Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2013

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 15 January 2013

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Manufacturing (West Midlands)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.(Greg Hands.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and to have secured the debate. I am impressed by the Minister because, in anticipation of the debate, he arranged for Jaguar Land Rover to announce 800 jobs over the weekend. If that is how it goes, we should have such a debate each week to ensure that another 800 jobs are announced each weekend.

Manufacturing is incredibly important to the west midlands, which is at the heart of industry. The industrial revolution started in the west midlands, and we rely heavily on manufacturing jobs, although we have seen many changes during not only the past decade but the past century. In 1997, when I left university and started working in manufacturing, 3.6 million people worked in the manufacturing sector, but that had sadly declined to 2.3 million by 2010. However, the decline in manufacturing jobs was not confined to that period; unfortunately, we have seen a steady and continuous decline under Governments of all colours. I hope that we can approach the debate in a spirit of consensus, because of the importance of manufacturing not only in my constituency but in all constituencies across the west midlands. Although I would like to say that the decline in manufacturing employment is a national issue and that the west midlands has been able to buck the trend—

I agree with the hon. Gentleman so far in relation to Jaguar Land Rover, because the previous Government, like the present Government, did a lot to keep Jaguar Land Rover in the west midlands. More importantly, will the hon. Gentleman offer his support for the retention of the London Taxi Company in the west midlands, particularly in Coventry? It needs all the support that it can get. The Minister has assured us that he will support us to retain the London Taxi Company in Coventry.

I cannot pledge what the Minister will say, but I personally offer my support. For such an iconic brand with such a sense of Britishness as the great London taxi to be built anywhere other than Great Britain would be an absolute tragedy. I understand that one of the problems with London Taxis International was that it outsourced the making of many of its parts to China and the product quality was not right at final assembly in Coventry. I do not, however, pretend to understand the root causes as well as the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) does.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would pay tribute to what the previous Government did to support Jaguar Land Rover. I would particularly like to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) who did so much to support the automotive sector when he was a Minister, including with the establishment of the Automotive Council and other initiatives that the present Government have taken further and improved. That is why a consensual approach is important in the debate, because there is much to be gained from looking at where we can agree and how we can improve our industrial base.

It is my firm view that the decline in manufacturing in the west midlands has held back other sectors of the economy. The number of people employed in manufacturing in the west midlands between 2000 and 2010 fell from 462,000 to 279,000. That has been reflected in most of our constituencies. The gross value added that manufacturing contributed to the west midlands economy fell from 22.5% to 14.5%. That has a massive impact on the spending power of all our constituents and, therefore, a massive impact on retailers and service industries, which are all very important to the west midlands.

I may be considered an old romantic, but I believe that the beating heart of the west midlands is our manufacturing industry. We can produce the best goods, sell them around the world and be a great success. In South Staffordshire 3,600 of my constituents, or 15.9% of the active work force, work in manufacturing, which is almost double the national average. Although we may not have lots of factories, we have many important ones, including the new Jaguar Land Rover engine plant, and manufacturing has a massive significance for employment and prosperity in South Staffordshire.

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the decline in manufacturing jobs historically, but is it not right to say that the success of Jaguar Land Rover means that the problem facing the west midlands manufacturing industry is a shortage of skilled engineers? Should we not be sending out a message to young people, “Come to engineering, because there is a really attractive, stable, long-term, good career for you in engineering in the west midlands and elsewhere.”?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and one of the brakes on expansion for many manufacturing businesses is the need for skilled, qualified and able labour to work in design, manufacturing and other aspects of their business. There has been a boom in apprenticeships in South Staffordshire, where 1,000 of them have been created in the past year alone, and the apprenticeships that so many manufacturing firms offer are some of the very best. I would tell pupils at Codsall community high school, Ounsdale, Edgecliff, Cheslyn Hay or Great Wyrley—I think I have managed to mention all my high schools—that they should look at a career in manufacturing where there is a high-quality apprenticeship, because that will offer them as many opportunities as a degree, which is the route that we have traditionally encouraged young people to follow.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that one of our big problems is that for many years we have not valued those who have gone into engineering, unlike other countries, such as Germany, which regard engineers as highly qualified, highly skilled professionals? Should we not put more emphasis on making engineering that sort of career in this country?

I am pleased that a former solicitor recognises my importance as a former manufacturing man. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we have tended to see manufacturing as a dirty industry, and we have often steered our children and young people away from it. We want to encourage many more people to take up the cudgels and go into manufacturing. Although manufacturing has shrunk as a percentage of gross value added, it still plays a vastly important role in the prosperity of the nation. Manufactured goods make up 48% of our exports.

Yamazaki Mazak, a machine tools manufacturer that is one of the largest employers in my constituency, sells 80% to 85% of its production overseas in exports. It is hosting an event with UK Trade and Investment in March to show other manufacturers the benefits of export and make sure that they can access markets around the world. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the sort of partnership between the private sector and the Government that we really need to get manufacturing in the west midlands going and to support UK exports?

There has to be a clear recognition that industry and Government do not work in separate silos—they have to work hand in hand—and one of the areas that we have not put enough emphasis on is small and medium-sized enterprises. Of course, it is easy to talk a lot about some of the big names in manufacturing in the west midlands—I am sure that we will do so in this debate—but historically, SMEs have often significantly underperformed by comparison with their competitors in Germany and France in realising their export potential. If we were to encourage those SMEs, to see more of them attacking export markets with as much gusto as their competitors in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, that would make a vast difference not only in redressing our balance of trade but in ensuring that we create more jobs in the west midlands, including in South Staffordshire.

The hon. Gentleman has just mentioned a number of our competitor countries. However, is not one of the big differences in those countries the approach of the public sector and civil servants? It is fashionable at the moment to talk about some of the deficiencies of our civil servants, and this is clearly one of them. Those competitor countries actually look after their own industry, but we in the UK have ambulances and fire engines being imported; we only have to go down to Palace Yard to see police vans from Germany. Indeed, the Home Office has actually told the West Midlands police force that it cannot buy Jaguars for its motorway fleet. Is not that an absurd position to take, and does it not need all parties to get a grip of the civil service on this issue?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Although I do not know the details of the West Midlands police force arrangements, a lot of Government procurement should be about ensuring that officials place a higher value on actually buying British; certainly, they should ensure that a value is placed on jobs being created in the west midlands and the rest of the UK.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who might have got a little bit lost on the way over from Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; I came to make sure that he knew what he was talking about. Certainly, he has been very impressive thus far.

Although the west midlands is doing very well, the hon. Gentleman will agree that other parts of the UK are not doing as well. I come from a constituency that has the second largest manufacturing base in Northern Ireland. Does he agree that, to grow other areas, we need more of a level playing field, whether right across the whole UK or across the EU?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I want to ensure that we have a level playing field in procurement. We must recognise the fact that many Governments—whether in Germany or France—put a great value on ensuring that local employment is created as a result of their procurement.

Northern Ireland has benefited significantly, whether by buses being produced in Ballymena or other things. We would like to see various parts of the UK—whether Northern Ireland, the west midlands, Yorkshire, the north-east or the north-west—all benefiting from a Government who are passionate about buying British. I hope that we are starting to see that, but I would certainly like to see a lot more of it.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. On Friday, I visited Alstom with the Government’s chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, because Alstom is a major investor in energy, particularly high-voltage direct current. One of the points I noted was that our national grid buys most of its transformers from overseas. Stafford is the only place in the UK with a transformer manufacturer. However, the real reason that the national grid is buying from abroad is that in our procurement in the UK we do not take into account the quality of UK products and hence their longevity. The value-for-money approach needs to take longevity into account. If that were the case, I believe that we would be buying more from UK manufacturers.

My hon. Friend, who is a constituency neighbour of mine, makes a valid point. Alstom also has a significant impact on my constituency. Looking at how things are procured, the value that is gained over a long period and the investment, in terms of jobs, training and apprenticeships that are brought to the UK, are all incredibly important points that must be recognised in Government procurement.

I welcome the consensual nature and tone of my hon. Friend’s debate, and I just want to build on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). Is my hon. Friend aware that under EU procurement rules there is actually the possibility that a Government can introduce what is called a socio-economic weighting to a bid, which means that they can put a value on bids from companies in their own country, notwithstanding the other bids that come from across the EU? We saw that with the Bombardier problem, where it was argued by the civil servants involved that, in order to fulfil EU procurement rules, we had to have equal weighting for all bids from across the EU. Actually, what other EU countries do is place a socio-economic value on companies from their own country. Should we not send out a message today to the civil service that we should be doing the same?

That is certainly a message that I will heartily endorse, because Government decisions on procurement have a massive impact. Often there is a lot that can be learned from our continental counterparts, primarily about how to ensure that we support and benefit our own businesses.

I will now go a little bit away from procurement to return to exports, especially the importance of exports in the west midlands. Of course, much of what we are producing is for export, and as I mentioned, almost half of the UK’s exports are of manufactured goods. We hear an awful lot of talk about how we need to improve exports from the service sector and our creative industries, and about bringing in more tourists to the UK. Those are all incredibly important issues, but if we could achieve a 10% increase in the amount of manufactured goods that we export, that would have a much more significant impact on our balance of trade, job creation and the wealth of our nation.

I very much welcome the work that has already been undertaken by UKTI and I encourage it to do more. However, I will go back to the point I made earlier, to say again that it is very easy for us all to focus on the very large businesses but there are some fantastic businesses that are quite small, perhaps employing only 20 to 200 people, and quite often they fall under the radar. Recently I spoke to a constituent, Louis Barnett, who exports chocolate from Britain; Mexico is one of his largest markets. However, he did not understand about export guarantees, or what else was available. Now he is working very closely with UKTI and he has a much better understanding of the support that is available to help his business and many similar businesses. That is the message that we need to get across—that there is a vast market out there. It is not just the west midlands, or the rest of the UK; it is the world.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that manufacturing is alive and kicking in the west midlands, and will he join me in congratulating Peterson Springs, a company in my constituency, which last year increased its exports by 20%? I would be delighted if the Minister would like to visit it.

My hon. Friend is getting a very early bid in there; again, I will leave the Minister to respond to that request himself. However, I of course join her in congratulating that company on its work. I am sure that one of the great reasons it has seen such export success is its investment in research and development. R and D is important in the west midlands. Indeed, 72% of all R and D is derived from the manufacturing sector, so we must appreciate what a significant role the sector plays in terms of our universities and developing new technologies. One of the finest examples is the Warwick Manufacturing Group, which is based in the west midlands and really leading the way. It is a shining example of what we want to see more of, not only in the west midlands but right across the UK.

I just want to point out the importance of the Government’s regional growth fund. In the case of Alstom—I have already mentioned Alstom, and I would be grateful if the Minister could visit it to see for himself the impact of the RGF—the fund has been used to invest in world-beating high-voltage direct current technology. For instance, last year Alstom received an order worth 250 million euros from the Swedish grid, even in the face of stiff Swedish opposition.

I certainly concur with all the points that my hon. Friend has made, and my right hon. Friend the Minister will have a very busy diary by the time that he leaves Westminster Hall after this debate.

I am very conscious of time, and that other people want to contribute to the debate. So I will try to go through some of the points that I want to make very rapidly, and I hope that Members will not think me discourteous if I try not to take too many interventions from this point on. As I say, I am very conscious that others want to an opportunity to speak.

South Staffordshire has seen some enormous manufacturing successes since 2010. Last year, McCain Foods announced it was investing £3 million in its Wombourne factory, introducing new product lines, securing the factory’s future and creating jobs. We have seen a massive investment by Moog’s aviation division, which has moved from its old site in Bilbrook, in my constituency, just a couple of miles down the road to the new i54 site, which is also in my constituency. It has invested many tens of millions of pounds, securing British jobs—jobs that have a significant impact in not only South Staffordshire, but Wolverhampton. We have seen investment from Eurofins. Of course, the most significant investment came from Jaguar Land Rover, which invested £350 million in the i54 business park. That will, I hope, create 750 jobs and make sure that all the company’s engines are manufactured in the UK. The firm is investing significantly in new technology, such as its new four-cylinder engine, which will reduce emissions and, I hope, drive exports and domestic sales.

The hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated on initiating the debate. He was right when he said there is a degree of agreement. If the scrappage scheme saved the automotive industry from collapse, the Automotive Council provided the focus for its regeneration, and it is welcome that there has been continuity of policy under this Government. However, on investment, which is crucial, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, in a global marketplace in which we need to export on the one hand and attract inward investment on the other— particularly in the automotive industry—prolonged uncertainty for years to come as to whether our country will remain in the European Union could deeply damage investment decisions?

No, but I thank the hon. Gentleman, because we have worked closely on a number of issues that affect our constituencies. We might not agree on his last point, but there is certainly a lot of agreement on many other issues.

The investment in the i54, including by Jaguar Land Rover, happened not only as a result of Government support. We often forget that although central Government play an important role, the role played by local authorities has been just as important, whether it is South Staffordshire district council, Staffordshire county council or Wolverhampton city council. They put their money where their mouth is and supported investment in infrastructure.

May I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate? Will he also give credit to the role of the local enterprise partnerships? Lichfield is a member of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, which is dynamically run by Andy Street, who is also the chief executive officer of the John Lewis group. He is working with my noble Friend Lord Heseltine as part of a pilot programme, which could bring in a further £1 billion in investment. Would my hon. Friend like to say a few words about the role of LEPs in stimulating industry?

I am happy to do so, because I was going to touch on that in relation to the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP pilot. I hope that it will be a massive success and that it can be rolled out to the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEP and the black Country LEP. I was also going to touch on the importance of city deals. Rather by coincidence, today is the deadline for them to be submitted, and the black country and the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEPs have both submitted theirs. City deals will be a key mechanism in helping small and mid-sized businesses to expand, and they will give LEPs much greater powers and a much greater ability to bring money in. Whether we are talking about the regional growth fund or what the LEPs are doing, it is key that our focus is constantly on bringing in private sector investment to support public money.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the role of various key players is recognised, but does he agree that it is also important that we recognise the role of the work force? On the one hand, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has praised the British work force in the automotive industry. On the other hand, the remarkable Ralph Speth has said that the turnaround of Jaguar Land Rover could not have been achieved without the support and co-operation of the work force.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Any business is only as good as its work force. The work force make the business; the managers, the people working on the shop floor and the designers are what the business is. The hon. Gentleman will not hear a single word of disagreement from me on that.

What I hope we will see from the LEPs is embodied in what we will see over the next couple of years, with the city deals and what is being piloted in Birmingham—a great expansion of their role, with them taking a much more active role, being much more involved in small, medium-sized and large businesses, and encouraging investment.

The regional growth fund has an incredibly important role to play. I welcome the fact that we have it until 2015. I also welcome the fact that, in the last round, the west midlands benefited from £123 million of investment from the RGF. Those are immense positives, which I welcome, but I would like the RGF to go far beyond 2015. I appreciate that it is not always within the gift of the Government to say when these things will go on to, but we want some degree of consistency in industrial policy. I always say that one of Germany’s great successes is the fact that it has taken a consistent approach to industrial policy pretty much since the war. There has been more of an evolutionary process, as against radical change when there has been a change of Government.

I very much welcome what the RGF does, but one slight flaw in it is the fact that it is aimed at very big investments. I applaud what the black country LEP did to bring together a consortium of businesses. A number of the people involved in those businesses live in my constituency, and they have talked about the important role that the initiative has had in helping much smaller companies to tap in to what the RGF can deliver. I encourage other LEPs to look at a similar mechanism and at how they can build consortia to tap into the RGF.

I would welcome it if the Minister could say something about the Government’s commitment to the RGF and give more commitments about what it can do. I was going to say that I will not engage in special pleading for the west midlands, but that would be a lie—I do want to engage in special pleading. We want the number of manufacturing jobs to increase, and the RGF will play an important role in that. Yes, cuts in corporation tax are important. Yes, Government support for everything from Catapult investment into apprenticeships is vital. However, for the west midlands to grow, the Government must back British and west midlands manufacturing consistently, all the way, absolutely to the hilt.

The local authorities in my constituency—Staffordshire county council and South Staffordshire district council—and Wolverhampton city council are very much working to make sure that we get tens of millions of pounds more in investment in the i54 business park. I would like a clear commitment from the Minister that he will support Staffordshire county council, Wolverhampton city council and South Staffordshire district council in getting that investment and that he is willing to listen if they need help and support from the Government. He has had an open-door policy since he came to his post in September, and I very much hope that that continues.

Together, consensually, as a group of west midlands MPs, we can make sure that the west midlands are the industrial heartland and the manufacturing centre of this great nation, and that our manufacturing businesses are once again growing and employing more people. We are starting to see that, and that is what we all want and what we are all striving for. I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will help us to deliver that.

At least eight hon. Members have indicated a wish to speak. I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.40, so I ask them to try to restrict themselves to about five minutes, if possible, so that everyone can get in.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing the debate. I agree with a lot of what he said. He was right to emphasise the importance of continuity. I am pleased that he began his speech by mentioning the 800 new jobs that have been created at Jaguar Land Rover. That is a tribute to many people, including Jaguar Land Rover itself, under the ownership of Tata, which has really put its money where its mouth is. Tata understands the importance of investment in plant, skills and product, and in the supply chain to back that up. I will say more about that, but it is important to recognise the importance of JLR these days as a corporate citizen of the west midlands.

That said, the markets where Jaguar Land Rover is expanding are the far east and elsewhere. If it were as dependent on the European market as some other manufacturers are, however good a corporate citizen it is, the story would be different. We heard about Honda shedding 800 jobs last week—just outside the west midlands, admittedly—Ford announcing plans in October to cut 1,400 jobs at plants in southern England, and Vauxhall moving to a four-day week for more than 2,000 workers in Ellesmere Port. Only last week General Motors forecast that European car sales would weaken still further this year. I say that because the UK exports 82% of its cars, and the European market is vital to that. In all seriousness, going down the road of knee-jerk anti-Europeanism will not help. What happens in the eurozone will affect us, whether we like it or not. I hope that that big picture will be remembered on Friday.

The automotive industry is doing well. The west midlands is a key part of that, but the Government could do more to back it up. I want to say something about the supply chain. There has been £6 billion of major investment by the big manufacturers, but if we look at who supplies them, we see that, all too often, the parts come from abroad. Most of the big first-tier suppliers are not UK-owned, but there is no reason why more products could not be manufactured here and supplied to them through our second, third and fourth-tier suppliers. The UK could get a lot more benefit out of that if it ensured that the myriad often specialist companies in the west midlands and elsewhere got a greater piece of the action. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has estimated that there could be £3 billion of extra opportunities if we could get more coherent support for the supply chain.

Some good things have happened under the present and previous Governments. The regional growth fund, which has been mentioned, and the advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative are good, but we need to do more, and that is the message coming from the automotive industry. It is a bit of a cliché, but it is true none the less, that the Government need to be consistent and joined-up, and to work on industry’s time scale, not the glacial pace at which too often they work. They also need to do more about access to finance. For small and medium-sized firms in the supply chain, access to finance is still an issue, and many such firms continue to tell me either that banks do not understand how they operate, or that they do understand but work at a glacial pace or make credit so conditional, so prohibitive, that only firms that probably do not need the credit in the first place can get it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an absurd situation for suppliers who have long-term contracts with major companies such as Jaguar Land Rover or, indeed, Rolls-Royce, which has a massive order book stretching out 10 years? Rolls-Royce is having to fund them because the banks will not lend against that very predictable order book. Is not that madness?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are all a bit like cracked records when we say this. I chaired the Regional Select Committee on the West Midlands, and our first report was on that issue. We highlight it time and again, and if we are to make the step change that is needed, we must deal with it.

I have already taken five minutes, but I want briefly to mention two things, beginning with local involvement. Bringing banks and industry closer requires mechanisms that will allow that and encourage it to happen. Often, such mechanisms are the most successful when they are born out of crisis. I know that from my experience of the kind of work that was done after the collapse of MG Rover and partly in preparation for what eventually happened there. The regional development agencies were starting to do some good work on that. They have gone now, but a glue to stick things together—finance sector and industry co-operation, reaching out to SMEs and understanding the needs of manufacturing—remains vital. That is why Lord Heseltine’s report is so important and why I welcome the pilot scheme being mounted in the Greater Birmingham and Solihull area, but there is a need for follow-up. I hope that when the Government consider the bid submitted in relation to the pilot, they will see the huge potential for the local enterprise partnership and, more importantly, for the broader west midlands and beyond.

I acknowledge and support what has been said about procurement and skills, but I will not elaborate on that. My last comment is on technologies and the future. I have spoken entirely about the automotive industry, but when I do that, I am not talking simply about cars, or even commercial vehicles and so on. I am talking about an industry at the heart of manufacturing, which is often a catalyst for the development of other industries, whether in defence, in composites, in other advanced manufacturing, or in medical technology. That is why messages of the kind that are coming from the Automotive Council are so important and why we should understand the contribution made to manufacturing by Britain’s motor sport industry, many of whose companies are based in the west midlands. For those benefits to be developed, there must be a consistent Government approach. It is also vital to have mechanisms in our region that are controlled and run by people in the west midlands who understand manufacturing, who can decide local priorities and, just as importantly, who can mobilise and lever in the resources needed to increase our manufacturing industries’ potential and translate it into reality.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) for securing this important and timely debate. I am also delighted to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), not least because of my experience of working for MG Rover in his constituency for several years.

Manufacturing accounts for nearly 15% of the gross value added for the west midlands economy, above the national average. With about 290,000 people still working in manufacturing, we should recognise the strength that the sector maintains in the region. As co-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group I was pleased to host a round table last year at Warwick Manufacturing Group, located at the university of Warwick, to discuss the future of manufacturing in our region. There was general agreement that if we can get the policy right, there is great potential for growth.

Our region has a number of strengths on which we need to capitalise. First, manufacturing is likely to become more highly skilled in the years ahead—the UK Commission for Employment and Skills estimates that by 2017 there will be as many people working in the higher end of the industry as the lower end—and we have a range of world-class research establishments such as Warwick Manufacturing Group, which will also be home to one of the Catapult centres for high-value manufacturing, and Coventry university’s automotive engineering research group, as well as the world-class universities of Birmingham and Coventry. I am glad that the Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership has sought to integrate those institutions fully into its five-year plan, but we need to do more to strengthen the triangle and create a strong manufacturing cluster right at the heart of the region.

Secondly, we have strong connectivity with the rest of the UK. Our region connects well to London and the south-east by road and rail, and our good access to aviation gives global reach. We need to continue to strengthen our regional infrastructure because it is key to boosting regional productivity and making our manufacturers competitive in the global marketplace. I urge the Government to work more closely with our local enterprise partnerships to ensure that the west midlands is given proper consideration when infrastructure spending is discussed.

Thirdly, we have a strong brand. At the Conservative party conference last year, I was pleased to speak at an event hosted by IDEA Birmingham, a collaboration between businesses and Birmingham City university, about improving growth in the region through good design. It was clear from that event and from speaking to businesses involved in it that our region’s heritage and reputation, which attracts businesses to invest, has the potential to draw in more inward investment. The Government have rightly stressed the need to rebalance the economy away from dependence on financial services and imports and towards manufacturing and exports, but we must ensure that we have an integrated approach that builds on the collective strengths of our region.

Finally, I do not want to miss this opportunity to invite the Minister to Warwick and Leamington to visit Aga Rangemaster and DCA Design International, companies which are local, national and international success stories.

It is great that we are having this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing it. He is absolutely right to highlight the great news we have had this week of 800 new jobs at Jaguar Land Rover, and to draw attention to the contribution that small and medium-sized enterprises make to the manufacturing sector in the west midlands.

We have companies such as Revolvo at Queen’s Cross, which is a traditional bearings manufacturer that now exports to Brazil and produces bearings for large wind turbines, showing that traditional manufacturers can find new markets in emerging economies abroad and in new industries in this country. Eurocraft at Netherton produces the cabinets that house the communications equipment installed in streets across the country for broadband connections. Boss Design produces what is, without doubt, the best furniture in the world. The chairs that world leaders sat on at the Gleneagles G8 meeting and those that right hon. and hon. Members sit on when filming “Question Time” on a Thursday night are all manufactured in the middle of Dudley. Cab Automotive is a fantastic company in Tipton producing car components for manufacturers around Europe. It is bringing the supply chain back to the black country by beating German companies for contracts with German manufacturers.

Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I spend a lot of my time visiting local companies and meeting with organisations such as the chamber of commerce and Made in the Midlands and listening to their views. They tell us that they want, first, a stable and competitive tax regime that enables them to plan and invest for the long term; I therefore welcome the decision to reinstate capital allowances. Secondly, as we have already heard, they want access to finance—that is absolutely crucial. Eurocraft, for example, is winning orders from around the world but it has to turn business away because it cannot get the finance it needs from the banks to invest and fund expansion. Thirdly, they often complain about skills shortages in the region and their inability to attract young people into manufacturing.

It is no exaggeration to say that my constituency of Dudley has had a bigger impact than anywhere else in the country on the development of Britain’s economy. Dudley lit the spark that fired the industrial revolution and changed not just Dudley and the black country, but Britain and the whole of the world. That happened in Dudley.

My hon. Friend is of course entitled to make his case in his own way, but as the Member of Parliament for Smethwick, which contains the Soho works of James Watt and Matthew Boulton, I think that his proposition is, at the very least, contestable.

It is true that Watt and Boulton and the rest of them exploited the industrial revolution, but it was triggered—[Interruption.] It is true. Perhaps my right hon. Friend needs a history lesson: the industrial revolution was triggered by learning to smelt iron ore with coke, which enabled the production of cast iron in sufficient quantities, and that happened first in Gornal in my constituency, so it is absolutely true that the industrial revolution started in Dudley. My point is that we have to be inspired by that history and to create in the 21st century a new industrial revolution to bring new businesses, investment and jobs to the region.

As we have heard, we have great strengths in the west midlands. We excel at innovation, which is the driving force behind our economy, we have an adaptable work force and we have companies that can produce absolutely anything, but we have to be honest about the fact that the regional economy faces major challenges in transport and trade, innovation and investment, and jobs and skills.

The recession hit the west midlands harder than anywhere else in the country. Since 1976, the region has fallen behind the national average—36 years in which we have dropped further and further behind. During a decade of growth under Labour, ours was the only region in which private sector investment fell, and although we have some world-beating businesses and great universities, we have not managed to attract new industries to replace the jobs lost in traditional ones. Fundamentally, that is because we have not had the skills that investors in industries such as computing and pharmaceuticals look for.

Even before the recent recession we had higher unemployment than in the rest of the country, and the proportion of jobs that are in the public sector or low-growth industries is above average. Birmingham should be the engine driving the region’s growth, but one in three jobs there are in public services and only one in 10 are in manufacturing. Underpinning all of that are the most worrying facts of all: we have too many people with poor literacy and numeracy and too many with no qualifications. In our regional economy, there are 70,000 fewer workers with high-level skills than in other regions, and we have a lower proportion of managerial, technical and professional jobs. Over the next 20 years, there will be huge growth in areas such as low-carbon manufacturing, advanced manufacturing, digital media and biomedical technologies, but the areas that get the jobs will be the ones that have the skills investors are looking for.

I refuse to accept that our best days are behind us. I am ambitious for our region and I believe that we are as good as anyone. I want to ensure that people in the west midlands have the opportunities that people elsewhere in the country take for granted. As west midlands MPs we should agree, first, to make education and skills the No. 1 priority, setting as an ambition for the region the biggest rise in educational standards anywhere in the UK. We need more people doing technical apprenticeships. I want to see a university technical college in every town in the region, equipping youngsters with the skills manufacturers need and persuading them to take up fulfilling and rewarding careers in industry. We need better links between schools and universities and a real focus in the black country, with businesses, schools, colleges, universities and local authorities there coming together to work out how to attract new investment.

We should consider introducing regional and industrial banking. Could we use local authority pension funds in the region to fund investment in new industries and emerging technologies? Let us sort out the region’s transport problems. I would like to see High Speed 2 not stopping at Coleshill, but going through Birmingham and into the black country, where we have the largest concentration of manufacturing companies anywhere in western Europe. Let us extend the runway at Birmingham and have more direct flights to India, China and Russia. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said, let us sort out procurement, to support the regional economy.

As Britain emerges from recession and the economy starts to grow again, if we do some of those things we will be able to build a stronger economy and exploit new opportunities with better skills and more innovation. That will transform the west midlands and the lives of the people who live there.

Thank you, Mr Williams, for allowing me to speak in this important debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson), who is a staunch advocate of both manufacturing and the west midlands. Manufacturing industry is extremely important to the west midlands and to my constituents. Twenty-two per cent. of people in work in my constituency are engaged in the manufacturing industries. I also have a large number of manufacturing companies in my constituency, from large manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce and Triton Showers, to small and medium-sized companies that serve niche markets and the supply chain in the automotive and aerospace sectors.

I have visited many such companies in my constituency, and it is obvious that companies that are fully engaged with the growth markets of south America and China are doing very well. The decision of Jaguar Land Rover, which is fully engaged with those markets, to employ a further 800 people at Solihull is welcome. That is in stark contrast to the unfortunate situations that we have seen recently for manufacturing companies that are concentrated on the domestic and European markets.

I therefore welcome the Government’s action to support further investment in UK Trade and Investment with a 25% increase in year-on-year funding. Putting more money and resources into UKTI is important. I am sure that the Minister agrees that our efforts should be focused on getting the best value for money from that additional resource. I am also sure that he will ensure that the additional investment and resources are carefully monitored, so that we get value for money, particularly for west midlands manufacturing companies.

I commend the Minister and his colleagues, including the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary, for their hands-on role in promoting our exports. All those representatives of our Government are getting onto planes and getting out to emerging markets. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) thinks that that is funny, but I think that it is fantastic that our Ministers are getting out there and working with other countries. Many emerging countries have completely different cultures to ours, and they value the time provided by Ministers and senior Cabinet Ministers, who are doing a great deal of good and providing a great deal of benefit to our manufacturing industry.

Skills are our biggest challenge to grasping the opportunities that are coming down the track for the west midlands. Although we have a highly skilled work force in the west midlands, the work force in our manufacturing industries is ageing. We must ensure that we are creating skills to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie out there for the west midlands. I am still not sure that we have a golden thread of skills running through our growth agenda in the west midlands. We must do far more work on that.

My hon. Friend is making an important point about skills. One of the recommendations of the Heseltine review, in relation to his idea of single-pot funding, is to have a much more radical devolution of responsibility for skills funding, with the local enterprise partnerships taking a more important role, to address the long-term problem that the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) also raised: we do not have the correct match of skills in the west midlands to take advantage of the massive opportunities before us.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right. Further education is now taking a far greater role, with our further education colleges trying to put on more courses that suit local employment and industry. We must develop that further and get the public sector working more with the private sector.

One of my other great concerns is for some of our smallest manufacturing companies that employ four, five or six people. Although there has been welcome progress on apprenticeships and Government funding, we have not gone far enough. For a manufacturing company of that size to employ an apprentice, they often effectively need to designate one member of staff to mentor and look after that apprentice, and that causes a huge strain on a small business’s resources. Although many small business owners to whom I have spoken would like to start training apprentices, their business models do not allow for it. Nationally, we are now engaging business mentors, and I should be grateful if the Minister considered a similar regional system to engage people involved in manufacturing who are perhaps coming up to retirement, or who have retired, to work as mentors by going into companies to support the development of apprentices. Will he consider whether a funding stream could be developed for that?

We are short on time, so, finally, I plead on behalf of the Coventry, Warwickshire and Hinckley and Bosworth city deal bid, which is currently being submitted to the Government. The bid goes across county and regional boundaries, reflecting the rich manufacturing history and the current manufacturing activity within those areas. I am convinced that, if we can secure the city deal, it will help us to drive the skills agenda, to obtain growth from the high-value manufacturing that we can produce in our region and to connect with emerging markets. Will the Minister make a plea to my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to ensure that the city deal bid is successful? I hope that we can keep driving our local economy forward.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing this timely and important debate on an issue close to all our hearts as west midlands MPs.

I am sure there could be much discussion with my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), on the genealogy of manufacturing in the west midlands. My constituency’s claim probably focuses on the activities of John Wilkinson, who launched the world’s first iron boat in Bradley and made other innovations in the Bilston and Bradley area. I suspect that that ground is contested and we would all have to make our own claim.

The debate, of course, is not only the story of the past; it is the story of the present and future. I echo the welcome for the Jaguar Land Rover announcement and, indeed, for the investment under way on the border of Wolverhampton and South Staffordshire for the new engine plant. That site was ready for development only because of the activities of Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency at the time, which prepared and kept the site to have something ready for Jaguar Land Rover to go into. I make that point not necessarily to try to rewind the clock, but to say that the state has a role, either locally or nationally, in helping to make such investments happen.

The important thing for the local enterprise partnerships, which have replaced the regional development agencies, is that they have the power and punch to carry out their role. That is why Lord Heseltine’s recommendations for more devolution of power and spending are important. There will be significant institutional resistance to that within Whitehall. The report is easy to write but a challenge to implement. If the LEPs are to be effective, and if the commitment of business people is to pay off, they need power and punch.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire was right to say that manufacturing is not all about headline names; critically, it is about the supply chain and the small companies that dot our constituencies. I call that the ecosystem of manufacturing, and others refer to it as the industrial commons, but all those companies are interdependent and reliant on one another. I do not want to repeat what companies have asked for, because other Members have already addressed that, but the hon. Gentleman is familiar with Wescol—the owners live in his constituency, and the business is in my constituency —a manufacturer of gas equipment. LS Manufacturing in my constituency makes quality textiles. Wednesbury Tube makes copper pipe, and there are many others.

Businesses want the things that hon. Members have mentioned. They want reasonable energy costs; they look with some envy at the rebates available to energy-intensive industries in Germany. They certainly want a skilled work force, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North said. They also want the freedom to operate. That is an important message that we receive: they want freedom from business crime and metal theft—problems that we are not yet on top of and that challenge manufacturing businesses in many parts of the country.

Businesses want a stable tax environment. I welcome the autumn statement changes in capital allowances, but they prompt the question why capital allowances were cut in the first place. It never made sense to talk about the march of the makers and then impose more tax on the activity of making things. That position has now been reversed, which I welcome and have called for consistently over a number of years.

On the regional growth fund, there is a difference between announcing expenditure and getting expenditure to the companies that need it. Again, I reflect something that the Minister will undoubtedly be experiencing: due diligence is a good thing, but paralysis is not. There is a difference between announcing money and spending it. We need to get better at getting money out the door after it has been announced. It is important that that happens with the regional growth fund.

I have two other points to make in closing. Many of the issues that we are discussing are about supply-side measures. Businesses also need demand in the economy. There is not enough demand, and given that every major developed country is pursuing austerity policies, it is not surprising that businesses are struggling to employ, create and grow. It is important to have demand and the right investment to avoid the collective austerity that is dragging down demand across our economies.

I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden): business needs certainty. If we are about to embark on years of uncertainty about where we stand in the world and in relation to Europe, it will not do our manufacturing businesses any good. Of course we are in a global game—it is not only about Europe; it is about China, India, Russia and other markets—but Europe remains our biggest export market. Sending a message to both inward investors and our own domestic investors that we will now have years of uncertainty about our relationship with our biggest export market is not good for manufacturing. I am sorry to make this somewhat partisan point in what is otherwise a fairly consensual debate, but it is important to stress that all of us in this Chamber are united in wanting more of the activity of making things. I believe that geopolitics—where Britain stands in the world—is critical to investment decisions. That is the important point on which I close.

I remind the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), who want to speak, that I wish to start the winding-up speeches at 10.40.

I congratulate my neighbour the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing this important debate. Nationwide, in the 10-year period around the turn of the century, we lost 1.7 million jobs in manufacturing across the country, so it is encouraging to see signs of improvement and manufacturing’s share of GDP increasing again. We have heard a lot in this debate about the renaissance in the automotive sector. Coming from Coventry as I do and having family connections to the car industry, I treat it with a special respect. It is encouraging.

I will concentrate my few remarks on the promotion of manufacturing in the west midlands in schools and universities, in the wider community and to exporters and customers abroad. The Manufacturing Advisory Service did a survey focusing on exports last year and found that 42% of respondents reported improvements in first-half activity last year, and 46% anticipated a further upturn. That is because they were exporters. Some 85% aspired to increase exports this year. MAS commented that exporting has been a key driver in improving manufacturing.

I was delighted that this Government continued with the enterprise finance guarantee scheme and opened it up to exporters, to whom it was not previously open due to EU restrictions. UK Export Finance has been renewed and reinvigorated, although it still has some way to go; I note that my neighbour the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) said that a company in his constituency had problems getting finance. Last year, 42% of exports from our region went to the EU, 22% to Asia and 16% to North America. Opposition Members are right to point out the importance of the EU single market to our manufacturers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) mentioned UK Trade and Investment, which is vital. UKTI has supported a great many manufacturers in our region, and it is approachable and willing to offer Members the resources at its disposal, including seminars to gear up for their manufacturing audience. I urge Members who have not taken up that opportunity to do so for the benefit of manufacturers in their constituencies.

I said that I would mention education. Skills are vital. My area of the black country has a skills deficit, as we have heard from other Members. Only 19% in our area have NVQ level 4 qualifications, versus the national average of 31%, and fewer people are educated to degree level. That must change. I am delighted by the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. In 2011, we had 49,000 starts in engineering and manufacturing, and 17,000 of those were at advanced and higher level. It is vital that we keep that up. University technical colleges are a great breakthrough, and I wish the hon. Member for Dudley North success in attracting Aston to establish a UTC in Dudley, which would benefit my constituency.

I will conclude, as I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) wants to speak and we have only three minutes.

In the two and a half minutes that my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) has kindly let me have, I echo much of what has been said. Manufacturing is important to my constituency. The three towns making up my patch—Cannock, Hednesford and Rugeley—have a sizeable manufacturing and engineering base. More than 20% of my constituents are employed by manufacturing-centred small businesses. Manufacturing is vital to my constituents.

As Members have said, the west midlands and Cannock Chase are blessed with skilled workers in manufacturing. It is the ideal place for businesses to set up and invest. We have manufacturing firms of all sizes, including giants such as JCB Cab Systems, which employs more than 400 people, and ThyssenKrupp, which employs more than 900, right down to the small family firms with which my hon. Friends will all be familiar: Plum Logo, Mailcoms and Fuel Conservation Services, all of which employ between 10 and 30 people. All those firms are vital to supporting jobs and securing growth in our economy.

I have determined to visit as many of those firms as possible, not only to pay tribute to their hard work but to learn at first hand what challenges face local employers and listen to the views of employees. The three issues that have come up, which have been echoed in this debate, are training and skills, lending and promoting investment. I will not repeat the speeches made on those issues, but I want to impress on the Minister that it is vital to tackle the skills shortage in manufacturing in the west midlands and encourage more young people to take mechanical and engineering qualifications.

On bank lending I think, like many other hon. Members, that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Access to reasonable finance for firms that clearly have a future has become far too difficult. Ministers have a duty to remind the banks, which were so generously bailed out by taxpayers just a few years ago, that they have a moral duty to lend to viable small businesses to create jobs and growth. I have four seconds left, so with that I will hand over to the Minister, who we are all looking forward—

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing the debate and thank him for the consensual tone that he set, which has been characteristic of the debate. Today’s debate is on promoting manufacturing in the west midlands, and from listening to hon. Members today, I think there is much to promote. Hon. Members’ contributions have strongly brought out the region’s clear strength in automotives in particular and manufacturing in general.

I join other hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who brought his considerable expertise in the automotive industry to bear, in welcoming the great news announced in the past 24 hours that Jaguar Land Rover is to create 800 new production jobs at its plant in Solihull. That is a welcome counter to last week’s grim news that Honda will cut 800 jobs from its factory in Swindon. Jaguar Land Rover sold almost 360,000 vehicles last year—an increase of 30% on the previous year—and is rightly recognised, as we have seen today, as a true success of British manufacturing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) mentioned the potential for the west midlands of the development of advanced low-emission vehicle technology. It is similar to my region of the north-east, which was at the heart of, and the spark that brought about, the industrial revolution—I want to put that on the record. It is an example of how a modern industrial strategy should work: businesses and Government working not in silos, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire rightly said, but together to identify the sectors in which we have a competitive advantage and the potential for high growth in the future; and Government enabling and facilitating the principal actors to come together through investment and co-ordination to realise that potential.

I appreciate the time, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he think it is important for every Department, not only the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to encourage manufacturing?

The hon. Gentleman is spot on. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should not be the only Whitehall Department with responsibility for business; every Department in Whitehall should be responsible for business. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) for trying to press that point when he was doing fantastic work in the Department. It would be wrong for UK manufacturing and the UK economy as a whole if we thought that business resided in Victoria street. That is not how it should be and that should be impressed on every Whitehall Department. There also needs to be a degree of consensus across the House and Whitehall on the importance of manufacturing, which would facilitate the suggestion made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire.

As was mentioned, continuity of policy is important. It is pleasing that much of the good news from Jaguar Land Rover and other parts of the automotive sector is the fruition of policies laid down by the previous Government as part of the new industry, new jobs initiative, the low-carbon vehicles sector initiative and the points made in government by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East. Such continuity and certainty over the next 20, 30 or 40 years would help British manufacturing and must be a hallmark of good industrial policy.

Despite the good news and positive figures from Jaguar Land Rover and the consensual tone of this debate, there are concerns, which I would like to flag up. Office for National Statistics figures published last Friday show that a manufacturing-led economic recovery has stalled; manufacturing output on a seasonally adjusted basis fell by 2.1% in November 2012 compared with November 2011, and that month’s figure in 2011 was itself a fall of 0.6% on the previous year. For all the talk from the Chancellor and others of a march of the makers, manufacturing output is significantly down, even from the recession—on ONS figures, the index of manufacturing is 6% below the level of summer 2010.

The national picture is confirmed in the west midlands. The survey published last Monday by the West Midlands chamber of commerce showed, for the last quarter of 2012,

“most companies, especially manufacturers, struggling to maintain their performance levels”.

In the survey, only 31% of manufacturers—down 10% on a year ago—reported an increase in domestic sales. Exports, which should be the lifeblood of an economic recovery, also showed a dip from their position last year. Steve Brittan, president of Birmingham chamber of commerce, said at the time of the survey’s publication last week:

“These figures are a concern and demonstrate that the government must act on its priorities.”

Given the huge potential of manufacturing in the west midlands and across the country, and the stalling, disappointing and deteriorating position for manufacturers, what will the Minister pledge to do differently to realise the potential?

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire mentioned the regional growth fund, and the Minister will no doubt be aware of the Public Accounts Committee report that shows that only £60 million of the £1.4 billion allocated has been spent on front-line projects. The west midlands was awarded 31 grants in the first two rounds of the regional growth fund, but as of October last year, some 18 months after the first round, only eight schemes had received funding. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East eloquently raised that point; there is a huge difference in Whitehall culture between announcing an initiative and getting the money to the people on the front line. Will the Minister update the House on how he has speeded up the process to ensure that money is provided as quickly as possible? What lessons have been learned for round 3? I understand that the west midlands secured £124 million for 17 projects in October 2012. Three months after the announcement, how much of that £124 million has found its way to those 17 projects?

The survey by the chamber of commerce, to which I referred, shows that the cash and financial position for manufacturers was getting worse over the last quarter. Only 16% of west midlands manufacturers registered an improved cash-flow position compared with 31% in the previous quarter. The survey also marked low investment in plant and machinery and training, which shows, according to the chamber, a general lack of confidence among manufacturers. Given the concern of manufacturers, the past performance of the regional growth fund and perennial concerns regarding cash and access to finance, what will the Minister do differently to realise the potential? Could he say a little more about how a British investment bank, announced in September by the Secretary of State, might have a regional dimension to assist west midlands manufacturers?

Hon. Members have spoken about the successes of manufacturing and how successful foreign direct investment can transform industrial performance. Jaguar Land Rover is the obvious example, but there are others and I hope we are not complacent. We need to determine how to help the English regions. The Minister may have seen Ernst and Young’s attractiveness survey for 2012, which showed London and the south-east securing more FDI projects than the rest of England put together, and that grip is intensifying. The west midlands showed year-on-year falls in FDI of about a quarter. The report tentatively suggests that it is “worth noting” that the closure of English regional development agencies, including Advantage West Midlands, occurred in 2011.

The report states that only 12% of respondents say that they would use UK Trade and Investment for queries regarding FDI. Foreign investors are unclear as to whom they should go to in the regions if they were considering investment in manufacturing. Given that the debate is on promoting manufacturing in the west midlands, it is a crucial question: who does a potential investor from Singapore or China contact in the west midlands to get things done and facilitate investment?

The hon. Gentleman seems to be giving glowing praise to the role of RDAs, particularly in the west midlands. If they were so successful, why during the time of the RDAs did private sector employment reduce in the west midlands, not increase?

In general terms—I declare an interest in that I worked for an RDA before coming to the House—[Interruption.] It is probably for the best. The RDAs produced something like £6 of private investment for every £1 of public investment.

Given the importance of a single co-ordinated point to ensure co-ordination, does the Minister think that the move from RDAs to local enterprise partnerships—I think there are now six in the west midlands—has improved matters and provided a more co-ordinated approach? Ernst and Young conclude in the survey that:

“A more strategic approach to FDI that places inward investment within the overall economic context is required if the UK is to retain its lead in an increasingly competitive global market for FDI.”

It should be one of the hallmarks of a co-ordinated and active Government industrial strategy, so will the Minister say a little about it?

Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) raised the important subject of Manganese Bronze. The Minister will be aware of this company, based in Coventry, which is Britain’s only black cab manufacturer and was placed in administration on 22 October last year. There is a strong possibility that a foreign buyer may manufacture the London taxis abroad. Will he say a little more on that and update the House as much as possible on the current situation? Specifically, will he set out what action he has taken with interested parties to ensure that the manufacture of black cabs takes place in the UK, and in Coventry in particular?

This has been a positive and consensual debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire again. It is clear that we need to back British manufacturers, particularly in the west midlands, in a co-ordinated, long-term way. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about allowing that potential to be realised.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) on securing such a good debate on such an important subject. I thank all those who spoke and attended. Some 11 Government Members from the region have attended, as against four or five Opposition Members, although I do not want to make a point of that. I also thank colleagues for the spirit in which they made their points. We have had some interesting discussions on the precise history of the industrial revolution. We might have had some interesting discussions on the actual cause of the turnaround of the British automotive industry, which I believe is founded on the dramatic changes in labour relations undertaken by the Thatcher Government and the inward investment that Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit brought in when they brought Nissan to the north-east of England, but I do not want to pursue that point too far.

I thank all those who have spoken, especially those who have been free with invitations to visit their constituencies, all of which I will consider. I have not been left much time to reply to the individual points, but I am happy to write to all colleagues. Some good points have been made about Lord Heseltine’s review, the role of the local enterprise partnerships, wave two of the city deals, the importance of supply chains and what we are doing to improve skills. Some specific points have been made about black cab manufacturing and so on, and I am happy to reassure the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) that we are dealing with that issue.

The west midlands is vital not only to UK manufacturing, but to economic growth in the wider economy. It sits at the very heart of British industry. Last Thursday, I visited the Birmingham area to see for myself some of the great things—we have heard about many others—that are being achieved by manufacturers across the west midlands, such as Aero Engine Controls, a leading aerospace and defence manufacturing company and a key part of the supply chain of the aerospace industry, or Quality Plated Products, which will be using funding from our advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative to increase capacity, create more jobs and start a new apprenticeship scheme. I also visited what is now called Mondelez International, which owns the Cadbury brand, to launch its primary authority partnership with Birmingham city council. That deal will cut red tape, reduce duplication and ensure high safety standards while reducing costs. That is one of hundreds of companies that have taken the opportunity to work closely with their local authorities to reduce the burden of regulation.

The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire is home to the high-tech i54 business park, where two global companies, Moog and Eurofins, are thriving. Jaguar Land Rover has become the third major international company that has chosen to move to the site, investing £355 million in a new advanced engine manufacturing facility, bringing with it 750 jobs and thousands more via supply chain opportunities.

No one is under any illusions, however, about the scale of the wider challenges we face. The eurozone’s continuing sovereign debt crisis is affecting our economy and depressing demand, causing uncertainty for business, and I recognise that the west midlands manufacturing centre has not been immune to such pressures, which were pronounced under the Labour Government. I think the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) was honest enough to admit that. They presided over the fastest ever decline in manufacturing as a share of the economy. Its share of GDP fell by nearly 10%, and almost 1.7 million jobs were lost in the sector. Under the present Government, its share of GDP is growing again and our manufacturing capability is increasing in quality—no more so than in the west midlands—and represents a crucial platform on which to build economic growth and recovery.

To kick-start recovery, the Government had to tackle the deficit and take tough decisions, but we have also taken a wholly different approach to unlocking growth. We are reducing the red tape that holds business back and creating a competitive tax system so that businesses choose to locate and grow in this country and, in the last autumn statement, we provided more measures to encourage greater investment in manufacturing, such as a significant temporary increase in the annual investment allowance from £25,000 to £250,000. That is a tenfold increase. An additional £210 million will be added to the regional growth fund until March 2015 which, with the £100 million allocated from previous rounds, means that a new total of more than £310 million will be available. There will also be an extra £120 million for the advanced manufacturing supply chain initiative. I assure you, Mr Williams, that the Government have never been clearer in our commitment to manufacturing, which we see as an essential building block of a more resilient, innovative economy.

The west midlands accounted for more than 7% of the United Kingdom’s gross value added in 2010. It is important for us all, wherever our constituencies are, that the west midlands is successful and prosperous. It has long been at the heart of British manufacturing. In recent times, we have had much welcome news of private sector investment, including by BMW at Hams Hall, by Jaguar Land Rover, as I have mentioned, near Wolverhampton, and by JCB, which is investing more than £31 million to develop new engine technology. The region also has a thriving small and medium-sized enterprises sector working in the advanced manufacturing supply chain, in particular in the automotive and aerospace sectors. A significant part of the Rolls-Royce supply chain is in the west midlands. Employment in the region has increased by nearly 60,000 since the general election. Jaguar Land Rover’s announcement of record global sales last year is excellent news.

The regional growth fund is helping to rebalance the economy, especially those areas that were over-dependent on the public sector. The fund is working and is unlocking private sector investment. The west midlands was awarded the largest regional allocation of the fund in round three. Some £194 million was provisionally allocated to programmes and projects with a strong focus on high-value manufacturing growth.

I was asked a couple of specific questions about the fund. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire asked about smaller companies. They can and will benefit through the programme bids that have been awarded under the fund, rather than through the big project bids for individual companies and plants. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) made a fair point about getting the money out of the door. We have set new triggers to ensure that final offers are agreed under round three within three months. That timetable expires this week. The grants must then finally be awarded within three months, by 17 April. We will set similar and probably faster triggers under round four, which we expect to announce later this week. I am determined to ensure that money physically gets out of the door and to the companies that need it as quickly as possible, subject to the proper due diligence that the Public Accounts Committee and our taxpayers expect to see carried out.

In conclusion, the Government are working hard to encourage and support British manufacturers and to create an environment in which they are free to thrive and compete in a global marketplace. The importance of the west midlands as a manufacturing region is one of the reasons why it makes such an excellent location to hold our third manufacturing summit, which is taking place at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon on 28 February. Those annual summits are an important part of our approach to having increased engagement with the sector and will bring together key stakeholders, including senior leaders from Government and from national and local businesses. There will also be an exhibition at that summit to showcase local manufacturing excellence. We want manufacturers in the west midlands to be our partners in achieving economic transformation and recovery—a strategy that places world-class manufacturing at the heart of a healthy and rebalanced economy in the United Kingdom.

Party Political Broadcasts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Williams. I want to start by saying a little about the history of party political broadcasts. The very first radio broadcast was as long ago as 1924, and we have had televised party political broadcasts since 1951, but in that time the format has hardly changed, and my argument today is that it is time for change. The combination of declining newspaper circulation and increased restriction on parties’ ability to raise and to spend funds means that we should take a fresh look at how we give them the opportunity through party political broadcasts to communicate directly with the electorate. It is time to value party political broadcasts more.

I shall say a little about why party political broadcasts matter, and emphasise that we all under-appreciate them. When I was press secretary to the then Leader of the Opposition some years ago, I attended the broadcasters liaison group, which was an annual get-together of the main political parties with the main broadcasters to discuss the format and some of the issues arising from party political broadcasts. The format followed a weary predictability, in that parties such as the Welsh nationalists and the Scottish nationalists complained to the broadcasters that they were not getting enough broadcasts, and the broadcasters complained to the main parties that they were too late delivering their broadcasts and films, thus causing all sorts of logistical problems. The main parties also complained that there was not enough flexibility in the system and that they were unable to get their message across as much as they would like.

Among politicos and those who are politically active, it is common to hear that no one watches party political broadcasts because they are old hat, no one is interested and no one cares, but the evidence does not bear that out. An Ofcom report in 2005 commissioned ICM polling, which found that party political broadcasts were second to broadcast news bulletins as the lead source of information for the public when deciding how they would vote. The importance of party political broadcasts to voters was higher than newspapers and radio, whether national or local, so it is important that we value them.

One hears from so-called communication experts in political parties that such broadcasts are old hat and that things have moved on with viral marketing and everything on the internet. The belief is that they are rather quaint and a relic of the past, but that is not true and the rise of the internet, certainly when it comes to politics, has been exaggerated. The internet has made an astounding breakthrough in shopping, social media and other aspects, but when people want political news, the traditional media undoubtedly remain the main source of information, particularly the broadcast news media.

As a result of our under-appreciation of party political broadcasts, a number of things have happened. The parties put less effort into their films. They tend to produce shorter broadcasts using more amateur, in-house camera teams, and production and finish have been in decline in recent years. Broadcasters have started to look for excuses to wind down their commitment to political broadcasts. The current Ofcom consultation recommends changing the time that parties have for broadcasts. At the moment, they have an option of 2 minutes 40 seconds, 3 minutes 40 seconds or 4 minutes 40 seconds, and a proposal on the table suggests that that should be standardised at 2 minutes.

It is worth noting that the UK probably has the most draconian laws and restrictions on political advertising in the democratic world, to the point of questioning whether that is compliant with article 10 of the European convention on human rights. I do not tend to pray in aid the European Court of Human Rights, or to suggest that we should follow its guidance on such matters, but we should reflect on the fact that there is a question mark about whether our approach is compliant and whether it might be open to future challenge. A report by the European Commission back in 2002 concluded that our current approach would probably stand up to a challenge in the ECHR, but only if we maintain a robust and free system for party political broadcasts.

Our newspaper industry is in decline. Some hon. Members will know that I have argued that we should have more credible, independent regulation of our newspapers and that that requires some form of statutory underpinning, but our press should be robust, and free to be one-sided, partial and heavily opinionated. I will always defend their right to hold strong opinions, but they have been in decline for many years and that decline may even be terminal. Their influence is certainly far less today than several years ago, and linked to that is the problem of increased restrictions on political parties, which face falling membership, making it harder for them to raise money. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 introduced caps on party political spending, and new measures to strengthen still further transparency of donations and to prevent foreign donations. Cross-party talks are taking place on taking those restrictions further and placing caps on the size of individual donations.

If party political broadcasts are under-appreciated, political parties certainly are. No democracy can work without political parties making their case and having robust argument with one another. Some of the restrictions that we are introducing are right, but we must accept that they restrict political parties’ ability to communicate directly with the electorate, and leave more power than ever with the broadcasters. A duty of impartiality is enshrined in legislation, but the legal framework under which they operate creates a particular character of journalism. They are required to balance both sides, so they often come up with anodyne reports that do not help the public to reach an opinion.

There is always an emphasis on the two-way with the political correspondent, so a party leader who has just given a speech may be given 12 to 18 seconds to explain what they are trying to do, so that there will be plenty of time for a one-minute or two-minute two-way with the correspondent when they try to put a gloss on what the party leader is supposedly saying. That has led to over-emphasis on process and political strategy instead of giving politicians credit for doing what they do most of the time—saying what they believe. When I worked for the then Leader of the Opposition, I lost count of the number of times that he gave a speech about something he strongly believed, only to see it interpreted as a pitch to women voters or to the youth vote, or trying to appease core voters. It was always interpreted through the prism of political strategy, which undermines public trust in the political process, unnecessarily in my view.

A further problem with too-powerful broadcasting media is a tendency to have hostile interviews with a duel between the interviewer and the politician, because the programme’s objective is to make the politician look evasive and on the back foot. Programme formats are often designed to do that, whether or not that is the case. For all those reasons, we need to reform the system.

As I said, at the moment the larger parties typically are given three party election broadcasts during an election period. They have a choice between 2 minutes 40 seconds, 3 minutes 40 seconds, and 4 minutes 40 seconds. I think we should take a fundamental look at that, because the big problem with the current system of party election broadcasts is the lack of frequency. Somebody might see two Labour party political broadcasts but no Conservative broadcasts, or they might see two Conservative ones and none by Labour. We should look to increase their frequency but have shorter party broadcasts.

Rather than having three broadcasts of up to say, 4 minutes 40 seconds, my proposal is that instead we have a total of 12 minutes that can be used in a more flexible range of ways. They could be anything as short as one minute, so potentially, there could be up to 12 broadcasts of one minute, or there could be a mixture of long and short broadcasts. That would introduce flexibility, and the advantage is that public engagement and the chances that the public would see those broadcasts would be increased. It would also increase the chances of people staying tuned in long enough for them to receive the message.

I first proposed that idea at the broadcasters liaison group, way back in 2006. I have to say that at that point there was a “sucking on teeth” moment, as it was explained to me that we could not possibly have US-style political advertising here in Britain. That was an absolute no-no. We must never go down that route. However, I think it is time for us to challenge that lazy assumption, because as I said, we have laws in that area that are more draconian than in perhaps any other democracy in the world. We have an extraordinary situation where it is now okay to have advertising for toys to children at 6.30 or 7 o’clock in the morning while their unsuspecting parents are in bed, but we cannot possibly tolerate the thought of advertising political ideas to grown adults.

We need to challenge that idea and understand that the real objection to US-style political advertising is not the adverts’ length, but the fact that they are paid-for adverts, which means that money buys access to television and that it therefore buys power. That is not what my proposal envisages at all. There would be equal, equitable access to broadcasting time, calculated along similar lines to what we already have in the UK. Access would not be paid for, so a wealthy individual or a wealthy party would not be allowed to buy more airtime than any other.

The second thing to bear in mind is that with our party election broadcasts, we already have a number of rules that would prevent broadcasts, even if they were shorter, from going the route of US-style advertising. The most important rule is that a politician from another party, or footage of them, is not allowed to be used in a broadcast without their prior consent. In practice, that means that video footage of a politician’s opponents cannot be used in broadcasts, which means, for instance, that the Clinton attack on George Bush senior—the famous “Read my lips” advert that they ran—would not be allowed in the UK. It also means that the flip-flop windsurfing advert that was used so effectively against John Kerry by the Republicans in 2004 would not be allowed here in the UK. We have different rules, which would prevent advertising becoming like it is in the US.

Finally, we have to understand that there is a cultural difference in any event. When we look at the way American politics is debated, it can seem to us somewhat crass and somewhat brash, and it would not work here in this country. We would end up with a shorter type of broadcast that would fit our political culture. It is not inevitable that it would go the route of the US. Before we get too high-minded about it, it is also worth noting that many Americans tune in to watch Prime Minister’s questions each week for pure entertainment value, because they cannot believe that we tolerate something quite so hostile and aggressive on our Prime Minister.

In conclusion, I want to add that although people talk about this matter through the prism of what happens in the US, we should also remember what happens in the rest of the world. Australia, which has a similar parliamentary democracy to us, has a hybrid system: it has political broadcasts, but political advertising is also allowed. That is counterbalanced by a cooling-off period, so that in the final three days of an election, there is no political advertising at all. Barbados, which is small, but another Commonwealth country, has a system similar to what I outlined. The two main parties are given some 45 minutes of airtime, but there is more flexibility about how that time can be used. Ireland has a similar system of party election broadcasts to ours, and it frequently has broadcasts that are as short as one minute, which does not cause problems there. It is also worth remembering that in the rest of the EU, the new members and democracies in eastern Europe—countries such as Poland, Estonia and Finland—allow political advertising, and quite often that is completely unrestricted.

It is time for us to take a second look at this issue. If we were to reform this area, we could find a new way of allowing political parties to communicate directly with the electorate. If we got it right, it could be an alternative to the state funding of political parties, which, as we all know, the public have no appetite for.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Williams. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) for securing this important debate on a topic that I know he has been raising for some time. He provides the House today with an opportunity to discuss the important subject of party political broadcasting. As he has shown convincingly, such broadcasts are one of the most important democratic tools that we have available to us in the United Kingdom, so they are worthy of serious consideration in the House.

We as a Government recognise that party political broadcasts, in which I include party election broadcasts, are an important part of a healthy democratic society. Having guaranteed access for political parties to television and radio from time to time provides the opportunity for the main political parties to share their policies, explain their views and engage fully with the electorate—without the gloss of a BBC political editor overlaid on top, as my hon. Friend hinted. It allows viewers to consider complex issues that may not be even covered in the news, and, crucially, it does so in the context of a system that is fair and balanced. In addition, at the time of elections, the parties are better able to set out their agenda to the whole electorate for public debate. Access to that information is vital when people are making important democratic decisions, whether in general, local or European elections.

It is absolutely right that from time to time we carefully consider the rules surrounding party political broadcasts. As my hon. Friend probably does not need to be reminded, the Communications Act 2003 requires licensed public service television broadcasters and the national analogue commercial stations to include party political broadcasts and referendum campaign broadcasts in their programming, in accordance with rules determined by Ofcom, the independent media regulator. Other channels such as Sky are not under such an obligation, but party political broadcasts are shown voluntarily on Sky’s news channel. As the BBC is, of course, outwith that general regulation, there is a separate agreement between the Government and the BBC that places a formal obligation to include party political broadcasts and specifies that the regulation of that should be a matter for the BBC Trust.

Although my hon. Friend was correct to point out that certain parts of the media are under pressure, he will be aware of the new opportunity for all elected representatives to get our message across in the long-awaited advent of local television. Local television licences are, even as we speak, being awarded across the UK by Ofcom. The latest licences for Glasgow and Edinburgh have just been awarded, and I am looking forward to hearing who will be the successful bidder for the London licence later this year.

To return to the subject in hand, Ofcom’s guidelines on party political broadcasts set out the framework in which broadcasters must decide the allocation and scheduling of broadcasts. It is of course a matter for political parties to decide the length of broadcasts, but my hon. Friend is right that they are limited to certain lengths—two minutes and 40 seconds, three minutes and 40 seconds, or four minutes and 40 seconds. The BBC Trust and the Welsh authority apply similar rules to BBC services and to S4C. I note what my hon. Friend said about the Ofcom consultation suggesting a one-size-fits-all two-minute length for a party political broadcast. He made a persuasive case for allowing political parties the right to choose flexible lengths for their political broadcasts, depending on when they would be aired.

Let me state clearly who qualifies for party political broadcasts, because that is an important part of this debate. It is only the major parties: in Great Britain, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats; in Scotland and Wales respectively, depending on one’s point of view, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru also qualify; and of course in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour party, Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists. However, smaller parties can also be represented in party political broadcasts if they are registered with the Electoral Commission and contesting one sixth or more of the seats up for election. Of course, that has to be modified where a proportional representation system is in place.

There are additional rules about the qualification of parties in the different nations of the UK and how they qualify for broadcasts on Channels 4 and Five and on national commercial radio; and of course there are different rules relating to a referendum, European parliamentary elections, Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assembly elections, Greater London authority and local elections, and other key events. There is a plethora of rules, Mr Williams, and I know that you will breathe a sigh of relief when I tell you that I will not go through them. I simply refer you to Ofcom’s website, if you want to catch up on them later in the day.

Within the terms of the rules, the precise allocation of broadcasts is the responsibility of the broadcasters. Any unresolved disputes relating to the length, frequency, allocation or scheduling of broadcasts can be referred either by the political party or by the broadcaster to Ofcom.

I think that we in the House all accept that party political broadcasting should be regulated, because we want to ensure that party political broadcasts are fair and that different political parties are represented proportionately and appropriately. It is certainly still the Government’s view that the combination of the statutory framework, Ofcom’s rules and the voluntary arrangements of broadcasters achieves that, but that is not to say that we are opposed to any change or evolution in this area. In fact, we welcome discussion.

As I said, Ofcom draws up guidelines for party political broadcasts, and it reviews them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth pointed out, Ofcom is undertaking a review of several aspects of the guidelines, partly to take local television into account, but also to take into account the newly elected police and crime commissioners and the impact that their elections might have on future political broadcasts. Today’s debate is therefore an excellent opportunity to raise issues, and my hon. Friend has done exactly that. I should make all Members who are participating in this debate aware that the consultation closes on 21 January. I hope that if hon. Members want to make representations to that consultation, they will do so.

Some may disagree, but my view is that, in relation to the current system, we do not want to risk undermining the important principle of impartiality on British television and radio. That is what television viewers and radio listeners have come to expect. They can be sure that what they see and hear on television and radio is balanced, fair and impartial. That is different from the situation with newspapers, but, again, people who read newspapers will broadly understand the political slant or stance of the particular newspaper that they choose to buy.

I completely agree. If I gave the impression that I was arguing for broadcasters to be able to become partial, I would like to make it clear that I was not. Does my hon. Friend accept that we need a range of different sources of information for the public? Yes, we need tough broadcast news bulletins that will ask the searching, difficult questions, but for all the reasons outlined, we also need to create better opportunities for political parties to articulate their agenda and their message, in their own terms, directly to the voters.

I am sorry if I gave the impression that I had got the impression from my hon. Friend that he did not think that news media should be impartial. That certainly was not the impression that I wished to give, but I do hear what he says and I think that that goes to the central thrust of his argument, which is that the current rules, to a certain extent, are archaic and that there should be more flexibility and innovation in the opportunities given to political parties. However, I stress that that is his argument; I will continue to hold the line in the rest of my speech.

I am sure that hon. Members recognise that Ofcom has developed the existing rules to ensure that the system remains workable, but it does take into account a number of considerations, which include ensuring that the public can clearly tell that they are watching a party political broadcast rather than a television programme or an advert. It is important to maintain that distinction.

We also have a long-standing ban on political advertising in the UK. That is an interesting issue and worthy of debate. I happen to believe that we should continue the ban on political advertising. I heard what my hon. Friend said about the stance of the European Court of Human Rights, but we need only look across the pond at the United States. I certainly feel that the ban in the UK gains a lot of credibility from watching what happens in the United States, where vast amounts of money are spent and targeted on hapless voters, particularly in key swing states, who see nothing but blanket political advertisements.

What is my hon. Friend’s objection to political advertising? Is it the same as mine, which is that paid-for political advertising gives an advantage to those with money, or is it that he believes that advertising per se is somehow an evil, wrong thing to do?

I hate to think that I might have given my hon. Friend the impression that I think that advertising is a hateful practice. I am the Minister responsible for the advertising industry and I go out of my way to praise the UK advertising industry as world-beating. It is probably the best advertising industry in the world and provides hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country, so I certainly would not want to give that impression. No, my objection to political advertising is similar to my hon. Friend’s, which is that it gives an advantage to political parties that have deeper pockets than their opponents. It is also somewhat of a cultural objection: to a certain extent, politics in this country is still conducted on a relatively civilised basis, and I wonder whether political advertising might undermine that. However, this is becoming a debate about political advertising when it should be a debate about party political broadcasting.

We are undertaking a communications review, but as I have made clear, we are not contemplating radical change. Given the clear views expressed by my hon. Friend today, I hope that he will respond to the Ofcom consultation, as he has some interesting proposals. However, as I said, I think it is right and proper that we have our present system; it is right and proper that people engage with it and suggest certain changes that they may wish to see; and it is right and proper that an independent regulator oversees that debate and makes recommendations based on the consultation that it is currently undertaking.

Sitting suspended.

Electoral Registration

[Mr Albert Owen in the Chair]

Thank you, Mr Owen, for chairing this important debate.

Democracy is deep in the DNA of my constituency, Blaenau Gwent. Growing up there, I learned about its rich social history, including how it provided leadership for the Chartist movement, which did so much to secure the vote for working people. From the caves in the village of Trefil, where they are said to have stored pikes before the march on Newport in 1839, to Nantyglo, where Zephaniah Williams, the Newport rising’s leader, lived, Blaenau Gwent has long been at the centre of democracy building in the UK.

Although the battle for the vote has been won by working people, to exercise their vote, people must first be on the electoral register. That leads us to the dry, but crucial topic of how to get the best register possible. Free and fair election machinery is one of the most fundamental services the state can provide for its people. From it, our democracy thrives. The electoral register is, as the Electoral Commission says, the bedrock of our democracy.

As we all know, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill—the ERA—is in the Lords, following consideration in the House of Commons. We know, too, that Labour legislated to introduce individual electoral registration—IER—so there is no disagreement amongst us about the principle. For background: as of December 2010, the Electoral Commission estimated that the register was 85% to 87% complete, which means that 6 million people were missing from it. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), who is responsible for political and constitutional reform, may have more recent figures, and it would be interesting to hear the Government’s latest estimate. I want the effective introduction of IER. I want many more, not fewer, people on the electoral register. I am worried about the Government’s proposals for IER in the future.

With all our different sources of identification, the megabytes of data available and the contact channels in use through modern media, a complete and accurate electoral register should be deliverable. Crucially, I want to see the annual canvass maintained. An individual knocking on a potential voter’s door is still probably the most effective way to get people registered. Face-to-face contact is as important as ever in our digital age. The Minister told me that the annual canvass will continue to be used as long as it remains the best way to register voters. That is good.

When the changes to electoral registration were introduced in Northern Ireland in 2006, under a Labour Government, the need for an annual canvass was removed. Over the past five or six years, registration rates have gone down to 71%. Does my hon. Friend think that the figures from Northern Ireland have a bearing on the debate today?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I want to cover later. The decline in registration in Northern Ireland is an important warning for the debate today and for the future of IER.

To return to the annual canvass, I am with the Electoral Commission: it should be a permanent feature. Also, surely the full implementation of IER should wait until the evaluation of all the current data-matching and data-mining pilots is complete. As we know, the first set of pilot schemes took place during the annual canvass in late 2011. The Electoral Commission found that the pilots had been both time-consuming and costly. Councils said that they lacked sufficient skilled staff to carry out the data input and matching. The pilots were funded by the Cabinet Office, so given the squeeze on local government, it must be doubtful whether councils can do the data matching without more money for such important work. Given that, the Electoral Commission says that data matching should be tested further, and I am glad that further pilots are taking place.

Data-matching trials with the Royal Mail and the Student Loans Company are also under way. They will be helpful for groups of people who have historically been difficult to register, which include younger people, people from black and minority ethnic communities, and people who rent from private landlords. I am sure we all want to reach such people.

Until now, we have considered data matching only with publicly held information, but I think it could be helpful to include private sector databases, such as credit reference agencies and tenancy deposit schemes. Privacy concerns must of course be addressed, but home addresses for contracts or purchases of, say, mobile phones, cars and personal finance can identify where voters live and so could be on the electoral register. Having said that, caution is essential.

Last November, the Electoral Commission, published a report, “Continuous electoral registration in Northern Ireland”. Its conclusion is stark: there has been a considerable deterioration in both the accuracy and the completeness of the electoral register in Northern Ireland over the past four years. From a register estimated in 2008 to be 83% complete and 90% accurate, the latest appraisal found one that is only 71% complete and 78% accurate. That is very worrying.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way on that point. He is right about the 71% completeness, as of last year, but does he think that it will have a knock-on effect on the redrawing of boundaries? If the boundary change proposals are successful, they will go through in Northern Ireland with 29% of the population missing from the register.

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. That is why the Electoral Commission called the electoral register the bedrock of our democracy: it decides how many people are in each constituency and where those constituencies are. It is essential that we get this right.

The management of continuous registration has not been able to cope with two important things: people moving home and people becoming eligible to vote. That is where it needs to be improved. The Electoral Commission has called for urgent action to remedy the situation and a more flexible form of annual canvass, so that households as well as individuals can update the register.

Does my hon. Friend agree that continuous electoral registration will at least be easier in Northern Ireland than in some parts of our cities, particularly London, where population turnover is a good deal higher and there is much more diversity?

That is a very powerful point. The churn in London and our cities is much greater than it is outside.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a third time. Does he agree that churn is great not only in our cities and student towns, but in seaside towns? There are 52 principal seaside towns in the UK that have high levels of transience, and their registers will be down too.

My hon. Friend has helpfully corrected me. He points to the difficulties of churn in many parts of the UK. I have been to the lovely town of Rhyl, and I know of the difficulties there in getting a complete register.

Last week, the Minister said that

“continuous registration is working for the majority of the population in Northern Ireland.”—[Official Report, 8 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 142.]

Registration of 51% would be a majority, but surely that is wordplay and shows a lack of ambition; after all, 71% completion is failing nearly a third of the eligible electorate. The Government must up their game. Electoral registration needs to be professionally marketed and administered in all Government contact with the public, and perhaps with private sector data as well. Given concerns about under-registration, there should be a full carry-forward of postal or proxy votes for the 2015 general election. If that does not happen, the Government must ensure that sufficient resources are provided, so that as many postal voters as possible are verified and able to vote.

As a constructive critic, the independent Electoral Commission must have an absolutely central role in the switch to IER. I hope that the Minister will tell us today when online voter registration will be ready for launch. The Government must invest in and develop accessible online registration with greater speed. If the internet is used successfully for banking and payment systems, surely it can be developed for voter registration.

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way during this important debate. Does he agree that this plethora of initiatives—they are absolutely essential, as he is arguing—should include one by the Electoral Commission aimed specifically at people with literacy problems? I believe that they are under-represented on the register, and they certainly are in voting. Obviously, for that initiative to reach them, it needs to be delivered through audiovisual advertising.

My right hon. Friend makes a good argument, and I hope that that will be included in the studies taking place. It is essential that as many people as possible can register and vote.

As we know, changes to electoral registration will be made at a time when local authorities face significant cuts. Expenditure in this area should be prioritised, because our democracy is too important to be whittled away by a thousand cuts.

As a Newport MP, I very much enjoyed my hon. Friend’s earlier reference to the Chartists. We put a huge burden on our electoral administrators and, as he says, electoral registration is not immune to the big local authority cuts. Does he agree that, with more elections than ever before and given that burden, it is even more important that we resource election administrators properly?

I agree. Election administrators rightly complain about the amount of resources they are given to do their important job. They should be supported both locally and nationally.

I believe that it is the responsibility of the state, not of political parties, to secure maximum voter registration, so I hope that the Minister will commit herself to that and give priority to those hard-to-reach voters, particularly the young. Voting is a habit best acquired early, and one that we should all strive to promote. The Government need to show much more ambition on voter registration. Let us get the 6 million people who should be on the electoral register signed up and able to vote in the future.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this debate, which is not only important, but on the afternoon following the vote in the House of Lords to postpone the next boundary review until 2018, clearly timely. I have to say that I welcome that decision. The proposed new boundaries would have benefited me electorally, but they are unfair and undermine our democracy, precisely because of the mismatch between population and registration that was so ably highlighted by my hon. Friend in his comments.

I want to illustrate that point by comparing my constituency with that of my political neighbour, the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg). My constituency is in the heart of Sheffield—inner-city, multicultural, with large council estates and two universities—and 17% of households have nobody on the register. The Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency, which is like a piece of the home counties parachuted into South Yorkshire, is monocultural, with large areas of comfortable owner-occupation and a stable population, and only 4% of households have nobody on the register. There is therefore a huge disparity between the number of people we actually represent and the number of registered voters.

On the surface, simply considering electoral registration, the constituencies would look much the same size, but if we compare the 2011 census figures with the number of voters registered on 2 January, the picture is very different. Sheffield Central has 76,596 registered voters, and Sheffield, Hallam has 71,559, so my constituency is 5,037 voters larger. However, according to the census, Sheffield Central has a population of 115,284, whereas Sheffield, Hallam has a population of 89,356, so I represent 25,928 more people. Many of those excluded from the register are precisely the people who form a huge proportion of my casework—a picture that I am sure is reflected for many other Members with similar constituencies.

The Lords has quite rightly rejected this Government’s attempt to gerrymander the new boundaries in their favour. Does my hon. Friend agree that they should concentrate on getting electoral registration up, so that when we redraw the boundaries, it will be done on the basis of the most accurate figures possible?

I very much agree with that point, which I will move on to. The relationship between the boundary review and the number of people registered to vote—the basis on which we calculate boundaries—is an important issue. As it stands, the boundary review would exacerbate the problem, not simply because of under-registration, but because of the point in the electoral cycle at which that review would be conducted, with the next one being in December 2015.

I worry that individual registration threatens to make the situation worse, which is why I have argued that we should base our boundaries on adult population, not numbers of registered voters. Whether or not we go down that route, there is a need massively to improve voter registration, because if we do not, we risk creating a US-style democracy, with huge under-registration that excludes the disadvantaged and disengaged and focuses elections on the needs of the more privileged, so poisoning our politics.

I am sure that many measures will be proposed by my hon. Friends, but I want to concentrate on young people. From my election campaign, I can think of many examples of speaking to young people on the doorstep. At the outset of the conversation, it was clear that they had no intention of voting and that they would never have been on the electoral roll had it not been for their parents, but in many cases—the marked register confirms this—after that conversation and having engaged with the issues, they voted. That vote would otherwise have been denied them. The Government need to focus specifically on imaginative ways to ensure the effective registration of young people—working with schools, using social media and considering other ways to address that group.

I want to talk particularly about students. Not all students are young, but the vast majority are, and given the impact of Government policy on mature student entry, an even greater proportion of students will be young people in future. Many of them are worryingly disillusioned with democratic politics. The Liberal Democrats’ broken pledge on tuition fees—this is not a party point, but none of them is here to listen; it is of some concern that that great reforming party has chosen not to engage in the debate or to show any interest in enhancing electoral registration—has not simply damaged their party; it has damaged trust in politics for a whole generation of young people.

Both Sheffield’s great universities are in my constituency, with 32,000 of their students living there. They live there for at least 31 weeks a year, and many of them for 52 weeks; it is their main place of residence. They contribute to the economy and life of the city, and they have a right to have their voice heard in elections. At the university of Sheffield, there is currently block registration of all eligible students in university accommodation, but that is threatened by the legislation on individual voter registration. I assume that the Government do not think that our universities are guilty of electoral fraud, so I question the need to rule out block registration.

Even if that argument is not accepted, there is a need to mitigate that policy’s impact. The former finance officer of Sheffield university students union made the point about the difficulties of individual voter registration for students very forcefully. He said:

“When students first arrive at University and live in halls, amongst all the other things going on, registering to vote often isn’t a priority and it is comforting to know that it’s often done automatically. If this is changed then it would become another form to fill in during the whirlwind first few weeks away from home and some students, particularly those not engaged in democracy will not be registered.”

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Like him, I have two universities in my constituency, and I strongly underline the points that he is making. Does he agree that a further difficulty is that the nature of much college and institutional accommodation makes it much more difficult to do a person-to-person, door-to-door canvass than in conventional streets? That will compound the problems that may occur with the under-registration of students.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and he is absolutely right. In Sheffield, there has been a trend away from houses in multiple occupation, which provided at least an opportunity for some contact during the canvass, to huge student flat complexes, in which the security arrangements make it impossible to engage by knocking on doors. That exacerbates the problem.

The difficulty of under-registration is that future boundary reviews will be conducted in the first term of each academic year. The students unions of both universities in my constituency run really vigorous electoral registration campaigns, and they have some impact, but they are held in the run-up to elections—in February, March and April—when people are beginning to think about voting. They do not run them in December, when data will be collected on which future boundary reviews will be based. When I am out talking to students in the days before elections, many of them are still unregistered when they finally decide that they want to cast their votes. Individual voter registration will effectively exclude tens of thousands of students—my constituents—from the electoral roll and therefore from consideration when boundaries are redrawn. They will be denied a voice unless we look at innovative ways to ensure that that does not happen.

I have spoken to the vice-chancellors of both Sheffield’s universities, and they would be happy for the voter registration process to be incorporated into the student registration process. I have discussed that idea with our electoral registration officer, who is keen to work with them. That process would involve a couple of simple questions on the student registration form, such as “Do you wish do register to vote?” Alongside that, there should be an explanatory note on entitlement to vote, because students are often confused about their rights to vote in their city of study and the city in which their parental home is located. That question would be linked to the collection of the student’s national insurance number, which would be a requirement of the process.

Sheffield is a great pioneering city, and we were at the forefront of the Chartist movement, too. If we can make the process work, there is no reason why it should not work elsewhere in the country. Will the Minister commit to meeting Universities UK and the National Union of Students to discuss that proposal and ways to maximise student registration?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this debate on a topic that is close to many of our hearts. At present, registering to vote is the nearest thing we have to a social contract. It acknowledges that we live in a democracy. Depending on the figure we choose, however, millions of people are not registered to vote. We may disagree about the figure, but we all agree who is not registered: people who are disadvantaged, young people, people on low incomes, private sector tenants, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

In the previous Session of Parliament I introduced a private Member’s Bill, which is more relevant than ever, which was designed to bridge the gap between the excluded group and everyone else. The idea is simple. If someone wants to connect with the state by getting benefits, a pension, a national insurance number or even a driving licence, they must be on the electoral register. That is not a big imposition. After all, if someone has to be on the electoral register to get a credit card, why not be on it to get a driving licence? Linking access to public services with the electoral register has two purposes. It will increase democratic participation and, more importantly, it will provide an explicit link between the democratic process and the benefits that we enjoy because we live in a democracy. It is classic rights and responsibilities. If someone does not like living in a democracy, fine. They do not have to sign, but they should not expect all the good things as something for nothing.

The electoral register already fulfils certain important citizenship functions. It is a way of deciding who does jury service. It is possibly the country’s most cost-effective anti-crime database. The police use it if they want to catch up with someone. Banks and credit companies use it to prevent fraud. Benefits investigators use it to check that people pay council tax and are on the right benefits. More positively, charities use it to help raise funds. Most obviously, of course, it gives people a chance to vote. It is in everyone’s interests, therefore, for the electoral register to be comprehensive.

We are about to enter an era of individual registration, or, as I prefer to call it, stopping mums helping their children to vote. When individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, the register collapsed by 11%, and we have heard in this debate that it might be down by as much as 29% at the moment. The Electoral Commission states that that adversely affected disadvantaged groups—young people, the poor and people who are in and out of unsecured shorthold tenancies. Those are just the sorts of people with whom we need most to engage to prevent social exclusion and the kind of senseless violence that we are witnessing in Belfast at the moment. Northern Ireland, as I said earlier, is a stable community compared with London.

In addition to individual registration, there is some confusion about how compulsory it will be to register to vote. Where registration is optional there is, unsurprisingly, a drop in who registers, especially among disadvantaged groups. In the US, 40% of people on incomes below $20,000 are not registered, and there are similar rates of disengagement among under-25s and people who rent their homes in this country. On top of that, there is confusion about councils’ annual canvasses. My council, Merton council, stated that only 65% of homes return registration forms, but after its canvass, 97% of homes have registered.

There is even more confusion because in 2015, those who do not individually register will be able to vote in the way they are used to if they vote in person, but people who vote by post or proxy will not be allowed to. That will cause many problems, especially for older and disabled constituents. That seems unfair, because the forms they signed promised them a vote indefinitely. I stress that I make that point even though it harms my electoral prospects. At last May’s elections, Labour had a 10% lead in Merton, but the Tories had a 13% lead among postal voters, so I want it to be noted that I am actually arguing here on behalf of the Conservative party. I make those points because I love democracy, not because I seek political advantage.

According to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Electoral Commission, no election result has ever been decided because of over-registration, but we need only look to America to find people who believe that an election can be fixed by systematically removing voters from the register. I was in Ohio last autumn, canvassing for President Obama, and voter suppression is an increasing tactic of the right. They have seen their country become more diverse and liberal, and they think that they can sabotage that by taking people off the register, by going to court to stop early voting, by placing lawyers at polling stations in poor areas to intimidate voters as they stand in line or to slow down the lines, by insinuating that Latino citizens might not have full voting rights and by making it impossibly difficult for young black men with very minor felonies on their record to vote at all. For the sake of democracy, such voter suppression should not be allowed to succeed here.

The problem with our electoral register is not that there are too many people on it; it is that there are still 3.5 million people who are not. Telling people who want tax credits, a pension or a passport that they have to be on the electoral register might help. It will make the register even more accurate and ensure that more disadvantaged people engage in the democratic process. It will also, in a small way, begin to tackle the so-called “something for nothing” society. Making our social contract as explicit as that will tackle fraud and reduce social exclusion. More than that, it will ensure that more people have a chance to vote. Being registered to vote is a symbol of engagement. It shows that you are not on the margins, but part of the mainstream. Voting is not only for the elite; it is something we should celebrate for all. That is why, for the sake of democracy, I hope that other members will consider supporting my suggestions and making registering to vote more, not less a way of life.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Owen. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this very important and—as has been said before—timely debate.

I was first switched on to the issue of electoral registration by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) some 12 years ago, and I have been passionately campaigning on it ever since; I think that I have tabled something like 300 parliamentary questions to flush out information on this important issue.

Progress has been made. I think that the original proposals by the Government—I refer to the Conservative part of the Government—were meant to use the boundary review to get the 2015 election, and to use electoral registration to get probably the four or five elections after that. It has not turned out that way. Some gratitude must be shown to the Liberals for that, because they have seen the light and helped Labour and all other believers in democracy in slowing down the whole process.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and his boss, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), on the fantastic way that they have handled this issue in recent years. I also congratulate the Civic Society—I include in that Operation Black Vote—as well as Unlock Democracy, Scope, the Electoral Reform Society and the Electoral Commission. I have locked horns with the Electoral Commission on a number of occasions, but it has done a good job as far as electoral registration is concerned. And, as I say, the Government have listened and I want to give credit for that.

I wish to raise a few issues here today, and one of them concerns funding. I carried out a survey in Wales, asking all the electoral registration officers how much they spent per elector on registration. Lo and behold, the more they spent on registration, the more people there were on the electoral register. The Government have offered £108 million to help with all these changes, but that money is not ring-fenced, so I ask the Minister, first, to ensure that the £108 million that is being given to local authorities for registration is spent on registration. Secondly, I ask her for full, careful and non-politicised deliberation on data matching and data mining, the details of which will be announced shortly. Thirdly, I ask that she look carefully at the level of fines for non-registration. The Constitutional Affairs Committee recommended a fine of £500 for non-registration, which might be a bit severe, but at the lower end a fine of £35 has been suggested, which would be absolutely—well, having such a fine would be the wrong thing to do. So those are three issues that I ask her to look at carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) mentioned voter suppression. If the changes had gone through in their original form, we could have said that they were a form of voter suppression. To have 6 million people—not 3 million, but 6 million—off the register, with the Electoral Commission warning that that figure could go up to 16 million people if the original proposals went through, would mean that we would not have a functioning democracy.

I also ask the Minister to look at some best practice from Wales. The Conservatives are always lambasting Wales and saying that we have got it wrong; here is an example of where we have got it right. I am holding the form from Denbighshire county council to all its electors, and right in the middle there is a threat that if someone does not fill in the form they will be fined £1,000. Those who do not fill in the form receive a letter from the chief executive officer, Dr Mohammed Mehmet, and in the last paragraph it says:

“In order for me to fulfil my legal duty, I am therefore requesting that you complete the enclosed information sheet and return it to me promptly in the envelope provided. If you fail to supply the information requested within 14 days, I will have no option but to pass the matter to the council’s legal department.”

As a result of that, in the poorest ward in Wales—the West ward of Rhyl—registration went up by 34%. That has been achieved in Wales, so I will leave a copy of the form for the Minister to look at.

May I ask the Chair what time wind-ups will start?

I have been instructed to carry on by the Chair.

There are a few issues in the excellent document by the Electoral Commission, “Managing electoral registration in Great Britain”, which was published in June 2012. It gives some performance indicators. However, one of the worrying performance indicators is:

“Performance standard 3: House-to-house enquiries.”

“House-to-house enquiries” involves sending canvassers round, from house to house, to find non-responders. In 2008, 16% of electoral registration officers did not perform that role; in 2009, that went down to 5%; in 2010, there were only 2% of officers not carrying out this essential function to get the registration up; and in 2011, the figure increased by 800%, to go back up to 16%.

This is obviously a very important issue when it comes to voter disengagement. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is also perhaps a role for political parties? When it comes to MPs doing their constituency work, and interacting with their constituents, perhaps whenever that work has been done the MP can say, “Are you on the electoral list and if you’re not, perhaps you can register?”

Absolutely. It is incumbent upon us all as MPs to do that—no vote, no voice. That issue needs to be considered as well.

May I respectfully ask that the statistics that I have given are sent to every MP, every Assembly Member, every Member of the Scottish Parliament and every Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, as well as to every councillor across the land, so that we get some pressure from below? As well as Governments passing laws from above, we will get some pressure from below. If most MPs realised that their electoral registration officer was not fulfilling their duties, they would be on to them, but nobody knows about these facts and figures. So I ask the Minister if she will use her offices to ensure that this vital information is sent out to all MPs.

I realise that I have a colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), who wishes to speak, so I will—

Okay. In that case, Chair, I shall go on even a little bit longer. [Laughter.]

Some of the issues pertaining to Northern Ireland have been mentioned by a number of Members—

The hon. Gentleman has made that point about Northern Ireland. Just for the record, Mr Owen, I want to say that many people are not registered and those who vote perhaps give an indication in the wrong ballot box—that is my opinion, of course. However, after the disgraceful decision to remove the Union flag from Belfast city hall, the number of people who registered to make a decision and make a change went up greatly. Of course, by that stage it was too late. So, if people want to make a change, vote early.

Hopefully early, but not often. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

In the case of Northern Ireland, when the changes were introduced in 2006—I admit that they were introduced by a Labour Administration, and that the requirement to have that annual canvass and get out there “on the knocker” was not in place and there was continual registration—registration rates went down in the five or six years afterwards, to 71%, meaning that 29% of people were not registered. If the analysis is made, we will find out that those people, in the main, will be people who live in council houses, or tenants of social landlords, unemployed people or low-paid people, and quite often they will be black or minority ethnic. So quite often these are the people on the margins of society, and as I say there are currently 6 million of them missing from across the UK and the figure for Northern Ireland is proportionally higher than for anywhere else in the UK. So we need to learn the lessons from Northern Ireland if we are rolling out this Bill.

It has been claimed by the Electoral Commission, and I think by the leader of the Liberal Democrats as well, that these changes will be the biggest changes since the introduction of universal suffrage. If they are that big, we need consensus, and if there is not consensus I can promise the Government this—if Labour gets in at the next election, there will be a massive push from Back Benchers and Ministers to undo what has been done.

Labour did not politicise the issue of electoral registration for the 13 years that it was in government. I wish that it had. I was taking the message back to Ministers—Labour Ministers—and saying, “This is a big issue. We have 3.5 million people unregistered.” We could have politicised that issue. If those 3.5 million people ever voted, they would have been our voters. And in fact it was not 3.5 million people; it was 6 million people. If those 6 million people are added to the register, there would be no need for the equalisation of parliamentary seats, because the vast majority of those 6 million people would be in Labour seats. So this issue of registration has massive implications and I urge the Minister, and her team and the Prime Minister, to listen carefully and not to go about this process in a party political way but in a fair, balanced and consensual way.

When Labour came to power in 1997, after we had been out of power for 18 years, the first thing we did was to give away power. We did that by introducing proportional representation for European elections. In Wales, we went from four Labour MEPs to one. That was not in our party political interest. We had a majority of 180 Members of Parliament, and we could have established the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly without PR, but we did not. We could have dominated those institutions, certainly in Wales and Scotland, but we did not— we did things in a balanced way. Again, that worked against us.

What did we do with quangos? They were stuffed with Tories. The quango king of the country lived in my constituency. He was on £86,000 a year in 1996—more than the Prime Minister. What did Labour do? There was no more of that. We took out big, full-page adverts, usually in The Daily Telegraph, asking for good, decent people. We said that things would be non-party political. We gave away power in local government in Scotland. Everything was balanced.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister and her team to look at this issue in a non-party political way.

I know how important my hon. Friend thinks the canvass is for electoral registration. Does he share my concern that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill suggests that a Minister can abolish the canvass? Does he also share my concern that the canvass will consist of knocking on a door and exhorting people to fill in the form? If they have refused to fill in two previous forms, why would they fill in the third? At the moment, the canvasser stands there with a member of the household and completes the form with them.

That is an eminently sensible point, which I support.

In conclusion, partisanship should not be shown on this issue. The Minister should look at the lessons from Northern Ireland and from the data matching and data mining. She should also look carefully at the level of fines and at best practice from around the UK, including my constituency. If she does all those things, she will be supported by both sides of the House and all parts of the country.

Order. Before I call Sheila Gilmore, I remind Members that I will call the Front-Bench spokesman at 3.30 pm, and no other Members have indicated that they wish to speak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing the debate.

We assume that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill will complete all its stages at some point and that individual voter registration will go ahead. The Bill will come into force in a period when quite a lot of important things are going on electorally. In Scotland, the process will take place at much the same time as the referendum, which raises considerable issues for electoral registration officers, who will have to manage the processes simultaneously. For the purposes of the referendum, there is a proposal—what happens will depend on the view taken by the Scottish Parliament later this year—to enfranchise 16 and 17-year-olds. If that happens—the Scottish Government have certainly indicated their intention to do it—it will raise procedural questions about how these things are done. Electoral registration officers in my city, for example, could therefore be dealing with a large number of issues at the same time as individual electoral registration.

Like many Members, I think it is important that we put in the effort. The canvass is important. It does not necessarily have to be hugely more expensive, although equally we should not take money away from electoral registration officers. We need to know where the effort needs to be put in, and if electoral registration officers do not know, they need only ask political parties, which can certainly tell them, because the differences in electoral registration in different parts of our constituencies can be extremely stark. We can almost predict where the low registration will be before we go into certain streets and start looking at the electoral register to discover just how many households are missing from it. Armed with that knowledge, we could concentrate on areas where we already know there is a shortfall. Things will only get worse—there is no doubt about that—so we need to concentrate on certain places.

We may need to think laterally about making it easier for people to register. For example, I was out knocking on doors at the weekend and the Member with me pointed out that several of the apparently unregistered houses belonged to council tenants. How did we know that? We knew what kind of new doors the council had recently put on those houses, and we took a bit of guess, albeit it was a fairly safe deduction. Those people had probably moved into those properties relatively recently. New tenants go through various processes with the council: they sign tenancy agreements and some, but not all, apply for housing benefit. That is an ideal opportunity to register people at the same time. People have to do a lot of things—they sign up for the electricity and other things—so why not make electoral registration part of the process, so that they can automatically register as they take up their new tenancy?

Often, it is those very people who come to our surgeries—they are certainly coming to my surgeries at the moment—and say things like, “I’ve just had this letter saying I’ll have to pay something towards my rent from April. I’ve never heard anything about this. I don’t know anything about this.” They see these things as politics, but politics is, of course, about things that happen to them. Once people realise that, they begin to be get a bit more interested, but no doubt some of the people who come to see us and are very angry are not registered. We therefore need to think about making electoral registration as straightforward as possible.

We could go into schools to register young people; that is not at all unreasonable, because once people are registered, the forms will continue in future years. I do not see why it is not possible—this was raised previously—to allow people to register quite late in the election run-up. When there is an election, people’s minds turn to registration. With modern technology and the ability to deal with late registration, we could perhaps let people register virtually up to the election, as happens in parts of the United States. If we do that, people who become interested and who see that the election matters will not find themselves unable to vote. I have known people turn up at a polling station only to discover to their horror that they are unable to vote. At times, they get very angry about that, because they have been fired up by what they have heard.

One thing that is slightly worrying to somebody who sat through the debates on the Bill and who is a member of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform is that we are now hearing that the situation in Northern Ireland is not as rosy as we were led to believe. The Select Committee looked at the issue and took evidence on it. We were aware that there had been a fall-off in registration initially, but we were given repeated assurances, first, that it was a temporary phenomenon that had been overcome and, secondly, that the rest of the UK would learn from the process and not make the same mistakes. Now, however, we hear that it might not be such a temporary phenomenon. That may be because there was concern at the outset, so extra effort was made to improve the position, but that declined again when the foot was taken off the pedal, which clearly shows that we have to keep putting in the effort. That is a matter of some concern because of the assurances we were given. Those of us who raised concerns about the Northern Ireland situation were told that we really had nothing to worry about, that it had been resolved and that things were moving forward much more successfully. That is not the case.

In the lead-up to the changes, the Government need to look carefully at improving registration levels, which clearly are not good enough in some places. That would be necessary even without individual voter registration. That may require electoral registration officers to work far more closely with their fellow local government employees, laterally in relation to council housing, but there is also housing association housing. They might even work with some private landlords to see whether a link can be made, because that group of tenants is probably the most mobile and they are the ones falling through the hole.

Once we have all the household figures from the most recent census, which have not been published yet, we will clearly see what we know anecdotally from our own areas, which is how much more private renting there is now than there was even 10 years ago. That is such a mobile population that it is probably a major factor in reducing levels of electoral registration. How can we make contact with people when they move in? Can we find ways whereby electoral registration officers do not sit somewhere, isolated, but work with letting agents, perhaps, to make the forms available?

One of the problems with the Northern Ireland process was that the data-processing system was not working correctly, so the information was not all collated. One of the reasons for that was the funding. Wherever a data-matching process is set up, bringing all the different bodies, benefits and rent allocations together, it should show where the person is, but it does not always work that way unless there is funding to ensure that that the data-matching process takes place. That is a lesson that has been learned in Northern Ireland. The system has not worked. It must work better.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment and insight into problems that have arisen. There are dangers in relying on a technological answer. As we found with some of the data-matching pilots, different organisations record things very differently, although perhaps that should not happen; the technology does not always work; addresses are not always referred to in the same way. Such small differences mean that although the technology should make it possible to identify where a person is, even if they were not previously on the register, that may not happen. A small difference in the description of the address is enough for the technology to let people down.

There is nothing better than the individual approach, and we should not rely on technology to perform that task. Technology has a place, and if it makes certain things easier, all well and good. It may provide a base to start from, but it is wrong to assume that it will somehow get us out of the problem. Getting out to people where they are—for example, by having an electoral registration officer sitting in a supermarket with a stall and forms to catch people while they are there—is not a bad idea. There are all sorts of ways to engage better with people. I hope that that will be taken seriously, that electoral registration officers will be given the resources and information they need, and that good practice will be shared so that that can happen. Otherwise things will get worse. It is deeply depressing to go to what I suppose in my constituency is a typical tenement building and to find that of perhaps eight or 10 residences, barely half are registered, even under the present system. It is not good enough.

This afternoon’s debate has been excellent, and I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing it and on his first-rate contribution. He set out clearly many of the issues. It is a timely debate, because, as a couple of hon. Members have mentioned, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill is now back on course after being mysteriously delayed by the Government in the other place. It is back on track and we look forward to its return to the Commons.

Several hon. Members have made good points. We heard about the situation in the United States of America where unfortunately voter suppression is all too often a political tactic of the right. I am sure that we all deplore that. Some hon. Members mentioned the need to focus on groups that are under-represented on the register: black people, young people, disabled people and those who are very mobile. We need to make a special effort to ensure that our electoral register is as complete as possible.

We have also heard about the Government’s change of heart when the Bill was passing through the Commons about whether a penalty should be imposed for an individual’s non-compliance in the process of registration. We welcome that, but we of course pressed the Government in Committee on how that would be administered and how much the fine would be. At that time, they understandably said they had not reached a final decision, but they have now had months to consider, and I wonder whether the Minister will say precisely how much the fine for individual non-compliance will be.

We also heard, importantly, about Scotland and were reminded that there will be a referendum in 2014 on Scotland’s continued membership of the Union. That will of course coincide with preparations for individual electoral registration. Uniquely in that election, but I hope not as a one-off—I would like the principle to be extended—young people of 16 and 17 will be given the vote for the first time. That will inevitably, I think, put great pressure on the electoral registration process north of the border.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent said, the debate is about the nature of our democracy and democratic participation. The electoral register is the lynchpin of our democratic process, and we all want it to be as accurate as possible. No one condones the examples of fraud that have taken place, but we must not exaggerate the amount. Just as importantly, we want the electoral register to be as complete as possible. We all want as many people as possible to have the chance, in a modern, thriving, healthy democracy, to exercise their democratic right.

I want to put some specific questions. First, on Northern Ireland, many of us were led to believe, as was mentioned in the debate, that the situation there was a good example to follow. We all recognise that the situation there is different from Great Britain’s, but nevertheless individual electoral registration was introduced there. We were told initially that there was a fall-off in the number of people on the register, but that that had improved. However, we now understand from the Electoral Commission that there is a marked reduction in the number. The commission’s report gives a number of reasons, but clearly one is to do with the decision taken in 2005 to discontinue the annual canvass in Northern Ireland. That appears to have had a significant impact on the chief electoral officer’s ability to track population movement.

Members have referred to the fact that people are increasingly mobile these days, and that is particularly an issue in our inner-city areas, including here in London. A key lesson that must be learnt from the Northern Ireland experience is the importance of retaining the annual canvass. We have discussed this issue at some length in the House, and Members have expressed concern about the Government’s possibly not continuing with the annual canvass. Although clause 7 of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill provides Ministers with the power to amend or abolish the annual canvass, the Bill also states that the Minister must have the approval of both Houses and that the Electoral Commission must prepare a report. I welcome that, but I would like a cast-iron commitment that the Government, in learning from the experience of Northern Ireland, have no intention whatsoever of scrapping the annual canvass.

Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister not only not to scrap the canvass but to ensure that canvassers can still help individuals on the doorstep to complete their forms?

That is an important point, because it is entirely complementary to the broader point about maintaining the annual canvass. An annual canvass is successful because it is about face-to-face contact; it is about electoral registration officers having a relationship with people and providing information about how they individually can complete their forms. The two points go well together. I would therefore like a cast-iron commitment from the Government that they have no intention whatsoever of putting a question mark over the future of the annual canvass.

That leads on to my second point, which is about the role of electoral registration officers. The ERA Bill proposes in sub-paragraph 6(2) of schedule 4 that the words “so far as is reasonably practicable” are introduced in relation to the role of electoral registration officers. I do not think that that the provision was modified in the Lords. Some people have suggested that that weakens the role of EROs and means that they cannot do their job as effectively, and although that is not necessarily the case, it introduces the potential to further allow EROs to limit the scope of their intervention. The important flexibility that currently exists is in danger of being weakened, and I would like reassurance from the Minister regarding EROs’ essential role in ensuring that individual electoral registration is implemented fairly and effectively.

Following on logically from that, I think that we all realise that, for electoral registration officers to be effective, they must have the necessary resources to do their job properly. The Bill’s explanatory notes state:

“A total of £108m was allocated at the Spending Review in 2010 to meet the cost of implementing Individual Electoral Registration. This includes £85m resource funding in 2014/15 to fund registration officers to make contact with each potential elector individually and invite them to register in 2014”.

There has also been reference to an extra £13 million per year being provided.

I take my hon. Friend back to the statistics for house-to-house contact given by the Electoral Commission in its document, “Managing electoral registration in Great Britain”. If the Government have supplied £108 million, there should be no excuse for that contact—knocking on people’s doors—to go down massively. What does my hon. Friend think is the reason for that? It happened under the Tory watch.

We must be mindful of the tremendous pressure on local government at the moment. Although moneys might be nominally provided for electoral registration, I would like the resources to be ring-fenced, to ensure that they are used for the process for which they are stipulated. We are not blaming local authorities —we can all understand the tremendous pressure that they are under in a cuts climate and that education and social services and so on require resources—but if money is not ring-fenced, it is all too easy for it to be surreptitiously shifted from one budget to another. That is why it is very important that the Government commit to introducing ring-fencing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if fines should come in, the money from them also should be ring-fenced for electoral registration purposes?

I understand my hon. Friend’s sentiment, but I do not think that it is quite that easy. A wrong impression might be given—a bit like with speeding fines—with electors under the impression that local authorities were deliberately fining people to ensure an extra source of income.

Just to clarify, I meant that if fines were introduced and the money went somewhere central, the Government should somehow consider how the money could be ring-fenced for electoral registration purposes. I appreciate that if the money went to a local council there could be a perverse incentive not to register people to charge more fines.

That is a sound sentiment, and I would welcome the Minister’s response. We certainly all recognise that adequate resources must be provided if the system is to work. Money, from wherever it comes, is to be welcomed, and we need as much of a focus as possible on this issue.

I understand that the Government, according to their implementation plan, were to come forward with a funding mechanism for local authorities by last December, and I also understand that that has happened. Have the Government gone a step further, however, and not simply talked about a funding mechanism but begun to consider how much local authorities will have and whether there will be differential allocation according to the amount of work that is necessary in each area? I refer back to a point made earlier about under-represented groups. The Government, through the Cabinet Office, have been doing good work in liaising with various groups that work with under-represented elements in society, but there is a need for extra targeted resources, to ensure that we get under-represented groups fully registered.

Finally on funding, I want to ask about the situation in Wales. I understand that last year there were ongoing discussions with the Welsh Government about a sum possibly being devolved for them to carry out their work in relation to local authorities in Wales. Can the Minister enlighten us on whether the discussions have concluded and what sum has been allocated for individual registration in Wales?

This is important legislation, and it is commendable that so many Members—Labour Members, at least—have attended the debate. I am slightly concerned that more Government Members are not here, but I hope that now that the Bill is once again making progress, thanks to last night’s definitive decision in the other place, our constructive dialogue will continue when the Bill returns to this House.

I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for providing us with a helpful and interesting debate. I will attempt to answer the various questions that have been raised, and I hope that I will entertain the Chamber for the remaining 21 minutes.

On the point of sheer entertainment, I will mention my constituency, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned his. The Chartists enjoyed their moment in Norwich, too. I live round the corner from Mousehold heath, the scene of a great point in the history of democratic and somewhat rebellious engagement, which is a fine thing to mention in this debate.

On a perhaps drier topic, encouraging individual registration is vital, and I reassure the Chamber that the Government do not lack ambition on that. It is the role of the Government, politicians, political parties, electoral administrators and plenty of others to encourage people to register to vote. The Government are committed to doing all we can to maximise registration levels, and to consider ways to modernise the system to make it as easy and convenient as possible to register to vote.

The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament and provided us all with a few moments of excitement last night, with perhaps a few raised heart rates here and there, will go some way towards changing the electoral registration process for the better by introducing individual electoral registration. The Bill will create a legislative framework to allow alternative channels for registration, such as online registration, which I am pleased to confirm will be available from July 2014. The Bill will also provide for the use of data matching to verify applications, to confirm existing entries on registers during the transition to IER and to find individuals who do not currently appear on the register. We have already carried out pilot schemes.

Does the Minister agree that the findings of the data-matching processes so far indicate that the electoral register is the most accurate record in existence? The electoral register is more accurate than the records of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, perhaps because it is compiled by people who live in a particular area and who go door to door.

In some ways, the hon. Lady is right. The electoral register, by its nature, is a repository of solid information, but it is important that we put to work other data sets held by different levels of government to maximise numbers. We all want the numbers to be maximised, and we must find the best ways to do so. We are carrying out various schemes to test the usefulness of matching electoral registers against several public authority data sets. A further set of pilots will commence shortly, some of which will address students and recent home moves.

Will the Minister explain why the date for introducing IER, which was agreed with all-party consensus under the previous Labour Government, was moved forward one year from 2015 to 2014? Why was that consensus broken?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, in general terms, for his flashes of bipartisanship both in this debate and, occasionally, in the main Chamber, but I regret that some of his, dare I say, time-filling appeared to descend into slightly more partisan commentary. I will be similarly partisan in response: the version introduced by Labour cost more than our version to the tune of some £100 million, and I think it is worth comparing schemes on that basis. The previous scheme would have caused confusion because, effectively, it sought to run a voluntary version of individual registration alongside another process. I believe that the version before us is somewhat cleaner.

I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. Why, specifically, was the date moved from 2015 to 2014? Was it to gain party political advantage for the general election and because the Government foresaw the deadline for the next review of parliamentary boundaries in December 2015?

In short, no.

Other hon. Members have asked various questions about data matching, which I must address so that I answer everyone in time. In particular, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked about the use of credit reference agencies, which is a point that he has raised capably many times. We considered the possibility of a pilot using credit reference agency data, but I am advised that running such a scheme within the existing legislation would be difficult. As I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), I am interested in finding as many useful sources of data as possible, and I shall continue to look for them. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and I will continue that debate as we continue our research, but I am aware of a number of shortcomings in using data from credit reference agencies.

There will be a move to digital applications from the current paper application form, which will make registration more convenient for a number of people. The move will increase accessibility for many people with disabilities. I will be talking to the Electoral Commission later this week, and I am happy to raise the points raised by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden on the accessibility of the forms. We will be actively encouraging applicants to use the online system, which we intend to be the primary channel for applications. It is important, however, that we retain the option of a paper form to cater for anyone who is not ready for the move.

I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point on absent voters. She generously explained how important that group is in her constituency, and often, those in that group are older voters, whom we will consider carefully. I certainly would not wish to see any such group disadvantaged, and I will watch that carefully.

The Minister suggests that she wishes to watch the process carefully, but of course the Government have the power to change their mind about the proposal that people with postal votes should not be automatically rolled over. There is still time to do that before the new process comes into play. Rather than simply reacting to a problem after the event, perhaps the Minister might consider a change of mind.

I thank the hon. Lady for that reminder of what a Minister is and is not capable of doing. I repeat that I will be watching all these matters like a hawk. Some are within our direct control, some are for the Electoral Commission and some are for Parliament as we complete the process. I reassure her that I am deeply interested in ensuring that we maximise registration levels in all corners.

The current plans for registration include the annual canvass, and I fully assure the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent that it will continue to be used for as long as it remains the best way to ensure that the register is as complete as possible. If data matching is used, and we hope that we might now be able to match well over two thirds of voters by using that method, a whole new world of possibilities is opened up as to how we might, on an annual basis, register the right people. I do not think a situation in which the annual canvass is less effective than new methods is beyond our lifetimes. I do not suggest that I know what those methods might be—I deliberately take a long view in posing this scenario—but it is possible to use the legislation ahead of time to introduce a power to give an instruction not to use an annual canvass if other methods have become more effective. I repeat that we are all interested in effective methods. I am not interested in ineffective ones. However, Members will have heard the fuller debate on that issue in the Chamber earlier this year when it came before the Commons. I reassure them once again that all the safeguards will remain in place before any such abolition will be considered.

I welcome what the Minister says up to a point, but rather than hypothetical future scenarios, we are looking for proof that the Government are learning the lesson from Northern Ireland, as the Electoral Commission said, and recognising the centrality of annual canvasses. What might happen in future is a matter for another time; we want a categorical affirmation that the lessons from Northern Ireland have been learned and that an annual canvass is here.

It is important that I go on to Northern Ireland before we run out of time. We are absolutely clear that we will be learning and have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland, and we have looked carefully into the Electoral Commission’s report. We are taking steps to prevent a fall in registration levels upon the introduction of individual electoral registration by retaining the annual canvass—as I said, we have no plans to abolish it in Great Britain—by moving the 2013 canvass to early 2014 to allow a more accurate and up-to-date register to be used at the beginning of the transition to IER, and testing and evaluating the benefits of data matching, about which I spoke briefly, by confirming eligible electors through the data match process. That confirmation will give us a substantial baseline level of completeness throughout the transition to individual registration. All those things are vital. We have always recognised that the transition to individual registration poses a risk to completeness rates, so we are putting in place those safeguards.

Registration rates in Northern Ireland are down to 71% and could go lower. At what percentage—60% or 55%, for example—does the Minister believe that we will stop having a properly functioning democracy?

I do not intend to answer that with a number, but as I have said many times and will say once more, we are all interested in the maximum level of registration in this country.

Will the Minister respond to the very good point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) about the crucial difference that can be made by the ability of the canvasser on the doorstep to help people complete the form? Will she reconsider it and commit to moving in that direction?

I will. I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman asks, as it reminds me to ensure that I answer the hon. Lady’s question. I do not believe that there is anything to prevent canvassers from helping on the doorstep. I am happy to come back on that in further detail, as I see that we are running out of time.

On the civil penalty for failing to make an application to register when requested to do so by a certain date, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked me for a figure. It is currently subject to keen stakeholder engagement, and I look forward to being able to update the House in due course. In passing, I note under that heading that the civil penalty is about deterrence, not making money. The sum will fall to zero once the individual registers. There is no interest in turning it into a money pot; that is simply not what it is for. I reassure the Chamber that through the safeguards that I have described, we want a situation in which we have confirmed the majority of existing electors and automatically retained them in the register, which will allow us to ensure that the register is at least as complete as it is now while improving its accuracy during the transition to individual registration.

It is important that I discuss some other measures in the time available. The IER system must be flexible enough to respond to changes in society. Beyond the transition, we will assess the most appropriate channels for applications. We want it to be digital by default, and we want an IT service to underpin the process for validating all applications, in whatever format they are made.

The Government are, of course, committed to funding the transition to individual registration, as has been noted throughout this debate. We will fund local authorities in England and Wales directly through grants made under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, allocated for the purposes of paying for the transition. Local authorities will receive a non-ring-fenced specific grant to pay for the move to IER. It will not be included in the formula grant. Appropriate safeguards already exist in the legal duties, which will be seen by the House in secondary legislation, and those duties rest on electoral registration officers. Local authorities will clearly be obliged to fund a number of business-critical activities, and that is in compliance with their statutory duty to pay EROs’ properly incurred expenses. I am happy to deal with that matter more in correspondence if Members wish.

Encouraging democratic participation is vital, and I hope that hon. Members have noted my commitment to it in the flavour of my comments in this debate. We are seeking to work with a range of organisations to engage individuals and communities from all sections of society in the political process. I am afraid that I cannot avoid using a minute to respond to some of the more partisan points made by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). Nobody owns voters, places or cities. We all go out and work for them. I am sure that he joins me in that sentiment, and I look forward to working with him in his more bipartisan moments.

We know that registration levels are disproportionately low in some groups; I think that everybody has made that point in this debate. To help us understand current levels of electoral registration, we have carried out a detailed programme of research, including funding an Electoral Commission study on the completeness and accuracy of the register, an independent academic review of all available research and further studies into exploring the barriers to registration for groups missing from the register under the current system.

I said that I would mention some places on which the data-mining pilots are particularly focused. As I think hon. Members know, they are to be focused on attainers, students and recent home movers, among others. I have no concerns about being approached by Universities UK or the National Union of Students, although I note that those groups met my predecessor at a more urgent stage of the Bill. However, I am happy to have further such discussions with them. On the points made about student voters, I note that only 13% of halls of residence currently use block registration. That is instructive, as it suggests that there are alternative methods. It is vital to treat young people as adults who can and ought to register in their own right and under their own responsibility.

On other ways that we are working with groups in broader society, the Northern Ireland experience is helping us plan activities. We are working with Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote to increase understanding of the importance of voting and the process of registering to vote; I have done such events in Norwich, and I think it is important to do so.

We are continuing all those efforts to drive up registration rates as we move towards IER. To do so, we need partnerships with a range of organisations in the private, state, voluntary and community sectors. As I said, I welcome and appreciate all the good points made in this debate. I shall be speaking to the Electoral Commission later this week, as I do regularly as part of this work, and I shall impress on it as part of its responsibilities to communicate about registration to the broader public—hon. Members will know that that is one responsibility of the EC—the good points made in this debate.

In conclusion, the Government are fully committed to doing what we can to increase voter registration levels. There is no silver bullet solution. I do not think that increasing democratic engagement is the Government’s responsibility. To borrow words from the Scripts’ recent song “Hall of Fame”, I think it is a question for students, teachers, politicians and preachers. It is also a question for parliamentarians, parents, carers, role models and officials from political parties. We must provide people with compelling reasons to vote.

Post-16 High Needs Provision (Warrington)

As always, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, but this is a debate I would prefer not to have; I would prefer that it was not necessary. However, some of the Government’s decisions on funding for post-16 high needs provision may damage some of the most vulnerable young people in Warrington—young people whose disabilities are profound and whose care needs are extensive. We have a duty to ensure that they are provided with the best we can give them. Yet when Warrington received its allocation in late December, it found itself plunged into a crisis because the amount of money allocated to it for the provision was far less than the amount needed for the number of places it required. I believe that that is not what the Government intended.

When the Secretary of State for Education announced changes to the funding system last March in a written ministerial statement, he said:

“Improvements to funding for high needs provision will mean it can be more responsive and will enable greater choice for children, young people and their parents.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 89WS.]

The Government’s own impact assessment said that the changes should

“improve accessibility of such provision to disabled pupils and students and should impact positively on equality of opportunity for this group.”

However, we cannot have choice if there are not enough places. We cannot have equality of opportunity if no funding is available. That is the position that young people in my local authority may find themselves in next year, because when the responsibility to commission post-16 high needs provision moves from the Education Funding Agency to the local authority, the amount of money that transfers over will be less than what the authority is spending now and will certainly not be enough to meet the number of places required next year.

Part of the problem is that the funding is based on the number of places needed in 2010-11—that is a three-year time lag. It is different from the way we fund other post-16 provision, which is based on the previous year’s figures. I would be grateful if the Minister explained why it is different and why young people with such special needs should be disadvantaged in this way. Warrington’s funding will be based on a year when it required 88 places, but it already requires 151, and next year it will require 186. Even with the uplift given to the 2010 figures, Warrington estimates that it will have enough funding for only 109 places—£1.5 million—whereas the amount it estimates will be needed is £3.9 million.

I commend officers and the portfolio holder for children and young people, Councillor Colin Froggatt, on the work they have done. They have said that they fear being able to fund only what are called elements 1 and 2 for special needs provision, which is course fees plus £6,000; they do not believe that they will have money for any top-ups at all. That will leave disabled young people in Warrington at a disadvantage compared with those in boroughs that can afford to pay top-ups to providers. I do not believe that we should fund special needs provision in such a way. Whether someone can get a place in the appropriate facility should not depend on the borough they happen to live in. I do not believe that that is either the Minister or the Government’s intention, but that is the consequence we are facing.

I can find no logic in the figures for Warrington. The special educational needs block grant of EFA funding is 35% nationally, whereas in Warrington it is 25%, yet the proportion of people with special needs in Warrington—0.5%—is close to the national average of 0.53%. There is no logic to the figures.

The EFA has sought to focus attention—wrongly, I believe—on the increase in the numbers of young people placed with independent specialist providers in Warrington. Interestingly, the EFA took 2009-10 as its start point, which is completely different from the one it uses to assess funding. True, only six young people were placed with ISPs that year, but there were 12 in 2010 and there are 19 now. The EFA is funding them, so presumably it agrees that that provision is appropriate for their needs. Warrington does not spend a much larger percentage of its budget on ISPs than is spent nationally—it spends 41% as opposed to 39% nationally. The Minister will know very well that, on the sort of numbers we are dealing with, the difference between those percentages is statistically insignificant and can be accounted for by one young person with vey high needs.

Nor is it the case that Warrington has not sought to improve its special needs provision. The local authority is seeking to build a special needs campus on the site of the former Woolston high school, with provision included for post-16 young people. However, the Government have delayed that by threatening to take the building away to give to a free school. They cannot have it both ways; they cannot say, “You must place fewer people outside the borough,” if at the same time they are delaying provision inside the borough.

Everyone has agreed that the figures on the number of places the authority will need next year are robust. Officials from the Department have been through them with local council officials, and there is no dispute about them. I have asked the authority to provide me with some examples of the sort of young people we are talking about. It gave me an example of a young man who is severely learning disabled, has communication and behavioural difficulties and is a wheelchair user. He needs one-to-one support throughout the day and access to physiotherapy, occupational therapy and a hydrotherapy pool. He is placed in independent specialist provision at the moment, but the Minister will know very well that for young people with such a high degree of need, it is often impossible to cater for them in-borough, because the numbers are so low that the facilities required cannot be built. The authority also gave me the example of a young person who has a place locally. He has epilepsy, autism and communication difficulties, and he too needs one-to-one provision throughout the day. Those are the kind of young people who deserve the best we have to offer.

A local authority cannot control the numbers needing that type of provision, nor can it magic them away. It must deal with the young people as they are. If we do not provide for their needs, we let down not only them, but their families, who invest an enormous amount of time, effort and emotional energy in caring for them. The least we can offer them in support is the right care and education for their children.

What, then, is the authority to do? It has been suggested to it that it should take some of the money allocated to under-16 SEN provision, but the Minister knows as well as I do that that budget is already stretched to its limit. He will have seen people in his surgery, as I have, who cannot get provision for their children of school age. Even if the authority can do that, there will still be a gap of approximately £700,000. Where is that money to come from?

The council was told by officials that it could take the money from elsewhere in its budget. Frankly, those officials are living in cloud cuckoo land. Warrington has already faced cuts of £50 a head in spending power. It has had to take £32 million out of its budget, and according to the Government’s own figures—the Government may have to revise those figures, because I know a number of authorities double-counted some things—as a result of this year’s settlement it will have to reduce its spending by 5.5%, or about £12 million. As in all authorities, adult social services, which might have been expected to provide some of the extra funding, are under huge pressure because people are living longer and requiring more support. It is unreasonable to argue that we should take money from other vulnerable groups to fund those in our community with the most pressing need, whether they are children with special needs at school or vulnerable adults.

The authority finds itself in an impossibly difficult situation. Seventy-seven young people could be left without funding for their places next year. No guidance is coming from the EFA on which young people should be allocated places. The authority’s hands are tied, because the guidance states that it should honour existing commitments and, to paraphrase, should not seek to renegotiate existing contracts, except in exceptional circumstances. Apparently, exceptional circumstances do not include not having enough money. In any case, the providers of many of those services are few and far between and operate, as the Minister knows, in a sellers’ market. To suggest that the contracts could be negotiated down is unrealistic and untenable.

We are left in an appallingly difficult position, which I hope the Minister will help us to resolve. The test of a society is how it deals with the most vulnerable—those who have no voice to argue on their own behalf, which is the case for many of those young people. The test of a Government is how they deal with unintended consequences. I do not believe that this Government intended these consequences, or that they intended to leave young people with serious disabilities and a high level of special need without places in the coming year.

There has to be another look at the provision. There has to be a way of resolving the problem through discussion between the council and the Department, because at the heart of this dispute are those young people. They did not seek this problem, they do not deserve to have the consequences foisted on them, and they deserve to have their needs met. That is what I hope the Minister can do for us this afternoon. It is simply morally wrong that those young people should be left without the provision they need next year. I hope that, in his answer, the Minister will offer us a way to resolve the issue, to the benefit of some of the most vulnerable young people in our area.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate, which is important for her constituents. It is, in particular, important for a group of vulnerable young people, whose case she is right to raise today. I am grateful for the opportunity to address her points and to explain the reason for our funding reforms. I will then talk more about the specific situation in her constituency and council area. I assure her that we are taking care to help local authorities and providers prepare for the changes that will happen later this year. We want to ensure that they are given the flexibility to use the funds that we will make available through their dedicated schools grant allocation in a way that best meets the needs of the children and young people they are responsible for.

I offer some reassurance that we take the concerns that have been expressed by local authorities, including Warrington borough council, seriously. Officials in the Education Funding Agency and other parts of the Department for Education have been working closely with local authorities for several months to help them understand the reforms and the necessary adjustments to funding, and that process is ongoing. We have relied heavily on the information that authorities and providers have given and used that to inform the distribution of funds. Where there have been discrepancies or anomalies, we have tried to be even-handed in our approach so as to get as fair a distribution of funding as possible.

Before I go into the detail of the process and of the particular local issues that have been raised by the hon. Lady, it might be helpful if I explain the rationale for the funding changes, which could lead to the consequences to which she referred. We have a disjointed funding system, with different arrangements for the funding of children and young people, depending on whether they are in the pre-16 or the older age group and on whether they continue to attend school or are in further education. Our aim is to establish much closer alignment between the pre-16 and post-16 funding arrangements for those young people who have special educational needs, learning difficulties and disabilities. Local authorities will be required to establish a single high needs budget for use in meeting the needs of all age groups up to 25.

Local authorities currently have statutory duties to make provision available for all students aged 16 to 19 and for those aged 19 to 24 who have a learning difficulty assessment. They only have a funding responsibility for such students in schools, however, not for students in specialist or general further education colleges or sixth-form colleges. Additional support funding for those institutions currently comes directly from the Education Funding Agency, as the hon. Lady mentioned. Although the agency takes into account the local authority’s decisions on student placements, we believe that better funding decisions will be taken, and a more efficient use of resources achieved, if the commissioning and funding responsibilities are more closely associated within local authorities. That is one of the key aims of our reforms to the funding of young people with high level needs.

In seeking arrangements that offer good value for money, as taxpayers expect, I assure the hon. Lady that we are not using the change as an opportunity to cut funding overall.

I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying, but does he not accept that if the responsibility for commissioning those places transfers to the local authority, the funding has to transfer as well? The funding that is transferring to Warrington is less than that which will be spent this year, and is certainly not enough to meet the places that we need next year.

I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, and I hope that I will be able to address some of them and put her mind a little at rest as I go on.

On the national picture, our plans are to increase funding for post-16 students with learning difficulties and disabilities. We spent £585 million in this area in 2011-12, and we are planning to spend £639 million in 2013-14, which is an increase of 9%. In previous years, the budget for specialist provision, which is now administered by the EFA, has not been fully utilised. We are not reflecting that underspend in the transfers we are making to local authority high needs budgets, so overall spending on young people with high needs throughout the country is set to increase by a significant amount over this period.

In the new system, post-16 funding will be of two kinds. To provide stability to providers, a proportion of funding will be based on places, which I think the hon. Lady understands. Providers will receive an amount per place of nearly £11,000 for the year. That funding will be guaranteed for the year, whether or not the places are utilised, and it will flow to all providers from the Education Funding Agency according to a national formula. The other kind of funding—top-up funding—will reflect the excess of additional support costs over the place-led funding, and will be paid in every case by the local authority responsible for placing each student. This element of funding will follow the student and therefore ensure that funding is not allocated to empty places.

The hon. Lady rightly highlighted the local impact of the changes that we are making. Hon. Members will understand from what I have just explained that to move to this better system we must make adjustments to local authority funding allocations. As the hon. Lady indicated, budgets have been based on what was spent on high needs students resident in each local authority area in the 2011-12 academic year, which is the latest full set of data that the Department holds. Since last August, the Education Funding Agency has shared information with, and gathered information from each local authority. That is to inform the distribution of funds between the place-led element, which is driven by a national formula, and the student-led element, over which the local authority has discretion. In fairness to all local authorities, we have not attempted as part of the process to redistribute the budgets between them.

We have encouraged authorities to collaborate with all the schools and colleges that are currently educating their students with learning difficulties and disabilities, so that they understand the scale of demand for future high needs provision and can decide how best to meet that within their high needs budget. This exercise will enable the place-led funding for each school, college or other provider to be settled so they can plan for their intake in September. The remainder of the funds will be with local authorities, as part of their high needs budget, to allocate as top-up funding for individual students.

The process so far has been complex for some local authorities, including Warrington, because the pattern of provision has changed significantly in some areas in recent years, or because the required information has not been readily available or verifiable. Some authorities claimed increases in the number of high needs students of 25% or more over three years. Warrington council was one that declared such an increase—in fact, an increase of some 65% from 113 in 2011-12 to a projected 186 in 2013-14.

I want to draw two things to the Minister’s attention. First, the local authority tells me that part of that increase can be accounted for because it has become better at identifying those with special needs. Under the old system, which was run through Connexions, we were not good at identifying those with high-level special needs. Secondly, I hope the Minister accepts that the figures given by Warrington have been verified by his own officials. There is no dispute about how many will need provision next year.

That is important because the Department must be able to distinguish between areas where the figures may be unreliable and those where they are reliable. We recognise that there may be issues in Warrington.

It is true that the rate has gone up significantly in the last year, which is causing the anomaly. Even after it has gone up, it is still lower than the national average. Surely that is relevant to the way in which the computation is done, because it does not imply any abuse.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When looking at the statistics and trying to understand why the changes have taken place in specific authorities, my officials will carry out such checks to test the credibility of the data. We believe that this level of increase may in some cases result from misunderstanding or inaccurate predictions of the number of students with high-level needs because that scale of growth in numbers is not reflected across the country in the lower age groups. To manage expectations, the Education Funding Agency set a limit of 24% to cap the projected increase in the number of student places, and has encouraged authorities in some cases to provide more realistic estimates of places where the original increase reported cannot be justified. I am not saying that that is the case in Warrington, but in some areas that has been a concern. A cap has been necessary to be fair to all local authorities.

As a result of the exchange of information between Warrington council and the EFA, the position reached just before Christmas was that the post-16 element of its high needs allocation will be £677,000 next year, within a total high needs budget of £18 million. The EFA is now looking at more recent information from the council to see whether further adjustments are necessary to the amount allocated to it. The particular issue in Warrington is that it has predicted a significant increase of 65% in the number of places and a significant increase in consequent costs since 2011. Within the increase in recent years, a much larger number of students have, as the hon. Lady said, attended non-maintained and independent special schools and colleges, which tend to be more expensive.

Although the window for further adjustments to dedicated schools grant allocations has now generally closed, the further education and school sixth form elements of those allocations are not due to be finalised until early March. In general, we expect all local authorities to live within the overall dedicated schools grant that they have been allocated. For Warrington borough council that is £146 million, within which the high needs allocation is £18 million. We are aware that there may be unintended consequences arising from the changes due to specific local circumstances, such as those set out today by the hon. Member for Warrington North and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat).

An opportunity remains until 22 February for a few local authorities to make an exceptional case to the Education Funding Agency, and I assure them that the EFA and my officials will look carefully at whether adjustments can and should be made if the changes have affected particular areas in ways that were not predicted, and if they are material. In its review of such cases, the agency will ensure that any further adjustments are not to the detriment of other local authorities. We want to be as fair as we can to all authorities.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous. Will he or a Minister in his Department meet a delegation from the borough council to try to iron out the issues, because they have serious implications for some very vulnerable young people?

I will certain meet the hon. Lady and representatives from the council. Indeed, there will be a dialogue, as I have said, between the Department, the EFA and her local authority to ensure that there is a sensible conclusion. She will understand that until the process has been completed, I cannot give a cast-iron assurance of any outcome, but I can assure her that we are treating her concerns seriously, and looking into them. If adjustments are necessary, we are open to making them in a limited number of strong cases.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to how students aged 16 to 24 with high needs will be funded. This is an important question for many young people and their families, and I hope that I have been able to provide some reassurance about the national picture and reassurance that concerns at local level will be treated seriously if they are based on clear evidence that changes in recent years have not been taken fully into account. Our funding reforms will be complemented by new legislation later this year. It is being designed to address some of the wider problems with the current support systems for young people with learning difficulties and disabilities. In the meantime, we will continue to work with local authorities, including Warrington, and schools and colleges across the country to implement the funding changes, and to monitor and assess their impact. We will of course make adjustments in future years if that proves necessary.

I thank the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend for raising this issue seriously and in detail. As I said, I cannot give a commitment today, other than to say that we are engaging seriously with her and her local authority. We will examine the issue carefully, and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues from the area, if that is appropriate, to discuss the matter with officials. If we believe that changes are necessary, we will implement them.

Leisure Services (North East Lincolnshire)

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. With your permission, I have invited the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) to share the debate with me. I have advised the Minister, who is happy with that, and I hope that meets with your approval. The Minister has indicated that 10 minutes will be sufficient for his summing up.

I appreciate that this matter is ultimately one for the local authority, which in this case is North East Lincolnshire unitary authority, so I appreciate that it will be difficult for the Minister to give a direct response. However, although it is a matter for the council, a considerable amount of public money is involved and one of the funding streams is, either directly or indirectly, Government money. Local opinion is very strongly of the view that the current proposals for the future of leisure services in the borough will, if implemented, provide lesser facilities for a considerably greater cost.

In recent years, the authority has rightly undertaken a review of its leisure services provision and updated it to meet changing circumstances. One scheme that unfortunately fell by the wayside as a result of the financial incompetence of the Learning and Skills Council was a learning village situated only a few hundred yards from Scartho baths, which I will talk about in a moment. Unfortunately, the revised conclusions that have been proposed rest on rather doubtful projections that are hotly disputed by campaigners, who, after receiving expert advice, have put forward some well reasoned alternatives.

The most contentious of the council’s proposals is the closure of the Scartho road swimming pool, known locally as Scartho baths. The pool is approaching 50 years of age and it is accepted that significant investment is required if it is to be given a new lease of life. I should mention that the pool is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, but it serves the whole of the council area and beyond. The council is proposing a 25 metre pool at Grimsby leisure centre, which is on the outskirts of the town and access by public transport is difficult for a great many local people. The leisure centre itself is now 40 years old and I acknowledge that it also needs refurbishment. It houses a range of facilities, most notably an ice rink, and I will return to the future of the rink shortly.

I am usually reluctant to criticise the local authority publicly, as I recognise that we as Members must work with our local councils, irrespective of their political colour, on a range of issues. However, this issue has been dominating the local media in north-east Lincolnshire and is therefore an exception. The hon. Gentleman and I have been supporting local residents, and in particular the Save Scartho Baths campaign, and there is overwhelming local opposition to what has been proposed. The hon. Gentleman went so far as to use his Christmas card to highlight the council’s folly.

Indeed—a new form of campaigning, which I am sure will catch on.

The hon. Gentleman and I have met with a developer who has considerable experience of providing similar facilities for local authorities and with the private sector. They have offered to carry out a free survey and feel confident that alternatives exist that could deliver more for the money available. Surely it makes sense to pause and accept that and other offers the council has received to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money. Local people, even if the final decision goes against their wishes, at least deserve the satisfaction of being involved in a proper consultation and a fully transparent process. It is possible that the companies, having studied the proposals, met council officers and visited the sites, would conclude that the council’s proposal is the best way forward. It is unlikely, but it is possible. It is a disgrace that the council is denying those opportunities to deliver more for the taxpayers’ money. If more cost-effective solutions are available, surely they should be considered. It is suggested that for around £2.5 million the Scartho baths could be refurbished, adding another 15 to 20 years to its life.

Following the introduction of the Localism Act 2011, I know that the Government are keen to ensure that local authorities undertake proper consultation before making such major decisions about local facilities. It is not unknown for councils or even, dare I suggest, Governments—surely not this one—to go through what could be described as a sham consultation, but the one undertaken by North East Lincolnshire council on this issue reached a new low.

The consultation was undertaken when, following a public outcry, the matter was referred to the council’s scrutiny panel. Residents were quite reasonably expecting an extended, detailed debate, together with a proper consultation, to be able to indicate whether the Scartho pool should be refurbished or replaced. The only mention of the pool in the consultation was in one of the questions, which said, “The following facilities are coming to the end of their life, which would you replace? Please choose one of the following: Grimsby swimming pool or Grimsby leisure centre.” Other questions included, “Should the council continue to provide quality leisure facilities within the borough? Yes or No.” It would be difficult to answer anything but yes. Question 2 was, “Given the tough decisions the council is having to take around substantial reductions in funding, should it replace ageing leisure facilities?” Again, it is hardly possible to say no. It is irresponsible in the extreme for the council to plough on in such circumstances.

Campaigners have consulted a wide range of experts, and I am sure that the demand for transparency suggests that the council should at least stop and consider alternative proposals. It is possible that additional funding might be available. I spoke to the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and he has indicated that there might be pots of money for which the council might be able to bid. I believe that now is the time for the council to pause and reconsider how best to move forward with the backing of local people.

That excellent journal of local record, the Grimsby Telegraph, carried a letter from one of my constituents, who says, having heard the council state that

“this current administration is committed to investing in tourism and leisure, I find it very reassuring. My difficulty is understanding how and why they seem to be getting it so wrong. Any reader of this paper will have noticed that they are getting little or no support for their proposals. The majority of the public, especially those who use our leisure facilities, find no justification in pulling down Scartho Baths. Indeed, it is just the opposite.”

I am sure that the plea will have reached the local authority. Until now, it has not acted on it, but I hope that further consideration will be given.

I mentioned the Grimsby ice rink, which is located at the leisure centre and is also under threat. In part that is due to the coolant used to keep the ice frozen, but my point is that the loss of the rink now seems inevitable, because although a previous council resolution stated that moneys returned from the council’s investments in Icelandic banks would be ring-fenced for either a new ice rink or refurbishment of the existing one, I understand that that ring-fencing has now been removed. The ice rink now seems doomed—yet another blow for residents of the borough.

The Grimsby and Cleethorpes area is a low-wage area: the average salary is £20,000 or thereabouts, which is considerably less than the national average and £3,000 less than the regional average. Although some excellent private facilities offer good discounts, the reality is that many people across the borough rely on leisure facilities provided by the council. I must say to the Minister that North East Lincolnshire council has not fared at all well from recent funding decisions by his Department, but that is a debate for another occasion. We all accept that we are living through particularly difficult financial times and that the authority must consider whether an £8 million new build is better than spending £2 million or £3 million on a refurbishment, particularly when most local people believe that they would be getting a better facility.

Like many local people, I learned to swim at Scartho baths and skate at Grimsby leisure centre—neither very well, it has to be said. We value the facilities and firmly believe that the council should call a halt to what is proposed, reconsider, involve local people in its decision-making process in a meaningful way and engage with Government agencies again to see whether, in this post-Olympic world, other funding streams are available. All we ask, as the local Members of Parliament, is that the council pause and reconsider. Surely, local people deserve that.

The Deputy Leader of the House said in his reply to the pre-Christmas Adjournment debate in the House, when I raised this issue previously, that my plea for the local authority to listen again was on record and that he hoped that the council would reconsider. I hope that this Minister will also ask that it do so, and perhaps a little more successfully. If the Department for Communities and Local Government can exert any pressure on the council, local people, I can assure him, will greatly appreciate it. Our plea to the council is a plea to pause and reconsider. Surely, that is not too much to ask.

It is very important to raise this issue, and I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in doing so. I emphasise at the start that we have no desire to challenge the council and still less to try to dictate policy to the council. That is not the job of MPs. The council takes the decisions relevant to the council, and the swimming baths are relevant to its portfolio. The point of the involvement of MPs is, first, to represent the views of our constituents, and very strong opposition was demonstrated to closure of the Scartho Road baths. Indeed, a petition was signed by more than 5,000 residents of the area against closure. There was a strong feeling that they had not been properly consulted. We took up the case and managed to secure another consultation, although, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said, it was not adequate, as the questions were fairly loaded towards the closure of the Scartho Road baths. However, the council did accept the need for a new consultation.

Our responsibility is, secondly, to get the best possible deal, in the light of the very acute financial stringency that the current Government have imposed on our council. It has suffered very badly in the cuts—certainly worse than any authority in the south would have suffered, or many richer authorities have suffered. Our responsibility is to get the best possible financial deal on the provision of swimming facilities, and we asked whether the best possible deal was achieved by refurbishing Scartho Road baths, which is 50 years old. In fact, it had its birthday in December. That is the first time a swimming baths has been almost as old as the Member for the constituency. However, the pool, like the Member for the constituency, is still in good condition and eminently refurbishable. Or was the best financial deal achieved by going for a new pool? That is what the council wanted to do. It wanted to establish that pool at the Willows leisure centre in Cromwell road. The aim was not to pay the staffs of two centres to do work that could be done by the staff of one centre and to economise in that fashion.

Another of our responsibilities was to ensure, if the council did go for a new pool, as it wanted to do, that that pool was the best possible pool, with the facilities that children, young people and adults need to train to become future Olympic champions and to go into championship swimming. There is now a passionate desire to train. A growing number of kids want to train to develop Olympic capabilities. There is a growing demand for that kind of facility and training. We want Grimsby to breed champions—it has in many other areas—and that means having the best possible facilities for the whole region. Ours is a region of 250,000 people; it serves the needs of 250,000 people. A good leisure pool, up to proper Olympic standards, would be a facility for the whole area, which is under-provided for in many respects.

In the light of what I have described, we thought it best—we thought it sensible—to take soundings from pool providers. There are a number of expert pool providers. They are comparatively unemployed—under-employed certainly—at present, with the cuts in council spending. We wanted to take soundings and get costings. One provider in particular, from the north-east, undertook to come down and give us free estimates and free advice on the best course.

We discovered during our inquiries that providers were building pools at much lower cost than the council was estimating would be necessary to build a 25-metre pool, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes said. They could even provide a 50-metre pool—in other words, a pool up to Olympic standards. To train in such a pool, anyone from the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area would have to go to Ponds Forge, at Sheffield, which is the nearest available Olympic-sized training pool. Anyone who wants to go on to championship swimming has to train in such a pool, and that is the nearest one. Why should we not have a 50-metre pool for our area? That is the question. The provider that I have mentioned said that that was possible at a price that was still lower than the council was estimating it would cost to provide a 25-metre pool in the Willows leisure centre.

I congratulate my two constituency neighbours, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), on this excellent debate. A 50-metre pool is of course something that North East Lincolnshire council could work with other authorities in the area to try to provide, because we do have a vision of making ours an area of sporting excellence. North Lincolnshire, the East Riding and Hull could be brought into that potentially.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to express admiration for my appearance in a swimming costume, but as he raises a financial matter, I agree absolutely with what he says. There is no reason why we should not co-operate with other local authorities to provide something central for the area in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, which would remain the centre of population. That could draw swimmers, in the way Ponds Forge does to Sheffield, to the Hull area.

The provider said that the pool could be provided at a cost lower than the council had estimated for 25 metres, although the costs of running it would be higher. It would also be a pool that had diving facilities, which the council does not now intend to transfer from the Scartho Road baths to the leisure centre baths. Modern young people in training, particularly at championship level, need diving facilities and a diving well in the pool as well. All that could be provided at a lower cost than the council was estimating. We therefore argued that it was best to bring in these consultants to lay the ground—to give us proper information on what could be done and what was available. It is sensible, in taking any decision, for people to have the fullest information and the fullest costings before they let the contract, so that they know what they are doing.

It is important to keep Grimsby swimming, especially the young people. Swimming is for life, after all. Swimming is for health and swimming is for well-being. We want it to be encouraged and sustained in our area. This is where the Minister, I hope, will be able to help us and where Government can help. I do not expect the Minister to say, “By God, these two are all right and the argument is strong,” give way immediately and provide Grimsby with the money to establish a big pool, but I do hope for advice from the Government and from the Minister on the provision of facilities for Grimsby. What advice—what help—is available?

We had before the Public Accounts Committee the people responsible for the Olympic provision, which was very successful. I asked them, “What does Grimsby get out of the legacy from the Olympics?” After a certain amount of hemming and hawing, one official came up with the idea that we got the experience of and enthusiasm for volunteering. That is not enough. We need money as well to support local activities. What finances are available, first, for refurbishment of an existing pool and, secondly and more importantly, for the provision of a new, bigger pool—it could be a regional pool—to provide top-rank facilities of Olympic standard with a diving facility for the whole area? What finance is available from Government? How do we set about tackling this?

We want a centre of excellence for Grimsby, Cleethorpes and the surrounding area, to help local young people who aspire to be swimmers—perhaps in the Olympics and the swimming championships, which are now so important—to achieve their ambitions. Grimsby deserves the best. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes and I will ensure that it gets it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for securing the debate and to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) for his comments. Hon. Members will no doubt be aware that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport sets the policy framework for sport funding decisions. Day-to-day decision making on the distribution of funding for sport and physical activity rests with the funding bodies, which, to touch on the closing comments of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, are Sport England and UK Sport.

We all know, and have all recorded, how much the summer’s Olympics gave this country and how proud we are of everything achieved. Members here will rightly be particularly impressed with and want to praise the abilities of medallists from Lincolnshire, such as Sophie Wells, Hannah Macleod and Georgie Twigg. If we are to repeat the success of last summer’s games in 2016, we must ensure that our athletes have the best possible conditions in which to train. That is where today’s debate becomes particularly topical and why the Prime Minister announced that UK Sport will receive about £125 million a year over the next four years to provide sports’ governing bodies with the certainty that they need to put in place long-term plans.

In the few moments that I have available, I shall touch on a couple of specific points. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby commented on how funding is distributed between the north and the south. If he will excuse me, I must challenge him. The Library has published reports recently that show that the situation he described is not the case. I speak as a Member of Parliament for an eastern constituency in the south, which has had one of the biggest cuts in the country, thanks to the legacy of the funding settlement of the previous Government under Labour. I would strongly argue that point.

The hon. Gentleman also tempts me to talk about legacy opportunities. We will feed his comments through to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, because, as he will appreciate, it is an issue for that Department in particular. He is right about the concern to ensure that people across the country benefit from the legacy of the Olympic games, which partly comes down to the sporting opportunities that young people have to become the superstars and Olympians of tomorrow.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has responsibility for local government, including promoting the leadership role that local authorities play in the strategic management of the public estate in their areas. I know that hon. Members here all share the view that we need to disperse power from central Government to society—my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and I took part in a debate a couple of weeks ago outlining that view. Localism is just that: doing everything that we can as close as we can to the residents and citizens we represent, fully involving them in decisions about their areas—local people making local decisions on local issues, with central Government involved only when absolutely necessary.

The Government have strengthened the distinct role of local government as an autonomous political institution that builds and leads communities and provides services. Our actions are giving local authorities unprecedented freedom to get on and work in the best way for residents and local businesses. The Government’s approach to localism is therefore about passing power down to citizens —greater power held locally by accountable local authorities to help them to make a difference in their communities.

It is to their great credit that all three Members here today are working not only cross-party, but cross-border to represent their residents. We should ensure that the local authority is very much aware that this is not about party politics, but about Members across borders and across parties coming together to do what they can to ensure that their residents’ views are represented. I acknowledge that and I think it only right that the local authority takes notice of the fact that Members have come together in that way. My thanks go to the hon. Gentlemen for putting forward such a cohesive position.

If Members will excuse me for being simplistic about this, there is a great quote from, I think, a Spiderman film:

“With great power comes great responsibility”.

In this case, that means that for local councils and authorities to be able to say that they clearly represent their communities, they must look at, listen to and work with communities to ensure that they make decisions with them. Members have made a strong case today, and in this case, whether or not that is true, the local community council and local authority need to look carefully at how they have gone about making their decision. I shall return to that point in a moment.

Local communities hold their councils to account, ultimately through their voting power at local elections. Local councillors making decisions should bear that in mind; it is an important part of the democratic process. The Government have also introduced measures that increase transparency to allow local people to have a better view of what is happening locally, to create more openness and to strengthen democratic accountability. We have introduced greater transparency on how public money is spent locally, and in this case, Members have clearly done a great job in highlighting decisions to local people.

The Localism Act 2011 introduced the community right to challenge, which enables communities and the voluntary sector to question how services are provided and to have the ambition to challenge and make plans to take them over. In this case, it is not necessarily impossible for local communities to look into that right, if they feel strongly.

As a result of the changes that we have made, local authorities have greatly improved the way that they manage their assets. There is still room for improvement to ensure that they make the right decisions, with the best value for money, in the best interests of local residents. To continue to support and drive the agenda forward, the capital and asset pathfinder programme, delivered by the Local Government Association with support from the Department, has already supported 26 councils. Councils that have been involved in waves 1 and 2 have already achieved significant local savings and have gone some way to offsetting the reduction in the rate support grant. Wave 3 of the programme, launched on 26 October last year, concentrates on promoting local growth as well as delivering efficiency savings. It sounds as though local authority in this case should look at that.

The Government believe that it is for local authorities, in consultation—I stress, in consultation—with their communities to decide how to make best use of their assets, including the relative benefits and costs of replacing or refurbishing assets, because they are best placed to know what works and what is most appropriate for their local area, in a way that central Government cannot. To do that, local authorities must consult and work with local residents and take their views on board.

Members commented on whether a consultation was genuine. I hope that they note that we responded and made changes following the last consultation that I ran in my Department on the business rates retention scheme, which shows that even central Government—to pick up on the comments earlier—can, should and do listen to consultations when making our final decisions, and local authorities should do so, too. We encourage, and I strongly encourage, local authorities to engage with their communities when considering options for managing their assets. We consider it best practice for local authorities to consider the preparation of their asset management strategies in consultation with their communities.

In conclusion, as Members outlined at the beginning and will understand, I am not in a position to comment on the specifics of the scheme my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes highlighted, because I have not seen the business case weighing up the relative financial situation. I have set out the Government’s general approach and view, and I support the concerns of the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). Local authorities should consider the most efficient way to use what are ultimately scarce resources and, most importantly, that they do so in genuine consultation with the communities that they serve.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.