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Westminster Hall

Volume 586: debated on Wednesday 22 October 2014

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 22 October 2014

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Voter Registration

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Sam Gyimah.)

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams.

Securing a debate on voter registration is timely with the general election now in the near future. It gives us the opportunity to discuss the enormous changes in the electoral register, a process that started in England and Wales on 10 June this year and in Scotland after the referendum on 19 September. For a democracy to work well, the system needs to be as easy as possible to enable as many eligible people as possible to vote. The first step in the process is to have an accurate, up-to-date and as complete a register as possible.

I agree with my hon. Friend absolutely about the importance of having as accurate an electoral register as possible. She began by indicating that the time scale is tight. Would it not be sensible for the Government to allow more time, so that we can be certain that we have as many people on the electoral register as is humanly possible?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. In the main debate when the measure passed through the House, I said that I agreed in principle with individual voter registration, but that it had to be implemented in a way that works. The new system, however, is simply being rushed through. My fear is that because the changes are being done at speed, and because of the lack of funding available to implement them, they will disfranchise millions of people. That does not improve our democracy at all.

The groups being disfranchised that I am most concerned about are: students and young people; people who live in the private rented sector; and adults with no dependent children who are not yet claiming pensions or not on benefits. I will start with students and young people.

My city, Sunderland, is a university city, so in term time we have an influx of many thousands of young people. They do not always live at home—historically, their parents would have put them on the register at home—they move more frequently and they have a transient lifestyle, whether because they are students away in term time and back home in holidays or simply because they are young people leaving home for the first time, living with friends. Their national insurance number is often registered to the address of their parents’ home, so if they tried to go on the electoral register where they are students the data would not match.

Sheffield, like Sunderland, is a student city, and I represent more students than any other Member of Parliament—36,000. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the university of Sheffield on its work—which we hope to roll out to Sheffield Hallam university next year—in seamlessly integrating electoral registration with student enrolment to encourage maximum registration? The Government have given some support. Will she encourage them to take up such a process much more vigorously, working with Universities UK and the National Union of Students, and to look at the opportunities beyond universities in colleges, schools and other institutions?

I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend says. I have been in discussions with the university of Sunderland in recent weeks to look at that very issue and how it can maximise the number of students on the register. If the Government are prepared to get involved in such a process, that would be a help.

A final point about students and their NI number is that they might have the wrong number allocated, although they would be unaware of that. MPs do not deal with this problem every week, but it is not an uncommon situation for people to come to us because they have the wrong NI number, which they only become aware of when they try to claim a benefit.

For example, not so long ago I had a case of a young woman who had left school and become a hairdresser. She had always worked since leaving school and paid her taxes and her NI. It was only when she applied for maternity pay, when expecting her first child, that she suddenly got a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions saying that she had made no NI contributions. Clearly, that was not the case, and she could prove easily through payslips and her employee records that she had a full NI record. She was not aware of the problem, however, until she got to the point of needing to use the record.

My hon. Friend gives a graphic example of the issue with national insurance numbers. Is she aware that 35% of Muslim women do not have NI numbers? Where does that leave them when getting registered under the new system?

That is a pertinent point. The NI system is a good one in general, but it has flaws and is not perfect, and many issues arise from that. As I explained, many people will not be aware that there is a problem with their NI number until they do not data-match.

Given the housing shortage, the private rented sector has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. Even in my city, where house prices are relatively low, there is a shortage of social housing and people have difficulty getting mortgages, because of low wages, zero-hours contracts and so on. Even in Sunderland, therefore, we have a housing crisis and more people than ever, from all walks of life and all age groups, living in the private rented sector. It is a transient population, because of how our tenancies work, with short-term tenancies and people often moving home every six months, and they are difficult to reach.

The final group I want to mention are adults with no dependent children. They are not claiming benefits, their children are grown and they do not receive child benefit any more, and they are not yet at pensionable age. Often, that group of people are at a time in their life when they are downsizing and moving home. Does everyone remember to change the address in their NI records? Most people do not have that on their list of things to change. They are not doing anything wrong; they are still paying their contributions through their employer and so forth, but again their NI records are not as accurate as they should be. Again, only when those people seek a benefit from the NI system does that fact come to light. It is easily sorted out, but in the meantime they will not data-match. Furthermore, working people are busy people and they are often not at home when canvassers call, when the local authority is trying to improve their records. Again, through no fault of their own, they will be disfranchised.

Those are all genuine examples of people who do not actively want to be unable to vote, but have lifestyles that, under the new system and the speed of its introduction, make them difficult to reach. They will therefore fall off the register and be unable to vote.

I want to talk a little about my constituency. Sunderland Central falls within the electoral and local authority district of Sunderland. Our electoral services are famous. They do things well, they are efficient and quick, and they take enormous pride in what they do. It is a well resourced department, which does things well, to the extent that, historically, people from the department have gone around the world to help improve other countries’ electoral administration. That is how good they are. They have put Sunderland on the map. They are very quick at counts, to the point that at the past few general elections there has been no competition for us—nobody even tries any more. The votes for the three Sunderland MPs are counted, and the results are known, on the day that the votes have been cast, which is unique in this place. At the previous general election my seat was third to be declared in Sunderland, but my result was still in at 20 minutes to midnight, so I could relax a long time before many of my colleagues.

The electoral services staff in Sunderland have taken the changes incredibly seriously. They were part of the pilot and have been involved in working groups with the Government and the Electoral Commission to look at how to implement the system. Yet even in Sunderland there are massive problems. I want to read out a few things that the head of electoral services told me yesterday. She said:

“Following the Confirmation Live Run…Sunderland had a match rate of 84%. This was improved with Local Data Matching which brought the match up to 92%. This meant that in real terms Sunderland then delivered 15,753 Household Enquiry Forms…which were comprised of empty properties, student accommodation and non-responders to last year’s canvass. After reminders”—

that is, two things through the post—

“and a visit from personal canvassers, Sunderland has an outstanding total of 6,128 which is about 39% of the original total.”

Even after two letters and a personal call, Sunderland is still more than 6,000 people short under the new system.

I very much agree with the points my hon. Friend is making. The Government funding for following up on non-responders and new electors is based on getting a 50% response to the first reminder and a 50% response to the second, but I believe that in some places the response to the first reminder has been as low as 10%. Does she agree that the Minister needs to put more money into the process if we are to get the response rates up?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. More money and more time are needed to get the system right. As I said at the beginning, in principle we agree with individual voter registration, but the implementation has not been right.

On the dry run and the number of local government departments that then conducted their own local data-matching, there are 380 electoral registration officers in the country, but only 137 wrote to the Electoral Commission to say that they had done their dry run. My county was one—I pay tribute to our ERO, Gareth Evans, for doing so—and my hon. Friend’s county got an extra 10% registered. But two thirds could not be bothered. Was the Electoral Commission too lax in its monitoring and policing of the dry run?

The point is well made. Not enough information, time or thought has gone into how registration is happening. My hon. Friend’s electoral registration unit and my own are among the best in our countries, but quite frankly not all EROs are of the same standard. They vary enormously. They do not always use the same computer systems. Some are better than others, and some are better resourced than others. There is massive variation. We have one of the best electoral services departments in the country, but we are still having problems. The figures for some of the worst in the country will be dreadful.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Does she agree that it is also important to recognise the really hard work done by canvassers, who go out there and chase the information? I have talked to the canvassers in my constituency working on behalf of the ERO, and the reality is that they have not had proper pay increases for some time. There is even more pressure on them now. There is a real issue with capacity for that resource at this crucial time.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, in Sunderland we have put a lot of effort and resources into the matter, but we are constrained by a massively reduced local authority budget. That is the backdrop to some of what is going on.

As I was saying, 92% of households matched after the live run but there may now be residents in those houses that we do not know about. They are deemed to have been matched, and have not been canvassed, so if new people have moved into the properties in addition to those who have been matched, we will not know about them. The figure is misleading.

We could have another mini-canvass in January or February. I understand that the Minister is currently considering whether to fund that. A mini-canvass is absolutely essential and should be mandatory for local authorities. As I have said, my local authority is doing everything it can to make its register as accurate and workable as possible, but so far many authorities have not done as we have. The Government need to look carefully at funding a mini-canvass and making it mandatory that electoral registration officers carry it out.

Sunderland sent out more than 13,000 invitations to register—they are for the red and amber mismatches from the confirmation live run—and have just started door-knocking for those. As yet, there has been no response for almost 11,000 of them. That is how hard to reach some people and places are.

Another issue is that the system of postal vote registration has changed; so has the information that could be used to match people and keep them on the postal vote register. In Sunderland we were part of a national pilot in 2004 of all-out postal vote elections, as a result of local authority boundary and ward changes. Since then, on average around 40% of the electorate in Sunderland has used postal votes. People like voting by post in Sunderland. It is effective and efficient, with a very high turnout. There are probably many reasons for that: although we are a university city our indigenous population is quite aged, and older people tend to like to vote by post. We also have quite inclement weather a lot of the time, so people often do not like going out to vote—the north-east coast is beautiful but it can be very cold.

I will not question for one moment the beauty of Sunderland or its weather. My point is connected to my first intervention on the speed of the introduction of the changes. One reason the Government are so keen to press ahead as quickly as humanly possible is the perception of fraud, particularly with regard to postal votes. Does my hon. Friend agree that the perception is not necessarily the reality, and we should go on the reality? The truth is that very little electoral fraud takes place.

I absolutely agree—that is my next point. There has been only one serious electoral fraud issue in the past 10 years or so. Electoral fraud is a serious issue. If is it happening anywhere it absolutely needs to be tackled, but it is not happening on a mass scale; in my experience it certainly is not happening with postal votes.

As I was saying, a lot of people in Sunderland vote by post. They are used to it and do it every time, so it is their normal voting pattern nowadays. According to the records in Sunderland, difficulties with matching, sign-up and other issues mean that some 1,740 people currently on the postal vote register are going to drop off it, and will not know that. It will get to the day when postal votes need to be cast and they will not have their postal vote. I am quite sure they will ring up to say that they have not received it, and will be told, “You are not on the postal vote register any more.” That simply is not good enough. Those people may not be able to get out to a polling station. If they can, they may go and vote in person on the day, but as I said a lot of them are older and are not in the best of health, so are not able to do that.

Does it really help our democracy to disfranchise people because of the situation with the postal vote register? Historically, other data that a council holds—perhaps council tax records—have been used to data-match, to make sure that people kept their postal vote. That is no longer going to be allowed to happen, and the Government need to look at that.

Will the Minister fund a mini-canvass? Will he make that decision urgently, because we are now into October? A mini-canvass needs to take place early in the new year, and I have outlined the reasons for that. Is he comfortable with the problems that are arising? Estimates are that 7.5 million people are not usually registered, and the latest estimates I have seen are that 5.5 million more will drop off the register under the new system. That means 13 million people will be disfranchised at the next general election. Is the Minister comfortable with that? What other plans does he have to put right the implementation and roll-out of the system?

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and to be the second speaker after the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), who made an extensive speech. I would invite her to Norfolk, where the climate tends to be a little drier and, occasionally, warmer, although I cannot speak for that in a week where we have all been battered by somewhat higher winds than normal.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on calling this important debate. This is an urgent and important matter for us all, and particularly for me, because, until 1 pm today, I am the secretary of the all-party group on voter registration—we have our annual general meeting at 1 pm, and I fully hope to continue being the secretary or to become another officer of the group. At our meeting, we will also have a briefing from Cabinet Office officials on individual electoral registration. I can therefore reassure hon. Members that there is great interest in this important reform programme and that it is being properly scrutinised, not only in this room, but by the all-party group. It is, indeed, also being scrutinised by many others outside this place, and I could name, among many others, Bite the Ballot or the group I met last night, who are behind the Twitter handle “It’s A Power Thing”—I am sure that you tweet every day, Mr Williams, and that when you find examples of what politics really consists of, you, too, use the hashtag ThisIsPolitics. I am confident that every one of us in the Chamber shares with such groups a passion not only for getting young people to register to vote, but for making sure that anybody and everybody can use their rightful place in the franchise.

I am sure the Minister will explain everything he is doing to ensure the greatest possible accuracy and completeness in voter registration. He will not need me to reiterate the many arguments I have made on this issue, because I have been on record many times in this Parliament as a former Minister with responsibility for the registration programme.

I am pleased to see that we have colleagues from Northern Ireland with us, and I am sure they will be able to explain further some of the lessons that have rightly been learned from a similar roll-out there.

I pay tribute to the non-partisan work the hon. Lady does on the all-party group—she is an excellent politician. On the lessons from Northern Ireland, the registration rate there in 2011 was 71%, which was way down. There was then a complete canvass, with door knocking, and the rate went up to 88%. Door knocking is the single most important way to improve registration, but, in 2013, 23 authorities did not door-knock. What does the hon. Lady think of that?

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He and I have tussled over this many times—again, in a non-partisan way. There is no call for this to be a party political question, but there is every call for us to ensure that local authorities have the tools to do what works, and I am sure the Minister will respond fully and properly to the suggestions that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central made.

On the subject of errant local authorities, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) will remember that I wrote to colleagues in this place when I was a Minister, and I have done so again during my time with the all-party group, to encourage Members to hold their local authorities to account for what they and their EROs do to properly engage with those who should be registered. Members of the House have a real chance to take a proper interest in this subject—again, in a non-partisan, non-party political way—because we have every interest in ensuring that we have an accurate and complete register and, indeed, that all the tools of the trade are being used to back up the state of our politics. It will not be a matter of debate among us that politics has a bad name and continues to be the subject of declining interest among voters. That is not acceptable to any of us, and all of us, in our different ways, take a passionate interest in the issue.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this timely debate. When she talks about people who vote, she means those who are on the register, but there is a disconnect even there. After we get those people on the register, it is difficult to get them to exercise their voting rights. However, how do we get those who are totally uninterested on the register? There certainly is a problem there. In Northern Ireland, 88% of people are on the register, but there is still a long way to go to get the proper franchise.

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, but I am certainly not going to be able to solve the problem he raises in my comments—and nor, I suspect, will the Minister be able to. In the scenario the hon. Gentleman described, there is an element of somebody not wishing to do something, and, in the final analysis, I do not think there is a way to compel somebody to do something they do not wish to do. Before we got to that point, I would put every argument to show that their place in democracy is a hard-won right and, at times, very sensitive; and I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be able to give us many more localised reasons why that is so in Northern Ireland. I would argue that, in the grand scheme of things, it is not hard to get on the electoral register in our country. We should compare that with what happens in countries around the world, where it is still hard for people in this day and age to have their democratic voice heard. The best example, which we have seen in the newspapers only in the last month, is probably Hong Kong, where people wish to play a part in democracy. We could all take a few lessons from that back to the people we represent to further the discussion of what democracy really is about.

That allows me to move to the point I wanted to make. I want to go back to principles. I disagree with the hon. Member for Sunderland Central that we are facing disfranchisement—we are not. The people we are talking about are enfranchised and legally able to vote. We are talking not about some descent into North Korean-style practices, but about the method of getting as many people as possible, in the most accurate and complete way possible, to change from one system to another. I am no fan of large bureaucratic systems, and I would—like the Minister, I am sure—place a high value on making the programme as simple and as fast as possible for the voters concerned.

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s point—which unfortunately she made only in passing—that the IER programme has cross-party agreement. We do not need to go back to a hyperbolic disagreement; we are looking at the best means of achieving a shared goal. It was the right thing to do in the early days of this Parliament to remove potentially wasteful and expensive duplication in the programme by bringing it forward, and I am sure the Minister will be able to give us a full update on why he continues to think that that was the right thing to do at the time.

Let me also lay out a crucial factor in the implementation programme. There is not going to be—I say it again—some forced North Korean-style loss of participation in our democracy at this crucial time, because no elector will be removed until after the general election. Again, I shall leave it to the Minister to explain fully how he envisages that working, but it is important not to blow things out of proportion. The programme has cross-party agreement and that should continue. We should all pull together to find the best ways to get the result we want.

As to the principle behind IER, it is one of the most important final pieces in the democratic journey, made over centuries, towards a right and proper adult franchise. Among those three letters the “I” has always, for me, been important; it is right and proper for individuals to be able to exercise the right to register, and that is why I believe in the programme. Neither I nor, I am sure, the hon. Member for Sunderland Central would think it acceptable for the right of a woman to register her hard-won place in democracy to be exercised by someone else in her household; so why do we seem to be quibbling over the ability of young people, renters or single adults to take care of their affairs? We need to keep in mind the basic principle that it is right for individuals to take responsibility for their own place in democracy. We have a good democracy, in which there is a place for those people, with their names on it. It is, in the end, for them to take that up, and for us to persuade them why doing so is worth their while. It takes two to tango, of course.

There are a few short months until the general election. There is much for us all to do—in this place, together and individually—to put politics across in the best light. Parliament week will shortly be upon us, so that we will collectively be able to do that little bit more. I could name many groups where people are already encouraging their peers to vote. As I have said, I am particularly interested in encouraging young people to take their place in democracy.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the problem is double barrelled? It certainly is in Northern Ireland and, I am sure, in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Young people, who tend to be more mobile than older people, are less likely to register and less likely to come out and vote even when they are registered. We have a twin approach to deepening the franchise.

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He is right. We are all familiar with the statistics from the previous general election: turnout in the 18-to-24 age group was about 44%, while three quarters of those at the other end of the age scale turned out. That is the difference we are talking about; but we are also talking about an evolution that has happened in politics. The situation is not one in which young people will snap into the habit of voting when they get married and get a mortgage. If we wait for that, we will be waiting a long time, for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central touched on when she spoke about housing.

However, this generation has changed the way it does politics, and actually does fantastic things through non-traditional political means—through informal politics and community politics. It is our job to make sure that formal politics meets them halfway. That is something that I will continue to speak on passionately in this place and act on outside it, and I will endeavour to open up this place to those people. I hope that today’s debate allows us to contribute a little to that process. We should all be in agreement about the value of the programme and the need to ensure that individuals’ rights to register and vote are upheld and encouraged. We should be talking merely about the best way to get people in our local authorities, and the citizens we represent, to the ballot box.

I have taken a passionate interest in individual electoral registration for the past 13 or 14 years, since my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) alerted me to the drop in numbers between 1997 and 2001. I pay tribute to him for switching me on to that important issue—and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), who secured this important debate.

Democracy is an important issue today. Two key statistics are that at the last general election 11 million people did not vote, although they were on the register, and that 7.5 million people were not even on the register. That means that 18.5 million people did not participate in the democratic process. To put that in perspective, I should say that 10 million people voted Conservative and 8 million people voted Labour—more people did not get involved in the electoral process than voted for the two main political parties. Democracy today in Britain is in crisis, and the way the coalition Government have introduced IER will threaten it further.

The hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) is right: there was cross-party support for the changes in 2009. I opposed them for nine years and then supported them when we decided, with cross-party support, to introduce them after the 2015 general election. It was crucial to do that, because it would allow us to find the missing 7.5 million people who were off the register and get them back on for the 2015 election—because we knew there would be a drop-off.

When Labour introduced IER in Northern Ireland in 2001, there was a massive drop-off—something like 30% of people on the register disappeared from it. My colleagues from Northern Ireland will say that there was a degree of fraud there, which had not been addressed, and that is right, but even in 2011 the registration rate was still 71%. We need to learn the lessons of Northern Ireland, which are that when IER is introduced, registration will immediately drop.

I had a meeting with the Electoral Commission a couple of weeks ago and the latest figures are now 88% for Northern Ireland. That is only after a household door-to-door canvass was done. That had been dropped in Northern Ireland. The lesson is that there is a need to get people signed up by regularly going door to door; that cannot be left to town halls or electoral officers, as happened in Northern Ireland.

I agree. I shall bring part of my speech forward, to address the point. In 2008 the Labour Government said that every ERO must carry out door-knocking for non-responders. In 2008 16 EROs out of 383 did not do that. They broke the law. In 2009 there were 17 such EROs and in 2008 the number was down to eight. But what happened in the year of the new Government? The number of EROs who broke the law went from eight to 55. In 2012 it was 30 and in 2013 it was 23. That includes Gwynedd in 2012 and 2013.

It is appalling that Ministers and the Electoral Commission tolerated law-breaking with respect to the most important basic building block of democracy. That has not been addressed, although the coalition proudly boasts that it will introduce the biggest changes to UK democracy since universal suffrage—and there are still 7.5 million people missing from the register.

The cross-party support for IER was shattered in 2010 when the coalition Government decided that, ahead of the economy and all the changes that they said were needed in health, education and benefits, the No. 1 issue on which they wanted to focus forensically was bringing forward the date for IER by a year. Why was that? I have asked Ministers in oral questions, in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I asked the Minister, and he did not know. I had to tell him and previous Ministers in Committee the reason, which according to a parliamentary answer was mass concern among the public about fraud in the electoral system; apparently, the time scale had to be brought forward by one year to assuage that concern.

I will give the statistics for electoral fraud, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central has already given. There has been one proven and successful case in the courts over the past 10 years. The Electoral Commission and Ministers say that there is 37% concern. One of the surveys said that there was 37% concern, but others say that there is 10% concern—so for 10% concern, and one case in 10 years, the legislation had to be brought forward by one year. The real reason is party political advantage.

The equalisation of seats, with 7.5 million people missing from the register, was supposed to deliver the next election. Bringing IER forward by one year and knocking off perhaps 18 million people was supposed to deliver every election after that. That is not quite North Korea, but it is not far away. The issue has been handled in a party political way.

I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats because they co-operated in the House of Lords, having realised what a train crash was happening. The Government proposed making an individual’s decision to go on to the register a lifestyle choice. For 350 years, this had been a civic duty for those who qualified to be on the register and to take part in democracy, but the Government wanted to change that to a lifestyle choice—“buy it if you want to; don’t buy it if you don’t”. That is the wrong approach, and so much so that the Liberal Democrats realised what was happening. I pay tribute to Lord Rennard for alerting his party to it.

Civic society was appalled. Magistrates were appalled because people are called for jury service from the electoral register. The police were appalled because they use the electoral register to find out where people who commit crimes live. Operation Black Vote was appalled because the biggest losers out there were the black and Asian communities. Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society and Bite the Ballot were concerned about the proposal, so the Government had to back-pedal from a lifestyle choice to a civic duty.

I pay tribute to the Electoral Commission for one of the few good things it has done. It formally warned the Government that if they carried on, of the people who do not bother to vote—65% at the last election, although it has been as low as 59%—41% will not register. It is like a banana republic: 40% of people in the country are not on the register. That is what the Conservative wing of the coalition Government proposed. That is what it thought it could get away with, but it was beaten by an alliance of civic societies and some Liberal Democrats.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for his work in bringing civic societies together. We had public hearings in the House of Commons when people were allowed to express their fears. We took that message to the Electoral Commission and the Government, and the Government had to listen.

I could not possibly comment.

I have explained the Government’s position. I now turn to the Electoral Commission’s position, and I have paid tribute to it for what it has done. In 2009, I met people from Experian, the credit reference data agency. We sat in my office in Portcullis House and I said that 3.5 million people were missing from the register. They said, “No there aren’t. The number is 6.5 million.” I immediately relayed that to the Electoral Commission, which said that that was nonsense and that it would conduct its own research. The day before that was released—I think it was released on a Friday, so it was on the Thursday—it told me that I was right and that the figure was 6.5 million, but a different 6.5 million. Perhaps it was 13 million. Who knows?

Labour does not have clean hands. Some 3.9 million people were not on the register in 2001 and that rose to 7.5 million on Labour’s watch. That was not for party political advantage because of the profile of the people missing from the register: the unemployed, those on low wages, those living on council estates, those living in houses of multiple occupation, young people and black and ethnic minority voters. It was not for party political advantage, although we should have done a better job—but party political advantage has kept those 7.5 million people off the register for the past four years. The Electoral Commission has not played its full role in getting them back on the register.

It would cost only £340,000 to do a proper survey of the missing millions, but in the past 14 years the commission has carried out only three. That is despite electoral administration legislation in 2005, 2009 and 2010. The commission has been remiss in its research. It should not be left to a Back Bencher and a credit reference agency to prompt it into doing its job.

I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I am listening carefully to his logic and the build-up to the 7.5 million people who seem to be missing from the register. According to his own logic, that occurred under the previous Government, but the fact that we have not fixed it is apparently due to our pursuing partisan values. That logic is odd. Why did the previous Government fail so completely on that?

We did not do our job and I admit that. However, we had a plan from 2010 to 2015 to remedy that and to put the missing millions on the register in time for IER to be introduced in 2015. That plan was wrecked for party political advantage by the Conservative wing of the coalition Government.

The Electoral Commission has let us down in other ways. In the dry run for IER, the Department for Work and Pensions cross-referenced national databases with the electoral register. There was a match rate of about 82%, which it then sent to 383 local EROs. It asked them or said that if they wanted they could do local government data matching to get them from 82% to 92%. Of the 383, only 137 informed the Electoral Commission that it had done that. There may have been others, but they could not be bothered to tell the commission. It should have been firm and told those authorities that they had to take part in the dry run to iron out any difficulties ready for the live run. It did not do that.

The Electoral Commission’s plan for 2014 to 2019 covers what it hopes to achieve over the next five years. It recognised in 2014 that 7.5 million people were missing from the register in 2010. What is its aim for putting those people on the register over the next five years? The answer is zero. It has said that its aim for April 2011 was for the register to be 85.5% complete; for April 2019, the aim is that that completeness does not deteriorate. So 7.5 million names are missing now and there will be 7.5 million missing in 2019. That reminds me of a report once sent to my mum stating, “Christopher has set himself very low standards and failed to achieve them.” The Electoral Commission has failed. It set itself low standards and will fail to achieve them. It has been remiss.

When the Electoral Commission found out that the number of people missing from the register in 2010 was not 6 million but 7.5 million—that has flatlined; it is the same now—it welcomed that. It welcomed the fact that there had been no improvement in the registration rate. It had flatlined and had not increased, and the commission thought that was an achievement. It has set itself low standards. It is not only happy that 7.5 million people will be kept off the register for the next five years, but it has introduced restrictions on the handling of postal votes. It says that political parties cannot be trusted to go out and ask people whether they want a postal vote and to send it off when it has been filled in. It refers to electoral postal vote fraud, but there has been only one case of that in 10 years.

The Electoral Commission is not happy with just doing that. It is proposing that when people go to the polling station in 2019, they will have to show photo ID. That has been done in America, in right-wing Republican states—there is a perfect mirroring between Republican and Democrat states in America in terms of those that have and have not introduced photo ID. The independent Electoral Commission in this country is proposing that we copy those Republican states. It is an outrage. There has been one successful prosecution for electoral registration fraud in 10 years.

There are big issues out there. The prediction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central outlined, is that there will be an additional 5.5 million people missing off the register as a result of IER. The hon. Member for Norwich North is right that they will be protected for the general election. There will be a carry-over from household registration to individual registration, and we thank the Government for that—I think they were forced into it by the Lib Dems and others—but the next big date is the freeze date for the Boundary Commission, for the next boundary review, which is December 1 2015. If there is no carry-over for those 5.5 million people and for the 7 million people already off the register, 13 million or perhaps 14 million people will drop off it before the boundary review freeze date of 1 December 2015.

I want to draw the hon. Gentleman back a little. He is correct about the December 2015 date, but does he think that those voters then go to a Siberia of democracy? Does he not think that they still have the right to register if they wish to?

Absolutely, and those black voters in the southern states of America had the right to go and register but they did not. We know that people have not registered and that more will fall off, and we know that we can take steps to encourage more to fall off or to stop people from falling off. I think the coalition Government are quite happy with the situation. I think it is deliberate, given the time scale, the bringing things forward by one year and the lifestyle choice that they considered. It all points in the same direction: that they wanted maximum political benefit from the constitutional changes that they were introducing.

I shall finish my speech as I started it. If we have 11 million people not voting and 7.5 million people—perhaps 14 million people—not on the register, we will not be serving democracy in the mother of Parliaments.

Order. I remind the two remaining Back-Bench Members who wish to speak that we will start the wind-ups at 10.30 am. It would be a kindness if the time could be shared evenly. I call Jim Shannon.

With that in mind, Mr Williams, I shall be brief—by my calculations, we have four minutes each.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate. I wish to speak about Northern Ireland, which hon. Members have referred to. In last May’s council elections in Northern Ireland, out of 1,243,649 eligible people, only 51.3% voted. We had an issue with spoiled ballot papers and those who were unable to vote in European elections. The figures are extremely disappointing. Much has changed, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) referred to the registration in Northern Ireland of some 88%, but even with that, the electoral turnout was only 51.3% at the last election, which is of some concern.

We also have the problems in Northern Ireland of the two electoral systems, with the straight X vote and the single transferable vote. Having two elections with two different votes, sometimes on the one day, can cause confusion, and we have been trying to address that issue.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who spoke very passionately, referred to fraud. In Northern Ireland, we have had many examples of fraud. There have been blocked-up houses in west Belfast that apparently housed 10 people—well, they must have had four legs and a tail, because otherwise there is no way in the world they would be able physically to get out and vote. Such electoral fraud took place across parts of Northern Ireland and has been addressed. When we go to vote, we have to take photo ID with us, but that is something that we just need to accept in Northern Ireland.

There is the issue of how we interact with people and encourage the voters to be more involved in what takes place, and we can look at the referendum in Scotland and what happens when an issue generates interest. It had a 75% turnout and 90% of people were registered, with some 18% voting through a postal vote. I believe that more can be done with the postal vote system. Its only disadvantage is that people do not have to produce ID to show that they are who they say are, so an element of fraud might come into it.

In her introduction, the hon. Member for Sunderland Central referred to the issue of how we engage with younger people, and that is a key issue. How do we ensure that younger people are involved? How can we encourage that involvement? In Northern Ireland, we have a system under which students in lower sixth—or year 12 as it is here on the mainland—are encouraged to have their photographs taken for electoral cards with their date of birth on, so that when they turn 18, it is all done for them. That is one approach to the problem, although of course the card can easily be lost—in someone’s pocket or purse or whatever—and with that goes people’s wish to be involved in the process. But education is an important element, and Northern Ireland does that through colleges of further education. Those are some of the good things that we would wish to see.

Finally, students who are interested may register to be involved in the party political process, and that is good. They may do their courses at school, and that is good as well, but sometimes they drop out. How do we engage those who drop out? We need to ensure that people grasp how they can change, influence and make things better, and the only way to do that is to vote in elections. Next year, it is Westminster—“elect the person you want to do what you want at Westminster.”

Thank you for calling me, Mr Williams. I think I only have four minutes, so I will throw away the magnum opus speech that I was going to give and just make a few points that I think were covered by my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) in two outstanding, passionate speeches.

My key point is that the introduction of voter registration, as we have seen, is so important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd wrote in Progress magazine, we could return to electoral registration rates like those of Alabama in the 1950s. We saw the situation in Florida in 2000, with the famous Bush versus Gore presidential election, where there was widespread belief that people were missing out on a democratic duty.

On that point, I intervene extremely briefly to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is implying that he thinks I am racist, as I think his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, was doing?

No, I do not think I said that. If I implied that, I apologise. I do not think the hon. Lady is racist.

I do not think my hon. Friend believes that either, and if that was implied, I apologise.

Like many people in this debate, I believe that the new voter registration system is being introduced too fast. As it will be introduced just months before the general election in 2015, if it does not work, people will have no vote and therefore no voice in the election.

In July this year, the Electoral Commission found that the electoral register is only 86% complete. That equates to about 7.5 million people not being able to vote. Combine that with inaccuracies on the electoral register and one in seven voters have no voice in elections at all. What makes that worse is that 40% of those who are not registered believe that they are. I know so many people in my constituency and in other constituencies I have lived in who have turned up to vote and found that they are not on the electoral register at all, but they pay their bills and their council tax, so they cannot understand why they cannot vote. As has been said, that is a particular problem for young people who are less likely to register than older people who will see through their democratic mandate; for black and mixed-race people, who are less likely to be registered than white people; and for people who are living in the private rented sector who are less likely to be registered than home owners.

That picture shows that the groups in society who are most transient are less likely to vote, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point. This is an area that I believe that the Government must get right. Although we accept that individual voter registration can help to rectify the situation, the methods proposed by the Government may just make it worse. Under their plans for data-matching, the electoral roll will be matched with DWP data, and the groups who are likely to be unregistered are also the least likely to have matching information on databases. The duty now lies with the Government to work with civic groups, electoral registration officers and others to ensure that every last step is taken to maximise registration. We cannot allow whole swathes of the country to lose their voice at the next general election. This is an area that the Government must get right or risk having millions disfranchised. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on that, and with that, Mr Williams, I conclude my remarks.

We have had a very good debate, with excellent contributions on both sides of the Chamber. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott). Many of us will be jealous of how quickly the counts are undertaken in Sunderland elections. I think that for the last election in Liverpool, I got my declaration at 6 o’clock in the morning. Something can certainly be learned from a system that enables people to be in bed in the early hours of the following morning. More seriously, I pay tribute to the work that Sunderland electoral services do. As she said, that is something from which we can all learn in this country, as well as people in other parts of the world.

May I mention two other contributions before making my own speech? The hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), the former Minister, spoke about the work of the all-party parliamentary group, and it is a very welcome innovation. It is supported by Bite the Ballot, which I will say something about later. Bite the Ballot is a fantastic, non-partisan organisation that basically exists to get more young people registered to vote. I pay tribute to it; it is playing a very important role in the changes.

I also have to mention, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who has been tireless in raising these issues. He was raising them before others were even talking about them. He is tenacious in challenging Ministers, shadow Ministers and, indeed, the Electoral Commission, and all power to his elbow for the brilliant work that he has done. He expressed the concern that Opposition Members have consistently expressed about the acceleration of the introduction of individual voter registration. I support individual voter registration because it is an archaic concept for the head of a household to determine who is registered to vote. There is undoubtedly cross-party support for changing that, but we have to balance getting to what is the right system that we all support with doing that in a way that does not have the unintended consequences that hon. Members have spoken about.

As has been said, the latest estimate from the Electoral Commission is that there are now 7.5 million people who could be registered but are not. We know that that is not a cross-section of the population as a whole. There are massive disparities between different sections of society. Let us look at 2011, which was the last time we could compare census data with the electoral register. About half of 18 to 24-year-olds were not on the register, compared with just 6% of those aged over 65. If we look at private renters—my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central spoke about private renters from the Sunderland experience—we see that barely half of people living as private tenants were on the electoral register, compared with more than 90% of home owners. Therefore it is a very big challenge, and that was under the old system of household registration. The big concern is that the situation could get worse.

We know that the data-matching pilots have given a figure of 79% for matching. That leaves 21% needing to be found in other ways, including local data matching and data mining.

Certain groups are particularly affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd drew attention to the latest annual report from the Electoral Commission. I share his concern—which he expressed so powerfully—that it says that its target is simply to avoid any further fall in the level of registration. Surely we must have greater ambition than that. We want the 7.5 million figure to go down. The risk, as has been said, is that it will get even worse.

Exactly. We want the 7.5 million figure to fall. We want the numbers of those who are not on the register to fall. We want a register that is more accurate and complete. Seven and a half million is far too many voters unregistered. We want the figure for those who are not on the register to be lower.

The hon. Member for Norwich North rightly reminded us that those who are already on the register will be carried over for 2015, but of course that does not capture people who have turned 18 since the previous register, who would be new to the register, and crucially—this is where I want to focus my remarks—it does not cover those who have moved home since the previous register. They then have the responsibility of registering under individual voter registration. In this immediate period, those are the people whom I am most concerned about.

There are three groups. One is private renters. By the nature of private renting, people are more likely to move about, and I echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central in that regard. When the Minister responds to the debate, I ask him to say something about the position of private renters. What can be done, working with local authorities and organisations that represent landlords and that represent private tenants themselves? Generation Rent is a fairly new organisation that is playing that role. What can we do to try to ensure that the numbers of private renters who are registered goes up rather than falling even further?

However, let me focus in particular on the two groups that I think are most affected in the immediate term: students and young people. There is already an enormous gap in terms of young people’s registration, as I have said, but also in the turnout of young people who are registered. There has always been that gap—it is not new—but it has widened over the last 40 years or so.

Students are a particularly important group in this regard. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central spoke about Sunderland as a university city. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who is no longer in his place, spoke about the Sheffield experience. We can learn from the excellent practice that he has promoted in Sheffield and which Sheffield university has adopted. When its students register as students, they are then taken to the voter registration site of the Electoral Commission so that they remain registered to vote. I think that that is the ideal system and that all universities should adopt it, but there are worrying signs already that the levels of student registration are falling dramatically.

I spoke to a Manchester city councillor recently. She told me that the initial indications are that registration at the student halls of residence in Manchester is averaging around 10% under the new system, whereas under the old system, with block registration, it was of course 100%. In the city centre ward in Manchester at the moment, registration is down by 98%. Things can be done between now and next April to ensure that the levels are improved, but that reminds us of the scale of the challenge with regard to university students, and that is something that does apply for 2015; it does not await further changes in terms of the legislative framework. What measures will the Government take to work with universities, the National Union of Students and local authorities, so that we maximise the number of higher education students on the register at their place of study in time for the election next year?

Let me now say something about young people and, in particular, the role of schools and colleges in registering young people. I was very interested to listen to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talking about the experience in Northern Ireland. The model that exists in Northern Ireland—the schools initiative—is one from which we can learn a great deal.

I have done a number of visits with Bite the Ballot to sixth forms both in Scotland and in England and seen the fantastic work that it does in encouraging young people to register to vote. I think that it makes sense to have a duty on schools and colleges to work with local authorities on voter registration. I urge the Government, who I think have been resistant to that idea, to consider it as a serious option. I asked the Minister about it at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions last week and I shall do so again today. Bite the Ballot has suggested that we have an opportunity with the Wales Bill, currently going through Parliament, to make an amendment that would ensure that there was a responsibility on schools to undertake one voter registration session a year and to work with their electoral registration officer to get more young people signed up. It is a modest amendment that is before the House of Lords at the moment. It is, as I understand it, supported by all the party leaders in Wales, including the leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly. The head teachers’ trade union—the Association of School and College Leaders—is very supportive of the idea, and we support it. I urge the Government to give serious consideration to adopting it. Clearly, under the Wales Bill, it would apply only to Wales, but we would like it to be adopted in England and Scotland as well—one step at a time. We would be drawing on and learning from the positive experience of that practice in Northern Ireland.

We have concerns about the speed with which the Government are implementing individual voter registration. The principle is sound; it is the speed of implementation that concerns us. In relation to certain groups, there is real concern about a large number of people falling off the register. I ask the Minister to consider, either in his remarks today or perhaps beyond today, whether we need to amend the legislation to allow certain groups to be block registered. I am particularly concerned about two groups in that regard. One, which I have already spoken about, is university students. There is a case for saying that the legislation should be changed to allow students who live in halls of residence to be automatically registered, in view of those unique circumstances. The other group that I am concerned about is those who live in residential homes—often older people or people with learning difficulties or other disabilities—who may fall off the register. Is there a case for looking at the retention of block registration for those two groups?

The immediate priority is to address some of the points that have been raised in the debate. I support my colleagues who have spoken of the importance of the door-to-door canvass in getting the highest level of registration possible. There is a real concern that, even with some of the additional resources that I acknowledge the Government have provided for the introduction of IER, that basic building block is being eroded in many local authorities, and it must not be. If IER is not to result in the negative consequences that some of us fear, door-to-door canvassing—including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central said in her opening speech, a mini-canvass in January and February—is essential. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that.

I reiterate the importance of looking at the Northern Ireland experience with schools and colleges. I urge the Minister to think again about extending to England, Wales and Scotland the duty on schools and colleges that exists in Northern Ireland. Above all, in the next period, the group that is most likely to find itself not on the register at election time next year is students in higher education. That is a real risk. Will the Minister give a commitment that he will work closely with the universities, the National Union of Students and local authorities to maximise student registration?

I finish by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central once again for securing such an important debate. A register that is as accurate and complete as possible is a crucial building block for our democracy. I am sure that the Minister will agree that to have 7.5 million people not on the register is unacceptable. If an unintended consequence of IER is that the situation gets even worse, surely all of us, whichever side of the House we are on, should be very concerned.

I thank the shadow spokesperson for his remarks, and I thank everyone who has spoken in the debate. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate, and I thank her for her interest in the important topic of voter registration.

Individual electoral registration is one of the biggest modernisations of electoral law in this country for 100 years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) mentioned, for the first time we are not relying on the head of a household to register everyone in that household; people can register themselves. In addition, we have online registration, so that people can register to vote in as little as three minutes. The introduction of online registration will allow the mobile populations that have been mentioned, such as students and private renters, to register from their smartphones. That is a big modernisation, which we should all recognise and celebrate.

Since the launch of IER on 10 June, the digital service has processed more than 2.5 million applications. Almost 70% of those were made online through the “Register to vote” website, which has a satisfaction rate of more than 90%.

I am conscious of the time, so I will try to address all the points that have been raised as fast as I can. A lot has been said about the transition to IER, and there has been some bombast, hyperbole and conspiracy theory. The transition was speeded out as part of the coalition Government’s programme to tackle electoral fraud and rebuild trust in our elections. The timetable is phased over two years to help to manage the risk that the transition will impact on the general election. I want to put on record that no one who registered to vote at the last canvass will lose their right to vote at the general election in 2015. It is for Parliament to decide in the summer of 2015 whether the transition will conclude in 2015 or at the end of 2016. The phase-in of the transition to IER with a carry-forward will allow those who are not individually registered by the time of the 2015 general election to vote in that election. I hope that will provide some reassurance that no one will be disfranchised, which is the word that has been used so far.

Of course, we must be mindful of the pitfalls of introducing a new method of registering to vote, and we should focus on the completeness and accuracy of the register. Much has been said about the need for the register to be complete, and the Government and I agree with everyone on the need for that, but we cannot ignore the importance of accuracy. Without an accurate register, we risk undermining the very elections on which the system is based, so we must not simply sweep away the importance of accuracy.

During the process, we have had to learn a lot of lessons from Northern Ireland, which is a point that was raised several times during the debate. We have introduced some safeguards, such as the confirmation process, the carrying forward of electors, online registration, the retention of the annual canvass and the maximisation of registration funding. So far, £4 million has been made available to help all local authorities and five national organisations to maximise the register and deal with the problems that have been identified.

One of the key lessons from Northern Ireland is the importance of door-to-door canvassers, especially for non-respondents. Some electoral registration officers have broken the law by not knocking on those doors for five years on the trot. What advice has the Minister got for those EROs who break the law?

EROs, of course, must follow the law. I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point during the course of my speech. The need to ensure that students, who can be quite mobile, get on the register has been mentioned several times during the debate. I assure hon. Members that through the creation by the Cabinet Office of a student forum in early 2013, the Government have been working with key partners in the higher education sector, including Universities UK, the Academic Registrars Council and the National Union of Students, to agree on practical steps that EROs and universities can take to encourage students to register. Steps that have been agreed by all representatives of the student forum include the provision of data from universities to EROs to help them to contact students individually; promoting the use of online registration, particularly during university course enrolment; and publishing guidance for ARC to help registrars to implement those steps before the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), wrote to university vice-chancellors asking them to support local authorities in their efforts to maximise the number of student registrations. A lot is being done to get students on the register. We recognise the importance of data sharing in the context of students, which was mentioned during the debate. Individual electoral registration officers must make it easier for students to register. More than 410,000 applications from 16 to 24-year-olds have already been submitted via the online registration process.

I welcome the work of the student forum. Can the Minister assure us that he will take a close personal interest in the matter and look at the figures as they come in? If by January or February it is clear that there has been a substantial fall in the level of registration among students, will the student forum work with him to look at what can be done via online registration to get those figures up?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that not only students but all under-registered groups are a priority for the Government. We want to maximise the register so that people can exercise their right to vote.

The Electoral Commission’s research found that 90% of people feel that it would be easy to provide their national insurance number when registering to vote—that is based on real evidence—and only 1% of applicants so far have been unable to provide their national insurance number or their date of birth. In February 2014, the local authority in Sunderland received £12,627 for maximising registration. That allocation was based on under-registration, especially due to the authority having a high student population. Of course, there are people without national insurance numbers, but that is a very small cohort. In such exceptional situations, people can provide other information, such as their passport.

A lot has been made of local data matching in this debate, and in other debates on individual electoral registration. All local authorities and valuation joint boards in Great Britain took part in the confirmation dry run in 2013, which involved matching their electoral registers against Government records. We believe that EROs are best placed to understand the relevance of locally held data and are likely to improve confirmation matches. That varies between local authorities, so we believe that EROs are best placed to make that judgment.

I thank the Minister for giving way once again. Should the Electoral Commission have told the 383 EROs that the cross-matching of local government data was mandatory, not just a choice?

As I have said, it is for EROs to judge how to go about local data matching in order to maximise the register. I have a couple of points to make about EROs, so if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to that in a second.

We have also talked a lot about people in homes who are missing from the register. Again, I assure Members that every unconfirmed elector will be written to twice, and those who do not respond will receive a doorstep visit. Eighty-seven per cent. have been confirmed and transferred to the new register automatically. Every household will also have two written reminders during the annual canvass. We are therefore undertaking a practical, step-by-step process to ensure that people get on the register.

Postal vote fraud is another issue of concern, and it is a valid concern. The Government are working to address any form of electoral fraud, and I assure Members that further measures are being taken to strengthen the integrity of the postal voting system. Measures introduced in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 provide that applicants for postal votes must submit identifying signatures and dates of birth, which are checked against corresponding records. Like the recent review by the statutorily independent Electoral Commission, we have found no reason to recommend changes to the postal voting system, which we will keep as it is.

The Electoral Commission is proposing changes to the postal vote system. If Conservative or Labour canvassers are out there on the knocker and a person wants a postal vote form, which we give to them and they fill in, the Electoral Commission proposes that we cannot take that form away and send it off. That is a big change, which I oppose, although I support the Electoral Commission’s proposal on handling postal votes at election time. Is the Minister correct that new proposals are not being made on postal voting?

The Minister has just said that there are no proposed changes to postal votes, but the Electoral Commission proposes to stop members of political parties handling the registration of postal votes on the doorstep, and I do not think we should accept that proposal. The commission also proposes that political parties do not touch postal votes at election time—I can support that proposal, but I do not support the proposal on registering postal votes.

The hon. Gentleman has a point. Of course, the integrity of the electoral system is important, and it is worth keeping postal vote fraud under review as we go through IER.

I know that the performance standards of EROs are a subject close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart. I am pleased that the report shows that the majority of EROs clearly met the performance standards in 2013, but the commission identified 22 EROs who failed to meet performance standards. That is obviously disappointing, even if it represents an improvement on 2012, when 30 EROs failed to meet the standards. In fact, performance has improved every year: 53 EROs were failing in 2011, 30 were failing in 2012 and now 22 are failing, which is still too many. My predecessor wrote to all EROs who failed to meet the standards, stressing that Parliament expects them to meet those obligations. The Cabinet Office provided additional funding in the current financial year for that important work. I assure the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that Ministers are fully prepared to issue a formal direction to EROs, if necessary, to ensure that they comply with their statutory obligations.

I do not like to pull the Minister up on what he is saying, but he just said that EROs had improved every year, but they have not. It was 16 EROs who did not perform their statutory duties in 2008, 17 in 2009 and then as low as eight in 2010, but in 2011 it shot up to 55. That is not an improvement; it is getting worse. Then the figure was 30 and then it was 23, so what the Minister has just said, from the Front Bench, is factually incorrect. There has not been an improvement over the years; there has been an improvement, then a worsening and then another improvement.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; yes, there has been a recent improvement: 58 EROs were failing the standard in 2011, 30 were failing in 2012 and 22 were failing in 2013. That is an improvement, but the important point is the one I made: that Ministers are fully prepared to issue a formal direction to EROs, if necessary, to ensure that they comply with their statutory obligations. Twenty-two is an improvement, but it is still too many.

I am conscious of the time, so let me bring my comments to a close. We have a registration system that is a huge advance on the previous system. We have modernised the system and introduced online registration; it is not a retrograde step. There are 7.5 million people who we need to ensure we get on the register, but those 7.5 million people were not on the register before 2010, so I reject the allegation that somehow there is a Government conspiracy at work. As politicians, we all have an interest in ensuring that we have a thriving democracy, which is why the Government are allocating funds to ensure that we maximise the register.

The shadow Minister made the point about the Wales Bill. My concern is that we would be introducing more onerous burdens by adopting those recommendations, but we will certainly keep under review the need to ensure further canvassing and doing everything we can to ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

Sitting suspended.

Leaseholders’ Rights (Insurance)

I want to start by thanking the Minister for coming here at short notice. This issue might seem like a curate’s egg. I do not know whether he saw the article I wrote outlining the issues in PoliticsHome.

We might think that the right of a person to know what they are paying for is a consumer issue, or it might seem like an insurance concern about whether it is fair to make residents pay for terrorism insurance if they live in my part of town. Indeed, the matter could be seen as a constituency concern—the besmirching of Walthamstow as a site of potential terrorism—or it could be seen as a leasehold issue about how leaseholders and freeholders can resolve disputes. I know that other Members here have an interest in that issue.

I shall outline the concern and then ask the Minister questions. I hope we can make progress on the issue, because it has been a long-running vexatious issue for nearly 4,500 of my constituents in Walthamstow, some of whom are here today because they are so frustrated by it. I should declare that I am a previous leaseholder of the Freehold Managers company in question, so I have known for a long time about the nature of the leases and the exorbitant insurance that the company required of those of us who had flats with it.

The application of a terrorism insurance surcharge is a relatively new experience for people in Walthamstow. As a diligent MP, I queried it with the company. Why did it feel the need to add such a surcharge to already expensive insurance? In response, it sent me a copy of a press cutting about how one of those involved in the plane bombing threat had lived in Walthamstow at one time. I was mortified by the suggestion that that therefore required people in Walthamstow to be insured against terrorism ad infinitum, so we started to look into the situation.

I will set out the concerns. Residents are paying on average £204 for their buildings insurance. On any reputable price comparison site for Walthamstow, we could find considerably lower premiums. On top of that, we are adding in another £70 for people who live in the E17 postcode in my part of town. I also have the E10 postcode, where there are flats whose residents are being charged a mere £37. Perhaps the company feels that terrorists will be more likely to want to live and bring about destruction near Walthamstow Central station rather than in Walthamstow as a whole, but I digress. That is a 40% increase on the cost of an insurance that is already not competitive, and the leaseholders who have managed to buy their freehold tell me that their premiums are on average £120 lower.

I am sure the Minister will say it is for the leasehold valuation tribunal to resolve issues about whether charges are fair. Indeed, I am extremely conscious that the leasehold valuation tribunal has recently issued a ruling that it is right for Freehold Managers to apply terrorism charges. After all, this is not part of the original lease. There has been confusion and discussion about whether it could be argued that insuring properties against explosions included terrorism. There has been concern that what was originally intended to apply to commercial property has been applied by Freehold Managers to residential properties. I am acutely conscious that the judgment held that although it was not explicit, it was good practice to insure against any sort of damage or destruction, which could arguably include terrorism.

Having researched terrorist examples in residential areas —the 4,500 flats are in residential areas in Walthamstow—I am surprised that there is a determination that terrorism is such a threat in Walthamstow that insurance should be increased by 40%. Let us consider some attacks: the sarin gas attack in Matsumoto in Japan, the Rajneeshee bioterror attacks on salad bars in the United States and the tragic murder of Lee Rigby. We have had IRA bombings in London, and the Litvinenko incident caused several million pounds worth of damage to properties because of contamination. So there might be a case that terrorism is something that people have to consider in a residential area.

However, even if one accepts that it is fair to ask people to pay for such damage, the concern for my residents is that they are simply not able to scrutinise the policy. Freehold Managers has steadfastly refused to reveal the details. When one looks at the IRA bombing or the Litvinenko attack, one must take into account the location. Location matters in insurance, so we want to know whether Walthamstow has been assessed as a high or a low-risk residential area for terrorism and what that means for the charge. In essence, why is there a 40% increase?

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for her constituents. Is what she describes just another example of property management companies taking advantage of people who have signed into a contract?

I agree with my hon. Friend, whose constituency is to the south-east of mine. I am sure he knows Walthamstow and will be concerned that it is considered such a risk by Freehold Managers. We simply do not know how the company reached this figure of a 40% increase in insurance because Walthamstow might be a place of terrorism. We do not know, for example, whether a gas attack in which people needed to be decontaminated, as opposed to an explosion, would be covered by the policy. We simply have no details.

The hon. Lady is making an incredibly important speech. The issue does not affect only her constituency, but constituencies throughout the country. The defence is that there is a right to manage and therefore, in theory, residents are protected and getting value for money, but because of the costs and the inability to get accurate information from decision makers, and the use of section 106 agreements as an excuse, it is almost impossible for people to exercise the right to manage. Residents are being ripped off by organisations such as Countrywide. It is not acceptable.

The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted my next point. In chasing the company for details for the past four years so that my residents might fairly exercise their rights at the leasehold valuation tribunal, we have been stonewalled at every opportunity and told that the information is commercially sensitive, even though the charges are not part of the original leases.

Section 106 agreements were not around when the Warner flats were built in the Victorian era, but the leasehold agreements were. The company claims that the information is commercially sensitive, and when we have gone to the insurance company, which is directly billing my constituents, it too has said that its client is the freeholder. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare for my constituents, who are trying to resolve why they are being charged an extra 40% on their insurance. They cannot go to a leasehold valuation tribunal to ask whether it is a fair charge and what assessment has been made.

I am sure my colleagues could share similar horror stories about other charges. Freehold Managers is seeking to charge residents of mine up to £10,000 to consent to a loft conversion—not to do the loft conversion, but simply to give consent. It continues to push the boundaries about what is an acceptable service charge and an acceptable fee. It is resolute in the idea that it should not share any accountability. But that is not the view of others in the insurance industry, let alone in the freehold management industry.

Although the Association of British Insurers argues for a terrorism surcharge, it also argues that leaseholders should be given clear and timely information each year about their insurance contracts and that that should take place before the contract is agreed. It says that residents should have details about what shopping around the management company has done to make sure the premium is competitive, and whether there are any significant exclusions. As I said, are we protected in Walthamstow against explosions, but not decontamination fees? The ABI says that the insurance broker should be clear about whether there are any fees involved in the process. Those are all questions that Freehold Managers has simply refused to answer, so the ability of my constituents to seek redress at a leasehold valuation tribunal is hampered as a result. Given the fees involved in going to a leasehold valuation tribunal, it is not fair to expect people to seek such redress without the information to make their case.

I have come here today as a constituency MP but with my other hat on, as a shadow Minister, I have tried to make progress on this matter in the Consumer Rights Bill, to make it clear that a consumer has the right to the details of a policy, product or service that they have directly paid for. Let me stress again: residents are getting direct bills from the insurance company on behalf of a freehold management company. Sadly, the Minister’s colleagues in the Commons rejected the proposals, arguing that it was already explicit that people should be able to access such information. The fact that there are colleagues from other parts of the country—indeed, from other parties—who are saying, “No, we’re seeing the same sorts of problems”, shows that that is simply not the case.

I have a number of questions for the Minister and I want to give him time to answer them, and to answer any questions he may have, because it must seem such a surreal situation to be faced with. First and foremost, does he think it fair that residential properties are being charged a terrorism surcharge on their insurance? If so, what assessment has he made of the likelihood of terrorist incidents across residential areas in this country? My local police or other emergency services are certainly not aware of the likelihood of such an incident.

Secondly, does the Minister think that my constituents have a right to exercise their consumer rights in this instance and know the details of the policy that they are being asked to pay for? If so, where would he see them being able to exercise those rights? Thirdly, will the Minister raise this issue with a leasehold valuation tribunal? Given the persistent failure of the freeholder I have mentioned to provide this information, which would enable my constituents to have their day at the tribunal to see whether the charge being imposed on them is fair and competitive, what action can he take to assist my constituents—and, I suspect, the thousands of other people across the country who are also dealing with recalcitrant freehold management companies?

Finally, can the Minister tell us what action the Government will take to reform leasehold law? I ask that because this issue is clearly not only about insurance charges but about these other charges, and about companies such as Freehold Managers, which see residents such as my constituents in Walthamstow as a cash point. It tries to squeeze them consistently, even threatening them with legal action when they so much as query these charges, challenging them about their right to buy the freehold and imposing excessive charges for simple things such as queries about loft conversions or indeed leasehold extensions. Surely it is time to stop the misery of what is mystery buying, as opposed to mystery selling.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on securing this debate. I know that this issue is one that she and others have campaigned on for some time and I also know that, as she outlined in her speech, she raised it during the debates on the Consumer Rights Bill back in March.

I will try to respond to the range of issues that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) have raised. I will start by saying that the Government recognise the importance of the issue that the hon. Lady has raised, namely the rights of leaseholders to obtain details about the insurance policy they contribute towards by way of service charges, and indeed the rights of leaseholders to gain information about other service charges that are imposed upon them.

It is important to note that for some years now leaseholders contributing towards the costs of buildings insurance and service charges more generally have had the right to access and obtain copies of documents relating to the insurance they contribute towards, as well as those relating to other service charges. This includes a right to request in writing a copy of the insurance policy or to ask the landlord or managing agent to provide reasonable facilities to enable them to inspect the policy and other supporting documents. Also, the Competition and Markets Authority is looking at this issue at the moment. In particular, it is looking at the ability of tenants or leaseholders to be involved in the decisions that are taken in this area, and therefore at the possibility that landlords will need to test the market transparently and consult on these matters. We are waiting for a response from the CMA on that, which is due later this year.

One of the issues with the freehold management company that I have been discussing is that it has said it may give information to individual leaseholders but that, as the policy in this instance is a collective policy, it will not release information about it. That means that my constituents cannot assess whether or not they are being fairly charged across the piece. After all, terrorism is something that is likely to affect not just one property—if such a God-awful incident were to happen. Can the Minister therefore clarify whether the Government’s view is that companies such as this one, and insurance companies such as Zurich, should provide access to the whole detail of the policy, including the collective provision, and not just to detail about an individual property?

I will have to look at this issue in more detail. However, if an individual wants to receive information about the detail of a policy and the costs attributed to them, there needs to be transparency from the company about how it apportions those costs. I would imagine that that is something the CMA will look at, but I am happy to have a look at it myself and I will come back to the hon. Lady about it.

The Government are generally aware of a number of concerns in the leaseholder sector and we welcome suggestions about how residential leaseholder protections can be improved. However, at this stage we are not persuaded of the need for wholesale reform, although that does not mean—particularly with the input later this year of the CMA itself—that we should not examine some individual issues, depending on what comes out in the CMA report.

That ability for a leaseholder is in addition to their ability to request a summary of service charges in general, which would include the costs of insurance, as the hon. Lady rightly says. Leaseholders have the right to ask to inspect invoices, receipts and any other supporting documents that relate to those costs, which comes back to the point about the overall policy position.

If a landlord, or a managing agent acting on their behalf, fails to comply with a request for information without providing reasonable justification, they are committing a summary offence that, on conviction, is subject to a fine of up to £2,500. Landlords and agents have to show the policy documents to leaseholders; not doing so, and withholding information about service charges, comes within sections 20 to 22 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985.

In addition, legislation requires that service charges, including the cost of insurance, must be reasonably incurred. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon and the hon. Lady will be aware—indeed, she referred to it herself—leaseholders can apply to the property chamber of the first-tier tribunal for a determination about the reasonableness of the costs of insurance they contribute towards, as well as the reasonableness of other service charge payments. The grounds for making such a case could include, for example, that the type or level of insurance is not appropriate, in addition to the reasonableness of the premium.

Of course, it is in everybody’s interests to try and resolve concerns or disputes, either through discussion or alternative dispute resolution where possible, before resorting to the tribunal system. I am pleased to say that the situation for leaseholders has improved since the hon. Lady first raised this issue. There is now a requirement for letting and managing agents to belong to one of the three redress schemes that have been approved by the Government. That measure came into force on 1 October and it will enable leaseholders to follow up complaints. It will also be an effective way of driving up standards, while creating the lightest regulatory burden possible.

The existing protections for service charges are also supported by what are now two codes of practice that have been approved by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Association of Retirement Housing Managers. These codes of practice are also in the process of being reviewed, to ensure that they are sufficiently robust and reflect good practice.

Although I have highlighted the fact that a number of statutory rights are already available to leaseholders to give them access to information about payments required by the freeholder and that mechanisms are in place to ensure that charges are reasonable, we always welcome any contributions about how we can further improve the situation for leaseholders.

We are aware that concern has been raised by some leaseholders about the appropriateness of certain elements of the insurance that they pay towards through a service charge. If leaseholders believe that the cost of such insurance or the type of cover provided is unreasonable, and can otherwise resolve the matter with their landlord, then—as the hon. Lady said—they have the right to apply for determination through the property chamber of the first-tier tribunal.

As for the collective policy being released, details have to be released that relate to a tenant’s dwelling. As I said earlier, if a tenant wants to have details about a policy that affects them, that means they must have some understanding of how things are broken down from the bigger picture.

It is, of course, important that leaseholders make the best use of a wide range of existing rights. We are making efforts to raise awareness. For example, we continue to fund the Leasehold Advisory Service, which provides free initial legal advice to leaseholders and others in the residential leasehold sector, and we will certainly ensure that it is also aware of the situation.

I pay tribute to the work of the Warner Action Group in Walthamstow, which has been trying to bring residents together. From what the Minister has said, it appears they have a course of redress through the leasehold valuation tribunal; but as I have said, because they cannot get the information, asking them to pay potentially thousands of pounds for legal representation is a high bar to pass. The Minister mentioned a summary offence. Who would the Warner Action Group report freehold managers to for investigation of that offence if they continue to refuse to release this information?

As I said, the Leasehold Advisory Service can also give that free initial legal advice, but I am very happy to come back to the hon. Lady and give her some further details about the specific issue she raises. As for the collective policy understanding, again, as there is a requirement for an individual to be able to understand what their policy charges are, they can only do that if they are part of a collective, by seeing that collective agreement. My view is that there should be a release of the details relating to the tenant’s dwelling, and if they are part of a collective, to understand that within a block, they need to understand what the block is. I would like to think we can help to facilitate that understanding for the leaseholders.

In conclusion, it is commendable that the hon. Lady has made such great efforts to raise awareness of this issue. As so often with these issues, quite a lot of the battle is about ensuring that the awareness is there: that people understand that there is a way to get redress and a way for them to take cases forward—as I say, there are statutory requirements in place. I am happy to raise those issues and take up anything further after this debate.

I thank the Minister for his generous response; I think that my constituents will be grateful for his help, as I am.

Can I just get him to clarify whether the Government have taken a view about whether residential properties should be insured for terrorism, and on what grounds, and whether there might be, for example, a paper on that in terms of the risk to residential property? After all, there are other residents in Walthamstow and, if Walthamstow has been designated as a place of likely terroristic opportunities, I think people would want to know. There is also the point I made about the central principle: that even if a third party has commissioned a product or service on someone’s behalf, they have the right in law to access the full information on that service or product. From what the Minister said, it is a summary offence under leasehold legislation not to provide that information. Will he clarify whether the Government believe that that is a central principle, so that they would in theory support making that explicit in the legislation? That would be a helpful guide for us on a number of issues to do with charges.

I had finished, but I am happy to respond. There is a requirement for the information to be published, so if a tenant is paying a charge, whether for insurance or part of a service charge, they have the right to understand what that is made up of and, as I said, to see the documentation behind that. It does not seem to me that there should be a difference depending on where that information comes from or whether it is allocated by a third party; the landlord still has to present and publish it. That seems clear to me, but I am happy to look further at that and come back to the hon. Lady.

I do not think that I or the Government can directly comment on what is part of insurance, in the sense that it is for insurance companies, landlords and property owners to take a view on what the risk issues are for any property that they are insuring, whether in respect of flood protection, terrorism protection or any other type of risk protection. It is for them to make an assessment, take a market view and make a decision about what is right for them. That will be led by risk assessments, which will be made by underwriters and insurance companies giving advice and quotes.

If I can just clarify, there was a ruling on 11 June by the leasehold valuation tribunal that it was relevant—

Sitting suspended.

Hong Kong

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to hold this debate on Hong Kong under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, in the year of the 30th anniversary of that unique international treaty, the “Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong with Annexes”, as well as to cover recent events. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on China and as a director of the Great Britain-China Centre, which is a non-departmental public body. Both of them receive sponsorship. I also refer the Chamber to the all-party group’s entry in the all-party group register.

The joint declaration was the result of hard work and creative diplomacy by some still in this Parliament, such as their lordships, Lord Howe and Lord Luce. Above all, in its encompassing philosophy of “one country, two systems”, the joint declaration was a bold political innovation by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Recognising what was most special about Hong Kong in its future change of sovereignty—that its core freedoms must be preserved and that the

“socialist system and policies shall not be practised”—

Britain and China together found a formula, and later the trust, that maintained confidence within Hong Kong and by the world in Hong Kong. Thirty years on, the architects can congratulate themselves. Broadly, Hong Kong has thrived and remains special and successful. Political boldness paid off.

The freedoms that Britain and China pledged to maintain—freedom under the law, an independent judiciary, a free press, free speech and the freedom to demonstrate—are delicate, and they all contribute to the existence of a free market, capitalist economy. There is no major international financial centre in the world that does not have a free press, however inconvenient that may occasionally be to Governments and individuals. The British Government’s commitment on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom, when they signed the joint declaration and made it valid for 50 years after 1997—that is, to 2047—is vital to Hong Kong’s success. If we allow any of those freedoms to be curtailed and if we say nothing about any dilution of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, whether deliberate or inadvertent, we risk colluding in Hong Kong’s gradual—not immediate —decline, helping others in Asia who would swiftly take any opportunity at Hong Kong’s expense, and we would not be fulfilling the commitments that John Major, Robin Cook and, most recently, our Prime Minister have re-emphasised in the clearest terms.

That implies strong engagement with Hong Kong and China and frequent dialogue and discussions where, as joint signatories, we can and should exchange views freely, with the shared responsibility for doing what is in all our best interests: preserving the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. When I was a very young Member of Parliament, I was invited to go to Hong Kong under the chairmanship of Ian Mikardo, along with Jo Richardson and others, to evaluate the local response in Hong Kong to the agreement. I was very much involved in taking evidence and meeting people. We were part of ensuring that they understood the agreement, and I certainly have a real vested interest in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about guaranteeing those freedoms.

The hon. Gentleman brings a degree of long experience on these issues to the debate today and to our Chamber in general, matching some of the experience visible in their lordships’ House when they debated recent events in Hong Kong. It is important that we understand the continuity of that commitment, which he saw for himself. I was living in Hong Kong in 1984 and in 1997, and I was present at the handover. These things are real to him and me, but for others, who are younger, it is important that that commitment is not forgotten or allowed to wither.

Let me turn to recent events, Britain and China’s reactions and the role of this Parliament in holding our Executive to account and raising questions of interest on behalf of our constituents. In the consultation in Hong Kong on the arrangements for the election of the next Chief Executive in 2017, which took place earlier this year, it was already clear that many had concerns about the detail of what the universal suffrage promised in China’s Basic Law would mean in practice. Those concerns increased sharply after the Chinese National People’s Congress standing committee announced its decisions on elections on 31 August.

It is worth noting that the British Government’s first reaction on 3 September was to welcome the Chinese commitment to universal suffrage, but also to

“recognise that the detailed terms…will disappoint those who are arguing for a more open nomination process.”

There are two relevant aspects to that. First, that was not the sort of comment that would be made if it was anticipated that 800,000 people would demonstrate and occupy the centre of the world’s third financial centre for weeks. Those who saw the dark hand of foreign forces behind the demonstrations were well wide of the mark, as the statement on 3 September demonstrates. Secondly, the reaction in Hong Kong was not anticipated here, and perhaps not in the offices of the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Government either. The reaction caught all three by surprise.

There is a question about why that is so, but it is my belief that most of those in Hong Kong who feel most strongly about the issues around the election of the next Chief Executive represent a new generation of Hong Kongers. They were mostly born after the joint declaration. They are not, as has sometimes been claimed, ancient colonial sentimentalists or those left by dark foreign forces to create disturbance after the colonialists had gone, but a new generation with a different take on life from their predecessors. They are more sure of their Hong Kong identity, less sure of their future prospects and less trustful of Government or leaders in whose appointment they still feel they do not have enough say.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on securing this debate. Would he care to consider that some of the protesters’ motivation might be that they feel left behind by the current state of economic progress in Hong Kong? They are not participating in the economic miracle that has taken place there in the past two or three decades, which is strange when the latest economic plan in China envisages taking 10 million poor people on the mainland into the work force each year to increase prosperity.

My hon. Friend and neighbour takes a close interest in these matters, not least as chairman of the Conservative Friends of the Chinese. He makes a good point. There is a dichotomy. In simple terms, it is that while the generation of Hong Kongers immediately after the second world war were focused on rebuilding the territory and restoring their lives after a disastrous period in Hong Kong’s history and their children in the ’80s and ’90s were focused on economic progress, self-advancement and taking Hong Kong to an international stage, today’s generation perhaps feel that their prospects for mobility, owning property and enjoying a satisfaction with life comparable with their parents are less certain.

They have more questions, as I mentioned, and are perhaps more sensitive to issues that did not really exist 30 years ago, such as increasing environmental concerns and air pollution, which is a major issue throughout China, including Hong Kong, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) knows. There is more uncertainty, but I sense a strong feeling of identity among the new generation. They are Hong Kongers and want to celebrate that by having more of a civic say in decisions made on their behalf.

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to uncertainty, those of us who care about China believe it to be a vital and energising influence in the world. Does he agree that there are serious signs of a positive change in the leadership in China, which I have certainly noticed in the delegations from mainland China who visit this country and come to Yorkshire and other places? This positive wind of change should give some reassurance to us and the inhabitants of Hong Kong.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the winds of change have been blowing vigorously in China since the opening up under Deng Xiaoping in the late ‘70s, but they blow at uneven speeds, in different ways and in different sectors. The main wind of change was a huge desire for economic progress, which has led to a better standard of living for the hundreds of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty. At the same time—the hon. Gentleman will have read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s latest human rights reports—it is not yet clear whether the new regime in China will prove so open to changes that allow for greater dialogue and debate of political questions. Significant differences of opinion on human rights also still exist. We in this country tend to see a new and young generation of mainland Chinese, often coming here to study, who are extremely able and well-educated, but the winds of change are uneven in China, which is a concern to some in Hong Kong.

Returning to this summer’s events, just before September’s developments erupted in Hong Kong, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs decided to do a wide and all-encompassing report on Hong Kong and our commitments, which we all look forward to reading in due course. It was unfortunate that some in China chose to represent that as interference in internal affairs. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), said that

“investigating the FCO’s ongoing assessment of the implementation of the…Joint Declaration…is part of our role in oversight of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and it is an entirely legitimate interest of the Committee.”

That is absolutely right. It is an entirely legitimate interest of this Parliament that we should debate our commitment to the joint declaration to ensure that we fulfil the international treaty that we signed up to with China and that we work together for it is in all our interests to do so.

During September’s demonstrations, the Government’s position came under question and it took some six weeks before a ministerial written statement was published on 13 October, which restated much more clearly what this Parliament stands for—specifically, that the election arrangements should meet the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, should offer a genuine choice and should form a significant step forward for democracy. We encouraged the Hong Kong Government to resume consultation with both the people of Hong Kong and the Chinese Government on plans to implement universal suffrage. That statement was welcome, but the Minister may want to say something about why it took so long for the Government to produce it. Had the events not happened largely during the recess, the Foreign Secretary should have made himself available in the House to give a verbal statement on our position and on how the situation affected our commitments under the joint declaration.

Moving on to the issues that are hotly under debate in Hong Kong, I want first to focus on stability, which is different from continuity. Any territory’s stability is much stronger when its leader has the credibility of being chosen by a large number of voters, which gives the leader the ability to exercise a real mandate and carry through what will not always be popular decisions in the difficult circumstances that spring up. Business, too, has a vital need for political stability, but that also sometimes comes, like business success, from calculated risks according to the needs of new generations and new consumers. Yesterday’s investment strategies will not always work tomorrow, and it is the same in politics.

The Chief Executive of Hong Kong says that the 2017 election will

“empower the chief executive with a mandate not enjoyed by any leader in Hong Kong’s history”,

and it will if the election is real and not predetermined to produce a particular result. The value of any election is in the number of people who decide to vote. In that election, the people of Hong Kong will demonstrate their enthusiasm both for the election and for a new leader by turning out in high numbers. To implement universal suffrage in a way that does not offer real choice to the people of Hong Kong would risk a low turnout and would be a hollow achievement that gave the future Chief Executive a fragile mandate.

What is at stake in terms of this House’s interest in the 2017 Hong Kong election is not ultimately in the precise detail of what sectors are represented in the nomination committee, how they are defined and how many members the committee has, but in the result that is offered to the people of Hong Kong at the end of the deliberations, which should give them a real choice in who becomes Hong Kong’s future leader. That is the best guarantee of stability in this territory, which Britain and China are jointly pledged to support. Real choice, with a truly independent system of law and a high degree of autonomy, is what we are committed to—under Chinese sovereignty. It is a unique and special contribution to the evolution of China under that inspired phrase of Deng Xiaoping: “one country, two systems.” It was that that both our countries signed up to, and not to swap ideas or discuss regularly what progress is being made would be a breach of both our obligations and responsibilities. Let us think boldly and outside the box, in the same way that our predecessors did in the run-up to the joint declaration of 1984.

For example, Hong Kong’s constitutional arrangements mean that the system at the moment involves a Government—in effect, a Cabinet—but without a political party in the Legislative Council to back them up and to pursue their legislative agenda. That cannot be satisfactory. Is it not time for the next newly and successfully elected Chief Executive to create a political party that offers candidates in the next Legislative Council elections, so that his or her party may aspire to a majority and legislate for what it has campaigned on? That would surely provide longer-term stability to the governance of Hong Kong and give its people a larger say in what decisions are being made and by whom on their behalf.

As for Government’s responsibilities and commitments to fulfilling their obligations, I believe it is time for them to do more to debate what is happening in Hong Kong. I ask the Minister whether it is time for an oral statement to accompany the next biannual report on Hong Kong that the Foreign Office produces, rather than simply a written statement that is filed away. Is it not time for the Foreign Office to understand better the needs of the younger generation in Hong Kong, so that, as Ambassador Liu put it, we are working together to maintain the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong through understanding the younger generation’s needs? We might well disagree on some elements of what that involves and what “prosperity” and “stability” mean, but let us be honest: neither the Hong Kong, Chinese nor British Government anticipated exactly what has happened in Hong Kong over the last few months. Therefore, we need an imaginative response that captures the aspirations of most of the territory and enables its remarkable success to continue.

There are other aspects that should be touched on. Perhaps the Minister can let us know what the situation with the BBC is. I understand that the BBC is blocked in China, but I am not yet clear whether it is blocked in Hong Kong as well. That is part of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which are so vital to Hong Kong’s success. I would like confirmation today that whenever the BBC is blocked, we raise the issue as a matter of principle.

Will the Minister also confirm when he is next travelling to Hong Kong and whether he will have the chance to engage with different groups there in order to understand better some of the questions about Hong Kong’s future stability? Will he also confirm that he has reminded our partner in the joint declaration of our absolute right in this Parliament to hold our Government to account on their commitments under the joint declaration and to hold debates of this nature? That is part of our constitutional arrangements, and it is important that the Chinese Government understand that.

In particular, will the Minister confirm today that stability for nations is not, in our eyes, about maintaining the status quo regardless, but about reaching out for greater involvement with the people—in this case, of Hong Kong—allowing them a greater say in choosing their leaders and, above all, trusting in the people? The people of Hong Kong and we have no interest, no advantage or no conceivable selfish purpose in any form of car crash with Hong Kong’s sovereign master, China. Rather, it is in all our interests, but particularly those of Britain and China in fulfilling the joint declaration, that Hong Kong continues to thrive and prosper, in a different world from that of 1984 or even 1997.

Thank you, Mr Weir, for allowing me to catch your eye in this debate. I should declare an interest: I am chairman of the Conservative Friends of the Chinese and a regular visitor to Hong Kong and mainland China, and I have always taken a close interest in Chinese and Hong Kong matters.

I congratulate my good neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), on securing the debate. He was absolutely right in his opening remarks to say that there might have been some misunderstanding among some of the Chinese authorities and that some might think that we should not be debating the subject. Under the terms of the joint declaration, however, we should be debating it. As I will come on to say, there are huge British roots in Hong Kong and a huge love of Hong Kong in this country. We want Hong Kong to prosper. What I have to say might be controversial to a small degree, but I hope that it will be seen positively as only wishing the best for Hong Kong and its people.

The debate is important, as my hon. Friend said, largely because of how vital an asset Hong Kong is to both the United Kingdom and mainland China. The United Kingdom and Hong Kong share economic, social and historic links. Those strong links are natural considering that only 17 years ago sovereignty over all parts of Hong Kong was transferred to China as a result of the joint declaration. That joint declaration between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher was visionary and envisaged “one country, two systems”. The statement still endures today.

Hong Kong has continued to grow as an international powerhouse with strong links not only to the UK, but around the world. It serves as China’s financial centre and as a major part of the Chinese economy. The links between the economies of Hong Kong and the UK are huge: 40% of British investment in Asia goes directly into Hong Kong, which amounted to almost £36 billion at the end of 2012, including goods and services. We export £7 billion-worth of trade to Hong Kong.

British companies are always extremely welcome in Hong Kong and it is a fantastic place to do business, thanks to a system with low levels of bureaucracy, simple taxation and contracts based on English law. About 130 British companies have regional bases in Hong Kong, and many countries around the world see it in a similar light. Indeed, Hong Kong comes second in the world’s rankings for ease of business, while the UK’s place is 10th. The success of Hong Kong must be protected from any instability that could threaten further progress.

Hong Kong has prospered while maintaining its rights and protections under the joint declaration, of which we and mainland China are joint signatories, such as the rule of law, the high level of autonomy, the free press, freedom of speech and, importantly in the current situation, the right to demonstrate. That has all been achieved under the “one country, two systems” principle, which has clearly worked well, although perhaps not as imagined at the time of the handover in 1997. We must ensure that the principle continues.

Economic success, however, has created a divide between the business elite and the ordinary people of Hong Kong. That is what the protests are all about. Student protesters feel that the business elite have too much control. The rest are not participating fully in the rise of Hong Kong’s economic prosperity.

The suggested Selection Committee to choose suitable candidates for election as Chief Executive seems to be business-dominated: pro-Beijing and not representative of poorer citizens outside the business elite. As I said in my intervention, it is surprising that the PRC does not want poorer people to participate given the latest economic plan, the figures of which are worth repeating because they are so staggering. The latest economic plan produced by the new leader, Xi Jinping, envisages that GDP in China will grow from $6,600 a head to more than $9,000 a head, across its 1.25 billion people. That would be a staggering achievement within the plan period: the country will have to achieve a growth rate of 6.7% every year of the plan. Staggeringly, as I said to my hon. Friend, China will need to bring 10 million people—poor people—into the work force each year to achieve that.

It seems odd that the Government of the PRC want more and more poor people on the mainland to participate in the economic growth there, but are not yet permitting that to happen in Hong Kong. Our Government need to consider that carefully.

Although on the face of it the protests are about the progression of electoral reform, it is evident that they go deeper: they are about the desire of people outside businesses to be considered more. For example, there are only two dairy producers and two supermarkets in Hong Kong, which means high food prices for Hong Kong residents. As we know, high food prices affect poorer people the most—young poor people in particular.

The important message of this debate is that we want to see gradual change in the situation. As I have said to the Chinese press, ultimately this is an issue for the People’s Republic of China, the Government of Hong Kong and the people of Hong Kong to resolve. Electoral reform has progressed within the framework of the Basic Law, and universal suffrage is the ultimate aim. That process has been developing since the 1997 handover. Every election since then—I must stress this point—has been more open and democratic than the previous one. The Election Committee for the Chief Executive began with 400 representatives, was expanded to 800 and now has 1,200 from 38 subsectors. We want that progress to continue.

On that specific point, does my hon. Friend agree that we want to see things change not because we have an obsession with a particular democratic model but because a situation in which the current Chief Executive is known as 689, referring to the number of people who voted for him in the previous election, is unsatisfactory when there is a population of around 7 million? The better the arrangements and the more people who can have a say in the election, the stronger the mandate and, therefore, the greater the stability that there will be for the leadership of the territory of Hong Kong.

My hon. Friend raised one of those issues in his speech. I agree that if the Chief Executive is elected on as open a mandate as possible, with suffrage that is as universal as possible, there will be a better perception of the process among the people of Hong Kong. I will come to what I think will happen if that does not occur. I agree that we need to move towards a situation in which the candidate elected as Chief Executive is perceived to be representative of all people and all sections in Hong Kong society, including the young and poorer people.

So far, the authorities have given little indication that they are willing to provide consensus in their current offer. The UK Government need to urge them to consider genuinely and listen to the protesters’ concerns. An open consultation is needed, as the problem will not go away. The Chinese Government must allow change and gradual reform to continue. If they do not provide for that, feelings of resentment will fester and when the issue comes up again in 2022—as it surely will—the feelings and protests could be much more serious, deep-seated and profound than they are at present. It is surely in everybody’s interests that we see gradual reform.

Electoral reform was always going to be gradual under the Basic Law. Everyone agrees that that is the best approach, including many pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong. It is also likely to be supported by the Chinese Government, who have their own concerns given the large number of Chinese visitors to Hong Kong. Step-by-step progress would avoid instability for wider China.

However, we need reassurances from the Chinese Government about the principles in the White Paper they recently produced for Hong Kong, which included an obligation for judges to swear an oath of allegiance to the state on election; those proposals need to be examined carefully. Judicial independence was one principle enshrined in the joint agreement and is of utmost importance to Hong Kong in maintaining its current success in the world. We must be clear that nothing should prevent the continuation of that independence, particularly in any case where an individual is challenging the state’s actions in the courts. Such cases must be allowed to continue, and judges must be able to judge them impartially.

It is encouraging that we have not seen large-scale attempts by either the Chinese or Hong Kong Governments to silence the protesters, although, as my hon. Friend said, the BBC website has been blocked in mainland China. That is regrettable. As he and I have both stated, one article in the joint declaration is a commitment to a free press. It is in everybody’s interests that nothing is hushed up by either side, so that we can have a full and fair picture. In this day and age, people will find ways around the jamming of electronic media, so we should encourage full openness. I am greatly encouraged that the current Chief Executive has extended offers to talk to the protesters, although those talks need real substance and should not be merely a smokescreen.

In conclusion, I reaffirm that Hong Kong is the economic jewel in China’s crown.

Before my hon. Friend concludes, will he be absolutely clear that he and the Conservative Friends of the Chinese support the aspiration of the protesters that candidates for Chief Executive should not be vetted by a nominating committee that could exclude candidates it disapproves of?

That would be the ultimate aim, but I have been quite cautious in my speech. We want gradual change. I am not sure whether we will get to the point my hon. Friend sets out in time for the elections in 2017, but I would hope that we would do so by the elections in 2022.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who is also a constituency neighbour, raises an interesting question. After the earlier consultations in Hong Kong, there was a recommendation by 18 academics that the authorities should look into a method for public recommendation of candidates. I believe that nothing in that idea runs counter to what has been announced by the National People’s Congress standing committee, so it could be an opportunity for the Hong Kong Government to tackle part of that issue. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

My hon. Friend raises a very interesting point. I urge our Government to examine that plan and possibly hold discussions with the Chinese Government to see whether there might not be a way through on that issue, along the lines suggested by those academics.

As I said, Hong Kong is the economic jewel in China’s crown.It is surely in China’s interests to ensure that Hong Kong continues to prosper. Large business and capital are very portable in the 21st century. If financial and commercial communities conclude that the governance of Hong Kong is not going in the right direction, Hong Kong’s importance will surely diminish and competitors such as Singapore will overtake it.

It is in everybody’s interests to maintain Hong Kong as a strong financial and commercial hub. But I will say this: if the mainland Government of the PRC do not listen to the protesters’ concerns and work to bring about gradual, step-by-step change and peaceful electoral reform under the Basic Law, along with a situation in which all sections of society share in the prosperity currently enjoyed by the elites, Hong Kong will gradually diminish in importance. We need to ensure that all its millions of people share in its continuing and, I hope, increasing economic prosperity.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), my constituency neighbour, on securing this debate and on his measured, balanced and well-informed speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—another neighbour—on his similarly well-informed speech. I also congratulate the Minister on meeting Martin Lee and Anson Chan over the summer. It was important that a British Minister did that. The Deputy Prime Minister met them, as well, something that was appreciated and recognised.

Some of the statements Martin Lee made in The New York Times earlier this month have been pretty shocking. For instance, he wrote:

“At 76 years old, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of calm and nonviolent protesters in the Hong Kong streets last Sunday, I was shocked when the pro-democracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear, carrying weapons and wantonly firing canisters of tear gas. After urging the crowd to remain calm under provocation, I got hit by a cloud of the burning fumes.”

When such accounts reach the world’s media, it is important that we say unambiguously that we support the peaceful process being pursued by the Hong Kong people, as well as their aspirations for freedom and democracy and, quite specifically, their right to elect a leader without a vetting process that would fundamentally undermine the democratic process.

The news today is actually more promising. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester remarked, there is some suggestion that Mr Leung has started to make statements implying the possibility of negotiations and that, while the Hong Kong Government will try to save face by not unbundling the Beijing Government’s whole proposal, there may be some room for discussion about the democratic process behind the nominating committee. That is a positive first step, and we should recognise that.

However, Martin Lee was quite clear in his article in The New York Times that, if the negotiations are to succeed, we in this country and across the western world have a role to play. He said:

“In order for us”—

the Hong Kongers—

“to attain the rights that Beijing has promised, the rest of the world has to stand with Hong Kong. That includes the many multinational companies whose prosperity depends upon our free markets and open-and-honest society, but more important, it includes the world’s free democracies. Hong Kongers deserve more vigorous backing from Washington and London, which pledged to stand by us before the handover in 1997, when Beijing made the promises it is now so blatantly breaking.”

The crisis obviously has implications for Hong Kong, China and UK-China relations, but it also has implications for the international rule of law and the role of international treaties, which is what the joint declaration was—it was registered at the United Nations as such. To take a much more distressing example, the Budapest memorandum, under which Britain and the United States were joint guarantors of the independence of Ukraine, has turned out in practice to be hardly worth the paper it was written on. It is important that China treats the joint declaration much more seriously and that we reinforce respect for it as an international treaty.

On that point, I am sure my hon. Friend, like the rest of us, is absolutely clear that there is nothing specifically in the joint declaration about the arrangements for these, or indeed any other, elections; it simply states that there shall be elections. The methodology is in the Basic Law, and it is entirely an issue for the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments. However, the Basic Law has been amended; like any law, it is not cast in stone for ever. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that the real issue is the level of dialogue and trust between the Hong Kong Government and their people, and between the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Government in turn, as they try to find the necessary compromises?

Yes, I would agree, and my hon. Friend put the point very well. However, this is also about understanding what universal suffrage really means and ensuring that the democratic process of choosing a leader for Hong Kong is free in a way that is understood by the Hong Kong people and by people in democracies around the world—and that does not include prior vetting by a one-party Government in another part of China.

We must be realistic and honest about the limits of our ability as a former colonial power—we did not actually deliver democracy when we were running Hong Kong—to influence this process. We must be persuasive, but we cannot be confrontational with the Government in Beijing. We certainly must be true to our values, but we must recognise that there are limits. We must try to persuade China that it is in its interests to have a stable and free Hong Kong; that is the basis on which Hong Kong’s prosperity has been built.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester rightly said, stability is not just about maintaining the status quo. It is in China’s interests that the process that emerges from whatever negotiations take place delivers a Chief Executive who is in tune with the Hong Kong people, not just through the formal process of democracy, but, for instance, in the sense of recognising issues of economic equality in the territory, as the hon. Member for The Cotswolds mentioned. The Chief Executive should not, for instance, make remarks such as those Mr Leung made about the Occupy Central movement when he dismissed it as being manipulated by external forces. That is dismissive of the aspirations of the community-based movement that has emerged in Hong Kong and would not be acceptable in most democratic leaders.

It is important that we try to persuade the Beijing Government not just to save face, but to move in a direction that recognises the aspirations of the Hong Kong people and to do better than we did as the colonial power—to outdo us—in its administration of Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s future stability certainly depends on that.

It is not a question of outdoing the United Kingdom as the colonial power. The point my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester made is important: the whole way of governing countries has changed in the period since the handover. People’s expectations are much greater than they were then, particularly where they can see that part of society has benefited from economic development. For example, house prices are horrendously high in Hong Kong. People complain about them here in London, but they are much higher there, which means it is difficult even for children of fairly wealthy parents to get on the property ladder. Young people and poorer people in Hong Kong see that they cannot aspire to such things, and that is why there needs to be change.

I would just say that our moral and political position in criticising Beijing would be much stronger if we had done more to deliver democracy for the people of Hong Kong over the many years we controlled the territory. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of change, and it is right to understand that that change cannot be hermetically sealed in Hong Kong. It is in the interests of China as a whole to understand how it can accommodate people’s economic and political aspirations, because, in this day and age, it is simply not possible for ideas of freedom and protest to be contained in Hong Kong—the traffic of people and electronic information is just too free.

China has seen a remarkable transformation over recent years; it has seen a flowering of not only economic development, but intellectual, artistic and academic potential. In that situation, it will at some stage have to confront its people’s aspirations for more freedoms in the political sphere as well, and it is important that it learns the lessons of Hong Kong and tries to understand how they can be accommodated.

The issue also has lessons for UK foreign policy towards China, which, I hope the Minister will not mind my saying, has been a bit unsophisticated at times in recent years. It has been so dominated by the need to trade and the desire to have a beneficial economic relationship that we have underestimated some of the multiplying concerns about the impact of China as an emerging superpower. Those obviously now include the situation in Hong Kong, but they also include the rapid militarisation—what is rather euphemistically called force projection—taking place in the South China sea, for instance.

Other concerns include the rather confrontational language being used with Vietnam and Taiwan, which is now being told to reflect again on the idea of “one country, two systems” on a rather shorter timetable than previous Chinese leaders talked about. In recent years, the dialogue with Taiwan has been more about progressive development, but the people of Taiwan could interpret China’s language now as quite negative and threatening—as Beijing setting a time limit on their separation from the mainland.

There is also the issue of China’s role on the UN Security Council and its inability to support what most of us in this Chamber would have seen as very necessary action in the middle east and elsewhere. In addition, there is China’s role in Africa and its exploitation of natural resources not only in China itself, but in Africa and other parts of the world, which raises the question of whether that is really sustainable. There is also its domestic human rights record, including the number of executions taking place in China; and the attitude to self-determination in other parts of Chinese territory, such as Tibet.

However, British policy towards China cannot just be one of complaint, and highlighting negatives. There are enormous positives to be found in what it is doing at the moment. As others have mentioned, it is an extraordinary achievement to have lifted millions of people out of poverty. There is a growing awareness of the need for that economic revolution to be sustainable—for resources to be used in a sustainable way, and renewable energy to be brought forward alongside other forms of energy generation. The very existence of the one country, two systems idea can be seen as a Chinese experiment in freedom and democracy. It is positive in that way, and perhaps could not have been imagined by earlier generations.

An intellectual, academic and artistic flowering is also going on in China, which we must see as positive, and which has the potential to benefit not only China but the whole world, given the country’s enormous intellectual and human resources. It would be wonderful to think that Hong Kong could be the shining beacon in the new Chinese revolution, and that the ideas of freedom and democracy could start to be part of a new era for China. It is important that we try to persuade the Chinese Government to see that potential, and, in doing so, stand beside the protesters in Hong Kong, and assure them absolutely of our support for their democratic aspirations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on obtaining this important debate, and the effective way in which he set out the Hong Kong position today.

Unlike my hon. Friend, or my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), I cannot claim a long-standing interest in Hong Kong. I have a personal interest, which arises from the fact that my daughter has been resident there since 2010. She is one of 34,000 Britons who live and work in Hong Kong. She has told us how the situation has developed in recent weeks and we have seen things through her eyes. We had a fairly lengthy conversation at the weekend about her concerns, and those of her friends—young people who include both Britons and Hong Kong residents. For my part, I recall watching the handover in July 1997. It was a spectacular event on a wet and windy evening, when the 99-year period of British control came to an end.

I tried to understand a little then about the process by which Hong Kong would be returned to China. It seemed that there was a pretty effective agreement, which offered the best of both worlds to the Chinese Government and to Hong Kong residents, with the notion of a special administrative region retaining its free market economy and other freedoms. I understood at the time that that was broadly intended to last for 50 years after the transfer. Having watched the handover I was quite keen to see what life was like in Hong Kong and that led to my first visit as a tourist in 2007, en route to a holiday in Australia. We spent three days there and saw an ordered, dynamic and exciting place—just the kind of place that would be ideal for a young person starting their career. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds said, it was a fantastic place to do business.

With that in mind, when my daughter received the offer of a job with a role in Hong Kong, in 2010, my wife and I were enthusiastic in our guidance to her that she should take it. We based our advice on the fact that the place was secure—she would be both financially and personally secure there. The years that she has spent in Hong Kong have been very happy for her. She has had a great time and made many friends. She has learned a great deal about business and things have gone well. We have looked carefully at the news from Hong Kong and seen how protests have developed. The police we have seen on television have largely remained peaceful and we are still happy for our daughter to remain in Hong Kong, but it is a matter of concern that with substantial numbers of people protesting in a cramped and confined space the relationship between them and the authorities could deteriorate; so our advice to our daughter might change.

Of course, there are many places in the world where the response of the authorities to such protests would be less predictable, and there would be a fear of matters getting out of hand. We all want that to be prevented.

The story that my hon. Friend is telling of his daughter working in Hong Kong, as one of almost 270,000 UK citizens there, reminds us of the enduring links between our country and that territory. Were he and his daughter surprised by the good nature, orderliness and above all peacefulness of that large demonstration a few weeks ago?

I think the answer is that she was not surprised, because having spent so long there she has come to understand the nature of the Hong Kong people and authorities. She has been happy to observe, and to support—without providing physical support—the principles of those who are protesting. I understand that they are concerned largely about the erosion of what they expected in 1997, and the loss of many of the freedoms they expected. That led to the protests that began in September. My observation is that the protestors would like more democracy than the authorities are currently prepared to admit. That situation arises from the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on electoral reform, with respect to the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, which is of course a very high-profile post.

I understand that the NPCSC will identify two to three electoral candidates before the general public will be able to vote on them. That seems to me to go against the principles set out in the 1997 agreement. In that way, candidates that Beijing might consider unsuitable would be pre-emptively screened out. That would not be considered acceptable in most democracies, and the protesters describe it as fake democracy. That has given rise to the civil disobedience protests. The protesters have the objective of ensuring the right of all to vote; but they would particularly like the resignation of the existing Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend saw the report in The Times today, suggesting that the mainland Chinese Government may make the protests illegal. Will my hon. Friend deprecate that and say that the protests should be allowed to continue, provided that they are peaceful, for as long as it takes, until both sides are satisfied that some progress has been made?

We are looking at these things very much by our standards. We would certainly want to allow such peaceful protest to continue while the protesters want it to. The notion that it might become illegal would be of great concern to those currently engaged in such peaceful protest.

The Chief Executive’s term comes to an end in 2017. He is a figurehead for the authorities in Hong Kong, but in many ways he seems not to have helped matters. His political career has of course been dogged by accusations that he is unduly influenced by Beijing, and there is evidence of that: on his election the Chinese state newspaper, the People’s Daily, referred to him as “comrade”. He decided to implement some pro-China patriotic lessons in schools in Hong Kong, although that was later vetoed, but that compounded the fears of those who saw him as overly influenced by Beijing. China clearly wants to vet C.Y. Leung’s successors and he supports that, so a big issue for the protesters is that he personally is an obstacle to the pursuit of democratic rights. That is certainly the impression gained by my daughter and her friends.

C.Y. Leung has aggravated the mood of the protesters and those who seek more democracy by recent remarks reported in Tuesday’s South China Morning Post. He said that if the Government met the protesters’ demands, it would

“result in the city’s poorer people dominating elections”

and that

“if candidates were nominated by the public then the largest sector of society…would likely dominate the electoral process.”

That is what democracy is all about and such remarks shock those of us who have grown up with the sort of democratic system we enjoy in this country. C.Y. Leung’s reputation has not been helped by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 9 October about what is described as a secret 7 million Australian dollar payout from an Australian firm. That led to questions about the transparency of dealings by a public official.

All that has led to the protests and we are pleased that they have been peaceful on the part of protesters and authorities. The umbrella as a symbol of protest is as unthreatening as can be imagined. Many of the young people and British people who have been attracted to Hong Kong sympathise and find themselves supportive of the protesters who are seeking what westerners have always taken for granted.

There are, however, some concerns. The protests have carried on for so long that the blocking of main thoroughfares such as Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok is starting to affect people’s daily life. Journeys that previously took 15 minutes are now taking around two hours as people transfer from road to the mass transit railway, which is usually very efficient. That has led to businesses losing trade and concern within the business sector, with some business people beginning to show their frustration with protesters. It has also led to some ordinary people giving the areas of protest a wide berth, which is having an impact on businesses in those areas.

The big question for us to consider—I look forward to the Minister’s response—is what happens next. I have spoken about the economic impact and it has been suggested that Hong Kong’s tourist industry could face its worst decline in a decade. The protests have already prompted some cancellations of hotel bookings. October and November are typically the peak season for its hotel industry as business travellers arrive for trade fairs and exhibitions and there are fears that business travellers will cut short or even cancel their trips because of safety concerns. How that might develop?

What might the Chinese authorities’ longer-term response be? They have made it clear that there will be no concessions on political reform. They are digging in their heels because the international community might see granting a concession as a sign of weakness by Beijing. Where that might go is a concern and clearly the solution should arise from politics rather than force.

Talks took place between student leaders and the Government only yesterday, but I see them in a less positive light than the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood). They were televised and watched live at protest sites, but the South China Morning Post reports today that nothing has changed and that the Government have simply offered to submit a report to Beijing reflecting public sentiment, and to consider setting up a platform for dialogue on constitutional development. That sounds as good a description of kicking the matter into long grass as we are ever likely to hear, and we often hear such expressions in this place.

Crucially, the Government have said that there will be no movement on the nomination of candidates and the Government’s remarks through Chief Secretary Lam—that protesters should pursue their ideals in reasonable and lawful ways—may indicate that the occupation of public highways might in time be considered unlawful.

I am largely in sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but even in this place—the mother of Parliaments—we are familiar with the phenomenon of authorities not always giving the appearance of being about to make concessions before they go on to make them. China often moves even more gradually and slowly. I do not think the progress by Mr Leung goes far enough—I have said that I support the protesters’ aspirations—but at least it shows a willingness to negotiate and to make some changes to the proposed arrangements, which he should welcome.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am seeing the events with the eyes of someone who is based in this place and does not have much knowledge of how government works in Beijing. I am taking them at face value and I am encouraged by his positive response to the report of the outcome of that meeting.

My concerns are for people who are currently living in Hong Kong, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how our Government can influence the successful outcome of the position today.

As ever, Mr Weir, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate. He has a long-standing interest in this part of the world and is chair of the all-party China group. We all have an interest in our historic relationship with Hong Kong and our current financial and economic ties. I do not intend to dwell on those, given the time pressure, but I will focus on the test that one country with two systems is facing with the proposals to move towards universal suffrage, and some of the unhappiness that has been expressed on the streets of Hong Kong about whether those proposals go far enough. The issues are obviously for the Government of China and the Hong Kong special administrative region, but the Minister will agree that the UK also has a responsibility to uphold the joint declaration.

Over the past month, many thousands of Hong Kong citizens, predominantly students and those in the Occupy Central movement, have taken to the streets to protest because they feel the proposals for electing a Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017 do not go far enough. It was interesting that the hon. Gentleman said that many of the protesters were not even born when the joint declaration was signed. I had to do my sums, and I am that old.

The point about the change in identity of the young generation that has grown up in Hong Kong was interesting. The protesters are questioning whether what is being proposed gives Hong Kong the high degree of autonomy guaranteed by the joint declaration and the Basic Law. Article 45 of the Basic Law states:

“The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.”

It also states that

“the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

That is where we are now, as was confirmed by the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress at the end of August.

The concern that has been aired is that there will be only two or three candidates, who will each need to secure the majority approval of the nominating committee. As the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) said, the size of that committee has increased substantially from 400 to 1,200 members and many people in Hong Kong feel that they are not being given a genuine choice and that the future chief executive will be too tied to Beijing.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 500,000 people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong this year, although I think the hon. Member for Gloucester said 800,000. We have heard disturbing news of clashes and injuries over the weekend. For the most part, the protests have been peaceful, for which we are thankful, but the response from the police in Hong Kong has been a more serious cause for concern. They have used tear gas and batons to control protesters, and last week we saw images of officers beating a handcuffed protesters. The police department has confirmed that it is investigating the incident, and it is important that reports of excessive use of force are independently investigated.

Amnesty International has reported that the police have failed in their duty to protect the pro-democracy protesters. They report that women and girls have been targeted and subjected to sexual assault and harassment, and witnesses have reported that the police stood by and did nothing. Those reports must be taken seriously by the Hong Kong Government and by the British Government, too.

The joint declaration states:

“Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

As a signatory to that binding international treaty, the UK must speak up if the agreement is not fully upheld and if people are under threat of violence or intimidation for exercising those rights and freedoms. As a further point, it is also worrying that the BBC English language website was reportedly blocked in China last week.

On the specific point of arms export licences, it is reported that the tear gas used against protesters was imported from Britain. Worryingly, the Foreign Secretary was quoted as saying that was “immaterial”, because Hong Kong could buy it from other countries if they did not buy it from the UK. I do not think that is what should pass for a responsible export licensing policy. If the test is simply whether other countries could sell them the product, too, I do not think that is where we should be, and I would be grateful if the Minister could advise us of any review of the relevant export licences.

The Minister may, I hope, have been copied into a letter that the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls, has just sent to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is dated 21 October, and he is asking for a reply before the Committees next meet on 30 October. Does the Minister intend to discuss the six points that have been raised by the Chair of the Committees in that letter? Will he also advise whether the Government have discussed the authorities’ response to the protesters with their Chinese counterparts of the Hong Kong special administrative region?

In addition to the UK’s responsibilities arising from the joint declaration, we must ensure more generally that the commitment to promoting human rights and the rule of law and to supporting democracy as the best means of creating stable, accountable and transparent government is not in doubt. Although I acknowledge that the elections are a matter for the Basic Law rather than the joint declaration, it is still right for us to take an interest. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about concerns expressed by some that if democracy was allowed to take its course, poor people might actually get to wield a degree of influence, or in fact, the majority could decide the outcome of the election. Those comments were quite entertaining, but also made a pertinent point about some people’s definition of democracy differing from other people’s.

I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that the UK Government should not seek to interfere in China’s affairs, but we do have a role to play in safeguarding the principle of one country, two systems, which has worked so well since 1997. Building a constructive, multi-faceted relationship with China that allows our two countries to work together in pursuit of common objectives—so yes, to support our trading ties, our economic and cultural links, and to work with them particularly closely on issues such as climate change—is very important, but it is also important that we have a relationship with China that allows us to engage on areas of disagreement too, including raising human rights concerns.

The FCO’s statements have rightly emphasised how important it is that

“the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and a real stake in the outcome.”

The Minister’s statement last week likewise said that the transition to universal suffrage should meet

“the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong”

and offer them

“a genuine choice in the election”.

Of course, it is not up to us to decide what the aspirations of the Hong Kong people are or how they can be best fulfilled, but we do have a role to play in promoting and encouraging dialogue within Hong Kong and by endorsing the high degree of autonomy that one country, two systems is supposed to safeguard.

As we mark 30 years since the joint declaration was signed, we want to look forward to 2017—to celebrating those 20 years since Hong Kong returned to China. The introduction of universal suffrage, as set out in the Basic Law, will be a fitting tribute to all those who worked so hard to deliver and implement this historic agreement, and who have worked to ensure its success over the past two decades. We trust that the Governments of China and Hong Kong will work with the people of Hong Kong to ensure that the commitment is honoured and that we can deliver Hong Kong’s vision for democracy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. I do not call him my hon. Friend just as a courtesy; he was my excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office until recently, and I pay tribute to his valuable work, his deep personal interest and his well-informed advice to me on Hong Kong and China over the years.

My hon. Friend’s great expertise, along with the wealth of experience of my predecessors who spoke in the House of Lords debate on Hong Kong last week—and indeed, the extraordinarily good participation that we have had from colleagues across the divide this afternoon—show the depths of knowledge available to the Government on Hong Kong. Incidentally, I would not want people to think that the only interest in Hong Kong is from the people of Gloucestershire, although that is very much how it might look when people see who turned up here this afternoon.

The future of Hong Kong is of great importance to the United Kingdom as a co-signatory of the Sino-British joint declaration, and given the magnitude of our trade, investment, educational, cultural and, of course, historic links. With over 250,000 British citizens and 3 million British national overseas citizens living in the city, more than 500,000 visitors from the UK to Hong Kong last year, and over 560 British companies with offices in Hong Kong, more than 120 of them using it as a base for their Asia-Pacific regional operations, Britain’s relationship with Hong Kong is long-standing, wide-ranging and unique.

We strongly believe that it is the autonomy, rights and freedoms guaranteed by the joint declaration that underpin Hong Kong’s success. As we approach the 30th anniversary of its signature, our commitment to ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration, and the protection of the rights and freedoms it guarantees, is as strong as ever. That is why we have been monitoring events closely and regularly raising Hong Kong at senior levels through official channels in Beijing, Hong Kong and London.

My hon. Friend said he thought that the Government had been a bit slow to respond to developments in Hong Kong; I take a slightly different view. I point out to him that we have been addressing this all year. In May in Beijing, I talked about constitutional reform with the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya. Last week, I saw the Hong Kong Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen, in London, along with our Secretary of State for Justice, and, as has been well publicised and said again this afternoon by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I met Anson Chan and Martin Lee along with the Deputy Prime Minister at separate meetings back in June.

I also refer to the statements we issued. The Foreign Office issued statements on 4 September and during the parliamentary recess on 29 September and on 2 October, and, of course, I issued a written ministerial statement on 13 October. Last week, the Foreign Office submitted its written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry on Hong Kong. I should also point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, who I know is a modern man, that I also tweeted, as I am sure he would have seen during that period.

Hong Kong has also been discussed by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in a number of meetings, including with Premier Li at the summit in London in June and Vice Premier Ma Kai at the economic and financial dialogue in London in September. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I also discussed Hong Kong with the Chinese ambassador earlier this month. As I am sure my hon. Friend will also readily concede, sometimes megaphone diplomacy is not the best way of proceeding.

I believe that the six-monthly reports that we continue to submit to Parliament on developments in Hong Kong are taken seriously and are widely read by academics, non-governmental organisations and other diplomatic missions in Hong Kong—and, indeed, further afield. I understand that those reports are also widely read by officials and key decision makers in Hong Kong and Beijing.

In the last six-monthly report, the former Foreign Secretary, now my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, noted that “one country, two systems” continued to work well. Specific evidence for its success includes an independent judiciary and the rule of law. I readily agree with my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) about the importance of that. He asked about judicial independence with regard to the White Paper. I can do no better than quote the noble Lord Neuberger, one of the judges who regularly goes to Hong Kong, who said to Reuters in August 2014 that

“at the moment I detect no undermining of judicial independence”.

He also said:

“If I felt that the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong was being undermined then I would either have to speak out or I would have to resign as a judge”.

The evidence also includes direct and active participation in political decision making by a number of different political parties; the freedom of Hong Kong people to participate in regular peaceful protests; and the activity of a vibrant and engaged civil society. Indeed, the protests on the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks have shown that the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, including the right to demonstrate, continue to be respected. It is important for Hong Kong to preserve those rights and for Hong Kong’s people to exercise them within the law.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who speaks for the Opposition and is looking rather lonely on her side of the divide, asked particularly about allegations of how the police have behaved. We have been watching the reports and following the allegations that the police have used disproportionate force. I very much welcome the investigation that the Hong Kong police have launched into those. I am pleased that the protests have largely been peaceful to date. That is in itself quite an achievement, given the huge numbers of people who have been on the streets, and sometimes in very confined spaces.

The hon. Lady also asked about the use of CS gas and whether the United Kingdom had sold gas to the Hong Kong police. The answer is, yes, we have previously licensed exports of tear gas to Hong Kong, but we will certainly take the recent disturbances in Hong Kong into account when these matters are discussed, as they most properly will be by the Foreign Secretary, who would discuss them with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. It is worth pointing out that tear gas was used once, at the start of the protests, but not since.

Could I press the Minister on that point? Will the Foreign Secretary or he be speaking to the Business Secretary before he replies to the letter from the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls?

I shall have to get back to the hon. Lady on that, because I genuinely have not seen the letter and was not aware of it until she raised it a few moments ago. I will ensure that we get back to her.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about his daughter, who works in Hong Kong, and rightly pointed out the disruption caused to many businesses and the huge inconvenience. I am concerned to hear what he says about the possible negative effect on tourism in Hong Kong. We will continue to follow developments on the ground with keen interest and to remain in regular contact with our consul general in Hong Kong, whom I met in London last week.

The issue at the centre of the protests is, of course, Hong Kong’s democracy and specifically the arrangements for the election of the Chief Executive in 2017. It is perhaps worth underlining some important points. Unlike with Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms, the joint declaration does not deal in the detail of Hong Kong’s democratic arrangements. It provides the essential foundation, including that the legislature be constituted by elections and that the Chief Executive be selected or elected locally. However, the detail of that is set out in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that came into force at the time of handover in 1997, and in associated decisions of China’s Parliament, the National People’s Congress.

Her Majesty’s Government have consistently set out our view that Hong Kong’s future is best served by a transition to universal suffrage, in line with the Basic Law and the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong. We firmly believe that greater democracy will help to reinforce Hong Kong’s open society, the rule of law and its capitalist system, which are vital for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity in the long term. But let me make it crystal clear that the detailed arrangements for implementing that are for the people of Hong Kong and the Governments of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China to determine.

When the National People’s Congress issued its decision in August, we responded by welcoming its reconfirmation that the Chief Executive could be elected by universal suffrage in 2017, but we also acknowledged at the time the disappointment of those in Hong Kong who were hoping for a more open nomination process. However, it is important to recognise that the NPC decision does not represent the last step in this process. It sets the parameters for electoral arrangements for the Chief Executive in 2017, but there is still important detail to be decided before a final package can be presented to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council for debate next year, and of course those arrangements need to be approved by two thirds of the Legislative Council.

The details that still need to be defined include how the nominating committee operates to ensure maximum competition between candidates; transparency; and accountability to the broader public. The Government have made clear our hope that the different sections of Hong Kong society will come together to agree detailed arrangements on these issues that command the broad support of the community as a whole, that are consistent with the Basic Law and that represent a significant step forward on Hong Kong’s democratic journey. That journey then, of course, continues with the elections for the Legislative Council in 2020.

During my visit to Hong Kong last year, I had the opportunity to engage with a wide range of people with divergent views on how to implement a system for universal suffrage. The strength of feeling among Hong Kong people on this issue and their desire to stand up for what they believe in is clear. It is now essential that all sides engage in constructive dialogue, to broker consensus and allow meaningful progress.

I am pleased to see that Carrie Lam, the Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong special administrative region Government, held talks with the Hong Kong Federation of Students yesterday in which she made a commitment to gauge and reflect people’s views. The Hong Kong Government’s suggestion that there is still ample room under the 31 August decision to work out a nomination procedure and election method for 2017 reiterates the importance of the next round of consultations.

I emphasised to the Hong Kong Justice Secretary last week the importance of relaunching dialogue with a wide range of people in Hong Kong on these issues. I hope that the second phase of consultation, which is the right method to engage all the citizens of Hong Kong, will begin soon. As the former Foreign Secretary said in his foreword to the last sixth-monthly report to Parliament, published in July, there is no perfect model. What matters is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and a real stake in the outcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester asked whether the Foreign Office would give an oral statement at the time of the next six-monthly report. That will be in January. I am appearing in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee myself in January, which will provide an ample opportunity to debate these issues. We will consider having a statement at the time, depending on the circumstances. I will say to my hon. Friend that we are having a debate now and he also has the ability to use the Backbench Business Committee if he wishes to have another debate himself.

My hon. Friend asked about the BBC. We have made representations, with our embassy in Beijing, to the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs on that subject. My hon. Friend asked whether we had made representations about Parliament’s right to hold inquiries and debates. We have reminded the Chinese Government, in London and Beijing, that the UK Parliament is independent of Government and very well entitled to debate and look into any aspect of Government policy. He asked when I would be going next to Hong Kong. Depending on the Whips, I shall be going there in January.

Given the UK’s strong commercial and trade relationship, shared history and unique commitments to Hong Kong, we care deeply about its future and that of its people. We have a moral obligation and a legitimate interest in the preservation of the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. We believe that a transition to universal suffrage will safeguard Hong Kong’s future prosperity and stability. That is why we continue to encourage the Governments of Hong Kong and China to find options that offer a genuine choice to the people of Hong Kong in the 2017 election.

I am grateful to hon. Friends and to the shadow Minister for this opportunity to restate clearly the Government’s position on this incredibly important issue and to all those people who follow these matters and contribute to the debate that we need to have in this place.

Environmental Challenges (Somerset)

I am delighted to be able to take part in this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I am grateful to have another chance to debate the situation in Somerset and some of the environmental challenges we face. Given the catch-all title of this debate, several Departments may be interested in what I have to say.

My county, and my constituency in particular, have faced extraordinary environmental challenges during the past year. If there was an award for facing down environmental challenges, the Somerset levels would win hands down. This time last year, no public body in Britain was prepared to take the idea of severe flooding seriously. We were told that it could not possibly happen, and anyone who said otherwise was branded a doom-monger.

However, local people and farmers who had looked after the land for generations voiced concern about how little had been done in recent years to dredge the rivers and prevent them from silting up. Those people knew what could happen if it rained too hard and too long. They had witnessed the decline of regular maintenance of the pumps and pumping stations, and they had watched the withdrawal of equipment. For anyone who lives at or near sea level, such observations are second nature. Farmers on the Somerset levels well understand the delicate balance of nature. Unfortunately, severe rain and unprecedented flooding were required for the world to wake up to what had not been done—to the clogged up river beds that could not take the flow, the inadequate pumps that could not move the water and the penny-pinching, ostrich-like mentality of the Environment Agency.

I am not here to seek recrimination. I have come to know and admire many of the Environment Agency’s people on the ground, who have done wonders since the crisis began. I also believe that there is a new attitude at the top, led by the Prime Minister, since the appointment of a new and completely non-political chairman. So much has happened since the waters began to rise, and so many lives have been affected. There are so many tales of courage and fortitude, and so many millions of pounds have been spent on putting the mess right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) knows, we have all grown a little bit wiser because of these events. What a terrible shame that wisdom arrived after the event. I believe that the biggest environmental challenge is to ensure that such disasters do not happen again.

I intend to concentrate my remarks on those essentials. One of the most positive lessons from the whole experience has been the way in which local authorities have worked rapidly and in co-operation with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency to produce a 20-year flood plan. I can assure hon. Members that obtaining that agreement was no picnic, but the urgency and importance of the task concentrated everybody’s minds. The plan forms the basis for what is now being done and what remains to be done to safeguard the whole area for the future.

The Prime Minister donned his wellies and came with me across the levels on three occasions, not only to show solidarity but to make a promise. He said that whatever it cost, we had to fix the problem. We all knew that it would not be cheap, and with hindsight we realise that there is no such thing as a blank cheque; we live in the real world. The Prime Minister’s intervention set the wheels turning an awful lot faster, however. Slowly but surely, the dredging programme has been agreed on as part of the 20-year flood plan, and it is being implemented. Somerset is getting there at last.

Not everything has been plain sailing. Six months after the launch of a £10 million compensation scheme for farmers, only £4 million of payments have been approved and less than £1 million has been paid out. That may be partly because some of the farmers have been far too busy looking after their animals and land to do all the paperwork, but the process of making applications is riddled with red tape.

For example, my constituent Mr James Winslade, a farmer whose cows famously had to be rescued from the floodwater, should finally receive a cheque this week for £5,000. That is part of a payment for grass seed to replant his fields at Moorland, which is right in the heart of the flood zone. The vast majority of Mr Winslade’s farm—810 acres of land—was completely waterlogged for weeks. Like other applicants, he had to send DEFRA detailed maps showing the precise fields involved, which he did, but DEFRA wanted more imagery, in the form of aerial photographs, to prove that his fields were actually flooded.

I invite the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd)—I am delighted to see her in her place—to do some research, because she will find that there are hundreds of aerial photographs of the exact area taken throughout the time of the flooding. The area resembles a huge lake that stretches for miles. The only safe way to travel was by boat—I have actually paddled across parts of Moorland in a canoe. When DEFRA officials were finally satisfied with the pictures, they demanded additional proof that my constituent had planted the grass seed. Is it any wonder that many farmers are still waiting and are extremely peeved about that penny-pinching process?

During a recent visit to the area, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), made it abundantly clear that much of that frustration was caused by bureaucracy imposed by EU rules—no surprise there. It is high time that we extended our list of things to renegotiate with Brussels to include loony farming regulations. I pay tribute to the new Secretary of State, who came into her post at a difficult time. She has been to Somerset twice since her appointment, and she has quickly grasped the problems and challenges that we face. She knows full well that there are concerns about the speed of the Whitehall decision process.

The Secretary of State also knows that an essential part of the flood action plan is the creation of a viable Somerset rivers board, which should involve all the local councils in affected areas. The new body would call the shots when it comes to dredging and maintenance. It would be funded partly by the Environment Agency, from which it will take a lead on what it should do. That could be slightly awkward, but I believe that any such difficulties can be overcome.

I warned at the outset that my remarks might involve several different Departments, and now it is the turn of the Department for Communities and Local Government to prick up its ears. That branch of Whitehall seems to be saying that a rivers board for Somerset, run by councils, is a good idea provided councils pay for it. That was not what the Prime Minister had in mind when he offered to pay whatever it cost to fix things. The Department’s attitude has an element of logic, because if Somerset were to get preferential treatment from Whitehall, every other local authority that ever had a flood would want exactly the same. That is understandable; it is human nature.

It is, however, unrealistic to believe that Somerset councils can afford to do everything that they need to do from the word go. The obvious way to pay for everything would be to raise council tax. According to some estimates, council tax could go up 20%, which would be the kiss of death. We simply could not get that through anywhere in the country.

There is, however, a sensible solution. If the councils were given a few years’ breathing space to allow them to save money for the rivers board, and if the law was tweaked to permit them to levy a special tax to pay for future flood prevention, the only thing missing would be a grant to tide them over during the transition. That is more or less the argument being made by most of the councils involved. We are, as anyone would expect, anxiously awaiting some signal to indicate what is in Whitehall’s mind. The answer may involve intervention from the Treasury, which is yet another Department that I should have put on standby for this little debate. Any indication that the Minister can give will be helpful, given the complexity of the situation.

I do not want the valuable work on the formation of a Somerset rivers board to go to waste for a lack of answers, and I am worried that we may struggle to keep all the councils on board unless we get a clear sense of direction soon. In my view, it would be extremely short-sighted of, say, Taunton Deane borough council to consider opting out of membership of the new rivers board simply because it cannot yet see a viable plan to pay for it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane knows, Taunton was flooded badly in November 2012. I do not see how, in the name of common sense, the council can contemplate quitting the rivers board now. If the River Tone overflows again, local people will never forgive the council. I hope that councils will stick together, but there is a growing sense of urgency about the matter.

It is also critical to get a clear thumbs-up from the Government about the most important element of the flood plan, which is the construction of a barrage at Bridgwater to stop silt being washed back inland by the tides. The need for the barrage has been accepted, but it involves a lot of money. Here we are, fast approaching what promises to be yet hard winter, without the answers in place.

Like it or not, we are all subject to the ravages of the weather, but are we the hapless victims of climate change, and is the Climate Change Act 2008 the right way to deal with it? Those questions have been topically highlighted recently by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who wants the 2008 Act to be scrapped. His recent experience as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs during the flood crisis makes that all the more relevant, as he came down many times to visit and help us.

My constituency already has far too many applications for ugly, useless and oversized wind turbines, and Somerset is in danger of being overrun by, dare I say it, solar panel farms. Their collective contribution to reducing carbon emissions is, I am afraid, small, and their collective cost, in terms of subsidies and European grants, is large. Their ability to keep the lights on, depending on the sun or the wind, is probably a no-no in the long term.

I am delighted to learn that the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs intends to scrap EU payments to landowners who use solar panels on productive areas of land. Let us grow food and stop paying for panels. I am delighted that the tide is beginning to turn against such stupidities in many areas of our political lives. If we spent less time slavishly following the flawed edicts of Brussels, we would have ample funds to finance the common-sense solutions that we all know we need in order to fix our flooding problems. We still have environmental challenges in Somerset, and the solution has to be found now; it does not need to be so elusive. I would welcome the Minister’s views on that.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. I sense that he is drawing to the end of his remarks, so I invite him to develop the theme of the barrage. The Chancellor will soon be making his autumn statement—autumn gets later and later, but it still happens before Christmas, so the autumn statement is imminent, happening just over a month from now. Would it not be ideal if he were in a position to announce the Government’s intention to go ahead with the building of the barrage?

I gratefully thank my hon. Friend, who has helped immeasurably, because the barrage is in fact in Bridgwater, not Taunton Deane. His point is exactly right. Both the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire, and the present Secretary of State have made it clear to the Environment Agency that plans for the funding need to be in place to make absolutely sure that they go into the autumn statement—which I believe will be on 3 December 2014—so that we can get the money to get this done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane knows this far too well—a lot of his constituency was also flooded—but if we did not build the barrage, we would never be forgiven for creating the problems and the mess again. The barrage will be a surge barrier that stops 60% of the mud that comes all the way up the river to Taunton Deane, which is a distance in the region of 10 miles. The barrage would therefore reduce the silting and the need to dredge, which means that we could continue pumping. We were not able to pump in his constituency or in most of the levels because our water levels were too high. The barrage would give us an opportunity not only to combat climate change, which the Minister will tell us about in a minute, but to address the practicalities of everyone’s daily lives. I look forward to hearing her remarks.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate on the environmental challenges in Somerset, and I thank him for his speech. Having a home or business flooded is a devastating experience, and I know everyone here extends their sympathy to all those who have been affected.

As has been pointed out, this topic involves a number of Departments, particularly the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but also the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury. As this is the week for the Department of Energy and Climate Change to reply to Westminster Hall debates, I am responding for the Government. I reassure my hon. Friend that I have consulted colleagues in other Departments in preparing this reply.

I pay tribute to all those in the Environment Agency, local authorities and emergency services, in Somerset and elsewhere, who work tirelessly during flood events. The response to last winter’s floods was tremendous. In response to that exceptional weather, DEFRA made an extra £270 million available to repair, restore and maintain the most critical flood defences. Repairs at many sites started as soon as the weather conditions allowed and continued throughout the summer. The Environment Agency is on track to complete permanent repairs to 96% of its critical defences by the end of October. Recovery from last winter’s flooding continues and is going well. The Government have committed more than £565 million in flood recovery support funding. DEFRA has managed to secure a £2.3 billion capital settlement to improve flood management infrastructure over six years from April 2015. That investment will reduce the risk of flooding to a further 300,000 households, on top of the 165,000 protected during the current spending period.

At the end of January, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asked local leaders to produce a long-term action plan for the sustainable future of the Somerset levels and moors. Following intensive work by Somerset local authorities, local farming and business representatives and NGOs supported by central Government and agencies, and of course by their MP, the plan was published on 6 March. The plan is wide-ranging, covering specific flood risk management projects, farming and land management interventions, transport infrastructure, planning and community resilience issues.

The Government have committed just over £20 million specifically for Somerset, which includes £10 million from DEFRA for dredging 8 km of the Rivers Parrett and Tone and other flood management work. The Department for Transport has provided £10 million to support the action plan, and DCLG has provided £500,000 to Somerset under the severe weather recovery scheme. I can report that progress against actions in the plan is good. The 8 km dredging of the rivers is due to be completed by the end of October.

One of the key actions in the Somerset action plan is the formation of a Somerset rivers board to take more responsibility for water management on the levels. Local leaders in Somerset are agreeing the board’s responsibilities and functions. DEFRA Ministers are working closely with local partners to ensure that Somerset is better protected in future. Local leaders will need to find a sustainable, long-term funding mechanism for an effective local organisation that has the support of local residents. As my hon. Friend has said, Somerset is not the only place where people wish to raise additional funding for flood risk management, and we are continuing to explore options for local fundraising.

My hon. Friend mentioned the farming recovery fund, which was made available to help farm businesses to restore flooded agricultural land and bring it back into production as quickly as possible. We made £10 million available to help farmers get their land back into production after the flooding. Under EU rules, as he understands, payments from the rural development programme budget must be paid to farmers once the work has been carried out and all necessary evidence submitted. All claims submitted by Mr Winslade have now been paid—we have looked into that. We will assess any new claims as they come in.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater and West Somerset and for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) for raising the matter of the Bridgwater barrier. I am delighted that Somerset partners will be making use of some of the money that they are receiving through the local growth fund to develop and appraise options for the barrier.

Severe storms and flooding have always affected the UK and will continue to do so, even without climate change. However, we know that human-caused climate change is influencing both the likelihood and severity of such extreme events. The complicated nature of the UK’s weather makes it difficult to say definitively that human influences caused single weather events such as last winter’s storm. However, it is possible to make scientific statements about how human influence on the climate may have changed the odds of an event happening. For example, a recent study of the floods experienced by the UK in autumn 2000 found that they were made about twice as likely due to the influence of greenhouse gas emissions.

On a global scale, the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that extreme rainfall events across the world are becoming heavier and that, without action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the trend will very likely continue. Undoubtedly, the damaging weather that we experienced last winter is consistent with a warming world.

The events of last winter highlight this country’s vulnerability to extreme weather and the need for us to take action to limit climate change and the impact it will have. Internationally, we are pushing for an ambitious global deal in Paris in 2015, whereas action at home is driven by the Climate Change Act 2008. The Government remain committed to the Act and meeting the targets it contains. The Act was the first of its kind and demonstrates UK leadership—almost 500 climate laws have now been passed in 66 of the countries with the largest emissions across the world. Businesses and investors welcome the certainty provided by the long-term target and the five-year budgets.

Setting carbon budgets as part of the Act has driven action that saves people money and makes people warmer. Our achievements in reducing emissions also demonstrate that the Climate Change Act is working. The Act has helped to drive the UK to reduce emissions by almost a quarter since 1990.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one part of how the UK is responding to climate change; the other is building resilience to climate change and associated severe weather events such as flooding, heat waves and drought. This helps to safeguard growth and minimise the damage and disruption to economic activity from such impacts. The earlier we plan for adaptation, the less it will cost, and we will be better equipped to cope with potential changes.

Under the Climate Change Act, the Government published the first climate change risk assessment in January 2012, which identified the key risks—and opportunities—to the UK. This informed the first national adaptation programme report, published by DEFRA in July last year, which sets out a wide range of actions for government, businesses, councils, civil society and communities to address the most pressing climate risks we face as a country. Both the CCRA and NAP are reviewed every five years as required by the Climate Change Act.

At the end of last year, DEFRA also invited more than 100 organisations from key sectors to provide voluntary reports to Government on how they plan to build their own resilience to the impacts of climate change and associated severe weather events. Most have agreed to do this, which will add significantly to our understanding of how resilient we are as a society. The next major milestones will be publication of the second climate change risk assessment early in 2017, for which the process is under way, and the second national adaptation programme that will follow on from that.

Despite the exceptional weather conditions experienced last winter, the impacts were significantly less than in previous similar events. Our existing flood defences protected around 1.4 million properties and more than 2,500 square kilometres of farmland from flooding. This reinforces the importance of continuing our investment in flood defence schemes and forecasting capability. We will never be able to stop flooding entirely, but we have acted on the lessons learned from last winter.

In the UK, climate change is a serious risk. We are vulnerable to extreme weather, including severe winters, heat waves, storms, gales and flooding from rivers and the sea.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want briefly to raise two points. First, it is in the nature of parliamentary debate that the Minister is always criticised by MPs who want to make points on behalf of their constituents. By way of contrast, let me thank the Government for the speedy work that has been done on dredging. A lot of people in the Somerset levels despaired of ever seeing any dredging. They may want more and they may want it done differently, but I was in Burrowbridge, which was at the centre of the flooding area, last week, and a significant amount of dredging has been done. It is fair to put on the record that a lot of people in the levels are grateful to have seen such commitment from the Government following visits by the Prime Minister and others earlier this year.

Secondly, on a related point, when we talk about resilience to climate change and flooding, I hope the Government will not lose sight of mundane matters. Resilience does not have to be about big projects and flood barriers. It is also, for example, about ensuring that when new housing is built, it does not have an effect on flood areas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and for his kind words of support for the action that the Government were able to take after assiduous lobbying—of course, by local MPs as well. I take his point entirely about the need for local action on the ground to reduce the effects of climate change, and the need to work generally with the local community to ensure that they appreciate the need for action and the urgency.

If I may, I will take the opportunity to refer to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset in his speech earlier about solar, which is a great success and is appreciated by many residents. We now have more than 500,000 houses with their own solar panels on them. It is a marvellous way of people taking the initiative and delivering themselves warmer homes for less, and at the same time making their own contribution to reducing climate change.

Climate change is a serious risk in the UK. We are vulnerable to all sorts of changes in the weather that affect our economy, our livelihoods and our health. That is why the UK is leading from the front on action against climate change. We are investing in low carbon and energy efficiency technologies, with an increased focus on home-grown renewables, to reduce our reliance on foreign imports and create a sustainable supply of affordable energy for consumers and businesses alike, always with the intent of improving the lives of our constituents throughout the country and ensuring we are more resilient to changes in the climate.

Sitting suspended.

Development Projects (Afghanistan)

Mr Weir, I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise some issues about the role of the Department for International Development with respect to development projects in Afghanistan. If you will allow me, I would like to begin by making some general observations about how DFID conducts its business.

About 9% of DFID’s 2011-12 budget, some £360 million, was given directly to the private sector. Of the 117 major DFID contracts and procurement agreements—worth nearly £750 million between them—published on the Government’s own portal since January 2011, only nine applied to non-UK firms. The reality of aid under the present Administration is that it is an economic development project largely designed, organised and delivered by the private sector. Nearly £500 million spent by DFID in 2011 went to private consultants. Aid has become a lucrative business for consultants, several of whom take home six or seven-figure salaries.

It is worth remembering that in 2001 the UK Government promised to untie aid and that one of the first commitments of the present Government when it came into office was to reaffirm that decision. The coalition pledged that

“We will keep aid untied from commercial interests, and will maintain DfID as an independent department focused on poverty reduction.”

However, the reality today is that large parts of UK aid are being channelled through big multilateral organisations and British commercial firms. The European Network on Debt and Development—Eurodad, as I believe it is called—has noted that developing countries are often little match for firms from big donor countries. In the UK, KPMG—one of DFID’s top contractors—has an entire department dedicated to working with development groups.

With this approach, the UK Government seem to have adopted the model of the US, which unashamedly ties aid to local business opportunities. It is a model that has acquired a rather sullied reputation in the US, as a result of the activities of Halliburton or the behaviour of International Relief and Development, the contractor company.

Interestingly enough, the US has recognised the potential conflicts of interests with contractors and consultants who play multiple roles, the blurring of the lines between profit and non-profit groups and the risk of using contractors who are not subject to proper oversight and discipline. The US acknowledges that there is a stench of corruption in some of its aid channels. However, at the very time when the US is reviewing its approach and has given a commitment to spend at least 30% of its aid money through Government and organisations in developing countries, the UK seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

DFID has set up a unit to focus on private sector development and claims that it will

“help private enterprise work its miracles as the engine of development”.

However, this approach has been criticised by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which questions how it can be adopted fairly and effectively. The ICAI argues that staff need clear guidance and a framework within which to

“develop a coherent portfolio of projects that, taken together, effectively support economic growth and poverty reduction”.

The ICAI made those comments as part of its investigations into DFID projects in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Tanzania, but I believe that I can demonstrate that its concerns about projects in Afghanistan are not very different. The ICAI has argued that the current aid model encourages contractors to focus on short-term targets and quick wins, rather than on helping countries to embark effectively on economic growth and poverty reduction. In effect, it is a “get rich quick” approach for some, but according to the ICAI some of DFID’s private sector projects end up having a negative impact on the very people and places that they are supposed to help.

In the financial year 2011-12, DFID awarded 135 contracts worth a total of £489 million. Five individual contractors secured 50% of that funding. Of course, the model being used permits many contractors to have multiple contracts, and so we see organisations such as Adam Smith International with 28 live contracts, Mott MacDonald with 27 and Coffey International with 20.

When I debated the question of the Bost airfield and agri-park in Afghanistan—a debate in Westminster Hall, as it happens—on 18 March, I asked a number of questions about the contractual arrangements surrounding the Bost development proposals. In her reply to that debate, the Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the right hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone)—did not mention the memorandum of understanding that had been signed in mid-February 2011, but I am sure that she must have been familiar with the terms of that agreement and how it limited the capacity of either party to pull out of the project unless it faced a major collapse.

I have looked again at what we know about the Bost project, and I want to press the Minister who is here today to tell me, if he can, what went so drastically wrong in the 22 months from February 2011, when the agreement on the project was signed, and December 2012, when the Secretary of State for International Development says she terminated the project after a visit to Afghanistan. I hope he has some idea of the specific events that led to the termination of the agreement and that he can say a little more today about what led to it. What factors spiralled out of control and forced the Secretary of State to close down the project?

As the Minister will know, the ICAI report on Afghanistan refers to the work on the business park—the Bost agri-park—as being 90% complete, which makes the decision to pull the plug on the project all the more confusing. And what of the Islamic loan product? What has happened to that? Is that more DFID money being written off, or can he give me an update on that project? What has happened to the flexible fund? I understand that it has been transferred, so can he update me on where it has been transferred to? What was the basis of these decisions? Is there any reason why, after two years and with the Department about to embark on a new phase of work in Afghanistan, he is unwilling to clear up some of the questions about what has gone before?

As the Minister will know, the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, or AISA, issued a statement on its website, in which it said:

“On 9th January 2013, DFID without any rational reason informed AISA that they have decided to stop funding for the development of the first phase of the BABP.”

That is, the Bost agri-business park. The statement continued:

“DFID’s unprofessional team involved in BABP project and their lack of understanding and expertise about its own project arrangements has been surprising”.

That sounds as if our Afghan partners thought that DFID had not behaved very well over this matter.

The Secretary of State has told me repeatedly that she made the decision to end the Bost project after visiting Afghanistan in December 2012, because of a failure of our partners to complete the work and the fact that the project could no longer be considered value for money. However, the outgoing deputy head of mission, Mr Fergus Cochrane-Dyet for the Helmand provincial reconstruction team, wrote to the provincial governor on 8 January 2012, 11 months before the Secretary of State decided to terminate the project, and said:

“We could not obtain the necessary assurances on environmental and land related issues required by the UK to complete responsible construction within a reasonable timeframe. We will stop our involvement in the Park now because the cost to complete the Park exceeds the economic benefits we estimate will follow.”

I want to know, as straightforwardly as possible, whether Mr Cochrane-Dyet is blessed with second sight. Is that how he was able to anticipate the Secretary of State’s decision? Alternatively, does he just not know when he entered and left Afghanistan? Is it just a mistake? It would also be useful to know who the key figure was at the centre of this agreement and the memorandum of understanding.

I understand that the programme director was a Mr Dominic d’Angelo, but the agreement was actually signed by an “acting head”, a Mr Andrew Kidd. There may, of course, be a perfectly simple explanation, but I am curious to know whether Mr d’Angelo’s role as an employee of the consultancy firm Upper Quartile could have had anything to do with it.

The Secretary of State answered my parliamentary question on 11 June 2014, telling me that her Department paid only three consultancy firms directly for work relating to the Bost airfield and agri-park development, none of which were Upper Quartile. However, Upper Quartile’s website mentions its work relating to the Helmand growth fund on behalf of the UK Government and spells out that it has done work in relation to the Bost project:

“the company’s experienced team is reviewing the investment potential—both domestic and international—in the Bost Airfield and Agriculture Park.”

Of course, like many other firms, Upper Quartile is not the beneficiary of just one DFID contract, but several. Again, in June 2013, Upper Quartile was tasked by DFID with providing advisory support to a Minister with a high degree of visibility in the Afghan Government. I know about this because I read it in a news release written by one Dominic d’Angelo, in his capacity as an adviser to Upper Quartile.

Upper Quartile seems to be a very important contractor for DFID. Mr d’Angelo went to Kabul in 2009 as a DFID employee then went on to serve as a ministerial adviser to Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, and then as a senior adviser to Minister Amin Arsala. But in 2011 he was still working for DFID as the man in charge of DFID’s Afghanistan growth and livelihoods team, responsible for at least £150 million of taxpayers’ money. At least two other prominent Upper Quartile employees who appear on its website also seem to have been DFID employees.

The Minister will know that I have tried to indulge my curiosity on these matters by submitting some freedom of information requests. On 16 January, I asked whether I might have a copy of the appraisal report produced by Upper Quartile consultants on the Bost agri-park. The Department replied that the report was being withheld under regulation 12(4), as the material is still in the course of completion and contains unfinished documents. The project was closed down by the Secretary of State in December 2012. Is the Minister saying that the report is still material in the course of completion and an unfinished document?

In September 2013, I submitted an FOI request and asked whether I could see a report in relation to a contract won by the Mott MacDonald consultancy firm, which covers an impact assessment and extensive planning regarding the Bost airfield and agricultural business park programme. I was told that the request was being refused under regulations 12(3) and 13(2), as the Department believed that letting me have this report would involve releasing details that would breach the legitimate expectation of an individual’s right to protection of personal information. Naturally, I am not clear what personal information was involved. I was asking to see a report on planning and an impact assessment. The request was also refused on the grounds that it was unfinished material. Will the Minister confirm today that he still regards it as unfinished material? When might it become finished material?

I am aware of at least three consultant reports on the Bost airfield and agri-park project, two of which the Department has refused to let me see and a third, by Coffey International consultancy group in July 2010, which says:

“Bost park represents a high risk investment that has a high risk of financial failure.”

Naturally, I can only speculate about what the other two appraisals say and how so much of our money continued to be committed to this project.

DFID’s own website, “Development Tracker”, says that only £2.7 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on the airfield and business park, yet a Minister—a different Minister, I should say—told me in response to a question in October 2013 that a total of £8.42 million was spent on the airfield and business park programme. How do we account for the additional £5.7 million? Will he tell me exactly what the £2.7 million was spent on and what the remaining £5.7 million was spent on? How much of it went on consultancy fees and which companies and/or individuals were the beneficiaries?

I understand that Mott MacDonald, as well as producing a Bost consultancy report, was contracted to develop the engineering design for the park and training for the Helmand-based businesses, and that it in turn subcontracted part of this work to Monic & Monic Consulting, to provide capacity-building training for local businesses. It is alleged that Monic & Monic then charged local businesses for writing a business plan: the allegation is that it was paid twice. Is the Minister familiar with this accusation and has it been investigated? Will he say today that he will investigate it? Can he say categorically that these allegations play no part in the Department’s decision to give so little information about these companies, their contracts and the termination plan?

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report of March 2014 was less than flattering about DFID’s efforts in Afghanistan. It cites

“examples that include weak component design and assessment for the Bost Agri-Business Park, the Flexible Fund, the hybrid Sharia-compliant loan product and the biomass project, all of which were ultimately cancelled or transferred to other programmes.”

It accuses DFID of indulging in over-ambitious and complex programme design and of a lack of consultation with intended beneficiaries. Indeed, the report points out that the more ambitious and multifaceted the projects, the less successful they were, and that even where projects are deemed as successful, it is not clear how long the positive impacts will be sustained.

The review covers the effectiveness of DFID’s bilateral growth and livelihood projects, which account for approximately 30% of DFlD’s annual aid budget in Afghanistan.

The ICAI report makes some key recommendations and I should be interested to hear the Minister’s view of them. It says that DFID needs to review formally current and future projects and focus its portfolio more firmly on reducing poverty, using evidence-based interventions. Does he intend to take that advice? It says that DFID should ensure that the intended beneficiaries are, as far as is practicable, directly consulted when new projects are being designed. How will he respond to that challenge? Can he confirm today that it is still the Department’s intention to proceed with a major project on tackling violence against women and girls in Afghanistan? Can he say more about how that project is proceeding and what companies and/or organisations are involved? Who has been consulted to date?

ICAI also says that DFID should enhance its approach and commitment to independent monitoring to assess current and future project performance, and to allow proper assessment of the impact of the programmes. How does the Minister intend to address that?

There is an unpleasant smell about some of DFID’s dealings in Afghanistan; the same names and companies appear too often. The British public puts a high value on aid to developing countries, but they expect that money to be invested in health and education programmes, and in investment that helps local people to improve their own economy and living standards. It should not be a get-rich-quick scheme for a privileged few. We need more transparency and more evidence of value for money for the British taxpayer.

I last visited Afghanistan in 1976, when it was a very different place. I had the pleasure, and indeed the liberty, to hire a horse and ride round the lakes of Band-e Amir and to visit the standing Buddhas at Bamiyan, since destroyed by the Taliban, all entirely on my own and entirely safely. Of course, things have changed dramatically since those days. The British taxpayer has shed treasure and British soldiers, sailors and airmen have given their lives and shed much blood in attempting to return Afghanistan to some form of stability. Perhaps those days will come again.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and, after 30 years of warfare, we have the extraordinary situation where the average lifespan is only 49 years. One third of the population lives on less than 70p a day. Barely one in three is literate and able to read and write, and one child in 10 dies before their fifth birthday. It is unlikely that, or rather, it is certain that Afghanistan will not meet any of the millennium development goals before 2020. That is why we believe it is right that we should have a lasting commitment as a partner to Afghanistan for the long term. Our aim is to deliver 71,000 jobs for people in Afghanistan and to provide primary education for 5.4 million people, with 40% of the places for girls. We want to assist, and we provide important technical assistance on the public finances and to address corruption, strengthen basic services and fundamentally improve the lives of women, as well as providing resilience for the country in the face of natural disasters, given that it is situated in earthquake zones and subject to those dangers.

The focus of much of our development has been on the rural economy and providing for the distribution of goods and access to markets. Since 2002, we have been the largest donor to the World Bank’s Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund. I should point out to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) that about half our aid to Afghanistan is channelled through the World Bank to provide basic services to people. The achievements of the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund include the delivery of some 9,321 miles of road, benefiting some 6 million people.

We also support the infrastructure trust fund, which provides finance for power. As a result—this is among the other achievements of that fund—some 30% of households are now on the electricity grid. We also contribute to the comprehensive agriculture and rural development facility, which tackles obstacles to rural development, increasing productivity, encouraging value-added production and improving rural incomes. It has delivered some 6,663 jobs, of which 1,977 have been for women. It has increased incomes by some £2 million, delivered 800 small farms and 250 greenhouses, and provided for canals and reservoirs. The next phase of the project begins this year, with an even more ambitious target of 13,000 jobs and an increment to incomes of some £88 million.

We are presented with an enormous opportunity by the political developments in Afghanistan with the new Ghani regime, and we will be hosting a conference in London in December to catalyse on that. The conference was originally conceived as a technical catch-up on the conference that took place in Tokyo to try to keep Afghanistan up to the mark in delivering its side of the development bargain, by reducing corruption and living up to our expectations on probity. The situation has fundamentally changed with the Ghani regime and his welcome appointment of his main presidential rival as Chief Executive Officer, or, to all extents and purposes, as Prime Minister—although the Afghanistan constitution does not have a role of Prime Minister, that is the nearest comparison by which to paraphrase that role. He has put his rival in that role and announced by presidential decree a reopening of the investigation into the plundering of the Kabul Bank in 2012.

The Minister is making a fascinating, upbeat speech, but we are a bit like ships passing in the night. Given that it does not sound as though he will be able to address the points I have raised, I ask him to look at what I said and give me a thorough written response.

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to his points, but the title of the debate entitles me to put on record the policy of the Department and the achievements we have made and seek to make. With respect to the opportunity that is now opening up, it is time to re-engage with Afghanistan in the London conference in December, which will provide an opportunity for the new Afghan regime to lay its cards on the table and show its commitment to reform. The conference will provide us with the opportunity to restate our long-term commitment to Afghanistan, notwithstanding our withdrawal from the combat role.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the Bost development before. On account of that and the 40 parliamentary questions that he has tabled on the matter, I took some trouble before this debate to look into what he clearly sees as a conspiracy of silence to conceal information from him. Given the number of questions and the new information he has presented today, he is right: I will not be able to address them all in this debate, although I will attempt to address as many as I can.

My immediate reaction on having read his earlier Westminster Hall debate was to think, “Is there a conspiracy?” As a fellow Member of the House—and one who served under his chairmanship in that famous private Bill Committee—I say to the hon. Gentleman that while it may smell rotten to him, I am of the belief that there is nothing rotten here. However, given what he has said today, I will of course go away and look at it again. I make a genuine offer to him. I know how frustrating it must be to try to elicit information through parliamentary questions, only to get a glacial increase or increment or a step back with each one, but I am more than happy to pursue this matter through correspondence. I will be as open as I can.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made good use of the Department’s website. We believe in transparency and making things public, with respect to freedom of information requests. Will the report ever be finished? I am afraid the answer is: “No, it won’t.” As I understand it, the reason the report he referred to has not been released is because it was a draft report.

They were draft reports. DFID had no intention of proceeding with the scope covered in those reports. We were for carrying forward a much smaller project. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the memorandum of understanding. My understanding is that—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).