction for many of the members of the work force who are still looking for work.
Has my right hon. Friend considered the economic impact of having different corporation tax regimes on either side of the English-Welsh border, especially since, as we have heard, there is a single economic sub-region in Cheshire and north-east Wales?
There is huge concern among the businesses that I have talked to about any prospect of changes in the corporation tax rate across the border between England and Wales. As my hon. Friend will know, that relates to the purpose of the Silk commission, which I established and which is looking particularly at the areas of taxation and accountability. I hope that it will report later this year and we will be able to see its recommendations.
Hard-pressed households across Wales will certainly welcome the Chancellor’s latest U-turn on the proposed August increase in fuel duty, but with Office for National Statistics figures today showing that borrowing is rocketing because this Government have created a double-dip recession, will the Secretary of State speak up for struggling businesses in Wales and the 130,000 people still looking for work, and ask the Chancellor to do a U-turn on his economic plans?
I welcome the new Opposition Front-Bench team. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), who stepped down from the Front Bench last month and will be greatly missed. I welcomed the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), the shadow Secretary of State, during the Welsh Grand Committee, but I would like to do so again.
I say to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that, in addition to the support we have already announced, the decision that has been made to cut the fuel duty and scrap the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, thus ensuring that fuel duty is frozen for 21 months, will help businesses and families in Wales. I am very surprised that she did not rise to the Dispatch Box to welcome that.
Welsh Assembly (Elections)
I published the Green Paper on future electoral arrangements on 21 May. I have spoken to all four party leaders in the Assembly, including the First Minister, about the Green Paper.
The hon. Gentleman would have had the opportunity to discuss that at the Welsh Grand Committee on Monday at 11.30 am, but I understand that Labour objected to the relevant motion yesterday. I now know that that is because Labour MPs have a problem getting up in the morning and getting to work by 11.30 on a Monday—[Interruption.] I have therefore decided to cancel the Welsh Grand Committee and Labour now has the opportunity to call a debate in its own time.
The Prime Minister has met the First Minister on a number of occasions and I believe that that matter, among others, was discussed. I am not aware of any firm commitments made by the Prime Minister.
My right hon. Friend and I have frequent discussions with ministerial colleagues and others on promoting and capitalising on Wales’ unique identity as a constituent nation of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Nothing promotes the Welsh identity better than the wonderfully rousing national anthem “Land of My Fathers,” but it is an affront to the people of Wales when the England team wrongly use the United Kingdom’s national anthem when they play. Does the Minister agree that England should emulate Wales, be clear on the difference between England and the United Kingdom, and introduce a rousing national anthem of our own?
Does the Minister agree that as well as Welsh Members of Parliament we are British Members of Parliament and that as Welsh Members of Parliament we should be able to speak and vote on matters that affect our constituents, even those that affect our constituents from over the border? In my case, that includes hospitals, business, transport, defence and other matters.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and others on a range of issues, including the construction industry in Wales. I have written to the Welsh Government offering to facilitate discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government to explore the possible extension of the NewBuy scheme to Wales.
In Wales, an increasingly onerous planning and building regulations system is developing. Both planning and building regulations are key to the development of new housing and, at a time when England is relaxing that regime, the Welsh Assembly Government are making it more oppressive.
I am rather disappointed that there will be no Welsh Grand Committee on Monday; I do not know whether it is to do with alarm clocks or whatever else. There will be plenty of other opportunities for debating such matters on the Floor of the House in due course and that could have been a good first debate.
The construction industry employs 100,000 people in Wales. Will the Minister please make representations so that renovations are not subject to VAT? The problem is that new build is not subject to it but renovations are, and the vast majority of renovations are carried out by small and medium-sized firms.
I understand that the Welsh Government and the Treasury are currently discussing the whole issue of the Barnett formula and the housing revenue account subsidy scheme. That has been done away with in England, and never existed in Scotland or Northern Ireland. It cost Wales £73 million last year—money that could have been put to good use repairing council homes. Will he please further these discussions?
Regional pay affects local economies in the poorest regions of Wales. Does the Minister agree that construction workers and construction firms in north-west Wales, in Cemaes bay and Colwyn bay, should be paid the same as those in Torbay and Buckinghamshire, as should teachers in those areas?
My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, Welsh Government Ministers and other interested parties on improving broadband infrastructure in Wales.
Superfast broadband is an important priority in Macclesfield in our rural communities, just as it is in towns and villages across Wales. Is my hon. Friend disappointed that the Labour Welsh Government still have not announced the preferred bidder for the next-generation broadband for Wales project despite having promised to do so in December last year?
Human Trafficking Commissioner
Combating human trafficking is a key priority for the Government, and we fully recognise the importance of tackling the issue in Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not discussed this issue with the First Minister, although she has met the anti-human trafficking co-ordinator for Wales. [Interruption.]
The principal reason that Wales has an anti-human trafficking co-ordinator is that, while policing and justice are undevolved, such issues as child care are devolved. It therefore makes sense for there to be a co-ordinator in Wales. In England, where there is no such issue of devolution, the question does not arise.
The commission expects to report during the current parliamentary Session.
So far I have not been asked to give any evidence to the commission, but I understand that there will be a long discussion about the issue. I know that my hon. Friend is especially keen to give evidence and to provide information to the commission, and I am sure that she will have that opportunity.
On devolution, does the Secretary of State agree that any fundamental change to the voting system for the Assembly must at least have broad inter-party consensus and the agreement of the Welsh Government to avoid another referendum, because the system was endorsed by the 1997 referendum?
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when I paid tribute to him, but I hope that he will read the Hansard report. We will miss him on the Front Bench.
The legislation governing any changes to the electoral voting system for the Assembly was put in place by a Labour Government. The power clearly remains here. Had the intention been different, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would have changed the situation himself through the Government of Wales Act 2006.
The Prime Minister was asked—
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We have been discussing this issue for 100 years, and it really is time to make progress. The truth of the matter is that there are opponents of Lords reform in every party—in the Conservative party, in the Labour party and in the Liberal Democrats in the other place—but there is a majority in this House for a mainly elected House of Lords, and I believe that there is a majority for that in the country. However, if those who support Lords reform do not get out there and back it, it will not happen—that is the crucial point. It is absolutely hopeless—in life and in politics—to do what the Leader of the Opposition is doing: saying that he is in favour of it and he is also against it. It is hopeless.
The fuel duty increase was a Labour tax rise—[Hon. Members: “U-turn!”] It cannot be a U-turn to get rid of a Labour tax increase. They put in place 12 fuel duty increases in government, they left behind six increases in fuel duty, and I am proud of the fact that we are dealing with them.
Then it was all part of a seamless political strategy. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell the Transport Secretary, who went out and defended the increase; they forgot to tell the Cabinet in the morning, although the Chancellor briefed it on the economic situation; and they forgot to tell their own Back Benchers, and sent them out to defend the old policy. Let us call it what it is: another case of panic at the pumps. Month after month, every time Labour Members have proposed putting more money in people’s pockets to get the economy moving, the Prime Minister has denounced the policy as irresponsible, yet yesterday the Chancellor said that this was about doing precisely that. Why does not the Prime Minister admit it—plan A has failed?
Does the right hon. Gentleman support stopping the fuel increase? Yes? Then why not get up and congratulate the Government on being on the side of the motorist and the people who work hard and do the right thing? That is who we are helping. Ever since we came to office, we have been defusing Labour’s tax bombshell. We defused their jobs tax and their increases in council tax, and we have defused their increases in fuel tax. Labour Members should be congratulating us on being on the side of those who work hard and do the right thing.
I am afraid it is back to the bunker after that answer. Even on this Government’s own measure of success, borrowing went up yesterday. No wonder they want to change the exam system—the Chancellor cannot get the maths right. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the reason this Government have had to borrow £3 billion more than this time last year is that tax revenues are down and the costs of economic failure are going up? It is all the result of double-dip recession made in Downing street.
I know the Prime Minister finds the shadow Chancellor irritating, but it was the shadow Chancellor who called for the fuel duty cut before he did it. The Government are not just economically incompetent; they are unfair as well. The right hon. Gentleman has made six U-turns, but not on two particular decisions in his Budget—the tax cut for millionaires, paid for by the tax rise on pensioners. He says he has been listening to the electorate. What feedback has he had on those two particular proposals?
On the shadow Chancellor, he is the man who put the fuel tax increase into the Budget in the first place. What we have been doing is getting rid of Labour’s tax increases. The Leader of the Opposition asks me about the top rate of tax. I think it is wrong to have a top rate of tax that is higher than that of France, Germany or Italy. For 13 years of a Labour Government in which he served, the top rate of tax was 40p. The top rate of tax is now going to be 45p. Again, I think a “Thank you” would be in order.
The Prime Minister claims to be part of the way in which the decision on the fuel tax was made. The Chancellor hid away yesterday, refusing to defend the decision. No wonder—[Interruption.] The Chancellor yesterday sent out the Economic Secretary to do all the interviews on the issue. It is no wonder the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) said this:
“I…didn’t see Newsnight, however, if Osborne sent Chloe on…he is a coward as well as arrogant.”
So there is no change on the tax cut for millionaires. Does not the Prime Minister realise that what people hate about this Government is the double standards when they say that tax avoidance is immoral but it is okay, when so many people are struggling to get by, to give a tax cut to millionaires, including the millionaires in the Cabinet?
The Leader of the Opposition says that the Chancellor was hiding away. The Chancellor was announcing the tax reduction from the Dispatch Box. I know that the House of Commons does not always get reported, but my right hon. Friend was here making the announcement and, I have to say, completely wrong-footing the shadow Chancellor. What we have heard today from the Leader of the Opposition is a whole series of arguments about process—process about the House of Lords, where he is wrong on the substance; process about the economy, where he is wrong on the substance; process about the deficit, when he wants to put the borrowing up. Absolutely hopeless.
This is about an economic plan that is failing, and it is about the unfairness of this Government. The Prime Minister talks about the tax affairs of Jimmy Carr, but he is giving a tax cut to millionaires of £40,000 a year across this country, including in his own Cabinet. When it comes to tax, it is obviously one rule for the comedians on the stage and another rule for the comedians in the Cabinet. The Prime Minister has spent the past week blundering into the tax affairs of Jimmy Carr, his Budget unravelling, his economic plan failing. From the country’s point of view, it is a shambles. From his point of view, it is just another week at the office.
I am not at all surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is touchy about the issue of tax avoidance, because who have they just voted to the top of the list of the national executive committee? Ken Livingstone. It is this Government who are cracking down on aggressive and illegal tax avoidance and tax evasion, and it is the Opposition who are voting for them.
The International Development Committee spent last week in Afghanistan and would pay tribute to the dedication of our armed forces and civil servants working under very difficult conditions. At the Tokyo conference next month, will the Prime Minister reassure the people of Afghanistan that although troop drawdown will end in 2014, advice, support and development assistance will continue for years beyond that, so Afghanistan can become a functioning state that delivers for its people?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. He talks about our armed services, and today is the day that we encourage people who serve to wear their uniform to work—not something that Members of this House can do, but none the less we should remember all those who serve our country, whether in the reserves or the regular forces.
On the issue of support for Afghanistan, we have already announced that we will continue with the generous level of aid and development support that we are giving to Afghanistan after 2015—we have very much been leading the charge on that—as well as helping to fund the build-up of the Afghan national security forces between now and 2015.
Q2. What is the moral difference between celebrities avoiding tax and a Cabinet of millionaires cutting tax to benefit themselves? (113859)
Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to quote the hon. Lady’s own leader, who at the launch of his local election campaign said:
“Tax avoidance is a terrible thing. It must be cracked down on.”
That, I thought, was the official position of the Labour party. It should be thanking us for getting on and doing just that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is this Government who have taken 2 million of the lowest paid people out of income tax, frozen the council tax, got rid of Labour’s job tax and repeatedly dealt with fuel duty, so it is 10p less than it would be under the plans left to us by the last Labour Government.
Q4. Can we return to the theme of practicalities and tax avoidance? One way in which the Prime Minister could put an end to aggressive tax avoidance schemes is to legislate for a general anti-avoidance principle, not a general rule. Will he make one more U-turn and back up his expression of public outrage with real action and legislate for a general anti-avoidance principle? (113861)
Q5. Unemployment in my constituency has reduced by 5.7% in the last year as a result of this Government’s work to reduce unemployment and make sure that we are focusing on the right things to deliver economic growth, unlike the Opposition who have no innovative solution to the economic issue. [Interruption.] Additional growth will come from new businesses. [Interruption.] What are the Government doing to encourage teaching enterprise in schools to nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs? (113862)
It is quite clear that the Opposition just want to shout down anyone who wants to talk up what is happening in our economy. In the last quarter we saw 200,000 new private sector jobs, which was more than four times the rate of growth that we saw in terms of the decline in the public sector. We are seeing a rebalancing of our economy, and 2011 was a record year for the creation of new small businesses in our country, and on this side of the House at least we are in favour of encouraging that.
The coalition agreement stated that the Government would introduce a House business committee by the third year of this Parliament. Will the Prime Minister therefore confirm to the House that he will introduce it within the next 12 months?
We are looking carefully at this issue. Let me just say to the right hon. Gentleman, who has served as a Minister and a Back-Bench MP, that this Government, by introducing the Back-Bench days and Back-Bench business, have already made one of the most fundamental reforms of this place. Back-Bench Members are able to determine both the time and subject of debate, something that never happened under 13 years of the Labour Government.
Gift aid is an important way of supporting charitable giving through the tax system. We know that charities can have difficulties collecting gift aid declarations, for example when collecting donations in the street. That is why we are introducing the gift aid small donations scheme, which will enable charities to claim a gift aid-style payment on donations when it has not been possible to collect a gift aid declaration. We think that will help charities in many parts of our country and, I am sure, will be welcome on both sides of the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Community hospitals across Britain benefit greatly from gift aid donations through their leagues of friends. Will he reassure all those who give so generously that the equipment and facilities they fund will be guaranteed to remain for the benefit of local health communities, and may I invite him to visit a community hospital in my constituency to see gift aid in action?
I have visited a community hospital in my hon. Friend’s constituency while having a holiday there and so have some experience of the excellent service provided in south Devon. I absolutely can say that leagues of friends do a brilliant job across the country and the money they provide for that equipment should remain local. I think that the gift aid change we have announced will be able to help hospitals and leagues of friends such as the one she refers to.
Q7. The Prime Minister has not had time to reach a judgment on the tax affairs of Gary Barlow—he is a busy man—but he has had years to consider those of massive Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft. Are they morally wrong, like Jimmy Carr? (113864)
Like all Members of both Houses of Parliament, all peers have to be full UK taxpayers. That is a change I fully support. While we are on this subject, the hon. Gentleman might want to have a little look at Labour’s chief fundraiser, a man called Andrew Rosenfeld. Between the years of 2006 and 2011 he lived in which key marginal seat? Anyone? Zurich.
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the House that there is a crucial EU summit at the end of this week? Which is more important for UK growth and jobs: the implications of the massive changes being proposed in the EU or House of Lords reform?
Clearly, in terms of growth in the UK economy, what is happening in the eurozone and in Europe is extremely important, and it is a very vital summit that is taking place this Thursday and Friday. The UK Government have a very clear view: the eurozone countries need to do more in the short term to settle the financial instability in the markets, but they also need to take medium and longer-term steps to make sense of the eurozone. That will involve them sharing greater powers, but that is something the UK should not be involved in. I think that we have a very clear view: we push forward our arguments with great vigour and we protect and defend the UK economy and political system at the same time.
Q8. Every hour of every day somebody is killed by a weapon that has been irresponsibly traded from one country to another. Next week the arms trade treaty negotiations start in New York. Will the Prime Minister make sure and guarantee that the British delegation fights for the inclusion in the treaty of not only police and security apparatus that can be used for internal repression, but ammunition, which is vital? It is bullets that kill. (113865)
On Friday night, the towns of Bacup, Crawshawbooth and Darwen were subject to unprecedented flooding when the River Irwell and the River Darwen burst their banks at the same time. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the emergency services on working through the night and, in particular, the residents of Crawshawbooth, who came out in the morning to clean up their village so that it was able to welcome the Olympic torch less than 12 hours later?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in praising the emergency services. These were really very dangerous and damaging floods, caused by a huge amount of rainfall over a very short period. The emergency services performed superbly, and I hope to go and see that for myself, but now we are in the recovery phase and the phase when people start to look at going back into their homes. There will be all sorts of questions about insurance and about how we can help, and I am sure that he will make those arguments in the House and that the Government will do all they can to help.
Q10. Seventeen-year-old Godwin Lawson, from Enfield, was tragically stabbed to death in 2010. Since then his mother, Yvonne, has become a powerful force for challenging the culture of knife crime, by sharing her experiences of her son’s death with young people in schools. She, like many groups on the front line of knife crime, can make an extraordinary contribution to challenging that culture, but some authorities are not yet getting behind them by supporting and offering funding to achieve that aim. Will the Prime Minister lend his support and encouragement to those people and to the councils to get behind them? (113867)
I will certainly give my support to Yvonne Lawson and to all those who are playing such a heroic role in trying to change the culture of knife crime and of carrying knives in our country. It is worth remembering that this year, for instance, Ben Kinsella would have been 21, and I pay tribute to Brooke Kinsella and to all such family members. It would in many ways be easier for them to try to turn away from the tragedy that robbed them of their children, their brothers and their sisters, but instead they campaign and show immense bravery, raising the profile of the issue. The Government must play their part by making sure that there are tough mandatory sentences, and we are and have done that, but a larger culture change needs to take place, and the bravery of those who have lost loved ones—going into schools and talking about the dangers of carrying knives—can play a huge role in that.
The Prime Minister will be aware of the horrific explosion that occurred in Shaw in my constituency yesterday. I am sure the whole House will want to pay tribute to, and mourn the death of, two-year-old Jamie Heaton and to send its best wishes to burns victim, Andy Partington. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of the emergency services that attended the event yesterday, work that I witnessed first hand, as well as to Oldham council’s civil contingency service and to the Red Cross? Does he agree that we must never take for granted the courage and bravery of those servicemen and women?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to speak as she does, and I am sure the whole House will want to send a message of sympathy and condolences to the family of that poor two-year-old, who lost his life, and also our best wishes to the burns victim who is in hospital being treated at the moment. The scenes of what had happened as a result of that explosion were really quite appalling to see on our televisions, and I certainly join her in paying tribute to the emergency services. I also wish all speed to the police in getting to the bottom of anything that might have happened or gone on. Everyone will require answers to what has been an absolute tragedy.
Q11. The Calder Valley flood victims Facebook page and the Community Foundation for Calderdale JustGiving page show great community spirit, and the fact that the arts festival, Mytholmroyd gala and handmade parade are all going ahead this week shows the community’s resilience and, also, that the Calder Valley is open for business. Can my right hon. Friend update our flooded communities on how negotiations are going with the insurance industry, so that they can get insurance in the future and at a reasonable price? (113868)
I quite understand why my hon. Friend wants to raise that issue. I believe that more than 550 properties in his constituency alone were affected by these really damaging and dangerous floods. On flood insurance, we are going to work very hard with the industry to continue to deliver widely available and affordable household insurance in flood-risk areas. I absolutely join him in praising the resilience of his community, having suffered as my constituency suffered in 2007. Although the recovery from floods is extremely difficult, the resilience of our communities and the amount of public and community service that comes out of them is remarkable and deserves our praise.
Twenty years ago this week, the giant Ravenscraig steelworks in my constituency was forced to close. Thousands of steelmaking jobs were lost, and sadly many of my former steelworking colleagues never found work again. Twenty years on, will the Prime Minister apologise for his party’s shameful role in the demise of the Scottish steel industry?
I am sorry for every job that has been lost in manufacturing industry over a very long period of time. I would say, though, that while manufacturing as a share of the economy almost halved under the previous Government, that share is now increasing. It is worth recognising that under this Government the steel industry has started up again on Teesside, and that is something that the whole House should applaud.
Q12. Hereford is the home of the SAS, and 19 July will be the 40th anniversary of the battle of Mirbat, in which nine SAS soldiers fought off more than 300 heavily armed guerrillas. During the battle, Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba was shot while single-handedly operating a 25 lb field gun—a weapon designed for a six-man team. Successive Governments have declined to recognise the extraordinary nature of his sacrifice. The SAS has many heroes, but will the Prime Minister finally put this matter to rest and give his support to the campaign to award Sergeant Labalaba the posthumous Victoria Cross that he so clearly earned? (113869)
My hon. Friend is right to speak up for the SAS, which, as he says, is based in his constituency, and the extraordinary fight that those soldiers had in Oman all those years ago. We are not allowed to speak a lot on the record about what they do, but it is worth putting on the record the immense gratitude of all Governments and, I think, the entire British people for the risks they take on our behalf. Thinking of the recent hostage rescue, I would like to do that personally. Regarding my hon. Friend’s question, these sorts of decisions are not for politicians to make, but let me once again pay tribute to the heroic actions of that man and everyone involved on that day.
What my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary explained in great detail in yesterday’s debate is that we want to have in our country an absolute gold standard of exams that are about rigour and high standards. The tragedy is that we inherited from the previous Government a system that was being progressively dumbed down, where Britain was falling down the league tables and GCSE questions included things such as, “How do you see the moon—is it through a telescope or a microscope?” Government Members think we need a rigorous system, and that is what we are going to put in place.
Q14. The exciting Goonhilly space science and technology park in my constituency richly deserves the conditional regional growth fund approval that will secure vital jobs and inward international investment into the UK, and will harmonise with the Government’s welcome and crucial commitment to space sector growth. Will the Prime Minister please use his influence to ensure that there is no—I am sorry to say—further avoidable delay in the implementation of the RGF grant and the launch of this vitally important enterprise? (113871)
I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. Almost 60% of regional growth fund projects are now under way, and the money has been distributed in very many cases, but I will look specifically at this project, which does sound interesting and worth while. As I understand it, it involves radio astronomy and satellite management. It will bring to Cornwall high-tech jobs that it wants and needs, so I will do my best to make sure it happens.
A third of south-east London health care trusts’ deficit is due to the private finance initiative. Is not the Secretary of State for Health wrong to suggest that the entire deficit is due to the PFI? Should he not be working with local health managers to deal with the situation rather than imposing an outside administrator to cut local health services?
First, it is this Government who are putting more money into the NHS this year, next year, and the year after. Some of these NHS trusts, such as the one the hon. Gentleman mentions, do have enormous deficits, and a large part of that is down to the completely failed PFI systems that the previous Government put in place. In hospitals up and down the country, it costs £120 to reset an alarm, £466 to replace a light fitting—[Interruption.] Labour Members are shouting from a sedentary position that these were Conservative PFIs. They were not—every single one of them was put in place under a Labour Government. Yet again, time for an apology.
I certainly support flatter, fairer taxes. That is why we have taken 2 million people out of income tax and why we have a lower top rate of tax to make us competitive with the rest of the world. It is important to put it clearly on the record that tax evasion is illegal and wrong, and should be chased down, and that, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said, some of the tax avoidance schemes that have been put in place in recent years are very questionable. The Government should be absolutely clear that the Revenue’s task is to close those schemes down and to ensure that people pay their taxes properly.
In December last year, this House passed a motion calling for a Bill to make urgent reforms to our deeply unfair extradition treaties. Nearly seven months later, there has been no Bill and no action. What makes the Prime Minister more uncomfortable: ignoring the will of the House for months on end or the plight of those facing imminent extradition?
We held the Scott Baker review, which looked carefully at the extradition arrangements. The hon. Lady should of course look at some of the cases that have caused concern, but I urge her to look also at the overall figures, which show that we are benefiting by being able to extradite people who have committed serious crimes from the US back to the UK. We continue to look at this issue. We will ensure that we do the right thing for our country, but people should not think that it is a very simple issue, because it is not.
I am sure that, like myself, my hon. Friend—and probably Mrs Bone as well—got the “Dear colleague” letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State with his excellent new logo. It shows that the aid that we send is provided not on behalf of the British Government, but on behalf of all British people, who I think support the fact that Britain stands for something in the world: we stand for helping the poorest in our world, even as we have a difficult time in our own country.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. CCS Media in my constituency is a major supplier to South London Healthcare NHS Trust. It contacted me yesterday to try to get assurances that its bills will still be paid in the light of the recent unpleasant news. I have had a letter back from the Department of Health that offers no such assurance and states that the Department is discussing the point with lawyers. It is fundamental that the companies that supply the NHS trust know that they will be paid for the services they provide. Has Mr Speaker been notified of any intention to make a statement so that companies can be reassured that they will be paid for the services they provide to the NHS?
No notice of such a statement has been given to the Chair. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, the other part of his question was not a point of order for the Chair. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what he had to say.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I know that the Prime Minister would not want to mislead the House. Will you tell me how I might put on record the fact that the private finance initiative for Queen Elizabeth hospital in south-east London was advertised in the Official Journal of the European Community on 1 March 1995 under the previous Conservative Government?
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I notice that in the presentation of Bills, the first Bill relates to their lordships’ House. I note that in some of the earlier editions of “Erskine May”, it is deemed proper that Bills relating to another place should be presented there first as a matter of courtesy. I wonder whether you would guide us as to why that courtesy is not being observed, when it was abandoned, and whether Her Majesty’s Government might wish to have better manners in future.
Courtesy has been expressed, as we all know, but as we said earlier, “Erskine May” has moved on, and it is time for the House to move on.
House of Lords Reform Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
The Deputy Prime Minister, supported by The Prime Minister, Mr Secretary Hague, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Secretary Kenneth Clarke, Secretary Michael Moore, Danny Alexander, Sir George Young and Mr Mark Harper, presented a Bill to make provision about the membership of the House of Lords; to make provision about the disclaimer of life peerages; to abolish the jurisdiction of the House of Lords in relation to peerage claims; to make other provision relating to peerage; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 52) with explanatory notes (Bill 52-EN).
Recall of Elected Representatives Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Zac Goldsmith presented a Bill to permit voters to recall their elected representatives in specified circumstances; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 November 2012, and to be printed (Bill 50).
European Union Act 2011 (amendment) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr William Cash, supported by Mr John Redwood, Mr Bernard Jenkin, Mr John Whittingdale, Mr Greg Knight, Mr Graham Stuart, Mr John Baron, Mr Richard Shepherd, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mr Peter Bone, Chris Heaton-Harris and Zac Goldsmith, presented a Bill to apply the terms of the European Union Act 2011 such as to require approval by Act of Parliament and by referendum of provisions for creating a fiscal union or economic governance within the Eurozone.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 July, and to be printed (Bill 53).
Electoral Registration and Administration Bill
[Relevant documents: the Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2010-12, on Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration, Health Committee 1463, and the Government’s response, Cm 8245.]
[3rd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
Clauses 10 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendments to do with part 1
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 35, page 21, line 23, leave out—
‘, so far as is reasonably practicable,’.
The amendment makes registration officers subject to the test of taking ‘all steps that are necessary’ under section 9A of the 1983 Act, in respect of their new duty: ‘securing that persons who are entitled to be registered in a register (and no others) are registered in it’.
Amendment 37, page 21, line 26, at end insert—
‘(4) In subsection (2), after paragraph (e), insert—
“(f) reporting to the police any suspicion he might have that an offence had been committed relevant to the integrity of registration and absent vote applications.”.’.
Amendment 40, page 21, line 26, at end insert—
‘(4) At the end of subsection (3) insert—
(4) If the Electoral Commission judges that registration officers have not taken all necessary steps as outlined in this section, the Electoral Commission shall have the power to intervene.”.’.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hoyle.
The Opposition have tabled the amendments because we are concerned about the schedule. Like the Electoral Commission, we are concerned about the watering down of the responsibilities of electoral registration officers. We think it is important that the Bill clearly defines the role of EROs in individual electoral registration and afterwards.
Amendment 37 seeks to redress what the Opposition see as a deficiency in the law—there is a lack of powers vested in EROs to detect and investigate electoral fraud, so allegations of offences under electoral law should be made to the police. That leaves a large gap in the powers of EROs. The amendment would, for the first time, place a duty on EROs to report to the police any suspicions that an offence might have been committed.
That is important. The Government have said time and again—incorrectly—that the Opposition are concerned about completeness and nothing else. We are concerned about completeness, but we are also concerned about the accuracy of electoral registers. The surest way to detect and act upon alleged fraud is for the individuals responsible for the administration of the process of registration to have a power vested in them—a duty upon them—to say that they are concerned about something. If they, as the experts, are concerned, they would have a duty to pass that information directly to the police, who would then act. We think, then, that the amendment addresses a gap in the current legislation and the Bill.
I support the amendment. Locally, EROs might be faced with competing local interests and not wish to offend a particular group, which is why this is extremely important. If there is a duty on them, they will have to act when allegations are made or serious offences committed. If they do not have a duty, they will tend to want to retain the status quo in order not to upset anybody.
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. In a sense, the amendment would remove the discretion that EROs might feel they have and which often places them in an invidious position. As I have said, it is important not to exaggerate the occurrence of fraud, but if EROs have genuine concerns, they should have a duty to pass that information on to the police.
I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said. This matter is incredibly important at a time of resource restraint in local authorities. When resources are tight, there is always a tendency to defer decisions, but if EROs were required to act under the legislation, they would be unable to cite resource difficulties as an excuse for not taking action.
Yes, that is another good point. We all recognise that cash is short for local authorities. Indeed, we have highlighted during the passage of the Bill our particular concern that local authorities might not place the necessary emphasis on the registration process because of competing financial demands from other departments, which further reinforces my point that it is reasonable to place this statutory responsibility on EROs. Were they, in the course of their work, to come across a matter of genuine concern, they would not have to make a subjective decision about whether the matter was worth pursuing, but instead, if it was a serious concern, would have to pass it directly to the police, who would then investigate and consider the appropriate action to take.
Amendment 39 seeks to address the Electoral Commission’s concern that schedule 4 waters down the provisions in the Representation of the People Act 1983 requiring EROs to take all necessary steps in carrying out their duties. We are particularly concerned about door-to-door canvassing. As our debate the other day highlighted, this is an important area. We can talk about the introduction of new technology, which is to be welcomed, and about the importance of providing accurate literature and regular mailings, but, at the end of the day, the door-to-door canvass is vital and an essential part of the armoury of individual EROs in moving towards as complete a register as possible.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) will speak to his amendment 35, but I would say in passing that we have a lot of sympathy with the point behind it and, I am sure, the other points he will make in a moment.
Amendment 40 relates to amendment 39 and aims to give effect to our request to give the Electoral Commission the power to intervene where EROs are not performing to a sufficiently high standard. This is an important amendment because it is vital that best practice be promoted, enhanced, defended and maintained whenever possible.
We all know that with a new system like this one, there will be tremendous pressures on EROs. That is why we said in Monday’s debate that the issue of funding was so important—not just for providing new equipment and facilities, but for training as well, so that EROs have the skills and competence necessary to achieve the best standards. We also think it important to ensure that the Electoral Commission has a specific role to make sure that those standards are maintained.
I again endorse again what my hon. Friend says, as we all have experience of turning up to counts and meeting electoral registration officers and others involved in the process, some of whom, to be perfectly frank, do not have the training and experience to deal with these situations. Amendment 40 would not only enable the sharing of good practice but ensure that if people are perhaps not doing their jobs as effectively as they could, the commission at least had the power to try to put things right.
Yes, my colleague makes a very astute point borne out of his own experience. All of us who have been involved in democratic politics for a number of years can testify to that. The standard of EROs’ work varies enormously, so we need to ensure that everything possible is done to secure higher standards to reinforce the democratic process. Giving the Electoral Commission a key role and a key power in this respect will be important both for building up confidence and for ensuring that the system is as effective as possible.
Is it not the case that the Electoral Commission already has the right to evaluate how well electoral registration officers are carrying out their duties, but that it is not allowed as of today to intervene where poor practice is standard? The amendment would deal with that problem and give the Electoral Commission the opportunity to put right what it can see is going very wrong.
That is indeed correct. We have expressed on a number of occasions in Committee our worry that the Government do not recognise the important role that the Electoral Commission must have in a number of important respects. There is a weakness in the legislation as drafted, particularly regarding the role of EROs. This amendment is designed to plug that gap and make sure that the absolutely central role that the Electoral Commission has to play is built directly into the Bill, particularly in respect of the standards we believe it necessary for EROs to achieve in the furtherance of their duties.
I shall address my brief remarks to my amendment 35. It is a probing amendment, whose purpose is to raise and discuss concerns that have already been expressed about the duties of electoral registration officers. A constant theme running through all our Committee discussions so far has been the capacity of EROs to deliver their duties responsibly and effectively to ensure both the accuracy and completeness of the electoral list.
On Monday, we discussed the different approaches taken by local authorities and the need for some measure of standardisation—in the invitations sent out to encourage people to register, for instance. Local authorities have acted in different ways, but it is important to maintain the obligation on all EROs across the country to get everyone entitled to register to do so. I think all parties are agreed on that objective, but there has been some concern that the Bill as it stands will not achieve it. The Electoral Commission, among others, is concerned that schedule 4 will “dilute”—its word—the current responsibilities and requirements of EROs. That is particularly worrying given the findings of the Electoral Commission’s “Report on performance of Electoral Registration Officers” in Great Britain, published in June 2012. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), it expressed particular concern about the issue of house-to-house inquiries, stating:
“ Currently, section 9A(1) requires an ERO to take ‘all steps that are necessary for the purpose of complying with his duty to maintain the register under section 9’.
Section 9A contains a list of non-exhaustive steps which include, on occasions, making more than one visit through house-to-house inquiries.
The Electoral Commission feels that the duty in its current form works well and is an important tool in ensuring that EROs do all the work that is necessary to guarantee accuracy and completeness, including the conducting of house-to-house inquiries when, critically, other methods—we have heard a great deal about, for instance, data-matching pilots and aspirations for online voting—have not yielded the appropriate information. The commission remains baffled by why the Government would want to change the present arrangement.
After the Committee has heard my reply.
As my hon. Friend says, we must hear what he has to say on the subject first. His intervention is timely, as I am now moved to speculate on what he may say.
Schedule 4(6) adds to section 9A the words
“and for the purpose of securing that, so far as is reasonably practicable, persons who are entitled to be registered in a register (and no others) are registered in it”.
I know that the Government are content with that, feeling that it strengthens the responsibilities that EROs already have, but what risk, I ask my hon. Friend, does the change pose to the accuracy and completeness of the register? I feel that my amendment 35, which deletes the phrase
“so far as is reasonably practical”,
buttresses the obligation of EROs to secure persons who are entitled to be included in the register.
Let me reiterate to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly—for he is my friend—that mine is a probing amendment, and that, as I said at the outset, I am seeking to clarify these matters for the benefit of those of us who have discussed their concerns with the Electoral Commission. Certainly there is no good reason to reduce the duty imposed on EROs, and, if anything—given the tone of our debate and the cross-party aspiration that has been expressed—we should be enhancing and strengthening it. I should be grateful if the Minister explained the reasoning behind the changes in the Bill, and how they would affect EROs’ current obligations.
It seems to me that the Bill in its current form has the potential to weaken the principle of maximising registration, which would undermine what the Government are attempting to do. I do not believe for a moment that that is their intention, but I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
We have heard from other Members about the expectations that we have of EROs, and the performance standards that are used to assess their role. Let me refer again to the Electoral Commission’s report. Performance standard 3 refers to
“house-to-house enquiries to ensure that all eligible residents are registered.”
Although the Electoral Commission observed that progress had been made—
“the number of EROs who reported meeting or exceeding this standard increased between 2008 and 2010”—
eight EROs did not meet the standard. The commission stated that it had been able to contact them and remind them of their responsibility to “take all necessary steps”. It also stated that in 2011, for a range of reasons, it had heard anecdotal evidence suggesting that a greater number of EROs might not have met the standard in that year, and might not have taken “all necessary steps”. That prompted it to do some research. It contacted EROs and asked them whether they had carried out a personal canvass of all non-responders, and 58 replied citing budgetary restraints and rurality.
There is clearly continuing concern about house-to-house inquiries. The Electoral Commission is worried enough about the present set-up and the present wording of the legislation, but it fears that the position could worsen as a result of the new wording.
It is obvious from the attendance in the Chamber that the issues we are discussing are hardly setting the heather alight, but they are nevertheless important in the context of the relationship between central and local government. I think that Members in all parts of the Committee agree that there has been substantial consultation on the Bill, and that many key stakeholders—not least the Electoral Commission—have had an opportunity to draw on real-life experience for their prognostications and recommendations. However, I think that the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) risk changing a permissive, directional approach from the centre to the Electoral Commission vis-à-vis electoral returning officers to a much more oppressive approach, which would not take into consideration the differences that exist throughout the country in districts, boroughs and cities.
I think that had the Government not taken account of the experience of May 2010—for instance, the performance of EROs at polling stations and the administrative arrangements that caused difficulties in areas such as Sheffield and Hackney—it would have been fair to comment on their performance with regard to registration. However, the Bill does take account of that experience, not least in clause 17, which refers to the
“Inadequate performance of returning officer”.
One of the problems of being too prescriptive and draconian, and including in legislation what is effectively a direction to EROs, is that it fetters their discretion and allows central Government, through the Cabinet Office, to instruct them to do things that may not be appropriate in their areas. The data-matching projects are a good example. In my constituency, there were high levels of registration during our pilot project for the Electoral Commission because there was a very thorough door-to-door canvass. However, it should be borne in mind that the actual matching to the DWP and other databases was only 54% in Peterborough, and that it may be significantly higher in other parts of the country.
I think that it would be wrong to instruct electoral registration officers, who are typically chief executives or borough, city or district solicitors, that the fall-back position should be that they are not doing their job properly and not adhering to the existing legislation. The Bill in its present form recognises that it is imperative to maximise the number of people on the electoral register—and we all welcome that because we believe that it is important to democracy and future civic engagement—while also giving discretion to individuals at local level.
I have been listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Is it not important for the Electoral Commission, which will carry out these functions, to be both an independent body and a great repository of expertise in these areas? If that were the case, it would take into account local circumstances, and it would not act in a draconian manner.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. I do not wish to cast aspersions on the Electoral Commission commissioners, but we are in danger of overlooking two key facts. One is that EROs are ultimately responsible to those who are locally elected to direct their work and to have oversight of their effectiveness in their role—the leader of the council, perhaps, or the cabinet or the appropriate committees. That explains the importance of clause 17. Secondly, as ever in politics and governance, if we do not attach a price tag, it is likely that we will not get the desired end.
The measures in these amendments would be resource-intensive and would impact directly on the other local authority budgets. Ultimately, it is for the local authorities, and EROs guided by elected members, to make the value judgments that they see fit in regard to registration. They will clearly want to perform as well as neighbouring boroughs, districts and cities, and their performance will be compared on a nationwide basis by the Electoral Commission. My objection to this aspect of these amendments is that it would be unnecessarily draconian for the legislation to direct in a catch-all way. The current system is right in this respect.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that where the Electoral Commission feels an ERO has done the job effectively but is resource-constrained, it would be appropriate for the Electoral Commission and the ERO to refer that to the political leadership of their borough for proper discussion?
I agree, but there are existing checks and balances if the system does not work. I referred earlier to the situation in Sheffield, and in particular Sheffield, Hallam, the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency. That was not just swept under the carpet. That was a very serious issue of people feeling they had not had the opportunity to take part in a vote and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, it resulted in a full, open, transparent inquiry by the Electoral Commission, and lessons have been learned. There is room for discretion within a permissive approach, but the amendments do not propose that.
I am always slightly wary of dismissing legislation that says, as schedule 4 does,
“so far as is reasonably practicable”.
That is the language of consensus, reality and pragmatism—the language of a practical approach. To disregard that and be overly-prescriptive would be a mistake. For that reason, if this amendment is pressed to a Division, I shall vote with the Government. I hope the Minister makes it clear that this amendment is unnecessary and the Bill’s current wording is appropriate.
It is a pleasure to return to this Bill under your chairmanship, Mr Hoyle.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for their amendments and the manner in which they discussed them. However, the hon. Gentleman’s revealing that he intends to vote for his amendment irrespective of my response does not give me a great incentive to try to persuade him—but my hon. Friend has a more open mind, and I know will listen carefully to what I have to say.
And on the basis of the way we have conducted our business in this Committee so far, I have also made an assumption about the hon. Gentleman. Let us leave it at that.
On amendments 39 and 35, it will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion to learn that I shall repeat what the Minister with responsibility for constitutional reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said in an earlier debate on this measure: far from diluting the requirements on registration officers, under the new registration system we are strengthening the existing duties.
This Bill amends the Representation of the People Act 1983, and I accept that it can be a little difficult to follow how one qualifies, and relates to, the other. I shall try to explain that, therefore. The Bill sets out new requirements on registration officers, amending the previous legislation. My audience’s eyes will glaze over if I mention too many related sections, but one of the duties under section 9A of the 1983 Act is that the register must contain those who appear to the registration officer to be entitled to be registered. That presents a problem under the new system, because we do not want registration officers to confine their efforts simply to those who appear to be entitled to be registered; we want them to go out and seek out people, because we want the register to be complete. The duties are now expanded, therefore, so the registration officer has to go out and find people who are not on the register, and of whom he is not aware, and then include them on it. Therefore, a different process is engaged. At present, the provision in question also ignores the fact that there must be an application for registration before a person is added to the register. It is a key point that, at the application stage, the electors will be verified.
Those two important parts of the new system must be included in the new legislation, which is why the Bill amends section 9 to ensure that the description of the register in respect of individual registration is accurate. The register is to contain only those people who are “entitled” and have been through the application system. It also amends section 9A to make it clear that registration officers must do more than just take the specific steps laid out in the legislation in a tick-box manner and include in the register those people who made an application. Those requirements will remain, and must be fulfilled, without exception, but the Bill adds an express general duty to take all other
“necessary steps…so far as is reasonably practicable”
to compile as complete and accurate a register as possible.
The qualification of “reasonably practicable” applies to the standard of completeness and accuracy of the register that must be reached. It must be as complete and accurate as is “reasonably practicable”, which is a very high level, but there is an acceptance of the fact that no register will be absolutely perfect. It would not be right to set out in legislation a requirement for registration officers to achieve an unreasonable or impracticable level of completeness. However, the steps the ERO must take are not qualified. EROs must take all the necessary steps to achieve a register. That is not qualified as being steps that are “reasonably practicable”; they must take all the necessary steps to provide a register that is as complete and as accurate “as is reasonably practicable”.
No, it would not. The steps that an ERO needs to take will be set out both in the guidance from the Electoral Commission and in the secondary legislation. Those steps will be a duty upon them; it will not be about doing this if they get round to it or if they feel it would be a good idea. There will be a basic level of steps that they must take. All we are doing with this “reasonably practicable” qualification is saying that, despite their best endeavours, EROs are not going to achieve a perfect register, because no one in any constituency in any country in the known world has ever produced a register that is absolutely accurate and perfect. However, EROs must do everything they can to make it is as near to that as possible by taking all reasonable steps.
The Minister is making a strong case. Is not the corollary of these amendments that, if we disregard the practicability of the efforts by the EROs to put this register together, compiling a register would be exactly the same, and would be seen as such, in Colchester, a constituency made up of one town in a compact urban area, as it would be in Orkney and Shetland, a constituency of many islands? It simply is not practical to regard the constituencies as being the same for the purposes of compiling a register.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He sets out why we must avoid being too prescriptive: we want EROs to do a variety of different things in different places to achieve their objective.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) asked whether there is a minimum that is required. I can tell him that there is. Our draft regulations will set out what the EROs must do to encourage applications to register to vote. That will include, as a minimum, the sending of an invitation, of two reminders and of a canvasser to encourage an application. There is no question of our watering down the duty of EROs; we are simply recognising that even at the end of all that, because of the change in the way in which this section is constructed by the amendment of the original Act, EROs will not have a perfect register. However, they must have as near to a perfect system as possible for getting to the perfect register.
With all due respect, what the Minister is saying is about as clear as mud. As I understand it, the Government are trying to say that this is merely a technical amendment. We are saying that the whole issue of a door-to-door canvass is extremely important, and if it ain’t broke, why fix it? We should keep it as it is.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman cannot understand the point I am making, because I thought I had set it out clearly. I am not sure that I can find an alternative construction that might make it easier for the hard of understanding. What he asserts to be a dilution is not a dilution because it applies to a different process. The use of
“so far as is reasonably practicable”
is a qualification of the completeness of the register, not of the system the EROs use to get there, where they must take all the steps required, and others, in order to achieve an accurate and complete register. I think that that is sufficiently clear and that members of the Committee will feel it is sufficiently clear. However, as he stated that he was not going to be satisfied by my explanation even before I gave it, I am not entirely surprised that he finds that difficulty now.
The Minister says that the things that the ERO will need to do will be set out in the regulations. Will those matters also be subject to the test to which the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) referred—the financial wherewithal necessary to carry this out—or can that be judged under the criteria the Minister has just suggested?
I am in danger of straying into a different part of the legislation here, because that requirement is already in place. One of the things that concern many of us is the difference in performance of some authorities in carrying out what is clearly their duty. The returning officer and the ERO have a statutory duty to carry out their duties effectively. If they are not given the resources by the local authority concerned, they must insist that they have those resources. There is also a back-up provision for the Electoral Commission to take a view on that and report the matter to the Government where there is a deficiency—so the apparatus is in place. Given the new responsibilities that EROs have and the transition funding that they will receive as part of the process of implementing this Bill, I hope that they will be a little more forthright in saying when they are being starved of funds. I must say that there is no direct correlation between the EROs who have more than adequate resources to do their job properly and those who do not, and the relative financial solvency or otherwise of the local authority; it is often a matter of political will as to whether this is seen as a priority.
I think that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that point.
May I just deal with the other two issues raised in the amendments? Amendment 37 deals with the reporting of suspicions that an individual had committed offences relating to electoral fraud when submitting either a registration or absent vote application. Again, nobody would quarrel with the purpose of that. Perhaps I should say the “purported purpose”, as we never know exactly what the purpose of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Caerphilly is because he does not provide an explanatory statement, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion. I accept that the purported purpose is a good one.
Let us be absolutely clear that there is a need for EROs to refer to the police any suspicions they have on registration and postal vote applications that they receive, and that is set out clearly in the guidance issued to them by the Electoral Commission. The hon. Member for Caerphilly will have looked at that, and he will know that paragraph 3.37 of the Electoral Commission’s “Managing electoral registration in Great Britain” guidance clearly states:
“Any issues concerning the integrity of the registration process should be reported”—
by the ERO—
“to the police immediately.”
In addition, the Electoral Commission has worked with the Association of Chief Police Officers to produce guidance for EROs, returning officers and police officers on identifying and responding to allegations of electoral fraud associated with the registration and postal voting process. In exercising powers under section 9A of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Electoral Commission has also set out a specific performance standard on integrity—performance standard 4— which EROs need to meet on maintaining the integrity of registration and postal vote applications. In order to meet that performance standard, EROs are required to establish and maintain contact with their local police—a single point of contact—and ensure that any suspicions arising from registration and postal vote applications are reported to them immediately. EROs are already assessed on their compliance with that standard by the Electoral Commission, so putting in place this statutory requirement would be otiose in those circumstances. If the question is whether they are doing that, the Electoral Commission’s report is encouraging. EROs appear to be making significant progress in the completion of the integrity performance standard.
The figures in the report on the performance of electoral registration officers in 2011 show that 260 EROs, or 68%, met the standard, whereas 116, or 31%, performed above it. Those who are mathematically gifted will work out that 68 plus 31 is 99, which leaves only 1% of EROs—only four—who did not meet the standard. Why not? They did not provide sufficient documentation to the Electoral Commission about the work they had done—they had done it—to take matters forward with the police. The Electoral Commission has give a strong bill of health to the steps taken by EROs of their own volition and with the support of local authorities, as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) said, to do the job with which they are entrusted and to report their suspicions.
I concur warmly with the Minister. My experience of living through Operation Hooper, which was the postal vote fraud investigation in Cambridgeshire arising from the June 2004 local and European elections, puts that sharply into perspective. It is important that there should be no perverse incentive that means that electoral registration officers do not take action because of the resource implications. Hooper cost the Cambridgeshire constabulary a huge amount of money, which has never been recouped by the constabulary or by the city of Peterborough, and the Minister should be mindful of that.
I absolutely agree. There should be no constraint on dealing effectively with attempted or actual fraud in the electoral process. EROs should be confident not only that they have the capacity to act but that the police will engage with them. That is why the work between the Electoral Commission and ACPO is so important.
I hear what the Minister says about the reports produced by the Electoral Commission, but that is all in the past. We are talking about a transitional system and an entirely new system. Our contention is that EROs should have greater responsibilities to ensure that they take that aspect of their work very seriously and that there is a need for a stipulation to that effect on the face of the Bill.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the Electoral Commission’s most recent report from 2011, which is really not that long ago, expresses the strong view that EROs understand their responsibilities in this area perfectly well. It is by no means clear that a statutory provision would make one jot of difference. From a jurisprudential point of view, I do not think it is very easy to establish that someone has failed to report a suspicion. If they have documented it, they are likely to report it, and if they have not I would like to see the process by which one could establish that a suspicion had formed in their mind.
There are difficulties with the proposal from the hon. Member for Caerphilly, but I do not think we are talking about a major difference of opinion. We simply think that the Electoral Commission has taken and will continue to take the necessary steps, that EROs are responding positively to that and that we have a much more satisfactory arrangement now than we would have had a few years ago. That is partly thanks to the work of the previous Government in introducing the provisions that gave the Electoral Commission the standard-setting duties it now has.
Finally, let me deal with the proposal to give the Electoral Commission powers of intervention. The amendment is not clear. I do not want to criticise the hon. Gentleman, but it is a curious provision in an Act of Parliament to give a power of intervention without stating what that power is. The proposal raises a serious point about the role of the Electoral Commission. We think that the fulfilment of the requirements set out in section 9A of the 1983 Act plays a vital role in improving the completeness and accuracy of our electoral registers. We are committed to achieving that, but giving the Electoral Commission powers to intervene when that is not being done would be a significant change to how it operates. It already has powers to set and monitor performance standards for electoral services, which is what we have just been discussing, and it does it very well, measuring the performance of EROs against those criteria. A failure to meet those standards might suggest a potential failure to meet the duty set out in section 9A of the 1983 Act, which is absolutely right.
Under the 2010 Act, the Electoral Commission was given a central role because of the critical importance of the introduction of individual electoral registration. Amendments have already been made to downgrade the role of the Electoral Commission. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that we need an independent body with expert witnesses in its membership to ensure a smooth transition to individual electoral registration?
I absolutely agree. The Electoral Commission plays a hugely significant role and will continue to do so, setting out and monitoring the performance standards. It is also helping through its new responsibilities to ensure that EROs do their job. When there are concerns about the EROs’ performance as regards this duty or any other, the Electoral Commission has a power to intervene by making a recommendation to the Secretary of State or the Lord President of the Council, who has a power of direction to require registration officers to comply with the directions on discharging their functions. It goes further, because in addition it is an offence for a registration officer to breach their official duty without good cause. If prosecuted and found guilty, a registration officer can be fined up to £5,000. I believe that that system has so far worked well as regards any registration officer who was found to be in dereliction of his duties. I cannot see any need to change that or for any specific provision to be made about the discharging of those duties under section 9A.
We want the Electoral Commission to play a key role in monitoring how registration officers implement their policies, including their fulfilment of section 9A duties. The Secretary of State or the Lord President of the Council would as a last resort retain the ability to issue formal directions to a registration officer if they were in breach of their legal responsibilities. I hope that those detailed explanations of the Government’s position mean that the hon. Member for Caerphilly and others will feel able to withdraw their amendments.
Schedule 4 agreed to.
Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Timing of parish and community council elections in England and Wales
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
In principle, the provisions in clause 14 on the timing of parish and community council elections are sensible, but, as the Minister knows, local government is devolved to Wales. What consultation on this point was carried out with the Welsh Government prior to the publication of the Bill?
I would not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman by suggesting that I have personally made such contact, because I have not. That would have been a matter for the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is the Minister with responsibility for constitutional reform. However, throughout our work on the Bill, we have ensured that we have shared our intentions with all the devolved Administrations that will be subject to it. I will confirm to the hon. Gentleman what consultation was carried out with the Welsh authorities, but I am confident that that will have taken place, because it has happened with other aspects of the Bill. When possible, we have accommodated any points that the devolved Administrations have made.
The clause deals with the timing of local elections, but local authority elections are a matter for the National Assembly. Clearly, community council elections should also be a matter for the National Assembly, rather than being reserved to Westminster. Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), will the Minister hold discussions with the Welsh Government on taking that idea forward? There is a Green Paper on future electoral arrangements for Wales, and perhaps the subsequent White Paper and legislation would be a vehicle to move that forward.
I undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the attention of the Wales Office and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office. If progress can be made in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, that can certainly be considered.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 14 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Alteration of electoral registers: pending elections
I beg to move amendment 38, page 9, line 12, at end insert—
‘(1A) In section 13(4), at end add “provided that the registration officer shall not make any such changes if an election specified in section 13B(4) is scheduled to take place within 30 days of publication of the revised version of the register.”.’.
The amendment is small, but important. Clause 15 will amend the Representation of the People Act 1983 to provide for two interim publication dates when an election is pending on which notices of alteration of the electoral register must be published. The intention behind amendment 38 is to counter electoral fraud.
Unfortunately, if someone was so inclined, they would find it relatively straightforward to add a small number of electors to the register fraudulently over several months. The odds of such fraud being detected reduce in proportion to any reduction in the time available between the publication of the electoral register and an election. I am told that this was part of the problem in the 2007 Slough postal votes fraud. The chances of detection are also reduced if the electors added mid-year are new to the register, because the situation will not be apparent from the register itself.
The police commissioner elections will take place in November, just a matter of days after the publication of a wholly new register. We are keen to ensure that that does not become a pattern, because it is not especially good practice. I say that not just on behalf of the Labour party, but for the benefit of all political parties, because we all have the role of engaging with the democratic process and making a case to secure votes in elections. Such a situation does not give time for parties’ local activists to detect suspicious new registrations through the numbering system employed by electoral registration officers.
While this might be a small issue in the scheme of things, we are making an important practical point from the perspective of not only the organisation of political parties, but the detection of fraud. We are especially concerned to avoid a repeat of what happened in Slough in 2007.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this sensible point. We all agree that, when possible, registers should be in place for a significant time prior to the elections to which they relate. I do not want to revisit the police commissioner elections, because I think that he will accept that they are an exceptional case.
The hon. Gentleman has set out an option for what could be done, but his proposal would create practical difficulties. Indeed, the problems are of such a scale that they might involve additional expense. While that would not be the end of the world if the proposal meant that fraud would be detected more effectively, the amendment would also create the possibility of confusion.
I understand that the amendment would provide that electors remaining on the register following a canvass would retain their existing electoral number if an election took place within 30 days of the register’s publication. However, I am not clear about what would happen if electors were removed from the register following the annual canvass. If the intention is that the numbers for those electors would not be used on the new register, there would be gaps in the number sequence for electors, unless those gaps were filled with new electors, which would create a strange and rather jumbled numbering process. It might mean a different numbering system for new electors. Far from getting rid of the difficulties which the hon. Gentleman correctly identifies as a risk, it might introduce new risks into the process if the system made it difficult for the parties, the electoral registration officers and the IT systems to cope.
The further issue—this is not to belittle the hon. Gentleman’s amendment—is at what point the renumbering should begin. The amendment is silent on when would be the appropriate time to renumber consecutively. If we wait until the next revised register, the same circumstances might apply, and there might be a significantly longer period during which no renumbering has taken place and the numbers do not run consecutively, which would pose a different challenge.
When a revised register is published, parties must unavoidably update the data that they hold to reflect changes to the register, removing people from and adding others to the register. The numbering is part of that process. The amendment would add complexity and potentially cost, though that is not the critical factor if it were effective. I am not convinced that it would reduce fraud, but I would be happy to explore the implications of the hon. Gentleman’s proposal with electoral administrators. I am not convinced by it yet, for the reasons that I set out, but I understand the point that he is making. If, by withdrawing the amendment, he will allow me to do so, I will ensure that we consider whether it is practicable or whether an alternative proposal is practicable to deal with the issue that he raises.
I thank the Minister for that considered and balanced response. He acknowledges that there is an issue that should be addressed in one way or another. I am not suggesting that we have presented a watertight solution, but the amendment is an attempt to engage with the problem. I welcome the fact that he is prepared to consider, with officials, whether there is a technical way to reduce the problem that we have identified. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 16 and 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Use of emblems on ballot papers
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
No doubt the Minister is convinced that I am determined to make mischief on the clause. I am sorry to disappoint him. I will not embellish the concern that some Conservative Members expressed to me privately, and one or two of them in the Chamber, that this might open the way for a new symbol to be adopted if there were joint Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates in an election. I will not go that way.
Perhaps there should be a competition to determine the most appropriate symbol.
On the issue of joint Co-op and Labour party candidates, I understand that the Government explained on Second Reading and before that the clause is intended to address a gap in the legislation. Can the Minister provide reassurance not only that it will address an anomaly in the case of parliamentary elections, but that there is no difficulty in the case of local elections, and that is covered by other legislation?
I did indeed think that the hon. Gentleman intended to make further mischief, and he may have done so, marginally. May I reassure him that there is not the slightest intention of my party standing joint candidates with the Conservative party? We come together as a coalition of principle in this Government but at the next general election—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not keep up with the news if he believes that there are not divergent opinions developing on policies after the next election. We will see what happens.
The clause deals with a simple anomaly that affects the hon. Gentleman’s own party at every election where there are Labour/Co-op candidates and they cannot use a symbol that relates to their joint candidacy. It is not only the Labour party that is affected. Some of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), may remember Cynog Dafis, formerly a Member of the House. He was elected on a Plaid Cymru/Green ticket. The problem did not arise then, because at that time we did not have party emblems on the ballot paper, but were he or another candidate to stand on the same basis today, he would not be able to have a joint emblem to denote his candidature. It is a small discrepancy, and the clause amends rule 19 of the parliamentary election rules in schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 to enable a candidate who is standing on behalf of two or more registered political parties to use a single emblem on the ballot paper.
I believe I am right in saying that the clause would allow that if the emblem were registered as the emblem of those two parties in combination. I imagine the Labour and Co-operative party will wish to register an emblem to indicate that their candidates will be taking on that joint sponsorship.