House of Commons
Tuesday 11 February 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Local enterprise partnerships, independently and through city deals, promote entrepreneurship in a variety of ways, including by providing help and advice to small businesses, premises for start-ups and access to venture capital funds. Next month, in my hon. Friend’s area, a small business support service will begin, bringing together the local enterprise partnership, the chambers of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the Engineering Employers Federation, to assist new and growing businesses in his area.
Successful entrepreneurs, particularly in local communities, are best placed to promote growth, jobs and prosperity. May I meet the Minister to discuss how we can work together to develop a national network of local enterprise funds to tap into communities’ sense of entrepreneurship?
I would be delighted to do that. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts in Bedford, where I think he has brought investors together to fund start-ups and rapidly growing businesses. That is characteristic of many of the city deals that we have struck around the country. For example, in Nottingham, £40 million has been made available, jointly by the Government, Nottinghamshire county council and Nottingham city council, as well as local investors, to help invest in Nottingham businesses. I commend that to colleagues across the House.
The most consistent barrier to entrepreneurship in my constituency is the lack of available finance from banks. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that today’s announcement by Barclays—of further bonus finance available to its staff—tells us that the Government do not get that it is necessary for them to pressure the banks to start lending in order to encourage entrepreneurship?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the funding for lending scheme, which the Government and the Bank of England have promoted, has explicitly concentrated on getting lending going to small businesses, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) said, bank lending is not the only source of finance needed. The venture capital funds established under our city deals are an important and welcome way in which small businesses can benefit from the finance they need to expand.
We have now agreed 19 city deals, and although they are for the long term, those in the first wave are already making a significant difference. For example, in Birmingham, more than 2,000 new apprenticeships have been provided. In Newcastle, infrastructure works are nearly complete on the Science Central development on what was previously derelict land. In Manchester, work will shortly begin on the airport relief road, and Liverpool is hosting the international business festival in June and July, which I know the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) will be supporting and to which I will ensure all colleagues receive an invitation.
I can confirm that there is in fact a city deal covering my hon. Friend’s constituency, the Coventry and Warwickshire city deal, which is focused on making the most of the opportunities in the supply chain for advanced manufacturing. Furthermore, through the available local growth funds, the principle of city deals is being established across the whole of England, and I am looking forward to visiting each LEP to conduct negotiations.
The hon. Lady, who takes a great interest in these matters, makes a good point. In the past few days, I have met in Birmingham all the LEPs and local authorities from across the west midlands area precisely to ensure that their individual city and growth deals reinforce each other, so that the west midlands’ strong advantages, especially in advanced manufacturing, can be combined.
My hon. Friend, speaking for the Isle of Wight, makes an important point. In our response to the Heseltine review, we have extended the principle of city deals to rural areas, including the Isle of Wight, so that the same financial flexibilities and powers will be available, as they have been to cities.
In towns such as Telford, the Government still own a large portion of land through the Homes and Communities Agency structure. Would the Minister be willing to meet councillors and officials from Telford and Wrekin council to consider how we could use that land in a city deal-type partnership to promote more growth and development?
I have already done that. I went to Telford last week to have precisely the conversations that the hon. Gentleman has in mind, and I was impressed with the conversations that took place. [Interruption.] He is quite right that he should have been informed. I hope he was, but if he was not, I apologise for the discourtesy. However, I met his council leader. I was impressed with the work going on there, and I look forward to a future visit, to which the hon. Gentleman will certainly be invited.
Forgive my naivety, but I understood that city deals were a creation of the previous Government, and that, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), they channelled transport and economic development funds into cities and other urban areas and away from rural areas.
My hon. Friend is not right about that. City deals are not an invention of the last Government; they were minted by this Government. In fact, we are told, the Labour leader of Manchester city council, Sir Richard Leese, believes that
“there has been more progress towards the core cities taking control of their own destiny in three years of the coalition than during 13 years of Labour.”
I met the deputy director of the national victims unit, Iris Marin, as well as representatives of displaced groups and other victims of the armed conflict who sit on the round table. I also met representatives of a number of non-governmental organisations who work on human rights issues, including members of a Colombian human rights lawyers’ collective and members of Peace Brigades International, a British NGO which is active in Colombia. In addition, of course, I discussed directly with President Santos the importance of protecting human rights defenders and trade unionists.
Last summer, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
“Britain must not step back from its historical commitment to human rights for the sake of commercial expediency.”
While he was in Colombia, an eight-month-old baby was shot dead as a result of indiscriminate army gunfire. Congressman Ivan Cepeda, Carlos Lozano and many others received appalling death threats, and the Colombian Defence Secretary continued to brand them as terrorists. Colombia’s human rights record is appalling. Why is the Deputy Prime Minister now turning a blind eye for the purpose of “commercial expediency”?
I do not agree with the characterisation of what we are trying to do in our relationship with Colombia. Colombia is a society traumatised by horrific violence, and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, there are still some instances of terrible abuses and violence. It seems to me that, in the long run, the only way in which the country can find its feet and have a proper, law-abiding system in which human rights are protected is through peace and non-violence throughout the country.
It is important for us to support the negotiations between President Santos and the FARC terrorist group so that we can try to establish peace for the people of Colombia. In the meantime, we are very unambiguous in what we say and do in supporting human rights activists in the country—including NGO activists—and, indeed, in supporting the Government of Colombia in ensuring that human rights are promoted.
Of course I am keen to look constantly at ways in which we can collectively reinforce our messages on human rights in troubled parts of the world such as Colombia, but we know from peace processes of our own that, in the long run, the best way of guaranteeing human rights and the rule of law is to entrench peace, and to ensure that violence subsides and is then stopped altogether. That is what we are doing in our work with President Santos’s Government. We are also ensuring that the free trade agreements into which the European Union has entered with Colombia contain very clear human rights provisions, to be enshrined in 54 specific measures that the Colombian Government need to introduce in order to protect human rights under the terms of the free trade agreement.
How much more authority and influence does the Deputy Prime Minister think that a future Deputy Prime Minister would have when raising the issue of human rights in a country that he or she visited if we had abolished our human rights legislation and replaced it with a diluted Bill of Rights, or had withdrawn from the European convention on human rights?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is one of the reasons why I am so staunchly opposed to diluting the human rights that British citizens enjoy under British and European law. It is very difficult to urge—as we do—the Governments of countries such as Colombia to aspire to the highest standards of human rights if we do not do so ourselves, as a country.
Cheshire East: Business Growth
I look forward to meeting members of the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership to provide feedback on its proposed bid for access to the local growth fund. The sum of £2 billion has been taken from Whitehall Departments to fund local projects that can drive growth. I urge my hon. Friend, and all Members, to work with their local enterprise partnerships and help to shape their bids during the weeks ahead.
Does the Minister agree that, in a county such as Cheshire, one priority should be to support innovative approaches to strengthening our rural economy? An example is the Cheshire Fresh agricultural hub at Middlewich, which will provide up to 700 jobs and promote best practice, young enterprise, training, inward investment and food security.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I know that that project features in the draft proposals from her local enterprise partnership, and I hope that when she meets representatives of her LEP, she will encourage them to ensure that it has the priority that she rightly thinks should be attached to it.
Despite the fact that huge amounts of public money are being channelled through local enterprise partnerships, the Government have admitted that they carry out no formal assessment of their effectiveness. What is the Minister going to do to make these partnerships more accountable, so that the people in Warrington can get a better deal from the Cheshire and Warrington LEP?
The hon. Lady can play a role in that. She can hold her local enterprise partnership to account and scrutinise its proposals. Every LEP in England will be putting forward a bid for funds from the £2 billion that I have mentioned, and I have made it clear to them that they should consult and involve their Members of Parliament. I hope that she will take up that invitation.
Individual electoral registration will help to enhance the accuracy of the register and, from June, applications will be verified against Government records. We will also use data matching to ensure the completeness of the register during the transition to the new system, by confirming the vast majority of electors. Moreover, five national organisations and every local authority in Great Britain will be sharing £4.2 million of funding aimed at maximising registration. The introduction of online registration will improve accessibility for groups such as overseas voters and home movers.
The Minister knows that there is widespread concern about the fall in the number of people on the electoral register as a result of individual electoral registration. Just how many people would have to disappear from the list before the Government pulled the plug on the project?
Everyone who has scrutinised this matter knows that every effort is being made to ensure a smooth transition. For example, the existing register will follow into the period of the next general election campaign. Through the funding that we have made available for the year ahead to every local authority in the country, including £26,000 for Greenwich, to promote people staying on the register, there is every opportunity to increase the level of registration. That is one of the features of the new exercise.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is one of the purposes of the funding that we have made available. I participated in a very good exercise organised by a group of young people called Bite the Ballot to encourage registration in my constituency. It was a great success. I can tell my hon. Friend that £48,000 has been provided to the electoral registration officer in Bradford precisely for that kind of activity.
Almost half of all 16 and 17-year-olds are missing from the electoral register. If they are not on the register, they cannot vote when they turn 18. What additional support is the Minister making available to help local authorities to get young people on to the register?
As I have just said, £4.2 million has been made available across the country, the majority of which has gone to the electoral registration officers in local authorities, who know their area best. They have been invited to concentrate on the areas of under-registration, which have historically included schools. There are good examples of lessons and materials that can be used in schools that have a demonstrated record of achievement in enthusing young people and getting them to register, and I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to do the same in Derbyshire.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about accuracy. The duties of electoral registration officers involve ensuring accuracy as well as completeness. The transition to individual electoral registration is precisely to ensure that the identity of people on the register can be confirmed, which does not happen at the moment. That will be a major step forward for the security of our electoral system.
In Northern Ireland, which has been mentioned, we have individual registration but big problems with registration remain, particularly among young people and in socially deprived areas. Does the Minister not agree that, as well as resources, we need a much more proactive, outgoing approach on the part of registration officers? I find that unless they are pushed they often sit back and do not take a proactive approach.
The lessons that were to be learned from the experience in Northern Ireland have been learned. For example, the canvass that was not followed in Northern Ireland will be followed here in this country. The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that there is a positive duty on electoral registration officers to ensure that the register is complete. I take that very seriously, and I know that they do.
A unique opportunity will arise to improve the scope, depth and accuracy of the electoral register in the next couple of years as our servicemen and women return from Afghanistan and Germany. What new initiative will the Government take to ensure that when these personnel are settled in their seven super-garrisons across Britain they will be almost 100% registered to vote?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is crucial that our armed forces serving the country overseas are part of the franchise. He will know that arrangements have been put in place to make sure that the need for registration—the renewal of registration —should happen only once every five years, rather than annually, to reflect the difficulties that are sometimes experienced in registering during active service.
I welcome the Minister’s praise for the excellent organisation Bite the Ballot, whose national voter registration day last week signed up thousands of young people. Another way in which we could engage more young people would be to allow 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to have the vote. Will he join me in welcoming tomorrow’s lobby of Parliament by the Votes at 16 campaign?
I do welcome the lobby of Parliament; I met one of the young people in my constituency and he made a very articulate case for that measure. The debate is taking off. There is not agreement across the Government —across this House—that this change should take place, but I think it is very good that the debate is happening and that young people are engaged in it.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within Government, I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister update us on introducing legislation to implement the Silk commission recommendations, which have all-party support in the National Assembly for Wales but seem to lack wholehearted support from Her Majesty’s Opposition in Westminster?
I agree with my hon. Friend that Opposition Members have a very ambivalent attitude towards further devolution to Wales, but on the Government Benches we are unambiguous in our support for following up the Silk commission and translating it into legislation. That is why we published the draft Bill, which is subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Welsh Affairs Committee right now. I cannot pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, but I hope he will be in no doubt about our determination to translate the Silk report into action.
The whole House will be concerned about the impact of the severe floods on those living and working in the Somerset levels and in the Thames valley. It is hard to imagine the distress at seeing one’s home wrecked by flood water, but that is the situation facing so many families today. The armed forces, fire and rescue services, the police, local council workers and Environment Agency staff are all doing a heroic job in the stricken areas, often in difficult and dangerous conditions, and they deserve our respect and our thanks for that. Will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the response to the floods?
I strongly agree with the right hon. and learned Lady that we should all join together to pay tribute to everybody who is working so hard around the clock. I was in the Somerset levels on Sunday night and yesterday morning, and, in addition to the emergency services, all the people in the gold command, the local authorities and the volunteers, who have gone several days without sleeping properly, are helping their families, neighbours and friends. It really is an extremely impressive collective effort. The bad weather is still with us. The Met Office is keeping us updated, as she knows. We are holding a series of Cobra meetings on an ongoing basis to monitor the situation. We are working with local authorities, the Environment Agency and all the emergency services to put contingency measures in place where we think threats might arise and, of course, to do our best to deal with the rising water in all the places it has affected, particularly the Thames valley and the Somerset levels.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response. The absolute priority for everyone now must be a total focus on working together to help people hit by the floods and those who are still threatened. People will still face huge challenges and great anxiety about the future even after the floodwater recedes. They will have to get their homes straight, their farms and businesses back on track and rebuild their livelihoods and communities. We all know how impossible it can be, even at the best of times, wrestling with compensation schemes and dealing with insurance companies. Will he assure the House that the Government are working on that now? Will they bring together the insurance companies and co-ordinate all the Government compensation processes so that once the water subsides and the TV cameras move on, people are not left in the lurch and get the ongoing help they need?
I strongly agree with the right hon. and learned Lady—I am sure that everyone does from all parts of the House—that that is precisely what we should be doing. She may know that we have already reached an agreement with the insurance industry on a long-term approach to insuring properties that are susceptible to flooding, and we can now move forward on that. She will know that we have increased the coverage under the Bellwin formula in terms of the money provided to councils that have had to spend more of their own resources to deal with this terrible emergency. Yes, of course we will need to work with the insurance industry, businesses, the farming community and local authorities to ensure that proper coverage and compensation is provided.
T3. I know the Deputy Prime Minister respects the Court in Strasbourg, but I also know that he respects the courts and judges in this country. Therefore does he agree with Lord Justice Laws who recently said that treating Strasbourg decisions as authoritative represents a wrong turning in British law? (90252)
It is absolutely essential that we as a country always abide by the law and by our international legal commitments. The hon. Gentleman will know that an independent commission looked into the case for a UK Bill of Rights, of which he is a great advocate, and provided its final report in December 2012. It concluded that this was not the right time to change the legal framework that governs the application of human rights in this country and the translation of the European convention, not least because of the knock-on effect on the devolved judicial systems within the United Kingdom.
T2. The Deputy Prime Minister will know that local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation are facing unprecedented cuts. Will he assure the House that the cost of securing individual voter registration will not be at the cost of council services aimed at supporting the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and will be fully met by central Government? (902519)
Those parts of the country where we have the highest number of under-registered populations, such as student areas, will receive more resources to do what is clearly a more resource-intensive job than in other areas. That will be reflected in the way in which the individual electoral registration system is funded.
I will certainly join her in celebrating the work of Worcestershire LEP, and indeed the LEPs, businesses and local authorities up and down the country that are expanding apprenticeships. As my hon. Friend knows, notwithstanding all the very difficult costs and savings we have had to make in this coalition Government to clear up the mess we inherited from the Labour party, we have none the less increased the number of apprenticeships across the country to unprecedented levels. We will roll out 250,000 more apprenticeships during this Parliament than were planned by the Labour party when it was in office.
T5. Speaking of messes, the Deputy Prime Minister went on LBC to defend the handling of the Royal Mail sale by saying that the Business Secretary is not a share price expert. Will he now concede to this House that Royal Mail was sold off too cheaply? (902524)
The point I was making then, and that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has also made, is that the price was set following independent advice provided to him and to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I do not think that anybody here should be seeking to second guess the advice that was received. I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in hoping that Royal Mail will continue to be a successful company, providing universal coverage of postal deliveries across the country.
T6. Last Friday, I held an export fair with UK Trade & Investment at Sci-Tech’s enterprise zone in my constituency to encourage business and entrepreneurs to look at expanding into the export trade. Will my right hon. Friend set out what steps the Government have taken to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to work with local enterprise partnerships, enterprise zones and UKTI to promote growth and entrepreneurship? (902525)
I certainly want to welcome what the hon. Gentleman is doing with his local LEP and others. He is right that there are dangers in too much duplication—too many Government and non-governmental bodies, quangos and other arm’s length bodies all aiming at the same objective. That is why the Government have encouraged local authorities and LEPs to work together to create growth hubs in which there is a single port of call for businesses that want to access the assistance they need to improve exports for businesses in the local area.
T7. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that London and the south-east are increasingly powerful compared with regional cities? Does he agree with Boris Johnson’s campaign, which would allow London to retain an even greater share of taxes down in London and the south? (902526)
I certainly agree with the characterisation that over-centralisation, both economically and politically, is a problem that has blighted our country for a very, very long time, which is why I would highlight the importance of city deals—the most radical cutting of the purse strings that have controlled the way in which cities in the north of England and elsewhere behave by the Treasury. It is a radical step in decentralisation, as is the localising of business rates and the investment in HS2 to make sure that the north prospers in future just as much as the south.
T8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the electoral conduct report by the all-party group against anti-Semitism has provided useful recommendations on how we can conduct our election campaigns vigorously, but without grossly discriminatory campaigning? Will he agree to meet a deputation from that panel to discuss its recommendations? (902527)
I certainly thank my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and others for their report, which is extremely good. We have looked closely at the recommendations, and I wrote to the Chair recently with my views both as a party leader and on behalf of the Government on how we can respond to them. Quite a lot of the recommendations, funnily enough, are enshrined in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, especially on non-party campaigning. A number of other recommendations can be dealt with only with proper cross-party consensus, with political parties taking action as political parties, and I very much hope that we will all do that.
Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen the comments of the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor, who said on Monday that
“Nick Clegg complains quite often that Danny Alexander has gone native in the Treasury. I think there is some truth in the fact that he has gone native in the Treasury.”
“The relationship between George and Danny Alexander is very, very good.”
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of Stockholm syndrome, in which captives increasingly empathise with their captives. What is he going to do to de-programme “the Treasury one”?
I have just seen those quotes from the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson)—I am not sure if he is in the Chamber—who claims that he is extremely close to the Chancellor, knows his mind and that he is his “wingman”. He is as good a wing man as Icarus was in flying off on his own wings, judging by his comments. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury is doing an outstanding job on behalf of the Government and the Liberal Democrats. Only last week he said that further cuts for the wealthiest in society would happen over his dead body. That and so many other examples show that his Liberal Democrat heart is exactly where it should be.
T10. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concern that 75% of the British people tell pollsters that they think that human rights are a charter for criminals and the undeserving? Is it not time that we introduced a British Bill of Rights with constitutional reform that gives the final say back to the Supreme Court? (902529)
As I said earlier, when this was looked at very carefully by a number of eminent experts they concluded in December 2012 that it would not be right to undo or unwind a lot of the protections that we all enjoy under existing human rights law, and that a British Bill of Rights would run the risk of unpicking many of the protections enjoyed across the United Kingdom, given the fact that we have a fairly devolved legal system. More generally, of course, this sometimes poses difficult problems for the House and we have to wrestle with difficult issues, but it is worth reminding people that these are human rights for British citizens, and are already enshrined in British law.
T12. When the Deputy Prime Minister was getting close to President Santos, did he mention the names Huber Ballesteros, Francisco Toloza, David Ravelo, and did he inquire when those political prisoners might be released from incarceration in Colombian prisons? (902531)
As I said to the hon. Gentleman in answer to an earlier question, of course I discussed the need to improve human rights in Colombia. As he knows, President Santos is committed to embarking on a new human rights initiative during the course of this year. I urge the hon. Gentleman to ask the simple question: if we want to protect human rights abroad as much as we do here—I think we share that view—surely one of the best ways to do that is to work hard with other Governments, including President Santos’s Government, to create peace. If there is constant violence, it is very difficult to protect human rights.
T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Coventry and Warwickshire city deal initiative could see tens of millions of pounds invested locally, which would build on the recent successes that we have seen in the automotive supply chain industry and manufacturing industry, creating jobs and boosting investment? (902530)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent support that he has given to the Coventry and Warwickshire city deal, which we were able finally to conclude. It is as a result of that deal and other initiatives that we will be able to support more than 15,000 new jobs by 2025 and unlock £91 million of public and private sector investment—yet another example of economic decentralisation that will help to create jobs throughout the country.
The ambition is to increase the number of young people who are registered. A number of Members have already mentioned the work of Bite the Ballot and other organisations that are campaigning hard to do that. If we get individual voter registration right, as I hope we will—which was first proposed by the Labour Government, not the coalition Government—levels of registration in under-registered populations should increase rather than decrease.
T13. As I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, last Wednesday was Bite the Ballot national voter registration day, designed to engage with the 4 million young people who are missing from our register. What actions will he take to engage those people and get them registered, such as perhaps emulating the schools initiative in Northern Ireland? (902532)
As was said earlier, we announced last week that five national organisations and every local authority in Great Britain will be sharing £4.2 million-worth of new resources to maximise registration. As my hon. Friend mentioned schools, it is worth remembering that next September a new citizenship programme will be taught that stipulates that pupils in schools should learn about parliamentary democracy and citizenship more widely. That is another opportunity to raise the profile of the importance of getting young people registered on the electoral roll.
The Deputy Prime Minister promised this week that there will be no politicisation of Ofsted, so will he take this opportunity to restore some of the public confidence that has been lost in recent days and give the House an assurance that the major Conservative party donor, Theodore Agnew, will not be appointed as chair of Ofsted, which the Education Secretary is reportedly trying to achieve?
I can certainly reassure the hon. Lady and the House that any appointments to Ofsted, or indeed any other important public bodies, will conform to the code for the appointment to public bodies, and that the panel that is being established to put forward candidates for that new Ofsted position will be entirely independent and will be asked to propose candidates based only on merit. There will be no political interference in the creation of the short-list of candidates whatsoever.
Last week, I visited Wellfield school in my constituency, an excellent junior school that fully supports the Government’s plans for free school meals. Its problem is that it does not have a facility within the school to provide those meals. It has spoken to the county council and the diocese, but it is getting nowhere with them. Will my right hon. Friend meet me, or ask his Education Secretary to meet me, to try to resolve the problem before the plans are introduced in September?
I will certainly ask a Minister in the Department for Education to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. As he knows, we have set aside £1 billion in revenue funding to deliver that next September so that all young children in the first three years of primary school get a healthy meal at lunch time, which raises educational standards and helps close the attainment gap, as study after study have shown. In addition—this addresses his point—we have set aside £150 million in capital investment to improve kitchen and dining facilities for schools that do not have them and nearly £10 million to fund an implementation support service. I think that will be a great progressive step towards helping children who do not get a healthy meal get one and to help their education.
People from ethnic minority backgrounds are as likely to vote as the population as a whole if they are registered, but registration rates are much lower among certain ethnic minority communities. Can the Deputy Prime Minister say what is being done specifically to encourage people from ethnic minority backgrounds to vote, particularly under individual voter registration?
Yes, I can. The £4.5 million that I mentioned earlier was allocated only a few days ago to all local authorities and to a number of organisations. Their work will be tested against the objective of helping black and minority ethnic groups, students and others who are under-represented on the register be more fully represented on it. That is what that money and that work is for, and I hope that it will be successful.
I think that awareness of the integrity of the register has increased significantly. The work that I have already alluded to, and indeed the introduction of individual voter registration, is all about improving the integrity of the register to ensure that those who should not be on it are not on it. Ultimately, that is what individual voter registration is all about—bearing down on fraud and improving the integrity of the register.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am an advocate of votes at 16. People can do all sorts of things at age 16 or 17, such as paying taxes and serving in the armed forces, but they cannot vote. That is why my party will remain a staunch advocate of votes at 16. As my hon. Friend said earlier, we have not agreed that across the coalition, but I hope that it will happen eventually.
I do not think that there is a magical number. I think that the key to encouraging public confidence in the immigration system is ensuring that it is tough where it needs to be—stamping out abuse, cutting out the loopholes, ensuring that illegal immigration is diminishing and counting people in as well as out, which is why I am so keen to reintroduce the exit checks that previous Governments removed—but at the same time remaining open for business, because we are nothing as an economy if we are not open to the rest of the world.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s rhetoric on electoral registration might carry a bit more weight if his own local council followed his advice. Is he aware that in Stockport, in the wards that I represent, electoral registration is 20% below the level in the Tameside wards? What is he going to do to ensure that Liberal Democrat Stockport gets its act together?
I can see how angry the hon. Gentleman is about that—[Interruption.] As he should be, as Opposition Front Benchers say portentously from a sedentary position. He should welcome the £4.5 million that we recently allocated to the five organisations working nationally and to all local authorities precisely to address the issue he highlights.
The Attorney-General was asked—
The national protocol came into force on 1 January this year. The aim is for all parties to sign a local protocol as soon as possible. The Crown Prosecution Service intends to carry out a survey of all CPS areas to monitor progress.
If the voluntary approach does not produce the goods that the Minister and the Opposition wish to see, will he consider making it compulsory for local authorities to sign such protocols, given the importance of the issue? In particular, will he discuss it in my area with the National Assembly for Wales?
It is very important that local protocols should be signed so that there is a clear, seamless process and when an investigation starts the information is shared with the other authorities. A draft protocol has now been sent to contacts in all the local authorities in the right hon. Gentleman’s area, and discussions are continuing. It is thought that it will be possible to have the protocol signed by the middle of March.
On the subject of information sharing, tomorrow the judges in Newcastle are meeting all the local authorities to try to agree a way forward. There are certainly no current plans to change the anonymity rules. If the hon. Lady wants to discuss this with me, I would be more than happy to do so.
My hon. and learned Friend knows how important information sharing is in this very sensitive area. He is no doubt aware of the successful conviction of the former head teacher of Caldicott preparatory school the week before last in my constituency. Will he join me in paying tribute to Mr Tom Perry, who revealed his own historical child abuse to enable this prosecution to go forward? What encouragement can he give to Mr Perry and his colleagues as regards the Government looking favourably on mandatory reporting for regulated activities, which could help to protect more of our children in future?
This was an horrendous case, and, like my right hon. Friend, I pay tribute to Tom Perry for his courage. She is absolutely right about information sharing and, as I said in response to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), it is important to have these local protocols in place so that information is shared expeditiously from the very beginning. We believe that that will happen; certainly, very good progress is being made. We will look at the results of the survey and at that point we will be able to see where we stand.
On child abuse, is any progress being made on prosecutions for female genital mutilation? Is the Solicitor-General aware of the disappointment felt by so many people all round the country that so far it seems that this issue is not being taken seriously enough? Can we expect prosecutions in the near future?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, because this is a very important issue. Ministers met non-governmental organisations last week to discuss how to make progress. A number of things are happening. He will know that the Crown Prosecution Service is currently reviewing 10 cases, and it is very much hoped that it will be possible to ground a prosecution. However, the key thing is that one does need evidence, so it is very important that the information gathering for the sort of evidence that is needed for a successful prosecution is found and pursued. Every effort is being made, and I have recently visited all the units concerned.
Child abuse and rape prosecutions are falling because the agencies are not working together. I have uncovered the fact that local authorities are not disclosing information to police and prosecutors and the fact that the police are referring fewer and fewer cases to prosecutors. We now need to know what the Solicitor-General and his brother and sister Ministers are going to do to show some leadership on this issue. Are the Government doing nothing about it because violence against women and girls is not a priority for them, or because the 27% cuts to the CPS and the loss of a quarter of its lawyers mean that the Solicitor-General is resigned to the idea that more and more cases are going to be dropped?
It is sad to hear the hon. Lady traduce the Crown Prosecution Service in that way. The fact is that we have the highest ever level of conviction rates for rape, for domestic violence and for child abuse, and the people who are prosecuting these cases are doing an excellent job. She knows that we are investigating fully, through a six-point plan, why referrals are falling in some parts of the country, but the idea that the Crown Prosecution Service can be criticised when it is doing the best it has ever done in terms of conviction rates is quite wrong.
Shared Legal Service
I have regular discussions with the Treasury Solicitor, Sir Paul Jenkins, on matters of mutual interest. Sir Paul is the architect of the shared legal service, which has led to a much improved organisation and streamlining of the Government legal service. I trust that that will continue. Sir Paul has been a Government lawyer for 35 years. He will retire at the end of the month and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for his major contribution to this issue, for his years of service to the Government legal service and, indeed, for helping the good governance of our country.
Sharing legal services brings considerable benefits in greater flexibility and reliance; more efficient deployment of legal resources, including specialist expertise; and more opportunities for savings and improved knowledge sharing. It also provides a more coherent legal service for Government as a whole and good career development opportunities for lawyers, and it improves the legal support to individual Departments.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one area of expertise that could be improved by shared legal service is that of awareness of and consistent access to expertise in forms of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, which should be available to all Government Departments?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is precisely the benefit of bringing the legal advisers from different Departments into one organisation. There is now a single board that groups those people together in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, and I am confident it can deliver savings, lower charging costs for Departments—we have already seen that—and greater efficiency and expertise in-house.
Stolen Assets (Repatriation)
In September 2012, the Prime Minister established a taskforce to speed up our efforts to return stolen assets to the people of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The Metropolitan Police Service is currently investigating a number of specific cases alongside its Egyptian counterparts. At international level, we used our G8 presidency last year to promote that agenda. That included co-hosting an international conference in Marrakesh on asset recovery last October, which I attended.
Yes, I can confirm that we have been at the forefront of asset recovery efforts. A number of priority cases have been identified with the Egyptian authorities. UK investigators have opened domestic money laundering investigations into individuals with significant assets in the UK and they are in daily contact with their Egyptian counterparts. I hope that that will improve with some secondments to Egypt shortly.
The Arab Forum on asset recovery allowed us an opportunity to have an overall discussion about the issue. One of the difficulties is a lack of understanding in some countries about the due process of law that has to be gone through in order for recovery to take place. I hope, therefore, that the conference facilitated a greater understanding of that.
A National Audit Office report on the proceeds of crime shows that, as a result of poor co-ordination and a lack of leadership, out of every £100 generated in the criminal economy, as much as £99.64 is retained by the perpetrator. What is the Attorney-General doing to address those findings so that victims in north African and middle eastern emerging democracies can get their—
The hon. Gentleman shows some ingenuity in linking his question to that asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies). I assure the hon. Gentleman that asset recovery is given a high priority and that a taskforce within Government is looking at how we can improve it overall. There are a number of interesting challenges, which go back long before this Government came into office. For example, there is a mismatch between the amounts ordered to be seized and the actual realisable amounts and, in some cases, the orders made bear very little relation to the assets available. We are looking at all those things and seeking to prioritise how we can identify those assets that can best be recovered. I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about that so that he can be brought up to date on our thinking.
In relation to repatriation from north Africa and the middle east, the Attorney-General will know that, in 2012, 500 children were abducted from the United Kingdom contrary to UK court orders and taken to countries in such areas. What steps have been taken and what discussions have taken place with those countries about returning the children to the United Kingdom?
This matter does not fall within my departmental responsibility, and it would be best for my hon. Friend to raise that with the Ministry of Justice. I accept that there are areas of real difficulty in respect of children who are abducted, but that complex issue above all involves international co-operation and respect for the orders made by family courts in other countries.
My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that domestic homicide trials where the defence is one of diminished responsibility deteriorate into character assassinations of the victim, rather than focusing on the facts of the case. Will he say what steps the CPS is taking to mitigate that issue, particularly to reduce the trauma to victims and their families?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on homicide as a subject, and I agree with her. The Crown Prosecution Services needs to take and will take a challenging attitude in three areas. The first is unwarranted attacks on the deceased’s character. The second is the need to emphasise the context of domestic violence, which is an aggregating feature, and to bring out evidence about the true dynamics of the relationship, so that such cases are treated as cases of domestic violence. The third is that the CPS should be aware that the existence of a recognised mental condition does not necessarily mean that it amounts to an abnormality of mental functioning sufficient for grounds of diminished responsibility.
The “Domestic Homicide Reviews” lessons learned paper published last year stated that the CPS was “looking to strengthen guidance” for prosecutors about bail applications. Has that happened, because people on bail too often go on to reoffend?
The law of diminished responsibility very often depends on expert evidence from psychiatrists. In complex cases, decisions about such important offences are far too often made at the last minute. Is my hon. and learned Friend happy about existing protocols in relation to making sure that psychiatric evidence can be agreed at the earliest possible opportunity, and that the consequences of important decisions based on that evidence can be explained in ordinary English to the families of the victims?
My hon. Friend makes the very important point that the bereaved should meet the prosecutor post-charge and pre-trial. As I said a moment ago, the troubled issue of the meaning of a recognised mental condition in these circumstances should be examined in a challenging way by Crown prosecutors.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there are guideline cases dealing with manslaughter. The judge has to have discretion because, as he will know only too well, there are cases in which the mental condition is suddenly there and an incident occurs that is totally out of character for the accused. In those cases, adequate discretion needs to be available.
Foreign Offenders (Removal)
The Crown Prosecution Service has worked with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the UK Border Force to develop joint guidance for the foreign national offender conditional caution scheme in advance of its introduction in April 2013. Prosecutors are advised that where the criteria are met, there is a strong public interest in issuing a conditional caution to foreign national offenders.
It is important that the hon. Gentleman understands that any decision to go down that road pre-charge is for the police to make, not for the CPS. The CPS can be consulted and after charge, when it is reviewing cases, it may identify cases that it can recommend should go down that route and have the charges dropped. I cannot tell him what happened to the other seven; I shall try to find out and write to him. It is desirable that the project be taken forward. It is not without difficulty: there are human rights issues, and often people say they are asylum seekers or have claimed asylum and therefore cannot be removed. That said, the fact that even that small number of people have been removed seems to me to be a step in the right direction.
Generally speaking, they are banned from returning to the United Kingdom, at least for a period of time. It depends on the nature of the offence: in some cases, the offence will be an immigration offence and may lead to a ban for a period of time; a serious criminal offence is likely to lead to a ban for ever.
Last week, the Government introduced a new provision in the Immigration Bill allowing the Home Secretary to remove the British citizenship of people from other countries who have been naturalised. In cases where the individual is resident in this country, what will happen to them? Will they be banished from the realm? Will they be exiled, and if so, where to?
I think the hon. Gentleman has taken a slightly simplistic view. The measure passed by the House returns us to the status quo ante 2006, which allows for such a power to be exercised by the Home Secretary. Obviously, if that power is to be exercised it has to be exercised bearing in mind, first, whether the person may obtain another nationality, and secondly, whether they can be deported. A number of criteria can be brought into play before a decision is made on such a case.
The cost to the taxpayer of every 1,000 prisoners kept on the prison estate is £28 million. What work has my right hon. and learned Friend done and what advice has he given the Home Office and Ministry of Justice to expedite bilateral agreements with countries such as Ireland and Poland to bring about the quick removal of foreign national offenders?
I am not allowed to say what I do or do not advise on, but in countries such as Ireland and Poland—signatories to the European convention on human rights and fellow members of the EU—it ought to be possible by bilateral dialogue to speed up the removal of prisoners from the United Kingdom, either to serve the rest of their sentence in their country of origin, or deporting them at the end of their sentence.
The CPS has led progress in implementing digital working with other criminal justice agencies. It is estimated that most police forces are now transferring 90% of case files electronically and that savings of £30 million a year can be achieved by 2015-16.
Yes, all parts of the criminal justice system are embracing digitalisation, with Essex and Chelmsford playing a key role. Essex police lead on the development of the Athena digital police system—the largest ever collaboration on a police IT project, taking a case from report to court—and Chelmsford is piloting court wi-fi and clickshare video.
Serious Fraud Office (Overseas Co-operation)
The Serious Fraud Office co-operates with prosecutors overseas during joint investigations, SFO investigations with which overseas prosecutors can assist, building capacity internationally, and executing requests for legal assistance when asked to do so by the Home Office.
Can the Attorney-General say what discussions he has had with America regarding the extradition of people who may be guilty of fixing the LIBOR? Progress is lacking in prosecuting people involved in LIBOR-fixing; does this increase the likelihood of their being extradited?
The Serious Fraud Office is in touch frequently with its United States counterparts in respect of investigations that have a transnational dimension. I will not talk about a specific case, but looking at the matter hypothetically, in such circumstances it will be decided in which jurisdiction a prosecution would best be brought. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a LIBOR investigation is progressing in this country. There are also investigations in the United States. From what I know of the matter, I am satisfied that there will be good co-operation between the two jurisdictions to ensure that any alleged criminality is brought to justice.
Law of Contempt
I met the Justice Secretary recently to discuss proposals for reforming the law of contempt. The proposals will implement recommendations that were made by the Law Commission and have been included in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. I strongly support the reforms, which include the creation of criminal offences for jury misconduct. If enacted, the legislation will reform the contempt law that is applicable to publication contempt, with the aim of providing greater clarity and certainty for the media and the courts about when material that is published online should be removed when proceedings are active.
Since coming to office, the Solicitor-General, his predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), and I have successfully instituted proceedings against five jurors. Four of those cases involved the misuse of the internet, including using the internet to conduct research. In two of those cases, social media were used to commit the contempt. As a result of those proceedings, judicial directions to jurors have been revised and strengthened. The purpose of those prosecutions is to send out a clear message about the unacceptability of such behaviour and, thereby, to ensure that further prosecutions are not necessary. By turning it into a straightforward criminal offence, we will make quite clear the gravity of the matter, while also providing statutory defences.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The first business on today’s Order Paper is entitled, “Oral Questions to the Deputy Prime Minister”. Twelve substantive questions are then listed. However, during questions, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) was on his feet for most of the time. The Deputy Prime Minister answered only one question. If we were to change the rules so that we had Minister of State questions, that would be fine, but I would have thought that it is discourteous to the House if the Deputy Prime Minister does not respond to his own questions.
The hon. Gentleman is an ingenious parliamentarian and he has made his point in his own way. He will know that the distribution of questions among Ministers is entirely a matter for them; it is not a matter for me. I have never regarded the Deputy Prime Minister as a shy or reticent individual. I doubt that he is ever cowed into quietude by the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Gentleman’s point has been registered and doubtless he will correspond with the Deputy Prime Minister on the matter. If I stretch my imagination to its limit, he might even have a cup of tea with the Deputy Prime Minister to discuss the matter. [Interruption.] We really are indulging in flights of fancy, I fear, but the point has been made and I am glad that the House is in good humour.
Additional Charges for Utility Bills not Paid by Direct Debit (Limits)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to limit levels of additional amounts charged by utility companies on bills not paid by direct debit; and for connected purposes.
The purpose of the Bill is very simple. Energy companies should not charge people excessive amounts for the energy they use just because of how the consumer prefers to pay. Energy bills continue to rise. Gas bills have gone up by 43% since 2007. Many families are struggling to pay the high prices. To the Government’s credit, they have taken some important steps to help ease the pressure, such as forcing companies to put customers on the lowest possible tariff, providing a rebate to every domestic electricity customer, and reducing bills by £130 for 2 million of the poorest householders who are most in need.
One month ago, a pensioner in my constituency told me that her energy company had written to her to say that she would be charged an extra £63 per year unless she started paying by direct debit. She has always paid on time. Her relative then tried to pay online, but was charged the same amount, giving the lie to the reasons given by the energy companies of there being an extra administrative charge. I spoke to the energy company concerned, which told me that it charges less than most other companies, so I looked into all energy companies across the UK. Out of 26 companies that responded, five allow their customers to pay only by direct debit, while 17 charge their customers different rates, depending on the method they use to pay. Only four companies charge their consumers the same whether they pay by direct debit or not.
The companies involved say that they have to charge more due to increased costs, and all reasonable people would accept that there will be additional costs and genuine administrative charges if someone does not pay by direct debit. I had a meeting with the Post Office, however, which said that the administrative charges of sending out a bill should not amount to more than 19p per head. Some companies have added not 19p but as much as £390 more to the bills of those not paying by direct debit, and the average charge was around £80 more per year.
Figures from the Department of Energy and Climate Change show that people who do not pay by direct debit tend to spend £114 more per year, and those who use a prepayment meter even more than that. Even worse, many of the companies that charge extra did not say they were adding a surcharge, but rather that they were “discounting” the bills of those who use direct debit because they incur lower costs. That is a bit like calling a mortuary a negative patients output.
Although many people do not pay by direct debit, they are often among the most poor and vulnerable. Since starting this campaign, I have been inundated with letters from pensioners who have told me that they are hit by these extra charges. They all pay on time, but they do not like direct debit as they feel it does not give them control over their finances. They say that they put their money aside and do not want to get into debt by overspending. It is not just pensioners—anyone on a limited income might feel the same—and with the recent financial crisis in mind, that is exactly the sort of personal responsibility we should be encouraging. Some people do not have access to proper banking facilities and are therefore unable to take advantage of certain payment methods. Nearly 2 million households in the UK do not have access to a bank account that has an overdraft facility, and half a million of those do not even have access to a basic bank account that can accept direct payments. Those households are vulnerable and have extremely limited options over how they pay. It is wrong that they should be penalised.
The energy companies say, first, that their charges are cost reflective, and they back up that claim by saying that it forms part of the conditions of their licence. As I have said, I have no problem with a small administrative charge to reflect the extra cost that companies face for processing a cheque, but I do not believe that the £390 charged by Spark Energy, despite my conversations with it, is in any way reflective of the cost of sending out paper bills. Although the market has since changed, it is worth noting that in 2008 Ofgem stated in a report that the annual cost to companies of a standard credit customer was just £25 higher than a direct debit customer. Even then, it expressed concerns that those charges were not proportional.
Secondly, energy companies say that they need to charge more because of the extra cost of providing credit to customers. If something is paid for retrospectively there will, of course, be an extra cost, but many companies that charge for services retrospectively charge customers far less for not paying by direct debit than energy companies —for instance, BT charges £24 a year. Furthermore, companies should be able to meet some of these extra costs themselves, and those currently paying for their energy by direct debit often pay too much. Figures from Go Compare show that one in five accounts of energy consumers are more than £100 in credit. Energy companies sit on that money and gain significant interest from it. That does not take into account the extraordinary profits that some energy companies have been making, and I am glad that the Minister is looking into their profit margins.
The third argument is that the difference in price is due to the discount that energy companies offer to customers who pay by direct debit. As I said, however, it is not a discount; it is a premium on the 45% of people who do not pay by direct debit.
The fourth argument is that those who do not pay by direct debit are more of a credit risk. Depending on the company, about half of the premium of not paying by direct debit is made up of paying for bad debt. Is it just that those who always pay on time, such as the elderly constituent I mentioned, have to pay for other people who are late payers or who do not pay on time? Furthermore, this argument cannot be used for those who use prepayment meters, and therefore pay in advance.
Finally, there is the argument that introducing a cap will result in prices increasing for everyone. I believe in competition and I welcome the fact that the Government have extended competition in the energy market. I do not believe that prices will increase. In fact, since Members across the House began to conduct this campaign, First Utility has announced, only last week, that it is dropping its price for people who do not pay by direct debit from £96 to £24; in essence, to my recommended £2 a month, but with no price increase elsewhere.
In conclusion, the Bill calls for a thorough investigation by the Government and Ofgem into what has been going on; real transparency for consumers, so that consumers can understand why they are being charged so much if they do not pay by direct debit; and a cap of about £2 a month on the amount that companies can charge. I commend the Bill to the House.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for his campaigning zeal and for bringing to light another issue that has much popular support. He is renowned for such campaigns. I guess that if I am renowned for anything, which probably is not much, it is probably for sticking up for unpopular and unfashionable causes. Hence, I felt that the other side of this particular argument deserved a hearing.
First, I want to look at what is covered in the Bill. The motion refers to utility bills, but my hon. Friend seems to have concentrated on energy companies. I do not think he believes there is an issue in relation to water companies, and he praised telecommunication companies, so I presume the Bill is about energy companies. Looking at the Monopoly board, I cannot think of any other utilities that it could apply to, if it does not apply to water and telecommunications.
My hon. Friend’s motion refers to additional amounts charged for paying by direct debit. As I understand it, however, the difference in amounts is actually a discount for paying by direct debit, rather than an additional charge for paying by alternative methods. This is an important point, because the presumption is that if the gap were narrowed between paying by direct debit and paying by other means, that would inevitably mean that the costs would be levelled down. It is quite possible, however, that if we prevent these discounts, the cost to consumers will be levelled up and nobody will be better off. We will find that people paying by direct debit are made worse off, and I do not think that is particularly helpful to anybody.
The reduction for paying by direct debit is lauded by many people, including the regulator Ofgem, as well as consumer rights champions, such as Martin Lewis of moneysavingexpert.com and Which?, which states:
“The cheapest way to pay for energy is almost always monthly direct debit, as most energy companies offer a discount to those who pay for energy in this way.”
The benefits of direct debit payment are widely accepted. For example, councils in London, including, I think, Islington and Westminster, have offered council tax payers the chance to win £25,000 simply for switching to payment by direct debit. There are good reasons why direct debit payments are encouraged. They help with monthly budgeting, especially in these difficult times, and avoid the need for people to find bigger amounts of money in one go. They reduce the risk of the customer being cut off for non-payment and having to face huge penalties, or even the bailiffs, for not paying their bills on time. They save the provider extra costs incurred administering the payments and the debts that build up on accounts, which ultimately they have to pass on to someone, whether through increased bills or the loss of staff. Paying by direct debit is probably the easiest, quickest and cheapest way for people to pay, and companies and councils should be free to encourage this practice with monetary incentives if they wish to do so.
I think that my hon. Friend’s proposed Bill is unnecessary, because the power is already there to do what he wishes, should the regulator wish to use it. I think he mentioned this briefly. Ofgem writes:
“Ofgem has introduced new rules which prohibit undue discrimination between consumers. One of these rules ensures that terms and conditions for energy supply do not treat any group of customers differently without justification. The other rule requires that any difference in price between payment methods offered by a supplier should reflect the costs they incur for providing that payment method.”
It seems to me, therefore, that we do not need a new law along these lines. He merely needs to ask Ofgem to do its job properly, if he feels it is not already doing that, by enforcing the existing rules. The power is already there; we do not need a new law to do what can already be done.
My hon. Friend talked about people who pay bills promptly and who should not be penalised for not paying by direct debit. I agree wholeheartedly. In the past, some companies, including British Gas, offered their customers a prompt payment discount, no matter how they paid their bill—even if they paid other than through direct debit—but that discount was scrapped because Ofgem insisted on it as part of its retail market review. If he wants to help customers who choose to pay other than by direct debit but who are good customers who pay promptly, he should encourage the regulator to allow companies to reintroduce the prompt payment discount, which many used in the first place. That would be of great help to many of the customers he wishes to target with his Bill.
Many things get on my nerves in this House, but what does so more than most is politicians—I do not include my hon. Friend in this criticism; it is directed at others—who complain about excessive energy bills and talk about fuel poverty and how disgraceful it is that people have to pay so much for their energy, when they are exactly the same people who piled extra costs on to people’s energy bills by passing law after law pursuing some climate change ideology. Most energy bills nowadays contain more than £100 a year simply because of the policy decisions made by the same people who complain that energy bills are too high and should be reduced by about £100. That nerve and hypocrisy is the type of thing that does politics no credit whatsoever and makes my blood boil.
I want lower energy bills. That is why I am proud to have been one of the five MPs who voted against the Climate Change Act 2008 in the previous Parliament. It certainly is not becoming for the Leader of the Opposition to claim to be the friend of people who pay energy bills when he did more than most to bump up energy bills with his Climate Change Act. Funnily enough, the £113 typically added to bills by climate change policies is roughly the same as the average discount given to people paying by direct debit. If we want to reduce everybody’s bills by the £113 that my hon. Friend seeks for people who pay other than by direct debit, the easiest way to do it would be to scrap all this nonsense on climate change—this gesture politics that will not make a blind bit of difference to global temperatures, but which makes a massive difference to people’s energy bills.
On that basis, I commend my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House, but on the whole it is undesirable and certainly unnecessary. I do not intend to divide the House, but I thought it was worth while ensuring that the alternative view was at least heard so that people can make an informed decision about whether, after all of that, they agree with his Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That Robert Halfon, Tracey Crouch, Jackie Doyle-Price, Charlie Elphicke, Stephen McPartland, Albert Owen, Mark Durkan, Lady Hermon, Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Ian Swales and Henry Smith present the Bill.
Robert Halfon accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February, and to be printed (Bill 173).
[20th Allotted Day]
Fairness and Inequality
I beg to move,
That this House notes that the United Kingdom is one of the most unequal states in the OECD, ranked 28 out of 34 countries for income inequality and the fourth most unequal country in the developed world according to some analyses; further notes that low and middle income families have borne the brunt of the Government’s austerity measures; further notes that the Government has plans to cut a further £60 billion in public spending over the next four years; further notes that successive governments of all political hues have presided over an underlying trend of rising income inequality since the early 1980s; recognises that men have consistently higher employment rates than women and that women are more likely to work in lower paid, lower-skilled occupations; further notes the growing numbers of workers on minimum wage and zero-hours contracts, and that there are more people now in working poverty than out of work poverty; further notes with concern the sharp rise in the number of people relying on foodbanks across the UK, including significant numbers of people in work; and calls on the Government to halt its further spending and welfare cuts and to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the impact of the Government’s austerity measures on the incidence of poverty and inequality.
Hywel Dda, a native of the west of my country, is one of the most esteemed early kings of Wales. His main historical contribution was that he codified early Welsh law. It is no coincidence that the building that houses National Assembly Members, the Welsh national Parliament, Ty Hywel, is named after him. His name is translated into English as “Hywel the Good”. He is so known because his laws were visionary, based on compassion rather than punishment, and were seen as just. In particular, early Welsh law clearly recognised the contribution of women to society, offering clear legal protections and status in society.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He makes my point for me, and his knowledge on these matters is unsurpassed.
In 928, Hywel made a pilgrimage to Rome. On his return, he held a legal conference in my home country of Carmarthenshire, at Ty Gwyn ar Daf, his residence near Whitland on the Pembrokeshire borders, which led to the legal system practised in Wales before our country was regrettably conquered. His laws meant that those higher up the social spectrum paid more for their crimes—a reverse of the post-2008 financial crash situation in the UK, where the financial elite have got off scot free while the most disadvantaged in society are paying the price through the obliteration of the public services and support they depend on. The basic founding principle of the Hywel Dda laws was equality. Following the death of the head of a family, the estate was distributed equally between all male siblings, rather than passing under the sole control of the eldest, as under the English system.
My reason for taking the House on this historical journey through mediaeval Wales is to make the case that the Welsh political tradition, even going back more than 1,000 years, has been based on the principles of equality and fairness. Those principles were essential elements to the sort of society that Welsh political rulers wanted to build and enshrine in law. Owain Glyndwr was the last ruler of an independent Wales and the seventh most important person of the last millennium, according to a Times poll in 1999. He heralded the return to the laws of Hywel Dda as the founding principle of his independent Wales at the beginning of the 15th century.
Robert Owen, another great Welshman from the county of Powys, is recognised throughout the world as one of the founding pioneers of socialism. In the early 19th century, he contributed to the work of a Committee of this House that was investigating the Poor Law. He called for a society of complete equality, and set about trying to create one with the communities that he had established.
Wales was, of course, the incubator of the industrial revolution, and the working-class uprisings of Merthyr in 1831 and the Chartists later in the same decade were driven by that Welsh aspiration for a more equal society, in which the working classes had a fair share of the proceeds of wealth generated by their toil. As the central element of his proclamation “The Red Dragon and the Red Flag”, Keir Hardie, a proud Scotsman who became the first-ever Independent Labour party Member of Parliament, declared clearly—probably after having given up faith in this place—that the way in which to create a more fair and equal society in Wales was to advance the cause of Welsh home rule.
There are many inequalities in present-day society, but one of the biggest burdens at present is borne by women. The Government have made tax adjustments of £14 billion, and £11 billion of that has been taken from women. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that women are the hardest hit, whether we are talking about crèche charges or about nursery charges?
My hon. Friend has made an excellent start to his speech. I do not know whether he has had an opportunity to read the first report from the Living Wage Commission, which was published yesterday. It contains a number of key points which I think are important in the context of the debate. It states that 6.7 million of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK are in a family where someone works, that 5.24 million workers in Britain—equal to 21% of the work force—are paid less than the living wage, that housing costs have tripled in the last 15 years, that 2.9 million people classed as over-indebted have a household income of less than £15,000 a year, and that low-paid workers are increasingly turning to support in order to get by. That is the context of governance in the United Kingdom at the present time. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Westminster is failing not just the people of Scotland and Wales, but those in the rest of the United Kingdom?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that valuable contribution. I intend to develop some of those themes later in my speech.
What a pity that the Labour party is so completely removed from the vision of Keir Hardie today. Last Wednesday, during a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee, the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), made one of the most depressing speeches that I have heard since being elected to serve the people of Carmarthenshire. He returned the Labour party to the dark days of the 1970s, when it was clearly the most anti-devolution party in Wales. His speech was Kinnock-esque, and I certainly do not mean that as a compliment.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. Was that not made all the worse by the fact that until then there had been a consensus among all four political parties in Wales about the inevitability of the movement towards devolution, which was torpedoed by those on the Labour party’s Front Bench last week?
The speech made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd was a truly staggering intervention in the Silk commission debate, not least because only a year or so earlier, the very same Member and his colleagues voted in favour of the very same proposals for Scotland, which were in the Bill that became the Scotland Act 2012. I find it staggering that they now believe that those measures, if applied to Wales, would completely deconstruct the United Kingdom.
I could travel much further on my historical journey, but I shall end it now by giving a mention to my political hero, D.J. Davies.
I am grateful for that observation from such a distinguished Member. I do not want to bore the House too much, but I want to give a mention to D.J. Davies, who is my political hero, and who was born in the same industrial valley as me, the Amman valley. In particular, I want to mention his masterpiece, “The Economics of Welsh Self-Government”, published in 1931. In that book, he made the case that the crusade for social justice for working people and the political empowerment for Wales—my country—were intrinsically intertwined. That position continues to be central to the position of my party, and to my personal political beliefs.
The national movements in these isles and the crusade to tackle inequalities in our communities are one and the same. In ignoring the founding principles of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish political traditions—and in its inability to tackle the gaping inequalities that exist in both individual and geographical terms—the Westminster élite is directly undermining the case for a United Kingdom, and furthering the aims of national freedom in Wales and Scotland. I should add that the Irish proclamation of independence contains an explicit commitment to equality.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I am sure that he is absolutely sincere, but I am baffled by his statement that the Scottish nationalists believe in reducing inequality at a time when they want to slash corporation tax for big business. Will he explain how the two fit together?
I do not want to become too involved in the Scottish independence debate. I have colleagues who are better qualified to do that. I will say, however, that the case for the creation of a more equal society is based on the generation of prosperity, and that the job-creating levers resulting from fiscal devolution would clearly allow the Welsh and Scottish Governments to achieve that aim.
In my eyes, the case for the creation of that more equal society is crystal clear, and should be the overriding priority of our politics. Equality improves the well-being of citizens, reduces social tensions, and creates a fairer and more democratic society. Democracy, in its wider sense, is about far more than voting; it is about creating a fully participatory society in which everyone has an opportunity to contribute.
Is it any wonder that voting levels are so disgracefully low? Why would those at the bottom of the pile have any interest in participating in electoral events when the main protagonists have a common vision of preserving the status of the élites that currently rule? The Huffington Post reports today that a generation of Londoners have given up all hope of owning their own homes. I certainly felt like that in my twenties, when I had a relatively well-paid job but house prices were rocketing out of control. I can assure Members that that situation is completely demoralising. It is no wonder that young people in particular feel completely disfranchised: their overriding feeling is that the world is passing them by.
Respected academics and commentators have declared that the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world, and that, given current trends, it could even end up being the most unequal. It is certainly the most unequal in terms of individual and geographical disparity anywhere in the European Union, according to last year’s EUROSTAT figures.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned prosperity a few moments ago. Having have looked carefully at the motion, I am disappointed to see nothing about skills, nothing about productivity, and nothing about the creation of high-value-added businesses. Is the hon. Gentleman not encouraged by the creation of university technical colleges, and by the millions of apprenticeship starts that will give our young people the skills that will enable them to obtain high-paid jobs?
The aim of the motion is to ensure that a commission is established to investigate inequality and poverty. The commission would deal with the details to which the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has referred, and I hope that he will support the motion on that basis.
I am grateful to my colleague for making a very valid point on my behalf.
I was talking about the inequality that exists in the United Kingdom. Why is this so, how is it so, and why has it been allowed to happen under successive Labour and Tory Governments? I am sure that many Members will be able to cite numerous facts and figures that amply demonstrate the inequality and lack of fairness that exist in the UK; indeed, we have already heard several interventions to that effect.
I may not agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says today, but I can tell him that in September 2013 the average Northern Ireland household was surviving on discretionary income of £60 a week, while average discretionary income in the United Kingdom was £157 a week. There is clearly a big discrepancy throughout the UK. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons why devolution is so important is that it can lead to local solutions, and can enable local help to benefit the citizens of the devolved countries?
In that regard, the Democratic Unionist party and Plaid Cymru share a common vision, in that we need to empower our respective Governments to deal with the economic and social challenges that our people face.
I want to set out how and why this inequality has been allowed to take a grip and, indeed, been actively pursued by the powers that be. I will also set out how that can be reversed, and how places such as Wales can become more prosperous and egalitarian societies. We have seen the over-concentration of power, status and influence in a narrow and unrepresentative financial elite over the past three decades. That has allowed greed, avarice and hubris to take hold among the elite’s own ranks, while poverty, destitution and exclusion have risen among much of the rest of society.
The uneven economic development of the UK and the concentration of so much wealth and power around London and the south-east distort much of the UK’s public life. They influence and shape many of the political, media and business perceptions about what is good for the entire UK, and lead to geographical polarisation and a super-concentration by Westminster politicians on certain sectors of the population whose opinion is seen as worth courting and listening to.
I am listening with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he think that that concentration of power and authority in London and certain other parts of the country was a natural change that occurred as a result of global changes and that the Government did nothing to mitigate it, or does he think that it was a result of active Government policies over the past three decades?
I shall endeavour to answer that very valid question in my speech.
The electoral system plays a large part in creating the distortion. Using a small number of so-called swing seats, predominantly in more affluent areas, political strategists base their politics on the philosophy of triangulation, ignoring those on the periphery. Anyone interested in changing the course of Westminster politics should embrace the cause of a more proportional electoral system, which would immediately lead to a wider realignment. It is no wonder that the Tories would die in a ditch rather than reform the first-past-the-post system. More disappointing is the position of some on the Opposition Benches, who would torpedo any such reform. The only explanation I can offer is that the self-interest of super-safe majorities and a job for life trump the desire to achieve worthy political objectives such as a fairer society.
The hon. Gentleman’s assertion that a change in the voting system would do away with jobs for life is not borne out by the way in which things have worked out in practice. In Scotland, for example, there is concern that someone can go from being a list MSP to a constituency MSP then back to being a list MSP without ever feeling that their job is unsafe. Also, people can be in a similar position in local government for a long time. So doing away with jobs for life is not inherent in getting rid of first past the post.
The answer to that is to have openness rather than party-controlled lists. I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not share my ambition for wider political realignment in the United Kingdom, and that she prefers a system in which priority is always given to the affluent areas in the south-east of England.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that Northern Ireland has had a system of proportional representation for about 40 years. Does he agree that a PR electoral system provides opportunities that would not otherwise exist for minorities to be represented?
I believe that the House of Commons would be far better if we had such a system, rather than a system that bases its politics on preserving the power of two political parties.
Economic development has become radically distorted as inequality has risen. My constituency predecessor pointed out last year in an economic study entitled “Offa’s Gap” that the Welsh economy had been growing more slowly in relation to its historical trend growth and to that of the UK economy for the past two decades. He and Plaid Cymru’s other noted economics adviser, Eurfyl ap Gwilym, concluded that Wales needed the kind of defined economic and export development strategy that is sadly lacking under the current Labour Welsh Government. Similarly, the economic policies of the current Westminster Government are woefully inadequate and ignore the requirements of my country.
Given the lag in growth in the Welsh economy, is it not all the more perplexing that the Government in Cardiff—who must know far more about the situation there than I do—are choosing not to take the powers to do anything about it? It is like a man on a ship that is heading for the rocks refusing to put his hand on the tiller and instead letting it carry on merrily towards the rocks. It is a scandal that Labour has chosen that route.
The people of Wales might want to ask themselves what is behind that decision. Are the Welsh Government afraid of their own ability to use those powers effectively, or do they have a vested interest in our communities remaining poor and disadvantaged?
The legacy of de-industrialisation in places such as Wales is well known. Levels of poverty, disability, and ill health are high. There is a lack of economic opportunities, and the flight of the many young ambitious people understandably wanting to make something of themselves is invariably known as the brain drain. That creates a vicious circle of its own. A Centre for Cities report at the end of last month noted that 80% of private sector job growth since 2010 was in London, that one in three young people now move here for work, and that power should ultimately be devolved in order to allow greater freedom for areas outside London to develop.
Historically, vast areas of the British state have been economically depressed, with most political efforts concentrated on the south-east. Today, GDP per person in inner London is almost 10 times that of many parts of Wales, including the communities I represent. Many areas of northern England are in the same boat as Wales. Great inequalities exist within London itself, and we must not forget that challenge, but there is an overwhelming concentration of wealth in that region—70% higher than the UK average. It is the current political structures and policy priorities of the Labour-Tory tag team that have allowed this to happen.
One would hope that when one part of the state is the richest in the European Union and others are the poorest, there would be a clarion call for action. Alas, the Westminster elite seem oblivious to the matter, pursuing the same old failed policies of the past. Indeed, who could forget Lord Mandelson, the man who so epitomised Labour in office, saying that he was
“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”?
It is no wonder that wealth inequalities gathered pace under the last Labour Government. Incredibly, west Wales and the valleys now find themselves below parts of Bulgaria and Romania in the EU wealth league.
There are many indicators of rising inequality, besides individual and geographical disparity. Over the past decade, the number of households in fuel poverty in Wales has risen from around 140,000 to 386,000 at the last count in 2012. That is 30% of the Welsh total. I strongly suspect that the total will have risen since then, given the combination of oil price inflation and a real-terms reduction in wages.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case. I wonder whether he is aware of the new research by the High Pay Centre, which finds that workplaces with big pay gaps between the highest and lowest paid suffer from far more industrial disputes, more sickness and higher staff turnover than those with more equitable pay differentials. Does he recognise that, as well as addressing levels of pay, we need to reduce pay ratios and advocate concrete steps towards ensuring that the maximum wage in any organisation is no more than, say, 10 times the minimum wage in that same organisation?
I fully concur with my hon. Friend. One thing that is often not mentioned is the cost of inequality, particularly the health costs. If the Government pursued a policy of creating a more equal society, the Treasury would benefit from the reduction in expenditure on health care.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned fuel poverty. Does he agree that it is much worse in areas that are off the gas grid? That particularly affects Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as rural parts of England. Does he also agree that we need a comprehensive strategy to extend the gas grid so that more people can benefit from heating their homes with gas?
My constituency is largely off the gas grid, despite being in a mining valley and containing some large urban areas. The coal miners campaigned against having the gas grid there, because they wanted to use coal. The impacts that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are clear. I can speak from personal experience, having moved from an area where gas was my main form of heating and gone back to live in my home community, which is off the gas grid. The difference is staggering, and quite eye-watering. The policies that have been put forward by the other parties completely neglect this huge problem affecting rural areas.
Given the interest of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) in areas that are off the gas grid, does the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) think he should support our initiatives on giving pensioners their winter fuel allowance at an earlier date and ensuring that the energy company obligation extends to off-grid gas boilers, which is not the case currently?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work he has done on this issue. He has twice presented Bills to pursue that common-sense proposal, and when it comes before the House again I intend to be here to support him—I hope that the hon. Member for Wealden will be, too.
May I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Wealden, because Northern Ireland is dependent to a high degree on home heating oil—off-grid energy supply—with some 70% of our households using it. Our household bills are, on average, way beyond the highest bills in the rest of the UK. It is important that the issue is highlighted and something is done to address the situation of those who are off grid.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point. He will be aware of the lack of competition in the market, where there are perhaps five or six suppliers with more or less mirrored pricing policies. The Government should examine that, and let us hope they remedy the situation affecting those individuals who are off the gas grid.
Wales is a country rich in natural resources, and it is a net exporter of electricity. No one in an energy-rich country such as mine should have to live in fuel poverty, yet 30% of the people in my country do. The energy sector was privatised by the Tories and the current market was set up by Labour in 2002, allowing the previous regional monopolies to merge into the big six. It is symbolic of the profiteering, privatisation and corporate greed that has undermined poorer areas and poorer people under Labour and Tory misrule.
Wales is a colonial economy, where our natural capital is extracted for no or little economic and social benefit to our people. No wonder the Westminster elite oppose empowering the Welsh Government by giving them control over our natural assets. Last week, the shadow Environment Secretary made an incredible intervention in the Scottish independence debate when she said that if Scotland votes yes, the remnants of the UK might stop importing Scottish electricity if Labour were in power and look to other markets for supply. That one intervention summarises the Westminster elite and how they view Wales and Scotland. No wonder that on social media these sort of “Project Fear” scare stories have earned the hashtag “know your place”. I would wager that my friends in the yes campaign in Scotland are delighted at such ill-judged interventions.
That is a very useful intervention, and I think the answer depends on the progress on the desalination plants. I am following the debate in Scotland with great interest, because we will be having the same debate in Wales within the next couple of decades and we will have the “Project Fear” manifesto off the bookshelf ready to read.
I just want to tell the hon. Gentleman that the “Project Fear” manual has a short lifespan. It is almost as Robert Burns said, in that it is a snowflake in a river:
“A moment white—then melts for ever”.
The fears fall apart on a daily basis; they last only for about 48 hours, but that does not stop them being reheated.
I am grateful for those insightful remarks. In Scotland, we are seeing the same stories as were used in other parts of the British empire when they endeavoured to seek their political independence. That approach will fail in Scotland and it will fail in Wales when our turn comes.
By the end of Labour’s time in office, child poverty had increased, with 32% of children in Wales living in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The number fell in 2012, but only because wages had fallen across the board. That technicality in the way child poverty is calculated ignores the fact that falling wages mean even less resources with which to feed hungry young mouths. The recent rapid rise of food banks is yet another symptom of growing inequality. The Labour Welsh Government had set the target of eradicating child poverty by 2020, but they cannot and will never achieve that if they do not stand up for Wales. It cannot be achieved while their masters in London refuse to confront the widening gulf in equality that has been emerging over the past 30 years and even accelerated under their watch.
Constantly saying that there is no difference between the Labour Governments and the Conservative Government is not helpful. Does the hon. Gentleman have no memory of the reduction in pensioner poverty and the reductions in child poverty achieved under the Labour Government? Do those things not matter in the story that he wants to tell?
As the former head of policy for Citizens Advice in Wales, I have some expertise in this matter; the Labour party achieved its reduction in the child poverty figures by changing the way in which the statistics were calculated, thus removing 1 million children from child poverty overnight.
Last summer, the TUC produced a report that concluded that workers’ pay had fallen by 8% in real terms between 2007 and 2012 in Wales—the sharpest fall in any of the nations and regions of the UK. That is the level of the drop in living standards that Labour and the Tories have presided over. The UK is badly damaged and corroded, if not completely broken. The old pillars of the British establishment—banking, media and politics—have crumbled one by one, leaving an unrestrained crony capitalism which is not about good business or genuine wealth creation, but about monopoly, oligopoly and corporate self-interest.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that litany of failure, but is it not right that in a debate such as this we should be able to compare and contrast the reality here with that elsewhere? Has he had an opportunity to look at the world happiness report, an annual publication taking into account GDP, life expectancy and social support internationally? It showed that eight of the top 10 countries are small European independent states. What makes them so successful while the UK fails so dramatically for people across its nations and regions?
It comes down to the fact that Governments of small countries are far closer to the aspirations and requirements of their people, whereas larger states find that far more difficult to achieve, especially where the state is very centralised, as ours is in the United Kingdom, with power heavily concentrated in Westminster.
Symptoms of what I am describing include the privatisation of the health service in England—the current Tory policy of building on the layers laid down by Labour, with its introduction of foundation hospitals and use of the private finance initiative. The privatisation of services and assets has carried on unabated. For example, Labour's plan to privatise Royal Mail has been carried out by the Tories and Lib Dems during this Parliament. Is it any wonder that Scotland is now beginning to believe that it can do things better and differently, or that the people of Wales increasingly demand that we have more powers to control our lives and better reflect our political values?
The most detailed research since devolution began was undertaken by the Silk commission, which has been tasked with pathfinding the next steps in the Welsh devolution journey. The findings of that detailed research are extremely encouraging: 62% want more powers for Wales, with only a paltry 20% against—that reflects all the geographical areas of my country; 80% believe that the National Assembly defends Welsh interests better than Westminster; 80% want responsibility for energy policy to be in Wales; 63% want powers over policing; 58% want powers over broadcasting; and there was also a clear majority for devolving social protection—or at least its administration, as is the case in Northern Ireland, which has enabled its Government to stop the implementation of the bedroom tax. However, only 20% support devolution of defence and foreign affairs, so clearly there is a bit of work to do to progress those two areas in my country.
In many areas of the UK, it is taken for granted that the Tory party long ago discarded any pretensions to a one-nation paternalist conservatism that sought to mould itself around social democratic values. Instead it embraced Thatcherism and its resultant rise in economic inequality. Of greater concern, however, is the complete dereliction of duty by Labour in its failure and unwillingness to deal with rising inequality. Westminster is now synonymous with inequality from its representation to its policies.
Following the 2010 Westminster election and the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crash, a new UK coalition Government pledged to rebalance the economy of the British state by sector and on a geographical basis. Who can forget the Chancellor’s triumphant claim, “We’re all in this together”? He told us that he was creating an economy
“carried aloft by the march of the makers.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]
What is more worrying is the Government’s admission that this is failing. The Business Secretary now fully admits that London
“is a giant suction machine draining the life out of the rest of the country.”
Yet the Government do precious little to rectify that. Only last month the Financial Times reported that the wealth gap between London and the nations and regions is set to widen. A professor at the London School of Economics has noted that London is the
“dark star of the economy, inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy.”
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the most recent economic data for gross value added growth in Wales and across the UK, he will see that growth in Wales is rebounding stronger than the UK average. It is closing the gap rather than, as he purports, increasing it.
We welcome the fact that Wales has moved up. None the less, we are still at the bottom of the wealth league. West Wales, the area that both the Minister and I represent, fell by 4%. That is a record of failure. It says something about the Welsh Government’s policies as well—I am not just slinging my sticks at my friend on the Government Benches.
Today, Aditya Chakrabortty’s article in the Guardian highlights how public money and private wealth are being hoovered up by London. He notes that last year, the Institute for Public Policy Research published research that showed that the transport spending system is broken. Transport spending is £2,731 per head in London, compared with £5 per head in the north-east of England. In Wales, we receive only 0.7% of the transport infrastructure spend, yet we represent 5% of the population. There is still not a single mile of electrified track in Wales, which puts us on a par with the likes of Albania—so much for Labour standing up for Wales during 13 years in power. We welcome the announcement by this Government that they will electrify the line to Swansea. However, the pressing issue for us is whether we will get our fair share from the vast expenditure on High Speed 2, which the Government are intent on pursuing. As everyone has noted, that expenditure on HS2 will hoover up all transport infrastructure spending for generations to come. Given that it is an England-only railway—the last time I looked on a map, Manchester, York and Birmingham were all in England—Wales deserves at least 5% of that expenditure.
After decades of increasing wealth inequality under successive Westminster Administrations, it was hoped that finally there would be a change of direction. Instead, what we have seen is ideological austerity and ultra-loose monetary policy, which has seen redistribution in reverse. Amazingly, Labour has signed up to the same fiscal strategy if it forms the next UK Government. It is an incredible strategic decision that overrides all others, but it has barely been mentioned in dispatches by a London-centric media that views it as par for the course.
Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales, believes that Wales is best served when we are free to decide our future and set our own course. That is why it is so important that the job-creation and economy-boosting financial powers recommended by the UK Commission on Devolution in Wales are implemented as soon as possible; they are a bare minimum. However, on their own they are unlikely to reverse the decades of inverted wealth distribution. For as long as Wales continues to be a part of the UK and Plaid Cymru MPs are in this place, we will seek to reform it. An economic fairness Act would force the UK Government—whoever they were—to implement a range of measures to ensure that more economic and job opportunities are created outside the south-east of England with statutory obligations to tackle individual inequality.
Such an Act would concentrate minds on a genuine rebalancing of the economy, turning us away from financial services and banking towards areas such as manufacturing and engineering. It would allow for measures such as prioritising poorer areas for infrastructure spending and investment, bringing jobs and growth. Legislation based on the Communities Reinvestment Act in the US would be included to ensure that the private banking sector operates fairly in terms of which geographical areas it prioritises for lending. I need not remind the House of the enormous problems that Welsh businesses have faced as a result of banks’ activities since the crash. It is a complete disgrace that in 2008 £1.4 trillion of taxpayers’ money—100% of the country’s wealth—was put into loans, grants and guarantees and used to pull up the banking sector.
In Wales, a national public development bank should be set up to ensure businesses in our country are able to access finance to grow and develop. The devolved Government would be empowered with the job creation levers to incentivise economic development.
I have been totally clear in my comments about the constitutional journey of my country: we are not in a position to fight for independence at this very moment, which is why Wales needs the economic powers to build up its economy to be in a position to do so. We are in a different situation to Scotland. We will not get anywhere if we continue with the policies of the Labour party, which aims to keep economic control in London and to keep our communities impoverished. It is in its vested interest to do so, which is why it is opposed to all the measures being put forward by the Silk commission.
People who say that Wales’ tax take is not equivalent to its expenditure are quite short-sighted. They fail to realise that they are living in the United Kingdom, the tax take of which has not matched expenditure since 2001, and is not likely to do so until 2018. This is a UK that records a deficit year after year, and has a debt that grows year after year.