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Westminster Hall

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 May 2014

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Votes at 16

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Tom Brake.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and it is a privilege to raise this subject again in Parliament. There are 1.5 million 16 to 17-year-olds in the UK and they are missing out on the vote. I am hugely grateful to all the young people who, in the lead up to the debate, made themselves aware of it, alerted others, provided briefings, tweeted about how the issue affects them, and even turned up today to watch. That commitment is a clear indication of the political will of young people, which currently goes unserved.

There are so many things a person can do when they become 16. They can leave school to enter work, give full consent to medical treatment, consent to sexual relationships and even get married, if they choose to.

I am sure that the hon. Lady recognises that in England and Wales people cannot get married at 16 or 17 without parental consent; there is not the ability to do that of one’s free will.

I thank the hon. Lady, and I recognise that point. Sixteen-year-olds may also join the armed forces, change their name by deed poll, obtain tax credits and welfare benefits in their own right, become a member of a trade union or co-operative society, and even become the director of a company. On top of all that, 16-year-olds in work are required to pay income tax and national insurance contributions, yet those 16-year-olds paying taxes are not allowed a say in how they are spent.

Everyone, if their income is high enough, has to pay tax and national insurance. A child who has a sufficient level of income—who is, for example, gifted money by relatives—is eligible to pay income tax, but still has no say. To what level is the hon. Lady suggesting that we reduce the voting age?

I am not suggesting reducing the voting age below 16. I am suggesting 16 for the reasons I have already stated—that people may consent to sex, for example, and so are recognised as adults in other areas. Surely 16-year-olds having no say if they pay tax is not right. It reminds me of “no taxation without representation”, an expression, coined 250 years ago, that eventually led to the American revolution. I do not intend to start a full-scale revolution, but I hope that we trigger radical reform.

Moving away from the status quo is difficult, as history recognises. In 1918, votes for women was not a popular cause, but the minority who knew it was right paved the way for millions of British women, who have gone on not only cast to their vote, but regard doing so as the norm. Tracing history further back, much the same could be said of the Chartist movement, which fought for the vote for the working classes. Once again, at the time, that idea was regarded with animosity and was resisted, but society quickly came to see the opening up of the vote as fair and just. The time is right to open the democratic system even further, and to include 16 and 17-year-olds among the group of people who are able to vote. It would be a bold and pioneering move that would really show how far we have come as a country.

Since the debate was announced, I have heard from many 16 and 17-year-olds throughout the country on why securing the vote is so important to them, and particularly from the young people of the Rotherham youth cabinet, who went out of their way to come to my office last week to share their thoughts on voting at 16. At the meeting, Oliver Blake, who was previously our Member of Youth Parliament, said:

“I feel that the major issue preventing people from supporting the Votes at 16 campaign is that people say you’re not mature enough. I don’t feel that argument is valid. You have people at all ages who don’t use their vote wisely; you can see this by the number of people voting for extremist parties or joke candidates, but you don’t exclude them from using their vote. I want to be able to vote because I want a say in my future, and I know I’ll use that vote responsibly.”

Rotherham’s current Member of Youth Parliament, Ashley Gregory, expressed his desire to help choose his future by voting now. He believes that issues of direct relevance to young people, such as university tuition fees and education, demonstrate his case. At our meeting, he said:

“I find it difficult to hear MPs having conversations about what the level of tuition fees will be, how higher education is funded or even what curriculum we study in school without being…a legitimate part of that conversation. These are decisions that affect me, but I’m not allowed a voice on them.”

The arguments in favour of voting at 16 are varied, but each in its own right is strong, from the argument that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote empowers them to engage with the political system, to the argument that young people voting would lead to a fairer and more inclusive youth policy. Furthermore, there is the argument that young people should not be expected to contribute to society through taxation as members of the armed forces, or by parenting children, without having a say in how that society is governed. Another persuasive argument is that the low turnout of younger people at elections might be dealt with by engaging them earlier in the political process. Taken individually, each of those arguments is forceful, but collectively they make a robust case for reform.

Does my hon. Friend agree that schools still have a tremendous role to play in educating young people about using their vote? It troubles me that young people do not generally vote—the 18 to 25-year-olds. There could be much more education in schools to encourage young people to see how important voting is.

I absolutely support my hon. Friend on that point, which I will come to.

I recognise that introducing voting at 16 is a bold and radical proposal, but it is an opportunity to invigorate a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens, and that would create a more open and fair political system. Due to new technologies, young people are more informed than ever before, and more able to seek out information and to campaign on issues that affect them. Recently, my office received a letter from a young woman who wanted to volunteer with me. She wrote about her deep passion for women’s issues and feminism, and her views were profound and well informed. We should not expect any less from our young people.

In the information age, when anyone is able to find out about an issue at the touch of a button, it is not surprising that more young people than ever are expressing a desire to engage with the political system. There is, however, a flipside to that. While we must celebrate the fact that many young people are choosing to engage actively with politics, we must also be cautious, because there are problems in the system that need fixing. Those problems will not be fixed overnight, but voting at 16 might help to address them.

Opening up democracy to young people is an important way of confronting the democratic deficit faced in the UK. Electoral turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since 1950, when 84% of the population turned out to vote; turnout was only 65% in the most recent general election. Membership of our political parties has fallen; the Conservative party, Mr Bone, has gone from being 3 million strong in 1950 to having only 100,000 members today. At the most recent elections, only 44% of those aged between 18 and 24 voted. Rather than turn our backs on the problem, we must confront it.

By offering votes to 16 and 17-year-olds at school and in colleges, and improving citizenship education, we can embrace the important civic duty of voting in our education system. Using citizenship education as a tool to support young people in developing their political understanding is key, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) indicated. When I asked young people in my constituency about citizenship education and what they had learned about politics as part of that, some of them in their final year of school replied that they had only three or four sessions in which they had talked about politics in the entirety of their secondary education. Is it any wonder that we are seeing a decline in voting, and that political apathy has become the norm?

People are too quick to use the system as an excuse for not moving ahead with democratic reform. I hear arguments such as, “Young people aren’t educated well enough about politics to be able to use their vote wisely.” Surely that is a call to give them a well balanced and politically neutral education, in a way that is similar to how we teach religious studies, rather than an argument for suppressing young people’s opportunities for involvement in democracy. To blame the system rather than change the system is a regressive and unhelpful stance.

As Members of Parliament, we should be leading the way by empowering young people, rather than turning them away from the door of democracy. We should recognise the importance of increasing the participation of young people in politics. Allowing 16 and 17-year-olds such empowerment in Scotland, where they are being afforded a vote in the independence referendum, has reignited the issue on a national level, and that is one of the reasons why today’s debate is so timely.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is difficult to construct the intellectual case for why young people in Scotland may vote on whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom, but not on anything else?

Absolutely; there is flawed logic there. We see in Scotland the impact that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum is having on their political engagement. Young people are often featured on the news or in discussion programmes, debating their opinions on Scottish independence. It inspires me to see those young people discussing the issues and taking a stance. The validity of their position is not for me or anyone else to judge, but their engagement with the debate is brilliant to see, and it can teach us lessons about how an inclusive politics is an attractive and fair politics.

This argument applies more broadly. At the heart of the issue is the notion of civil liberties. The debate is not about whom a 16 or 17-year-old votes for, but about recognising their maturity and providing them with a vote, and about a society building them up to use that vote to the best of their ability. Ultimately, this should not be for anyone except 16 and 17-year-olds themselves to decide on. If they feel that they are mature enough to have a vote, we as politicians and as a society should trust our young people enough to allow them to exercise it. I have read that public opinion is against the votes at 16 campaign, but it is not public opinion that matters so much as the opinion of 16 and 17-year-olds. It is their opinion, rather than those of others, that we should listen to and act on. Young people are rightly calling for the right to vote.

I am sure that the hon. Lady is a great supporter of the Youth Parliament, which has been embraced more and more by this House. However, does she not find the very low turnout surprising? The person who won the nomination to become the Member of Youth Parliament for my constituency secured fewer than 200 votes, which shows that an opportunity for young people across Suffolk Coastal—indeed, the country—to vote for their own Members of Youth Parliament gathered little interest. Why would it be any different for the national Parliament?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Her point is interesting. I will come on to the Youth Parliament; nearly 500,000 people voted in the elections to it. I am sure that, like me, she will work with her Youth Parliament Members to broaden the campaign, so that more young people vote.

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that in Stockton-on-Tees, hundreds of young people participated, because schools got involved and encouraged young people to use their vote to elect their youth parliamentarians, and it was a great success. The situation can vary across the country, just as it does for national elections.

I completely agree with that. I want to come on to some of the organisations that are helping with the campaign. The votes at 16 coalition, led by the British Youth Council, has been campaigning for votes at 16 for 10 years, backed by 16 and 17-year-olds across the country. As recently as November 2013, the UK Youth Parliament voted to make the issue of votes at 16 its national campaign, after balloting some 478,000 young people nationally. The campaign was then chosen in the Youth Parliament’s annual debate in the House of Commons. Members of the Youth Parliament are democratically elected by young people in their constituency, so the fact that votes at 16 was voted to be their priority campaign shows just how important the issue is for young people nationally.

As an example of the strength of feeling on the issue, I would like to read an extract from Hansard of the debate, from the speech of Shakeel Hajat, who represents the east midlands. He said:

“Votes at 16: what a topic! Through the conversations that take place during annual sittings and conventions, it crops up constantly in the debates of the UKYP, and rightly so. It is the most relevant topic to young people: 49,945 of them voted for ‘Votes at 16’ to be the national campaign for the UK, making it the most popular topic on the agenda today. For too long this issue has lingered in our hearts and minds, and now it is finally time for it to be given long-awaited attention.

Members of the Youth Parliament, I stand before you today as a 17-year-old: a 17-year-old with responsibilities, but without the right that should go with them. For example, at 17 I have the right to have a wife and children. Obviously I have neither. However, the Government say that at 17 I can take the responsibility of having a partner and children, but I cannot influence the society that I would want for my kids because I do not have the right to vote. I am denied that right not for reasons connected with my knowledge or political awareness, but because I am…younger than the required age. That one year has cost me my representation, my political participation and, most important, my voice. Members of the Youth Parliament, we are being robbed.

A common argument against votes at 16 is that many 16 and 17-year-olds do not know enough to vote. Another is that there would be too low a turnout at polling stations. However, those are not sufficient reasons to deny 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. Every age range contains people who may not have enough political knowledge to vote, yet we do not stop certain people voting on the basis of their political awareness, and even if turnout is low, we will have empowered young people. We will finally be represented on councils, in the European Parliament and at general elections, and the Government will have to listen.

You may be interested to know that the same arguments were used against the vote for 18-year-olds and the women’s suffrage movement...In the past the UK has led the world in voting reforms, but now I fear that we are trailing. Giving women the vote was a huge step towards a fair and equal democracy. It was the breaking down of a civil rights barrier, and I assure you, Members of the Youth Parliament, that votes at 16 will be the next step.”

The strength of feeling is clear, and it is represented not only by other young people across the country but by young people’s organisations. London Youth, the National Union of Students, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the British Youth Council are only a small sample of the young people’s organisations that are actively speaking out in support of the campaign. I am grateful to all of them for the support that they have given me for this debate.

Similar debates are happening in schools and colleges. Last year, Newham college held a discussion group on voting at 16, to which students of all ages and backgrounds contributed. That debate found, once again, that the majority of students were in favour of reducing the voting age to 16. I am told that much of the discussion focused on the right level of maturity required to vote. While some students argued that 16 was too young, many argued that people matured at different rates, so having the option to vote younger was important.

It appears that, if you ask 16 and 17-year-olds whether they should be allowed to vote, the majority will consistently reply that they should. Opponents of voting at 16 express concerns about undue influence over a 16-year-old’s vote, especially from parents and peers. That should not be a reason to turn down the opportunity for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, but an argument for improving the information and support available to young people in the lead-up to their first vote. If young people overwhelmingly argue that they want to vote, turning it down due to the impact of their parents seems unfair, unreasonable and, to be quite honest, patronising.

I am pleased to see that many Members of Parliament have already pledged their support to the campaign. In particular, I am proud to belong to a party that recognises the voices of 16 and 17-year-olds. My right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has already argued, and I completely agree with him, at our party conference that to change our politics, we have to hear the voices of young people, not only on matters that affect them immediately, such as education, but on matters that interest them or will have an impact on their future. We need to hear from the young people demanding a job, campaigning on mental health, or volunteering to help elderly people in care homes. For the votes of young people to matter, we must recognise that, while it is important for young people to hold the Government to account over youth policy, it is equally important for political parties to wake up and realise the contribution that young people can, and do, make to our society.

We in the Labour party have worked hard to move towards a fair and representative democracy, and I know that changes are starting to happen outside the party as well, but too often that has focused exclusively on the voices of women or of ethnic minorities. It is time that we realised that young people, too, have little representation in our political system, and that giving 16-year-olds the vote is one way to rectify that imbalance. There is potential for politicians to gain much deeper relevance to young people by implementing a reduced voting age. Pushing that change through would win considerable respect from a potentially lost and disenchanted generation.

Voting at 16 will also open up policy making to become fairer and more accountable. By being accountable to 16 and 17-year-olds, the system will become skewed such that politicians, policy makers and the Government naturally gravitate towards a greater consideration of youth issues in policy formation. That is especially important in a system where young people feel so disengaged.

Perhaps one of the policies that would be influenced is university fees. Governments might have approached the idea quite differently if they had to account to 16 and 17-year-olds.

I completely agree; it echoes what I have been saying. If young people were able to have a much stronger voice, we would listen to them and make our policies fairer.

We are at a point in history when the statistics tell the story of declining trust in party politics and its ability to effect change, not specifically among young people but across the board. There is a feeling of being disfranchised in all our communities and among all age groups, and a real and urgent need to reverse that feeling before it continues into future generations. Engaging young people will help to build up a politically interested society and will bring change not just now but for future generations.

Toni Paxford, a member of Rotherham’s youth cabinet, told me that, for her, the issue was not necessarily the signal that getting the vote would send, but the signal sent by not being given it. She told me of a friend who spends most of her spare time volunteering for charity, as well as of her own experiences raising £3,000 independently for local charities. She argued that by not giving 16-year-olds the vote, society fails to recognise the important contributions that young people can make, and that the failure to recognise those contributions would bring about a culture of apathy among young people.

That point brings me to the contributions made to our society by 16 and 17-year-olds. Toni’s example is one of an incredible volunteering commitment, but such contributions to society come via other routes as well. Sixteen-year-olds can legally become parents, but they raise their children in a society in which they cannot have a say. They can legally go to work and contribute to our economy but are not allowed a say in what our economic policy should be. Perhaps most starkly of all, we let 16-year-olds join our armed forces and thus represent our country, but do not respect them enough to give them a say in our defence policy.

It is not fair or right to allow that set of conflicting messages to continue. We cannot expect 16 and 17-year-olds to contribute to our society through various means—economically, physically, intellectually or socially—in a capacity where we recognise them as an adult, but then give them the democratic rights of a child. That conflict is already being recognised in a number of countries, such as Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Argentina. We must not allow ourselves to fall behind: we have been pioneers of voting reform in the UK in the past, and I hope that we are open-minded enough now to continue that trend. It is high time that we recognised the clash within our expectations of 16-year-olds. We trust our young people to contribute to society in many ways, so we should start to give them their democratic rights.

If people counter the campaign for votes at 16 with arguments that 16 and 17-year-olds are not mature or responsible enough to vote, I will argue that they should look to the many mature and responsible ways in which 16 and 17-year-olds are already legally entitled and expected to contribute to our society. Allowing voting at 16 would send so many positive signals to our young people. It would say, “We value your voice. We value your contribution. We believe you are responsible.”

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and apologise that, owing to problems with my train, I was not here at the beginning. I may have missed her saying this at the start of her speech, but does she agree that if her argument is taken forward, at the very least the idea should be piloted in a small, designated area rather than rolled out nationwide?

I would argue that it is already being piloted in Scotland and Wales, where the responses are positive. However, if the only way the Government will take the idea forward is by piloting, let us pilot.

Positive messages are crucial to creating a new generation of politically engaged and inspired people who will go on to teach their future families such values, and are exactly why voting at 16 is important. The onus is on us to show young people that they count too.

The votes at 16 campaign is not a new one—it goes back approximately 10 years—but public interest in it is gathering towards critical mass, particularly given the 2012 vote in the Welsh Assembly in favour of lowering the voting age to 16 and the fact that 16-year-olds will be voting in the Scottish referendum. There is a clear and strong appetite for the reform. I accept that it faces strong opposition, but radical change always does. Change is not always comfortable or easy, but when it is right and just, sidestepping the need for it simply shows cowardice.

It is time that 16 and 17-year-olds were recognised for the things that they can and do contribute to society. The country might not be quite ready for it, but in my view, that means our task is to make the country ready. We must take up the challenge and make the political reforms required to give young people a stronger citizenship education, a greater degree of political knowledge and a broad range of political opportunities. Only by doing so will we give the vote to 16-year-olds in an effective way. By raising our young people rather than pushing them down, we will open up democracy and create a generation of more inspired and confident citizens, who have real faith that politics can make changes for them, their families and their communities.

For too long, the idea has been denied and the issue has been sidestepped. As far back as 1998, the British Youth Council surveyed 1,000 young people and asked their opinions on votes at 16; the response reinforced the desire for 16-year-olds to become a part of the democratic system. In 1999, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) proposed an amendment on the issue to the Representation of the People Bill then going through the House; it was defeated by 434 votes to 36, showing that at that time the opinion of Members of Parliament was significantly against votes at 16. That year, however, the Trades Union Congress passed a motion calling for votes at 16.

Through the early years of the 21st century the campaign gathered strength, galvanising support from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and the Young People’s Rights Network, and even featuring in the electoral manifesto of the Liberal Democrats. An Electoral Commission review of the idea was launched, and private Member’s Bills on voting at 16 were brought forward in 2004, 2005 and 2008. Some progress has been made in recent years but Parliament seems consistently to refuse to give the issue the attention it deserves. On the 24 January last year, Stephen Williams MP led an historic debate in the House of Commons on extending the vote to 16—

I apologise for that slip, Mr Bone.

The motion for that debate stated:

“That this House believes that the age of eligibility for voting in all elections and referenda in the United Kingdom should be reduced to 16.”

Incredibly, it won the Commons vote, with 119 Members voting in favour and 46 against, yet the Government have still done nothing to send a signal to young people that their voice and their vote are valued.

A persistent refusal by this Government to permit voting at 16 sends a message to 16 and 17-year-olds that their views on society are not valid. That is not and should not be the case. Our 16 and 17-year-olds will form the next generation of creative thinkers, business leaders, scientists and engineers. We will and do expect them to contribute to our society, both now and in future. Our message to them should be that we expect them to contribute to a society that appreciates them, that welcomes their opinions and that is willing to act to represent their views. If we cannot act to bring that about, it should be no surprise if our young people become alienated from the democratic system.

Already, the political system serves to alienate young people. The average age of an MP is 50, and less than a quarter of MPs are women. We cannot expect young people to engage in politics if it is seen as unfamiliar to and unrepresentative of them. I do not believe that granting votes at 16 is the final or only step needed to engage young people politically, but I believe that it would be a really positive start to the process. We must show young people that we value both their contributions to society and their opinions about how things should be done.

In government, Labour introduced citizenship to the national curriculum. Rather than paring that back, we should be bolstering the teaching of citizenship and politics in schools. Research has shown that if someone votes in the first election after they reach the age of majority, they are more likely to carry on voting; conversely, someone who does not vote in that first election is unlikely ever to vote. As Members of Parliament, we have an important role in structuring a society that teaches young people that using their vote is worthwhile and that their voice is valued as part of society’s decision making.

We know that people are encouraged to vote when it is easiest and most convenient for them—that is the experience from postal voting—so some campaigners have argued that we should consider having polling booths in schools. That would mean that the first time sixth-form and college students voted, they would do so in a supportive and welcoming environment. Surely that can only be a good thing. Such modifications are crucial in opening up our democratic system. If we want to understand why young people do not engage as much as we would hope, we must start by addressing the environment in which they engage. If we cannot get that right, young people’s entire experience of political engagement will start off on the wrong foot.

Some might argue that that role should fall to the young person’s parents, but leaving it to parents alone allows for a much more variable rate of participation by young people, potentially based on the parents’ own view of whether it is important to vote. We should not be looking to establish a system in which young people decide based on their parents’ intentions, but one in which young people are well informed and have enough support to decide for themselves.

After today’s debate, I hope that every MP—not just the ones here in the Chamber—goes to schools and colleges to discuss this issue with young people in their constituency. I hope that young people take the initiative to write to their MP and tell them why it is so important. I was aware of the issue and believed in it, but I did not actively campaign on it until I heard the young people of Rotherham telling me why it was so important to them. As elected Members, we are here to represent our constituents, and it is particularly important that we represent those who do not have a voice of their own. Hearing the passion of so many young people who believe so vehemently is enough to make one realise that allowing voting at 16 is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do because it is inclusive. It is the right thing to do because it recognises the contributions that 16-year-olds make to society.

Apologies; I have just come in, but some of us have other constituency duties. Those who can rely on the Welsh Parliament obviously have far less to do as Members of this House. May I ask the hon. Lady whether inclusiveness applies—[Interruption.]

Order. It is normal when there is an intervention that it is addressed to the Member who is speaking. Hon. Members sitting next to her should be quiet.

The hon. Lady refers to inclusiveness. Does that apply to 14-year-olds, or perhaps to 12-year-olds as well?

Order. Let me make this point clear. You do not have to be here at the beginning of the debate to intervene. That is a fact.

On a point of order, Mr Bone. It would help the consistency of the debate if someone was here to hear the arguments. Logically, they might not ask about points that have already been made.

I had been here for the previous few minutes, which is why I asked whether that particular point about inclusiveness should apply to 14-year-olds and 12-year-olds. Does the hon. Lady not think that as well as having a right to vote, there is also a responsibility that any young adult should have in matters of politics or current affairs, and that therefore we have probably got the balance right and 18 is roughly the right age? Of course, there will be 16-year-olds and 15-year-olds who are very engaged, but equally there are older people who are not.

Order. First of all, interventions are short. Secondly, it is entirely up to the hon. Member who is speaking whether they take an intervention. The hon. Lady has kindly taken the intervention, but we do not want half an hour on it. I think we have had enough.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman turning up to the debate. Had he heard my speech, all his questions would have been answered. I refer him to Hansard. I absolutely agree that children should be made aware of the political process from a very young age, but I do not agree that those younger than 16 should be given the vote, because in other areas of their life they are still treated as children, whereas in some areas of their lives 16-year-olds are treated as adults. That is where I believe the discrepancy lies. Most importantly, giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds is the right thing to do, because it sends a message about the values that we as society place on them. It shows them that we believe that they are important.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate. It is a debate we have had a number of times in the House, and I have had the pleasure of speaking on most of those occasions. The hon. Lady will probably find it disappointing that I will not support her campaign for extending the voting age to children—those of 16 years of age—and I would like to set out for the House why.

It is a great pleasure to see the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) in his place. I have occupied the same seat as him in debates on the issue in the past. The Government do not have a settled view on the matter, because the two coalition parties do not agree. I will save him any embarrassment by explaining my party’s view. The Conservative party’s view is that we should not extend the voting age below 18. The Liberal Democrats believe that we should, and I expect that the Minister will set out the Government’s view and expand a little on his party’s view.

If the Conservative party’s position is as the hon. Gentleman says, why, in January last year, did the Conservative party not vote against votes at 16?

I am a humble Back Bencher, and I do not speak for the Conservative party’s voting position. There have been several votes on the matter in the House. For example, in 2005, during the previous Parliament, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) proposed a ten-minute rule Bill, which I spoke against and opposed, and the House voted clearly against it. A private Member’s Bill, which I think the hon. Lady mentioned, was introduced in 2008 by Julie Morgan, the then Member for Cardiff North who is now a Member of the Welsh Assembly. That private Member’s Bill did not get support in the House; it was opposed by Members on both sides of the House, for very sensible reasons.

My arguments for opposing the extension of the voting age to children—those below the age of majority—have nothing to do with the hon. Lady’s straw-man arguments about people’s competence, intelligence or ability to reach a rational decision. My point is simple. We have to have a voting age, and some people will be on one side of that cut-off point and some people will be on the other. I think there is general agreement about that. The real question is where we set the age. My view is that the right age is the age at which we decide that someone moves from being a child to being an adult. That is the right cut-off point at which someone should be able to vote and make a serious decision about who governs their country.

One argument put forward by the hon. Lady and others who favour votes at 16 is to allege that in a range of policy areas 16-year-olds have certain rights. Some of the things that the hon. Lady set out were accurate, but several were not. People tend to set out half the story but forget to fill in the missing pieces, and my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) pointed out one of them. In England and Wales it is perfectly true to say that 16-year-olds can get married, but there is a significant qualification, namely that they have to have permission from their parents. We do not accept, therefore, that 16-year-olds are capable of making that important, life-changing decision; we say that they must have parental consent.

As a Scotsman, albeit one who lives in England and represents an English constituency, it always interests me that 16-year-olds in England can make the choice to cross the border to Gretna and get married there. Do they not, therefore, have the choice after all?

I was careful to say that that was the position in England and Wales, and not in Scotland. I am familiar with the law in Scotland, which is a matter for Scots. People in England and Wales are perfectly capable of going to any jurisdiction in the world to do various things that they are entitled to do there.

When it comes to joining the armed forces, the hon. Lady left out two important qualifications. First, although 16-year-olds can join Her Majesty’s armed forces, they cannot do so without the consent of their parents. We do not accept that 16-year-olds should be able to join the armed forces purely on their own say-so; we insist that their parents consent to that decision. Secondly, we do not deploy 16-year-olds in theatres of armed conflict. We make a clear decision, following on from the UN convention about child soldiers, that we do not deploy young people in conflict zones until they attain the age of 18. Those are two important qualifications.

I hope that I made it very clear in my speech that I was not saying that we were deploying 16-year-olds. I was merely saying that they were able to represent our country at an international level.

Yes, but the important point that I have made was that they are not allowed to join the armed forces without their parents’ permission, so we do not accept that they are able to make such decisions. I accept that there are some things that people can do at the age of 16. The age of sexual consent is 16, although there are two scenarios in which we do not accept that someone under 18 is able to make a sensible decision. In a case under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 of abuse of a position of trust, we make a distinction between those aged 16 or 17, and those aged 18 or over. We make a similar distinction about whether someone is able to consent to be in pornography. We say that they are unable to do so until they are 18, for sensible reasons of child protection that I very much support.

My hon. Friend is making an important argument. It is also the case—perhaps he will come on to this—in relation to the purchase and consumption of tobacco products. The trend has been in an upwards direction, with the threshold age now 18. Likewise, in relation to driving, there is now a strong lobby that suggests, perhaps for good reasons, that people should not be behind the wheel of a car on their own under the age of 18. My hon. Friend is making a positive case that there is no consistent move towards the age of 16. If anything, we are militating in the opposite direction, with many of the threshold ages moving towards 18 and the age of majority.

My hon. Friend makes a good point; I was coming to that. I have been involved in this argument since I was elected to Parliament in 2005, and have heard many of the arguments used in favour of various ages of consent for various activities. He is quite right. It is interesting that in many cases the age has been going upwards, often for sensible reasons: we are saying that we want to protect children from certain activities and that we do not think that they can make sensible judgments on some issues. However, I find it interesting that those who are keenest on votes for 16-year-olds—those who think that 16-year-olds should be able to decide who governs our country—are often the same people who are keenest to say in many other areas that 16-year-olds are not able to make decisions, and to increase the age limit. My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, to which I will come in a moment.

The hon. Member for Rotherham discussed the school leaving age and people’s ability to go out to work. Again, the trend on that issue is in the opposite direction to the one that she proposes. We are now mandating education or training until age 18, although I recognise that that applies in England and not in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The driving age is one age limit that I, coming from a rural constituency, would rather keep at 17, because it enables children to be more mobile, especially those who have left school to go to work or those going into higher or further education. However, there are proposals to increase that minimum age as well.

We do not think that 16-year-olds should be able to purchase alcohol, but the age limit that has changed since I have been in Parliament, of course, is the one for purchasing tobacco, for sensible reasons. Personally, I have no problem with adults smoking. I do not think it is a pleasant habit, but I think that adults should be free to make the decision to smoke, although I would not do so myself. However, we think that we should protect children from tobacco, and we do not allow them to purchase it until they are 18. It would be a bit odd to say to children, “We don’t think you’re able to make a decision about smoking tobacco until you’re an adult, but”—to follow the hon. Lady’s argument—“we do think you’re able to vote for representatives who will make decisions about legislation.”

We do not let people gamble until they are 18, with the exception of playing the national lottery and buying certain scratchcards. Many film classifications still have an 18 certificate. We accept that there are many items of subject matter in films, videos and DVDs that we should not allow children to watch. Since I have been in Parliament, there has been an interesting debate—again, one of its proponents was someone who thinks that we should lower the voting age—after which the Houses of Parliament passed the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010, in which we decided that those under 18 years of age were not capable of exercising a decision whether to have a tan or not. That may or may not be a sensible decision—I did not feel particularly strongly one way or the other—but I find it slightly odd that the same people who pass legislation saying that someone must be an adult to make such decisions think that we should lower the voting age. That is not very intellectually consistent.

I held a debate involving four high schools—Haydon Bridge, Ponteland, Prudhoe and Hexham—on that particular issue last month. It was won by Ponteland high school, whose students proposed the motion for 16-year-old voting, and who also swayed quite an elderly audience—with respect to them. I accept that my hon. Friend is my former boss, and normally I would obey everything he says, but on this issue, does he not accept that to a degree, whether or not the argument is won today, the tide is beginning to turn a little?

No, I do not accept that. In a moment, I will counter what the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said by explaining why I do not think that the voting age is particularly significant to how Members of Parliament conduct themselves, or ought to conduct themselves, with regard to young people. I might touch then on my hon. Friend’s point. I will not labour any more of the arguments, but it is worth saying that the trend is against allowing younger people to make such decisions.

On the subject of trends, my hon. Friend will know that in some cases relating to electoral matters, the trend is going in the other direction. The Electoral Administration Act 2006 lowered the minimum age for standing for election to the House of Commons and local authorities from 21 to 18, in line with the minimum voting age.

That is a good point. If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will come back to it, because I want to refer to what the Electoral Commission said about the voting age and the candidacy age.

My hon. Friend has set out the case well. To touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) just said, does he share my concern that there is a lot of cynicism involved in the argument? The perception of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats is that they will reap some electoral dividend by being modern and allowing 16-year-olds to vote, yet there is little good evidence to suggest that the voting age should be reduced, other than the idea that those political parties will benefit from the votes of that young age group and that those of us who take the hopefully more balanced view that it is not necessarily in the interests of the electorate to be extended in that way will suffer from being seen as old and fuddy-duddy.

I do not share that concern, for two reasons. My hon. Friend mentioned people’s motivations for change. I am perfectly happy to accept that the hon. Member for Rotherham is setting out a case that I have heard before from those in favour of the argument, and that it is reasonable. It is, of course, the case that certain people are in favour of allowing 16-year-olds to vote for one reason only; I am thinking of one particular First Minister of Scotland whose only reason for wanting young people to vote in the Scottish referendum was that he looked at opinion polling evidence from some time ago and thought that they would be more likely to vote in favour of Scottish independence. That is the only reason why he supported allowing them into the debate. Subsequently, of course, polling evidence showed that young people have changed their minds and are now opposed to independence.

That is why I am relaxed about the issue. First, I think that we should treat younger people with respect and argue our view, even if it does not necessarily accord with theirs. I think that we will actually get some credit for being prepared to say things to people with which they might not agree, but which we think are right. Secondly, to go back to votes for women, there were people on the left who thought that enfranchising women would mean that women voted for them. The lesson for our party—less true recently, but certainly true for the bulk of the 20th century—is that the enfranchisement of women meant that the Conservative party was in power when we otherwise would not have been if only men had had the right to vote.

On the Scottish referendum, I was in Aberdeenshire last September and was delighted to see that the youngsters proposing to vote were canvassed. Of pupils in the entirety of the Aberdeen schools, 75% were in favour of the Union. Surely, from a politician’s point of view, the lesson is to be careful what you wish for.

My hon. Friend is right. I will mention opinion polling, but it suggests that we should set out what we think is right and have some confidence that it will stand us in good stead, rather than make a cynical calculation of what we think people in some age group might or might not decide to vote for and take a view for that reason, which has a great likelihood of backfiring.

The reason why I have laboured the point about age categories is that if we do not set the voting age at 18 —the age at which we suggest that children become adults—I am slightly concerned about where we will set it. I know that the hon. Member for Rotherham is advocating that we set it at 16, but I am concerned that once we move it to 16, based on her arguments, there are no good reasons why we should not make it 14 or 10, for example. We say that 10 is the age of criminal responsibility, at which people may be held accountable for their actions, so why not 10, 12 or 14? I have met plenty of 14-year-olds in my constituency who are perfectly capable of listening to facts and arguments, making very good arguments themselves and making up their own minds. By the hon. Lady’s argument, there is no logical reason why I should not give them the vote. If we move away from 18, there is no obvious place to stop, which I think is a good reason for sticking where we are today.

Obviously I have not made my argument very clearly. In numerous fields, 16-year-olds are recognised as adults in law. The hon. Gentleman has shown some of the present anomalies. I would like to clear up those anomalies. It is precisely for that reason that I am arguing for votes in law. He looks confused, so let me give an example. People can have sex at 16 but are not allowed to watch it until they are 18—there are all sorts of anomalies like that, and we need to clear them up.

Although I used to be a great fan of tidying things up, one of the things that I have learned in my time in politics is that life is quite complicated and that some of those anomalies exist for very good reasons. For example, although the hon. Lady said earlier that people can get married and have children at 16, and it is perfectly right that they can legally do so, I do not think there are very many people who would advocate doing so or say that, as a general rule, it is a good idea for 16-year-olds to get married and start a family. I think that most people would consider that 16 is rather too young for someone to do that.

Also, regarding the hon. Lady’s point about children having sex and watching sex, I hope that she is not suggesting that the age at which children can participate in pornography should be reduced. As I said, I am very happy that the age for that is set at 18, which is not the same as the age at which people may have sex, for very good child protection reasons. Again, the trend has been against any reduction in the age at which children can participate in pornography.

All of the rules on age may not be logical and tidy, but a lot of them exist for very sensible reasons. The hon. Lady says that she would like to tidy some of the rules up. Some of the arguments about increasing the age at which people can buy tobacco and do a whole bunch of other things—use sun beds, for example—were championed by her party. I am perfectly happy to accept that there are people who think that we should change the legal age for doing lots of things to a lower level, and if they want to reduce the voting age as well, that seems logical and consistent. However, I find it very odd that people who support raising the age at which we let people legally do things such as using sun beds and purchasing tobacco—it is perfectly sensible to hold that view—simultaneously hold the view that people should be able to vote at a younger age. It is not logically sensible to hold both those views; to do so seems to make no sense at all. If someone votes, they are making decisions about who governs the country, about tax rates, about where we deploy armed forces and about all sorts of important issues. If people think that young people are capable of making those sorts of decisions, I do not see how they can also say that young people cannot purchase a packet of cigarettes. That does not seem to make any sense at all.

Let me just pick up on the point that the Electoral Commission made, which has been mentioned. In 2004, the commission published the results of a review that it had carried out on the age of electoral majority; the review took 12 months and was pretty extensive, and it was set up under the previous Government. Having carried out that research, the commission concluded that the minimum voting age should stay at 18. That conclusion was based on international comparisons; on the minimum age limits and maturity, although as I have already said the maturity issue is not one that I am particularly focusing on; and on research that the commission had carried out among the public, which suggested there was strong support for keeping the minimum voting age at 18 and which also showed that young people themselves were divided on the question. I will come back to that last point in a moment, because I have a relevant story about it of my own; it is similar to that told by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), but has a different conclusion.

The commission also referred to voter turnout, although I have to say that the argument about voter turnout is not my strongest argument; just because people between the age of 18 and 25 turn out to vote at very low levels, that is not in itself an argument against reducing the voting age. Having said that, it is an odd argument that lowering the voting age will engage more people, because there is no evidence that suggests that 16 to 18-year-olds would turn out to vote in higher numbers than those aged between 18 and 25.

The commission recommended that the candidacy age should be brought into line with the voting age and thus be reduced from 21 to 18. That is a very sensible proposal. It seems to me that if someone is able to vote and make a decision about who their representatives are, they ought to be able to stand to be one of those representatives themselves. The House has debated the issue previously and I know that a number of younger people have been elected to local authorities, although no one under the age of 21 has been elected to the House of Commons. As I say, the suggestion seems perfectly sensible, but it prompts a question. If someone believes in reducing the voting age to 16, do they also believe that 16 to 18-year-olds ought to be able to be candidates at elections? I genuinely do not know the views of the hon. Lady and the Parliamentary Secretary on that issue; the hon. Gentleman might like to fill us in on what the Liberal Democrat view is.

Let me deal briefly with a number of the arguments that the hon. Lady made. The one that I thought was not very sensible was about the various previous campaigns about voting—for example, the campaigns to enfranchise women, first the campaign to enfranchise women generally, and then, of course, the campaign to reduce the voting age for women after they were enfranchised at a higher age level than many people wanted. That question arose when we were debating the private Member’s Bill on voting age. There is an obvious difference between enfranchising women and reducing the voting age. Unless something horrible happens, a 16-year-old will become an 18-year-old in due course and will then be able to vote. Women, who were unable to vote were never going to be anything other than women and therefore were never going to be able to vote. So giving the vote to women is qualitatively different from giving the vote to children, because a 16-year-old may not be able to vote today but will of course be able to vote in two years’ time.

That point relates to the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, who is no longer in his place, raised earlier. As an MP, like all hon. Members, I am sure, I visit youth projects and schools. I visit schools right down to primary schools, where I talk to very young children, and right up to secondary schools, including sixth forms, where there are students who are old enough to vote today. I treat all the young people I meet with great respect. First, I respect them in themselves; we debate and have arguments. Secondly, I am of course very well aware as an elected Member that if I am talking to a 13-year-old today, in five years’ time that person will indeed be casting a vote. When I was first elected to the House in 2005 and I went round schools, I was very clear that in 2010, when I would be seeking re-election, any 13-year-olds to whom I spoke would indeed have a vote and would be able to make a decision on my future.

Consequently, I just do not follow the argument that just because someone is not entitled to vote today that we pay no attention to their views, because we only pay attention to people who can vote. I pay attention to the views of all my constituents. Some of my constituents—for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses—do not vote because they choose not to, but I still listen to their views and take their arguments seriously. About 30% of my constituents chose not to vote at the last general election, but when people come to me to state their views on something, I never engage in a conversation with them about whether they are likely to vote for me. I treat everyone’s views with great respect and I am sure that that is true of all Members, so the idea that we do not listen to young people and we do not pay attention to what they think—that we do not think about tuition fees, education or similar things just because young people under the age of 18 are not able to vote—does not hold water.

We have to set the line somewhere, and I think that the right place to set it is the age of majority—the age of 18—when we basically decide that children become adults. That is where I think the line is best left. I do not think that that means that we do not engage with children in debates and arguments in schools and colleges; I and all other Members do engage with children in that way perfectly well. Also, those who campaign on this issue because they think that it will in some way pay an electoral dividend for them—I am not putting the hon. Member for Rotherham in that category—should, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, be careful what they wish for. If we treat young people with respect and engage them in the argument, they will have more respect for us than if we just agree with something that some of them think because we consider that it will make us more popular. As I say, I do not put the hon. Lady in that category. The voting age should stay where it is—at 18—and I am against what the hon. Lady is proposing.

Order. It might help right hon. and hon. Members to know that I would like to start the wind-ups at 10.40 am.

Thank you, Mr Bone, for the opportunity to speak. I rise to support the arguments put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). She made an excellent speech. It is a crucial fact that in many areas of their lives 16 and 17-year-olds are treated as adults. That is not the case in all areas, and we are not arguing for many other areas to be addressed. However, there should be an extension of their responsibility to include the ability to cast a vote. I say that because in my experience young people are far more mature, engaged and proactive than perhaps they were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

It is very important to recognise that if we want a society that is based on the principle of involvement and participation, there is no more important a group to be involved and to participate than young people. I see empowering them, by giving them the vote at 16 and 17, as a crucial way of doing that.

It slightly worries me that some—though not all—the arguments against extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds are very similar to the arguments that were used in the past against extending the vote to other people in society. I think of the arguments about the Reform Act 1832, and the Reform Acts that followed. The establishment in this country is always reluctant to empower people by extending the ability to vote. It is sad that some of the same arguments are being used against extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds.

My background has convinced me of the desirability of lowering the voting age. I worked for the Workers Educational Association and conducted a number of classes for young people. The involvement and depth of maturity displayed in the discussions we had in those adult education classes was quite remarkable. We discussed every issue under the sun, so it seemed illogical to then say, “Your views are very interesting, but nevertheless you have no ability whatever to influence outcomes on such issues in our society.”

Similarly, before being elected to this House I worked as the policy officer for the Wales Youth Agency, and was particularly involved with the voluntary youth sector. Today, I am the president of the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services, known as CWVYS. The issue of how to empower young people was absolutely central to the work I was engaged in at the Wales Youth Agency. I am pleased to say that we established a youth forum in Wales, initially known as Young Voice, but now going by a more trendy name, Funky Dragon, which was thought up by young people themselves. That body has an impressive track record on engaging with a range of issues, particularly relating to the Welsh Assembly, and expressing its collective views clearly and powerfully.

As in many other constituencies, we have a very effective youth forum in Caerphilly that meets regularly. The maturity expressed by young people on a range of issues is remarkable. I am pleased to say that the local authority in Caerphilly, like others elsewhere, takes on board such effectively and coherently expressed views.

I would like to make a couple of points, the first being on the situation in Scotland. There will be a vital referendum in September in which 16 and 17-year-olds are being given the vote for the first time. I think that that has been welcomed in Scottish civic society, whichever way those young people vote. It will be difficult to put back into the box something that has been released—and something that I think has proven successful, in terms of having an effective debate in Scotland. What is good enough for the debate on the Scottish referendum is good enough for debates and votes on a raft of other issues in all parts of the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham referred to the situation in Wales. Although it does not have the power to extend the voting age, the Welsh Assembly has expressed its opinion that the vote should be conferred on 16 and 17-year-olds. That is the way that things are going.

Finally, if we are honest with ourselves, when Members engage with young people, we all come away with the feeling that it is not the case that young people are not interested in politics; that is a myth. Young people are interested in a raft of issues that affect them, whether it be the environment, education, or employment. They are turned off by establishment politics; frankly, they are turned off by middle-aged men in grey suits—not blue ones—discussing issues as though they knew best. We must move away from that culture, and the most effective way to do that is to extend the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds to ensure that their voice has a material impact on the development of our society.

It has already been mentioned that last year there was a good debate on the Floor of the House on lowering the voting age. I had the pleasure of summing up for Her Majesty’s Opposition. The vote at the end was in favour of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds by 119 votes to 46. Given that clear view expressed by the House, I would like to think that the Government will respond positively with what they intend to do to make progress on this issue. I have learned this morning that, despite the fact that it abstained on that vote in January last year, the Conservative party is opposed to extending democracy by lowering the voting age. I hope that that is not the view of the Government as a whole, and look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bone, in a debate on what you rightly said was an important matter of constitutional significance. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate and on her passionate speech. She is devoted to the issue and has often raised it in the House, and she had time this morning to set out her thoughts in full. I look forward to the Minister’s response, particularly now that it has been previewed by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) as reflecting both the Government view and the diametrically opposite Liberal Democrat view. We are all used to Liberal Democrat politicians expressing two opposing views at the same time, but it will still be interesting to hear how the Minister responds.

I will not allow my views to be traduced. I was trying to be helpful to the Minister. He will set out the Government’s position, which is that they have not taken a view on either side of the argument because the coalition parties have different views on the subject. He will no doubt take the opportunity to set out the view of the Liberal Democrats as well. The two positions are not opposite, and I was trying to be helpful, as I always am.

We will find out. I will resist provoking the hon. Gentleman because we have already heard quite a lot from him so far in this debate. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David); both Members are experienced on this subject, as they are, respectively, the former Minister and former shadow Minister with responsibility for constitutional reform. I therefore feel that my knowledge of the matter is somewhat limited, particularly as I am carrying the flag on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who unfortunately cannot be present because he had a long-standing commitment to chairing a conference on electoral reform. He is particularly keen on that issue, but also on lowering the voting age, and I know that he has been travelling up and down the country meeting young people to discuss the issue. He, the shadow Secretary of State for Justice—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan)—and the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), have led on this agenda and are together putting the issue at the heart of the Opposition’s constitutional reform programme.

We are facing a deficit in politics that goes beyond the issue of young people voting. It would be easy to retreat from the problem, especially in the midst of a significant economic crisis, but it is not enough to do nothing and hope that the tide changes. It is essential that we seek to explore new ways of achieving democratic renewal and political reform. General election turnout in the UK has been on a downward trend since the 1950s, when 84% of the population turned out to vote. At the last election, the proportion was just 65%. As we have heard, membership of political parties has fallen off a cliff, spectacularly so in the case of the Conservative party, which is now at one thirtieth of its peak membership, but all political parties have been affected.

We deplore the fact that a majority of young people do not vote at elections yet decide to do nothing about it. I thought that some Members who intervened earlier and oppose voting at 16 were using that fact as a reason to justify doing nothing, rather than as a reason to take the matter more seriously. Youth is not automatically linked to apathy, and the reasons behind low turnout are complicated. My experience is that young people today are often highly political but wary of formal party politics. Many do not feel that politicians listen to their concerns or discuss their aspirations.

Bite the Ballot is a very good organisation that promotes young people voting, and one of its representatives commented:

“I would say the majority of young people don’t trust politicians.”

It is probably true that a majority of all people do not trust politicians, but that feeling might be particularly significant among the young, who are perhaps not so world-weary, slightly more idealistic, and therefore more shocked by the way in which politicians sometimes behave. People will have heard the exculpatory comments of Chris Huhne during his media exercise yesterday; I think we must all say that sometimes we politicians do not do ourselves any favours at all.

Sitting back, doing nothing and hoping that our young people vote is not enough. Opening up our democratic system to younger people is important and is a way to solve this problem. Rather than turning our backs, we must seek to improve the current democratic malaise by empowering young people.

Only 44% of those aged 18 to 24 voted in the general election. A recent survey found that only a third of 16 to 24-year-olds say they have an interest in politics. Compare those figures with the 76% of those of pension age who voted. The gap has almost doubled since 1970, when there was an 18 percentage point gap between young people and those of pension age, to around 30 percentage points.

There was a good article in the Daily Mirror this morning—there are always lots of good articles in the Daily Mirror—about this issue, although I do not know whether the Minister read it. It stated:

“Almost 60% of young people say they will not vote in the 2015 General Election”

and that the percentage of those intending to vote in the European elections is only 30%, although perhaps the latter is not so surprising. Those are poor figures and they appear to be getting worse. The response to that should not be to write off young people’s voting, but to take the approach that my party has taken. At the Labour conference, the Leader of the Opposition set out how we will seek to change the situation.

It is right to say that introducing votes at 16 is a radical proposal that has the potential to energise a new generation of politically active and engaged citizens. However, votes at 16 need to go hand in hand with wider youth engagement and a renewed commitment to citizenship education. The education participation age is rising to 18. By offering the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds at school, at college and in workplaces, we can intertwine civic duty with our education system. Conferring a democratic responsibility and opportunity on people still in compulsory education offers practical benefits. For example, on polling days, schools and colleges could have polling stations for students, making it more likely that this group would take advantage of the opportunity. That would be intertwined with Labour’s policy to empower schools to work with electoral registration officers to ensure that students are registered to vote.

The next Labour Government will create schools that nourish real civic duty and democratic understanding, as well as ensuring, of course, that teachers are qualified and all schools are properly inspected, and taking up other unconventional ideas that the Government do not appear to support.

It is important to note that only about half of young people aged 18 to 24 are registered to vote. If people vote once, they are more likely to vote again. The Social Market Foundation published research that found that the closer to an election an individual’s 18th birthday is, the more likely they are to vote. That demonstrated that people who turn 18 in the year leading up to a general election are significantly more likely to vote than those who turn 18 in the year after the previous general election and have to wait five years. Those who vote when young continue to vote. Over time, voting could become a rite of passage in our education system, like taking exams, but this will require a strengthening of citizenship education.

Almost 50% of the population of my constituency was born outside the UK. This is anecdotal rather than statistical evidence, but in communities in my constituency, there is often much greater political awareness and willingness to vote, and that is passed down from parents to children, whether because they value the vote more or because they are taking more of an interest in a country that they have come to relatively recently. If the same interest was shown more widely, that would help; it is achievable. Often, marginal decisions affect whether people vote. For example, we all know that making it easier to vote by post or by other means massively increases turnout.

The Labour Government made great strides with their introduction of citizenship as a subject in secondary school. Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum, giving young people an understanding and deeper knowledge of, and interest in, civic issues. Votes at 16 would place renewed emphasis on this area for our schools.

The Government are introducing individual electoral registration. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main emphases of the Government’s programme encouraging young people to vote should be schools’ participation in encouraging young people to register, so that they can vote at 18? It would be a small step forward to encourage registration for votes at 16.

I worry about individual electoral registration, as a number of wards in my constituency have below 50% initial tie-up. In many ways, that will be a barrier to voting. That makes it all the more important that we ensure that the educational aspect and the simple ability to explain to people how the new system works go hand in hand. These problems are not limited to young people.

Votes at 16 can inspire young people to get involved in our democracy. Many young people are already involved in roles of democratic responsibility. Some 85% of secondary schools have school councils, around 20,000 young people are active in youth councils and there are 600 elected Members of Youth Parliament, each serving for 12 months and voted in by their peers. Most hon. Members will have witnessed Youth Parliament debates and met their local representatives, who are supported by groups like Bite the Ballot, the British Youth Council and the Patchwork Foundation, which do great work getting young people involved in politics.

I agree with Government Members that this is not a partisan political issue, although I worry about why so many Conservative Members are against the idea. So much damage has been done to young people under the current Government. They have abolished the education maintenance allowance and university fees are soaring—we must give a hat-tip to the Liberal Democrats for that, although perhaps we will find out that Constance Briscoe was responsible for that as well, in the long term. The Government scrapped the future jobs fund, too. It is hardly a surprise that the coalition parties are nervous about the idea, but over time that will not be an issue.

Finally, let me deal with the main subject of the speech made by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. With all due respect to him, he was trying to infantilise young people. It is not as simple as saying, “Yes, there is a single age at which young people are able to do everything.” That is not what my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham was saying. The fact is that we do move age limits up and down, and they differ from those in other countries. For example, we decreased the age of criminal responsibility by four years, just as we equalised the age of consent at 16 for all young people. The point is that one has to make a judgment on the merits of the case. Yes, it has been right in some cases to protect young people by imposing an age limit—for purchasing tobacco products, say, because they are addictive, and because if people start smoking young, they tend to continue. However, we do not need to protect people from voting. If anything, we should encourage that engagement, and the later stages of school is exactly the time to do that.

At 16, people can go out to work, become a director of a company, join a trade union and participate fully in society. Many young people are adults at 16, and it is wrong to restrict them in respect of voting. That is why the next Labour Government will give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. However, that is not enough; they must be given a reason to vote, and the support to engage in the democratic process. Voting is a gateway to participation in society, not an end in itself. If we do not give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote, we are excluding them from some of the rights and responsibilities that we otherwise increasingly load on them. Giving them the vote is the fair and right thing to do.

The Daily Mirror article that I mentioned ends with a rather depressing quote from a young person:

“Young people’s voices don’t get heard, so why should they vote? I don’t think politicians take enough time to listen to us, and it’s a shame because we are the future.”

That downward spiral should be reversed. If we give young people the vote and encourage them to use it, they will feel that we are taking their interests more seriously, and then I hope we will see a rise in participation and in the percentage turning out to vote.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate on an important, interesting and topical issue and for highlighting some of the excellent achievements of the young people she has met in her constituency, with whom she has debated this matter. I also thank other hon. Members who have contributed.

The hon. Lady described votes at 16 as a radical change. Personally, I consider it to be an incremental change, not a radical change, but that is a Liberal Democrat view rather than a Government view.

I am afraid that I have been needled into responding to a couple of points that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) made. He likes to target the Liberal Democrats. He was, I am afraid, posing as a slow learner who did not understand the practicalities of coalition, although I am sure that he understands them very well: there is an agreement between two parties, they form a Government and deliver a programme, but those two parties remain independent and have differing points of view, as set out earlier. It was made clear in this debate that Opposition Members have a clear view.

The hon. Lady, who opened the debate, the hon. Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David), and the shadow Minister spoke in support of votes at 16. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is no longer in his place, supports votes at 16 or thinks it is a logical conclusion and somewhere we will get to eventually. Other contributions from the Government Benches, whether it was the interventions of the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), the detailed speech of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper)or the lengthy interventions of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), who is no longer in his place, made it clear that there is no consensus within the Government on the issue. There are, therefore, no plans to lower the voting age in this Parliament.

I am pleased to say that votes at 16 is very much party policy, and has been for a number of years. A point was made on whether political parties advocate the policy for their political advantage. We will have to see whether it is to the Liberal Democrats’ political advantage to give votes to 16 and 17-year-olds, but we have held a position of principle for many years that we want to see the policy adopted.

We have heard a variety of facts and figures, both for and against the proposal to lower the voting age, which demonstrates that the evidence is not clear cut. Most studies and polls seem to show that a majority of 16 and 17-year-olds favour lowering the voting age, although the situation is not always clear. A YouGov survey of 14 to 25-year-olds conducted for the Citizenship Foundation in November 2009 found a majority—54%—opposed to votes for 16-year-olds, with just 31% in favour. I regularly take straw polls when visiting schools in my constituency, and I can confirm that there is not unanimous support, even among 16 and 17-year-olds, for lowering the voting age.

The Youth Citizenship Commission, which the previous Government set up in 2009, looked at ways of developing young people’s understanding of citizenship and increasing their participation in politics and, as part of that, whether the voting age should be lowered to 16. In its summer 2009 report, it did not find significant evidence on which to base a recommendation and did not believe that evidence that would lead to a clear conclusion was available or would become available in the foreseeable future. In light of that, it concluded that the question of whether the voting age should be lowered should be decided by political processes. That is clearly what today’s debate is about. While certainly not a silver-bullet solution, I believe that lowering the voting age would help engage young people at an early age in our democracy and political processes and give them a greater say over the many decisions that affect their lives and the world in which they will grow up.

Members have referred to the worrying levels of engagement among young people, and I echo their concerns. Registration among young people is lower than for other population groups. Turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds, who of course can vote, has also been falling. At successive elections from 1974 to 1992, around a quarter of 18 to 24-year-olds did not vote. In 1997, that rose to nearly 40%, then to around 45% in 2001 and 55% in 2005. We can all take individual action, and many Members have set out the contacts they have. They referred to the activities they undertake with schools to promote registration and political activity. There are things that we have to do as politicians, unpopular as we are. People may have their views about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, but handing over responsibility for our expenses to an independent body was one of the collective actions we needed to take to restore credibility, which is lacking. The most recent Hansard Society annual audit found that only 24% of 18 to 24-year-olds said that they were certain to vote at the next election, and that is an alarming statistic.

A number of Members referred to citizenship education, which has been a compulsory part of the national curriculum in secondary schools for pupils aged 11 to 16 since 2002. It will not only be retained in the new national curriculum for teaching from September 2014 but will be strengthened. It will not be pared back, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said. We are all in agreement with her that citizenship education is key to this debate.

The Government are fully committed to doing what we can to increase voter registration levels. That point was made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, who touched on independent electoral registration. He asked whether the Government were trying to increase voter registration, particularly among young people, and that is exactly what we are doing. We have announced that five national organisations and all 363 local authorities and valuation joint boards in Great Britain are sharing just over £4 million of funding to promote voter registration among under-registered groups, which include young people. In particular, UK Youth and the Scottish Youth Parliament are working exclusively on engaging young people, as are other organisations, such as Bite the Ballot. I am sure that many Members will have had opportunities to participate in events in their constituencies that Bite the Ballot has organised. I had the pleasure of doing that at Carshalton Boys Sports college a couple of weeks ago.

Reference has been made to the Scottish independence referendum. The hon. Gentleman said that this was the first time that 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland had had the chance to vote. In fact, there have been health board and crofting commission elections in which they could participate. However, Members cannot read anything into the Scottish Parliament’s decision to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum and any effect that that might have on the voting age for parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament has powers to determine aspects of the referendum, and that is exactly what it has done.

One of the main focuses of the debate has been on the rights and responsibilities of 16-year-olds. We have heard lists of what young people can and cannot do at certain ages. Advocates on both sides of the argument have exchanged blows on those lists, and it is correct that the age limits change from time to time. In truth, however, those lists add relatively little to the debate. There is no standard age of majority in the UK at which one moves from being a child to being an adult. The lists are not pertinent to a debate on the specific issue of whether young people should be able to vote at 16 and 17.

After carrying out an extensive consultation and review, the Youth Citizenship Commission did not find significant evidence on which to base a recommendation, and that is why we are having a political debate on whether young people should be able to vote. There is no plan in this Parliament for a change to the voting age, but the Government welcome and encourage the involvement of young people in policy and decision making. Indeed, we are seeking to increase democratic engagement among the youth of this country through the Government-funded youth voice programme—Members will be well aware of many of its aspects—and the Youth Parliament, which I had the pleasure of welcoming to the Chamber last November. The Youth Select Committee is an important innovation that mirrors parliamentary inquiries. It is now in its third year and I look forward to giving evidence to it. I am sure that we all commend the young people on it for their hard work on their inquiries.

To conclude, the debate has again shown the divergent views in this House on whether 16 and 17-year-olds should be eligible to vote, and that reflects differing opinions on the issue in society at large. There is also no consensus within the Government on the issue. It was not included in the coalition agreement and there are no plans for a change in this Parliament. We are, however, taking a range of measures to encourage young people to register and to ensure that their voices are heard. I am sure that debate on whether to lower the voting age will continue and, for my part, I support the proposal and welcome the ongoing debate.


It is an absolute pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Bone, not least because I was asked last week to chair this debate myself. Although I am capable of multi-tasking, I was not sure how I would manage that, so it is a pleasure to serve under you.

I should also say at the outset that I have received text messages from several hon. Members who are travelling down from various parts of the country. If they arrive in Westminster in time, I hope that they may be able to participate late in the debate, so if people start coming in and not going through the normal process, I am aware of that.

I should be clear that I want to discuss the rise in recent years of cyberstalking rather than cyber-bullying or cyber-harassment or, indeed, malicious communications, which are terms that are occasionally misused by the press and other commentators. Cyber-bullying, however, is also a serious, modern-day offence that profoundly affects people, in particular teenagers, and can result in serious outcomes such as suicide. I am also a vice-patron of the Cybersmile Foundation, a cyber-bullying campaign organisation.

I have consulted leaders in the field of cyberstalking, including Professor Carsten Maple from the university of Bedfordshire, who is also a director of the national centre for cyberstalking research. By his definition, cyberstalking occurs when an individual or individuals become obsessively fixated with another person and pursue them utilising electronic means that cause life-altering degrees of distress or fear in the victim. Before mass use of the internet, such people would often operate alone, as one-offs, but through various social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and other platforms, individuals can now join together and operate almost as a pack and over a sustained period.

Stalking is not a new phenomenon; it has existed for many years, and Members will recall various cases in which stalking ultimately led to serious consequences. It is only relatively recently, however, that the first legislation was introduced in the United Kingdom to tackle stalking and harassment, so this Government—and the previous Government—are fairly new to the issue. We need to get on top of the problem, because cyberstalking and access to the means utilised for cyberstalking are on the rise.

Legislation was first introduced in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which came some seven years after the world’s first stalking legislation was passed in California. As we have moved into an age of electronic information and communication, stalkers have found more effective and efficient means to perpetrate their malicious acts. Physical stalkers have become cyberstalkers, and cyberstalking has become an epidemic that stretches across the globe. In many cases, physical stalkers were previously cyberstalkers.

In the press today is the tragic case of Helen Pearson, who was stabbed eight times with a pair of 12-inch long scissors by Joe Willis. The case is now in court. We know that she was stalked via electronic means before being physically stalked. Such cases occur often, and I will go on to discuss how stalking, attempted manslaughter or grievous bodily harm are often the offences considered in court, but the case began with cyberstalking.

Like all stalkers, cyberstalkers seek to gain power, control or influence over a victim. However, perpetrators usually have a high level of computer proficiency and will often combine cyber and physical stalking. Stalking may be increasing, but it has been documented that victims report stalking to the police only after 100 incidents. Helen Pearson reported her stalker 125 times to Devon and Cornwall police before any action was taken, for example. On 25 November 2012, as a result of the Protection of Freedom Act 2012, amendments were made to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 formally to recognise and define stalking as a crime, which may have given rise to increased awareness, resulting in the increase in charges under the 1997 Act. In 2012-13, the number of charges laid under the 1997 Act increased by more than 1,000, but a problem with the statistics on reports of stalking or prosecutions made under stalking laws such as the 1997 Act is that the report or charge is often made for an offence other than stalking, as I just highlighted using the Helen Pearson case.

Members may remember a recent case in Teesside Crown court. Anthony Graham from Middlesbrough admitted raping a woman and separately attacking her landlord with a claw hammer, leaving him with irreversible brain damage. Graham had become obsessed with the female victim and attacked her after she rejected his advances. On the day of the rape, Teesside Crown court heard, Graham was waiting at her house with a bunch of flowers. She rejected him, so that evening he went to her home and dragged her by her hair to a nearby house. The court heard that Graham tied the victim up using the belt from her dressing gown, and made repeated threats to kill her. The next evening, he went after her landlord, whom Graham thought was her lover, and attacked him with a claw hammer, causing irreparable brain damage. There will be no record of the cyberstalking that preceded the attacks, but it was a crime that moved from cyberstalking to a physical attack.

In the United States, 76% of women murdered by their current or former intimate partners were stalked by their attacker in the previous 12 months. Similarly, 85% of women who were victims of attempted murder by current or former intimate partners were stalked within the 12 months before the attempted murder. In the past two years in Afghanistan, 99 brave soldiers have been killed while protecting our freedom. In the same period in the UK, 266 women were killed by violence perpetrated by men against women—the most recent case being the distressing murder of a schoolteacher in Leeds last week.

Research into the specific nature of cyberstalking is unfortunately in its infancy, but the UK is a leader in the academic world through the work of Lorraine Sheridan, Paul Bocij, Carsten Maple and Emma Short—to name just a few. As a result, the university of Bedfordshire is at the forefront of cyberstalking research. The studies we do have show that cyberstalking is a much under-reported crime. We do not yet know how many victims of murder or attempted murder by former partners were actually subjected to cyberstalking by their attackers, but we can say that cyberstalking occurs frequently in cases of physical stalking. A report last year of victims who had contacted the national stalking helpline found that some form of technology was used by the stalker in more than 70% of cases. Such technology may be a tracker fixed to the underneath of a victim’s car, which is not an offence in law, but more often it is in the form of computers and social media, whose darker elements I will discuss later.

I just outlined a case in which stalking led to a serious physical attack, but I do not want the House to think that victims are harmed only physically. A non-physical attack may have psychological effects that can lead to physical manifestations in the victim. In 1996, Gaetano Constanza appealed against a conviction for assault occasioning actual bodily harm contrary to section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Constanza had followed Louise Wilson, made silent telephone calls, written on her front door and written more than 800 letters to her in the space of four months. There was medical evidence that she was suffering from clinical depression and anxiety. The Court of Appeal rejected the appeal and affirmed that assault could be committed without the victim even seeing the potential perpetrator of the violence. That scenario arises when victims are cyberstalked using social media sites: the attacker may be physically unknown to them; alternatively their identity may be known but, because of sustained and prolonged cyber-attacks, the victim can manifest symptoms as bad as, or worse than, those from an actual physical attack.

Cyberstalking can lead to a number of anxieties for victims. A study published this year found that cyberstalking had no less impact than physical stalking. ECHO, the electronic communications harassment observation project conducted by the national centre for cyberstalking research at the university of Bedfordshire, found that half of all victims who had been subjected to online and offline stalking had exhibited clinically recognised symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One victim said:

“I am bombarded with…verbal abuse daily, my name and address has been traced and my private life interfered with.”

Cyberstalkers attack victims by a number of means. The proliferation of the use of the internet and its ubiquity has meant that victims can be stalked at any time, day or night, from any location. It is likely that internet communication removes disincentives: a stalker who might be deterred from confronting, or is unable to confront, a victim in person or on the telephone might not experience the same hesitation about sending harassing or threatening electronic communications to or about a victim. Furthermore, physical stature is not relevant in cyberstalking, as it sometimes can be in physical stalking. Indeed, there is a different ratio of male to female victims in cyberstalking compared with offline stalking. In the ECHO study, the ratio of two female victims to one male is much lower than that in a number of other studies of traditional forms of stalking.

One study of cyberstalking found that one in four victims had false information about them posted online. The harm caused by such “cyber-smearing” is often far more serious than that caused by equivalent offline acts such as writing poison-pen letters, because information posted on the internet is available to a huge audience and can remain easily accessible for a long time. Deleting malicious messages from the internet is incredibly difficult, as I am sure hon. Members are aware. When those messages are reposted and harvested—when one site automatically reposts information from another site—or when individuals repost, it is even more difficult. In addition, messages are often specifically sent to the social media sites of family, friends, work colleagues and neighbours, and the impact can be massive.

The anonymity of the internet, which is so important for freedom of speech, is used to make the lives of victims as difficult as possible. There is no checking of the validity of messages posted online. Those who see them do not know whether the messages are accurate and often do not know who sent them. Cyberstalkers will often attempt to be anonymous—or at least pseudonymous, as they try to dissociate an online identity from their true identity. Some cyberstalkers have an online identity and behind the scenes have several anonymous identities, which they use to reinforce their known identity. Such a person will go on to a social media site and use the false accounts to reinforce what they say.

Unfortunately, there are many tools that can assist cyberstalkers in hiding their true identity. Of course, anyone can create a new e-mail address using a pseudonym. However, a number of cyberstalkers use remailer services. A user sends an e-mail to the remailer, which strips off the information that could identify the sender and remails the message to its intended recipient. Some Members of the House may be aware of the growing use of the so-called dark web, an area of the internet that is not visible to regular search engines and often not to regular browsers. Instead, some areas can be accessed only by using special browsers that provide users with high levels of anonymity. Unfortunately, some cyberstalkers are using those or other so-called proxy servers in an attempt to hide their identity and location. Proxy servers are servers to which a user can connect to make it appear that they are at the same location as that server. Anonymity services can present problems for legislators and law enforcement, as well as causing huge additional anxiety for the victim.

Perceived anonymity is one factor that can lead to toxic disinhibition, through the removal of a capable guardian and of accountability and shame. A number of studies confirm that when people are online, social inhibitions that would be present in normal face-to-face interaction can be loosened or abandoned. Threats made under the shroud of anonymity can lead to increased fear in a cyberstalking case. One victim received threats stating that her cyberstalker was going to push her under a tube train as she commuted to work. She had no idea of the identity of the stalker—not even whether they were male or female. I ask hon. Members to imagine the fear and distress that she felt waiting for that train every morning. Any of the many seemingly innocuous commuters and tourists around her could have been the stalker, who had told her which tube she took, from which stop and at which time. It is entirely possible that the cyberstalker was never there and had never seen her get on the tube, but had gained that information in other ways; but would that make the victim’s fear any less? That fear was profound. The case is not an isolated one. One study found that in 42% of cases the cyberstalking victim did not know the identity of their stalker. That contrasts with offline stalking, where research has shown that a much higher proportion of victims know who their stalker is.

The ability to be pseudonymous has enabled cyberstalkers to impersonate their victims or their friends and family. By pretending to be the victim or someone close to them the stalker can gain access to information or spread falsehoods and incite relationship breakdown. A study showed that one in 11 victims had been impersonated in messages to friends, family or colleagues. Cyberstalkers often enlist the aid of other people to pursue a victim. Stalking by proxy is a common behaviour associated with cyberstalking and can be seen on Twitter every day. Tweets will almost be harvested between a group of people, and retweeted. There are examples of people looking for people to join them in cyberstalking. Studies have shown that one in four victims suffered when their cyberstalker encouraged others to harass the victim. That is a common problem.

Cyberstalkers have an arsenal of technology and services to assist them in their malicious campaigns. Some of the more obvious are messaging systems such as SMS and instant messaging, message boards, social networks, discussion forums and chat rooms, but others might use video games, for example. In fact, any system that allows people to send or display messages to an individual, a group or the public can be used. However, beyond messaging systems, cyberstalkers also use systems such as GPS technology, listening devices, hidden cameras and, as I have mentioned, car tracking devices to target their victims or learn more about their activities and personal life. In an age where we put so much information about ourselves online, that is particularly troubling. How hard would it be to locate someone’s whereabouts and the details of their personal life through information posted online not only by them but by the people who know them?

Even more worryingly, one study showed that more than 40% of victims surveyed had been sent malicious software by the perpetrator. Those programs can corrupt files, allow the perpetrator to control the victim’s computer, or be used to harvest information about the victim. They can be attached to a harmless e-mail, perhaps even from a trusted person whose computer has previously been compromised, or sent by someone impersonating a trusted source. There have, for example, been numerous cases where a trojan—software hidden in a seemingly innocuous message, akin to the ancient Trojan horse—allows the perpetrator to control the victim’s machine. That would give access to files, personal information and any peripherals, such as a webcam, so someone’s stalker can watch them while cyberstalking them.

Given the clearly massive impact that cyberstalking can have and the increasing number of ways that cyberstalkers can use technology and gain support for their campaigns, it is vital that an effective support system is in place. I am pleased to say that there is now a national stalking advocacy service, Paladin, and three leading charities—Protection Against Stalking, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and the Network for Surviving Stalking—to raise awareness and offer support to victims. There is also an outstanding national stalking helpline that offers support to victims. It is funded by the Home Office, although I understand that funding may not be guaranteed for the future. I truly hope that issue is resolved—perhaps the Minister can provide confirmation of that. There is also a national lead for stalking, Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan of Greater Manchester Police, who chairs the stalking and harassment working group and is working with various agencies to change attitudes and promote awareness. Those agencies include social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and Amazon, where we are at last beginning to see those organisations recognise the role that their product plays in the perpetration of cyberstalking.

However, I think we need more understanding, research and awareness of the specific nature of cyberstalking. The work of Professor Carsten Maple and Dr Emma Short at the national centre for cyberstalking research has made an outstanding contribution, and further support is needed for them and others to continue their work. Furthermore, we need to ensure that there are sufficient education and training programmes on cyberstalking. We need to ensure that people at all levels and in all areas of the justice system are aware of just how skilful cyberstalkers can be, how significant and far-reaching their impact can be, and how prolific they are. We need people to be aware of the danger posed to victims from psychological and physical attack.

We need employers to understand that this kind of stalking can happen in the workplace. To cite further research that I discovered this morning, a survey undertaken by the national centre for cyberstalking research found that in one in four cases of people being cyberstalked, the stalker made contact with them either via the workplace or using work contact details. However, clearly victims are not happy to discuss with their employers that they are victims of cyberstalking through the workplace: less than half disclosed their stalking experience to their manager or HR representative. That may be explained by the fact that 61% of respondents said that their workplace either did not have a policy for stalking or that they were not aware of one; however, 80.4% of those believed that their workplace should have such a policy. Finally, when asked whether their employer would treat cyberstalking the same or less seriously than traditional stalking, 46% of respondents stated that their employers would take it less seriously. Therein lies the problem: people do not understand the effects of cyberstalking and online stalking, and the effect that it can have on the individual. That is why we need employers to understand the issue.

We also need to educate the public on how they and others use the internet. They need to understand the risk at which they may be putting themselves and how their actions could have very serious consequences for others. That is not a simple undertaking, but it is very important.

I shall finish on the training of police in dealing with complaints about cyberstalking and the way in which they handle complaints. There has been a need for police forces and individual officers to complete the training that has been made available by the National Centre for Applied Learning Technologies. Bedfordshire police are obviously more aware of cyberstalking and its impact than most police forces, and I was told that 370 officers have completed the online training so far, with the number of officers likely to increase significantly if a decision is made to make the training mandatory. Given the impact of cyberstalking, I believe that it is now time for police officers to undergo mandatory training.

As we know, Helen Pearson reported her stalker to the police 125 times and he almost stabbed her to death in a graveyard. It took a member of the public to intervene and pull him off her. If that member of the public had not happened to be in the right place at the right time, I have no doubt that Helen Pearson would not be here today to be in that court case. Her situation is not unusual. As I have said, research has shown that it takes almost 100 complaints to the police before they take a complaint about cyberstalking, stalking or a combination of the two seriously.

Does the Minister agree that it is time to make the training mandatory? If he believes that mandatory training may be too big a measure to put in place, does he think that the Home Office should give an instruction to police forces to encourage them to ensure that all their members have applied to complete that online training, and that police forces should monitor the number of police officers who complete the training and make that information available to the Home Office? That needs to happen and there need to be specific training courses for police officers—I know that the university of Bedfordshire and Professor Carsten Marple are working on training police officers. It is not only about completing the online training, but about one-to-one training for officers on the front line to understand the issue. When officers understand the link between cyberstalking and physical stalking, the impact that it has on individuals today, and how very often we see the step from one to the other, they will begin to take complaints made by individuals more seriously.

I suppose that is where I will wind up, Mr Bone. I hope that the Minister can provide some reassurance. I know that the Government take cyberstalking and all forms of stalking very seriously, as we saw with the measures that were put in place in December 2012. However, there is more work to be done, and it is tragic that we have the case that I mentioned in the newspapers today. It is happening all the time. We have to take action to ensure that cyberstalking stops and that we do not see situations like that again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) for bringing this important topic to the Chamber. The debate is valuable in showing that there is cross-party agreement on the issue, including on the part of the Minister. The debate not only raises awareness of cyberstalking, but ensures that there is a real Government focus on measures taken to help reduce the number of incidents, and to help support organisations that can deal with the issue in a much more co-ordinated way.

[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

I welcome you to the chair, Mrs Riordan. You have missed an interesting and complex presentation from the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire. She made a compelling case for the impact of cybserstalking, not only on women, but across the board. As she said, cyberstalking occurs when someone becomes obsessively fixated on an individual and pursues them through electronic means, causing the victim distress or fear.

Stalking often happened before the advent of the internet and wide-ranging social media, and previous Governments recognised that by making stalking and harassment an offence. However, we are in an electronic age, and as the hon. Lady said, with the growth of a range of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and of the internet, e-mail and texting, the ability to take stalking from physical to cyber is increasing all the time. We do not know what inventions will come downstream and widen the use of social media. There is clearly a problem that the Government and the authorities need to address.

In research by The Guardian in February 2014, 41% of women reported that a partner or ex-partner had used online activities to track or check up on them, and 37% of women have felt threatened by such behaviour. Facebook and e-mail were named as the most common means of abuse. In January 2014, The Daily Telegraph Magazine reported that prosecutions under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which particularly addresses menacing or offensive behaviour conducted via social media, e-mail, telephone or the internet, had dropped by 30% from 3,108 cases in 2012 to 2,221 cases in 2013. The hon. Lady mentioned that the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 has been passed since the first figure came out, and she mentioned that there have been approximately 1,000 inquiries following the introduction of that legislation. It would be helpful if the Minister could give an overall assessment of the number of potential cases being brought under either the new legislation or previous legislation, so that we get a sense of where we are on the problem.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has reported that 38% of children have been victims of cyber-bullying, which the hon. Lady has made clear is a different issue, but it shows that there is potential for not just women and men but children to be affected. In September 2013, Women’s Aid helpfully surveyed online more than 300 women who have survived domestic violence. The survey found—these are important figures in relation to the points raised by the hon. Lady—that: 45% of women who have survived domestic violence have experienced some form of abuse online during their relationship, including through social network sites or e-mail; 48% reported experiencing harassment or abuse online from their ex-partner once they had left the relationship; 38% reported online stalking once they had left the relationship completely; and 75% reported that the police did not know how best to respond to their concerns and allegations. That includes 12% who had reported abuse to the police and, rightly or wrongly, believed that they were not helped.

There is a real issue, and we need to address the points that the hon. Lady has helpfully raised. What are the agencies doing in response? We have a clear legislative framework that was put in place following pressure from outside the House and with cross-party support in the House, but we need particularly to look at the clear link between domestic violence and online abuse, harassment and stalking. We also need to consider how we can influence and change what are, as she clearly stated, online tools for people who wish to stalk, intimidate, control and coerce women in particular, but also men and children.

The impact on children can be great and long-lasting. A similar Women’s Aid survey showed that witnessing the impact of a parent being cyberstalked was particularly damaging to children’s development and growth, making them anxious or depressed, giving them problems at school and difficulties sleeping, and making them feel isolated and insecure. Cyberstalking is not simply a problem for the person being stalked; the problem extends to the wider family, particularly children.

One of the reasons for that is that cyberstalking often introduces life-changing behaviour in the person being stalked. The children of parents who normally go about their business will observe that their parents, or the person being stalked, dramatically alter what they do in their day-to-day life. They might no longer go outdoors because they are too frightened, or they might change how they travel to work. They might even move house. All that has a very disturbing effect on children. As I stated, causing such behaviour constitutes a crime; a precedent has been set in court. What most victims of cyberstalking do not know is that if their life is being affected in that way, they are able to take legal action against the person who has perpetrated the crime of cyberstalking against them.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting again the impact of cyberstalking, not only on the individual being stalked, by whatever means, but on wider family relationships, particularly with children. As she has made clear, cyberstalking can have an impact across the board, including on a child’s ability to relate at school and with friends. It can also affect a child’s use and development of important social media skills, because e-mail, Twitter and Facebook are important social media that have a positive effect, as well as having the potential to be used in a negative way.

That is important, and it brings me to my first point for the Minister, which backs up what the hon. Lady has said. How are we assessing the scale of the challenge? Is it simply about the number of cases reported to the police? Is it simply about the number of telephone calls made to the national stalking helpline? Is it about referrals to organisations such as Paladin or the Suzy Lamplugh Trust? What is the Government’s estimate of the nature of the problem, and how are they assessing it? What is the Government’s estimate of, and how are they assessing, the response to the legislation that was in place on stalking and harassment generally, and to the legislation passed in 2012 on cyberstalking and the use of social media in particular? It would be helpful if the Minister, as a starting point, gave both his and the Government’s assessment of whether the problem is static or increasing, whether reporting of the problem is increasing or falling, or whether the problem is increasing while reporting is falling. I would like a general indication from the Minister of how he and the Government are assessing the nature of the problem.

I support what the hon. Lady said about the agencies dealing with cyberstalking. The police rightly take cybercrime and e-crime very seriously. They are looking at a range of issues, and we hear continually about how they are addressing cybercrime and e-crime. Given the wide-ranging potential for cybercrime and e-crime generally, internationally and nationally, I would like the Minister’s assessment of where cyberstalking falls within the police’s priorities, because the police central e-crime unit is looking at those issues. What priority does it give to extending good practice to police forces across the United Kingdom? What co-operation is it undertaking with police forces across Europe and the world? How is it relating to good practice and policy? What steps is it taking to ensure that the same recognition is given to online violence and stalking as is given to stalking and potential violence in the community?

This might be a good point at which to drop a piece of information into the debate. The e-crime unit—many forces across the country are not aware of this—now has a direct interface with social media sites. In fact, I think there are two police officers—the number is due to increase—who interface with sites such as Twitter and Facebook. They were not there before, but they are now. The e-crime unit hopes to increase that interface, but the problem is that police forces across the country do not know how to access those officers; they do not have the contacts or know how to get in touch with them. The police officers are there; they have been provided for by the e-crime unit. I hope that the Minister will take that away and consider how to inform police forces. The work is being done; police forces just need to be able to access it.

Not quite always. We were born within a month of each other in the same city, so there is obviously some telepathy, and we agree with each other on this point.

Legislation has been passed, and the police force has an e-crime unit. A range of demands on that unit are of extreme significance in the growing drive against crime. I want to endorse and emphasise points made by the hon. Lady. What steps are the Government taking, through the national e-crime unit and through Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan to ensure that all local forces are aware of the unit? What priority is given to cyberstalking in that unit? What are the elements of good practice in the response to complaints made? How many cases are being brought forward? What is the relationship between the police force and individuals when cases are brought forward, and what is the level of understanding? Those are all important issues.

When I was the Minister responsible for policing, I found that it was good to have a national policy, but sometimes the national policy is reflected by the first person a crime is reported to locally, whether in North Wales, Bedfordshire, or our home city of Liverpool. That is where the impact of the national policy is translated at local level. I would welcome the Minister’s assessment of those issues.

My second point relates to the criminal justice system generally. It is more than a year since the offences of stalking were introduced. Has the Minister assessed how the criminal justice system understands the new offences and how it responds to victims of online abuse, harassment and stalking? I am not being confrontational, but what is his assessment of how the criminal justice system understands the legislation? What changes has it made since the legislation was introduced? What assessment has it made of its mechanism for prosecuting? How many prosecutions have there been and how many have been successful? What training is offered to the staff in our constituencies who work as prosecutors, judges, and defence barristers? Those issues are important.

The third point concerns something that the hon. Lady touched on. We are talking about predominantly social media, which is not just a UK but a worldwide phenomenon. Facebook, Google and Twitter, all of which I use, and other social media that I do not, are all international. What discussions is the Minister having with our colleagues in Europe, the providers of the services and other nations to ensure we get the right balance between freedom of expression and the regulation of abuse? It is possible for an individual to cyberstalk him, me or the hon. Lady from a beach in California. The focus on the provider, on good practice on their part, and on them having a strong, effective co-ordinated complaints procedure is important, as is legislation in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Lady touched on how someone on social media can be anonymous or have several identities. Again, I do not wish to be confrontational, but there is an opportunity for the Minister to look at how we can get standardised good practice on these issues across a range of Administrations. I would welcome his assessment of whether providers such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and others understand the impact that their social media can have when they are used for cyberstalking or harassment.

Finally, I want to focus on an issue that the hon. Lady mentioned: the assessment of victims’ needs. I do so for two reasons. First, there is the initial assessment when somebody feels they are being stalked through social media—e-mail, Twitter, Facebook or whatever. What help and support is available at the start of their concerns about cyberstalking? This boils down to broad understanding. This is a new issue; when I was first elected to this House 23 years ago, we would not have talked about this issue at all. We would not have talked about Twitter or Facebook; I did not have an e-mail address or a mobile phone, and I did not get texts. All that has happened in 20 years, during my time in this House. What help and support is available to aid our understanding of the issues? Often, the first port of call might be the local Victim Support services at Mold Crown court in my constituency, which might or might not have knowledge of the impact of cyberstalking on an individual. What is the Minister doing to ensure wider awareness of the issue, and to ensure that it is seen to be important for the reasons that the hon. Lady outlined?

The debate has been helpful. I do not have any answers, and I am not trying to be confrontational in terms of the Government’s performance on these issues, but I want to see what their forward strategy is, so that we can look at the assessment of the problem, the capability of the police to respond to complaints, the capability of the criminal justice system to respond and understand the issues, the support available to people who have faced the issue, and the action that providers of social media are taking to address and understand the issue. Those are five key areas, and I am willing to engage on them with the Minister, and hopefully with my colleagues in a future Government.

This issue is important. Cyberstalking can impact on and destroy people’s lives, and it can be done from the anonymity of a Twitter feed, a Facebook page, or an e-mail address established for the purpose, in the United Kingdom, Europe or anywhere in the world. We need to address this, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing this important debate and on communicating her thoughts effectively and convincingly. I welcome the constructive approach of the shadow police Minister. We have three parties in this debate, and all three speakers are in the same position: we want to deal with this serious matter carefully, sensibly and effectively. We all share the abhorrence that my hon. Friend expressed for the consequences of cyberstalking. The Government has an open mind as to how we take the matter forward. We are committed to tackling cyberstalking. If there are good ideas, from wherever they come in the House, we want to look at those ideas. We have an open door as well as an open mind on these matters. I hope that the shadow police Minister will take that in the constructive spirit in which it is meant.

Stalking, whether it occurs online or offline, is a serious crime that can have devastating and debilitating effects on those targeted, as my hon. Friend eloquently set out. It is a crime that the coalition Government takes very seriously. According to the independent crime survey for England and Wales for 2012-13, after the age of 16, stalking affects 4% of women and 2% of men a year. It can affect many people in many different circumstances—incidents of stalking can take place within the context of a violent relationship or after a brief relationship, and it can involve a casual acquaintance or a complete stranger.

Victims of stalking may be affected in many different ways. They may lose their home, their family, their friends and their job in a bid to escape a persistent, fixated stalker. The most extreme outcome may be homicide or suicide. Everyone has the right to feel safe and secure and to live their life without feeling threatened or intimidated, and without being spied on. Victims of stalking have those fundamental freedoms taken away from them.

Both my colleagues referred to legislation and to enactment, and it is right to deal with both aspects. I will deal with legislation first. The Government is absolutely clear that what is illegal offline is illegal online. Cyberstalking is simply a term that describes a way to stalk a victim—using the internet—and it is therefore covered by the legislation. If people behave online in ways that would be unacceptable in any other context, there must be consequences. In 2012, we introduced two new stalking offences, which by definition include cyberstalking. We are determined that those who engage in such reprehensible behaviour are brought to justice.

My hon. Friend made a powerful case that stalking online is, in some ways, more debilitating for the victim and more damaging than it might be offline. She drew the helpful and pertinent comparison between poison pen letters, which could be called the offline method of stalking, and online stalking, with its potential impact and the ability of the internet to makes things available to far more people. Online stalking can therefore be more damaging than offline stalking—she made that point powerfully, which law enforcement agencies and the Government need to take on board.

Cyber-smearing, as my hon. Friend called the practice, is indeed more serious than poison pen letters. She was also right to say that anonymity is more possible online than it is offline. That can be more threatening and give perpetrators the appearance of having more power than they have offline, where they may be identified. People may therefore behave more outrageously and unacceptably online than they would do otherwise. The Government treats online and offline crime equally as crime, but I personally accept her point that online stalking can be more serious. We have to reflect that fact in how we approach the matter. I am grateful to her for making the case.

In answer to one of the questions asked by the shadow policing Minister, data from the Crown Prosecution Service’s report on violence against women and girls, published in July 2013, indicate that up to June of that year 91 prosecutions had been commenced under the new stalking offences. The legislation is still of course relatively new, and we will continue to monitor its use closely and carefully to ensure that it is effective and appropriate. He also asked about the number of potential cases yet to be brought forward. Police-recorded crime figures from April 2014 will give a clearer picture of stalking, because it is now separated from harassment.

Does the Minister have any figures for the success rate of the prosecutions? How many have been translated into convictions?

I mentioned that 91 prosecutions had been commenced, but I do not have the figure for whether the outcomes were successful. If I can rustle up that figure during the debate, I will give it to the Chamber. Otherwise, I am happy to write to the shadow Minister and my hon. Friend with that information.

Both the Members who have spoken in the debate rightly raised the issue of training. Legislation is not enough; it is only useful if it is effective and used, and if those who have the duty to act under it understand how it works and are sympathetic to it. The police, the criminal justice system, the front-line practitioners and industry all have a role to play in tackling the appalling crime of stalking, and we are working with them to increase awareness. For example, the Home Office has developed a one-day training course to improve understanding of stalking among those who come into contact with victims. The package was developed in partnership with Women’s Aid and the Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service.

In addition, the College of Policing has developed a training package on stalking and harassment, which last year won the silver award for “excellence in the production of learning content” at the national 2013 e-learning awards. The training package is available to all police officers and staff. Furthermore, all newly qualified police officers—uniformed officers, investigators and public protection officers—are expected to complete it. It has been completed 48,000 times by the police since October 2012.

Will the Minister confirm whether that is the same as the online package with the rather complicated name? I am afraid my notes have been taken away, but I have found a reference. Is his training package the same as that of the National Centre for Applied Learning Technologies, which 370 Bedfordshire officers have completed? Or is it a different package? If it is a different one, we need to have some harmony between the packages that are out there and what forces can access; otherwise, the picture presented is complicated. Does the Minister know whether those packages are the same?

The terminology used by my hon. Friend was not what I used, but I will also check that point and come back to her with an answer. I was referring to a College of Policing package.

We have also developed a cyber-flag to enable forces to highlight crimes that have taken place online. The flag is running on a voluntary basis during 2014-15, and forces have been encouraged to start returning data to the Home Office. The flag will become mandatory in 2015-16. As time progresses, we will have a much clearer picture of what is happening than we did immediately after the enactment of the new offences.

I am pleased that in June 2013 the CPS made mandatory its e-learning package on prosecuting cyberstalking, non-cyberstalking and harassment. More than 1,300 lawyers have now completed that training, which is another aspect of the necessary involvement of the law enforcement agencies. For prosecutors to have appropriate guidance in place is also critical—a point made by the shadow Minister—and in June last year the CPS published guidelines for prosecutors on the approach that they should take in cases involving communications via social media. The guidance is absolutely clear that such communications are capable of amounting to criminal offences. We will continue to work with the police and other criminal justice agencies to ensure that all stalking cases are handled effectively and with due sensitivity.

I will now respond to one or two of the other points made. Garry Shewan and Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, wrote jointly to all chief constables and chief Crown prosecutors to identify common issues, such as charging correctly, and how they could be more effective. So they have taken action as well. As I mentioned, the CPS published robust guidelines in July last year, and they set out how to tackle cases involving social media. It is also worth mentioning at this point that the Home Office is committed to ensuring that local police and crime commissioners are fully aware of such offences and of the victims. A series of focus groups is planned that will include giving victims of stalking an opportunity to share their experiences with police and crime commissioners. We are trying to cover all bases.

To be helpful to the Minister, I remind him that one of the issues that I raised was the funding for the National Stalking Helpline. Will that be continued?

Funding for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust has been ring-fenced until March 2015; decisions beyond that point, for reasons of the electoral cycle, have yet to be finalised. The helpline is also funded by the Home Office. I am keen to get certainty on funding not only for that but for all useful Home Office strands. Clearly, we have to consider what we can do sensibly, given the election period, so that we do not end up with varied and vital sources of funding drying up and leaving people out there who perform much good work, especially in voluntary organisations, high and dry. I fully understand the point made by my hon. Friend about certainty of funding—it is guaranteed until March 2015 for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, but I am keen to see what we can do to give more certainty before the summer recess, if at all possible.

There is also a vital role for social media companies to ensure that they respond quickly and appropriately to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks. We expect such companies to ensure that they have easy-to-use reporting tools and robust processes in place to respond promptly when abuse is reported and, if necessary, that individuals who do not comply with their acceptable use polices have their accounts suspended or terminated.

Online abuse and harassment affect young people, which my hon. Friend referred to. On 13 February, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), chaired a meeting with social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, charities and Members of Parliament to discuss what more might be done to protect young people online.

The purpose of the meeting was to hear from social media companies about the measures they have in place to protect children from abuse, threatening behaviour, or seeing something that may be harmful. MPs had the opportunity to challenge, ask questions and raise any concerns. We affirmed the position that social media companies should respond quickly to incidents of abusive behaviour on their networks and ensure that they have measures in place to protect users.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire said, some of the people who engage in such reprehensible behaviour use anonymity to cover up who they are and to avoid being brought to justice. Of course, sometimes it is complicated to identify who is responsible, but it can be done. She will no doubt be aware of one or two cases in which individuals have been successfully prosecuted. For example, the Caroline Criado-Perez case involving the bank notes issue resulted in two convictions. It is absolutely right that such matters are taken forward.

It is also true—the shadow Minister referred to this—that such crimes are relatively new. They did not exist when he arrived in Parliament, or indeed when I arrived in Parliament in 1997. Therefore, MPs and successive Governments, and those to whom we look to enforce legislation, whether the police, the CPS or others, have been on a learning curve to ensure that the legislation is correct. We are committed, and we are trying to ensure that our practitioners out there are committed, to putting in place procedures and methods to ensure that such crimes can be dealt with effectively and that those who are responsible are brought to justice. It is important to do that.

We are on a learning curve, because the legislation and the crime are relatively new. However, some of the measures I have spoken about indicate that we are taking the issue seriously and that we are making useful contacts and connections with those whom we expect to enforce the legislation out there.

Part of the matter relates to education and ensuring that young people in particular understand the need to be safe online. I am particularly concerned that—this is slightly beyond the point made by my hon. Friend —when people add something innocuous to Facebook or their website, it could come back to haunt them in 20, 30 or 40 years, which simply was not possible when we were their age. Therefore, young people need to be fully educated to understand the consequences and implications of the internet in a way that was not necessary for us when we were growing up.

All schools, including independent and free schools, must have a behaviour policy. E-safety teaching also applies in all schools. Education about online safety is important. The Government-funded Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is now integrated with the National Crime Agency, has issued advice on sexting and has produced material for teachers.

From September, children in primary schools will be taught how to use technology safely and respectfully, how to keep personal information private and where they can go for help and support. That is a useful development. Secondary school pupils will be taught a range of ways to use technology safely, responsibly and securely.

In addition, the Government has sent a clear message to schools that bullying, including cyber-bullying, is absolutely unacceptable. As I mentioned, every school is by law required to have a behaviour policy that includes measures aimed at preventing all forms of bullying among pupils. We have updated the advice to schools on bullying and cyber-bullying, setting out their legal duties, and the powers and the steps they can take to tackle it effectively. The Department for Education has given almost £3 million to organisations such as Beatbullying, the Diana Award, Kidscape and the National Children’s Bureau to provide state-of-the-art materials on cyber-bullying.

Regarding cybercrime more generally, we need to keep pace with the way in which crime is changing, and we are committed to improving our ability to tackle emerging issues. We are investing £860 million through the national cyber-security programme to improve our ability to detect attacks, develop world-class cyber capabilities and promote economic prosperity. That includes the creation of the national cybercrime unit, which is part of the National Crime Agency and will bring together law enforcement experts into a single unit to take the fight to the most serious offenders. As far as I am concerned, people who harass and destroy lives are serious offenders.

We have made progress, but there is more to do. In March, we updated the cross-Government action plan on violence against women and girls. It contains specific commitments to tackle stalking, including further action to raise awareness of that crime and continued funding for the national stalking helpline, which is a free national helpline that provides information and advice to victims of stalking.

More broadly, we will support effective local approaches to tackling violence against women and girls by providing local areas—through police and crime commissioners, local authorities and health care commissioners—with the information they need to deal effectively with crimes such as stalking.

Critically, we are committed to driving a culture change, both across society and in the response by front-line agencies. That is why, since 1 April, stalking and harassment offences are being reported separately in the police-recorded crime returns to the Home Office, allowing better assessment of how the offences are being investigated.

I will pick up on other points that I have not covered so far. My hon. Friend mentioned one particular incident, but she will of course understand that I cannot refer to ongoing cases.

I hope that I have misunderstood one of my hon. Friend’s points; it is not the case that an individual has to make 100 complaints to the police in every case before the police take action. As I understand it, the situation is that, often, 100 incidents occur before victims report matters to the police; I just want to be quite clear on that point. However, it is absolutely key that the police take matters seriously. To be honest, it has been a bit patchy in the past, and we have a challenge to drive up performance to the level of the best.

My hon. Friend is right to make the point that stalking, as well as being a reprehensible crime in itself, can be the precursor for something even more serious, such as physical attacks. Therefore, it is sensible, not just morally right, for the police to get ahead of cases early to identify those who may want to do something even more serious when they are banned from stalking.

I am confident that the important issue of malicious software being sent to gain control of a computer and access to a webcam will feature in the new information given to school children funded by the DFE. The capacity to use the internet maliciously is not well or widely understood, and it needs to be.

I think I have answered my hon. Friend’s point about funding. If there are any other issues about funding that she needs to follow through with me, I will be happy to do so subsequently.

To re-emphasise my point about online safety, guidance to digital safety is available online, and digital safety is included in the Home Office training package on stalking. Four sessions have been delivered to practitioners since February, and materials are available more widely.

I hope that I have gone some way to reassuring hon. Members that the coalition Government is absolutely clear that stalking, bullying, harassment and threatening behaviour are completely unacceptable. Regardless of whether such behaviour occurs online or offline, we are committed to putting an end to it. Online is a particular challenge, which we have grasped. All of us are on a learning curve, but we are determined to ensure that those responsible for such reprehensible behaviour are brought to justice.

If there are any outstanding points that hon. Members have raised but which I have not been able to deal with, I shall happily write to them with the information requested.

Sitting suspended.

Loan Protection Gap

I belatedly welcome the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) to her new position as Economic Secretary to the Treasury. She served with some distinction for four years on the Treasury Committee. As a continuing member of the Committee, I congratulate her on her appointment and welcome her to what I think is her first Adjournment debate.

More than 80% of borrowers have no form of protection to safeguard their loans, and the number of those in that position is on the increase. The disparity between the number of vulnerable consumers who need loan protection and those with an insurance policy is referred to as the loan protection gap. In this debate, I intend to raise five key issues involving loan protection insurance policies. First, I will draw attention to the significant minority of vulnerable consumers who continue to experience the damaging effects of excessive debt on their work, health and family life. Given that the squeeze on real incomes continues at a time of increasing consumer expenditure, the problem is likely to intensify, especially for those on the bottom half of the income scale.

There are any number of surveys confirming the squeeze on living standards. I will refer to just three. The first, a 2013 study carried out by the university of Birmingham on financial inclusion, showed that the real value of wages in 2012 had fallen back to 2003 levels. In this year’s “Green Budget”, the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed that living standards have declined over the past five years, and the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Government’s own independent forecaster, confirmed in its recent budget report that living standards will not recover to 2008 levels until 2018. Incidentally, in relation to loan protection, the OBR also forecast that the level of household debt will increase each year over the forecast period to 2018.

Secondly, I will show that the payment protection insurance mis-selling scandal has led to a collapse in trust and confidence in protection products and that, as a result, such policies have been withdrawn from the market by all but the very small, bespoke, specialist providers. PPI mis-selling is the biggest financial services scandal ever. It has affected every major bank, £13 billion has been paid in compensation and the bill is still rising. I asked the House of Commons Library to survey the market for protection policies. I would never call it a scientific study, but it gives a representative idea of what has happened in the marketplace. Unsurprisingly, the findings are somewhat depressing. PPI is seen as toxic, with little or no prospect of the main players re-entering the market. As a result, provision has declined significantly. Some policies are still provided, but mostly by small specialist providers.

One of those specialist providers is CUNA Mutual. CUNA is working with the largest credit union in my area, Plane Saver, which brings together British Airways staff and has been running for a number of years, and has developed what seems to be a way forward that provides at least an element of protection: the debt waiver system, at least for credit union services. Has my hon. Friend come across that? I would welcome discussions with the Minister, maybe involving a visit to my constituency to meet the Plane Saver group to examine this potential way forward.

I have indeed heard of the Plane Saver credit union, and I have been in touch with CUNA Mutual as well. I will talk later about the debt waiver system that they have introduced; it is one of a selection of protection products that should be available more widely in the market but are not. I will discuss some of the reasons why.

Payment protection insurance is currently provided only by small, specialist providers. As a consequence of that and of the lack of competition in the market, it has increased in cost. At a time when incomes are being squeezed, expensive income protection policies are an unwelcome additional cost for consumers.

Thirdly, surveys confirm that financial insecurity is on the rise. At the same time, protection products are totally absent from the market. The result has been the creation of a protection gap. Is the Minister aware of those developments? What steps are being taken to address this clear market failure?

In 2013, CUNA Mutual carried out a survey of financial insecurity in more than 2,000 households. Its findings were stark: two out of three were concerned about losing their job; six out of 10 were anxious about their financial affairs; 20% would find themselves in financial difficulties within a month of losing their job, rising to 30% in some regions of the country; 44% claimed that they were cutting back on heating and 59% on food, simply to make ends meet. Other surveys confirm that the number of borrowers safeguarding new loans or income has collapsed to less than 1%. Taking all those changes into account—I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to my view—the Treasury, as a matter of urgency, should conduct a review of the state of consumer protection in credit markets to determine a plan of action to close the protection gap.

Fourthly, with traditional income protection policy tarnished, what new models of loan protection can fill the gap? Guidance was provided some time ago by the Financial Services Authority on a suite of transparent, fair and affordable lending policies, but it has had little impact on the market. The Government must show leadership by promoting the introduction of policies that will provide solutions to the protection gap. CUNA Mutual suggests that 95% of mortgages are currently sold to customers without any insurance.

This issue is not just about consumer protection. In a recent survey, 70% of respondents said that they do not trust the banking and financial services sector. Loan protection can act as a form of stimulus to get lending going again. The credit union mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has experienced a boost in the number of mortgages due to the protection policy that it provides.

On the positive side, there have been some modest developments. In 2011, CUNA Mutual asked the FSA to test the debt waiver before CUNA took it up. It tested successfully and, as I will discuss, it has been introduced in a number of mutual organisations. In its 2013 report on loan protection, ResPublica, the well-known think tank, recommended that the Government should encourage the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds, the two banks with major public involvement, to adopt the debt waiver. I concur with that recommendation, but little has been done to follow up on it.

Fifthly, the mutual sector is leading the way in tackling the protection gap through the use of the debt waiver in its lending. This shifts the emphasis on to the lender to indemnify the loan, rather than placing the emphasis on the customer to insure their ability to pay. What steps are being taken to encourage the financial services industry to follow the guidance of the FSA regarding the debt waiver and other similar products, so as to help to tackle the protection gap?

The debt waiver is relatively new to the UK, where it has been introduced in a number of organisations, but it has a long and successful track record since the 1930s in north America. Incidentally, it was introduced at the height of the great depression, to help try to restore confidence among the public in lending. In its 2013 report, ResPublica recommended that the regulator fast-track the debt waiver and other similar products, but nothing much seems to have happened. Three mutuals, including the one referred to by my hon. Friend, have introduced the debt waiver very successfully, in one case providing coverage for accident and sickness for up to one year, through the debt waiver, at no cost to the borrower. In my view, that is a very good deal for the consumer.

However, all these things are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg when set against the 95% of people who simply do not have any coverage at the moment. That is the argument; that is the need; and that is what I hope to get a response on from the Minister.

In conclusion, the challenge for the Government, the financial services industry and indeed all stakeholders is to recognise the dramatic impact that mis-selling PPI has had on the market for protection policies; to quantify the resulting loan protection gap; and, most importantly, to challenge the industry—all those lenders out there—to take the necessary action to tackle the gap. I hope that the Minister will concur and will take steps to address this problem.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Riordan. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, particularly as this is my first outing as a Minister in Westminster Hall.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), a highly esteemed former colleague of mine on the Treasury Committee, for securing this debate on an incredibly important subject, which, as he well knows, the Treasury Committee has looked at. The Committee has been very concerned not only about the appalling scandal that has been PPI mis-selling, but about the implications for people who can no longer obtain PPI. This is very important not only for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents but for all our constituents right across the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to set out the Government’s position.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that when we were together on the Treasury Committee one of my absolute pet projects was to try to increase competition in the UK banking system. One of my favourite lines was that people are more likely to divorce not once but twice than to change their bank account. There has been a fundamental lack of competition in the banking system, which has meant that we are in a position now where people are lucky if they are able to get access to certain products and services. He is therefore absolutely right to raise this issue today.

It is very important to me as a Treasury Minister to use my time in the role to ensure that consumers become more empowered and more capable of taking responsibility for their own financial future. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also be reassured to hear that I wholeheartedly share his central concern that consumers need to build their own financial resilience—if you like, a financial fall-back—into their own financial affairs.

Of course, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that one such financial fall-back might be a loan protection product or another kind of income protection product, but it could also be savings, and some people will rely on responsible borrowing to help them to bridge the peaks and troughs in their finances. The key point is that consumers are vulnerable if they do not have any kind of financial fall-back. Financial difficulties can mount up and quickly turn into problem debts, as we have seen all too often. That situation is what the Government are taking comprehensive steps both to prevent and address.

I would like to use my comments this morning to set out, first, what the Government and the regulator are doing to support the development of appropriate protection products; secondly, how the Government are using flexibility and tax relief to promote savings and reward savers; thirdly, how we are reforming the regulation of consumer credit, to ensure that lenders both lend responsibly and treat those consumers who are in financial difficulties fairly and with understanding; and finally, a bit about how we are taking action on debt advice, to ensure that those who have problem debts get the help that they need.

To start with, I shall discuss the protection market. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, consumer trust in protection products has been severely damaged by the PPI mis-selling scandal, and the market has contracted severely as a result of this lack of consumer trust. With a scandal on such a scale, robust regulatory action is key to restoring faith in the products and in the firms that provide them. I agree that that does not mean that consumers’ need for protection products, as one form of financial fall-back, has gone away. As long as the products are sold appropriately and responsibly, and as long as consumers can trust them, they continue to serve a real purpose. We need to promote them, and on that point the hon. Gentleman and I completely agree.

The Financial Conduct Authority also believes that there is a place in the market for income protection products. It has issued guidance that is designed to encourage a new generation of products that are fit for purpose. Although PPI is no longer allowed to be sold at the point that a loan or credit is given, a number of alternative protection products are available to consumers, some of which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, such as income protection insurance, and innovations such as debt waivers, as the market adjusts to consumer demands.

The Government have been driving the industry, and will continue to drive it, to design and bring to market simple and transparent income protection products that are fit for purpose and that consumers can more easily understand and trust. In fact, that was one of our aims in commissioning Carol Sergeant to conduct a review of simple financial products. As the hon. Gentleman may know, her report recommended the development of a number of simple products, including savings products and a simple income protection product. The industry is making good progress against her recommendations. It has committed to getting a simple products accreditation model up and running by the end of the year. In parallel, the Association of British Insurers is leading on the development of a simple group income protection product, which can be sold throughout the workplace. We are confident that simplifying products in this way will make it easier for consumers to see the benefits of protection products, and will redevelop the income protection market in a way that works better for consumers.

I hear what the Minister is saying about all the developments and the work that both consultants and the regulator are doing in relation to protection policies, but unfortunately there has been very little impact on the market so far. That may be understandable in the context of the disaster that PPI has been in terms of providing income protection policies. However, the debt waiver is something different and something that everyone can have confidence in: it is truly tried and tested in other countries. Will she give the House a reassurance that firmer, more robust steps will be taken by the Government to influence the regulator to do more to get the industry to take these protection policies seriously?

Yes, I think I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that the Government are committed to the proper development of alternative income protection products, which would certainly include the debt waiver. Obviously, as he has pointed out, there has been a real crisis in consumer trust in these products, but the Government are certainly committed to ensuring that that lack of provision is addressed, and his raising the issue today will certainly reinforce our endeavours to achieve faster progress.

There are other ways in which the Government are trying to ensure that consumers and customers have proper financial protection. Of course, one of those measures has been to promote saving. Having a savings “buffer” is many people’s financial fall-back, and as the Chancellor made clear in March, this year’s Budget was a Budget for savers. We announced a reduction in taxes for the lowest-income savers, so that from next April the starting rate of savings income tax will be lowered from 10% to zero, and the band to which it applies will be extended to £5,000. That should help the worse off—the smaller savers—and encourage them to save in order to create a financial fall-back for themselves.

We also announced increased flexibility in saving and investment choices through the ISA system and an increase in the overall ISA limit to £15,000. We have introduced new National Savings and Investment products in order to help retired savers to get a better return. The Government have taken action on the promotion of savings products and increased saving as a means to create a financial fall-back, and we are determined to do more to help people to provide for their own financial fall-back needs.

There have been some important changes on the regulation of consumer credit that I am sure the hon. Gentleman would welcome. Regulation of consumer credit is vital to this debate in two ways: first, it is vital that lenders lend responsibly and only to those who can afford to pay it back; and secondly, lenders should treat people in financial difficulty fairly and with the appropriate understanding. The Government are committed to curbing irresponsible lending and strengthening consumer protections, and we have a clear vision for the consumer credit market. We want to see firms meeting the standards expected of them, lending responsibly, and offering competitively designed and priced loans and credit products that will meet consumers’ needs.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that responsibility for consumer credit regulation has now transferred from the Office of Fair Trading to the new Financial Conduct Authority, which has far stronger powers. In particular, the FCA has turned the OFT’s non-binding guidance into binding rules. We are confident that the FCA is better resourced to take a proactive approach to identifying risk and that it has a broader and more robust suite of enforcement powers to punish breaches of its rules. As such, we are confident that in future lenders will both lend more responsibly and treat customers more fairly.

This is a slight aside to the thrust of the Minister’s comments, but with regard to the mortgage market review, which sets the terms of the discussion between the customer and the lending institution, I am not aware that within the comprehensive discussion that is now required any room is given to insurance products to protect the loan. I would have thought that that was one way in which the regulator could ensure that at least it is brought to the customer’s attention that they should get a protection policy, so that if things go wrong, they can rest assured that their loan will be insured.

The hon. Gentleman make a very good point. Since I am extremely new in the job, I hope that he will forgive me because that is a point that I cannot answer. Nevertheless, it is an excellent idea and perhaps I can write to him on it. I would certainly take such a good suggestion forward.

The Minister may well gain inspiration on that while I am talking. I requested earlier that she come to meet the Plane Saver credit union in my constituency. That group meets the objectives she mentioned not just by providing protection; we have found that it is also encouraging more savers to join the credit union. It seems to tackle both issues at the same time, so perhaps that is a model she would like to explore in more detail.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his invitation. I am keen to become more closely involved in such an important issue and so will discuss with my team whether I can come to meet his constituents. I thank him again for the invitation.

Finally, I want to mention the provision of debt advice. Where people get into financial difficulty, the Government are committed to ensuring that they can access free help and advice on managing debts. That is why the Government have put funding for debt advice on to a sustainable footing.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Edmonton again for instigating this debate on such an incredibly important issue. We know that times have been extraordinarily tough and continue to be so for many people in the United Kingdom, and we are determined to do more to ensure that consumers get the advice and support, the responsible lending, and the suite of products that they need to enable them to manage their own financial affairs more effectively.

I thank the Minister for being so liberal in taking interventions. One conclusion that I have reached on this issue is that the relationship between the Treasury and the regulators is extremely important. Will the Minister discuss with the regulator what further action it can take to get the industry to live up to its responsibilities to give customers not just a responsibly delivered loan, but protection for that loan should things go wrong?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will take up that issue with the FCA when I see it next.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that the Government fully agree with his concerns and are already taking action to address them, and that I have undertaken to try to take further his specific recommendation that we look more closely at debt waivers. We are determined that financial services serve consumers in the way that they should, and that consumers understand the benefits of all the products, including income protection, that are on offer. I am very glad to have had my first Westminster Hall debate as a Minister with such a sensible and measured colleague, and I shall look forward very much to his holding me to account in the coming years.

Sitting suspended.

Birth of Shakespeare (Commemoration)

We are here today to commemorate the birth of a self-taught, self-made, self-created man. A man of many parts: player, poet, grammar school boy made good, entrepreneur, and of course cultural icon. A man who gave Britain a voice before there was a Britain. And a man who gave the world its best and truest account of what it means to be human.

The great 18th century man of letters. Dr Johnson, observed:

“Other poets display cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished unto brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in inexhaustible plenty”.

Johnson was right about the extraordinary richness of Shakespeare’s works. Each of us will have a favourite line from the canon, whether

“All the world’s a stage”;

“To be or not to be”;


“This story shall the good man teach his son”.

I would be fascinated to hear which of Shakespeare’s speeches sends a shiver down the Minister’s spine.

Wonderful. I am confident that we shall have an extraordinary, cultured debate.

Shakespeare’s influence on English is not confined to the stage or the heavily annotated academic textbook: his words live and breathe in the language of everyday speech. If people wear their heart upon their sleeve, become a laughing stock, have people in stitches, then, in one fell swoop, simply vanish into thin air, they are quoting Shakespeare. They could also be describing the political career of Godfrey Bloom, but that is another story.

I hope the Minister will agree with me that the bard’s legacy is not only artistic, for as well as Shakespeare the poet, we also have Shakespeare the brand. When the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, visited Britain for two days in 2011, one day was reserved for high-level strategic talks in Whitehall, but the other day, at his own request, was spent in Stratford with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the independent charity created by Act of Parliament to care for the sites associated with Shakespeare’s life. The thought of one of the world’s most powerful men wearing special white gloves so that he could reverently handle a Shakespeare first edition is a striking reminder of just how far Britain’s cultural reach extends.

Indeed, the British Council recently asked young adults in China, India, Germany, Brazil and the United States of America to name a person associated with contemporary British culture; Shakespeare came out top and was most popular in China. This is an important finding, because the recreational industries are one part of the Chinese economy where Britain has a real competitive edge, accounting for 35% of all Chinese imports. Recreation is a relatively small part of the Chinese economy now, but as China rebalances away from Government investment towards domestic consumption, we need to make sure that Britain maintains that dominant position.

Does the Minister recognise that Shakespeare is an incredibly important part of Britain’s image abroad? Does he agree, too, that the Shakespeare brand can be used to promote trade and dialogue with our target markets? I know that some will take issue with the idea of Shakespeare as a brand and at the use of a marketing term to describe such a towering, literary genius, but the bard would have seen no contradiction between art and enterprise. For him, they were one and the same.

j I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. In fact, I nearly called him my hon. Friend, because we get on rather well.

I have no objection to having a Shakespeare brand, although I am a little bit reserved about. It is worrying that, in my work to get children out of the classroom to learn, not enough children from a more economically challenged background are getting into Shakespeare, visiting his birthplace in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency or even learning about Shakespeare at school. Does he agree that that is important and should be mentioned as a concern?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right. I will deal with some of those issues later.

Uniquely among Elizabethan playwrights, Shakespeare owned a stake in the theatre company for which he wrote. Like all good business owners, he invested in the company, in 1608 helping to finance a second theatre in Blackfriars, just across the river from the more famous Globe, and he is still winning business today. Heritage tourism is worth a staggering £26.4 billion to the UK economy, and theatre is worth at least £2.8 billion. Shakespeare is a major part of that story; he is worth £355 million to Stratford alone, bringing in 4.9 million visitors a year to a town of just 26,000. Some 15,000 jobs —that is one job in every eight—in the Stratford and Warwick areas are associated with tourism. In London, Shakespeare’s Globe accounts for 11% of all London theatre-going. I am sure that the Minister will join me in paying tribute to the work of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Globe and Shakespeare’s England, for their contribution to Britain’s world-class tourism industry.

Shakespeare is far more than just an economic asset. For so many young people, he is their way into the greatness of English literature. His work is studied by half the world’s schoolchildren and here in the United Kingdom is an indispensible part of the national curriculum. Does the Minister agree that the best way to cultivate a lifelong love of Shakespeare is to make him accessible at an early age, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) suggested? Will he join me in congratulating the RSC and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on doing just that? Thanks to Government support, both have brilliant educational outreach programmes.

In March, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust launched Shakespeare week, a national campaign, funded by the Arts Council, to bring Shakespeare to life for 500,000 primary school children. Does the Minister agree that Shakespeare week was a huge success and would he encourage other schools and arts organisations to join the 3,600 already registered for Shakespeare week next year?

Last week, we were privileged to see some of that outreach work on display here in Parliament. William Shakespeare and parliamentary democracy are two of Britain’s greatest gifts to the world, so I was delighted to bring them together for one night. At my invitation, Mr Speaker kindly hosted a special performance of extracts from “Henry IV”, featuring an ensemble cast drawn from seven secondary schools and one college in my constituency, under the direction of the RSC. The young actors were joined by schoolchildren from Bridgetown primary school, ably assisting the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to exhibit some of the most precious artefacts in its collection. Does the Minister agree that this was a truly memorable evening and was he, like me, amazed, moved and humbled by the performance?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will agree with me. This is an important anniversary. Is it getting enough attention from the BBC? The BBC this week is pounding the airwaves, or our ears, with Dylan Thomas on his centenary, whereas John Clare—it is his 150th anniversary this year—has almost no attention at all. I am a great Shakespeare fan and I love Dylan Thomas, but why does the BBC let us all down in this way, so that a great English poet, such as John Clare, is relatively neglected?

The hon. Gentleman has been a champion of John Clare and regularly mentions him in the main Chamber. I would not in any way take away from the work that the BBC is doing on Dylan Thomas, not only because of his importance to our cultural life and its enrichment, but in fear of offending some colleagues in Parliament. I would like to think that what we have been able to do for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is worthy of praise from the Minister. I hope his speech will recognise the wonderful evening that we had in Mr Speaker’s apartments.

Stratford’s most famous son has given this country so much, and I feel it is time we gave something back. In “Henry IV, Part 1”, Prince Hal, referring to his future transformation from dissolute youth to national hero, says:

“If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wish’d-for come.”

There are few occasions when the British people can come together and celebrate what it is that makes them proud to be British: when they seldom come, they wished-for come. What better symbol of Britishness than an English poet who worked for Welsh Tudors and Scottish Stuarts, a man who conquered the globe with a quill pen? My final question to the Minister is: will he support my call to have Shakespeare’s birthday— 23 April, which is St George’s day—officially recognised in the calendar? I have long argued that 23 April should become a bank holiday, but official recognition would be an excellent start. He is our star of poets, the swan of Avon, a man

“not for an age, but for all time”.

I hope Members will join me in wishing William Shakespeare a very happy birthday. He may have died in 1616, but:

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

I will speak briefly. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for smiling on my contribution. When I chaired the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I worked very closely with the Shakespeare schools festival, which is a fine institution. I have always celebrated the excellent work it has done, and the fact that it takes Shakespeare into unusual settings. A lot of people get put off Shakespeare because they think it is posh or for the elite. Tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, or to plays in London, can be expensive or difficult to get. We should make Shakespeare accessible to more people in our country. It would be a great shame if Shakespeare was seen as something for an exclusive part of the population. He is the dramatist of the people, and he should have that currency.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that right across our cultural life, we want greater involvement of people in schools, colleges and lifelong learning? I was pulling his leg about John Clare, but I seriously want him celebrated. A little boy—a farm worker’s son who was a farm worker himself—left school at 12 able to read and write and could not stop reading and writing. He wrote more than 1,000 poems, many of them lately discovered lost works that he wrote when he was in the asylum. This is his 150th year, and we should celebrate that, as we should celebrate Dylan Thomas, too.

We have some problems—this is the only demurring I will do in this debate—in the cultural sector. It is relying a little too much on brands and commercial sponsorship. I look sadly at the diminished Arts Council and its work in the regions. Looked at constituency by constituency, so much of arts funding is flowing to only a few constituencies, and so little is flowing to many others.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and you, Mrs Riordan, for allowing that briefing contribution.

It is a delight to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who secured this debate to celebrate the birth of Britain’s, and possibly the world’s, greatest poet and playwright. The question of whether the study of Shakespeare is an elite activity has been debated; given the paucity of representation at today’s debate, I wonder whether debates about Shakespeare are an elite activity—we have four of the leading parliamentarians of our generation in this room—or simply a minority activity. It might, however, be because the debate coincides with lunch. As Shakespeare tells us,

“Unquiet meals make ill digestions”.

I can perhaps understand why those of our colleagues who wish to eat a good lunch have not made today’s debate.

There are so many quotations about Shakespeare that one could use, but I will start with this rather florid one, from the great French novelist Victor Hugo:

“In Shakespeare the birds sing, the bushes are clothed with green, hearts love, souls suffer, the cloud wanders, it is hot, it is cold, night falls, time passes, forests and multitudes speak, the vast eternal dream hovers over all. Sap and blood, all forms of the multiple reality, actions and ideas, man and humanity, the living and the life, solitudes, cities, religions, diamonds and pearls, dung-hills and charnelhouses…all are on Shakespeare and in Shakespeare.”

That is a typically French, florid quotation, but it again shows how Shakespeare speaks to all. I prefer a more pithy English poet, who summed it up:

“The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good—in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”

That quote, of course, came from our great poet, Robert Graves.

It is 450 years since Shakespeare’s birth—almost half a millennium—and it is remarkable that he is as popular today as he has always been, if not more so. His works touch on timeless themes, allowing us to explore complex issues of politics, conflict, discrimination and oppression, and give us insight into the human emotions of love, friendship, rivalry, ambition and greed. Through Shakespeare’s plays, we can forge a greater understanding of one another, and they allow people to explore issues that can be difficult to discuss openly. We have Shakespeare to thank for more than 3,000 words in the English language that are commonplace today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon said, including hot-blooded, new-fangled, and—the word that sums up my hon. Friend—majestic.

I am getting worried as the Minister proceeds with his speech. He is so eloquent and reads Shakespeare so wonderfully. I have heard my constituent Sir Patrick Stewart—he was born in Huddersfield and shares his birthday of 13 July with John Clare—read Shakespeare, but he is nothing compared with the Minister.

I join my hon. Friend in thanking the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who has become an hon. Friend, following that wise intervention. Both my hon. Friends have talked about Shakespeare in schools. I am conscious of the warning from “Richard III”:

“So wise so young, they say, do never live long”,

but thankfully Shakespeare is still widely taught in our schools. The study of his masterpieces allows our children to establish a link with our culture, history, heritage and language. That is why the wise Secretary of State for Education—he reminds me of the quote that “some are born great”—has personally ensured that the importance of Shakespeare’s work continues to be recognised in the new national curriculum starting in September 2014. My speech is becoming slightly more prosaic.

In celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, the Education Secretary, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which already works with more than 400,000 children annually, has distributed the RSC’s Shakespeare toolkits—I am not sure if Shakespeare invented that word—to more than 16,000 state-maintained primary schools. That will bring Shakespeare’s plays to life for countless school children through playful, practical experiences, helping them to understand the language, characters and stories. The Department for Education has provided £500,000 of grant funding over the past two years for the Shakespeare schools festival, which I celebrated with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon in the Speaker’s house. It is the UK’s largest youth drama festival, offering students from all backgrounds the opportunity to perform Shakespeare on the stage.

Does the Minister agree that Shakespeare is at its best when someone trained to read and act it goes into a school and performs it for the children? Any of us who have been to schools can see that, whether the children are tiny or older. There are so many underemployed actors and so many talented young actors in this country that we ought to have a new programme that actually pays them a reasonable fee to go into schools to bring Shakespeare to life this year.

That is an excellent idea. On the back of Teach First, we could have “Recite First”. I will come to discuss my plans for cultural education in the widest sense, because it is important that such programmes marry central Government and grass-roots initiatives. We should try to work with people with a passion for a subject, such as those involved in the Shakespeare schools festival, to deliver the sort of cultural experiences that we all want for as many of our young people as possible.

Having discussed the Royal Shakespeare Company, I want briefly to talk about the Globe theatre, which was set up as a result of the passion of Sam Wanamaker—entirely, funnily enough, with private money, although I believe that its education programme is funded in part by Arts Council England. It welcomes 100,000 students every year—from pre-school children to postgraduate students—to take part in tailored projects and workshops. It is supported by PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deutsche Bank, which echoes the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon made about the marriage of arts and enterprise, and demonstrates Shakespeare’s global appeal. The 450th anniversary also saw the launch of the first Shakespeare week, a national annual celebration to inspire primary school children and their families. It aims to give every primary school child in Britain the chance to be inspired by Shakespeare.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently of Shakespeare’s global appeal. He is the most widely read and studied author in the English language, and his complete works have been translated into more than 90 languages, from Arabic to Zulu. On a recent visit to China—my hon. Friend mentioned the Chinese President’s visit here—I was struck by how revered and celebrated Shakespeare is in that country. Indeed, the Chinese Vice-Minister of Culture, to whom I gave a complete set of the DVDs of Shakespeare’s plays, told me clearly that Shakespeare was not a British playwright, and that he belonged to the world. He was of course making the point that Shakespeare’s legacy is global. It is the case, however, that the wider reach and appreciation of Shakespeare’s work enhances this country’s global reputation and influence, helps us to connect with other countries, and encourages people to study and do business. Shakespeare’s global appeal, again picking up on what my hon. Friend said, has a massive impact on our tourist industry. Eight million visitors head to Shakespeare country every year, helping to support the local Stratford economy and providing many thousands of jobs.

2012-13 was an exceptional year for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is based in my hon. Friend’s constituency, with 1.5 million people from around the world experiencing its work, more than 335,000 of whom were first-time attendees. The company recently broadcast its performance of “Richard II” with David Tennant in cinemas and schools, reaching over 100,000 people, which I gather is the largest ever audience for a single, live performance of a Shakespeare play. In 2013, the Globe theatre welcomed over 600,000 people to its productions, either at Bankside or on tour.

My hon. Friend mentioned the RSC’s huge impact on the local economy, and the hon. Member for Huddersfield spoke about the arts outside London. I inform Members that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is holding an important inquiry on the subject. Arts Council support to organisations outside London is strong, with some 70% of lottery funding going outside London. I will be able to put these points in more detail to the Select Committee when I give evidence, but this debate, while celebrating Shakespeare’s birth, reminds us that one of our top five national performing arts organisations is firmly based outside of London, and continues to thrive by being so based.

Before the Minister concludes, may I propose a challenge? I am part of a group of MPs who are challenging a minimum of 150 MPs to get 150 of their constituents to read 150 poems this year. I hope that the Minister will get involved. The Secretary of State for Education has already agreed to take part, and I hope that other Members will do the same, because it would help to bring the arts and culture to life. Some of those poems will be by Shakespeare, some by Dylan Thomas and, if we are very lucky, some of them might even be by John Clare.

I will certainly pick up on that challenge and will contact as many of my constituents as I can to encourage them to undertake it. I could work with Oxfordshire’s superb library service, which continues to thrive under the stewardship of Oxfordshire county council, to communicate the challenge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is working with library services up and down the country, because they offer similar schemes, such as the summer reading challenge for children, in which 99% of library authorities participate.

I note that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) has entered the room. As he is one of my oldest friends, I am conscious that, having impressed the hon. Member for Huddersfield, I must impress him, too. He has missed the best bits of my speech, but I will come to my conclusion, sensing the mood of the House.

The bard’s birthday celebrations began in earnest during the week of his birthday with fireworks on the roof of the Royal Shakespeare theatre, and a big birthday bash at the Globe on Bankside, which was attended by nearly 6,000 people, who played pin the ruff on the bard. I happened to be in China at the time, but I marked the occasion at the start of the Shakespeare 450 season at China’s national centre for the performing arts.

Celebrations of this prestigious event are not being limited to his actual birth date. While we have ambitious plans to celebrate the 450th anniversary of his birth, we also want to commemorate in 2016 the 400th anniversary of his death. The two key dates are linked, and the RSC is celebrating with Young Shakespeare Nation. Kicking off with “Richard II”, the RSC will perform every one of Shakespeare’s plays over the next six years, sharing them with audiences up and down the country and internationally, through filmed performances in cinemas and streamed free to classrooms across the UK. Shakespeare’s Globe has begun the world’s most extensive tour of his work: a two-year tour of “Hamlet” will visit every single country on earth—205 at the current count—from 2014 to 2016. The tour will travel across seven continents, taking one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays to many who have never had the chance to experience his great works.

The BBC—the hon. Member for Huddersfield said that it had perhaps let us down, but I do not agree—and the Royal Shakespeare Company will also collaborate on “Dream 16” as they take “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on an epic tour to partner theatres across the UK, with Bottom and his friends played by local amateur companies and Titania’s fairy train by primary school children.

The British Library has reopened its refurbished permanent gallery with a display of some of the greatest treasures from its William Shakespeare collections, including a rare first folio. In recognition of his global appeal, the British Library is also developing a major exhibition in partnership with institutions in the United States, with events, learning programmes, outreach projects and performances on site and across the country. These unprecedented celebrations will bring Shakespeare to life for all to enjoy, whether they are veterans of his works or newcomers discovering the delights of his writing for the first time.

Does the Minister agree that it would be a terrible shame, on this day when we are celebrating Shakespeare and his great heritage in this country—and the brand—if we did not use the full 30 minutes of this little, half-hour debate? Will the Minister perhaps give us a little more of Shakespeare’s poetry in the remaining 90 seconds of this precious debate?

I had thought that we were doing pretty well, as we have only 60 seconds left. I was going to conclude by recognising the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon for a Shakespeare bank holiday. A great many issues have to be taken into account when considering bank holidays, not least the wider cost to the economy and the fact that they are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, but there is no doubt that we should ensure that more attention is paid to the celebrations of the bard’s birthday.

As I reach my peroration and conclusion, I want to say that this year’s celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works is one of the biggest opportunities for us to showcase the strength of Britain’s culture to the world since the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012. It is a fitting commemoration to the bard’s outstanding contribution to the cultural life of this country and around the world. I must say, Mrs Riordan, that I have been under such pressure that I would

“give all my fame for a pot of ale”.

Universal Jobmatch Programme (Fraud)

It is the first time that I have had the privilege of speaking under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan, and I welcome it. You will realise from your own constituency work that the debate is immensely serious. It originated with a constituent who was ripped off, to put it in delicate language, through using the Universal Jobmatch that the Government, rightly, provide. I want to say at the outset, to avoid any doubt, that while I have been a Member of the House I have always been in favour of conditionality. The Government’s latest move on conditionality—

I should have hoped for more order at Jobcentre Plus than some hon. Members have been displaying, Mrs Riordan.

It must be at least 25 years ago that I suggested that help should be given to those who had difficulty finding a job. There may be fraud, and we should ask people from that group to come in at different times each day to sign on. I am pleased that after about 25 years a Government have got round to that idea. I approach the debate not in an attempt to wreck what Jobcentre Plus does, but in an attempt to improve it. As a start, Andrew Forsey of my office, who has done all the work on this, checked the Jobmatch scheme for Birkenhead today, as I am sure the Minister did. I know that many of her constituents use the same facilities. In the Birkenhead constituency there are 2,647 people claiming jobseekers’ allowance and, an hour or so ago, 24 jobs were advertised as available within 20 miles of Birkenhead. Fifteen of those were duplicate agency jobs, and two were stand-alone agency jobs. Despite the fact that the search was for jobs within 20 miles, one of those advertised was in Milton Keynes, two were in London, and one was for an overseas worker. There was a grand total of three actual vacancies. The Monster jobsite, run separately from the work that Monster does with the Department for Work and Pensions, had one job listed today, which was a teaching job.

To focus the debate, I thought it would be worth while considering the letter that the Minister wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee, and the annex to that. The Clerk to the Select Committee kindly sent me a copy of both, and I have 12 questions for the Minister. Five are about the letter, and the others are about the annex. First, the Minister says in her letter:

“We have well established procedures to minimise the risks of this”—

bogus jobs—

“occurring within Universal Jobmatch.”

What are those checks and what are the results of using them? Secondly, she says:

“We have closed the fraudulent account and will compensate all jobseekers that have been affected in this case.”

I refer to constituents who were taken for a ride by a fraudster advertising on the Department for Work and Pensions site. The Minister says that they will be compensated. They lost at least £65 each—the money that they were asked to provide for a Home Office check—and have been offered £25. What does the Minister mean by compensation in those circumstances?

Thirdly, the Minister’s letter states:

“If the employer is in breach of our Terms and Conditions we will remove their right to advertise on Universal Jobmatch.”

What trawling of the site does she carry out, and how many removals occur? My constituent received a letter from the Department, which said:

“Currently there are 179 accounts advertising 352,569 jobs which potentially breach the Terms and Conditions”

that the Department has laid down. If the Department is telling one of my constituents that well over 350,000 jobs advertised may be in breach of the terms it lays down, how are the removals carried out? Fourthly, the letter states that that Department has

“removed…400 non-compliant accounts since…November 2012.”

May we have some idea of the reasons for the removals? How were the accounts breaking the contracts? Will the Minister explain more about the cleansing undertaken to get to that total?

My fifth and last question about the Minister’s letter arises from her saying that

“we have now concluded our investigations into 183 distributor accounts, resulting in the removal of the accounts and the associated vacancies.”

What are those distributor accounts? What sorts of vacancies were removed, and how many jobs were involved? Answers to those questions arising from the letter will enable us to understand more fully the action that the Department takes to ensure that people who use Universal Jobmatch will not be ripped off.

The first question arising from the annex is about its slightly boastful statement that DWP and Monster

“have already made major improvements”.

May I ask what those are? Secondly, it says:

“Sadly, the existence of ‘rogue’ employers is nothing new”.

If they are nothing new, what does the Department learn from finding out about those bogus employers and acting against them? After all, the Department offered facilities to someone who was known, certainly in some circles, as a fraudulent individual. People skilled in fraud do not normally turn up using their correct names, and nor did the person in question, but he was ushered into DWP to conduct his fraud. What action does the Department take in that respect? Thirdly, the annex mentions “well-established procedures to minimise” fraud. What are those procedures?

The fourth question arising from the annex to the letter is about the assertion that

“like all internet job sites, we manage the issue of duplicate or inappropriate vacancies.”

I remind the House that there are 15 duplicate jobs in the 54 advertised today on the DWP site. How well is that managing the issue? Fifthly, it is claimed that

“whenever we have a doubt”

action is taken. Who registers those doubts, and what is the doubt test that could lead to action? Sixthly—there are only two more questions—the annex states:

“If an employer breaches our terms and conditions we remove their right to advertise.”

Yet, as I said, the letter to my constituent said that there might be more than 350,000 jobs in breach of the terms and conditions. What action is the Department taking?

Lastly, the annex says that

“there has been inaccurate speculation about the relationship of the DWP and Monster.”

Will the Minister tell us something about that relationship, so we can be clear what it is? It is totally proper for them to have a relationship and for the DWP to ask Monster to carry out its functions; but it is not proper to expose constituents to fraud. That is the main point of the debate.

Today, even if we took the Department’s website at face value, only 24 jobs are advertised within 20 miles of Birkenhead, with more than 2,500 people claiming JSA. Large numbers of people are dead serious about trying to get a job, quite rightly, using that service, and they are being let down badly. What actions will the Government take to improve the service? Again, if people do not use the Jobmatch website actively, might they face sanctions, given the numbers of sanctions being employed at present? It is totally proper that the Department should have a website on which to advertise jobs, and totally proper that Beveridge’s idea of labour exchanges should be brought into the IT age, where people can easily advertise and where—we hope—claimants can as easily find jobs. However, the Department has totally failed not only to ensure that there are serious jobs on the site but, even more important, to take action to combat fraud.

I welcome the opportunity for the debate and to face my neighbour in Wirral West. Some of our constituents use the same jobcentre and the same site. I look forward to her replies, although I quite understand that she may need to write to me afterwards with some of them. I am grateful for the debate, Mrs Riordan.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I thank the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) for securing this debate, so we can have clarity over Universal Jobmatch and about the many positive things that it is doing at the moment. If we look at the latest statistics and numbers of people getting into work, we see that this year annual employment has gone up to the highest level in 25 years, and this month we have had the biggest annual fall in long-term unemployment since 1998. The number of vacancies at any one time in the market has also gone up significantly, with 600,000 job vacancies at any one time.

I will try to answer as many of the right hon. Gentleman’s questions as I can here today. If I do not get to all of them, I will write to him with further answers, as he suggested. I thoroughly understand why he secured the debate. Although fraud in Universal Jobmatch is less than 0.1%, the one instance took place in his constituency.

I can confirm that the fraudulent account was closed and all the people affected were compensated. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the amount that was given; it was significant. Of course, there was the repayment of money for the Criminal Records Bureau check—£65—and yes, he mentioned £25 on top of that. Significantly, some of those people got up to £1,200, because it is about actual money lost as well as compensation—he will be pleased to hear that. I have the full list of people, what they have got and how we have recompensed them.

I welcome that information. As the Minister knows, in this case, Jobcentre Plus invited the fraudster in to have an office in the DWP, so one of my questions was what steps the Department takes to ensure that when it offers people office space in the Department, they are bona fide, as one would have thought they would be. What actions does the Department take to weed out fraudsters, who clearly do operate in the system?

I will come to that. We have more than half a million businesses and 6.1 million claimants on the site, and nearly 5 million job searches a day. We know that there will be instances—it is less than 0.1%, as I said—where something goes wrong. What matters is how we deal with it, sort it out and compensate those people, as we did in this instance.

Things have changed considerably over the past 16 years. The right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Department, so he will know that. Every Jobcentre Plus, everybody who works there, and every adviser wants the best for their claimant. We have seen how things have changed significantly, from being paper-based to having job points—a quite clunky solution introduced by the previous Labour Government. Job points frequently did not work, were offline, and things could go wrong. I looked for the statistics for fraud during the Labour Government’s tenure, but it seems that they did not wish to keep those figures. Although we have anecdotal evidence that fraudulent and bad behaviour was common, and we know that that was regional, it seems that it may have been brushed under the carpet. I am not sure what was going on then, whereas we have full transparency of what goes on now, significantly so and obviously, because it is online, which is key.

If we think of the changes and transformations over the past 16 years, of course we have to be online. Google did not even exist 13 years ago. The technological advances are significant and not having people online would be wrong, given that 25% of all jobs are online only. We have to get the best service we can. However, by opening up those opportunities—by having more than 227% more vacancies online and 1,316 more employers online—we open up the possibility of fraud, and we have to clamp down on that significantly.

The timeline of what went on may help to explain some of the procedures and things that happened. The vacancy posted by Options 4 Families for a trainee child counsellor went up online on 9 December 2013. On 18 December, the DWP was notified by Monster, which asked whether it was right that we were asking for CRB checks. It was not a constituent coming in to say, “I have a problem here,” as they do through letters, e-mails, and by coming into surgeries. It was our own checks that came across the problem. Ten thousand manual checks are going on per month, and Monster does checks too, so things were looked at then. It was decided that that was fine and the vacancy went back up online, but it was brought back down again and closed on 20 December. It was probably online for about nine days. Only a month or so after that, it seems, the right hon. Gentleman came to us to discuss the matter. We had, however, already seen it, and we were dealing with it and getting in touch with those constituents. That goes to show the checks that are going on constantly, the support that is available and how we deal with things.

That is what is key. Why did Universal Jobmatch come into being? What did we have to do in 2012 to give us the best opportunities to help people into work in this day and age? How were we going to have an online system that actually helped people to look for work, matchmaking them 24/7 and not only during opening hours of 8 to 6, Monday to Friday? How could we have a system enabling people to upload a CV, to find more jobs and to know what is going on? Universal Jobmatch is the best possible solution: it is the largest website in the UK, with 5 million job searches every day on average, bringing employers and employees together and with a significant increase in the number of employers using it. That is key, too. We have to reach out to claimants, and we have to reach out to businesses and employers to ensure that they want to engage and play a part. We also have to help Jobcentre Plus staff, who want to know that they have the best possible equipment.

As we have seen, it is important that we close down any fraudulent behaviour. It is also important that we deal with other inappropriate vacancies. It is worth noting that there frequently seems to be confusion between fraudulent vacancies, which are entirely unacceptable, and the duplicate vacancies that we sometimes see and can arise for a variety of reasons. Often, if a vacancy appears more than once on the site, it is a result of an employer using multiple agencies or posting the opportunity by themselves in addition to using other avenues. That is an unavoidable feature of the open-access model that the service provides, and it must be seen in that context. There are significant opportunities but, equally, if such duplication should not have occurred—if people are posting a vacancy where they have no direct relationship with the employer, for example—the vacancy will be taken down.

We have to consider what Universal Jobmatch has brought to the arena. There is Monster and various other services, but Universal Jobmatch allows job advisers to help people find a job and to check that they are looking for work, which is also key. Equally, we can work with claimants through their claimant commitment and help them to use the service. We can also advise claimants. We take things such as data security very seriously and we give advice to our jobseekers on how to stay safe online when conducting a job search. That advice is published on the UJ website, and it is given to people in jobcentres in a leaflet, “Safety and Security when looking for work.” Claimants are also advised not to pay any fees up front for help with job searches, and they are advised not to reveal personal details such as their bank account number, national insurance number or date of birth. Such information should also not be included on their CV. We are giving such advice on a daily basis.

People can access extra support through the “contact us” button. They are asked whether the site is working adequately, and there is a most frequently asked questions page. There is also additional support. Jobcentre staff are able to help people as much as they can. All of that is key, but it is always evolving and changing. We have to ensure that we have the best service, and wherever anything goes wrong we have to clamp down and ensure that it does not happen again. Equally, when a local Member of Parliament brings the activities of a company to this House, it highlights exactly what we do to close down companies and see what has happened. It also shows how we have supported claimants to recoup their money, which is right. The system is constantly monitored, and we constantly survey what is and is not acceptable.

We have made considerable improvements to Universal Jobmatch. When it was first introduced, we ensured that it was easy to use, that people were getting used to it and that employers had confidence in it. Confidence is key, too: we have to ensure that people have confidence in the system. Of course, all those businesses have confidence and think that Universal Jobmatch is a great way to reach out and find employees. It is significant that 90% of businesses that use Universal Jobmatch are small and medium-sized enterprises. For them, it is a cheaper and more reliable way of finding somebody close to their business. People underestimate the service. More than ever before, the Government are reaching out to business and asking, “How can we support you? How can we get somebody employed? What training do they need? Do they need work experience? Do they need any extra support?” That is what we are doing, and Universal Jobmatch is part of that greater relationship. All I can say is that, with the significant increases in getting people into work, all of these things are working.

We have the ability to disable and delete non-essential cookies, and we have taken the ability to close down accounts. We are enabling jobseekers to re-access their Universal Jobmatch account securely when locked out. We have revised access groups to control the web admin for DWP. We are also listening to what claimants would like. They are saying that they would like to search by a keyword or skill; they would like to find work within a specific distance, postcode or ward; they would like to choose how many hours they have to travel; and they want to filter out vacancies already reviewed within the list of results. We are doing all of those things—constant monitoring, constant upkeep and constant development.

The system has revolutionised the way people look for work. It is enabling people to get into work, and it is allowing advisers to work more closely with claimants, but where things go wrong, it is right that that is brought to this House. In this case, the matter was sorted back in December before the right hon. Gentleman brought it to the House, but it is right that the matter is discussed openly so that we get the best possible result for claimants.

If one was a Prime Minister looking for a totally trustworthy Minister to be in charge of our security service and to ensure that nothing of any comprehension could be learned about the service, today’s debate shows that we have a candidate to fill that role. I am as confused as I was when I came in about what actually goes on.

In the few minutes remaining, I have three very simple questions for the Minister. First, she said that 10,000 checks are undertaken. Why 10,000? What is the time span, and what are the results? Secondly, she said that the Government will hunt duplicates and take them down. Of the 24 jobs advertised as relevant for Birkenhead, 15 were duplicates. Who is responsible for taking down those jobs?

Thirdly, the Minister talked in general terms about having to clamp down. Who clamps down, and who is responsible for that? How many people? How often do they do it, given the number of people who put up jobs and depend on the results? I would be grateful for answers to those three questions.

By way of example, I was showing how, before the right hon. Gentleman even knew about the incident in his constituency, we had found it, dealt with it and closed down the site, which shows that we have our own team working on it within the DWP. Monster’s team is working on it, and it was streets ahead of his good self, even though it is correct that he brought the matter to the House. Of course we have said that anyone who was put to any inconvenience, who paid out or who suffered any loss was paid, and the compensation on top of their loss was significant. For example, where a loss in actual terms was £750, there was £500 of compensation on top. I have the full list of all those who received payments, but trust me that we have worked closely with them. We did not want to be in that situation, and as I said less than 0.1% of people are in that position, but we have dealt with it. Equally, there are 1,002 full-time vacancies within a 20-mile radius of Birkenhead posted on Universal Jobmatch today.

As I said, where things go wrong, we correct them and sort them out, but I hope everyone can see that we have done that in this instance. When we look at the number of people, 11 came forward and wanted compensation, which we have resolved. When we see that 5 million people a day are doing a job search on the site, we can see how, for the overwhelming majority of people, it is a very good addition to the other things that they might be doing to search for work both by themselves and with their adviser.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.