Thursday 11 June 2015
[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2014-15, Voter engagement in the UK, HC 232, the Government response, HC 1037, and the Sixth Report from that Committee, Session 2014-15, Voter engagement in the UK: follow up, HC 938.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered voter engagement and the franchise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
I have the great privilege of representing an area that, throughout history, has served as a hotbed for new and often radical ideas about democracy, justice and representative government. Mary Wollstonecraft lived in Islington for many years and established a school for girls at Newington Green. Thomas Paine began writing his “Rights of Man”—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”]—at the Angel in 1790. And Lenin—let us also have a cheer for Lenin, please—worked in Clerkenwell Green during the early 20th century, publishing several issues of his communist newspaper from the site now occupied by the Marx Memorial library.
My constituency has often been described as a citadel for constitutional reform, and it is not hard to see why. One of my predecessors as MP for Finsbury, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, presented the second, and by far the largest, Chartist petition to Parliament in 1842. The petition is said to have been signed by 3,315,752 people and was so large that it could not fit through the doors of Parliament without being unrolled. The Chartists sought radically to reform the way that hon. Members were elected to this House and called for an extension to the franchise, a secret ballot and the abolition of property qualifications so that wealth was no longer a precondition to vote. Of course, the Chartists called only for the enfranchisement of men, but we have since moved on.
Unfortunately, Islington’s recent history has, at times, had a more troubling side, and its elected officials have not always taken such an expansive view of the franchise. During the many years in which the local authority was under Liberal Democrat control, the council tended to draw most of its support from more affluent voters. Registration remained stagnant in the most deprived parts of the borough, where many ethnic minority people, in particular, live. In 2006, the Labour group tabled a motion asking the council to do better, and particularly to work hard to ensure that black and minority ethnic voters register to vote and are included on the electoral register. The Liberal Democrat majority voted down the motion and, after the vote, one of the leading Liberal councillors shouted across the council chamber, “That’s how we win elections!” Fortunately, there has been a significant improvement in voter registration over recent years, which is largely attributable to the proactive measures taken by the Labour majority that took the council in 2010. Islington has gone from being the area with the second-worst voter registration rate in the entire country to being a model for other local authorities that seek to maximise registration.
Voter registration is not a partisan issue, or it should not be. Anyone who wholeheartedly supports a healthy democracy should start from the principle that both registration and turnout should be as close as possible to 100%. Our current system is wholly inadequate for making that aspiration a reality. We have had a lot of counterproductive talk over the years from politicians of all parties who suggest that the vote is some sort of privilege that should be proactively seized by voters on an individual basis. That tendency was markedly on display when the coalition Government introduced the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, now the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, in the last Parliament. They announced their intention to implement individual electoral registration, dropping the existing plan for a phased introduction purely as a cost-saving measure. Ministers in the last Government spoke of giving people the opportunity to register to vote and of people being removed from the roll only if they failed to do so. On Second Reading in the other place, the Bill’s sponsor, the noble Lord Wallace of Saltaire, claimed that its goal was
“to give people greater ownership of their own registration”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 2012; Vol. 739, c. 616.]
It is as if what was needed at the time was for people individually to seize their right to vote, but the Bill did not address the fact that more than 6 million people who were entirely eligible to vote were missing from the electoral register.
Who are those 6 million people? Members may be familiar with a report produced by the Electoral Commission in July 2014. The report lists the groups who are most likely not to be on the electoral register. This list will not surprise hon. Members: young people under the age of 35, especially students; private tenants; black and other minority ethnic groups; Commonwealth and EU nationals; and those classified as social grades D and E or, to use plain English, low-skilled and unskilled workers and the unemployed. If the Government have a genuine interest in maximising participation in the political process, I would have thought they would see that as a serious problem and seek to address it, but that is not happening—the exact opposite is happening. It is abundantly clear that the excessively hasty introduction of individual electoral registration has had an even more detrimental effect on voter registration and engagement, particularly among those groups, and we should all be alarmed.
It is appropriate at this point to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), under whose chairmanship the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform produced a report on this vital issue, “Voter engagement in the UK”. The report stated that the 5.5 million voters who were not transferred to the new register following the initial implementation of individual electoral registration included “disproportionate” numbers from particular groups: private tenants, students and attainers—16 and 17-year-olds who will attain the age of 18 before the date of the next general election. The Committee recommended that
“every effort is made by Electoral Registration Officers to reach all registered voters who have not been automatically transferred to the new register”.
I do not understand why people are not automatically registered. If we are all true democrats, we should wish for everyone who has the right to vote simply to be on the electoral register. Putting unnecessary hurdles in the way of people exercising their democratic right to vote is entirely counter-democratic, and I do not understand it.
My hon. Friend, like me, is a London Member of Parliament, and she will know that in recent months there has been a significant increase in the number of people evicted from their property because of the impact of benefit capping, which has resulted in people moving from one London borough to another. People are moving to my outer-London borough of Redbridge from Westminster, Kensington and other inner-London boroughs, and our own people in Redbridge are now being placed in bed-and-breakfast hotels in Hounslow, Staines, Heathrow or other parts of England. What can be done to ensure that those people do not lose their democratic rights?
It is particularly important that such people exercise their democratic rights, because many of the difficulties that they face are the direct result of decisions made by politicians. Such people should make it clear what they think about those decisions, so they must be able to exercise their democratic right to vote. They must be able to make their views clear about such decisions, and the chaos among certain groups in London, with people having to move around because of caps on benefits and the shortage of social housing, is yet another reason why we should be proactive.
When the Chartists handed in the petition, my predecessor was asking for every man living in Finsbury to have a vote. This is not my party’s policy, but he would be turning in his grave if he knew that more than 8,000 people in my constituency are on the electoral register for European and local elections but are not allowed to vote in general elections. They are here, they pay taxes and they play a full role. A man came into my surgery last Friday who was very exercised by the fact that his Japanese wife, who has lived and paid taxes here for seven years but cannot get dual nationality for cultural reasons due to her Japanese background—I do not understand it, but they are firmly of the view that that is the reason—cannot vote and will not be able to vote. At what stage do we reach a tipping point? In an increasingly international world, and particularly in a world city such as London, what proportion of the population can be excluded from the ballot before we lose our identity as a democracy?
At the moment, there are perhaps 12,000 or 15,000 adults in my constituency who cannot vote. They turn up at my surgery and want a proper service from their Member of Parliament, but they do not count because they are not allowed to vote. The title I originally wanted for this debate—I understand that it is not the sort of title that one is allowed to have, but it seems to me entirely the right title—was: “Who counts?” In a democracy, who counts? Who is and is not a citizen? Whose voice should be listened to, and who should be flatly and determinedly ignored?
We are so proud of this city of London, and one of the things that we are proud of is that we have a mixture of people from all over. I would like to represent the whole of my constituency and everyone in it, and I do my best, but it seems profoundly wrong that those people are not allowed to vote. They might all vote Tory. We might end up with a Tory MP in Islington—I would take that on the nose—but they should be allowed to vote. They are here, they are people and they participate. They walk our streets, use our services and pay their taxes. Why are they not allowed to be involved in decisions about how politicians act on their behalf?
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee recommended that electoral registration officers make every effort to reach all registered voters who have not been automatically transferred to the register. In the absence of anything resembling leadership on this issue from the coalition, local authorities have been left to their own devices. Of course, results have been decidedly mixed. To its credit, Islington council has made strenuous efforts to get as many people on the electoral register as possible. This year, EROs in Islington went knocking on doors of unregistered households right up until election day. They did four rounds of door-knocking, more than any other borough. Thanks to those efforts, turnout in my constituency increased from 54% in 2005, when I was first elected with a majority of just 484 votes, to 65% this year, when my majority grew to 12,708 votes, more than the total number of people who voted for me in 2005.
I applaud the hard work and dedication of those EROs, and it is welcome to the extent that registration and turnout reached much higher levels this year than they would have if the council had been as complacent as Ministers in Whitehall have been, but there is something perverse about it. My local authority is suffering enormous cuts. It will lose nearly half its budget in the next few years, yet we have spent £326,000 and who knows how many hours of public servants’ time knocking on doors again and again. Would that money not be better spent on public services? Would it not be a better use of public servants’ time if, instead of knocking on doors trying to get people to register to vote, they visited the elderly, the marginalised and the vulnerable, who are often not seen enough?
It seems to me to be the wrong way to do things. We should have automatic registration, including for students. Why are student halls of residence not included? There are many thousands of British students living in my constituency. Why must they all register individually to vote there? It is perfectly obvious where they live. The university knows and the council knows. There is no possibility of fraud, so why are they not on the voters’ register? Why must we knock on their doors individually and get them to register to vote? If we are true democrats, what is the problem?
We know what the problem is: the fear of voter fraud. However, we must consider the difference between perception and reality. The Minister formerly responsible for this issue, when asked about it, referred to reports saying that some 30% of the population believe that election fraud is a real issue. Perception is one thing, but reality is something else: the total number of people who have been prosecuted successfully for voter fraud is, I believe, three. However, in order to counter the perception that there is voter fraud, we are creating obstacles to people’s exercise of their democratic right. More voter fraud may be occurring, and more work should be done on that, but it does not seem to me that we are starting from the right place by beginning with, “We are worried about election fraud, so we’re going to make sure we make it very difficult for a lot of people to come to the ballot and vote.” That seems wrong. It is about time that we addressed that point.
The constituencies affected most by the changes to individual election registration are those such as mine: inner-city seats where, although there might be a lot of differences between people, on the whole they vote Labour. I am sure that there is no conspiracy, but the fact is that, if we get a shrinking Labour vote at the same time as the Government keep redrawing the boundaries to reflect so-called fair constituencies, Labour constituencies will shrink, there will be fewer Labour MPs, there will always be a Conservative majority and we will always have a Conservative Government. That would not be democratic, because we would be excluding large numbers of people.
We would also end up in a situation where our Members of Parliament did not know their constituencies. For the past 10 years, I have been putting down roots in my constituency in order to be the MP for the south of Islington. Everybody knows me. I go everywhere; I am at everything. Open an envelope and I will be there. Everybody knows who I am, and I am absolutely honoured. However, if I believed that every five years my constituency would move from here to there to somewhere else, my engagement with my area as a Member of Parliament would change.
Are the Government going to proceed with the so-called fair constituencies or not? If so, are we talking about 650 constituencies or 600? That is important to know—the newspapers have given completely contradictory reports—so I would be grateful for the Minister’s answer. We need to know where we are going on this issue. We need to stop the nonsense about people seizing the opportunity to vote, ensure that they can vote and make it easier for them. It is not right to put barriers in the way of people’s exercise of their democratic right.
Hon. Members will forgive me if this is too radical, but maybe we could do this with boundaries: we could take the decisions out of the hands of politicians and give them to another group that could not be criticised for exercising self-interest, for instance a non-partisan group of experts. We could call it something like “The Boundary Commission”, and we could ask it to look at communities and take an objective view about what the most sensible divisions might be throughout the country to ensure that communities are properly reflected.
We could have had such a body since 1944, and of course we have. It is indeed called the Boundary Commission, and that is what its job is. The Conservatives want to take a partisan view of the issue and introduce a strict cap of 600—or not; who knows? They want to make a rule that the population cannot deviate more than 5% in either direction. Will that be the new plan? Will fair constituencies be less than 5% one way or the other? When the Conservatives tried to introduce that in the last Session, as they will remember, it resulted in complete chaos.
Removing the Boundary Commission’s historical ability to take local authority borders and other natural dividers into account resulted in bizarre constituencies, such as the infamous Devonwall constituency with Cornish voters, over which a few hon. Members were up in arms. I was to represent the City of London, which I was happy to do—I thought that “Islington upon Thames” had a certain ring to it, and that it was about time that the bankers were represented by somebody radical; they had not been represented by anybody radical since John Wilkes—but unfortunately the City of London had a different view, which I thought disappointing and not very open-minded.
The issue has serious ramifications as well, as changes have added up to a system that simply stacked the decks against Members representing densely populated urban areas with highly mobile populations and large numbers of people from overseas, who tend to be represented by Labour. The truth is that allowing the Boundary Commission some latitude in determining the shape and size of constituencies is necessary, precisely because it allows the commission to take into account the huge variations that exist up and down our country.
Let me take one example at random; let us compare my constituency with Weston-super-Mare. Weston-super-Mare has a population of 105,300, compared with 105,820 in Islington South and Finsbury. So far, the two constituencies have much in common. However, in my constituency the electorate is only 68,127, whereas in Weston-super-Mare it is 80,309. Guess whose constituency falls within the magic 5% of the electoral quota and whose does not?
Of course, there may be a number of reasons that might account for the difference between the two constituencies. We know that the level of electoral registration is significantly higher among older people, and there are more older people in Weston-super-Mare than in my constituency, forming 19% of the population there compared with 9% in my constituency. However, I also represent a much more diverse constituency than the Minister does, with 48% of Islington residents identifying themselves as white British, compared with 97% of people in north Somerset. More than a third of my constituents were born overseas and many of them are not on the electoral register because our current law does not allow them to be. They would love to be on the electoral register; they are terribly political and I can tell you that they are not invisible to me.
Therein lies the most insidious implication of the boundary rules, as they stand. The rules quite literally tell every single person who is not on the voters’ register that they do not count, and that for the purposes of determining who represents them in this place they do not matter. I hope we all agree that we should show our constituents, regardless of their backgrounds, more respect than that.
It seems to me that the current Government have kicked this can down the road in this Parliament, but we want answers to some of the questions that I have put today. I hope that I have helped the Minister by preparing a series of questions that I would like him to answer if possible. I have copies of the questions for other Members and I have left helpful gaps at the bottom, so that we can fill them in with the answers that the Minister will hopefully come up with this afternoon.
The questions are as follows. First, at the next general election, how many constituencies will be contested—600, 650 or some other number? Secondly, what does the Minister mean when he says that the Government remain committed to equalising the size of constituencies? Thirdly, will the size of a constituency’s electorate be allowed to deviate by more than 5% from its quota? What would happen if it deviates by 8%, or 10%? Fourthly, how about the Government just doing us all a favour and putting the question back in the hands of the independent Boundary Commission, where it has always belonged? Fifthly, does the Minister recognise the “manifest unfairness”, to borrow a phrase from his own party’s manifesto, of basing the size of constituencies so closely on the number of electors as opposed to the number of people?
There are countries around the world that divide up constituencies on the basis of the size of the population and not just those who are on the voters’ register, and given the number of difficulties and issues that I have raised today—simply in relation to my constituency—surely it is fairer for us to start thinking about constituency sizes based on the size of their population. Does the Minister appreciate that not doing so would put MPs representing diverse, inner-city populations, the majority of whom just happen to be members of the Opposition party, at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to their ability to do their job? Finally, can the Minister explain how on earth reducing the number of MPs to 600
“would result in savings to the public purse of £13.6 million a year”,
as he has claimed, without there being a serious decline in the standards of service that our constituents can expect to receive?
As I am sure Members here can tell, I have a lot to say on this subject and I could say a great deal more, but I will drop the rest of my speech and sit down so that other Members can contribute.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Turner, for calling me to speak; it is a pleasure to contribute to this debate with you in the Chair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on securing such an important debate so early in this Parliament. She has covered, very ably and in great detail, the wide range of issues involved in voter registration and the prospective boundary review, and she struck an important note by saying that we should be able to discuss these issues on a non-partisan basis. That is certainly what I hope to do as I focus on student registration. I raise the issue as I represent more students than any other Member of this House—some 36,000, according to the last census —and because I chaired the all-party group on students in the last Parliament. I point out to anybody who is interested that we are relaunching the group on 13 July, so they can put that date in their diary.
Many students live in two homes, but the place where they study is effectively their primary residence. They spend more time there, and many of us who represent areas with large numbers of students make enormous efforts to integrate them into the local community and make them feel that the area is their primary home. That is as important in electoral registration as in anything else.
Members and the Minister, whom I welcome to his post, will know that prior to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 many universities, though not all, block-registered students living in university accommodation, effectively acting in their role as head of household. I remain disappointed that the Government rejected amendments to that Act that would have allowed that block registration of students to continue, because it was an established and secure method of ensuring that students got on to the register, and that their identity was validated.
I wonder whether, in retrospect, the Government regret their decision to reject those amendments, given that in the run-up to the last election they spent an awful lot of money through the Cabinet Office pushing student registration, which I welcome. However, they were playing catch-up because they were behind the game. I welcome the fact that £380,000 was allocated to the National Union of Students, which shared it out among student unions across the country, to promote voter registration. That was a good spend; the money was used effectively, and it had a real impact on the number of students registered. We will need to look at that sort of spend in the run-up to key elections in the coming year. There will be many of them. Indeed, that applies to referendums, too; clearly, one referendum is not far away. Will the Minister say whether there are plans to continue that funding in the run-up to the elections and referendums in the immediate period ahead? I ask because that money was used effectively; it could be used again effectively, and it is certainly needed.
The Cabinet Office has worked very effectively on this issue, but I ask the Minister to consider the development of better approaches. When the 2013 Act was passed, it struck me, as someone who represents many students, that there would be an opportunity under individual electoral registration to reach beyond the number of students who registered under the old system of block registration if we could successfully integrate student enrolment and electoral registration.
Many universities have been quite willing—even enthusiastic—to promote the idea of registration, but I thought that we could take a step further than that. I talked to both the universities in my constituency—Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University—about the ways in which that might be achieved. We agreed between us that, for the 2014 entry of students, Sheffield University would pilot an integrated system, and that we would have as a benchmark alongside it Sheffield Hallam University, which would simply point students to the Government’s portal. We did all that with a view to introducing the Sheffield University system, if it proved worth while. The project was very successful indeed, thanks to the commitment of the staff at the universities and our local electoral registration officer, John Tomlinson, to whom I pay tribute. We developed a system that went live, as planned, last September. I also thank the Cabinet Office for its support and limited funding for that process.
The system requires students, when registering and enrolling with the university, actively to decide whether they want to register to vote. It was hugely successful, with 64% of eligible students indicating their wish to register to vote in Sheffield. The system then took people to another step, requiring them to give their national insurance number. At that point, two thirds of those enthusiastic, willing voters dropped out of the system because they did not have immediate access to their NI number and did not want to delay their university registration. The situation was looking a little bit bleak, with only 24% of students registered, despite more than double that number wanting to do so.
Again, I pay tribute to the Cabinet Office, which stepped in with new guidance issued in December, which allowed electoral registration officers to use their discretion to verify an application using any data source that satisfactorily established the identity of the applicant, including student enrolment data. That is sensible, because those data are a good verifier of identity. That meant that all those students who did not have their NI number and were not on the register—some 7,000—were added during December and January. It would be far simpler if, rather than having to seek national insurance numbers at all, we had a simple system, such as that put in place by the Cabinet Office, enabling EROs to register students on the basis of their indication that they wished to register, with their identities verified by their student status. Could not we dispense with the requirement for universities to collect NI numbers? That would make it simpler for everybody, and we would still have the verifiable data.
Whatever the Minister’s answer is, it is important that we press ahead with trying to get integrated systems. I have been working, as the Cabinet Office has, with Universities UK and the National Union of Students to encourage universities to make that decision. The Minister will know that many universities are grouped together by the fact that the same system provider writes their student enrolment programmes. The largest provider covers 82 universities, Sheffield Hallam being one of them. This happens across the country. There is an opportunity to get those system providers—I think there are three in all—to rewrite their software with a simple fix, before the September 2015 entry, so that there is an integrated system of electoral registration in the student enrolment procedures. I think active consideration has been given to this, but will the Minister positively consider the Cabinet Office funding these changes, including the rewrite of the software for many universities? Apart from anything else, if that happened the Government would save a lot of money, because we would not need the kind of retrospective funding that was needed when we were playing catch-up in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
Another positive initiative from the Cabinet Office was the establishment of projects trying to co-ordinate voter registration work for the Student Forum, which brought together the NUS, Universities UK, GuildHE, the Association of Colleges, the Academic Registrars Council and electoral registration officers, nationally and regionally. That organisation did some productive work. I hope that the Minister will commit to continuing those projects and forums.
I hope that the Minister recognises that there is a wider lesson to be learned from the experience of student registration, which shows that, with commitment, creativity and resources, IER can be introduced successfully. We can transfer the lessons of Sheffield’s system, which is aimed at students, beyond higher education to schools, colleges, housing providers, residential homes and other organisations that collect the data that the Government need to verify identity. We need to make it as simple as possible to get people straight on to the electoral roll. Much more needs to be done before we have a register that is fit for purpose, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Without that, we cannot proceed to a credible boundary review or the elections that are to take place, or to the crucial decision we will be making about our membership of the European Union.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. We shared the experience of sitting on the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which lasted for one Parliament only. The Committee had many enlightening evidence sessions on this matter.
It might be as well to record that in our last meeting with the Electoral Commission, it gave special praise to electoral registration officers in two constituencies—mine and the Vale of Clwyd—for their energetic activity after Christmas until the election date. The result in my constituency was interesting, with a swing of 0.0%, so what it lacks in volatility it makes up for in consistency. The sad effect in the Vale of Clwyd was the removal from Parliament of the person who knew more about electoral registration than anyone else—Chris Ruane, who is greatly missed in this Chamber.
Democracy was started in Greece 2,500 years ago and it has come to us on the instalment plan, in stages and imperfectly. It is still possible to buy a place in the House of Lords and still possible to buy influence and privilege from Governments by putting money into the pockets of lobbyists. We have done virtually nothing to reform that system. It is still possible for retiring Ministers, generals and civil servants to prostitute their insider knowledge to the highest bidder when they leave this place, to get a lucrative retirement job and buy their hacienda in Spain. That is going on and we are doing very little to limit it. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is a bit of a joke. It is not the Rottweiler it should be; it is a pussy cat without teeth or claws. We have an imperfect democracy.
The Government’s only argument for redrawing constituencies is arithmetical tyranny: doing it entirely on the basis of population. Let me give one example of how things do not work that way. A main area of our work in my constituency office is immigration. In the local authority area I serve, there are at this moment 439 asylum seekers—that is just one group; there are others as well—all of whom require a great deal of work. There are also language difficulties. It is a huge burden on an MP’s office. Where is the fairness in this, when in the constituencies of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary, there are a grand total of three asylum seekers?
We could talk about many other examples of the unfair burden of work in different constituencies. The Government are planning, again, to undermine the number of constituencies and disturb the system. There certainly are arguments for bringing the system up to date, but there is no argument for doing so at a time when the Government are awarding places in the House of Lords to people who are unelected. Sometimes places are given because of cash.
There is certainly a link between contributions to parties—all parties—and places in the House of Lords. There are also links between those, such as Ministers, whom the Government wish to reward for failure, as a consolation. That is normal now. We have a system of political awards set up by the present Prime Minister. The system has existed only since 2011; it is entirely new. Why should anyone want an award? People lust after the same honour that Sir Jimmy Savile and Sir Cyril Smith had. Why anyone would want to be tainted with such a thing is beyond me.
There was something of a triumph in the last election for the Electoral Commission, which gave us evidence on many occasions, as you will recall, Mr Turner. The result of the election showed some remarkable changes. We spent many hours in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee looking at how we could encourage people to register, particularly those groups that were largely under-registered. Organisations such as Bite the Ballot did a great job on that. Sadly, in spite of my repeated requests, we never had Russell Brand along to give us evidence. We wanted to get hold of him and say, “You realise how badly young people are treated by all politicians. They look after rich pensioners such as me very well indeed, because we are the group who vote.”
Young people have had a terrible deal from the coalition Government and previous Governments because they are not viewed as being of any consequence. Russell Brand made that foolish statement to his 9 million followers on Twitter—rather more than you or I have, Mr Turner—telling them not to vote and not to take part in the election, but instead to march around the streets making demands. He tried to get 1 million people on the street outside here a few months ago; he managed about 200, I think. He took those people out of the electoral process. Although he eventually recanted under the wise advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), it was too late for them to register and get on the electoral roll again. I wish we could have had him before the Committee, where we could have persuaded him that his view was counter-productive and not achieving his aim.
The Electoral Commission reported a record-breaking 469,000 people in one day registering online to vote in the 2015 general election. That is an incredible number. There were 2,296,000 online applications to register to vote from when the campaign began last year on 16 March to polling day. Those are enormous figures. Voting habits have changed. The public are ahead of us in many ways in their willingness to use electronic media to register and to vote, and we have to take into account the fact that people have got into the habit of voting for television personalities and so on in that way. We should look at the success of the Electoral Commission and such organisations as Bite the Ballot, which have done a great deal to maintain the number of people voting.
In my campaign, I spoke to many thousands of voters. I found the contempt for politics distressing; it has not improved since the screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal. One party managed to sell itself as being close to the voters. The man in the pub with a fag and a pint was who they related to, not politicians. That party made inroads in my constituency, but it did not affect my vote in any way, because the sensible Lib Dems deserted their party and voted for me. However, some 6,000 people in my constituency, which has been wise enough to elect me since 1987, voted UKIP.
There is all the other stuff about Europe and so on, but part of the reason why people voted for UKIP—they repeated this again and again—was contempt for the political system and this House. We are trying to do something about it, but we put on a pantomime every Wednesday—a national embarrassment of exchanged insults and unanswered questions. In one of the last Prime Minister’s questions before the election, the Prime Minister was asked a question on immigration, and in his answer he mentioned nine other subjects, not one of them immigration.
Last week, the Prime Minister asked the Leader of the Opposition four questions, which is almost more than she asked him. I have usefully suggested that it would be helpful to change the name from Prime Minister’s questions to Prime Minister’s answers, just to give him an idea of what is expected of him and to let him know how the system should work.
The system used to work. We did not like the answers that Margaret Thatcher gave, but she always referred to the question asked. If I asked the Welsh Minister a question about tidal barrages and he told me the price of cabbage in Cardiff on that day, the Speaker would rightly call him out of order, but that does not work with the Prime Minister. Prime Minister’s questions are an object of derision for politics and the system. People show contempt for us, and that contempt is to the advantage of such parties as UKIP. Prime Minister’s Question Time reduces our chance of restoring the trust and confidence that the public used to have in the political system.
A great amount of reform is needed, and it is a lot more urgent than changing the constituency boundaries. The Government wish to do that, and it is to their electoral advantage, but I have always been in favour of proportional representation. We stand in contempt of the country because all parties reach their conclusions on PR based on their party interest. The Conservatives and the Labour party benefit from the current system. The Lib Dems have always taken a principled line on PR, and now we find it coming from UKIP and other parties, such as the Greens, that suffer greatly under the current system. It is a travesty to suggest that the system we have represents the public view, because it does not.
We did a splendid report in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee last year. One of its suggestions was to have a democracy day, which is a magnificent idea. In my constituency of Newport West, the Chartists lost at least 20 members when they were killed raiding a hotel to release a prisoner, Henry Vincent. They were protesting on principle about the cruel treatment they were receiving and asking for the vote. Every year on 4 November, there are celebrations and commemorations to mark that day, and it is a great way of getting the meaning of democracy across to schoolchildren. Lord Tredegar held the one vote in the town. He decided everything and the working people had no votes at all. We should have a democracy day to celebrate the joys of democracy.
In this place, we have at least 1,000 depictions of royalty. They are everywhere, and include paintings, statues and a tower. What has royalty done for democracy? It has obstructed almost every advance in democracy. It could be argued that they donated one head, but that was grudgingly.
The difference between us and royalty is that we have been elected. [Interruption.] That is slightly off the subject, I agree, but where are the tributes to the heroes of democracy, who are the reason why we are here and the reason why we exist? Thanks to Mr Speaker, there is a tiny exhibition about Chartists on the top corridor, and that is welcome. There are a few tributes to suffragettes around, but mostly they are outside this building.
The Putney debates were a great celebration of democracy. They were hugely important, but they are hardly known. We hear about Magna Carta, but not about the Putney debates, which took place in 1647 between late October and early November and laid down the whole basis for the Bill of Rights. The Women’s Social and Political Union—the suffragettes—had a notable occasion in 1903.
If we are to win back public trust and belief in democracy, we must energise people in the same way as the young people of Scotland were energised when they voted so strongly in its referendum, which was a magnificent piece of democratic action and an awakening of responsibility among young people. It showed them the strength of the vote and the democratic process.
We have a long way to go, but as beneficiaries of the democratic system we should be working towards a system that is by far the best in the world. It is not at the moment. The mother of Parliaments is now a disgraced hag heading for future scandals; we must do something to improve it. We have done nothing to improve our status since the expenses scandal. People do not believe us and they do not trust us. Virtually every story about MPs that appears in the papers is negative. We are being blamed for a pay rise that none of us asked for or wanted.
There has to be a serious campaign by all parties to improve the House’s status. That can be done only by changing radically how we behave and appear to the public. Prime Minister’s Question Time is the House at its worst. We put on a national embarrassment show every week—it is time we reinvented it as an event that, although still robust and full of questions, is nevertheless conducted in an atmosphere of calm, dignity and mutual respect.
I want to discuss young people’s voter engagement and registration, but first I will quickly say something about boundary changes, particularly the 5% deviation. My constituency, Workington, is in Cumbria, where the 5% deviation is a challenge, bearing in mind the geography and the population. Cumbria has a very large area and a very small population —I know that geography and population in constituencies are taken into account in Scotland. The other issue with Cumbria, in addition to its size, is its height, which, if taken into account, would also make a difference. The last time the Boundary Commission looked at Cumbria, it did not seem to realise that a short six-mile walk included going over the top of Scafell pike and down the other side, which makes things a little more tricky. I would be grateful if that could be taken into consideration.
I am here because improving voter engagement is crucial to democracy in this country—I think we would all agree. We have talked about the decline in turnout in recent years. Turnout in Workington at the general election was 65.6%, whereas as recently as 1992 it was more than 80%. In fact, going back further, it was over 80% more often than not, so something has happened since the late 1990s. I see it as an important part of my role as an MP to engage properly with local people so that they want to take part in the political process. We also need to demonstrate that taking part and voting actually makes a difference. People say all the time that it makes no difference, so we must demonstrate that it does.
One of the most worrying and disappointing responses I heard on the doorstep—this was not unusual—was when a young person told me that they were not registered. Often, they were not registered because they did not know that they had to register, because they had no idea how to go about it, or because they did not think that it was something they should be getting involved in. They felt that it was nothing to do with them—they knew nothing about politics and did not feel qualified to take part and vote. The changes to voter registration introduced by the previous Government have only added to that feeling. It is not good enough for a Government to make such fundamental changes while neglecting young people coming into the system, who do not really understand practically what the changes mean for them.
Important civic duties such as registering to vote and voting should be brought into the school curriculum. That way, children and young people will be given the confidence and understanding required to register and take part, as well as to understand why that is important and the effect on their daily lives. That should be true at all democratic—not just parliamentary—levels. Children and young people should understand the importance of voting in local elections; for police and crime commissioners, and so on, because it all affects them and their families directly.
One of the things I enjoyed the most during the election campaign was taking part in school hustings. I did a number of them and was really impressed by the knowledge and passion that young people had for the subjects they were particularly interested in and cared about. We saw how passionately involved young people were in the Scottish referendum and the difference in turnout there; as the Minister knows, the voting age was reduced to 16 in that referendum, and it was very successful. That has convinced me that the voting age should be reduced to 16, along with the active introduction of children to politics at school, through the national curriculum.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if a young person can be encouraged to vote, so long as they have voted once, they will continue to do so? The challenge for us all is to ensure that they vote the first time. That is perhaps another argument for allowing kids to vote at 16 and 17.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, and there is evidence to show that once someone gets into the habit of voting, they are more likely to continue. One problem is that the children I saw at the hustings were so engaged and excited, but then so disappointed that they could not participate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, if they go to university, there is the further challenge of getting registered. Young people all too easily slip out of the system and out of the habit of voting, so that is an incredibly important point.
I urge the Minister to introduce children to politics through the national curriculum and to reconsider the position on reducing the voting age to 16, because children and young people are interested and want to get involved. Such steps should be part of the solution to increasing both voter registration and participation. I urge the Government to look at this issue ahead of the EU referendum.
Thank you for allowing me to speak, Mr Turner, and for your immense patience in understanding that the 90% of Scottish National party Members who are new are finding our feet with regard to parliamentary procedure.
This is an extremely important conversation, and I thank the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for bringing it to the attention of the House. In Scotland, we have just come out of a referendum process where we had massive engagement. There are huge lessons to be learned about how that process was conducted. Perhaps the House should consider the level of engagement in Scotland.
Our electoral system leads to issues with parliamentary democracy and legitimacy. I am delighted to be here, but, as a democrat, I find it somewhat problematic that the SNP has 95% of Members with only 50% of the vote in Scotland. To me, that is a legitimacy problem. The Tories are in government with the votes of 35% of the overall UK electorate. The system is set up in a very binary way, so that we have a big, strong Government, but that leaves a majority of people voiceless as regards representation. If we are honest with ourselves, as democrats in this House we need to look at why people feel voiceless and why that stops them from getting engaged in the democratic process. I am not a fan of the UK Independence party, but many people voted for it and they have only one Member of Parliament.
In Scotland, we need to have a conversation about the link between poverty and exclusion from society, which is manifested in lower turnouts in areas of multiple social deprivation. My constituency, Glasgow East, is one of the most deprived in the whole UK. The turnout in Glasgow for the Scottish referendum was 75%, compared with 91% in East Dunbartonshire, one of the richest constituencies in Scotland. Work must be done to encourage people in such areas to vote.
There is definitely a link between indebtedness and being on the electoral register. People are terrified about putting themselves on the register if they are worried about debt catching up with them, so if we want to increase participation in democracy, we must make it safe for people. That requires education, but that also leaves a burden on us as parliamentarians to go out and speak to people in our communities and engage with them. If the Scottish referendum showed anything, it was that going into communities and having legitimate, open conversations is a way of encouraging people.
We should have events that allow people to come along and question politicians, because the problem with politics, which was exemplified in the expenses scandal, was the sense of them and us. It should not be them and us; we are all together and there should be no division between the people and their representatives. We have to come from the people and be among the people in order to represent them. That is the type of legitimacy that we get from considering and really engaging with people at community level. In that way, we will grow democracy.
In my constituency, the turnout in 2010 was 52%, but in 2015, following the referendum, it was eight percentage points higher. That is not a huge amount of people coming out, but there is a distinct upward trend that is not replicated in the rest of the UK. We therefore need to use that as a lesson.
The referendum was a binary choice: people understood what they were voting for. Whether they voted yes or no, they knew what the consequences were. We do not necessarily have that in party politics, so people do not feel as engaged in that or the manifestation of that in one person. That needs to be addressed going forward.
We need to look again at the electoral system and be really honest with ourselves. Are we keeping first past the post because it suits the Government of the day, or the Opposition, or is it because people truly believe that to be the best democracy that we can have? I do not think that it is and I strongly recommend that we look again at the type of country that we want to live in and the type of representation we have for people in the House.
It is a pleasure to speak to you as Chair of the debate, Mr Turner. I thank the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for bringing the debate to the House. Two topics that have the utmost relevance are the franchise and voter engagement.
When we consider those issues, it is important to recognise the journey we have been on for a number of years, not least given the pivotal role that the suffragette movement played in ensuring that women not only have the vote, but are adequately represented in the great Chambers of this House. We still have a great deal of work to do to ensure that we continue to promote the most talented and capable women into these Chambers as well as boardrooms and throughout every walk of life.
Thankfully, there is more to the debate than the suffragettes and giving the franchise to women. We have moved on. However, one issue is close to my heart, and I am grateful to the hon. Members for Islington South and Finsbury and for Workington (Sue Hayman)—Cumbria’s first female Member—for bringing it up: votes at 16. In Scotland last year, that brought to light the real opportunity we have to engage our young people. We witnessed a political movement unlike any other across these islands and the securing of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds was key to opening up a real conversation on the role of politics and the part that young people can play in shaping their futures and voicing their aspirations and hopes as well as their fears. We must allow them to continue to engage.
Votes at 16 for all elections is the starting point and I thank the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury for addressing that. If we start to give our young people a voice and opportunity, we can expect them to continue to vote and remain part of the process. They will take their vote seriously and—correctly—they will hold us to account. That is exactly what every Member should hope for and aspire to not just for our young people, but for every citizen in our constituencies.
Sadly, that right was not granted to young people for the general election and it has not been during the ongoing debate on the EU referendum. It is vital that our young people are given an opportunity to have their say on that important decision that will not only shape their futures, but have significant consequences for their lives. Their future decisions about their studies and work and their rights and responsibilities as citizens will be affected.
The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury spoke at great length about the disparity in engagement between affluent and more deprived areas. That is also crucial. We can begin to engage our young people, but life dictates that circumstances change. Debt can take hold of people’s lives and that can disengage them from a process that they may once have been a part of.
Most crucially, engaging all our young people may be the key to ensuring greater and continued participation in our democratic process. Young people bring dynamism and energy and they have proven that they have the ability to understand and communicate politics in a language that many politicians can only aspire to.
I welcome hon. Members’ comments on student participation. We should remember that students are mostly young people—though they are not all young—who take part in this process when in a transient position in their lives that does not fix them to an abode where they can become regular voters. We must find a way to engage with students and young people and, crucially, those who live in areas that are in the main neglected owing to deprivation and poverty and who, understandably, do not feel the need to engage with a process because perhaps at times it may be the least of their concerns.
Edinburgh University highlighted the fact that giving a vote to 16 and 17-year-olds has been a proven democratic success. It is worth noting that 4.29 million Scots were registered to vote, which accounts for 97% of the Scottish population, and 80% of them voted in last year’s referendum. If that is not an indication that by giving the widest franchise we can engage our young people and citizens in the process, I do not know what is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Ms Black), our youngest MP and the youngest Member of this Parliament, is a prime example of a young person who was engaged with the political process. She is now a product of that process who can rightly sit in her place in this Chamber. We must ensure that the views of many more people are reflected in our Chambers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I welcome the Minister to his place and wish him well with his new responsibilities in the Cabinet Office. I also join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on bringing this extremely important matter to Westminster Hall so early in the new Parliament. We have had an excellent debate, with contributions from across the House. I will seek to address some of them before I focus on questions about the main two issues raised by my hon. Friend: individual voter registration and boundaries.
The theme running through every speech this afternoon has been how we can increase participation in our democracy. Frankly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has done sterling work on student representation and I will return to that in a moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) spoke brilliantly today, reminding us about the loss of Chris Ruane, who did so much work in this House to promote voter registration, as well as about the work of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform in the previous Parliament on which he served under the able chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen).
Votes at 16 was raised by most speakers in the debate, and that issue will not go away. We have already heard about the hugely positive experience in Scotland; I think I am right in saying that surveys suggested that 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds participated in the Scottish referendum. The Minister should address this issue. I and the Labour party want 16 and 17-year-olds to be able to vote in the European Union referendum and in all future elections.
In the run-up to the general election, I paid a number of visits to schools, colleges and youth organisations and discussed votes at 16. Frankly, there was a range of views—some 16 and 17-year-olds did not agree with the idea—but a common response was that it would have to be accompanied by better education on the matter in schools. I therefore warmly welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman). I am a long-standing campaigner for citizenship education in schools. Some schools do it well, but they are a minority. We need to emphasise the great importance of effective citizenship education.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) made an incredibly powerful speech. I personally agree with her on electoral reform, although I am speaking from the Front Bench so should say that that is not Labour party policy; there is a range of views in the party and mine is, frankly, in the minority. I hope that politicians in all parties will consider the statistics she cited on the representation of different parties.
The hon. Lady rightly reminded us that turnout varies and that a major factor in determining turnout is relative poverty or affluence. As she said, there is a real risk of a “them and us” culture becoming entrenched in our politics. Her colleague, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), spoke about the importance of women’s representation in this place. We have seen further improvement on that, but we are still a long way from achieving the 50% that we all aspire to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury raised two main issues: voter registration and the linked issue of constituency boundaries. The scandal of under-registration is nothing new. As she reminded us, the Electoral Commission has provided a number of estimates on how many people are missing from the register; its most recent estimate, from last year, is 7.5 million eligible adults. That figure predates individual voter registration.
I echo what my hon. Friend said about the incredibly hard work put in by electoral registration officers and local authorities throughout the country to try to maximise registration over the past year, but, as has been said, there are a number of really important elections next year—for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, local government across the country and, in London, for the Mayor and the London Assembly—so it is vital that that work should be sustained and built on over the coming year.
I will discuss the three key groups—attainers, students and those who rent in the private sector. I echo those who paid tribute to the amazing work of organisations such as Bite the Ballot, Operation Black Vote, Operation Disabled Vote and the National Union of Students. Online registration is a welcome reform by the Government —one that we supported—that has undoubtedly enabled a lot of people to register who might not otherwise have done so.
I would like the Minister to consider the experience in Northern Ireland, where the schools initiative resulted in a higher number of attainers on the register after individual registration was brought in. Under that initiative, a duty was placed on schools and colleges to work with electoral registration officers to deliver high levels of registration. That is a good system and should be adopted across the rest of the country.
Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central spoke about what has been done in Sheffield. He made an important case. Will the Minister consider whether we can work closely, on a cross-party basis, with Universities UK, the NUS and others to see whether the system adopted in Sheffield could be adopted by universities across the country? Numbers of students on the register might then be higher even than under the old system.
Thirdly, we know that private renters, given the nature of their life, move around more. Will the Government work with large letting agencies and others to include reminders to register for new tenants, for example? I want the Minister to address those three specific points in his response.
My final point about individual voter registration is that we are awaiting a report from the Electoral Commission in which it will recommend whether the Government should bring forward full individual voter registration to this year or should stick with the legislative timetable and introduce it next year. If the commission advises the Government not to bring the transition forward, will they accept that advice? That is an important point, partly because we should ensure that we have the best possible register, with the maximum involvement for all the elections happening next year, and then for the EU referendum, and partly for the reason given by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury. As she said, the next boundary review will be conducted on the basis of the register put together this year; if that review is based on an incomplete register, our political boundaries will not be properly representative of the population as a whole.
My hon. Friend put a number of questions to the Minister about the boundaries that I will not repeat—we all have copies of them now—but I will say that the Opposition never supported the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. We did not think that a case had been made for it, and from the point of view of respect for natural communities and historic traditions, sticking with the number of MPs we have at the moment seems to us to make sense. If the Government are changing their position on that, they will have our full support.
On constituency size, we felt that the 5% variation requirement was simply too tight. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington made a good argument based on the example of Cumbria; others can be made. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury spoke about some of the odd constituencies that would have been created under the proposals the last Government put forward. In Merseyside, the Boundary Commission’s initial proposal contained a constituency, Mersey Banks, on two opposite sides of the River Mersey.
Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University has done some brilliant work on this issue and recommended that the Government simply amend their own legislation so that the 5% variation became 8% or 10%, to avoid many of the difficulties that were created by the process that was aborted in the previous Parliament. I ask the Minister to consider that. Professor Johnston also suggests —although this is a matter more for the Boundary Commission than for the Government or Parliament—that the Boundary Commission for England should split wards, as happens in Scotland. It has been reluctant to do that previously; were it prepared to consider doing so, we might not have some of the manifest problems that arose during the boundary review in the previous Parliament. Will the Minister address that point?
My preference—and the view that the Labour party has taken consistently—is to move away from a variation of 5% to one of either 8% or 10%. Were we to do so, we would avoid ward splitting on any serious scale. Professor Johnston’s argument is that we could perhaps do both and that an element of ward splitting might be required in certain communities. I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to those ideas.
These are important issues for hon. Members to address, and it is excellent that we have had an early opportunity to do so. We must all be driven—all Members who have contributed so far have said this—by a desire to increase the involvement in our political processes and the accountability of this place. If we get registration and boundaries right, we might be able to do that.
It is a pleasure to have you in charge of our proceedings this afternoon, Mr Turner. As others have, I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on securing this debate on a very important topic. It is a cross-party issue; every democrat surely must believe that it is vital that we maintain the integrity, balance and transparent fairness of our electoral system, to make sure that this place and other elected assemblies have the credibility that is essential for the continuing health of our democracy.
The hon. Lady’s local area has a proud tradition for her to follow. She mentioned the Chartists, who were crucial democrats, and Thomas Paine, a particularly important and well known radical. I was not quite with her on Lenin, but I appreciate that he has played an important part in the past. She also mentioned important initiatives being undertaken by her local electoral registration officer and others around the country.
The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) spoke about some of the things that are happening in Sheffield in relation to university students. It is worth while pausing to note the different and, on occasion, radically divergent ways of encouraging registration around the country. There are excellent examples of tailored practices that are designed to address particular local issues. Some of those practices may have a much wider national application, despite having started out as local solutions to local problems, and could profitably and promisingly be shared more widely to drive up registration around the rest of the country. There is a great opportunity to share best practice and copy the examples of Sheffield and Islington.
I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for his welcome and I look forward to debating with him, unless he is spirited away from us by the House’s decisions on Select Committee Chairmen. As he said, the Electoral Commission is shortly due to publish a report, which will be tremendously important for all of us in this room, because it will provide us with an authoritative analysis of what has been going on in registration over the course of the past year or so. It will show which parts of the country are ahead and which are behind. It will provide a fresh update on the hard-to-reach groups that we have heard about during this debate, some of which are particularly low registrants and some of which are particularly high. Importantly, it will shed light on whether the situation is changing and will tell us which groups are getting better and which are falling back, either because they are in different parts of the country or due to demographic trends. It will therefore equip us with vital facts on which we can base our decisions on how to go forward.
Most of us—although perhaps not the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury—agree that individual electoral registration has been a success and has made it easier for people to register to vote online. It has become much simpler as a result of IER to register to vote. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) quoted some impressive figures—I have my own suite of figures, but it broadly overlaps with his—on the truly impressive rate of online registration that was achieved through IER in the run-up to the general election. The system held, and it worked. Although some may have been re-registrations or duplications, that showed that it is possible to reduce the barriers to registration and to make it simpler, particularly for younger folk, who are used to living their entire lives online, but also for the rest of the population. Registration is made a great deal more accessible by allowing us to do it online, and we are all becoming used to doing things online in other walks of life. It would be bizarre and perverse if we did not allow or encourage that to continue. The facts are emerging—we hope they will be confirmed in the Electoral Commission’s report—but it looks as though this has made a major improvement to registration and has got rid of some of the barriers in people’s way.
The Minister may have misunderstood me. I have no problem with making it easier for people to register to vote, and I acknowledge that online voter registration has made it easier for a lot of people. I started from a different standpoint. It is not that we should encourage people to reach out and grasp their right to vote, but that we should ensure that they simply have the right to vote in as accurate a way as possible. It is then for them to decide whether they want to vote or not. They should not need to take two steps, although they may need to sometimes. As a general rule, we should try to have automatic registration, so that we are all going for the goal of 100% registration.
I was about to come to examples of where that has been achieved already with some success. In the case of IER, about 87% of those who were already enrolled were seamlessly moved across, without their having to do anything. They were automatically verified, and their registration was moved across straightforwardly and simply.
There is a great deal that can be done, which brings me on seamlessly to the points made by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central about other opportunities to prompt people. He used the example of students, but there are many other examples. The shadow Minister mentioned private letting agents, which provide an obvious gateway or portal. There is a prompting moment when people move house. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central talked about universities, and the example of Northern Ireland was mentioned, where work has also been done in schools and colleges.
My point was that it is not simply about the opportunity to prompt—that is what we had at Sheffield Hallam, where it produced a 15% student uptake—but the opportunity to integrate systems in which data are already being collected to verify voters. There should be a seamless process of automatic registration. That is what we did in the other university, where we got 64% registration. That applies more widely than to institutions of higher education.
I agree with most, but not all, of what the hon. Gentleman says. There are huge opportunities to make it easier to verify people’s identity, to prompt them and to confirm them as legitimate voters. There are many opportunities, at points at which people intersect with other parts of Government data, when we can do that very effectively indeed.
The hon. Gentleman said that if students were asked to provide their national insurance number and did not happen to have it to hand, they would be discouraged, but there are alternatives, which were exploited in Sheffield. There are other trusted data sources, such as university enrolment data, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Providing the university has the right information—he said that there was an opportunity for software improvement—it could be used to provide the automatic confirmation of people’s eligibility to vote.
Where I gently but fundamentally part company with the hon. Gentleman—although I stay in contact with the shadow Minister—is on the notion of IER being part of a conscious choice for people to enrol. Moving away from the old system of household enrolment is a major step forward. I am sure that I am preaching to the choir when I say that the old system of household enrolment was a little patriarchal, if I can put it that way. Expecting people who want to vote to register is not a great thing to ask.
I do not think we are really at odds. What we are saying is that the system we developed at Sheffield requires people to make a decision, but it does not direct them to what that decision is; that is the critical thing. It is about more active engagement.
We are as one on the idea that there is a great deal more that can be done. With any luck, the Electoral Commission’s report will equip us with more facts that show us which avenues it will be most profitable for us to pursue first. It will allow us to prioritise them and make progress.
The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury was extremely organised and asked a series of questions. I do not have time to get through them all, but I will endeavour to. Before I move on, I want to mention the comments of the hon. Members for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). I am probably misquoting the hon. Member for Glasgow East, but she said—this was a vital comment—that there should be no division between representatives of the people and the people themselves. I am sure that everybody here would echo and agree with that statement.
On the issue of whether the bands around boundaries should be 5%, 8% or 10%, the point is that constituency size must be based on registration to ensure we have genuinely equal representation in this place. The wider the bands, the less fairness there is, in terms of the power of an individual’s vote. If there was a 10% band, there could be a 20% difference between the number of people it takes to elect me and the number of people it takes to elect the shadow Minister. That would be getting too wide for comfort.
I am down to my last 27 seconds, so I really cannot.
That is not an acceptable approach. It would not provide the kind of connection with our voters and the transparent fairness that we are all aiming to achieve in this vital area of our democratic life.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered voter engagement and the franchise.
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered tackling food waste.
Back in 2012, I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on food waste. It was a collaborative effort, supported by Feedback—known then as Feeding the 5000—FareShare and FoodCycle, as well as Friends of the Earth and the World Wide Fund for Nature UK. The Bill received strong cross-party backing. I was then, and still am, a proud patron of FoodCycle and wanted to advance proposals that would increase the amount of food available for redistribution.
Although the Bill inevitably fell at the end of the parliamentary Session, I have continued to campaign for its provisions, and it feels timely to revisit the issue now for a number of reasons. France, for example, has just passed a food waste law. Belgium, back in May 2014, was the first European country to pass such a law, but the French law has gained more attention. It started with Arash Derambarsh, a local councillor representing a suburb in Paris, who set up a petition against food waste that got more than 200,000 signatures. The petition was triggered by the fact that supermarkets were pouring bleach on to edible food before binning it in order to prevent people from foraging in the bins to feed themselves. As some may remember, people were prosecuted in the UK for foraging in the bins behind an Iceland shop, which happened to be next to a police station. Although they were caught, Iceland, to its credit, asked the police to drop charges. That situation was similar to the one in France, although it did not involve bleach.
In France, the incident and petition led to the National Assembly passing new legislation that requires French supermarkets to partner with charities to donate food that is approaching its “best before” date. Although many supermarkets in France already do that, the proposals enshrine the practice in law. News reports now say that the councillor in question is hoping to take the issue to the UN conference on the sustainable development goals later this year and to the G20 summit in Turkey in November.
The French move has inspired a number of petitions in the UK calling for similar laws here. For example, one, through 38 Degrees, has garnered just under 180,000 signatures in a very short space of time. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) has tabled an early-day motion calling on the UK to introduce similar legislation. So far, that has attracted 36 signatures.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. Does she agree that as well as dealing with food waste downstream, once it has arrived at the supermarket, we need to intervene higher up the chain? Statistics show that between 20% and 40% of fruit and vegetables are rejected by supermarkets before they even get to the shelves, so it is part of a much longer process as well.
I am very pleased to see the hon. Lady in her place, not least because at the recent general election, the Greens campaigned in Bristol on the slogan: vote Green to “keep Labour honest”—so if she was not here today, who knows what nonsense I might come out with? However, she makes a valid point. I will speak later about how there has been so much focus on household food waste, but actually, this issue goes way back through the supply chain, as far as the dealings between farms and supermarkets.
Bermuda has recently passed legislation along the lines of the 1996 US legislation, the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects food donors and recipient organisations from civil and criminal liability when food has been donated in good faith. That was seen as important back then, because many potential donors and potential recipients were deterred by the fact that they might be held accountable if anything went wrong.
The excellent report of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the UK, “Feeding Britain”, said that redistributing surplus food better would be the “next big breakthrough” in eliminating hunger in the UK. In particular, it recommended that food retailers and manufacturers should be set a target of doubling the proportion of surplus food that they redistribute to food assistance providers.
Last week saw the launch of the FareShare FoodCloud app, which will enable Tesco store managers to alert charities to the surplus food that they have at the end of each day. If a charity is interested in that food, it can get in touch and collect it free of charge. A surplus food summit organised by FareShare is taking place next week. It will promote the new tool and is aimed at inspiring suppliers to step up their own efforts to redistribute their food.
All that is very welcome, and it is the reason why I wanted to secure today’s debate. However, I want to go back to why reducing food waste is so important. We know that somewhere between 30% and 50% of all food globally is wasted. That surplus has an environmental footprint. It puts pressure on scarce land and resources, contributes to deforestation and needlessly adds to global greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the US and China. It is also unsustainable if we are to meet the global challenge of feeding a growing population from an increasingly scarce agricultural resource base. It is, of course, indefensible that good food is thrown away when so many are turning to food banks, because they cannot afford to feed themselves or their families.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for securing the debate; she and I have spoken at seminars on this matter. My take on the issue is slightly different from hers. She is right to focus on ensuring that good food becomes available to those who need it, but should a lot of the focus not be on preventing food from being surplus in the first instance? Will she acknowledge the role of the packaging industry in that sector in making sure that food is kept fresh for longer? Innovations can be brought in, such as the re-closable cheese pack, which means that once opened, cheese continues to be useable for longer than would otherwise be the case.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I remember the conference at which we both spoke. One of my critiques of the Courtauld targets, which I will come on to in a moment, was that food waste and packaging waste were lumped together, in terms of the need to reduce both at the same time. I remember the point being made that although we want to reduce food packaging, and a lot of food items are over-packaged—individually wrapped bananas, for example—packaging can actually play an important role in reducing food waste. To me, that further underlines the need to treat the two issues separately.
On food banks, I wanted to make the point quickly that although I entirely support the work of food banks and think they play a very important role, we do not want to go out of our way to facilitate the creation of more food banks. We cannot allow them to become a feature of our welfare system. When the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, visited the UK a couple of years ago, he warned:
“It is only when government fails that food banks have to step in.”
He said that important as food banks are,
“they are not a substitute for social policies that protect people.”
Therefore, although I am arguing for much greater support from supermarkets, manufacturers and other people who are in a position to donate the surplus food to charities, it does not mean that I accept the fact that we need so many food banks and other food distribution organisations in the UK. I would much rather that the need did not exist and that we could find other uses for the surplus food.
Although headlines last month claimed that the UK tops the chart of EU food waste—in other words, we are the worst at dealing with food waste—a fairer per capita comparison ranks the UK as fairly average, coming about 10th out of 28 countries based on the data that were available in 2012. Since I introduced my Bill back in 2012, we have started to see very welcome steps being taken voluntarily by the industry, with Asda, for example, saying that it would donate all its surplus to FareShare. Tesco has led the way by publishing its own independently audited food waste figures and the other big supermarkets are now following suit. There had been calls for mandatory food waste audits, but I am pleased to see that the supermarkets are taking a lead on that. It is an important first step towards the industry, as a whole, publicly reporting on its food waste and then using those data to take much more ambitious action to reduce food waste.
Much more of our surplus could be redistributed. FareShare, for example, currently provides food for 150,000 people a week, saving just under 2,000 charities £20 million a year. However, that is with only 2% of the food that could be donated to it; the vast majority of food waste is still turned into compost, using anaerobic digestion, or is discarded in landfill. FareShare says that if it were able to get its hands on 100,000 tonnes of surplus food—a quarter of the 400,000 tonnes fit for human consumption that are currently allowed to go to waste—it could save the voluntary sector up to £250 million a year. That would make surplus food the second-largest supporter of charities after the Big Lottery, so there is huge potential.
We have touched slightly on the fact that the Government have focused most of their attention on household food waste. Households continue to throw away the equivalent of six meals a week, although there have been steady reductions, with waste down 21% since 2007. Some of that has been driven by much greater consumer awareness and by the success of the excellent Love Food Hate Waste campaign, which is a treasure trove of ideas and advice on how to reduce household waste.
However, focusing on household food waste, which has also been the food industry’s lobbying position, largely ignores supermarkets’ contribution. Some statistics show that just 3% of food waste in the UK is generated by retailers in back of store, with manufacturers contributing 27%. However, as the food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart has pointed out, there is a big disparity in how food waste is measured by household and by industry. Household food waste includes waste that cannot be used, such as bones and peel, while retailers’ food waste often excludes waste that could be used. In addition, supermarket purchasing policies, such as demanding food free from visual imperfections, as well as forecasting errors and over-ordering, are responsible for lots of the food wasted on farms and by suppliers, although we still do not have an accurate picture of what food is wasted at that point in the supply chain.
The hon. Lady was talking about household waste. A proportion of the household food that is thrown away is perfectly okay to eat, although it may have passed its sell-by or use-by date. Given that there is a lot of confusion in the minds of consumers about how long to keep food for consumption, would some clarification of those terms help?
I entirely agree. I was about to say that retailers make a contribution to food waste in the home. There is confusion over food that is labelled “best before” or “use by”. Many people do not understand those labels, and they think they will go down with food poisoning if they go anywhere near the time limits. Buy one, get one free offers on perishables, and packaging fruit and vegetables in multiple portions, rather than portions for one person, can also add to food waste.
The current lever for encouraging food businesses to reduce their waste—the Courtauld agreement, which is facilitated by WRAP—is voluntary and industry led. The industry set itself a very low voluntary target under phase 3 of Courtauld, which runs from 2013 to 2015. The target was to reduce household food waste by 5% by 2015 and to reduce manufacturing and retail waste by just 3%. The first year’s results show little change against that minuscule target, although signatories have reported a doubling in the food provided for redistribution. Those targets simply are not ambitious enough to drive the reduction that is needed. It should also be possible under Courtauld to see how well individual supermarkets and manufacturers are performing against the targets. At the moment, a composite result is announced, so we do not know who the good guys and the bad guys are. If companies were named and shamed, that would encourage the worst performers to follow the example set by the best performers.
There is also the problem that Government policies and subsidies, such as the landfill tax, incentivise less environmentally damaging forms of disposal over prevention and redistribution. We are therefore seeing the growth of anaerobic digestion, composting and refuse-derived fuel at the expense of prevention and donation.
I was deeply disappointed that Bristol City Council turned down the opportunity to become one of WRAP’s 10 food waste cities—a project that leads on preventing food waste. I am still struggling to find out why it turned that opportunity down, although it did tell me that it wanted to focus on composting. That suggests a worrying direction of travel, particularly given that Bristol is Europe’s green capital this year.
Much more needs to be done to enforce the waste hierarchy further up the pyramid, either through measures such as those in my Bill or through a system of financial incentives or penalties, as recommended by the House of Lords European Union Committee. In France, for example, fiscal instruments make it much more expensive for companies to send food to anaerobic digestion than to donate it to food banks. If the industry cannot drive the change that is needed, there is a need for Government action. The landfill tax, for example, was one of the most successful waste policies ever in terms of driving behaviour change and creating markets in more environmental forms of disposal, such as anaerobic digestion. However, there are no similar mechanisms to enforce the waste hierarchy further up the pyramid.
Should the UK introduce a Bill along the lines of the legislation in France? It has been said that the UK retail sector differs from the French sector in having less back-of-store waste, with such waste accounting for less than 2% of total food waste in the UK, compared with 11% in France. On the other hand, France manages to redistribute 20 times more food than the UK.
Concerns have been expressed that the French proposals could place an operational and logistical strain on charities, and questions have been asked about whether they would have the resources to handle any surplus. That is partly because the proposals in France were originally reported and misrepresented as placing an obligation on supermarkets to give away all their surplus. That gave the impression that they would be turning up at charities’ doors and forcing the staff to take food they did not want, which is not the case. The obligation is for supermarkets to put their best efforts into donating where there is a desire to take donations. The new FareShare FoodCloud app, which was launched last week, aims to have one common platform for charities, so that they do not have to deal with lots of different, and potentially competing, collection models.
Although legislation along the French lines might target only a small proportion of UK food waste, missing the much larger amount of waste in supermarket supply chains, and although such waste might not be the easiest to collect, it is symbolically important to embed redistribution in legislation. That would respond to the strong moral idea that food should not be thrown away when people are willing and able to take it.
My Food Waste Bill had a number of provisions, including a requirement on large food retailers and large food manufacturers to take steps to reduce food waste and to donate surplus food to charities for redistribution. If waste was not suitable for human consumption, it would, where legally permissible—EU rules prevent this in some cases—be made available for livestock feed rather than disposed of. There was also a good Samaritan provision in my Bill to protect food donors and recipient agencies from civil and criminal liability where food was donated in good faith.
At the time, the then Minster seemed interested in my proposals, but I was subsequently told that his Department had received advice that they would be incompatible with European food safety laws. I have since had a legal firm look into the issue, and it rejected that assessment, saying that any UK proposals would be okay as long as they closely resembled laws introduced in Italy more than 10 years ago. There is now less of a clamour for a good Samaritan provision in the UK, and legal concerns do not seem to be cited as often as a reason for not donating. It may be that the example set in other places —Australia and New York have good Samaritan laws—has set people’s minds more at rest. However, such a provision could still play a useful role in, for example, helping charities to access dairy products that, although perhaps one day out of date, would still be very much fit for purpose, or in redistribution from catering surpluses. I have heard from the Sustainable Restaurant Association and others involved in large-scale catering of huge amounts of food going to waste when a big buffet is put on at, say, a wedding, because food safety laws and concerns about health and safety mean that that food cannot be donated.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator has certainly helped to address some of the supermarkets’ unfair business practices, which were creating waste further up the supply chain. Those include the notorious take-back arrangements, which forced suppliers to take back produce supermarkets had failed to sell and meant they received no money. However, even though the Groceries Code Adjudicator is in place, suppliers continue to report the last-minute cancellation of orders by supermarkets, which often use cosmetic standards as an excuse, because order cancellations are no longer allowed. That is often done through a middleman, making it difficult for the adjudicator to take action. Indirect suppliers can bring complaints, but those are insufficient to launch an investigation. I therefore ask the Government to review this evident weakness in the adjudicator’s power so that supermarkets cannot get round the law in this way.
The details of Courtauld phase 4 are currently being worked out to cover the period 2016 to 2025 and I have some suggestions to put to the Minister. Will Courtauld phase 4 include food waste on farms? Will it require big supermarkets to report food waste transparently—a path that, as I have mentioned, some are already starting down—or will it continue with the current system where data are reported to the British Retail Consortium, which reports a composite figure? What will the targets be? Will we be looking at another 3 percentile, or will they be equal to meeting the challenge of one of the proposed sustainable development goals of halving per capita global food waste by 2030?
We must continue to consider regulation if the industry cannot deliver a more ambitious voluntary target. I understand that at the Stockholm food forum earlier this month the food companies that were present said they would welcome legislation to achieve that goal and ensure a fair playing field in doing so. I will be getting together soon with the various people who were involved in discussions about my Food Waste Bill of 2012, and revisiting it for 2015 to think about its possible revival and potential revisions or additions. I hope that if we decide to present another ten-minute rule Bill the Minister will give it serious consideration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope; I am glad to be back in this place and contributing again. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing the debate, on her long and distinguished campaigning on the issue and on her achievements so far. I am delighted that she is back to continue with it for the next five years.
I do not want to detain colleagues for too long—famous last words, but I will try not to. We often debate food poverty in this place, but too often do not consider how food waste interacts with that. There are numerous aspects to consider. I welcome much of what the Government are doing; the WRAP programme really makes a difference. It is worth reminding the Minister of what Lord de Mauley said in the other place about the importance of funding WRAP: that market failure in the private sector in the matter of reducing food waste justified continued Government funding for WRAP. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind as we approach the spending review.
Much of the debate on food waste focuses on what happens when food reaches the consumer, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) pointed out, there also is much that the packaging industry can do to reduce food waste. The hon. Member for Bristol East spoke about meals left uneaten in the fridge; I have a difficult bag of cheese in my fridge at the moment, which is at risk of going off. I need to clear it out by next Monday when I get back to London. However, there are more innovative ways than that to address food waste, and I want to highlight one that has potential.
Once upon a time, I was at the cutting edge in talking about the community shop idea. Sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) has stolen my thunder by visiting the most recent opening in South Norwood earlier this month. With his Mayor of London hat on, he has given £300,000 to try to spread the development of community shops across London. It was the second one to open, after a trial example in Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire. The concept is an offshoot of Company Shop.
High quality, wholesome food from leading supermarkets is sold at a substantial discount in the community shop. In addition, customers are offered what one might call a personal development course: literacy, numeracy and ensuring that people are job-ready. There are strict qualifying criteria for membership. The people in question need to live in an area of recognised deprivation according to the Government’s deprivation figures. They need to be on particular qualifying benefits. In return they are given a six-month membership card and access to the courses. I think that the idea is superb. In the Goldthorpe trial, 20% of those who had access to the community shop during its period of operation found paid work at the end of the personal development course. That is a good outcome as a first step.
It should be noted that the food in the shop is edible, within date and wholesome. It is such food as we would see on supermarket shelves anywhere in the country. It might have packaging that is the wrong colour, or even the wrong shade. The product might be seasonal, or there might have been a forecasting problem on the part of the supermarket. There are many reasons why food can end up in the community shop at a substantially reduced price. The shops tackle one of the problems that the food bank movement faces—certainly in my constituency—of trying to source fresh fruit and vegetables from suppliers. That is an obstacle: the movement wants to provide a wholesome package of emergency food aid, but often can rely only on what is not perishable. I struggled on behalf of the food bank to secure good fruit and veg supplies. The community shop may be a way around that.
It is worth mulling over the arguments about what we do with misshapen fruit and vegetables. In the past I got myself into hot political water by advocating that funny-shaped fruit should be sold or be made available through food banks. It was a “Marie Antoinette: let them eat U-shaped cucumbers” moment. I am pleased that Jamie Oliver is now trumpeting the cause, because if he can do it then I can lower my head behind the parapet, and not attract such opprobrium as I did.
It is also worth noting the extent to which community shops and supermarkets are reliant on the charities mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol East, such as FareShare and Foodshare. I, too, have seen figures about France. I seriously examined her Bill and was interested to note the figure of 1.7% of food being wasted at the retail stage here, compared with 11% in France. I noted also that in France the amount donated to charities is 20 times what we donate in the UK. I was trying to square those figures, and cannot quite get my head around them. My only hypothesis at this stage is that we have achieved, by voluntary co-operation and a degree of encouragement from the hon. Lady for the possibility of legislative change, something that the French have not been able to do without passing what is, I think, known as the “loi Macron”, which I think is proving popular.
To an extent, I share the hon. Gentleman’s confusion. There could be an issue, I think, to do with how we record the back-of-store food waste, but I think the figures suggest that the UK is more efficient further down the supply chain, in terms of ordering, so that it does not create as much waste, and that France is not as efficient at that, but is more efficient at passing food on for donation. However, I also suspect that it is a question of data not being recorded very accurately.
That is a helpful intervention. The matter remains worth further investigation. The reference to the French model is important. The Epicerie Solidaire network is massive in France; there is a network of some 500 of those social supermarkets. However, perhaps the best place to go to learn about the issue is Austria. In Vienna, Sozialmärkt are numerous. There are far more, per capita, even than in France. That seems to stem from strong work by local Catholic charities in Vienna.
Food poverty really speaks to the Catholic social action movement in ways that I heartily approve of, and there is a lot that we can learn from the work of groups such as the Vinzenz Foundation in Vienna, which works to allow access to social supermarkets not just by those on benefits, but also by those who are below Austria’s minimum income guarantee or the citizens’ income level. The opportunity is much broader.
All that might be of help in tackling one of the Goldthorpe findings, which was that it was necessary to have a screen across the front of the community shop, because of the stigma that was attached—just as there is with food banks, unfortunately, although there should not be. Like the hon. Lady, I do not want food banks to have to exist, but sadly I recognise that they do. I do not want any stigma to be attached to the idea of people seeking help in their community. Yet in Vienna, and perhaps in France, the wider remit of the social supermarket removed the element of stigma that might have deterred some people from seeking what can be life-transforming help.
The hon. Lady spoke quite a lot about the obligations that should be imposed on supermarkets with respect to the disposal of surplus food that is not sold. They talk a lot about corporate social responsibility and I am sure that she has heard that more than I have, but I have one example from an area of my constituency called Grange Park. It is a large council estate on the periphery of Blackpool. One might call that area a food desert: it is very remote from the basic supermarkets. It does have one branch of One Stop, which is referred to locally as Harrods because of the price of its food, which is far beyond what one would expect to spend if one went 2 or 3 miles down the road to one of the larger supermarkets.
One Stop is owned by the same chain as Tesco—it has the same parent company—and it has always struck me as a strange application of corporate social responsibility that in its smaller outlets, in the more deprived parts of Britain, it artificially increases its prices. Okay, there may be higher overheads because the shops are smaller. None the less, the prices are higher and people are paying that poverty premium that they should not have to pay. That also speaks to the food waste issue. Because the cost of the food is higher, it is more likely to go unsold, and it is those smaller outlets that might find it most challenging to ensure that their unsold food goes back into the system and is in some way reused. I therefore say to the supermarkets, if they are paying attention to this debate, that if they are truly committed to corporate social responsibility, why not ensure that they charge in their smaller outlets what they charge in their larger outlets, particularly in areas of deprivation?
I have gone on long enough, so I shall conclude by suggesting that the community shop idea need not be the sole preserve of one body, one organisation, but should be seen as part of an escalator between reliance on food banks for emergency food aid when the unexpected strikes and the full independence, autonomy and resilience of the average consumer in society. What I am talking about is an important step out of poverty for many people. I would like far more of those shops to spread out across the country, because they are a very good idea.
It is a pleasure to speak while you are in the Chair, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on securing this important debate. She has huge expertise, and I greatly admire the important work that she has been doing in Parliament on food policy and food waste for many years. I have no doubts whatever about her honesty, so I shall report back to Bristol East in those terms.
I also admire the huge number of inspirational projects going on in Brighton on food waste and food poverty. I shall highlight just a few of those before talking about some of the priorities for Government action on food waste and food poverty in the UK.
Last Friday, I had what was probably the best lunch I have had since becoming an MP. I was meeting a constituent. She was the person who started the 38 Degrees petition, mentioned by the hon. Lady, that calls for legislation to make supermarkets donate their leftover products that are still safe to eat to charities, food banks and so on. My constituent and I met at Brighton’s Real Junk Food Project café, a groundbreaking community project that intercepts food destined for landfill and turns it into healthy meals. The queue for that café was quickly out of the door and down the road. Everyone is welcome, from local workers and students to low-income families and homeless people.
We were joined by Adam Buckingham, who founded the Real Junk Food Project in Brighton, and he explained what to me at least was the revolutionary concept of “Pay as you feel”. That encourages people to think about what the plate of food means to them. If they cannot afford to pay money, that is fine. If they want, they can wash up, weigh some of the intercepted food or spread the word about the concept and the project. Everyone is made to feel welcome, irrespective of ability to pay. The project works with a range of partners, including supermarkets, food banks, independent retailers, restaurants, manufacturers and wholesalers. The previous Friday, the café had fed an incredible 330 people in three hours, all with intercepted food.
The dedication and talent of the volunteers who run the Real Junk Food Project and turn what would otherwise be waste into amazing food is immense. They have transformed 250 kg of frozen turkey, in blocks requiring a forklift truck to move them, into healthy meals—with some assistance from Brighton residents willing to offer emergency freezer space. They have dealt with 630 kg of chocolate, on three industrial pallets, turning up outside someone’s window. That might sound like a dream come true, but it is nevertheless a serious logistical challenge. This is a hugely impressive operation already, and the people involved have big ambitions for the future, including a shipping container café; putting to good use underused community centres; building a model of a main hub plus offshoots run by the local community; and, further ahead, expanding into deliveries to older people and others in need.
Another local project that I want to mention—sadly, there is not enough time to mention them all—is FareShare Brighton and Hove, set up 15 years ago to provide food to the 11 services in the city serving hot food to homeless people and last year expanding to FareShare Sussex. Now, it is an essential community food service with twice daily deliveries to more than 60 projects across Sussex, totalling more than 7 tonnes each week.
The first crucial point illustrated by those initiatives is that the current level of waste in our food system is scandalous. I am talking not just about waste from supermarkets but, as I mentioned in my first intervention, waste all the way up the supply chain. That a supermarket can apparently reject 30 tonnes of cauliflowers because they are the wrong shade of white tells us something about the fundamental changes that we need. An estimated 18 million tonnes of food is wasted in Britain annually, from farm to fork.
The second point is that food is a basic right and should be available to everyone, regardless of financial status. Unfortunately, that is not the society that we live in today. We heard earlier this month that there has been an alarming increase in food poverty and food bank use in the UK, with proposed benefit cuts threatening to plunge 40,000 more children below the poverty line. That shows that food bank visits, which topped 1 million this year, are just the tip of an iceberg of food poverty in the UK.
The public demand for the Government to act on food waste and food poverty is also clear, not least from the superbly successful supermarket food waste petition started by my constituent, Lizzie Swarf. As I said, that petition calls for legislation to require supermarkets to donate leftover food that is still safe to eat to charities and food banks, based on the new law on supermarket food redistribution passed by the French Parliament last month.
In just a couple of weeks, that petition has gained more than 175,000 signatures. I recognise that a number of logistical and other challenges would need to be worked out before such a law could be implemented, but that is not an excuse for inaction. I hope that the Minister will at least agree to go away and examine the options and work with expert organisations, such as the Trussell Trust and FareShare, on the best way forward. I hope that he will agree that a review should urgently examine ways to support food redistribution further up the supply chain and to tackle the root causes of food bank use, including benefit changes and delays and low incomes.
As FareShare has explained, the UK Government can and should play a significant role in ensuring that food redistribution is seen as an important piece of the puzzle to reduce food waste overall, ensuring that it is easier for charities to intercept food elsewhere in the supply chain. As the hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned, France, partly with Government funding, already redistributes 20 times more surplus food than the UK. Perhaps the Minister will today commit to doing what it takes to match that achievement as a first step. I hope that he will be able to tell us what his ministerial colleagues in other Departments—Health, Business and the Cabinet Office—are doing and whether they are open to playing their part in relation to food poverty, food waste and the charities that are making such a positive difference to so many of our constituents. A little Government funding for such projects would go an incredibly long way, and I hope that the Minister will have some specific advice to offer on that matter.
I shall end by highlighting a final piece of inspiration from Brighton’s Real Junk Food Project. It aims to use the catastrophic problem of food waste not just as a solution to hunger, but as a way of raising awareness—to teach people how to be waste conscious, how to live sustainably, how to compost, how to grow their own food and how to eat healthily. There is a huge role for education and culture change when it comes to our broken food system, and many organisations are already doing incredible things that bring to life positive, sustainable and healthy alternatives.
I hope that, as politicians, we can learn lessons in the course of this Parliament from the excellent work going on all over the country and ensure that we do our bit to fix the food system, too. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Bristol East and others on this issue.
My final words to the Minister are these. There are not many win-wins in politics, so when we are staring one in the face, as I believe we are on this issue, it is incumbent on the Government—and, indeed, all of us—to do everything we can to grasp that win-win. I genuinely believe that it is there for the grasping and I hope very much that the Minister will respond positively.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak today and I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for tabling this important debate on what I consider to be a principal concern in relation to one of the most important global issues facing us. The amount of food wasted each year worldwide is staggering: about one third of all food—approximately 1.3 billion tonnes—is discarded each year. Last year, the House of Lords carried out an inquiry into the cost of food waste across the EU and found that an estimated 89 million tonnes of food are wasted every year. Furthermore, it reported that that figure is set to rise sharply if action is not taken.
In the UK alone, it is estimated that households throw away 6.7 million tonnes of food per annum. Worldwide, food wastage is a major problem, as the hon. Member for Bristol East has said, with significant costs for the environment, the economy and society. Something is hugely wrong with our food distribution system if a third of food is wasted globally, but nearly 1 billion people across the planet go hungry.
The UK is by far the worst food wastage offender in the EU, as the hon. Member for Bristol East has pointed out. We should be deeply ashamed of that, and we should seek to remedy it. With food poverty becoming a huge problem, the redistribution of waste food should be a priority. I was pleased to learn last week about Tesco’s trial partnership with FareShare, through which it could hand tens of thousands of tonnes of surplus food from its stores to local charities. The scheme has already proven to be quite successful for Tesco in the Republic of Ireland, and I hope that we can look forward eventually to a UK-wide roll-out across all Tesco stores.
Although such corporate responsibility is to be commended, we as legislators have an obligation to fix our broken supply chain. The French National Assembly voted last month in favour of a Bill that will start to redress the food distribution system using waste food from supermarkets. The rare cross-party consensus surrounding the legislation demonstrates the importance and urgency of tackling food waste. Hunger and climate change should not be partisan issues. As elected Members of this House we have a moral duty to work together to address them, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.
Last week, the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) tabled an early-day motion that called on the Government to introduce legislation to ban supermarkets from throwing away food that is approaching its best before date, and instead to make it available to charities and food banks. I was pleased not only to support the motion but to table an amendment, which called on the UK Government to engage with the Scottish Government on food waste.
Scotland produces enough food waste each year to fill 42,000 double-decker buses, and each household wastes, on average, £470 per annum on food that they throw away. The Scottish Government have set ambitious environmental targets for reducing CO2 emissions and reducing the amount of general waste that goes to landfill. The 2010 zero-waste plan is designed to promote sustainability, and the aim is for a maximum of 5% of waste to go to landfill by 2025. The strategy is implemented by Zero Waste Scotland, which is funded by the Government. One of its six key aims is to transform attitudes to food waste.
In my constituency, the local authority trialled a domestic food waste collection in the Drumsagard area in 2011. Such was the success of the trial that the programme was widened to incorporate many more homes in the wider Rutherglen and Cambuslang area, which, in common with every local authority, has a statutory obligation to provide a separate food waste collection service. Starting this month, some 133,000 households will be issued with a free small food waste caddy for use in their kitchens. That is an important measure, because the high cost to consumers of food recycling is widely seen to be prohibitive. The Scottish Government support the changes, and our climate change Minister last week announced that an additional £5 million will be made available over the next two years to help councils to roll out food waste collection schemes to homes across Scotland. Perhaps the Minister could take that on board for the whole UK.
Just across the boundary of my constituency, in Blantyre, a local company is helping to divert food from landfill back into the ecosystem. GP Plantscape now processes some 50,000 tonnes of food and garden waste at its in-vessel composting facility every year. That results in a nutritious compost, cuts down on landfill waste and helps to save the peatlands by offering a viable alternative product.
Hon. Members have not yet mentioned restaurants. The Scottish Government realise that small changes made by individuals can have a huge impact. Not only is Zero Waste Scotland keen to educate people about shopping smarter, making meal plans and using leftovers efficiently, but it has trialled innovative programmes such as the “good to go” scheme, in which restaurant customers took home their uneaten food.
The so-called doggy bag pilot last year was so successful that it is now being extended. The restaurants involved saw dramatic reductions in food waste, and it has been estimated that if restaurants across Scotland routinely offered customers doggy bags, the equivalent of 800,000 full meals could be saved from the bin every year. A lot more can still be done to divert food from landfill, and encouraging better consumption habits and widening access to food waste recycling are only part of a wider strategy. We have a responsibility, as legislators and as human beings, to do more.
We have to dare to be bold and innovative about how we approach food growing, harvesting, storage, distribution and disposal. As the world population continues to grow and demand for resources increases, food security will pose an ever greater problem. The hon. Member for Bristol East spoke about how we can deal with that. Changing deeply ingrained public attitudes is not an easy or quick process, but the action we take now will determine the legacy that we leave to the next generation.
These islands are wealthy, and the widespread explosion in food bank use should shame us all. In the last year alone, the Trussell Trust supplied more than 1 million people with emergency food support. In contrast, it supplied only 40,000 people over the same period five years ago. Food banks address a symptom of the problem, but it is incumbent on us all to address the causes. Much remains to be done to tackle the challenges that we face.
Food redistribution has traditionally faced a number of barriers. If we are really serious about tackling the problem that we face, we must work proactively with all the relevant outside organisations to effect change. As has been mentioned, one factor that has deterred businesses from donating food is the risk that they will be held legally liable in case of illness. We must find ways to protect and support those who donate food in good faith. In particular, we must support small businesses, which might otherwise find the implementation of a food waste strategy to be prohibitive. I would like us to legislate to divert food waste from landfill to those who are in need, and to ensure that sending waste to landfill is neither easier nor more economical for retailers.
We must look at how food loss and waste can be reduced at every stage of the food chain, and we must work together to address the food poverty crisis on these islands. There is much on which we can co-operate, and no doubt there is much that we can learn from one another. I enjoyed hearing from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) about the initiatives in that city—especially the story about the chocolate, which sounded really good. The shipping container café is also a great idea. In addition, we have not spoken a great deal about how food waste could help elderly people. No doubt, there is much we can learn from one another to help us tackle the problem at a household, local and UK level. I support calls for legislation on food redistribution, and I implore other Members of the House to do likewise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on her re-election and on increasing her share of the vote. She has been, and I have no doubt that she will continue to be, an excellent representative for the people of Bristol and a champion for that great city. I congratulate her on securing this debate on the important subject of food waste. Her commitment to the environment is well known, and she has regularly championed in Parliament the need to tackle food waste. During the previous Parliament, she introduced a ten-minute rule Bill that highlighted this important issue.
I also welcome the Minister to his new role, and I congratulate him on his appointment. There have been a few changes at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Dan Rogerson lost his seat, and, as I understand it, the noble Lord de Mauley stepped down. I wish them both all the best in the future roles that they choose to pursue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East spoke with her usual passion on a subject about which she clearly feels deeply. Food waste is relevant to us all, as has been clearly illustrated by the contributions to this debate. We are probably all guilty, at one point or another, of not using food as efficiently as we should or, to put it another way, of not valuing food as much as we should. I was brought up by a mother who always said to me when I wasted food, “You would not have been so wasteful during the war.” That lesson remains with me to this day. I compost and do all the things that one should do to try to minimise food waste.
None of us should be surprised that the scale of the problem is very large, but it is only part of the much wider problem of a rising population and the need to increase the supply of affordable food in a world affected by climate change and water stress—which, of course, makes it difficult to secure the food supply, to say the least. Many of us believe that we will need to grow our food more efficiently in future, with less waste and less damage to the environment, and that there will be serious consequences if we do not. As always, it will be the poorest who suffer the most if we do not address these issues.
In the UK alone, according to House of Commons Library figures, some 15 million tonnes of food is either sent for landfill or incinerated annually. It is estimated that the economic cost to households and businesses of throwing away food is some £12 billion a year, or around £480 per household. However, although the economic costs are great, the real cost of that waste is environmental or, as the noble Lord Cameron once described it, a disaster for climate change.
In the USA, for instance, it is estimated that 300 million barrels of oil a year are used to produce food that is thrown away. In the UK, it is estimated that food waste is responsible for 20 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year, or about 3% of the country’s total emissions. That figure is equivalent to the emissions produced by 20% of the country’s car usage or, to put it another way, the amount of carbon produced by some 7 million cars. Additionally, it is estimated that 70% of all water consumption is used in food production, which means that in the UK alone some 5 million cubic metres of water a year is used in producing foodstuffs, a proportion of which is wasted unnecessarily. It is therefore clear and well understood that producing food for human consumption that is then not consumed is not only costly to business and households but environmentally damaging.
The importance of food waste was recognised by the last Labour Government, who established the Waste and Resources Action Programme. One of the programme’s outcomes was the Courtauld commitment, a voluntary agreement with industry that, in phases, aimed to improve efficiency and reduce waste in the groceries sector. That approach led to successes and to reductions in waste. For example, 1.2 million tonnes of food and packaging waste was saved in phase 1 of the commitment by using new solutions and technologies. That alone is estimated to have saved £1.8 billion and cut 3.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions between 2005 and 2009. During phase 2 there was a further reduction of 1.7 million tonnes of waste, with a monetary saving of £3.1 billion, by using such initiatives as the resealable fridge pack, which the hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) mentioned, or by increasing the shelf life of products by improving delivery and storage.
It was recognised, however, that we needed to place this important issue on a more strategic footing and to address the wider issues of food sustainability and security, so we came up with our Food 2030 strategy. The vision established by that strategy was that, by 2030, the UK would have a low carbon food system that is efficient with resources, with any waste being reused, recycled or used for energy generation. The strategy clearly set out the actions needed to reduce food waste in the supply chain and at home, and it focused on what could be done by the Government and local authorities, households and consumers, the food industry and, finally, the Government and the food industry working together.
The strategy set clear goals for 2030: reducing food waste as far as possible; addressing waste in developing countries; and valuing surplus food. On that final goal, the strategy coupled the recycling of waste food with the need to share or redistribute food to vulnerable people. That goal is now more urgent following the rapid rise in the use of food banks in the UK over the past five years, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East mentioned in her comments about FareShare.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) talked at length about Company Shop, which is headquartered in my constituency. It is a local business, and last week it received the Queen’s award for enterprise. The community shop aspect of Company Shop’s work is a relatively new innovation. Company Shop’s main business is providing surplus food from a number of supermarkets to employees working in food manufacturing and the emergency services—it is a restricted clientele. Broadly, it recycles food that would otherwise have gone to waste. Community shops are a welcome new initiative that couple access to cheap, good quality food, on the same principle as Company Shop, with positive help to get people back into work and back on their feet. I welcome that initiative, and I have visited Company Shop, which I wish all the best.
It saddens me to say that, in 2010, the incoming coalition Government decided, for whatever reason, to abandon Food 2030, effectively leaving the UK without an overall strategy to address supply, security and waste in the food industry. Not only that, but recent successes were threatened when WRAP’s funding was cut by £10 million. No wonder that, in a letter to members of the waste and resources industry, the previous Minister, Dan Rogerson, let it slip that the Government had “stepped back” from that policy area. Stepping back is not good enough, especially in the context of the huge strategic challenges that we face and the worrying increase in the number of UK citizens resorting to food banks in recent years to feed themselves and their families.
We recently heard that the Government have yet again made a partial U-turn. This time they acknowledged the need for a food strategy by announcing a 25-year plan for food and farming, which we welcome. If the Conservative manifesto is anything to go by, however, the plan might be narrowly focused and will not address the bigger issues in the same way that our Food 2030 plan clearly did. The Conservative manifesto made no mention of waste, so we now need a proper, thorough review of waste policy.
I conclude with the following questions for the Minister. What will the Government’s plan for food and farming encompass, and what progress has been made on setting it up? When might we see more details of that plan? Is he confident that the recent improvements in cutting food waste will not be lost due to the cuts his Government have made to WRAP? Moreover, are there any further plans to cut the WRAP budget?
Of course, as supply chains become longer, cutting waste successfully becomes a transnational issue that will require co-operation with trading parties, especially our European partners in the EU. At a time of great uncertainty over this country’s status in the European Union, can the Minister confirm that he will not allow any trans-European commitments to be negotiated away, and that he will continue the work started by the last Labour Government to reduce waste in food supply chains across Europe?
Seven senior waste industry, recycling and infrastructure bodies have written to the Minister, calling for a meeting to discuss future policy direction on waste. Their view is that clarity on the issue is needed from the Government. Is the Minister willing to provide that clarity? This debate is a great opportunity to do so. Will his Government make a rigorous and transparent commitment to tackling waste issues strategically and effectively?
Food waste is serious. It demonstrates market failure in the gravest of ways, it costs everyone in the country a great deal of money and it is doing immense damage to the environment. Unfortunately, this Government do not see it as a priority, and that needs to change. Food waste is a scandal. When people find it hard to access cheap, nutritious food, it is immoral for so much of this essential of life to be thrown away. That needs to change. I look forward to the Minister's answers.
I pay great tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for the leadership that she has shown on this subject for a long time, and for raising the issue again so powerfully. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope; this is only my second time standing here.
There is basically broad agreement in this room and around the country on the importance of the subject. Increasingly, Britain has been a global leader in tackling food waste. We need to do more, but there is a great deal of achievement for us to be proud of, particularly achievement by non-governmental organisations, the charitable sector and politicians such as the hon. Member for Bristol East over the past few years, and particularly since 2007.
As all hon. Members have pointed out, food waste is an issue requiring urgent action worldwide. Many Members have remarked that about one third of the food in the world is wasted. It is a tremendous waste not only of food but of water, energy, land and money. Agricultural land, for example, consumes about 70% of the world’s fresh water. In an era of rising population and global warming, we have a strong moral obligation to conserve those resources. I know that many people—not necessarily in this room, but in debates on this issue—focus on the economic arguments, but at the heart of the argument about waste, particularly food waste, is the depletion and degradation of precious resources. As hon. Members have pointed out, half of all food waste is produced by households: it amounts to nearly 7 million tonnes of food, worth about £12.5 billion a year, or £60 a month for an average family. Huge tribute must be paid to those who have taken action to address the issue, such as Love Food Hate Waste.
The hon. Member for Bristol East set the parameters for this debate. She provided a fantastic overview of the problems and progress since 2007, including Government legislation and the actions of NGOs. I will not recap those arguments, but she seemed to focus on four issues that were most urgent, in terms of my response as the Minister. One of them was about the contribution to the UK charitable sector that could be made if we were better at finding ways to get food to charities. She produced the astonishing figure, which I would be happy to explore further, of hundreds of millions of pounds in potential donations to charities. She discussed the notion of a good samaritan Act. One has been passed in the United States, but it has not yet been tested in law there, and she pointed out some of the issues involved. In terms of my answer to other hon. Members, the hon. Lady has laid out some of the complexities involved in the issue.
The hon. Lady also mentioned food waste on farms, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). We discussed that in great detail. The Government have been considering food waste on farms—waste that occurs before food reaches the supermarket—along with NGOs. We are considering whole crop purchasing, which could address the issue of people rejecting strangely coloured tomatoes. Take the example of class A, class B and class C tomatoes; one could imagine an individual retailer distributing them according to whether they were to be sold loose in a shop, to be processed, or to go into soups and sauces. Clearly, we need to do much more of that. The gleaning movement has brought attention to how much is left in the fields unnecessarily.
The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned supermarkets not reporting in detail which individual supermarket has which amount of waste. In other words, the data are grouped together by retailers into a single unit, from which it is difficult for us to disinter those data. Her argument, which was about transparency and specificity—how on earth are we supposed to hold people to account if we cannot work out how much individual people are doing?—seems to me to be a good one.
The hon. Lady also talked about the importance of targets and how they might be used to drive action. One striking thing about the United Kingdom, looking back to 2007, is that we seem to have exceeded comfortably most of the targets that we have set ourselves so far. One debate that goes back and forth in the European Union is whether such targets are achievable, and what their marginal costs are, but we in the United Kingdom can take a certain amount of confidence from our ability to exceed those targets in the past.
I accept that we have exceeded the targets, but there is then the question of whether the targets were ambitious enough. It is easy to exceed targets if they are set very low. Perhaps we ought to try to raise our game by setting ambitious targets for the next phase of Courtauld.
Yes. As the hon. Lady will realise, the challenge of setting the right target is that it is difficult, thinking forward to 2030, to work out what is desirable, feasible and affordable, and what the different cost-benefit calculations will be. There will always be a tendency on the part of any Government, whether the previous Labour Government or ours, to set targets that are achievable. Equally, we need to be pushed to work harder; we need ambitious targets to make us get out of bed in the morning and shove towards them. I am happy to sit down and examine those targets in detail and talk through the constraints.
The more good ideas people have and the more technological solutions are developed, the easier it will be for us to meet those targets. To take an example from the debate on Tuesday with the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) about targets for nitrogen dioxide emissions, a leap forward to electric vehicles would totally transform our ability to meet those targets if we do not make enough progress in 10 years. It is not quite the same with food waste, but there are many ideas. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) pointed out the numerous innovations in food that could help us reach those targets. I am happy to discuss that in more detail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) discussed fantastic models for community shops. I want to talk about that more generally at the end of this debate. Much of what the Department is taking away from this debate is that the best examples are at local level. It is not a question of civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or Ministers having all the bright ideas; we should be listening much more attentively to what is being generated by the NGO sector, community shops and individual constituencies, and learning from them.
My hon. Friend made a good point about the French model. He and the hon. Member for Bristol East discussed the astonishing statistics and why France appears to be able to conserve such a staggeringly high proportion of food. One thing that I genuinely do not know and would be very interested to talk about is the extent to which French fiscal instruments, particularly the French ability to count food donations and donations in kind against their tax bills, does or does not provide a perverse incentive; we need to focus on that. If the result of those instruments is to increase the amount of excess food that the French produce, because they are confident that they can then receive donation-in-kind tax benefits from disposing of it, that is not something we would want to encourage. We need to be very careful with these tax incentives to ensure that trying to do something that we want to do—making sure that that food gets to people who really need it—does not end up encouraging people, in a perverse way, to produce more food than they need to.
In response to the Lords Committee’s inquiry, the Government said they would not reassess their opposition to fiscal measures to increase food redistribution before considering the European Commission’s communication on sustainability of the food system. I understand that that communication has now been shelved—we had waited quite a long while for it to be published—and that a more ambitious circular economic strategy will be published later this year. Will the Minister take part in discussions on whether we can include incentives for food waste distribution in that strategy? I appreciate that it is very early days for him in his job, but I urge him to do so.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I will take on that message. However, having got into trouble on Tuesday for speculating about Treasury fiscal measures, I will not say anything about that issue at all. Nevertheless, the point is taken; we need to concentrate hard on this matter. Basically, the way that we will make progress on this issue is by sitting down with people who know a lot about the subject, such as the hon. Lady, and getting them to hold us to account and push us to do better. I am very happy for that to happen.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion talked about farm-gate food waste; we discussed how whole-crop purchasing should help, and it will be interesting to see whether we make as much progress on that as we hope to. We talked a little about the French model. It would be interesting to know whether there are things that the UK can contribute to other countries, as well as things that other countries can contribute to us. For instance, I would be interested to know whether our supermarket ombudsman model is something that we might want to share with other European countries as an example of best practice. There are things we can learn from other countries, but there are things that the supermarket ombudsman here is doing well to cut down on food waste, even by signalling to retailers in advance the dangers of a supermarket ombudsman intervention. Perhaps other EU member states could learn from that.
The hon. Lady asked what my Government colleagues were doing on food poverty, food waste and charities. The answer is that the Cabinet Office is joint chair, with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of a redistribution food round table; the Department for Education has a school food plan, having introduced, as she will know, universal free infant school meals last September; and the Department of Health provides “eatwell plate” guidance. There is also an NHS Choices website, which helps with menu guides.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West gave a really good series of examples from Zero Waste Scotland. I would like to talk a little more about this issue in detail at the end of the debate, but Zero Waste Scotland is a very good example of the range of initiatives across the UK, some of which are funded by Government, some by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and some by philanthropic donations, which are changing the way we look at food waste.
I was particularly struck by the hon. Lady’s intervention on the subject of composting. It is absolutely true that traditionally, when we look at the hierarchy of waste in relation to food, we prefer to eat food; our next preference is to have animals eat it; and then we eventually consider how we might extract energy from it, for example through anaerobic digestion. However, her point that food put into composting can save endangered peatlands is a very important environmental argument, and a real reminder that we need to keep looking at issues really broadly. One of the dangers in a lot of discussions in this area is that we can miss potential environmental benefits by getting so tightly attached to a particular model or hierarchy that we fail to consider, for example, the relationship between composting and peatlands. I do not want to move to a world in which we encourage people to over-invest in composting at the expense of eating, but it is worth bearing in mind that composting has not only an anaerobic digestion energy benefit, but a benefit to endangered habitats. I also liked the reference to doggy-bags; the hon. Lady made a very good argument for them.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said that there were many challenges, and many things with which she was uncomfortable or unhappy. Of course, I am delighted that she welcomes the 25-year strategy, although I note that she has concerns about its content. So long as I am fortunate enough to be a Minister, we shall not step back from the subject of waste. A great deal of progress has been made. I would be delighted to meet the industry representatives she mentioned.
The hon. Lady asked specific questions about Europe. I am going to the Environment Council in Luxembourg on Monday. Clearly, European negotiations are extremely complex and we must ensure that we get different Government Departments to agree, so I am not in a position to make promises about exactly what we can deliver. However, our Department will certainly try to be thought-leaders and challenge other people in this field, and we will try to get what I hope will be ambitious responses from that European process.
The specific question about the Waste and Resources Action Programme and its charitable funding brings me to the core of this whole discussion. WRAP is a really impressive charitable organisation. It receives Government funding; this year, it received about £13 million. It employs about 200 people. The Government are not in a position to make promises about continuing funding a specific charity. However, WRAP seems to do a very good job, and on the basis of its performance to date, I reckon that it would be in a very strong position to continue to bid for support. WRAP has also been very good at diversifying and finding in-kind donations, which has had an added benefit: in some ways, it has pursued programmes in quite an edgy and creative way, which it might not have done before it applied to broader sources of funding. WRAP is certainly very impressive.
The Back-Bench Members who have spoken in this debate and are still sitting in front of me—my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, and the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion, for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and for Bristol East—represent four different parties in Parliament. I am surprised that the fifth party is not present; I am not quite sure where the Liberal Democrats are in this debate. Nevertheless, I am very proud that there is a Conservative representative, a Green representative, a Scottish National party representative and a Labour representative here in Westminster Hall. Their presence is a reminder of how much importance we should attach to parliamentary work on this issue. The hon. Member for Bristol East pointed out how landfill tax, for example, has totally transformed recycling and waste. That is a very good example of the fact that Parliament has some levers and can bring about change.
The hon. Lady gave a good example from Belgium that shows that civil society and Government working together, rather than alone, is the key to resolving these issues. She talked about how petitions drove the Belgian process. To put that in context, the 200,000 people who signed that petition in Belgium, which is a country with a population of—
I thank the hon. Lady; I stand corrected. I was getting my Belgian and French petitions confused. But the conceptual point I wanted to make is that this process, whether in France or in Belgium, is about driving civil society actions, through petitions, alongside Government action.
I thank the Minister for his response, and for the detail that he is going into. Will he clarify what he thinks the obstacles would be to a piece of legislation that looked something like the Bill that the hon. Member for Bristol East brought before the House, or like the French model? Are they technical obstacles, which we can clarify, or are they ideological obstacles to do with regulation? It would be really helpful to know.
I am a little bit reluctant to get drawn into the detail of all this at the moment, but a series of questions would have to be answered before we could go ahead with that legislation. Take the good samaritan legislation in the United States. Given that it has not been challenged so far; given that most retailers in the UK do not seem to be indicating that the major obstacle to taking action or improving performance is a concern about being sued over food safety issues; and given that the Food Standards Agency would have to continue to exercise its legislative powers anyway, and that if someone unfortunately got food poisoning from food that had been disposed of, it would remain a responsibility of the Government—and, unfortunately, indirectly, of the retailer, probably—it is not clear to me at the moment that a good samaritan Act is necessarily the way to go.
I am being shifty about the next set of issues, because they relate to the Treasury and to fiscal instruments, which are for the Treasury to consider, and I do not wish to get whacked for speculating on them.
That brings me back to civil society and central Government. The key to all this— we have made more progress than anyone else in Europe in this respect—is the impressive role played by NGOs, such as the Real Junk Food Project, mentioned by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion; WRAP, which the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned; FareShare; and Feedback. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned Tristram Stuart, who is an extraordinary phenomenon. He has succeeded in combining his own personal lifestyle as a freegan with leading the collection of waste food and writing a best-selling book, and with his understanding of the intricacies of both national and European Union legislation and his attachment to technology. That is a really good example of where Britain is doing well.
The consequences of the work done by NGOs can be seen. We should also pay tribute to the previous Government for their funding to get WRAP off the ground. That is another good example of how things can be driven forward, and of the way that legislation, UK performance and global indicators can be shaped by such civil society debates. The app piloted by Tesco is the latest great example of people coming up with creative technological solutions that can go straight into a retailer. In addition—this is the point at which I sound like a crusty old Tory—this stuff is also good for the UK economy, because a lot of people are now exporting these ideas as consultants, taking British thought-leadership to other countries and showing how our approach to food waste can be replicated in other places. Of the extraordinary and impressive 21% reduction in household food waste that we have achieved, probably 40% has been achieved through the kind of awareness campaigns and civil society campaigns that have been mentioned. We do not want to minimise that in any way.
A decade of work to tackle food waste has given us much more knowledge of why and where food waste happens. We have tried and tested approaches that have delivered significant reductions. We now need to go further. Waste must be tackled across the whole value chain, and not just in the UK. We may need to start thinking about the value chain stretching into other countries. For example, if we are eating Kenyan food we have a moral obligation, in a sense, to the Kenyan farmers producing it, and to food waste in places where our supermarket ombudsman cannot stretch at the moment.
Food waste has a close relationship with sustainability and food security. The subject is central. Food, metaphorically and literally, is the energy of our lives. It is intimately connected to our soil, water and air, and to our habitats and our landscape. Again, speaking as a crusty Tory, it is also important to our economy. Millions of people work in this sector.
The answer is that I am going to evade that question. We do not yet have that plan, and I am not yet in a position to give the hon. Lady a deadline on it, but I promise her that we are thinking hard about the subject. I am happy to sit down with her and talk about where we have got to with that thought and take on any suggestions that she has.
Food to the value of £108 billion and the one in eight jobs connected to food and farming in the UK are connected to what every hon. Member in this Chamber deeply believes in, whether it be poverty alleviation, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys; the legislative programmes advocated by the hon. Member for Bristol East; the important arguments on the environment and resource depletion advanced by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion; or the civil society examples from Zero Waste Scotland produced by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West.[Official Report, 15 June 2015, Vol. 597, c. 1-MC.]
I want to end with a huge invitation. I do not see why this need be a party political issue. There is obviously an enormous amount of knowledge in this room and I should be delighted to sit down with anybody who has good ideas about what we could do to tackle something that matters deeply to British citizens, the food industry and the packaging industry, and which matters deeply in respect of the resources on which our biosphere depends.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tackling food waste.