Tuesday 20 October 2015
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: E-petition, entitled Abraxane MUST be put back on CDF list to improve survival of pancreatic cancer; E-petition, entitled The Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF) is not fit for purpose and needs to be replaced; E-petition, entitled Reinstate all of the drugs recently removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF); and E-petition, entitled Reinstate bevacizumab (Avastin) for cervical cancer on the Cancer Drugs Fund.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the availability of cancer drugs.
As the turnout this morning indicates, the subject of the debate is of concern to us all. There are more Members from Northern Ireland present than usual, but that may be an illustration of the concerns of our constituents across Northern Ireland on this matter.
I did some background research before I came down to the Chamber, and I discovered that in September 2013, the British Medical Journal asked:
“Which way now for the Cancer Drugs Fund?”
In July 2015, the Health Service Journal said:
“Cancer commissioning overhaul could save 30,000 lives”
and The Daily Telegraph on 4 September led with the headline:
“Thousands of cancer patients to be denied treatment”.
On 5 September, The Independent reported:
“NHS cuts to drugs fund mean thousands of cancer patients in England will be denied life-extending treatments”.
Finally, The Guardian stated on 23 September:
“UK NHS cancer patients denied drugs due to inflated prices”.
All those headlines highlight a clear problem when it comes to cancer drugs, which is of the utmost importance and which is, unfortunately, too close to home for many of us. There are many organisations that help those affected, but I would like to mention Macmillan Cancer Support, which is very much in my mind. The charity stated that 2.5 million people in the UK are living with cancer in 2015. The fact that that is slightly less than 5% of our total adult population indicates that this problem is enormous. It is hard to find anyone whose life has not been touched by this horrendous disease in some way.
My father, who passed away this year, had cancer on three occasions. He survived all three of them and lived to the ripe old age of 85, having first been diagnosed some 36 years ago. I have always said that the skill of the surgeons, the care of the nurses and the prayer of God’s people saved him on those three occasions. For many of us, cancer is not simply something that others talk about; it is something that affects each and every one of us.
My father is only one example. In my office every week, people come to me who are suffering from cancer. Some are also in the throes of benefits problems; very often, in addition to the trauma of health issues caused by their cancer, people have to deal with benefits difficulties. We have to work out how to get them into the benefits process and take the financial pressure off them at such a crucial time.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which concerns the availability of cancer drugs throughout the UK, not simply in Northern Ireland; I am surprised that more Members are not present. Greater availability of off-patent drugs would help in the fight against cancer and reduce cost to the NHS. Will the hon. Gentleman support that call and the private Member’s Bill on the topic?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing a debate on an important issue that affects many families—perhaps all families—across the UK. I intervene at this point because the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has mentioned the private Member’s Bill that I am sponsoring—the Off-patent Drugs Bill. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that there are problems affecting the prescription of off-label drugs? It happens inconsistently across the country, and there are problems of information and a conservatism about prescribing off-label. Does he agree that those problems are best dealt with by legislation?
We have hit on an issue that resonates across the whole House. Let us put on the record the fact that there is a goodly representation of other parties today, and those hon. Members are here because they have an interest in the matter. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. He tells me that I never miss one of his debates, and I do not know whether this is his debate or mine, but we are both here for the same purpose. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), in his place as well.
Survival rates are improving, and that development is great for everyone.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate about cancer, which impacts on almost every family throughout Northern Ireland and Britain. Before we proceed to talk about cancer drugs, does he agree that it is most important that we have proper diagnosis and proper testing? As well as widening access to cancer drugs, does he agree that access to testing such as Oncotype testing for breast cancer, and BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing for ovarian cancer, is important, because they will suggest the right type of cancer drugs to prescribe—and, indeed, indicate whether cancer drugs are required at all? We need the diagnosis and testing, and then we need the right type of drugs.
I absolutely agree. The hon. Lady mentioned ovarian cancer. Most of us from Northern Ireland will know of Una McCrudden, who passed away earlier this year. She was an energetic person who spoke out on behalf of those with ovarian cancer. She survived six years after she was first diagnosed, and all her latter years were put into that campaign. I know that the hon. Lady knew her as well as the rest of us did.
Great work has been done on ovarian cancer. Only last week, I heard of one of my constituents who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and undergone surgery. The operation was successful, and we thank God for that, but many others do not survive. Survival rates are improving, and given that one in two people diagnosed with cancer in the UK survives, we are on the right track. The fact remains, however, that we could and must do so much better.
With innovation in cancer treatments making great strides, it is imperative that we, as representatives of the people the length and breadth of this nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, campaign to increase the availability of cancer drugs to our constituents. The Minister and I have discussed this many times. Queen’s University in Belfast is one of the leading advocates for innovation in the search for new cancer drugs, and it leads the way in cancer treatment, as it does in many other spheres of life. Today the Chinese President is visiting Parliament, and we have all sorts of other contacts with China, so it is particularly appropriate to highlight the fact that Queen’s University works in partnership with organisations and universities in China to move that work forward.
Cancer knows no creed, colour, race, religion or class. It is an enemy that we have all come together to fight. With that in mind, I hope that we can all come together to give our constituents up and down this nation access to the very best treatment for that common enemy. We are united in our desire to see greater availability of cancer drugs in every postcode area across the United Kingdom.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, and I support what he is saying about access to cancer drugs. Is it not also important to underline the fact that the overwhelming majority of successful treatment of cancer is by surgery or radiotherapy, often supported by drugs?
Absolutely. My father survived cancer three times because of the surgeon, the chemotherapy, the radiotherapy and all the other treatment that he received, and the drugs helped. So, by the way, does a good diet; there are lots of things that we need to do to tackle the disease. I draw the House’s attention to the recent developments in Northern Ireland. Hon. Members will know that health is a devolved matter. My party colleague, Simon Hamilton MLA, the Minister for Health, Social Service and Public Safety, has taken the initiative to release £1.5 million to fund specialist cancer drugs. That will allow for NICE-approved cancer drugs and treatment to go ahead this year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He mentions the figure that has been secured by our Health Minister in Northern Ireland. Has any thought been given to the amount of money or resources made available to reduce the time individual patients will have to wait before securing the drugs they need?
I am unable to answer that question effectively and honestly. I know that question will be brought to the attention of the Minister back home and the Minister here will have a response to it. Today’s debate highlights the issue and raises awareness. We have concerns about the long waiting list. As the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) said, we need diagnoses early—the earlier the better. I find it frustrating when I hear from some of my constituents who might wait 12 weeks for a diagnosis and perhaps longer for treatment. We need to address that.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I agree with the point that he is making about the availability of cancer drugs across the United Kingdom. Does he agree with me that the environment in which patients are treated is also important? Will he join me in congratulating my local hospital trust, East Lancashire Hospitals, on its commitment to build a new cancer unit at Burnley general hospital with the support of the Rosemere Cancer Foundation?
As the hon. Gentleman says, there are many good examples across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where things are done well. We thank the doctors and nurses, who work energetically, and the many charities.
The national target for accessing these life-changing drugs is 19 weeks. The move in Northern Ireland will go a long way towards enabling the health service there to reach that target. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) was correct that we need to focus on that target. Each day in Northern Ireland, 23 people are diagnosed with cancer and 11 people die of it. According to Cancer Research UK, there were 331,487 new cases of cancer in 2011 and 161,823 deaths from cancer in 2012. That tells us a wee bit about the magnitude of cancer and its importance to every person in the whole United Kingdom. More should be done but I can only welcome the recent developments in the Province. I hope that other areas of the country can follow suit by freeing up the funds necessary and introducing legislation to prioritise fighting this awful disease to the best of our ability.
In England and Wales, cancer remains one of the biggest killers, causing 29% of all deaths. Progress has been made and all progress is welcome, but it is opportunities like today when we can really make a difference to the lives of individuals and families from all walks of life. Recent developments across the water—here—are deeply concerning. In September, 16 drugs were removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund list in addition to another 16 drugs that were removed from the list in January.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making that point. Does he agree with me that the removal of Abraxane from the national Cancer Drugs Fund list is particularly concerning given that pancreatic cancer patients, 80% of whom are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread, are often left with a finite and small amount of life? A drug such as Abraxane can make a significant difference to those people and that decision should—I hope it will—be reversed in future.
The hon. Gentleman must have helped me put my notes together because I have written that one down. It was one of my next points. Yes, we are concerned about that. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point because, quite clearly, it is hard to understand why Abraxane should be removed given that it at least extends the life of many people.
On that point, a very small number of conditions are very fast-acting. Pancreatic cancer is one of them—six months, on average, between diagnosis and passing away. Does he agree with me that NICE needs to find some way to capture the importance of an extra two months? An extra two months to somebody who only has six is time to settle their circumstances and come to terms with the situation. It is a very important two months and somehow that needs to be captured.
I could not have said it better. That is exactly the issue for many in the House and for those outside who have to deal directly with these issues.
Moves such as the removal of the drugs prevent thousands of cancer sufferers across England and Wales from being able to access the quality treatment they deserve. Thousands of people are disadvantaged, thousands of families are losing out and thousands of normal people are in despair. Today, we need to give them hope, an advantage and life itself.
The Government have said that the manufacturers of drugs recommended for removal from the Cancer Drugs Fund will have an opportunity to reduce their costs. Negotiations are under way. I am keen to hear the Minister’s response on that. I would like confirmation that patients already receiving a drug that will be removed from the Cancer Drugs Fund will continue to be treated with that drug. Clinicians certainly indicate that they consider it appropriate to continue treatment. The patient needs to be assured that the system is such that those who are on the drugs will continue to be. I had written down the point about pancreatic cancer. The hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) is absolutely right. I thank him for his intervention.
We are living in times when we are all being asked to tighten our belts but when it comes to issues like this, we simply cannot put a price on doing what is right. Given the consequences for patients, it is imperative that we act sooner rather than later. A long-term and sustainable system for cancer drugs is essential and, while we build that, we have to keep doing what we can to improve the lives of those suffering right now. That starts today with this debate. The debate has been happening outside the Chamber and today is an opportunity to highlight to issue in the Chamber.
I am particularly looking forward to hearing the Scottish National party spokesperson today because I was talking to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) last night at a different debate. She was unable to attend today. The Scottish National party, Scotland and its Parliament have led the way in how cancer drugs can be allocated. There are lessons to be learned from Scotland so the SNP’s comments will be particularly pertinent.
We have an opportunity to do what is right. Today we have an opportunity to make a difference and to affect normal, everyday people’s lives in a positive way. We need to seize that opportunity. Let us use this House for what it was designed for—to help the people we represent. Cancer can strike anyone. It is indiscriminate and that is why we should be doing our best to get what is best for our constituents.
With the working group on the Cancer Drugs Fund currently suspended, it is important to remember that each minute we fail to make progress on the issue we are failing a British citizen suffering from cancer. I need not remind the Chamber of the ultimate consequences of patients being denied access to life-extending treatments. The longer we delay consultation on the new system, the more lives we are failing. Having said that, it is important that we consider the outcome and results rather than just the intention of the actions we take. The Cancer Drugs Fund did great work when it started and the intention of the fund was most honourable. However, we all know of the budgetary constraints that made the Cancer Drugs Fund sustainable, which is why we need to have an open and rational discussion about how to progress.
I should have said this at the beginning, but I will do so now: I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who attended the Backbench Business Committee on my behalf on a Monday about two months ago. I was unable to be over here on that Monday but he did it for me so I thank him publicly for that opportunity.
I welcome the fact that the Cancer Drugs Fund will become operational once again from April 2016, as I welcome any provision of care for cancer sufferers, but it is imperative that we develop a long-term solution that commits us to those who depend on cancer drugs for the extension of their life and for their families. Very often—I see this in my constituency office and I know that other Members do—we see the impact on the families. There are enormous financial, emotional and physical pressures.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the UK National Screening Committee, which advises the devolved Administrations and the NHS in England on clinical trials, started a process of clinical trials last year? At the debate that I had in this Chamber on 4 November last year, I was told by another Minister in the Department of Health that that evidence base would be assessed for future treatment and diagnostic purposes. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be useful if the Minister, in summing up, advised us of the results of those trials, which could then lead to better treatment and decisions on possible cancer drugs?
The Minister’s staff are taking notes, and hopefully he will be able to respond positively.
During the transition to the new system, cancer sufferers who were not registered with the Cancer Drugs Fund prior to suspension are not able to access the benefits of the CDF, which is deeply concerning. The second round of delisting will see a further 16 drugs delisted. As the CDF is suspended, patients who did manage to get registered are losing out on drugs that could potentially have been listed and may have been vital to their treatment, which is of concern to everyone in this House.
This is clearly an emotive issue that goes to the heart of everyone here and our constituents across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is why so many people are in this Chamber today. I thank each and every Member for their interventions and contributions. I look forward to the contributions to come.
Action is urgently needed, but we also need a sensible, rational and robust exchange on how to deliver this positive initiative in a sustainable manner that allows us to have a positive, long-term impact on those who are suffering. I look forward to the contributions of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, and particularly the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect. I look forward to his reply with all the positive answers that we want so much.
Order. The debate is due to last until 11 o’clock. I want to call the three Front Benchers no later than just before 10.30 am—they will have about 10 minutes each. We will hear from Mr Shannon again for two or three minutes at the end as he sums up the debate. I will then put the motion to the Chamber. Now, the moment we have all been waiting for: I call Nic Dakin.
As ever, it is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is an assiduous campaigner on this and many other issues, on setting out the case very clearly in his opening speech.
I will focus on pancreatic cancer, which, as everyone knows, is an extremely aggressive form of cancer with the worst survival rates of any of the most common cancers. The way in which Abraxane has been dealt with by the cancer drugs fund and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is illustrative of the challenges in access to other cancer drugs.
When used in combination with standard chemotherapy, Abraxane can extend the life of eligible patients on average by just over two months compared with using gemcitabine alone. However, it is important to note that, in some cases, patients live for significantly longer than two extra months, with some patients on the trial living for more than two years. The hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) captured very clearly how two months can be significant in allowing patients with such an aggressive disease to settle their affairs and manage their situation as best as they can. There has also been a significant increase in the number of patients surviving for more than one year. For a disease in which there have been no drug improvements for more than 40 years, Abraxane is significant in finding a better answer.
Abraxane represents a middle road for pancreatic cancer patients. It is more effective than gemcitabine alone and, although it has considerable side effects, it is less toxic than FOLFIRINOX, which has been shown to extend life for longer but can only be used for the very fittest of patients. Although not all patients will be fit enough to use Abraxane, more patients will ultimately have access to life-extending treatment.
Abraxane was added to the cancer drugs fund in March 2014. That was a moment of great hope and expectation for the pancreatic cancer community, which for so long has had little about which to be positive. However, as new drugs were added to the cancer drugs fund and costs started to rise, a process began of removing drugs from the CDF’s list of approved drugs so that the fund could keep within budget, as the hon. Member for Strangford has outlined. A further review began in July 2015, and a decision was announced in September that Abraxane, along with several other drugs for other conditions, would be removed as of 4 November. That is happening across cancer treatment. For example, lenalidomide, which is currently being trialled on multiple myeloma patients with positive results, is also being removed from 4 November. This is a big problem out there in the real world.
It seems bizarre that a drug can be added to the cancer drugs fund in March 2014, then be removed just 18 months later. It seems wrong that a drug for which there was such strong demand—more than 550 patients accessed Abraxane via the cancer drugs fund in its first year, and the numbers were rising towards the end of the year—should be removed when few other treatments exist. It seems inequitable that the scoring system used by the CDF does not take into account the extremely poor survival rates for pancreatic cancer. We simply cannot have a one-size-fits-all system in which a drug giving substantial relative gain for a disease that has seen hardly any new treatments or improvements in survival for decades is judged by the same standards as drugs for other cancer types that have much better survival rates and many more treatment options.
Abraxane is not one of the most expensive drugs on the CDF. It costs some £8,000 per patient, not the £90,000 for some other treatments. There is considerable public outcry against the decision. One petition on Change.org created by my constituent, Maggie Watts, who lost her husband to pancreatic cancer 40 years after he lost his mother to pancreatic cancer— there has been no change in survival prospects over those 40 years—has exceeded 88,000 names already. Another petition started by the charity Pancreatic Cancer Action on the parliamentary e-petition site has passed 20,000 signatures.
There is a real problem, and a postcode lottery is emerging across the United Kingdom, with Scotland having approved Abraxane for routine use on the NHS back in January 2015 after the drug was assessed using Scotland’s new patient and clinician engagement system. Perhaps, as the hon. Member for Strangford said, we in England can learn from that. Wales used its own assessment to approve the drug for use back in September 2014. However, because NICE has said no to Abraxane in England, the drug will be reappraised in Wales, which might lead to access being removed. Northern Ireland has never had access to the drug because it generally follows NICE decisions and, as things lie, it does not look as if Northern Ireland will have access to the drug in future.
My hon. Friend has outlined all the hoops that people have to leap through. If their timing is wrong, they may or more likely may not qualify for the drug. That is happening when patients are at their weakest. They are not experts, and they find themselves victims of what can appear to be a very cruel and harsh system.
My hon. Friend is right that patients and their families are at a critical point, which is why it is important that, on this difficult issue, we try our best to find a way forward that is sensitive to the need for such exceptional drugs in exceptional circumstances. In many ways, the Government should be praised for introducing the cancer drugs fund, but the CDF is clearly not fit for purpose when dealing with such exceptional situations, which is what is needed.
Other countries across the world are taking a leap forward in approving Abraxane for their health systems. Abraxane has been approved on price grounds for reimbursement in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Greece, and it has been given the go-ahead in the USA, Canada and Australia. There is a real danger that patients in the UK will be left behind unless they happen to be in Scotland. Removing access to Abraxane could mean that fewer patients can access trials. Moreover, we could be setting back research into a disease that for many years has had the worst survival rates of the most common cancers. This is an opportunity for a breakthrough in medical research that needs to be taken
I ask two things of the Minister, who goes about his work in an assiduous and effective way. First, can he take steps to examine the processes that NICE and the CDF use to consider drugs so that they take into account the exceptional circumstances surrounding drugs of this nature in areas where there has been no medical process or medical hope for many years? Secondly, will he meet me and the other officers of the all-party group on pancreatic cancer to explore the specific issues around Abraxane?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate. On a more humorous note, I heard him mention that he has never missed a debate that the Minister has participated in; I think we could safely say that he has not missed any debates in the past five or 10 years. He is a champion in his own constituency when it comes to cancer research and pushing for cancer drugs, and I congratulate him publicly today on his work and his effort.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. In recent days, our newspapers, TV screens and social media have been flooded with reports about cuts to cancer treatments. One of the latest reports I read indicated that 5,500 patients could miss out under the Government’s plan to reduce the availability of cancer drugs.
Today, cancer is a word that has become all too familiar in our households. As we come together to debate the availability of drugs, some 2 million people are battling cancer. They are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons or daughters. The impact of cancer is much greater and much more widespread than it might appear if we consider only those who are statistically labelled.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the state-of-the-art facilities at the Queen’s University Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology in Belfast. It is making fantastic headway in understanding cancer: how it is formed; how it develops; and ultimately how we can slow down its growth, and eradicate faulty genes and molecules in tumours. The centre was recently awarded almost £4 million to continue its work in research and in developing cancer treatments.
I am proud that Almac, a pharmaceutical company that is a world leader in cancer drug discovery, has its headquarters in my constituency of Upper Bann. Its founder, the late Sir Allen McClay, was so dedicated to improving patient care that he donated much of his wealth to the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology. However, while all this work is going on and new drugs and treatments are being identified, we consistently hear reports that there are plans to remove life-prolonging drugs for various cancers, including breast cancer, prostate cancer and bowel cancer, to name just a few.
One of the greatest concerns is about the cost of these drugs. The hon. Gentleman said that one of the famous manufacturers of cancer drugs is based in his constituency. How often does he have the opportunity to meet people from that company? Would it be helpful for a cross-party delegation to meet the senior management of that company, to persuade them to reduce the cost of their drugs? I am sure that they could; where there is a will, a way will be found.
I welcome that intervention—the hon. Lady makes a very good point. If Sir Allen were alive today and witnessing the cuts in the availability of these life-prolonging drugs, which were once in the headlines as good news stories, he would come out with his old statement: “Bang your heads together and get a resolution to this.” It is a good idea to have such a delegation. I meet Almac staff on a regular basis. Almac is a pioneer in this sector; it is working with Government very closely; and I understand that the pricing of its drugs is not ridiculous.
However, I will make a parallel point. Well over a year and two months ago—perhaps more—it was announced at the Budget that the Health Minister would introduce funding so that a vaccine for meningitis B could be given to children. It took a year and two months—perhaps even more time—for that policy to be implemented, because the pharmaceutical companies were holding out for more money than the Government could afford to pay. They were asking ridiculous prices, because they had the sole remedy for a complaint, so could exploit that situation.
The message needs to go out to some of the pharmaceutical companies that we are dealing with life here. And as one hon. Member said earlier, even if there are only two or three months of life left, people want to hold on to that life as long as they possibly can, because where there is life there is hope, and hope is what people want to hold on to.
A number of weeks ago in this House, I attended an awareness day for secondary breast cancer, and I was shocked to learn that the Government do not keep data on people who are living with this incurable disease, which is remarkable. In the other House, Baroness Morgan of Drefelin has highlighted the issue: because the Government, the NHS and the pharmaceutical industry have again failed to agree realistic prices for new drugs, some women will die sooner than they should.
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the United Kingdom. Experts say that around two thirds of those who seek NHS treatment for advanced bowel cancer treatment are likely to face an earlier death under the plans to scale back spending. That is wrong. Like many Members, I regularly meet—possibly on a weekly basis—constituents who are battling cancer or who have just been diagnosed with cancer. I recently met a family who told me of their agonising fate as their father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Like many families, they have carried out their own extensive research and confirmed with their oncologist that there are drugs out there that could prolong his life. Millions of pounds have been spent on developing these drugs, which could perhaps either save people’s lives or prolong them. However, that family were told, “Sorry, but we can’t give it to him, because it’s just too expensive.”
Where do we draw the line when it comes to someone’s life and life expectancy, and the family who are left behind? I realise that the Government have very hard decisions to make. I appreciate that, but anyone in Westminster Hall today who has either suffered from cancer or known a family member or a loved one suffer from cancer would go to the ends of the earth to try to help them and to resolve this issue, because life is precious. As I say, the Government have hard decisions to make, but I do not think that anyone here today would or should put a price tag on a loved one’s life.
More needs to be done. Families living with cancer need all the help they can get, through the Government, through counselling, through drugs or through whatever help they can find. I trust that the Government will consider that when it comes to the funding of these drugs.
As other hon. Members have said, it is truly a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I want to begin by commending the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate and giving us an opportunity to discuss an issue that is important to many people and families in every constituency that is represented in this House. The issue is important not just because of the scale of cancer’s impact, but because people are confused about some of the policies: the policy language and all the different funding mechanisms that seem to afflict delivery of treatments and options for new drugs.
I endorse much of what the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who chairs the all-party group on pancreatic cancer, said about Abraxane. I, too, am an officer of that group. Abraxane is a perfect but terrible example of exactly the confusion and concern that people feel. Here is a drug that was supported by NHS England, but will be withdrawn on 4 November. People do not understand why, in this day and age, with evidence-based policy and all the intelligence that we are supposed to have at the disposal of the public policy system, we have a snakes-and-ladders system that means that drugs are available in some places but not others, or are available for certain periods but then are not.
As the Minister will probably tell us, part of the problem goes back to pressure on the Cancer Drugs Fund. The fund was a positive innovation, but it was meant to be a transitional step—something to make good the problems with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and its approval system, which was leading to poor rates of approval for many cancer drugs. Most of us, across all political parties, thought that there was a problem with drugs breaking through the NICE approval thresholds. The Cancer Drugs Fund was a deliberate innovation aimed at ensuring that in the short term more drugs would be available and used under that specialist mechanism, with the intention that underlying problems and issues with the NICE regime would be resolved.
Now, the Cancer Drugs Fund has ended up with its own budget pressures. Thankfully, the Government have topped up the fund over various periods, but that applies to NHS England. In Northern Ireland, where my constituency is, we did not have a bespoke cancer drugs fund and we were caught in the twilight zone of drugs seeming to be available and being discussed in debates such as this as though they were available when they were not available in Northern Ireland. The terrible irony is that some of the drugs that were available under the Cancer Drugs Fund were the subject of clinical trials.
The hon. Members for Strangford and for the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) referred to the centre at Queen’s. What I am probably most proud of in my political contribution is that as Deputy First Minister I insisted on securing funding for the regional cancer centre in Belfast. We designed it as part of the reinvestment and reform initiative. When we negotiated with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, I made it clear that we wanted a down-payment for the new borrowing power. The first thing we wanted to do was invest in the cancer centre at Queen’s, without messing around with public- private partnerships or anything else. We wanted a straight-up investment.
That cancer centre, like so many others, is working miracles every day, but alongside the miracles performed by those who carry out surgery or lead the radiotherapy units that the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) discussed, there seem to be debacles with funding policy and schemes.
There is a question about what will happen. We are supposed to be looking at a merger of NICE and the Cancer Drugs Fund. The fund is meant to move on from next year, but people who are directly involved and who deliver cancer services and campaign on cancer policy have no clear feeling about what is happening. People’s hopes are at stake, and they are confounded by what has happened with Abraxane and many other drugs that will no longer be available from 4 November.
We are blessed in this debate because the Minister not only speaks a lot about innovation, but in many ways has become a bit of a byword for innovation—and not just in life sciences. I hope that he and his colleagues can be truly innovative in the policy instruments and funding mechanisms that they hope to introduce. A key issue, which other Members have touched on, concerns not just provision of funding but control of prices and their negotiation. We must make sure not only that we have funding mechanisms that we understand, but that there is real leverage in price negotiation if we are to make those drugs truly available.
In these islands, we have a number of different Administrations and perhaps we need to do more to achieve combined purchasing power strength. One of the most neglected and underused creations of the Good Friday agreement is the British-Irish Council, which brings together all eight Administrations across these islands. That is a very good example of where those eight Administrations need to collaborate much more effectively, combining their leverage to make sure that there is a more consistent and compatible policy on available drugs, services and treatments, and to provide strength in combined purchasing when negotiating.
Devolution gives us the benefit of being able to innovate and take things forward in slightly different ways. I look forward to hearing the word from Scotland—from the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows)—because, as we have heard in previous debates, Scotland moved to a new drugs fund that combined elements of the Cancer Drugs Fund with responses dealing with rare diseases. That, too, is subject to its own pressures and there are difficulties about what gets through and what passes the requirements test for funding and availability.
Obviously we do not have clinical expertise or a full understanding, but we are meant to be able to assist with policy constructs and governance, and we can do more. We should encourage the Minister to work with colleagues, not just in the devolved Administrations, but also with the Irish Government—all eight Administrations across these islands—to do more with the drugs companies and to achieve better understanding.
That would be a great help to the many people who provide key services, innovating, researching, and conducting clinical trials, not just in the cancer centre at Queen’s, but in other locations throughout these islands. It makes it much easier for them if they know that they are working against a better policy-meshed backdrop at the level of government; that the challenge funds are there for their research work; and that the collaboration that they are trying to achieve with commercial companies is matched by real price leverage and positive price control effort, as well as conscious usage planning on the part of Governments.
As the right hon. Member for Oxford East said, the issue is not just cancer drugs. Surgery is a key issue and none of us wants to understate its importance, nor that of radiotherapy. In my constituency, thankfully, a radiotherapy unit will open in 50 weeks’ time. It will be a cross-border unit, again using some of the models and ideas in the Good Friday agreement. The new radiotherapy unit, which will be part of the new cancer centre at Altnagelvin hospital, is funded by the Irish Government as well as the Northern Ireland Administration. It will make a huge difference to many people, assisting them on their cancer journey and making sure that they have less arduous physical journeys.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and the ongoing work that I know he wants to do. I hope that he takes that work forward with colleagues throughout all the Administrations in these islands and not just with his Whitehall colleagues.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone; after the build-up I have had, I hope not to disappoint. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) I am not, so you will forgive me if I disappoint somewhat. I apologise in advance that I will not be able to stay for the summing-up, as I have urgent constituency business connected to Tata Steel.
Cancer is an enemy we all have to fight. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that earlier. He is absolutely right, and I thank him for securing the debate. Many right hon. and hon. Members have already mentioned that cost is often a factor in decisions regarding specialist cancer drugs, and it is a factor that cannot be overlooked.
Scotland does things slightly differently. Its £80 million new medicines fund is proportionately much larger than the UK’s cancer drugs fund of £340 million. The Scottish Medicines Consortium—the SMC—which was reformed last year, gives advice to NHS boards in Scotland and is in charge of the fund. The SMC takes patient and clinician evidence as part of its assessment for drugs, which has led to many more of them being passed for use. The SMC also covers orphan drugs, for one-off conditions. In January of this year, the first case of Translarna for use in muscular dystrophy was agreed in Scotland, because of the SMC’s work.
Returning to cost, the UK’s pharmaceutical price regulation scheme limits the amount of money paid by the NHS to pharmaceutical companies and thereafter a rebate comes back to the service. In Scotland, the rebates are put back into the fund, but I understand that in the rest of the UK the money goes to the Treasury. In that way, Scotland sometimes gets the fund to grow even more. The cancer drugs fund can lead to health inequality, simply because better educated, middle-class patients and their families are better able to argue their case. That is not right, and something should be done on it.
A number of right hon. and hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan)—I apologise in advance for not referring to all Members by their constituency—have said that funding is important. The price challenge from cancer drugs is acute, and we all need to find a better way of funding drugs, to help everyone. For example, Herceptin took 20 years to get to patients, and a lot of drugs frequently do not make it through. It is understandable that the cost of drugs reflects that of research and development, which can take a long time and cost large sums, but surely it cannot be impossible to bring about a costing system that benefits everyone. A combined purchasing council, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Foyle, is something that the Government should look into.
I am extremely sorry that I cannot bring any more new information to the debate, but the fact that the Scottish Government place so much emphasis on the matter, and spend such a large proportion of their health budget on it, is indicative of how much we need and want to help cancer sufferers and those with unusual conditions. I hope that my small input has helped to stimulate the debate. Mr Hollobone, I am afraid that I now have to leave the Chamber because I have had an urgent call to go elsewhere. I apologise.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and to follow the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows).
I commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing the debate through the Backbench Business Committee and on the way in which he opened it. He has set the correct tone for how we seek the improvements we would like to see in access to cancer drugs for all our constituents. He was absolutely right to say that cancer touches every family. I lost my mother to ovarian cancer 21 years ago, and it is as painful to talk about today as it was then, when I was teenager. Only last week, my aunty passed away from cancer. It was a quick movement from the diagnosis to her passing, and I would like to place on the official record my thanks and tribute to all the staff at Willow Wood hospice in Ashton-under-Lyne, who looked after her so beautifully in her last days and hours. I also express my condolences to Evan, Shana, Sonya, Lal and Connor, who she has left behind.
The hon. Member for Strangford was absolutely right to say that we have made advances, but we still lag behind many comparable countries in cancer treatment. Access really does matter. I represent a cross-borough constituency, so I have to deal with two of everything, from police divisions right through to NHS trusts. Early on in my time as the Member of Parliament for Denton and Reddish, a constituent who had been diagnosed with breast cancer came to my advice surgery. She explained that her specialist had recommended Herceptin for its treatment, but that it was not available in her primary care trust area. If she had lived across the road, across the invisible administrative line—but still in the same constituency, with the same Member of Parliament—she would have had access to the drug. That was one of those moments when it was perfectly acceptable for the Member of Parliament to throw all the toys out of the pram. I did so, and thankfully I managed to get the primary care trust to change its mind.
Several years later the lady came to my surgery again, about something completely different, and it was one of those proud moments when one realises one has made a difference. She said, “Mr Gwynne, you don’t recognise me, do you?” and I replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t. I have met lots of people in my time as an MP. Should I recognise you?” She said, “I’m that lady you got Herceptin for, and I’m still here.” I do not know whether the Herceptin made a difference, but she believed that it did, and she would not have had access to it if I had not thrown all the toys out of the pram. That is why I start by commending the Government on the introduction of the Cancer Drugs Fund. The fund has been of significant benefit to patients, and that is to be welcomed—it would be churlish not to recognise the difference it has made. I am a little concerned, however, that the Government—as we have already heard—are now presiding over a series of reductions, which threaten the progress made.
We have already seen 18 treatments cut, and now NHS England has announced that a further 25 are due to be removed from next month. The Rarer Cancers Foundation has estimated that if all the cuts go ahead, more than 5,500 patients a year could be denied access in the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and others during the course of the debate have made that point powerfully.
Is the Minister content to stand by as the cuts are made? What will he do to help the patients who will miss out on these treatments if they are removed? At Prime Minister’s Question Time last week, the Prime Minister lauded NHS England’s negotiation process as a means of securing better value for the taxpayer, yet I fear the truth is rather different. I hear reports from charities and drug companies that suggest that NHS England has refused even to discuss discounts on some of the treatments threatened with cuts. Far from wanting to strike a deal that works for the taxpayer and helps patients, NHS England seems intent on leaving deals on the table. It is sad that efforts to save money on a range of drugs have been spurned. The chief executive of NHS England once said that he wanted his organisation to:
“Think like a patient, act like a taxpayer.”
The current position, however, seems to be against the interests of taxpayers and patients. Will the Minister intervene in NHS England to ensure that it considers every single offer that is put to it and that it redoubles efforts to maintain access to these drugs while securing the savings we all want to see?
The Minister cannot wash his hands of the issue when the process is evidently failing patients and delivering poor value for public money. Other countries seem to be able to make the drugs available without spending more money on their health services, which implies that they are better at striking deals, or at least are more flexible in doing so. Why are we not following the same process? Why should our constituents be denied these drugs when patients in other countries have access to them?
In brief response to my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), I place on record that we on the Labour Front Bench support his private Member’s Bill on off-patent drugs, which has the support of the Association of Medical Research Charities and will help to improve access to off-patent drugs. We also need to look at ways of encouraging clinicians to use off-patent drugs.
I will touch briefly on points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made on radiotherapy and surgery and the benefits that extending access to those treatments can provide. Going into the general election, the Labour party’s position was that we would extend the Cancer Drugs Fund to become a cancer treatment fund that would include radiotherapy and surgery. What consideration have the Government given to ensuring that all the innovations will be available as part of the fund?
On the pharmaceutical price regulation scheme, I fear that there is more bad news to come for cancer patients. In August, the Department of Health snuck out some changes to the PPRS on a Friday afternoon, and I fear that the implications of that news could be bad indeed. The change agreed with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry effectively limits the level of PPRS rebates that drug companies have to make on expenditure through the Cancer Drugs Fund. That creates a financial black hole over the lifetime of the PPRS that the Rarer Cancers Foundation tells me could amount to £567 million. The Government need to find more than half a billion pounds to cover the gap between projected Cancer Drugs Fund spend and PPRS rebates. Will the Minister tell the House how this gap will be filled? Can he reassure patients that the budget for the CDF will not be cut and that patients will not miss out as a result of that secret deal between the Government and the drugs companies?
Finally, I want to cover the consultation on the future. The cuts announced to the Cancer Drugs Fund in September were an inevitable consequence of an abject failure to fix the system. The Government’s record on the reform of drugs pricing and assessment is a sorry tale of promises not kept. First we had value-based pricing, which was meant to be the solution, but went nowhere. Then we had value-based assessment, which was derided by all sides and shelved by NICE, the very organisation that proposed it. The hon. Member for Foyle made some powerful points and interesting suggestions not just on the combined purchasing power of the various NHS systems across the devolved Administrations, but on the wider purchasing power of all the Administrations of the islands on which we reside. I would like the Minister to consider that.
We have the promise of Cancer Drugs Fund reform, but the process is already riddled with confusion and delay. The NHS England working group on reform was shut down as quickly as it was set up. A consultation was promised for July and then September—now it is October and we still have no consultation. In drawing the debate to a conclusion, will the Minister provide an update on when the consultation will finally be published? If he cannot do so, will he intervene with NHS England to ensure that Members are updated so that they can reassure the many of thousands of cancer patients whose treatment depends on satisfactory reform?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, at this early hour of the morning. I know that many Members would have liked to have been here for this debate. I suspect that if the debate had been scheduled for the main Chamber, we would probably have half-filled it, given the level of interest. I am delighted to have the chance to respond.
First, I congratulate and pay tribute to my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He is, as a number of colleagues have observed, a tenacious campaigner on this subject, and I am glad that we have kept up our record of 100% support for each other. He is a parliamentary champion of this cause, and it is a pleasure to work with him on it. He spoke powerfully about his own family’s experience of cancer, as did the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). I am sure many Members from all parts of the House have experience of cancer. My father died of throat cancer when I was 19. It is a disease that still, despite all the progress, robs families and stalks the land. I will say something in a minute about the progress that has been made, because it is stunning.
I suspect when many of us were children, that word—cancer—normally spelled a quick and tragic death. Now, more than 2 million people living in Britain have had a cancer diagnosis. Cancer Research UK and all those involved in cancer research have achieved extraordinary things, but it is still a diagnosis and treatment that people dread. Cancer is a serious cause of early death, and it was powerful to have heard such cross-party support for cancer research.
As the hon. Member for Strangford and others observed, cancer does not respect any boundaries, whether they are of geography, income or party politics, although I make the point that it heavily correlates with health inequalities. Many colleagues in the House with constituencies with particularly high incidences of cancers also have constituencies with particularly a high incidence of poverty generally. There is a strong link between life chances and poverty and health and health inequalities. I observe that the Petitions Committee has received a petition on Abraxane, which is a symptom of how widely the concern on this issue goes across the House.
I will try to deal with some of the issues that have been raised. The truth is that the field of cancer research has pioneered the model of 21st-century drug discovery and life science research that is transforming how the sector works. That is driven principally by breakthroughs in genomics, genetic science and informatics—the ability to develop treatments and diagnostics based on being able to predict which patients will respond to which drugs and which patients are likely to be predisposed to a particular disease. Such breakthroughs and the use of big data, big informatics and genomic insights into the use of genomic biomarkers are allowing us to redesign the way in which drugs are discovered and developed. Cancer has led in that field partly because cancer is itself a genetic disease and because of the extraordinary work of Cancer Research UK and various other charities. I pay tribute to their work and leadership not only in deep science, but in the policy-making framework on treatment, diagnosis and care. I will talk about the cancer strategy that CRUK has helped us to put together in a moment.
The role of charities is growing in this space. I recently opened a combined laboratory in Cambridge shared by Cancer Research UK and MedImmune, a subsidiary of AstraZeneca. We have seen partnerships and collaborations between charities and companies before, but this was a joint laboratory, jointly funded with a joint research committee. It is a sign of where this landscape is going. We will see charities become the gatekeepers of patient power, patient tissues and patient genomic information, and gatekeepers of the patient asset in this new landscape of patient-centred research. It is a very exciting time for medical research charities.
Pioneering cancer research has made many cancers diagnosable and treatable diseases. As I have said, more than 2 million people now live with cancer. Diagnosis is still poor in pancreatic and colon cancer, and in many cases there is no proper cure, but about 98% of breast cancers are treatable and curable. That is a stunning breakthrough and I am sure that over the next 20 or 30 years we will see all cancers quickly reach that point. We need to recognise the extraordinary improvements in this field. The role of genetics and informatics is welcomed by the Government. We are doing everything we can through our life sciences strategy, set out by the Prime Minister in 2011, to drive this new landscape.
We have made groundbreaking commitments with the Genomics England programme. We are the first nation to commit to sequence the genomes from 100,000 NHS patients and combine that with clinical data. We have made groundbreaking commitments to open up our data sets to drive this model of 21st-century research. It is important that all of us who understand the power of that work also support it, because our constituents worry about the use of data. We need to make sure we safeguard individual patient data, and we need to make sure we unlock the assets of the NHS throughout the United Kingdom so that we are a genuine powerhouse in the 21st-century model of patient-centred research.
I want to pay tribute to the work of Northern Ireland scientists, academics and companies. The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre at Queen’s University. He is absolutely right that it is a world-class centre. I visited earlier in the year to commend, congratulate and support the team there. Sometimes the sector appears to be more interested in Oxford, Cambridge and London than in the extraordinary world-class centres out on the corners of the United Kingdom. I went specifically for that reason. The work there is not only world class in terms of the deep science on the cell mechanisms of cancer, but, in embracing the unified life sciences strategy research and treatment, the centre has helped to pioneer leadership in stratified medicine, pulling in inward investment and, interestingly, taking the patient catchment for the lower quartile of cancer outcomes to the upper quartile. That is a sign of how research medicine drives up clinical standards.
I visited Queen’s University in Belfast in the summer. They told me that they wished to see more partnerships and relationships with other universities, including on the mainland. The funding strand needs to be encouraged and we need to be a part of that. Will the Minister take that on board? I am sure he knows all about it, but I simply remind him.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I will be discussing the matter with the Minister for Universities and Science and the Medical Research Council. We need to make sure that we move to a more networked and collaborative model of science funding. Traditionally, we have tended to fund established centres of excellence, which is important, but we also need to make sure we build networks. Cancer networks in research and treatment have been incredibly powerful in driving the advances that we have discussed. He makes a very good point. I was delighted to see the leadership of the Queen’s centre recently recognised by Cancer Research UK with a £3.6 million grant.
I want to talk about the wider landscape of cancer treatment and then turn to the drugs question.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene on him before he moves on to a different point. I am pleased that Her Majesty’s Opposition have made it clear in the debate this morning that they are going to support the Off-patent Drugs Bill, a private Member’s Bill. It would be helpful to many MPs who have had emails from constituents, as I certainly have, to find out what the Government’s attitude is to the Off-patent Drugs Bill. I encourage the Minister to say, “Yes, the Government will support it,” although I do not want to put the exact words into his mouth.
I will come to that important point as I deal with some of the questions that have been raised.
On the wider issue of cancer treatment, I want to highlight the announcement that the Secretary of State recently made on setting out our cancer strategy and the work of the cancer taskforce. We have set out important measures on a wider treatment regime for cancer. By 2020, NHS patients will be given a definitive cancer diagnosis or the all-clear within 28 days of being referred by a GP. This will be underpinned by an extra £300 million a year by 2020. We are launching a new national training programme that will equip another 200 staff to develop the skills and expertise to carry out endoscopies by 2018. We have a commitment from NHS England to implement the independent cancer taskforce’s recommendations on molecular diagnostics. This will mean that around 25,000 additional people a year will have their cancers genetically tested to identify the most effective treatments.
I have been absolutely insistent since day one when we launched the genomics programme that this deep science project should be embedded in NHS England. Patient recruitment for the project comes through the 11 genomic medicine centres in NHS England, and NHS England is now developing an infrastructure for doing genomic and molecular diagnostics in the mainstream NHS. We want the NHS to be the first health service in the world to launch genomic medicine for all as part of our universal 21st-century offering. A lot of work is going on at the moment on how we build the infrastructure for molecular diagnostics.
Our aim is that, by 2020, everyone diagnosed with cancer will benefit from a tailored recovery package, individually designed to help each patient. We are also committed to empowering patients and giving them much more information, so that those who choose to do so will be able to access personal health information, such as their test results, diagnosis, treatment history and their cancer recovery package, online. By 2017, there will be a new national quality of life measure to help to monitor how well people live after their treatment has ended, enabling priorities for improvements to be identified. We will continue to work with NHS England, charities and patient groups to deliver those commitments. It is important to remember that as people live with cancer—hopefully, more people will live with it—we will need to invest in the support network for how they live with it, and how we continue to monitor and support them and deliver post-treatment care.
I want to emphasise the importance of the role of NICE. Nothing I am about to say in any way undermines our commitment to its independent role and expertise in guiding and supporting decision making on drug access with the latest evidence and health economic leadership. In no way do we want to undermine its position. NICE has led the world. That is a great tribute to it and to the UK’s system. We are clear that if a drug is recommended by NICE, the NHS is legally required to fund it. Over the years, many thousands of people in England have benefited from the cancer drugs that NICE has recommended. These include Herceptin, Yervoy, and Zytiga for prostate cancer.
Most recently, hon. Members will have seen that NICE published final guidance on 7 October that recommends Keytruda, or pembrolizumab, for the treatment of advanced melanoma, after disease progression with Yervoy. I urge NICE to embrace the new technologies. I will talk about that in a moment. I am particularly pleased to be able to announce that in the early access to medicine scheme, which we launched last year as the beginning of the new landscape and which I have asked my accelerated access review to look at beefing up and developing, the first drugs have come through. They have been fast-tracked.
I am delighted to confirm to the House that NHS England has now undertaken routinely to fund the use of NICE-recommended early-access-to-medicine products within 30 days of NICE guidance being published. Colleagues will know that the scheme was established so that an innovative drug may be designated a promising, innovative medicine, and if there is no alternative mainstream therapy, the treatment can be fast-tracked into patients, with their consent, and rapid assessment carried out. The link to NHS England commissioning had not been established, but it is now in place. I am delighted that the first drug has gone through that system, and we hope that more will follow.
I welcome the Minister’s words on the progress of early access, but does he recognise that since 2011 NICE has turned down every new breast cancer medicine, while the cancer drugs fund has approved six new breast cancer treatments in NHS England? Between April 2013 and March 2015, that represented more than 2,000 extra life-years for patients coming from the CDF—life-years that NICE did not deliver.
The hon. Gentleman tees me up perfectly for the next section of my speech, because I want to deal with access to drugs and the Cancer Drugs Fund. We all recognise, not least the Prime Minister, that access to drugs is essential in this landscape, which is why he personally led the launch of the Cancer Drugs Fund—I thank the shadow Minister for paying tribute to that leadership. We have now committed just over £1 billion to the Cancer Drugs Fund—a substantial investment—and just under 80,000 patients have benefited from treatments that otherwise would not have been approved. They are largely treatments that NICE has turned down and the Cancer Drugs Fund has then stepped in to fund.
Because of the cancer field’s leadership in this new model of drug discovery, the rate of new drugs coming through is increasing and going to a targeted patient base. The smaller patient catchment for which industry must recover costs has driven it to raise prices and costs. In many ways, it has challenged NICE’s traditional £30,000 per quality-adjusted life-year model. It is driving huge pressure on our traditional model of health-economic reimbursement.
As Members have said, and as the National Audit Office report recently highlighted, the CDF was originally established as an interim measure to ensure that cancer patients were not denied drugs while we fixed the landscape. Although I have been in post only 15 months, I hope colleagues can see that the reviews of accelerated access and the CDF are not accidentally aligned. We are currently looking at how we make sure we support access to innovative medicines. Where cancer has led, other therapeutic areas will follow.
The genomic and informatics revolution will require NICE to change how it works. The explosion of progress in this field is what has put so much pressure on the CDF. Ever more treatments are coming online, but NICE is turning down ever more treatments on very well respected health-economic grounds. Those are difficult judgments about what represents health-economic value for the system and for patients. The CDF does not have a built-in discounting mechanism: it effectively takes the price on the basis of which NICE has rejected the drug and agrees to pay it. We want to look at whether we might use our extraordinary purchasing power to use the fund in a more productive way to get earlier access and, in return, discounts. That is what the accelerated access review is all about.
It is important to confirm that if NHS England decides to de-list a drug, any patients who have received a drug through the cancer drugs fund will continue to receive it. Where patients, particularly those with rarer cancers, are unhappy with a recommendation to de-list and their clinicians advise it, they can initiate individual cancer funding requests, an important avenue that many patients are successfully using.
I want to discuss the accelerated access review and respond to some of the questions that have been asked. I launched the review this time last year, asking and challenging the system to answer three big questions. Given the NHS’s extraordinary position as a universal, single-payer health system with leadership in genomics and informatics, the review is about asking what we can do to accelerate how we get innovation to patients. I have asked three specific questions. First, what can we do to shorten the time, cost and risk of getting innovation to that all-important moment of first use in patients? How can we make things quicker both for the patients who need it and for researchers, so that they can get those all-important human clinical data?
Secondly, what can we do to help NICE to embrace new flexibilities and pathways and to use genomics and informatics to update its systems, in order to deal with the issues raised by a number of colleagues relating to the end of the one-size-fits-all blockbuster model so that, in the 21st century, NICE has more tools at its disposal and more adaptive pathways—to use the jargon—to open up those flexibilities?
Thirdly, I have asked the accelerated access review to look at what barriers we can knock over and what incentives we can put in place to speed up the roll-out of innovative drugs and device diagnostics across the system. Unfortunately, there is great variation in the pace at which innovation is rolled out. In many ways, the CDF has pioneered on the very problems with which the system is now confronted. I am convinced that the CDF will be part of the solution. I cannot prejudice NHS England’s consultation, but I can reassure Members that, through the accelerated access review and the comprehensive spending review, we are looking at what we might be able to do to ensure that our commitment to funding innovative cancer medicines through the CDF also supports the broader landscape for innovative medicines. We will have to wait to hear the detail in the comprehensive spending review and subsequent announcements at the end of the consultation.
I want to deal quickly with one or two of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) made an important point about the different parts of the United Kingdom co-operating. As the UK Minister for Life Sciences, I am very conscious of leadership in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and would be interested to follow up on his point about using the broader network.
The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) asked me about NICE looking at exceptional circumstances. The accelerated access review is looking at whether we can give NICE more freedoms and flexibilities. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) made an important point about the Scottish model—the innovative medicines fund there, the Scottish Medicines Consortium and the importance of patient voice, of which I am very conscious. She also discussed health inequalities, which are important.
Various colleagues asked about Abraxane. NICE is in the process of developing guidance on Abraxane for pancreatic cancer, which it expects to publish very shortly. The hon. Member for Strangford made an important point about data. We recognise that we need to be much better at gathering and using the data from the CDF. A data-sharing agreement between NHS England and Public Health England was signed in July.
In closing, I thank the shadow Minister for his support for the cancer drugs fund. We are intent on it remaining focused on access to drugs; we are tackling the wider treatment regime through the cancer strategy I have set out.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Hollobone. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who participated. A vast array of excellent knowledge was on display today from those who gave speeches and made interventions. Some great ideas were put forward, particularly that of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about combined purchasing power. The Minister and shadow Minister were both on to that; it is something we can use better to develop the existing innovative drugs policies across the whole United Kingdom. I draw particular attention to the advances being made at Queen’s University Belfast, which we should combine with progress in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The contributions from each and every Member were valuable, detailed, informative and compassionate. It is important that we put on the record our thanks to the charities and other contributors. We are all moved by the e-petitions, which show that there is clearly a deep interest in the best way to fund cancer drugs. We have tried to ensure that patients at their weakest are the focus of the debate. I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. We look forward to helping our constituents across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Post-Study Work Visa (Scotland)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the operation of the post-study work visa in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I hope the House will note the views of students, graduates, academics, Universities Scotland, the National Union of Students Scotland, colleges, the Scottish Parliament and the business community, which are all calling for the UK Government’s decision to revoke the post-study work visa to be reversed. That broad coalition claims that the Government’s reckless decision hinders the student experience, is devastating for Scotland’s universities and colleges, and damages businesses’ ability to grow their operations.
The post-study work visa is an almost unique area of policy, in that it unites all Scotland’s political parties, including the Scottish Conservatives. In Scotland, we would call it a no-brainer. The post-study work visa, introduced in 2004, was one of new Labour’s few genuinely effective policies. It made a positive contribution to Scotland politically, economically and socially—an exception to prove the rule, some might say.
As the humanitarian crisis affecting refugees from Syria illustrates, Scotland has a proud record of welcoming people from all over the world. We value the contribution that our international students make to and in our communities, towns, workplaces, classes and lecture theatres. They internationalise our experiences and make us more informed and culturally aware.
One of the best things about Paisley is that the University of the West of Scotland’s main campus is located at the top of our high street. UWS is a fantastic university. It opens its doors to students who would normally not get the chance to access higher education, and it provides an excellent student experience. Although I was not a student at UWS, I have strong connections with it: my wife just enrolled there, and my dad will graduate from it in a few weeks’ time. Additionally, three of my staff graduated from UWS, two of whom served as student presidents of the university. Although they graduated at different times and with different degrees, they all agree that studying and working alongside and socialising with the international cohort was the best thing about their time at university. It opened their eyes to different cultures and a different way of working, and they became better students as a result.
Learning from others at university can be just as important as the academic education a person receives. That is the crux of the issue. The UK Government fail to understand the positive and real impact that the PSW visa has on Scotland. Although the Home Secretary believes that the PSW visa benefits only those from outside the European Union, the truth is that we all benefit from having international students studying and living in our communities. That is why the broad coalition I spoke of is united in its desire to see the post-study work visa reintroduced. We believe there is a clear, demonstrable demographic and skills need, along with wider and immeasurable social and economic benefits to restoring that route into work.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the real benefits of a post-study work visa is that the experience, qualifications and expertise that those students have gained in our universities can be used in our communities to grow our economy? Otherwise, that expertise would return to their countries and be taken away from our communities.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. When the Minister sums up, can she explain why everyone else is wrong and her Government are right in believing that the post-study work visa is bad for universities, colleges and businesses?
Student leaders, such as the National Union of Students Scotland, have long supported the post-study work visa, as they have first-hand experience of the benefits that international students bring to our campuses. NUS Scotland states that international students enrich the curriculum, diversify the university experience and help improve the skill sets of our home students. I have received such feedback not only from NUS Scotland but from students who live in my constituency. Regardless of which university they study at or which course or subject they study, our home-based students all speak positively about the impact that their international colleagues have on their time at university. Although Members here probably graduated a good few moons ago, I am sure they would all say that their university experience was richer for studying alongside students with backgrounds different from their own.
I echo my hon. Friend’s words. I have worked in the Scottish further education sector for the past 12 years, and there are absolutely real cultural, social and economic benefits to having a diverse student populations in our colleges and universities. Our global competitors are very happy to welcome those valuable international students and everything they have with open arms—other places will benefit from things our communities should be benefiting from.
That was a very strong point from my hon. Friend.
NUS Scotland rightly points out that Scotland’s equivalent of the post-study work visa, the fresh talent initiative, attracted prospective international students to consider Scotland as a place to study. The Higher Education Statistics Agency suggests that the number of students from overseas markets enrolling in Scotland’s universities has declined substantially since the Home Secretary closed the post-study work opportunity. For example, recent research undertaken by the Scottish Government’s Post Study Work working group suggests that the number of new entrants to Scottish universities from India fell by 63% between 2010-11 and 2013-14.
The ending of the visa sends a clear message to that important international market that Britain is closed for business. How does the Minister respond to such damning statistics? Does she think that the fall in the number of students coming from India and other key international markets is good for universities?
During my research into the impact caused by the removal of the visa, I spoke to a number of graduates who stated that their teamworking and language skills increased as a result of working in diverse groups that contained members who came from another part of the world. They said that it created obvious challenges, although mostly for the international students who struggled to comprehend a strong west of Scotland dialect—something that Members here can appreciate. The experience of working alongside international students helped those graduates to prepare for the world of work. We need to ensure that our graduates are able to work with different cultures, and university is key in preparing them for an increasingly globalised workplace.
It is clear that students, student leaders and graduates appreciate the opportunities that the visa provided. It made Scottish universities a more attractive destination, diversified the curriculum, improved our university experience and helped to improve the skill sets of our home students. However, not only students support it. Academics have also played an important part in calling for the restoration of the visa. As well as acknowledging the benefits that international students bring to their campuses, academic leaders cannot stress enough the importance of the economic benefits that international students bring to Scotland’s higher education system.
Most non-EU students make a significant and vital contribution to Scotland’s education sector and national economy; they do not come here, receive a free education and go back to their own country as soon as they have graduated. They pay fees—in some cases, up to £24,000 a year to study at one of our top universities—and spend money while living here on accommodation, living costs and the occasional drink. According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Scottish universities received £374 million from non-EU student course fees in 2012-13. While studying in Scotland, international students also contributed to the Scottish economy through off-campus expenditure, estimated at £441 million a year. In times of austerity, we surely cannot refuse to accept that income.
Hon. Members will be aware of Scotland’s fantastic reputation for higher education. Scotland now has five universities in the most recent Times Higher Education world ranking’s top 200, and three in the top 100. Those rankings assess performance in a number of areas, including employee reputation, staff-student ratios, research citations and academic reputation. Scotland well and truly punches above its weight in providing an excellent university education, and I pay tribute to the work of the Scottish Government, university staff and students in achieving that success. We should build on the reputation that Scotland’s higher education system has worked so hard to cultivate—not denigrate it, as ending the PSW visa programme is doing. We can improve our reputation and sustain our excellent academic record by restoring the visa. A failure to do so will cause us to fall behind our international competitors.
Universities are measured on their academic record and attractiveness. Can the UK Government say with any authority that the UK is an attractive place to study since the ability to live in, work in and contribute to Scotland has been removed? The decline in the number of international students choosing to study in the UK clearly shows that the UK is falling behind in international competitiveness and attractiveness. Don’t just take our word for it: the all-party parliamentary group on migration produced a report in February. Its Tory vice-chairman noted:
“Higher education is one of our country’s leading export success stories…But the government’s current approach to post-study work and student migration policy is jeopardising Britain’s position in the global race for talent.”
Higher education is not the only sector feeling the impact of the removal of the visa. Further education colleges are also calling for this important route into work to be reinstated. I am fortunate to have the Paisley campus of West College Scotland in my constituency. During my first recess as MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire North, I made it a priority to meet the college’s principal, Audrey Cumberford. During my meeting with Audrey, we spoke about several important issues affecting the college, including its success following a recent merger. However, we also spoke about the challenges that the college is facing and the major test confronting the college sector as a result of the Home Secretary’s decision to revoke the visa.
Like others in the FE sector, Audrey Cumberford claims that the post-study work visa was an important factor in attracting the best international student talent to Scotland. It secured essential income for colleges and allowed college and university graduates to continue to contribute to Scotland at the end of their studies. It could be argued that colleges have actually been hit harder following the demise of the visa as the number of international students studying in Scotland’s colleges fell from 2,039 in 2010-11 to 561 in 2013-14—a shocking and inexcusable fall of 72%. What is the Minister’s response to that shocking decline? What support can the Government provide to current students who are losing out from not being able to study alongside students from other countries?
Audrey Cumberford serves not only as the principal of West College Scotland, but as the chairwoman of the Renfrewshire chamber of commerce, playing an important role in supporting local businesses. She speaks to businesses from around the world on a regular basis, hearing about the opportunities and challenges that exist when setting up and operating a business in the UK. Again, business leaders are uniting with students, universities, academics, the NUS and colleges in calling for the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. The Post Study Work working group is quite damning in its claim that the UK Government’s decision to revoke international students’ ability to work after graduating from university is acting as a barrier to economic growth in Scotland. In fact, the results of a consultative survey found that 90% of businesses in Scotland were in favour of the reintroduction of the post-study work visa. Is there another policy programme that nine out of 10 businesses oppose and that businesses claim is having a detrimental impact on their operations? Surely the Conservatives, the self-proclaimed party of business, would want to do something to help them.
Businesses in Scotland claim that they are losing out on recruiting highly skilled workers now that the option of employing a highly skilled and qualified overseas graduate is no longer available. From a job market point of view, there is no reason whatever not to allow such students to take up the job opportunities waiting for them. They would pay tax and contribute to our communities and we should allow them to pay the country back for the education that they have received. The Government talk about reducing wasteful spend, but training these students, pouring thousands of pounds into educating them and then allowing another country to reap the benefits is surely the ultimate waste of money.
Businesses are also refuting the UK Government’s claim that international students will take jobs away from UK-based students. The fact of the matter is that a skill shortage exists in Scotland and the Post Study Work working group acknowledged the role that international student recruitment could have on filling that gap. Significant skill gaps exist in areas such as financial services, food technology, engineering and IT, and we should reduce the constraints on such businesses to allow them to recruit skilled international workers and make use of them to train up domestic workers. Would one approach to help meet the skills gap not be the restoration of the post-study work visa?
In conclusion, I hope that in my first Westminster Hall debate I have been able to articulate the views of the broad coalition that wants the post-study work visa to be reintroduced. The matter has been brought to the attention of the Scottish Affairs Committee time and again as it consults with Scots from a variety of sectors. It bears repeating that it is rare to find a policy area that unites all major Scottish political parties in addition to business, civic Scotland and the higher and further education sectors. The UK Government are finding themselves increasingly isolated on the matter and the decision consistently to reject calls for the PSW visa to be reintroduced does nothing for their reputation as being deaf to and out of touch with the Scottish public when it comes to immigration matters. We are in a post-referendum period and the ball is well and truly in the UK Government’s court. There is civic consensus and unanimity across all political parties in Scotland that post-study work visas should be reintroduced.
Scotland’s immigration needs are different from those in the rest of the UK, and we welcome the contribution that new Scots make to our economy and society. A post-study work visa is an important lever for attracting the best international student talent. The Smith Commission recommendations clearly outlined that Scotland should have more flexibility within the current UK-wide framework for immigration. The Government have consistently indicated a willingness to listen to the arguments and make amendments to the Scotland Bill, but they have consistently failed to follow their words with action. I offer the Government yet another opportunity to show that they can listen. There is room in the Smith agreement to devolve the administration of student visas, so I ask the minister to give that serious consideration.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I apologise for my slightly late arrival. Something is going on outside, and it seems that the roads are a bit busy for some visitor or other. Anyway, I got here and I was delighted to hear the vast majority of the speech made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), whom I congratulate on securing a debate on the operation of post-study work visas in Scotland.
The Government recognise that there should be opportunities for the brightest and best graduates from UK universities to remain in the UK to work, and we have an excellent post-study work offer for graduates seeking to undertake skilled work in Scotland after their studies. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends the Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) are right to say that overseas students enrich the universities at which they study. I am lucky enough to be a graduate of Imperial College London. When I studied there, over 20 years ago, more than a third of students were from overseas, and I know that my university experience was enriched as a result. I will therefore set out the opportunities available to overseas students who graduate from UK universities and make it clear that the UK is not closed for business.
The number of students who can stay in the UK after completing their studies is not limited, but they need to meet certain conditions. Those with an offer of a graduate-level job, paying an appropriate salary, may take up sponsored employment through tier 2, the skilled worker route, which is one of the ways that they can apply to stay. Over 25,000 UK employers are licensed by the Home Office to sponsor non-EEA nationals to work in the UK under tier 2. If graduates apply from within the UK, the resident labour market test is waived and they are not subject to the annual limit on tier 2 numbers. In 2013, more than 4,000 visas were issued to tier 4 students to switch into tier 2 in the UK; last year, that number increased to more than 5,500.
We have introduced a visa category for graduate entrepreneurs, the first of its kind in the world. Those who have been identified by a higher education institution or UK Trade & Investment can stay on for up to two years to develop their business in the UK before switching into tier 2 or the main tier 1 entrepreneur route. Just over 560 graduate entrepreneur visas were granted in 2014, up from 206 the year before.
We have also made provisions to switch into tier 5 those graduates wishing to undertake a period of professional training or a corporate internship related to their qualifications before pursuing a career overseas. In addition, PhD students can stay in the UK for an extra year under the tier 4 doctorate extension scheme to look for work or start their own business. All those post-study work provisions are available to non-EEA graduates of UK universities, including those in Scotland.
It is worth putting the statistics on the record. In the year ending March 2015, 137,000 non-EU students entered the UK and only 41,000 left. That shows that many people are taking advantage of the opportunities to stay in the UK and work that the legal migration route offers, but it also indicates that there are many overstayers—people who are here beyond their visa. It is therefore important that the Government, who are listening to people’s migration concerns, do not allow or accept abuses.
I also want to address the question of whether Scottish universities are at a competitive disadvantage. Let me be clear: I would never talk down Scottish higher education establishments. Scottish universities are absolutely fantastic. I have relatives who have studied at Glasgow and other institutions and I know about the fantastic qualifications, training and learning that they received. Since 2010, university-sponsored applications have increased by 7%, with a 4% increase to 14,627 last year. The figures indicate that Scotland is not closed for business and that overseas students do want to study in Scotland.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North mentioned a decline in further education college numbers. We are reforming the student visa system to tackle abuse. There has been a fall in the number of international students applying to study in further education, the area where immigration abuse had been most prevalent. However, I repeat: university-sponsored applications to Scottish universities are increasing—up 7% since 2010 and up 4% last year alone.
The current set of provisions replaced the tier 1 post-study work category, which was closed in April 2012. The previous category permitted students graduating from a UK university to stay in the UK for up to two years after they finished their course, with unrestricted access to the labour market. The number of applications was significant, climbing from 20,015 grants of extension of stay in 2008 to 43,719 in 2011, when the route accounted for 45% of all grants of extension of stay for the purpose of work. Analysis of the route shows that the availability of the post-study work category gave rise to a cohort of migrants with a significant possibility of engagement on unskilled work. An operational assessment of the employment status of tier 1 migrants undertaken in October 2010 found that three in five users of the tier 1 post-study work category were in unskilled work, not graduate-level work. That does not suggest that the UK is not open for business. Our great university education should mean that we encourage people who want to stay to do graduate work, not to carry out unskilled labour.
In addition, UK Visas and Immigration intelligence assessments made in 2009 found that applications to switch into the tier 1 post-study work category were associated with high levels of abuse, including the submission of suspected bogus educational qualifications. A 2014 analysis of the tax status of migrants who had switched from the tier 1 post-study work category to the tier 1 entrepreneur category found that the majority had no declared economic activity or were working in breach of their conditions of stay. At the same time, we transformed the immigration routes for migrant workers and introduced a cap of 20,700 for non-EEA migrant workers, and there has been an increase in sponsored visa applications for highly skilled workers.
We have also tackled abuse of the student route. We have struck off nearly 900 bogus colleges since 2010. At the same time there has been a 17% rise in the number of sponsored student visa applications for universities, and a 33% rise for Russell Group universities.
It is a great shame that the Government have not found a way to deal with bogus colleges without the great disadvantage that is being inflicted on colleges and universities. I urge the Minister to be cognisant of the differences between universities and colleges when she gives her explanations. That would be very welcome.
I do understand the point that the hon. Lady makes about the difference between FE and higher education colleges. I am privileged to have a higher education college in my constituency now, as the FE college has become part of the University of Derby and is therefore now a higher education establishment. I am aware of different types of students and courses.
I want to touch on the matter of devolution. The Smith commission commits the Scottish and UK Governments to working together to explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time. The current provisions available to graduates of Scottish universities are precisely the type referred to in the report of the Smith commission.
On the question of net migration overall, as the Home Secretary has set out, high levels of immigration can put pressure on schools, hospitals, accommodation, transport and social services and drive down wages for people on low incomes. We now have a more selective approach to immigration, which is designed to operate in a fair and practical way, giving students, graduates, workers and employers the confidence they need in our system.
I recognise that the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North and his hon. Friends value the post-study work provisions in Scotland and across the UK. I confirm my commitment to our continuing to provide an excellent offer to people who graduate from UK universities.
Question put and agreed to.
Air Passenger Duty: Regional Airports
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Ninth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2014-15, on Smaller Airports, HC 713, and the Government response, HC 350.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered air passenger duty and regional airports.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am delighted to have secured this important debate, and I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen), who has been a champion of regional aviation and has campaigned on many of the issues that I hope to touch on in the debate.
Along with many hon. Members present, I have a regional airport on the edge of my constituency—in my case, Birmingham airport. I will set out the importance of my regional airport to the west midlands and to the wider UK economy, before moving on to the specifics of air passenger duty.
Birmingham airport is the second largest regional airport in England and the third largest regional airport in the UK. York Aviation has calculated that in 2014 the airport’s total economic impact in the west midlands was worth about £1.1 billion. The airport supports about 25,000 jobs.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree with me that Birmingham international airport is a fantastic airport and, when High Speed 2 is built, some people in London will be able to get to Birmingham quicker than they would be able to get to Gatwick or Heathrow?
My hon. Friend is a strong champion of regional aviation, and many of her constituents in Redditch not only use Birmingham airport and enjoy its facilities but work there.
As I was saying, York Aviation calculated that some 25,000 jobs rely on the airport, which puts it in a similar bracket to developments such as HS2 in driving the regional economy. Passenger numbers at Birmingham airport have grown by 13% over the past five years and in 2014 alone it handled more than 9.7 million passengers, including a 7.2% growth in long haul. Nevertheless, the airport is running well below capacity. It could conceivably accommodate up to 36 million passengers, rather than just under 10 million.
The potential for Birmingham airport, and I am sure for many other hon. Members’ airports, to impact positively on the UK economy is considerable. Genuinely, we have only scratched the surface of what we can achieve. While we take seemingly forever to debate a new runway at Heathrow, jobs and direct investment in the regions are going begging.
The west midlands is in receipt of over a quarter of all foreign direct investment entering the UK and leads the UK in terms of export growth. It is the only part of our country with a positive visible trade balance with the European Union, seeing overall growth of 100% between 2009 and 2014. Birmingham airport is central to that—but more growth and jobs could be had. A major stumbling block is the air passenger duty regime.
Regional airports are at a disadvantage, as rates of APD are calculated on the destination of the flight and the class of travel that a passenger is in. This fee is the same whether someone flies from Heathrow, Birmingham or any other English or Welsh airport: for flights within the European open skies area, the fee is £13 in standard or £26 in a higher class, but jumps dramatically for flights outside that area, to £71 in standard class or £142 in a higher class. APD in the UK is considerably higher than in our neighbouring competitor economies: in Germany, it is £5.70 in the European open skies area and £32 for the rest of the world in standard class; and in France it is cheaper still, at £3.90 in the European open skies area and £8.90 for the rest of the world in standard.
An Airport Operators Association survey found that the APD has had a direct effect on passenger numbers and routes. Bristol airport reportedly said that several domestic services were scrapped as a result. Routes between Southampton, Leeds-Bradford, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Brussels airports had been “adversely affected” by the tax.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. What he is alluding to is all the more pertinent in relation to Belfast City airport and the international airport in Northern Ireland because we share a land border with the Irish Republic, so a few miles down the road Dublin airport does not apply such taxes. We have severe taxes—air passenger duty—in Northern Ireland, so there is a double whammy for us. I support what he is saying and I urge the Government to take seriously the impact of this iniquitous tax on small, regional airports and peripheral areas of the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman highlights an issue to do not only with his own airport but the wider UK aviation industry. Both Derry airport—also in Northern Ireland—and Cambridge airport in England claim that they are being prevented from expanding their services by APD. My argument is that the hub status of the major London airports, in particular Heathrow, allows them more easily to absorb the shock of air passenger duty, but that is not the case for some of the regional airports.
There have of course been successes in attracting new long-haul routes to Birmingham, for example. We have Air India now flying its routes to Delhi and Amritsar daily; American Airlines has begun daily flights to JFK, alongside the daily flight to Newark—that is not Nottinghamshire; Emirates has launched a third daily flight to Dubai; and this summer Hainan Airlines operated 34 twice-weekly flights between Birmingham and Beijing.
As was made clear to me in my recent meetings with the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, which owns Birmingham airport and is a responsible trustee, my local airport would love to have a regular direct flight between the UK and China week in, week out, rather than only for the summer, and it is a real failing that in the week in which the Chinese President is visiting we do not have a regular scheduled flight between the UK’s second city and Beijing. We cannot separate the issue of APD and devolution, which is a central plank of the Government’s approach to reforming and reinvigorating the UK economy.
It is hugely important that the fruits of growth that come from devolution extend to our connectivity as well. That must include greater use of our regional airports for short and long-haul flights.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. We have a strange situation in Wales. The Welsh Government own our own national airport, but the UK Government will not devolve APD to them so that they may utilise their asset. Does he agree that that is a slightly strange situation?
Before my hon. Friend continues, and on the very day that the Chinese President visits our Parliament, may I follow his train of thought about the importance of connectivity with China? My hon. Friend might recall that the President’s predecessor stopped first at Stratford-upon-Avon before coming to London, so the appetite for tourism to the west midlands is real and strong, and greater connectivity through Birmingham would enhance it.
Greater connectivity throughout the United Kingdom—in all the regions and devolved Administrations—would enhance not only tourism, but business and trade. I will come on to those points shortly.
Powers over APD are being considered for Wales, and that might have a knock-on effect for English airports such as Bristol and Liverpool. More seriously for my local airport, Birmingham, the new Manchester devolution deal might see that city gain the power to cut APD for its own airport, which could lure scheduled and package-holiday flights away from Birmingham. Clearly, if we are not to be placed at a disadvantage by rival areas, we need Birmingham airport to be able to compete fairly. However, I do not want my speech or this debate to be exercises in grievances or fiscal wishful thinking.
Despite the best efforts of this Government, we face a difficult fiscal environment. While we are still trying to clamber back from the recession and endemic overspending by Labour, any suggestions should at least be revenue neutral for the medium term.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In his few months in Parliament he has become a worthy campaigner on behalf of Solihull and the west midlands. Might the answer to the question of APD be a UK-wide reduction or abolition of the tax, the highest such charged in the world, apart from in Chad? A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report suggested that the amount of economic growth that Birmingham and other places, such as London and the south-east, would generate from the abolition of the tax is greater than the amount brought into the Exchequer.
My hon. Friend makes some valid points. I had no idea that we were second only to Chad when it came to air passenger duty; that is certainly new to me. I hope to address some of the issues he raised.
At a time when we are trying to clamber back from financial difficulty, revenue neutrality is something that we need to put, as much as we can, in our proposals. There is justifiable concern in the west midlands and other regions about their airports’ ability to compete with devolved areas. While devolution is a bottom-up process, the Treasury could heavily encourage the devolution of APD to combined authorities or devolved areas as soon as practicable.
What practical things can be done by the Government right now? I would suggest an APD holiday on new routes. Birmingham airport is in discussions with Hainan Airlines for a regular, scheduled service, following two summers of charter services. An APD holiday could aid that. That would provide a direct link for the UK’s second city to the powerhouse of China and further assist the west midlands’ current trade surplus with China. It would also help foreign direct investment just as with the new Gentling resort close to Birmingham airport.
Regional airports, the wider economy and future tax take would benefit from an APD holiday. While Birmingham airport and others want a general cut in APD, which is unlikely in the short term given the financial circumstances, it would accept any measures to reduce that tax. It estimates that a cut in APD on non-congested airports would boost passenger numbers by about 2.9 million in just a decade. All increases in passengers will bring goods, services and jobs.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. I am sure he agrees with the findings of the Select Committee on Transport, which said earlier this year that small, regional airports had been held back because of air passenger duty, which was affecting jobs and the skills base coming in. As the likes of Belfast City airport and the international airport in Northern Ireland are confident that passenger numbers would grow substantially if APD were removed, that should be an incentive to bring more people in.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I note that the Transport Committee wanted to attach a report to the debate, which I was happy to agree to.
The hon. Gentleman made it clear that all increases in passengers will bring goods, services and jobs to an area, all of which will return money to the Exchequer through other taxes. These measures will go some way towards reversing the scandal under Labour that the UK did more trade with Ireland than with Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. The Prime Minister, through trade missions, and the Government, more generally assisting in trade with the emerging and fast-growing markets, are tackling that problem. However, there is still the issue of connecting our regions, and the country more generally, with the large and frankly now emerged, rather than emerging, economies of the world.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate. My constituency contains Prestwick airport, and when I moved there in the mid-’90s we were connected to almost every decent city in Europe. My husband is German, so we batted backwards and forwards from there quite regularly. We still had flights to Canada and a thriving tourist industry. In particular, we had central Europeans and Scandinavians coming to play golf—Ayrshire is a golf centre. We have a beautiful coastline and it is the country of Robert Burns.
After APD came in, we started to get fewer and fewer flights. When I visited the airport after being elected, it was like the Mary Celeste; there are about six flights a day that basically go only to Spain and Italy, purely for tourism, and there are no business flights. We are not even connected to London—I have to spend an hour on the road to get to Glasgow to fly down. That is absolutely killing our tourism industry.
Hotel and guest house owners were learning Swedish because we had so much golf traffic coming in, but we have become expensive in comparison with other places. We have heard about the decision to give Heathrow a third runway because it is overcrowded, but an awful lot of us have to go through Heathrow when we do not really want to be there; we are trying to go somewhere else.
There could be a differential. Air passenger duty might be used to try to control the pressure in London, but it is killing regional airports. All we have are a few flights out of Prestwick, with people going to Spain or Italy for a couple of weeks. What is important to my constituency is flights in. We need to make it an attractive place for people to come on holiday, spend a few weeks playing golf, sailing and whatever else, and leave their money in our economy.
Edinburgh airport produced a report on what the impact on Scotland would be if APD were reduced. We hope that it will be devolved, but that will take time; in the meantime, Prestwick airport gets more and more vulnerable. The report showed that although Glasgow and Edinburgh airports would get an initial boost, from 2017 onwards one of the biggest gainers would be Prestwick.
We have a fantastic airport, which is usually weather-clear because of its situation. It has a huge runway. We used to have people—including Elvis—flying in from America and Canada, but now the airport sits there one step up from being mothballed. We are not even in the position that the hon. Member for Solihull described. The airport was going to be shut down two years ago by its owners, Infratil from New Zealand, so the Scottish Government bought it to protect it.
We need to get the airport growing. It will not sit there forever unless we can get trade going. An airport gains from trade regardless of the direction, but the area it sits in benefits in particular when the traffic is coming in.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I will keep my remarks short because I know that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute. Blackpool airport is in my constituency. Sadly, it is one of the airports, along with Plymouth and Manston, that has closed in recent years.
At its peak several years ago, Blackpool enjoyed more than 600,000 passengers per annum. It had Ryanair and Jet2 flights to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man. The decision to close the airport last year was a devastating blow to the local economy. Not only was there an impact on people’s ability to fly out of Blackpool to holiday resorts; it also sent out a message that the wider tourist economy was not fully open for business. With Blackpool and the Fylde coast, we, too, have world-class golf courses such as Royal Lytham and St Annes, so the facility of an airport is important. When the Open was on, for example, a large number of private and corporate jets used that facility, which brought in high spenders to access our golf courses.
We have talked about many things that could be done to help the small, regional airports. One that seems glaringly obvious is some flexibility on air passenger duty. I am aware that the Government have looked at that in relation to Northern Ireland, to introduce some fairness on long-haul flights, and that powers are to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. That is quite right, because it is an important economic tool—[Interruption.] I could not hear what my friends from the Scottish National party were saying, but it is important that that power is used to try to generate and stimulate flights.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good case for Blackpool airport, which I have flown out of. We have heard cases for Birmingham, Prestwick and Belfast, and I could make a very similar one for Manchester; a case could be made for Bristol and Newcastle and for the large London airports. Is this not simply a bad tax? Every regional economy, along with the Exchequer, would benefit if it was abolished.
It is certainly a very unpopular tax, as we would discover if we asked any of our constituents when they booked flights and saw what they were paying in air passenger transport duty or if we spoke to any business person who had to take regular long-haul flights; the tax would be a huge cost to their business.
When we move to a situation where Scotland has power over its air passenger transport duty and may decide to abolish it altogether, there will be a market distortion, particularly in the north of England. Although that is welcome for Scotland, those of us with regional airports in our constituencies are deeply concerned that it could see the migration of the few flights left from some small airports, with the necessary knock-on loss of those regional airports to our economies. I urge the Treasury to put a plan in place so that airports—those in the north of England in particular—are not disadvantaged when Scotland is able to exercise those tax-varying powers.
It also seems odd, when we are trying to shift traffic away from the over-congested runways of the south-east, that we are not using every tool in our box to try to get some of those flights into the midlands, the south-west, Scotland and the north of England. There are so many people whose journeys do not originate in the south-east but who migrate their journeys because that is where the flight connectivity is. Again, I ask the Treasury to work with the Department for Transport to see whether we could implement some mechanisms to vary air passenger transport duty to try to stimulate alternatives outside the over-congested runways of the south-east.
I conclude with a plea for Blackpool and the small regional airports that are hanging by a thread. Blackpool reopened several months ago, but there are flights only to Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. Small regional airports such as Blackpool need all the help they can get. At a time when aviation is booming, it would be a real travesty if they were to lose their place as part of our national transport infrastructure.
It is a pleasure to speak on this matter, and I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate. As the hon. Gentleman and others, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), have said, air passenger duty is a very important issue for us in Northern Ireland. Air passenger duty can be a positive means of raising revenue but can also be an obstacle to growth. If changes are not brought in it will be a problem for us in Northern Ireland.
Members are no doubt aware that our airports are in direct competition with those in the Republic of Ireland, so I am pleased to speak on this issue and to make a plea for Belfast City airport, for Belfast Aldergrove airport and for Londonderry airport. With air passenger duty set to be halved in Scotland, this debate is timely and will, I hope, ignite a national conversation on the issue, regardless of which side of the debate people are on. Given the potential for Scotland to reduce APD—and perhaps Wales as well—we have to look at the issue across the whole of the United Kingdom.
As I have said, it is now certain that the duty will be at least halved in Scotland, and the Scottish First Minister has indicated her preference for its eventual abolition. As that is the intention, we must be ready and able to respond. With signs that Wales could soon follow suit, the disparity in APD across the UK is likely to push regional airports in England and Northern Ireland further towards supporting the abolition of the duty.
Data from the Civil Aviation Authority show that the numbers of terminal passengers—that is, passengers joining or leaving aircraft at the reporting airport—were the equal highest ever, at around 240 million a year; again, those figures indicate how important this issue is. It is clear that despite air passenger duty, demand has not decreased but in fact increased, suggesting that people will want to fly regardless of APD. However, the increase in traffic has not been evenly spread, and as the hon. Gentleman and others have said, regional airports are losing out—airports outside London, in Wales, in Scotland and, in particular, in Northern Ireland. That is why those airports are making a case for at least some reduction in air passenger duty, with Wales and Scotland already on course to deliver, and why this debate is important to me: as MP for Strangford, as I see Belfast City airport as the airport for the people of my constituency.
As well as regional disadvantages, APD is at risk of creating a socioeconomic divide, where those with the ability to pay can enjoy the benefits of air travel when and where they want, while those without it are left using other, less appropriate means of transport. Air passenger duty raises approximately £3 billion a year in tax revenue, year on year, for the United Kingdom but, as I said, despite its introduction, demand has risen rather than fallen. Although APD is a form of revenue raising it has failed in its aim of reducing demand and carbon demand. If something is broken—and in this case, it is—let us fix it. It is clear that APD does not work for regional airports across the whole of the United Kingdom.
We could point to the revenue the duty raises as a justification for continuing with it, but there is evidence that we would be better off without it, not just with regard to regional airports or people from lower socioeconomic groups, but with regard to the economy as a whole. The figures have already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson), and point to the benefits of the abolition of air passenger duty to regional airports, not least those across the water in Northern Ireland. That is a keen concern for me and my party colleagues.
The benefits of abolishing air passenger duty would be seen across the entire United Kingdom. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, abolishing the duty would see the UK economy grow by a staggering 0.5% in the first fiscal year alone. Crucially, the UK Treasury would see an extra £570 million in tax receipts in the first year after abolition resulting from increased demand for air travel, as well as any additional tax receipts from trade linked to air travel.
The figures are clear and cannot be argued with. They indicate the need for a change. That change would benefit the Treasury and everyone across the United Kingdom, so it seems very much to be a win-win situation. Increased activity in the sector would mean an increase in jobs and economic success and security for our constituents. Our party is on the record as supporting the third runway at Heathrow—we said that in the Chamber last night—and are keen to see it go forward, as we see connectivity with the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a plus. That is the good news. We also need a reduction in air passenger duty, because if action is taken it is clear that we will all benefit.
In Northern Ireland we know all too well how much air passenger duty influences airlines’ decisions about doing business. We compete directly with the Republic of Ireland in this sector and need only to look at what happened when air passenger duty was abolished in the Irish Republic. The figures are interesting: Dublin airport increased its number of passengers from the north of the border—my constituents, those of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) and of other Northern Ireland MPs. That is proof, if ever proof were needed, that APD is an obstacle to business, growth and prosperity and security for our people.
It is time we took heed of the facts—the revenue that could be generated by abolishing APD, as well as what abolition has done for the Republic of Ireland and how that has hurt us in Northern Ireland, in particular. Let us set the potential of the air travel industry free, and we can spread the prosperity from that industry fairly across the United Kingdom so that we all gain.
I wish to make a short contribution to this debate, as Birmingham airport is in my constituency and is a very significant employer. It is an intriguing example, as it is an airport that has extended its runway without major public opposition, to the great surprise of the Prime Minister, who asked on a visit, “How did you achieve that?” The straight answer is that for a long time the airport has had a good working relationship with the surrounding community. The surrounding community therefore have quite strong views about air passenger duty, like many hon. Members present, and I share their concern.
A tax should be there to nudge behaviour. The question is, does air passenger duty really do the job it originally set out to do? From hon. Members’ contributions, it is clear that one impact of air passenger duty is the reduction of services and even the closure of some regional airports, with devastating consequences for the regional economic activity that previously focused around them. We are right to encourage the Chancellor to deliver on his pledge in February this year to review the potential options to support regional airports, which I imagine include reducing the impact of air passenger duty. I would like to underline how important that is for Birmingham airport.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate. As he explained, Birmingham is a significantly underutilised airport. The runway is now the same length as Gatwick’s, yet it takes a third of the passengers that Gatwick takes. I am sure my constituents will be a little alarmed by my hon. Friend’s referring to the 36 million passengers who could theoretically flow through Birmingham airport. That will cause a little consternation at both ends of the flightpath in my constituency. A bit more realistically, with more competitive pricing of this tax or, indeed, its abolition, passenger throughput would increase. The range of airlines locating themselves in Birmingham would increase, which would create jobs.
The significance of this in Birmingham is, as has been touched on, the linking up of transport policy. Mainstream parties of all persuasions have agreed that we should construct a high-speed line from London through Birmingham to Manchester that stops at Birmingham airport. Not many of our country’s airports are located on a main line: Heathrow is not; Gatwick is not on a main north-south line; and Stansted is not. One of Birmingham airport’s unique selling points is its centrality and the fact that people can step off the aircraft on to a mainline railway route at present. Once HS2 is built, the journey from Birmingham international airport to Euston will take 31 minutes. Having taken nearly one hour and 40 minutes to get in from Luton just the other day, I would welcome a 31-minute transfer time from an international airport to London.
Air passenger duty has had unintended consequences, with closures of and reductions in services, but taxes are designed to drive our transport choices. As far as the west midlands is concerned, if one objective is to turn people away from aviation towards alternative forms of transport, the problem is that there is no spare capacity on the railway line, which is why a high-speed line is being constructed. If hon. Members have had the pleasure of driving up and down the M42 recently, they may have noticed the roads are pretty congested.
Indeed, because there is no spare capacity on the railway network, at a time when the west midlands’ manufacturing industries are undergoing a renaissance, their goods are all having to go by road. Our economic recovery can regularly be seen going up and down the M40, as 17 transporter loads of Jaguar Land Rover cars leave the factory and make their way to Southampton. This tax needs to be examined from the viewpoint of whether it is nudging behaviour as it was intended to. If not, and if it is having unintended consequences, there is a strong case for the review to be completed as soon as possible.
This comes at a time when the Government are seriously committed to devolving power. Hon. Members from Scotland have already benefited from significant devolution, and there is more of that to come, but this is a comparatively new development for the regions of England. Variation in air passenger duty would be entirely in step with the logic of returning powers to the regions, so that they can then seriously examine whether such a tax is desirable, whether it would achieve the region’s aims and whether the region still wishes to collect it at the original rate.
Now is absolutely the right time to have this debate. This is significant for our nation’s future transport choices, wherever airports are located. There is a significant underutilisation of some transport assets, as well as a significant overutilisation of others, and air passenger duty does not seem to be doing much to address that problem.
I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate. Belfast international airport is in my constituency. It employs some 4,000 people—a huge number, given the Northern Irish economy—and helps some 200 businesses nearby. It is phenomenally important, just as Belfast city airport is, which is only 20 minutes away, and Londonderry, an hour away. As we have heard, Northern Ireland needs its connections, especially by air, because everything else is slow. While other hon. Members have the benefit of rail and roads in their constituencies, if we take them it is either through Scotland and down, or through Dublin and across. It is long-distance, so the only way to do things economically and quickly is to fly. Air travel is therefore vital to us.
Figures that I was given a year ago show that 47% of passengers going to Dublin airport are from Northern Ireland. I was recently told that the figure is now 52%, so we are draining our population, who are disappearing to travel because of three things: air passenger duty, good roads in Ireland that mean people can get to the airport quickly, and the fact that they are going to a hub that takes them to the rest of the world. The other alternatives include Manchester and Birmingham. Air passenger duty, therefore, is one of the three things that we are really asking the Government to tackle and remove. The point was well made by others about the impact on the less well-off who want to travel. We are adding more than £100 to the travel costs of a family of four. That is sometimes more than the ticket itself, if they have booked early enough. We need to review this.
I am nervous hearing hon. Members talk about different levels of air passenger duty in different parts of the United Kingdom, just as I am nervous about all the matters that break up the Union. Although we want the freedom to travel, we have to be very careful, or all we will end up doing is stealing our own labour forces from one another.
No. I like the fact of corporation tax. I have just said that we have to be careful, so I am being careful on that matter. We need to find the right balances that work between us. That is why I want to see an all-party group on the Union, so that we can talk through these ideas.
Tourism in Northern Ireland is run by Tourism Ireland, which runs it all from an all-Ireland basis, focusing only on tourism in Northern Ireland. So if Ireland decides as part of its rail policy to put in a direct line from Dublin to its airport, making it easier to get there, that is not part of the tourism policy that we have a say in, and it further damages our economic chances. I am told that, as a result of the block grant in Northern Ireland, if we lost air passenger duty and had to pay for it there would be a staggering cost of £55 million. I would love to know the details behind that. Yet I am also told that Belfast international airport thinks that if we got rid of air passenger duty, it could bring in 5,000 jobs and some £5 million. That should open up the whole economy to working better, which is what we want to see.
I want to mention one rather dour side of this: our way out of the troubles in Northern Ireland in the past was a thriving economy, with people travelling the world and seeing how other things work. We want everyone to travel. We want them to come home and to bring back ideas. Air passenger duty is severely damaging us, and we therefore want to see it removed. Even if it is removed in stages, can we at least start to look at that? We want to see Northern Ireland open for business, just as we want to see the United Kingdom open for business.
Thank you, Sir David, for letting me speak even though I had not put in a submission to do so. I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for bringing this issue forward for debate.
We have had some excellent contributions. I will be relatively brief. First, I want to pick up on the contribution by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), who made some excellent points, particularly about APD’s original purpose of changing behaviour and, arguably, getting people to use other forms of transport. Under all Governments of all hues, when a tax is applied, it becomes a revenue stream. It then goes into the big, black hole of revenue and is not used for the purpose it was intended for. There has not therefore been the intended investment in other forms of transport, which would allow greater connectivity.
As we know, APD has had unintended consequences. We have heard from hon. Members about different regional airports that have suffered badly because of APD—none more so than my regional airport, Prestwick, which my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) discussed. We have heard it argued that taking away APD can create jobs and additional revenue. At Prestwick, APD has cost jobs and cut tourism, so it has clearly cost the Government money. It stands to reason that taking away APD can reverse that harsh reality.
Another issue, which has not been touched on quite as much, is that passengers using regional airports often have to go via the main London airports. They then suffer a double whammy in terms of APD. A family of four from the States—they could be tourists or expats who want to visit family—would have to pay four times £71 in APD for each flight, or about £560 for the round trip. If they took a further flight to a regional airport, they would then have to pay four times £13 each way, so the APD would be more than £600. It is no surprise that that is off-putting and has caused a decline in passenger numbers.
That is why there should be a reduction in APD. I welcome the fact that responsibility for the issue will be devolved to Scotland, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s plans to reduce the duty. If it is reduced, it will give our regional airports a chance to create their own routes, which will then generate competition with, say, the London airports. If we can get away from having to do the double hat on APD—with people flying from one airport to another and then onwards, as I have just outlined—that would give us a better chance of opening up new routes and new connectivity.
For me, that is the nub of the issue on APD: it is off-putting in the first place, and it is doubly off-putting if people have to make another flight from a regional airport. I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s plans. We have had excellent contributions today, and I hope the Government will take note of them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing this important debate. As the SNP spokesperson on transport, I obviously take a keen interest in this issue.
The hon. Gentleman described the positive impact regional airports can have on the economy—jobs, direct investment and the growth that stimulates further jobs down the line. Members around the Chamber have talked with common purpose about supporting regional airports and those who have to travel from the periphery.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said that regional airports are being held back by APD, but I would suggest that this goes even further: they are also being held back by a lack of flexibility in policy on route development and route protection. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said that devolving the relevant powers would make a difference, and I think they will when they come on stream for Scotland. That is mainly because Scotland’s regional airports will not get the benefit of High Speed 2. Even if HS2 does come to Scotland, they will not see a difference.
Absolutely. We would be delighted to see HS2 reach Scotland; indeed, we have always said it should start in Scotland and be developed southwards.
My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned the impact that the development of regional airports has on tourism. Nowhere is that more true than in her constituency, but it is now an expensive destination because of the policy we have had. As we heard, Elvis left the building, and he was not encouraged to come back subsequently—regrettably, he cannot do so now.
The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) talked about APD’s effect on Blackpool airport. He said that the airport needs support, but that it has been left in a precarious position over the years. That is very similar to the position in Inverness and Dundee, so I have a great feeling of common purpose with him. We must make sure that routes are not dropped just because there is a more profitable option elsewhere. These routes are important lifelines for the communities they serve.
We have heard about the proposals for the reduction and abolition of APD in Scotland. I am pleased to say that those are yet another good idea from the SNP Government, and they seem to have gained quite a lot of support around the room. They make sense, and it is important that we go ahead with them.
As the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, I understand the impact of APD. Regional airports such as Inverness and Dundee have long suffered the inequity of APD, but they are not alone, because other airports suffer too, and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen are not well served by APD either. As we have heard, Prestwick could very much benefit from the proposed change. Air connectivity is vital to the local economy, and I am pleased that it will be—in fact, I am impatient for it to be—in the Scottish Government’s hands.
The UK introduced APD in 1994 to raise revenue from the aviation industry, anticipating that it would have environmental benefits through its effect on air traffic volumes. When it was introduced, it took the form of a flat £5 charge on flights in the UK and a £10 charge on other flights. It has been changed many times over the years. It was doubled in 1996, lowered in 2000, frozen between 2001 and 2007 and doubled from February 2007. It was then changed under the Labour Government in 2008 and the coalition Government in 2010. In 2013, it was increased, and the Chancellor made further changes in 2014 and 2015. This APD hokey cokey, married with the here today, gone tomorrow effect on routes and regional airports, has done nothing to help regional economies in places such as Inverness and Dundee or in the other constituencies represented by Members around the Chamber.
I point to those changes because, throughout all these years, successive Governments have failed to support regional airports. My constituents have suffered under the current approach. In addition to devolving APD powers as quickly as possible, we need public service obligations on routes to regional airports, as well as guarantees on those routes. We also need more flexibility on route development.
By 2016, £210 million less per annum will be spent in Scotland by inbound visitors than would have been the case if APD had not risen since 2007. That is a staggering figure. When power is transferred, the Scottish Government are committed to reducing APD by 50% by the end of the next Parliament, with a view to eventually abolishing the tax when public finances allow. Their plans to abolish APD have been welcomed by the British Air Transport Association, Aberdeen and Glasgow airports, VisitScotland and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.
Sophie Dekkers, the UK director for easyJet—Scotland’s largest airline—has said:
“When APD is halved passengers in Scotland will quickly feel the benefit, with easyJet and other airlines adding more services to existing destinations and launching flights to new destinations from Scotland.”
Again, that would be welcome news for my constituents, who have long suffered the effect of here today, gone tomorrow flights.
In the scenario that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, if Scotland were to abolish APD, and given that the Republic has already done it, Northern Ireland would be the meat in the sandwich. It is important that Northern Ireland as well as Scotland gets to do it. Does he agree?
I absolutely agree, and support the devolution of powers to the nations of the UK in that way.
A consultation on a Scottish replacement to APD has been launched by the Scottish Government. It will give the people of Scotland and other interested parties the opportunity to provide their views—public views—on the design and structure of a Scottish APD. A Scottish APD stakeholder forum has also been established to help provide expert policy input in the preparation of policy proposals for Scottish APD, involving the air transport industry, environmental groups and tax practitioners and advisers. Devolution of APD to the Scottish Parliament will provide an opportunity to design a replacement tax that better supports our objective to improve connectivity to Scottish airports, generating new direct routes and increasing inbound tourism.
Reducing APD will have a positive impact on passengers, business costs and connectivity. However, as I have said, our support for regional airports should not end there. We need to make sure that the UK Government will do more to support regional airports, with a review of the current public service obligation regimes. The current criterion is too narrow and limits opportunities for regional airports.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, especially since this is my first speech as shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. I am pleased to be working with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury today; no doubt we will spar together on other occasions. I offer my thanks and congratulations to the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing an important debate on a topic that is of concern to me not only in my capacity as shadow Exchequer Secretary, but because my constituency will be affected.
I thank the hon. Members who spoke in the debate. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) gave a passionate account of the impact that air passenger duty has on her local airport, Prestwick. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) spoke about the plight of Blackpool airport, especially in the light of its closure not so long ago and its struggle to get back on its feet. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) rightly questioned the future viability of APD generally. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some important points about how Belfast has suffered in its competition with Dublin airport. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) highlighted the fact that the time for debate is now: it is an important issue and we need to get a grip on it quickly. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) made some fantastic points relating to Northern Ireland, and there were also fantastic contributions from the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry).
Air passenger duty was highlighted in recommendations by the Smith commission. I reiterate my party’s support for the implementation of the commission’s recommendations as set out in the Scotland Bill. Inevitably, that will have consequences, but that should not undermine the principle of devolution for Scotland, and indeed Wales and Northern Ireland. That said, we cannot escape the fact that the Scottish Government’s anticipated reduction of air passenger duty by 50% in the next five years and their intention to abolish it altogether when finances allow are predicted to have a significant effect on regional airports in England, especially those close to the border. HMRC research conducted in 2012 suggested that the number of passengers using Newcastle airport would decline by 10% the short term, and that Manchester, the closest airport to my constituency, would lose almost 5%.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton, whose constituency neighbours mine, cited evidence in a previous debate on this issue that if one easyJet and one Ryanair flight were moved from Manchester to Glasgow, the Treasury would lose £2.9 million and 450 jobs would be lost in Manchester. That is of course a forecast, but we can already see the effects of variable rates of air passenger duty by examining the situation in Northern Ireland. Belfast International has suggested that it loses between 570,000 and 1.5 million passengers a year to Dublin airport, where no APD is levied. Dublin airport has run a marketing campaign specifically targeted at attracting Northern Ireland passengers, and in 2013 the number of passengers from Northern Ireland using Dublin airport increased by 12%. With the possibility of powers to determine APD rates being devolved to Wales in due course, the issue is set to have an impact not only on airports in the north of England, but on those in the south-west.
As the hon. Lady has mentioned my beloved homeland, will she confirm that it is now the policy of the Labour party to support the devolution of APD to Wales? Previously—I appreciate that it was before the hon. Lady was elected to the House—the Labour party abstained on such votes on Finance Bills. I should be grateful for clarification, because that would be quite a shift in her party’s policy.
I shall come on to my party’s position in due course.
I was saying that the possibility of powers to determine APD being devolved to Wales could lead to an impact on airports in the north of England and the south-west. York Aviation has predicted that, with Cardiff airport no longer subject to air passenger duty, Bristol airport would lose 440,000 passengers, up to 33 routes, 1,500 jobs and more than £800 million from local GDP. That concern has been cemented by a warning from Ryanair’s commercial chief that the company could double its profits per passenger by flying from Cardiff instead, should APD rates be set to zero there. It is therefore clear that the devolution of powers to set air passenger duty will have a profound effect on England’s regional airports, so I am glad that the Conservatives heeded the advice of my colleagues the then shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) when they wrote to the Government in September last year, calling on the Treasury to start work on a mechanism to prevent English regional airports from being disadvantaged by devolution to Scotland or anywhere else.
I welcome the Government’s publication of a discussion paper outlining three possible options for tackling the issues affecting our regional airports. I have a few specific concerns about the consultation, on which I am sure the Minister will be able to put me at ease, but first I ask the Minister for an update on the progress of the consultation as a whole. It is my understanding that the closing date for submissions was 8 September, but as yet there has been no published evidence and no conclusions from the Government. Will the Minister say when the Government’s response will be published? More specifically, one solution discussed in the paper is to devolve the power to set rates of air passenger duty to local or combined authorities, either partially or fully. That seems to have implications for our compliance with EU state aid rules. The Labour party supports reform of the EU state aid rules, which would be a much better subject for renegotiation that those chosen by the Prime Minister. None the less, the current rules will apply.
One problem is that the Government cannot vary national tax rates in a way that is more favourable to specific regions. For that reason funding for the relevant local authority would be reduced by the full value of air passenger duty receipts in that area. HMRC research indicates that full devolution to a local authority containing one medium-sized airport would require a staggering reduction in funding of £45 million a year. The point of devolving the powers is to allow regional airports to avoid undercutting by rivals. Can the Minister confirm that under that option a local authority that took that course would receive no extra funding from central Government and would have to deal with a cut of £45 million? He will understand our concern that even the devolution package the Chancellor proposes will not contain much in the way of revenue-raising powers, nor anything like the scope that the devolved Administrations have to make savings elsewhere. Also, does he share my concern that if local authorities are able to set their own levels of APD, it will start a race to the bottom, which, taken to its logical conclusion, would result in an overall loss to the Treasury of £3.2 billion?
The hon. Lady talks about a race to the bottom and says that different regional airports cutting APD could result in a net decrease overall. Does that not run contrary to the argument I have just been making, which is that cutting APD increases passenger numbers, jobs and revenue? Does she therefore agree that her argument could be flawed?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. Hopefully, when the Minister responds about the progress of the report, he will be able to shed some light on those issues specifically.
The third option outlined in the discussion paper is to provide aid to regional airports that will be particularly affected by the devolution of APD, but I am particularly concerned that that would do little to neutralise the effects at the airports that will feel the greatest impact. Airports such as Manchester and Newcastle would be too large to be eligible for such aid under the proposal, so the measure would be ineffective in tackling the problem where doing so will have the biggest impact. Furthermore, providing direct aid has an obvious fiscal implication for the Exchequer, so it would be helpful to clarify whether that would be provided by the Treasury or would again involve corresponding cuts to other local authority funding.
Finally, it would be helpful if the Minister touched on the environmental implications of air passenger duty generally. I have had a number of queries regarding that, particularly from my own constituents. Aviation is, of course, covered by the EU emissions trading scheme, and we anticipate that the fifth carbon budget will address the sector later this year, but it would be helpful if he were to outline how the proposals under consideration will interact with our obligation to decarbonise, especially if we are moving towards little or no APD, and how a devolved settlement will work alongside nationally set targets.
In conclusion, there is a degree of consensus that this matter must be addressed urgently, and we welcome both the Government’s consultation and today’s debate. There are a number of points on which we would welcome further clarification, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
Sir David, it is a very great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing the debate and setting out his case so well. Indeed, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles on her appointment as shadow Exchequer Secretary—I speak as a former shadow Exchequer Secretary—and am delighted to welcome her to the Front Bench.
The Government have a long-term economic plan to rebalance growth across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, strengthening our economy as a whole. That includes the commitment to a major transfer of power to our great cities, counties and nations so that local people can take more control of the decisions that affect them.
As part of that plan, the Government are delivering the Smith agreement for Scotland and will devolve air passenger duty to the Scottish Parliament. In accordance with the St David’s day package, the Government are also considering the case and options for devolving air passenger duty to Wales. In England, the Government are creating a northern powerhouse by pushing ahead to deliver a package of devolved powers to major northern cities and investing in transport and infrastructure. In the north-east, for example, the Government are in good discussions about the potential to devolve further powers and responsibilities to the regions.
I am sure that the Minister would appreciate the sensitivity of this issue for west midlands MPs. If he is not going to mention the fact that the Government are in negotiation with the west midlands local authorities about the creation of a midlands powerhouse, we will be a bit disappointed.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly in the context of a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, to refer to the progress that we want to make in the west midlands, which is very much a priority area as well. I was going to touch on that. The case for the midlands engine set out today by my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is important.
I turn to English regional airports; I know they have expressed concerns that air passenger duty devolution will impact negatively on their business. The Government appreciate those concerns. Regional airports play an important role as local employers and enable the transport of people and products nationally and internationally. That improves connectivity, increases trade and helps to create new jobs. Consequently, the Government are undertaking a review of how to support regional airports in respect of such impacts. That is why the Prime Minister stated earlier this year:
“We are not going to accept a situation where there’s unfair tax competition…We will do what’s necessary to make sure that England’s regional airports can succeed.”
Does the Minister agree with the points made around the Chamber earlier about the fact that, whether someone is in a regional airport in Scotland or England, the economic growth that can be generated by changing the tax regime to encourage trade will enable all the regions to become more successful? They are not necessarily a threat to each other.
The Government have made significant progress on the devolution of taxes generally. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the announcement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the retention of business rates, for example. I know that business rates are already devolved in Scotland, but allowing English local authorities to retain business rates is an example whereby through aligning incentives, as it were, we can create the conditions for economic growth in every part of the United Kingdom.
I will deal with the specific points on APD in a moment, but first let me address the issue of the regional airports review, because, as part of that review, the Government published a discussion paper at the summer Budget this year. The paper explored three potential options for supporting regional airports affected by devolution: the first was devolving APD to regions within England; the second was varying APD rates within England; and the third was providing aid to regional airports.
The paper explored how the options could work and highlighted key points for consideration. The period for feedback on the options is now closed. We received a large number of responses and would like to thank all interested parties for their valuable responses to that consultation. We are carefully considering the views and evidence that we have received. We appreciate that the aviation industry values stability and certainty in the UK tax system and we will respond to the views expressed on the options in the discussion paper in due course. The response will set out how the Government wish to take the matter forward.
The Government have devolved APD to Northern Ireland and Scotland. The draft Wales Bill, published today, is glaring in its omission of any mention of APD being devolved to Wales. Is there a reason why the Government are rolling back on devolving APD to Wales?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remarks that I made a few moments ago. In accordance with the St David’s day package, we are considering the case and options for devolving air passenger duty to Wales. That consideration is ongoing. Once a conclusion has been reached, I am sure that he will be looking very closely at our response.
If I may, I will respond to some points that have been made in this afternoon’s debate. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) raised the issue of whether APD is a good tax or whether we should just scrap it. It is worth bearing in mind that it raises £3.2 billion each year, which is an important part of the Government’s overall revenues. We consider that APD is a fair and efficient tax that ensures that the aviation sector contributes to the public finances. The amount of tax paid by people who can afford business class travel or luxury jets is much more than that paid by a passenger going to the same destination in economy class.
In recent years, we have reduced long-haul rates of APD and frozen short-haul rates for five years, and we are exempting children. APD is the main way in which the aviation sector is taxed. International treaty agreement means that there is no tax on international aviation fuel and no VAT on international flights. Unlike many countries, the UK does not charge VAT on domestic flights. It is also worth pointing out that the aviation sector is performing strongly. Passenger numbers grew by 4% in 2014 compared with 2013.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) referred in an intervention to a PwC report arguing that abolishing APD would boost GDP, create jobs and pay for itself. We do not agree with the assumptions behind the 2013 and 2015 PwC reports on APD. Our view remains that abolition would have a limited effect on GDP and cause a net loss of tax receipts. As I said, APD makes a contribution towards the public finances. Abolishing it would put pressure on the Government to increase less efficient and more regressive taxes.
The Minister makes the point that APD is one way of taxing the aviation industry and he thinks that it is a fair tax, but will he acknowledge that the UK charges a much higher rate? The UK’s short-haul rate in economy is more than double the EU average; in terms of the medium-haul rate, the UK charges €90, whereas the EU average is €24. The UK is aggressively taxing the aviation industry, and that is what the whole thrust of the debate is about. The Government may want to tax the aviation industry, but we are arguing that our industry is heavily over-taxed compared with those in other countries.
Our rates are higher than those in many other countries; I am not disputing that. I am arguing that we are not convinced that abolition of APD would pay for itself. Presumably the Scottish Government are also not convinced, because they have not brought forward proposals to abolish APD. It may be an aspiration for the long term—when finances allow—but that does suggest that there would be a loss of revenue.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire referred to the experience of Prestwick airport and the effect on tourism—a perfectly legitimate point to raise. As I said, we accept that APD rates are high on an international comparison. However, we think that APD is a very small component of a tourist’s overall spending on a trip to the UK. Some analysis done by Treasury officials over the summer suggests that depending on how long a long-haul passenger stays in the UK, APD probably makes up less than 2% of total spending on travel, hotels and subsistence, so although I accept the point, we have to put it into the context of the wider costs that may apply.
I am listening to the Minister’s comments about the effect on Prestwick airport. Does he accept that Prestwick, along with other regional airports whose local economies rely heavily on tourism, would be affected exponentially by additional costs for passengers? The Scottish Government’s approach—to reduce immediately and then remove APD—is likely to serve those economies better than taking no approach at all.
What I will say—this is the case for devolution; I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I might agree on this—is that we shall see. We have the chance to see whether that approach has an impact on tourism levels in that area. We will be able to see that from the evidence that emerges, and that could help to inform future decisions. We have that flexibility, and the Scottish Government are able to exercise the policy that they think fit for Scotland.
Do we not have an example available to us in the Republic of Ireland? It got rid of its tax and certainly has reported a massive upsurge in tourism. The point is that when someone is looking at choices of where to go, they do not think about the money that they will spend having a meal out; they are looking at how much it costs to get there and how much the hotels are. The issue is what they see on the internet up front. We are a tourist area, as the Republic of Ireland is, so we would get a similar benefit.
The hon. Lady refers to the increase in tourism in the Republic of Ireland, but according to the last numbers that I saw, the percentage increase was not very different from that for tourism in Northern Ireland. That suggests that APD perhaps is not that significant a factor in bringing tourists to a particular area. In the context of Scotland, however, no doubt the hon. Lady will be keeping a close eye on the impact of the APD changes on the tourism industry in her area, as indeed will the UK Government.
While I am on the subject of Northern Ireland, I shall pick up the points raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We do recognise that Northern Ireland is the only part of the country with a land border with another country that has a lower rate or no rate of APD. Many Northern Ireland passengers drive to Dublin to catch flights; I acknowledge that. APD is not the only reason why Northern Ireland passengers travel to Dublin for flights, but I accept that it could well be an important factor.
We have already devolved direct long-haul APD to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has now set long-haul rates at zero, effective from 2013. We have not had a request from the Northern Ireland Executive, as far as I am aware, for full devolution of short-haul APD. Obviously, we would have to consider any such request if it was made, but the principles set out by the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles do apply when it comes to devolution within a member state of the EU. The funding would have to be found locally, so any cost from forgone APD would have to be taken, as it were, from the Northern Irish block grant. The same principle applies in relation to corporation tax and devolution.
Some people have suggested that the way forward might be to offer an APD holiday, under which new routes could benefit from no APD liability for the first few years of their operation. We recognise that that kind of approach might encourage operators to open new routes—routes that currently do not exist. However, the Government also have a number of obligations to be fair and transparent in how we levy taxes. We would probably have to offer any tax holiday policy to all airports, rather than focusing on regional or underused airports.
The result of such a policy would be that some operators of flights to certain destinations would pay less tax than others that served the same destinations. Existing operators would be placed at a considerable commercial disadvantage. It would clearly be nonsense if two different flights from the same departure airport to the same destination airport were charged different levels of tax. The operator of the more expensive flight would, we suspect, mount a legal challenge against any discrimination, which they might win. There is also the potential for airlines to game any APD holiday. For example, the operator of an existing Manchester-Dusseldorf route might easily switch to Liverpool and/or Cologne to lessen its tax bill, which would offer no advantages to the UK.
The Minister has just mentioned that an operator might switch from, for example, Liverpool to Frankfurt to take advantage of an APD holiday. Surely, they could do that already, because the APD rates are far higher in this country than they are in our competitor economies.
If there was a dramatically different regime for new routes to and from the UK versus existing ones, there is a risk that there could be a certain gaming of the system. In order to qualify for a lower rate of APD, an operator might attempt to make a relatively minor change to a route, such as flying to a different German airport close to the original one, and thereby replace an existing route with a new one. That would do little to improve the use of, say, Birmingham International airport, as my hon. Friend seeks to do—given the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, it might be unwise to try to increase the number of users to 36 million—and we would merely see a lot of churn, rather than the increase that my hon. Friend would like. On that and related ideas, we are considering all responses from interested parties to our consultation, and we will respond in due course.
I am grateful to the Minister for being generous with his time. I believe that he is talking quite a lot of sense on the difficulties with APD holidays, but does he agree that what we need is flexibility over route development? In other words, we need not only starter routes but more frequency on those routes. Indeed, perhaps we need public service obligations to guarantee those routes, which would allow them to bed in, to become established and to reach critical mass.
The hon. Gentleman, who is his party’s Front-Bench spokesman on transport matters, raises an important point, but I question whether APD is the correct way of achieving the objective that he seeks. In the context of APD, there are some challenges, and the gaming of the system is one risk.
Having welcomed the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, I must point out that her shadow Treasury colleague the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris), the shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury, told the House on 29 June:
“I would increase the rate of APD.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1275.]
To be fair, that was before he was appointed to the shadow Front-Bench team. I do not know whether that is the Labour party’s position. I will leave that question hanging.
The message that we are getting, and it is one that the Treasury often has to give, is that relieving the tax would generate a return for the Treasury through increased economic activity. That is the argument that everybody always uses for tax reduction. None the less, will the Minister be clear with us about the timetable for the review of the options to help regional airports, since it was announced in February?
My right hon. Friend anticipates the response that I would generally make, as Treasury Ministers are required to do fairly regularly, regarding requests for tax reductions or spending increases. I cannot add to what I have previously said about the review. We will respond in due course. This is a detailed and complex area. One thing that has emerged from the debate is the fact that there are complexities, and that unintended consequences can result from pursuing certain policies, so we wish to consider the evidence carefully. We are in the process of doing so, and we will respond in due course to the points raised in the consultation. A number of options have been set out this afternoon and, although the consultation is closed, we will want to look closely at the contributions to the debate to develop our thinking on the matter.
I refer the Minister back to his comment about my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) mentioning in a previous debate that he would be in favour of increasing APD. As has been highlighted by many of the contributions today, we are now working in a different economic landscape in light of the fact that control over APD has been devolved to Scotland. We need to assess the economic impact of APD across the regions, because the playing field is not level. I hope that the Minister will heed my comments in that regard.
I certainly understand the point that the hon. Lady is making. To be fair, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West made his remarks in June, and I appreciate that that was before he was on the Front Bench. It is a bad habit of Government Front Benchers to point out remarks made by Opposition Front Benchers before they were appointed to the Front Bench, or even selected to be on the Front Bench.
We have recognised the potential impacts of APD devolution, and we are conducting a review to make sure that other cities and regions do not lose out. We are listening to interested parties and we will set out the Government’s next steps in due course. The Government have a long-term economic plan for the great nations and regions of this country, which clearly includes the west midlands. The Government are giving local people more control over the decisions that affect them and strengthening the UK economy as a whole.
Thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, Sir David. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions and the Minister for his reply. I was particularly impressed, not for the first time, by the contribution of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). I looked wistfully out of the window when she mentioned golf on this beautiful sunny day, and I look forward to having a round in her constituency at some point. When she mentioned Prestwick airport and Elvis, I was reminded of the famous story about Elvis creating perhaps the biggest PR gaffe of the century when he was interviewed by reporters on his one and only trip to the UK. Having landed at Prestwick airport, he came out of the plane and said that it was absolutely delightful to be in England. That, obviously, did not go down very well.
The hon. Lady spoke passionately about Prestwick and the problems that it has encountered in recent years. The Scottish Government have plans to reduce APD by 50%, and I watch with real interest to see what the economic effects will be; I imagine that they will be more considerable than our Treasury takes account of. In many other hon. Members’ constituencies, there is not the same opportunity for devolution. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) said that his airport was hanging by a thread and faced the potential of greater competition from Scotland post the 50% cut in APD.
Some of the most telling contributions were made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). They said that the disparity in APD rates in Northern Ireland and the Republic is creating further social and economic divides when it comes to travel, and that, frankly, they feel as though the system is broken and it is time to fix it. I believe that many hon. Members would agree with that theme.
My neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) spoke about the necessity of approaching transport in a joined-up fashion and the potential that HS2 will bring. The problem is that currently, we feel as though airport duty, the idea of which is effectively to price people out of planes—
Travellers (Mole Valley)
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Travellers and planning in Mole Valley constituency.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and to see the Minister joining us. Having been in that position some years ago myself, I do not envy him.
Mole Valley constituency consists of Mole Valley District Council and the eastern wards of Guildford Council. It is close to London and to Epsom downs so it is attractive to Travellers from afar. Mole Valley District Council is smothered—I think that would be the right word—with building restrictions. Sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the green belt protect, in total, an astonishing 90% of the district. The level of protection for the Guildford wards in my constituency is probably the same.
The councils and the population accept the need for Traveller sites but not without limit. For example, Mole Valley District Council has 11 authorised sites and has recently given planning permission for an enlargement of two of those sites. The majority of the sites are private. In drawing up its draft local plan, which is still in progress, there are indications that the planned housing numbers might be reduced to reflect the difficulty of allocating land for houses where the proportion of green-belt land is so high. This, however, does not seem to apply for the requirements for Travellers. The current assessment for Mole Valley alone is 42 additional sites by 2027. When looking at this, would the Minister reflect on the fact that Surrey County Council, which runs the local authority Traveller sites, has a waiting list across the whole of Surrey for 65 families, rather than the 42 just for Mole Valley alone? My first plea, therefore, is for the Traveller site requirements to be dramatically lowered for Mole Valley District Council, Guildford Council and councils with similar problems but without quite the demand when we look at it in the large.
I wish to focus on the way in which a very few Travellers manipulate the system in ways that would not be entertained by settled residents or by planning authorities looking at the action of settled residents. In saying that, I re-emphasise the number of successful, popular sites in the area that cause no difficulties and no arguments, and where there are agreements on planning.
I wish to touch on two examples. One is in Guildford—a site on a little narrow private lane off the A246. The A246 is a busy two-lane road linking Leatherhead with the A25 to Guildford. There is, nearby, an authorised site off a similar small road to the west of the A246. The wee road I am focusing on is narrower and off to the east. There are a few properties in the lane but generally development is severely limited as the road goes through, or close to, an area of natural beauty and ancient forests, and is entirely in the green belt. A Traveller from outside Mole Valley inherited the land, squatted on it and, over a short period of time, placed a number of caravans, trucks and cars there. He ran a number of different businesses from the site, as indicated by advertisements but denied by the owner when questioned. He originally claimed that his children were living with him but that appears to have ceased apart from his 18-year-old son, who works there from time to time.
Currently, a mother and children originally from the site on the other side of the A246 are there periodically but claiming residency. This is refuted by the neighbours, who have kept tabs and notified Guildford Council. Guildford Council wrote to the mother telling her not to move on to the site. That instruction was ignored. Guildford Council has interviewed the Traveller about the children and their residency. The children are registered in the local school and with the local GP. However, that would apply from the site that they moved from in the first place; the residency is still claimed. Of course, when the council officer goes to check, she makes an appointment and, of course, forewarned is forearmed.
The planning situation is that the Traveller applied for permission for a Traveller site, which Guildford Council—correctly, in my opinion—rejected. That went to appeal, which the inspector also rejected, setting the middle of July this year as the date for the site to be vacated and set back to its original state. This was to allow the Traveller time to find alternative accommodation. Of course, nothing has happened. Instead, there has been an increase in activity and it appears to me that the presence of the children is being brought to the fore in anticipation of the council placing an enforcement notice, which, if the pattern follows, will be appealed, causing a further delay.
The Mole Valley District Council case relates to green-belt land adjacent to a farm and the River Mole. This pastoral land was sold to a handful of Travellers in 2003. Mole Valley District Council served an injunction on the families not to move on to the site, which was ignored; they moved their caravans to the site in August 2003. They then applied for a nine-pitch site in October 2003, which was refused. The appeal on that refusal was refused in November 2004. A year later, a further application for four pitches was refused in December 2005. The appeal in May 2007 refused it but allowed residency for four years, expiring in May 2011, to allow for alternative accommodation to be sought. One month before the expiry date three further applications were submitted. All were refused, all were appealed and all appeals were refused, except that temporary permission was granted until 10 April 2016. Again, that was to find an alternative site because of the children.
Since the Travellers’ 2003 arrival at the site, the area has been fenced, a fast-growing hedge has been planted and a number of caravans and a few other buildings of a more permanent design have been placed there. Also, to my amusement, two large, high, wrought-iron electrically-operated gates have been erected between pillars, as if they were the entrance to a minor stately home.
The farmer adjacent to the site has, with considerable difficulty, obtained planning permission to enlarge his home to accommodate his modest family. The difficulty he had was that the same planning regulations applied to him as to his Traveller neighbours. I suppose he could have gone ahead and built to his desire and then run a long series of applications and appeals using his children to squeeze the authorities. He did not. He went through the proper procedures, slowly and carefully, and got the appropriate permission. If he had not done so, as I am sure the Minister would agree with me and the planning authority, it would have forced him to demolish. Interestingly, that happened to a neighbour in the Guildford case, whose property happened to be three inches too large and had to be pulled down and rebuilt.
Both of the Traveller examples I have given are a flagrant abuse of our system. Our system was made for people to recognise it and to use it for the benefit of themselves and the community. Neither group of Travellers is from Guildford or Mole Valley, yet the councils feel—or, in the case of Mole Valley, have been told—that they have a responsibility for the families. If those families had arrived asking for social housing, they would have been told, “No.” They would have been told that they were intentionally homeless.
I ask for four small things. First, as I mentioned at the beginning, I ask for a reduction in the expected required numbers to reflect the green belt and similar restrictions for the authorities I mentioned and others like them. Secondly, I would be interested in the Minister’s interpretation of his recent changes in the regulation. Could they influence cases where the children are being used to manipulate planning? I realise that he cannot specifically use the two examples that I have mentioned, but he can talk broadly enough for me to be able to interpret with a bit of help.
Thirdly, does the Minister accept—I hope he does—that, in cases where the Travellers are not originally from the council area, the local authority should not be landed with the responsibility for accommodation or sites? Effectively, the Travellers are homeless by their own hand.
Finally, as we probably will not get quite what I would like out of this debate, is the Minister willing to accept a small—I mean small—delegation from Guildford and Mole Valley to come with me to discuss the problems? These are not the only Traveller problems in the area, and the problems will continue unless we can finally put a stop to this. As the Government have said, and as the Minister has said, the same should apply to settled families as applies to Traveller families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing this debate about planning for Gypsies and Travellers in his constituency. He has outlined examples that many of us have experienced either as councillors or Members of Parliament, let alone as Ministers. There is frustration in communities about such behaviour. I make it clear that we are committed to encouraging sustainable development, and it is important that local authorities plan for the future of their communities, including Travellers, in a way that is locally appropriate.
The Government attach great importance to the protection of our green belt. The green belt prevents urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open, and we do not want to see that protection eroded. We understand that green belt is highly valued by local people in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country. That is why our policy makes it clear that most forms of development on the green belt are inappropriate and should not be approved except in very special circumstances. He raised four particular queries at the end of his speech, and I should be able to address all four in the next few minutes.
Local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given in their planning decisions to any harm to the green belt. We have made it clear that Traveller sites, whether temporary or permanent, are inappropriate development in the green belt and that local planning authorities should strictly limit the development of new Traveller sites in the open countryside. Increasing the amount of authorised site provision should not be at the cost of the countryside, the green belt, other sensitive areas, such as the ones he outlined, or the interest of the settled community.
This is a challenging issue, and I share my hon. Friend’s concern that planning decisions can sometimes appear to fail to find the right balance between adequate supply and protection of our treasured landscape. However, applications for such sites undergo rigorous scrutiny by the local planning authority, informed by comments from local communities, and such decisions are rightly for the local planning authority to take. He has outlined a number of examples where appeals have held up the local authority’s decision.
As Members will know, the previous coalition Government consulted on proposals to ensure fairness in the planning system, to strengthen protection of the green belt and the countryside and to address the negative effects of unauthorised development of land. We announced new planning policies in August 2015, including an updated planning policy for Traveller sites, implementing many of the proposals on which we have previously consulted. We changed the planning definitions of Gypsies and Travellers so that they now refer only to those who lead a genuinely nomadic lifestyle. We believe that if a Gypsy or Traveller has ceased to travel on a permanent basis, they should have their planning applications considered under national planning policy with the rest of the settled community, with everybody being treated exactly the same.
Through the Housing and Planning Bill we are seeking to ensure that the assessment of housing need covers Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community together, fairly addressing the perception that some groups receive favourable treatment—that is not the way forward. We have also introduced policies further to protect our green belt and sensitive sites. If a local planning authority cannot demonstrate an up-to-date five-year supply of deliverable sites, it should no longer be a significant material consideration when considering applications for the grant of temporary planning permission in those areas. We have made it clear that, subject to the best interest of the child, unmet housing need and personal circumstances are unlikely clearly to outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm so as to establish very special circumstances.
Local authorities should also strictly limit new Traveller sites in the open countryside. We have made it clear that, in exceptional circumstances where a local authority is burdened by large-scale unauthorised sites that have significantly increased their need, there is no assumption that the local authority is required to meet that Traveller site need in full.
The Government are concerned about unauthorised development of land, which can cause irreparable damage to the environment, endanger the safety of occupants and neighbours and undermine confidence in our planning system, which is a point my hon. Friend rightly raised. We have already introduced measures through the Localism Act 2011 to enable councils to deal effectively with those who choose to ignore planning rules. Those measures give local councils the powers to deal effectively with retrospective or misleading applications. Again, he gave a good example of where that has happened. All should be treated the same.
Our new policy goes further by ensuring that intentional unauthorised development is a material consideration that should be weighed in the determination of planning applications and appeals. My hon. Friend rightly said that I cannot comment on individual sites in and around his constituency, not least because the circumstances of each case are unique and because of the quasi-judicial role, but I appreciate how controversial some Traveller sites can be. We have made it clear that that is no reason for local planning authorities to fail to provide the sites that Travellers need, as required by policy, within planning rules by which we all abide. Delaying the establishment of a robust supply of sites to meet need in a way that is consistent with policy as a whole merely exposes local planning authorities to unplanned development, which may prove more controversial in the long term than the provision established during a local plan process.
The previous coalition Government rightly did away with Labour’s top-down approach to planning, under which targets for Traveller pitches were forced on local authorities by unelected regional bodies. Instead, “Planning Policy for Traveller Sites” outlines local authorities’ responsibility to plan for their Traveller communities, just as they are required to plan for the rest of their communities. Our policy aims to increase the number of Traveller sites in appropriate locations, in line with objectively assessed need—no more, no less.
Will the Minister reflect on my point that, using the current procedures, it is estimated that Mole Valley District Council will have to find 42 sites by 2027, but the waiting list for Surrey as a whole is only 65? Will he therefore reflect on the possibility of changing the rules sufficiently to reduce the number required by the current regulations?
If my hon. Friend bears with me for a moment or two, I will address directly that point and his four other points.
We are ensuring that we provide fair treatment, which is why we share my hon. Friend’s concerns about unauthorised encampments and the disruption and expense that they cause for local communities. On that direct point, areas should consider their housing need when they develop their local plan, which also contains a duty to co-operate. There is therefore an issue about working with neighbouring authorities on a fair spread of Traveller sites, as they would for any other part of their housing need. That links to his fourth point, which was a request to come to see us with a small delegation from the authority. I am happy to arrange that meeting with Baroness Williams, the Under-Secretary who deals with such issues on a day-to-day basis. I will liaise with her after this debate and arrange for the delegation to come in to have that conversation.
Councils and landowners often think that they are powerless to stop unauthorised encampments, but I am keen to stress that extensive powers are open to them. My hon. Friend may be aware that in March 2015 the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice and I sent a joint ministerial letter to council leaders and police and crime commissioners, and I am happy to let him have a copy of the letter. We expressed our concern that local authorities and the police are not seen to be doing enough to stop unauthorised encampments. To accompany the letter we reissued a summary of the robust powers that councils and landowners have to remove unauthorised Traveller sites.
I will just make a couple of final points. I have touched directly on the issue about the changes around children and their assessed need as opposed to the needs of the green belt itself. Indeed, that answers my hon. Friend’s question about the local planning process that deals with the housing need for the area, so that the needs of Travellers are dealt with alongside those of everybody else in the area. He made a very relevant point in that regard.
We are committed to encouraging sustainable development. It is important that local authorities plan for the future of their communities and deliver the housing that is needed. Travellers are part of our communities and local authorities must ensure that they have appropriate provision, but Travellers should be treated in the same way as everybody else and abide by the same planning rules.
We attach great importance to the protection of our green belt, and local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given in planning decisions to consideration of any potential harm to the green belt; I expect to see that happening right through the planning system. Traveller sites, whether temporary or permanent, are inappropriate developments in the green belt, and personal circumstances and unmet need are unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm.
We have updated planning policies for Gypsies and Travellers to ensure fairness in the planning system, to strengthen protection for the green belt and countryside, and to address the negative effects of unauthorised development of land. The Housing and Planning Bill will take that process one step further.
Question put and agreed to.
Individual Electoral Registration
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of individual electoral registration.
For Parliament, 2015 has been a year for celebrating our democracy. Across the country, in schools, festivals and in the media, people have joined us in celebrating a journey that started 800 years ago with the signing of Magna Carta and led to our sitting here today. However, this year could end with a body blow to our democracy that could have repercussions for years to come.
The transition to individual electoral registration should reach its end in December 2016; instead, it has been brought forward by the Government to December 2015. The effects could be disastrous. According to the latest projections from the Electoral Commission, 1.9 million people are at risk of being removed from the electoral register. That number will drop as canvassers go door to door this autumn. Nevertheless, reasonable estimates produced by the Labour party suggest that close to a million people will be dropped from the register. That is a million people whose voices will no longer be recognised and who will be ignored when the Government begin to redraw the political landscape with the new boundaries.
That move goes against the advice of the independent Electoral Commission. It will not be subject to a vote in Parliament nor, apart from now, will MPs be given a certain chance to debate the important issues at stake. That is why today’s debate is so important. We need a Parliament that represents all its constituents in all its constituencies, but instead my borough of Blaenau Gwent had lost 1,736 people from the register by the time of the general election. It is projected that Wales will lose 68,000 people from the register in December, and that is unacceptable.
When the Labour Government legislated for the move to IER we put in a transition period with strong safeguards, but we can see from the numbers squeezed off the register by the current rushed transition that the Conservative Government’s haste will soon leave many people repenting at their leisure. There might be a view that this was a safe time to finalise the transition, as we have just completed a general election.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an issue that is absolutely key to our democracy. Does he agree with me that if there is to be the change to IER, together with the forthcoming change to the constituency boundaries, the Government’s responsibility to increase the safeguards, rather than bring forward the date by a year—as has happened—will be reinforced?
The MP for my neighbouring constituency makes an important point, which gets to the crux of our discussion. May 2016 will feature big elections for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Mayor of London. People’s votes, across the UK, will be vital in shaping the country once more, and the boundary review of 2016, on which my hon. Friend touched, will shape it on a much more fundamental level.
Those people who are removed from the register in December 2015 will not be counted for the purposes of determining their representation in Parliament. If the shape of a constituency is drawn based on its reduced number of voters, we will soon be faced with a distorted electoral map. Large urban areas with multiple-occupancy housing and regular home movers are the areas that are set to be hit and, on a party political level, the urban areas affected coincide with traditional Labour representation. I would like to think that the Government would not rush in the IER process to tip the scales in their favour for future elections. However, how can we have confidence in the boundaries, even in London, when Hackney faces a nearly 23% drop-off in the number of registered voters? The average loss in Britain is calculated at almost 4%. The 10 poorest areas in Britain face an average projected loss of 6.2%.
We are in danger of shrinking the voice of our poorer communities. For people in those communities, falling from the register has consequences beyond that of losing the vote. It means, for example, losing the chance of obtaining safe, affordable credit in areas where loan sharks may ply their trade. It means public service provision dipping even lower, affecting everything from school places to GPs. My major concern is that it is already too late to fix that problem before the December deadline.
The student population is a good example of my last point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should note the Association of Electoral Administrators’ recommendation that legislative changes should be implemented to allow electoral registration officers to block-register people in institutions such as sheltered accommodation and university halls of residence?
My hon. Friend makes an important point on behalf of those people who do the hard yards in our democracy—electoral registration officers. They do not have a fashionable local government job, but they do their very best to boost our democracy and, as my hon. Friend says, they have been undermined in this instance.
To be fair, before the 2015 general election coalition Cabinet Office Ministers, the Electoral Commission and the National Union of Students sent a letter to university vice-chancellors across the UK asking for their support to ensure that students were registered to vote. Consequently, there was a big drive in universities to boost registration—fair do’s. We are now in a new academic year, however, with thousands of admissions to and departures from the universities, so the HOPE not hate group rang 54 universities asking about their work this year. Every university that responded said it was scaling down its efforts as there was no general election this year, with just four of them referring to plans to inform the new intake about voter registration in their welcome packs. That is a microcosm of the larger problem in high turnover areas. Without a sustained programme of action, any voter drive will work for a short period only.
Labour is doing its bit with the “missing million” push this weekend, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero). It is one of our biggest registration drives ever. Labour students will be around campuses, colleagues will be touring community groups and local parties will be going door to door. That sort of work cannot, however, be sustained by volunteers alone, no matter how committed they are. A lot of the push has had to come from local authorities, who deserve credit for working hard despite the wider cuts and the new demands of the IER system.
Although information such as dates of birth and national insurance numbers is a good protection against fraud, it places further demands on electoral registration officers and that is why we need to support them by using all the available tools to find as many voters as possible. That means Departments and local authorities linking up their information and streamlining their processes. On this side of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) deserves credit for doing that with his local university, the University of Sheffield, where they have integrated voter registration into the student registration process, leading to 64% of students registering to vote. That is a success story—fair do’s.
The more innovative methods we can use to take advantage of what we already have, the better. In my work on the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen some of the new ways in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is working. Since 2012, it has been making use of credit reference agency data to good effect. It has checked addresses and other information to see if everything is up to date and correct. That helped HMRC to reduce tax credit losses by £280 million between 2011 and 2014. Further afield, in California, a Bill has recently been signed that allows residents to be registered to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s licence or a state identity card. The point is that we need to use more good and accurate databases to increase voter registration to protect and build our democracy.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to intervene in the debate. I compliment my hon. Friend; he was an excellent agent in Islington South in 2005 and has been an even better MP since for Wales.
Is it not right that we should all be democrats? We should all be trying to work to ensure that as many people as possible exercise their democratic right to vote. It is extraordinary, is it not, that the Government seem to be putting barriers in the way of people being on the register in order to exercise the power they should have simply because they are citizens?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She does a brilliant job of boosting voter registration in Islington.
The Government are rushing the introduction of individual electoral registration. Next year’s elections are important and the boundaries for future constituencies will rely on an accurate register. The Government say that they want to boost our democracy, but their action undermines it. How many times have we, in this place, around this room, knocked on doors come election time, to be greeted by a person who has lost their opportunity to vote because of a registration problem? I see lots of nods. Why do we want to reject hundreds of thousands of students across the country by squeezing them off the register and telling them that their vote does not matter? Why do we want to undermine our voting system and threaten to exclude private renters, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, the unemployed and lower-paid workers?
The Government must listen. They must hear the genuine concerns and allow more voters on to the register; otherwise, they do our democracy a great disservice.
Order. It may help if I clarify for those who are new to 60-minute debates, an innovation in this Parliament, that the Chairman of Ways and Means has said that we should give the two main Opposition parties five minutes each and the Minister 10 minutes at the end. It is therefore my intention to get to the Front Benchers no later than 5.10 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on an issue that is of the utmost importance to many of my constituents.
The key question on individual electoral registration is why the Government appear set on ignoring the advice of the Electoral Commission, an independent body that has undertaken rigorous research in this field. It clearly stated:
“Taking into account the data and evidence which is available to us at this point, and the significant polls which are scheduled for May 2016, we recommend that Ministers should not make an order to bring forward the end of the transition to IER. We recommend that the end date for IER transition should remain, as currently provided for in law, December 2016.”
The reasons for the Electoral Commission’s concerns are twofold: concerns about the completeness of the register and about the lack of participation by eligible voters who will drop off the register, who total some 1.9 million. In one of the boroughs I represent, Lambeth, an estimated 7% of the current electorate will drop off the register in December 2015 according to the best estimate of the local authority.
What do we know about those most likely to be in that 7%? We know from experience in Northern Ireland that they will be young—students who have moved away but whose main home remains their parental home, who may be away at the time of the electoral register canvass visit and mailing, but who may be at home at the time of the next election. In the past, they have been able to rely on their parents completing the form on behalf of the whole household. We also know that the 7% will include people who move frequently, such as the 40% of residents of Lambeth who currently live in the private rented sector, which the Government refuse to regulate properly. As their tenancies come to an end, they are forced to move on. Registering to vote will often be the last thing on their mind in what is often a stressful situation.
We also know that the 7% will disproportionately include voters from black and minority ethnic communities. I commend the work that Operation Black Vote has been doing on individual electoral registration. I visited its well-equipped voter registration bus a few months ago. Despite that work, it will nevertheless remain the case that the 1.9 million voters who drop off the register will disproportionately be from minority communities. I am not clear that the Government have undertaken an equality impact assessment of the decision to bring forward IER. The decision will have significant equalities impacts and those should be properly measured and taken into account before it is implemented.
We also know that voters who will drop off the register will disproportionately be on low incomes. They are exactly those voters who by May 2016 will be suffering the impacts of the Government’s decision to cut tax credits, which is being debated elsewhere this afternoon. We know that for all those people the consequences of dropping off the register will extend beyond their disenfranchisement, affecting their credit rating and forcing them to borrow where they need to from more expensive and unscrupulous sources.
Voting is a universal right. It is not the preserve of residents whose housing has been settled for many years, who have higher incomes or who are older or white. The Government should be taking their responsibility to ensure universal voting rights seriously and follow the recommendations of the Electoral Commission to stick with December 2016 as the start date for IER. In the meantime, the Government should be resourcing local authorities to extend their canvassing work, particularly in areas with a high proportion of students or private rented accommodation and in areas of high deprivation.
One of the problems we have with local authorities is the resourcing to be able to support the process. Does my hon. Friend recognise that authorities such as York will next week be sending out their first tranche of people to canvass constituents? That leaves only a two-week window to get people on to the register, because it is now taking three weeks to process the family inquiry form to put people on the register.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I agree with her entirely. The resourcing for local authorities on this issue has been entirely inadequate.
The Electoral Commission report explicitly says that it does not consider the 1.9 million voters who would drop off the register to represent a high risk of fraudulent voting activity, so I do not think that a proportionate reason for bringing forward the introduction of IER when the risks of disenfranchisement remain so high. I remain completely baffled about why the Government are not taking the Electoral Commission’s recommendation seriously. I hope that they will look again at the risks and change their decision.
I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this debate. There is a sad irony to this issue. Individual electoral registration is to be adopted as a replacement for household registration, where previously one member—the patriarch, if you like, Mr Davies—doled out the franchise to his dependents. By bringing forward the transfer to the new system a year early, the Government will effectively maintain the electoral advantage and status of long-established households at the expense of transient and, in particular, young voters.
The measure could be interpreted as a cynical exercise in the further disenfranchisement of young voters, in urgent haste to influence the next round of elections in the Scottish Parliament, English local authorities and the Welsh Assembly. That approach to voter registration as a whole is bad news for democracy. More and more young people will either lose or never even have the opportunity to adopt the practice of voting. There is a real need for sufficient time and greater imagination and innovation to ensure that the new system works effectively.
I will make a few suggestions. A voter voucher could be sent to every 18-year-old—or even to 16-year-olds, when we come to that question—on their birthday to encourage them. We could have registration events in schools, colleges and universities. We have heard something about the activities that are already happening at some of them. Importantly, we could have citizenship on the curriculum. It is especially important to teach young people the nuts and bolts of how to vote and not to assume that people can do it automatically. People are shy of putting themselves in unfamiliar situations; they need to be helped to do that and supported along the way. There are wider questions about voting technologies and how to make the individual voter’s vote actually make a difference. There are also wider questions about young people’s engagement with democracy, voting for 16 and 17 year-olds, youth councils and youth parliaments.
I take this opportunity to decry how the Welsh national identity is ignored on election registration forms and to demand that the Minister makes good that archaism and commits to ensuring that people can record their nationality as Welsh, rather than British. Wales has a Welsh Government working on behalf of the Welsh people, and I am glad to say that we can record our nationality as Welsh on census forms. The Government do themselves no favours, however, with that lack of respect on registration forms. However inconvenient Wales may be, we cannot be defined out of existence.
It is worth emphasising that being on the electoral register is absolutely fundamental to democracy in this country, but for obvious reasons unless someone is on the electoral register they cannot decide whether they want to vote. Whether they wish to exercise their franchise is up to them, but to deny people that choice undermines the concept of British democracy.
Individual electoral registration is a sound principle and makes good sense. When the Labour party was in government, we brought forward the concept of individual electoral registration, which was subsequently taken up by the coalition Government. Individuals within a household should have responsibility for their registration, rather than relying on the head of household to do it for them. It is a good means of empowerment and of bestowing responsibility on individuals.
As I cast my mind back to the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, however, I remember that we the Opposition expressed practical concerns about how the laudable principle of IER was going to be put into practice. Many of those concerns have been borne out by the passage of time. We had a concern that the Government were placing an undue emphasis on the suggestion that there was widespread fraud. As we all know, there are occasional instances of fraud, but, by and large, our system has been transparent, straightforward and honourable given how people have behaved under it. Instances of fraud are few and far between. We felt that that had been elevated into a principle to allow the Government to introduce measures that would make it very difficult for many people to register. That is worth bearing in mind in our discussion today.
Secondly, we were concerned about how the dovetailing of the present system would work with the introduction of a new system—the move from household registration to individual registration. We thought it important to have sufficient resources to ensure that that was done properly and also that there was a sufficient period of time for that to happen. My concern, therefore, is why the Government have decided, despite what was agreed by Parliament, that a full implementation date for IER would be December 2015. Why have they decided to bring it forward by a year? I will return to that point later.
Individual electoral registration is important for next year because we are concerned to make sure that we have as many people as possible on the register to participate in a whole raft of important elections. Also, it is possible that we will have the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. That is very important indeed. So there are good electoral reasons to make sure that as many people as possible are on the register.
My concern is about bringing forward the date for registration for the full implementation of IER from December 2016 to December 2015. Throughout the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, we had a lurking suspicion, which reared its head frequently, that the Government were really interested not in democracy and full participation, but in political advantage. We had that concern all the way through the passage of the Bill. Occasionally, the Government blew the gaff and it was pretty clear what they were trying to do. It has to be said. There is no clearer example than when the Government tried to introduce full IER without the necessary preparation and safeguards for December 2015 so that it would happen to coincide with the boundary review beginning on exactly the same date. We all know the Boundary Commission takes as essential and fundamental to its work the state of the electoral register at the point it starts its work.
Is it simply a coincidence that the two processes are coming together? I suggest not. If we look at the work done by the Electoral Commission, we see clearly that despite the rhetoric and the warm words of the Government, many people will not be on the electoral register by December this year. The Electoral Commission says that the number could be as high as 1.9 million, although we accept that that number will deplete as we move closer to December this year. Other people have suggested the number will be slightly less. Some have suggested it could be as low as 1 million people. Nevertheless, it is true that a heck of a lot of people will not be on the electoral register—not because they have been on it fraudulently, but because, for reasons well explained by others, they have not been able to register and will therefore not be included on the register. They will not be able to vote and will not be taken into account when the next boundaries for the parliamentary elections in 2020 take place.
Why have the Government decided to ignore the objective and impartial advice of the Electoral Commission? There are plenty of instances where the commission says things that Labour does not like. It is not a Labour poodle, but an objective body. It has looked at all the information, analysed all the facts and figures, and come to the best conclusion. I will quote from its detailed report issued in June this year:
“If the transition ends in December 2015, there is a potential benefit to the accuracy of the register–with any retained entries which are redundant or inaccurate being removed”—
I accept that—
“but also a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation, with retained entries relating to eligible electors being removed...In contrast, if the transition continues to December 2016”,
as Parliament wanted,
“the main benefit relates to completeness–with entries for any eligible electors who are not registered individually retained on the registers”.
Surely we all believe in democracy and that there should be as many people as possible on the electoral register. We should not seek to manipulate this critical democratic process for party political reasons. I know the Government have decided to bring forward the date for full implementation, but even at this late stage I ask them to keep in mind the democratic principle that our election method should be above party political considerations. We are talking about the democracy of this country and, dare I say it, that is more important than the Labour party’s interests—or, indeed, the Conservative party’s. We are talking about democracy and that should be of concern to everyone.
It is a pleasure to make my first speech under your chairship, Mr Davies. There is no opposition from my party to the principle of IER. We can all agree it is high time to move away from the Victorian process of the patriarch registering the household and to individual registration. However, the process of transferring the responsibility from the state to the individual means that not all individuals are equal. We know that in many areas there have been problems with some groups being able to take advantage of their ability to join the electoral register: people who live in the private rented sector, students, and people who are recent migrants or who have no fixed abode in communities and are moving around. Also, there are people with various problems—poverty, addiction or other social problems—who are very much on the margins of society and, frankly, registering to vote in an election is not at the top of their list of priorities. Such factors do not affect all constituencies equally. I guess that is why we have an apparent imbalance of interest in the debate today. I guess there is a disproportionate interest the other way round in a debate on tax credits, but who knows?
In Scotland we have had an exercise in our recent history that I think has set the gold standard in electoral registration. During the Scottish referendum, we reached registration levels of 95% plus—previously unseen in these islands and lauded by everyone as a remarkable achievement. I recall asking the then First Minister Alex Salmond, now my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), what his most vivid memory of the entire referendum was, and he said the thing that stood out for him most was being in the city of Dundee in late August in the bright sunshine and having a queue of more than 200 people waiting in line around the block to sign up before the deadline for registration. Such was the enthusiasm of people wanting to participate.
We will wait and see what the effect will be in December in terms of the drop in the register as a result of moving to the new process, but the initial indications are not good. The interim register in April was 3.4% down on the register on which the referendum took place. That is in part because of the presence of 16 and 17-year-olds, but if we compare over-18s on the register, there is still a drop of 1.8%, which is a fairly significant drop. Hundreds of thousands of people could lose their right to vote.
It strikes me that we need to do two things. First, we need processes that are external to Government, but wherein the Government encourage people to take part in the electoral process to begin with. That should be done, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) says, through schools, through advocacy and through trying to educate people about the importance of their being on the register. We need state and local government-funded publicity campaigns to drive people towards that process.
Secondly, we need to look at the processes involved and how we can make them a lot simpler and easier. It is ridiculous that when a woman gets married and decides to change her name, she then has to provide two further pieces of identification in order to re-register to vote. Surely it is the state that is agreeing to the marriage and recording it in the first place; I would not think it beyond our wit, in the 21st century, to find a way to transfer that information to the electoral register.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. The problem that I have is that because of his fear of patriarchy, he is saying that individual people should grasp their right to vote. That is putting the whole thing on its head. It should be everyone’s right to vote. It seems obvious to me that the state should ensure that people have the right to vote; it is then for the individual to decide whether they want to.
I agree, of course, that without question everyone should have the right to vote. I am trying to suggest that it is the state’s duty to promote the availability of that right and to encourage people and advocate that they take it up.
I agree completely with the points that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd made about identity. I asked my electoral registration officer why people could not indicate in the relevant place that they felt themselves to be Scottish—I represent the capital of Scotland. The electoral registration officer said that they would happily change the form but could not do so because it would need to be changed on the Cabinet Office portal. I wrote to the Minister on that on 3 September and am still awaiting a reply. I am not trying to bounce him into replying today, but I shall be grateful if he will speed up the process.
I do not want to pre-empt what the Government are going to say, but I guess they would say that they have brought the date forward because they are extremely confident that everything will be all right on the night and okay in the end. Surely the question today is: what if it is not? What is plan B? We need to be prepared. When the registers are announced in December, if there is a dramatic drop-off in some areas, it is the Government’s responsibility to take emergency action to ensure that people are not disfranchised in the elections and referendums that are coming next year.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on bringing the extremely important matter of individual electoral registration to Westminster Hall at this crucial time for our democracy. As he says, this change represents a potential body blow to our democracy, as 1 million people might be ignored.
We should all reflect on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), who pointed out that the boundary review is intrinsically tied up with the process of individual electoral registration, which could distort the electoral map. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) mentioned the Association of Electoral Administrators, which points out that the block registration of those in sheltered or university accommodation is crucial—so why has it not happened? My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) pointed out that in her constituency they are trying to do all this work in just a two-week window.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) made the point that we must all be democrats and should not be putting barriers in the way of democracy, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) asked an extremely important question, which I hope the Minister will answer, about whether an equality impact assessment has been conducted. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) pointed out that the issue is not the principle of IER but having a reasonable time to adjust to it.
In the short time remaining to me, I have some additional questions for the Minister. Will he tell us one good reason for the change of date, other than politicking to give the Tories an electoral advantage? The Opposition have suggested a number of common-sense solutions. Why have the Government refused measures such as the block registration of students this year? We also suggested that the Government work with letting agencies to take such simple measures as reminding new tenants to register and helping them to do so, but they have not carried out any of them. In my constituency 900 people are predicted to fall off the register, but look at Hammersmith and Fulham and we are looking at the loss of 8,000 people. Does the Minister agree that that would be unacceptable?
I will finish by coming back to the words of the Electoral Commission. It has said that the proposed change to the IER implementation date poses
“a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation”.
I remind the Minister that the Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by Parliament and has no partisan axe to grind. Why do the Government believe that their party political agenda should override the advice of a body that exists to increase trust and participation in our democracy? Will the Minister reconsider and stop this rush to implement a change that poses profound risks to participation and the completeness of the register? I urge him to heed the Electoral Commission’s sound advice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time as well, Mr Davies. Thank you for guiding us safely through the debate.
Perhaps I will surprise the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) by saying that there is a great deal on which we can agree. In fact, there is a great deal on which all the speakers can agree. For example, I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) that the existing processes for sorting out registration and chasing after people in the under-represented groups leaves a great deal to be desired. Often, those processes are set in stone in an analogue age, and we are now in a digital world. They are long overdue for some updating and modernising.
If the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, or anyone else present, would like to come along to Policy Exchange on Thursday, I will be giving a speech on how we need to update and modernise our approach to registration, because I agree with the underlying tone of many of the remarks made today: we have a major problem with not all but some groups in society that are under-represented. We have heard a list of some of them today. People in the private rental sector are difficult to keep track of, as are young black males in particular but many ethnic minorities—it is difficult to persuade them to register, even if we can find them. Students have also been mentioned.
The group that is probably worst represented of all and has not been mentioned so far is expatriate voters. Even of those who are legally allowed to vote and are enfranchised—those who have been abroad for less than 15 years—only between 3% and 5% are registered to vote. That is after the previous Government threw quite a lot of money at the problem in the run-up to the general election and raised the proportion from a paltry 1% to a relatively risible 3% or 5%—that is all. That is a good, if extreme, example of a fundamental problem. We need to update and modernise what we are doing on voter registration.
Nevertheless, it is important that if, when and as we do that—I completely agree with the sentiments expressed: we need to do so—in the vast majority of cases we are going to find people who are not registered at all. A large number of people are missing from the registers entirely, either pre or post-IER. What we do to end the transition to IER will not affect the people who are not currently on the register. We need to update and modernise because it is right and democratic, but let us not fool ourselves that it will have a great deal of impact on the decision about when we end the process of individual electoral registration, because these people are overwhelmingly not on the register as it stands.
On that point, the Minister will know from previous exchanges on this subject that last year the University of Sheffield used flexibilities that his Department gave it significantly to improve the number of students registered. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) that that is not being repeated by other universities this year. If we had a further year—if the Minister had not brought this scheme forward by a year—we could have a much more complete register of students in a year’s time.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to come along and hear my speech on Thursday at Policy Exchange, where we will talk about not just that but other initiatives, which I will mention briefly in a minute. Even if we were able to extend what has been done successfully the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam to many other universities, given that the people we are talking about are not on the register, either before or after individual electoral registration, the date at which we end the transition to IER would make no difference to whether they are registered. This is something worth doing, regardless of whether we are doing IER and the transition. It is worth doing at all times, in all places, in any case. The transition date will make no difference to those people.
I completely agree that it is important that we roll out some of the exciting innovations that are being tried in places such as the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam for students. There are all sorts of other things we could do with the online registration process. It is now possible to register to vote online in less than three minutes—less time than it takes to boil an egg. It is an incredibly convenient and simple process.
However, we make it more difficult for people to renew their registration after they have been registered for a year. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, and I am sure we all agree, that there is a natural seasonality to electoral registration: registration rates tend to dip after a major electoral event, such as a general election or the Scottish referendum, because people are less interested and registration is less relevant to them if there is no poll in which they can vote in the next 12 months. Some of those people re-register nearer the time, but we should ask ourselves why we ask all those people to re-register every single year once they have made their individual decision to register to vote. We do not ask them to re-register for their tax credits, their TV licence or their benefit claims every single year.
Everybody in this room, except perhaps the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I am not sure whether she is in favour of this principle as a fundamental—accepts the noble cause of individual electoral registration and ensuring that people make an individual decision to register to vote. However, we need to ask ourselves whether it is necessary to ask people to renew that vow every year. Are we still being true to individual electoral registration if we relax it and make a decision on it every couple of years? That would allow us to deal with some of the natural electoral seasonality that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned.
There is a huge amount we can do, and there is a huge amount that I believe should be done. I hope, based on hon. Members’ comments today, that there can be some sort of cross-party agreement on some of these things, which could then be introduced. There may not be cross-party agreement on everything. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) gave a couple of examples, and we do not necessarily agree on all the detail.
I cannot, partly because I have not given the speech yet, and partly because, as I said to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), registering people who are not on the register needs to happen, regardless of when the transition from the old system to individual electoral registration ends, because the transition will not affect people who are not already on the register. It is a parallel process that needs to be done anyway.
I was just coming on to that. I want to address the fundamental point about how we are going to deal with the problem of under-represented groups on our registers, which is crucial and underlies many of the concerns.
Let me move on to the timing of the transition to IER. As we have heard in many speeches today, there is a presumption that this process is going remove eligible voters from the electoral roll. I want fundamentally to question that presumption. During the course of a year a large number people on the electoral register—a very large number in some places, and in other places fewer people—move house. Some sadly die, and there are fraudulent entries in some parts of the country, although not in all—the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) rightly said that fraud is not an issue in all parts of the country. That is the natural state of any database. It is natural for any electoral register to contain such data errors.
We have to sort through the 1.9 million people whose entries are incomplete and who had not made the transition as of the general election date of May this year to find which are genuine voters with a pulse—people who are eligible to vote. We need to identify them, confirm their ID in the way that we have been discussing and ensure that they are confirmed on the electoral register. Then the only entries left will be the people who are no longer there—the people who have moved, died or were never there in the first place because they were fraudulent.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent first.
That is why we have made it so simple for people to register to vote and why by the end of the year, with the £3 million of extra funding we have introduced, the remaining 1.9 million entries on the electoral roll will have been contacted up to nine times over the past 18 months—in some cases, more. They will have had their doors knocked on and their phones rung, and they will have had letters and emails. At the end of that process, the chances of a genuine voter with a pulse who lives in a particular area being disfranchised are vanishingly small. Even if, by some terrible mischance, after all that effort they are genuinely disfranchised and should be able to vote, it takes less time than it takes to boil an egg to re-register.
It is good that people can vote online now, and I know it is a very efficient process. Of the 1.9 million people we are all worried about, what is the Minister’s assessment of how many will be registered after the numerous interventions he is talking about? How many extra people does he believe will be on the register?
I do not have that number yet because, as a number of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues said, the autumn canvass is still going on. Because by definition those people were, without getting too Rumsfeldian about it, known unknowns, we were not sure how many were genuine people with a pulse and how many were data errors. Nobody will know the answer to that question until the autumn canvass process is complete.
Given that over 18 months those people will have been contacted nine times—in some cases more—in a variety of different ways, the chances of genuine voters being disfranchised is tiny. The fact is that the only entries left on the register, which will then be deleted, are the ones who are no longer there, not real voters. I hope we can all sign up to that crucial distinction. I am sure—we have heard this from a number of colleagues—that we would all sign up to the principle of keeping a clean register, which underpins the health of our democracy.
Look at the number of reminders we get about everything else in our lives. We do not remind people nine times about their TV licence or anything else, and we certainly do not take 18 months. With this process, we have gone not just the extra mile, but the extra 10 miles. Once the point has been reached at which the remaining register entries can only be people who have moved away or died or were fraudulently there—those who are not real voters—it seems pointless to wait.
Several comments were made about the Electoral Commission. Although that is an august body, I gently remind hon. Members that there is another body: the Association of Electoral Administrators. Its members are the people in charge of administering elections up and down the country and they are in favour of the change. This is not a one-way street. An awful lot of objective, independent non-politicians think that the idea is good because the transition is sensible and they are reminded of what happened in Northern Ireland, where the change was made in one day, not 18 months and let alone two and a half years. Northern Ireland has been using the system happily for several years.
I am grateful to the Minister for his generosity in giving way. He referred to Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns, but are not the unknown unknowns the bigger problem? I refer to the students who were not living at a university address last year, but are this year. Due to the lack of the focus that universities had last year, as previously described, fewer such students will be on the register. The Northern Ireland example is particularly relevant here, because schools and colleges there have a duty to work with the electoral registration officer to get 17 and 18-year-olds registered. We argued for that in the previous Parliament, but the coalition Government sadly did not agree to it. Would the Minister agree to that, even at this late stage?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the hon. Gentleman makes an entirely valid point about the importance of getting attainers and students on the register. We have already discussed some of the good examples going on in Sheffield that bear examination and could be copied.
As I mentioned before, because such people are not on the register at the moment, getting them on the register is something that we should do and is a challenge that will recur every single year forever as long as there are students, universities and colleges. It makes not a jot of difference, however, to the timing of the ending of the transition to IER if such people are not on the register already, because they cannot be crossed off and potentially disfranchised. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that fundamental piece of logic.
I understand the logic of the Minister’s argument, but universities have not had a lot of time to learn from the Sheffield experience. I know from talking to universities in Liverpool that they have not adopted the Sheffield system this year. With more time and a concerted effort from Universities UK, the Government and ourselves, we could get all universities doing it next year.
That is an interesting and intriguing idea on which I would welcome cross-party discussions if the Labour party is interested. It is just one example of a whole series of things that could be done. The hon. Member for Ashfield, the Opposition spokeswoman, mentioned letting agencies. I am unsure whether I agree with block registration, because it strays perilously away from the turf of individual electoral registration. Again, I am open to being convinced on that, but it is a potential danger that I might not want us to go near. There are many other such opportunities.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East referred to data cross-matching. A large number of local authorities say, “Look, we have all this data from a range of other sources that we are itching to use.” We could effectively do nine tenths of the annual canvass automatically in a trice just by running some cross-matching between existing databases and the electoral register. We could prove that 90% of people have not moved and are in the same situation. We could then focus our annual canvass efforts on the 10% who do not match up and who are causing the problem, on under-represented groups or on places that seem to have empty houses when we know that people are living there.
With those points, I hope that the debate has begun to unpick the two important parallel but distinct issues. One is the question of how to get more under-represented groups to register. The other is how to deal with data errors in respect of the 1.9 million people, as of last May, and how we distinguish between real voters, ensuring that they are confirmed and not disfranchised, and the errors that need removing to guarantee the strength of our democracy.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. We have had a really good debate. I want to thank Opposition colleagues who have contributed and added value. Strong contributions included that from my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who made an important point about the equality impact assessment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) talked about the fundamental importance of registration for our democracy. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) had some good ideas about voter vouchers for 18-year-olds. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) talked about how exciting campaigns can boost registration, which is the gold standard for us all.
We want exciting campaigns that energise our voters and promote democracy. We had interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Christina Rees), for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell). My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) probed an important point about student registration.
In this important debate, I have tried to emphasise that bringing forward individual electoral registration at this time is a body blow to our democracy. Colleagues have highlighted under-registration in their constituencies, where key groups of people, such as those in rented accommodation and young people, are being squeezed off the register. The Minister made some constructive comments, and I look forward to reading his speech once he has given it in a few days. I would be grateful if he sent me a link.
All here present are good democrats who want to see progress in this area. Nevertheless, the Minister has failed to provide the Government’s assessment of how many of the 1.9 million people will be on the register after the Government’s intervention. It is a shame and a great pity that he failed to answer that important point. The Government have failed to listen to independent organisations such as the Electoral Commission and have done our democracy a disservice as a result. I hope that the Minister will take on board the messages of today’s debate, rethink the Government’s strategy and decide to build our democracy, rather than undermine it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of individual electoral registration.