House of Commons
Wednesday 8 June 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our long-term plan is delivering a stronger economy across Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We are keeping interest rates low by dealing with the deficit, and we are boosting enterprise and investment by cutting corporation tax.
The Government’s position on this is clear, and we are united in delivering our long-term economic plan to ensure that we deliver economic stability for Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome confirmation in the Assembly only this week that 80,000 people are working in manufacturing in Northern Ireland—more than at any point since Labour crashed the economy in 2008.
Just this morning the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee began an inquiry into the energy sector, in particular the electricity sector, in Northern Ireland, and high energy costs are a problem for the manufacturing sector. No doubt we will speak to the Secretary of State, or perhaps a Minister, about that issue, but does she have any initial thoughts on that problem?
I gather that my hon. Friend has been having lively discussions in his Committee on these matters, including on issues relating to the super-connector. It is important that those issues are resolved, so that everything possible can be done to keep energy costs low in Northern Ireland. The UK Government have taken action to support high-energy industries, saving them around £400 million over this Parliament, including exemptions from certain EU obligations.
The Secretary of State will be well aware that many companies in Northern Ireland are seriously worried about the impact on them of the new apprenticeship levy. In the light of those concerns, what steps is she taking in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Assembly to soften the blow of that new levy?
I discussed those matters yesterday with the Minister responsible for apprenticeship and skills. The Government are working closely with the Executive to try to resolve concerns about the levy, and we are determined to minimise any administrative difficulties that come as a result of it. In reality, the levy will deliver a significant sum to support apprenticeships in the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
It is clearly good news that manufacturing jobs and output are increasing in Northern Ireland. What further steps can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy is further rebalanced in favour of the private sector?
The implementation of the Stormont House agreement, and the measures on economic reform that it contains, are vital, as it is that the Government continue with their long-term economic plan, which is delivering the stability that manufacturing needs to flourish in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State recently joined the chief executive officer of Invest Northern Ireland at the successful launch of the “Exporting is GREAT” roadshow, and I thank her for attending. Northern Ireland is the only region of the United Kingdom in which exports have grown by 9% in the past 12 months. What other initiatives will the Government commit to, to ensure that exporting continues to be boosted for companies in Northern Ireland?
We will continue with our “Exporting is GREAT” programme which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has a strong focus in Northern Ireland, and we will use our network of embassies around the world to promote Northern Ireland. It is positive that there is a commitment to devolving corporation tax setting powers to the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as finances are sustainable enough to make that possible, and the forthcoming reduction in corporation tax will be an even greater support for exports.
The Secretary of State will know that Northern Ireland exports as much to the rest of the EU as it does to the rest of the world combined. Does she therefore appreciate just how important that makes continued membership of the EU to businesses in Northern Ireland, and will she encourage a remain vote to help those businesses?
The Government remain absolutely committed to doing all we can to promote exports from Northern Ireland and inward investment into Northern Ireland. Both sides of the debate are committed to continuing to work together strongly to deliver our manifesto commitments and our long-term economic plan, whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June.
Mr Speaker and fellow Europeans, I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will join me and the House in welcoming the latest official trade figures, which show an increase in manufacturing exports. The value of goods exported in the last period was up by £6.6 billion—a 9% increase—from 2015. Interestingly, they also show that the majority of exports—52%—went to the EU, while the largest value increases were to the United States of America and South Korea. Does this not prove the case for remaining? Do we not have the best of both worlds? Do we not have an ideal opportunity to trade with the world’s biggest trading bloc and the major economies of the rest of the world? I am sure she will agree with that.
2. What recent discussions she has had on the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (905249)
The Government are determined to do everything possible to keep people in Northern Ireland safe. I meet the Chief Constable, the Justice Minister and others regularly to discuss the security situation. I would like to acknowledge the exceptional work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which does an outstanding job tackling the terrorism threat.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are limits to what I can share with the House, but I can assure him that the police are doing everything they can to bring to justice whoever was responsible for this cache of arms and that efforts, both north and south of the border, remain intense in seeking to press down on the terrorist threat. Sadly, there continues to be a significant amount of activity from small groupings seeking to pursue their aims by terror, but, thankfully, in the vast majority of cases, their plans do not result in harm being carried out, and that is because of the excellent work of the police.
11. It is obviously excellent and heartening news that the number of shooting incidents has fallen to its lowest level since 1969, but there obviously remains a credible threat from dissidents. Does the Secretary of State agree that even more needs to be done to choke off funding from organised crime and smuggling on both sides of the border? (905259)
A huge amount of work is being done on these matters, but my hon. Friend is right that more can always be done. I warmly welcome the publication of the report on paramilitary activity by the panel this week. We have managed to get national security attacks down to 16 in 2015 from 40 at their peak in 2010, but it is crucial that Northern Ireland as a whole moves forward, away from paramilitarism. Many of the recommendations in the panel’s report will help us to achieve the goal of ending paramilitary activity.
I am sure the Secretary of State and the whole House will join me in wishing Northern Ireland and the green and white army all the very best in the Euros, which start this Friday. Indeed, I extend that to all the teams involved from the British Isles.
On a more serious note, on security, the threat level assessment of Irish-related terrorism was recently raised from “moderate” to “substantial” for Great Britain. Has the Secretary of State given further consideration to the calls to increase PSNI numbers by 1,000, as recommended by the Police Federation, and certainly to bring them up to the level recommended by Patten?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments on the Northern Ireland football team and the other teams from the British Isles. I wish them well in the competition.
On the security situation, the Government of course support the efforts by the police, not just through the block grant but through the additional security funding, and further funding will be made available to tackle paramilitarism under the “Fresh Start” agreement. It is crucial that every effort be made in this area. The UK Government will continue to do all they can to support efforts to keep people in Northern Ireland safe and secure.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the panel set up under the “Fresh Start” agreement reported today on ways to tackle paramilitarism. Some of the recommendations fall within the remit of the Northern Ireland Office. Will she give an initial response to the report, and will she join me, the Northern Ireland Executive and all the parties in Northern Ireland committed to ensuring that the choice for people in Northern Ireland is now clear—either a democratic, peaceful way forward, or facing the courts and prosecution by the police?
I can certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman on those sentiments. It is a continuing tragedy that so many people in Northern Ireland are injured or murdered as a result of these brutal paramilitary-style assaults. My initial reaction to the panel’s report is to welcome it. I think it makes many good points, and I very much look forward to working with the Northern Ireland Executive as they develop their strategy in response to this important report.
The panel makes reference to certain contacts that have taken place on an informal basis with some of these groupings. The panel’s report sets out a road map to seeing an end to those kinds of interactions. It is something that we shall work towards in the future because we do not want these organisations to exist any more.
Ministers have regular meetings with representatives of the Northern Ireland parties to discuss a range of issues. The Government’s position is clear: we are safer, stronger and better off in a reformed European Union.
Only two countries in the EU run a trade surplus with Britain: Holland and Germany, and the rest have a deficit. If there is Brexit, the rest will vote for tariffs, which would lead to inward investment moving from Northern Ireland into southern Ireland, and it will be the same for extra opportunities and jobs. How can the Minister and indeed the Secretary of State justify supporting Brexit when it will lead to a movement of jobs to the south, along with advancing the cause of unification and the rising of sectarian tensions?
If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, I fully support remaining in the European Union, and so do the United Kingdom Government. We are acutely aware of the points he raised, as 87% of the agricultural exports of Northern Ireland go south to the Republic, and we do not want to see any trade barriers put in the way. That is why we want to remain in the European Union.
There has been a period in which both Ireland and Britain have been outside the European Union and a period in which they have both been inside it, but if we vote to leave, it will be an historically unprecedented period in which one is out and the other is in. What assessment is the Department making of the impact of that on the border between our great nations?
The Government are clear that, should the United Kingdom leave the European Union, the border between the EU and UK will be the land border in Northern Ireland. That will place us outside the customs union, which will mean delay, checks and other reforms that will hamper our ability to export to and import from the Republic of Ireland.
What my hon. Friend misses is that export into the Republic of Ireland is also a gateway into the rest of the European Union and provides access to 500 million customers for United Kingdom goods. If we leave the European Union, that will, of course, be hampered; there will be a customs union on our borders, which will mean delays and barriers to our trade.
The Secretary of State will have noticed the recent significant slowdown in foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland because of the uncertainty about the outcome of the referendum. Has the Secretary of State made any assessment of the impact of a UK exit on the future of job creation and specifically of a British exit decision that might arrest foreign direct investment and render the reduction in corporation tax as of little benefit?
It is certainly the view of the United Kingdom that if we leave the European Union, that foreign direct investment would be put under threat. It might go elsewhere in the EU rather than in the UK. We do not want to see that happen; we want to continue to remain in the EU. Luckily, I think for all of us, there is not long to go before we can cast our votes.
What is often missed by people who want us to leave the European Union is the fact that, owing to our United Nations obligations under the 1951 treaty, the 1967 appendix and the 1984 and 1989 convention rights, if we did leave we would have to continue to take people who come to our shores seeking asylum and refuge. We would still not be able to decide 100%. Only North Korea can do that, and I do not fancy following North Korea.
During his discussions with the Northern Ireland parties, has the Minister said whether he thinks that it would help the police if we left the European Union, given that, before the introduction of the European arrest warrant, extradition took, on average, a year rather than the 48 days that it takes now, and given that 162 criminals have been removed from Northern Ireland since 2009 through the use of the arrest warrant?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The ability to remove people whom we do not want so that they face trial elsewhere in Europe is a very powerful tool for our forces of law and order in Northern Ireland. We have deported 190 people to face trial, including terrorists from Spain, and we have managed to bring back 34 people to face justice in the United Kingdom. That is a tool that we need: it keeps people safe in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom as a whole, and to turn our backs on it would be foolish.
I agree with what the Minister has said, even if his own Secretary of State does not.
Both the Chancellor and the Northern Ireland Office have spelt out the consequences for the border of leaving the EU. Moreover, I have a copy of a letter to the Newry Chamber of Commerce & Trade in which the Home Office also spells out the potential consequences for the common travel area, given that an estimated 30,000 people cross the border every day. The letter states:
“If the UK left the EU these arrangements would be put at risk.”
Does the Minster agree, and has he told the Northern Ireland parties that?
The common travel area existed before the European Union, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is totally unclear what arrangements would exist after a Brexit. That is why the best solution is to remain in the European Union, so that we can take advantage of both the single market and the free travel of people, skills and trade that we enjoyed before membership.
Our first duty is to keep people safe, and we give our full support to the police and the intelligence services. The threat level in Great Britain recently changed to “substantial”, meaning that an attack by dissidents is a strong possibility. People should be vigilant and alert, but not alarmed.
An extensive range of measures are being taken. The protection of police and prison officers is at the heart of our efforts to counter the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland, because the threat that they face is one of the most serious faced by any profession. The additional security funding provided by the Government under the “Fresh Start” agreement is contributing to necessary protections for the police and prison officers who do such an important job for our whole community, and we will continue to do all that we can to protect them.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, while we face a threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland, the greatest such threat comes from the Republic of Ireland, as has been demonstrated by the recent arms and explosives finds and arrests, and does she agree that those dissident republicans have the capacity to launch campaigns on the UK mainland?
It is certainly true that dissident republican terrorist groupings have the aspiration to attack in Great Britain. Their main focus remains Northern Ireland, but they do have that capability and lethal intent. Every effort is being made to counter their activities, including their activities south of the border, through the co-operation that now exists between the police services and other security organisations in the north and the south.
Organised Crime and Terrorism
In December, as part of the implementation of the “Fresh Start” agreement, I attended a meeting with the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive at which we agreed on new measures to enhance co-operation on cross-border organised crime.
I would agree, and that is exactly what is happening. The new joint agency taskforce established as a result of the “Fresh Start” agreement enables exactly that kind of operational co-operation on cross-border crimes such as fuel laundering, human trafficking and drug smuggling, and I welcome the progress that has been made on that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that is really important that cross-border crime should be tackled as part of the follow-up to the panel’s report on paramilitary activity? It will continue whether we are in the European Union or outside it, and it must be tackled head on.
There is absolute determination on the part of the Governments of the UK and Ireland and the law enforcement agencies of both countries that we should continue to do everything we can to co-operate in countering the terrorist threat and the criminality associated with terrorist and paramilitary groups.
The Secretary of State must recognise how much organised crime—including cross-border crime—is derived from paramilitarism, and how much it uses networks and assets that have been accrued under paramilitary campaigns. Does she therefore agree that any serious effort to eradicate paramilitarism on a whole-community and whole-enforcement basis cannot ignore such criminal enterprises with menaces, which are the vestiges of paramilitarism?
I agree, and it will be well worth considering the views in the panel’s report on the laws that apply to organised crime in Scotland and the ways of cracking down on this kind of criminality there. It will be worth considering whether we could learn lessons from Scotland and impose statutory changes of that nature in Northern Ireland.
Implications of the UK Leaving the EU
Having the UK and Ireland in the EU guarantees the free movement of people and goods across the border, boosting cross-border co-operation and trade. The UK and Ireland will always co-operate closely on security matters, but membership of the EU enhances our ability to co-operate with member states to combat crime and terrorism and keep our country safe.
The most passionate Europhile I know is the Irish ambassador to the UK, Dan Mulhall. He says that, in the event of Brexit, the principles of the Good Friday agreement and the common travel area would be maintained. Rather than inflating fears about the border, is it not incumbent on our Minister to de-escalate and deflate those straw men?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a keen campaigner for Brexit and he no doubt also wants to control his borders. He cannot have it both ways. He cannot want to control his borders and make checks while letting everything just carry on as normal. With all due respect to the Republic of Ireland, it would be up to the European Union to decide what it did on the border of its customs union and not necessarily up to individual states. That is why Brexit would put our safety at risk and put barriers to trade across that border.
As has been mentioned, we have had a common travel area between southern Ireland and Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole for 100 years. What reassurances can the Minister give me that, regardless of the outcome of the referendum—he will know that I back remain—cross-border co-operation and security will remain a priority in Westminster and in Stormont?
We will of course seek continued security co-operation. No one is alleging that that would stop, but we would perhaps lose the European arrest warrant, Europol and all the organisations that allow us to build trust and to carry out successful intelligence work in order to counter terrorism.
Does the Minister agree that it is inconceivable that there would be no changes to the current cross-border arrangements if the UK were to leave the EU? Will he urge the Secretary of State finally to admit that she is wrong to say that there would be no such changes, primarily because this is a matter not just for her but for the Irish Government, and Ireland would still be in the European Union?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. There are two options for what happens at the border: either there would be more controls at the UK’s border with the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, or there could be an internal border within the United Kingdom similar to the one we had after the war, but I do not think that the Unionists in Northern Ireland would want that at all.
Will the Minister of State assure me that the amicable relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland will continue, no matter what the outcome of the referendum, and that any adjustments that need to be made when we vote to leave the EU will be decided through mutual agreement between the two nations? That is the way in which all business should be done.
Were the United Kingdom to choose to leave the European Union, the negotiations about what would happen between the sovereign state of the United Kingdom and the European Union would be done between the European Union and that country. The Republic of Ireland would therefore have a say in that, but it would not have an overall say on the terms of our exit. That is why the best solution is to remain in the European Union and to take advantage of its security, because we are better, safer and stronger in it.
Given that Brexit will threaten policing and security in the communities of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in the communities of Ireland, will the Minister advise the Secretary of State to get out and campaign for the European arrest warrant to remain in place and for a remain vote on 23 June?
It is delightful to hear the Scottish National party talk about Great Britain from time to time. We will of course be delighted to ensure that we maintain the European arrest warrant and our membership of Europol by staying in the European Union, so I suggest that we all get out and campaign.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Emily Davison died on 8 June 1913. Yesterday, we commemorated women’s suffrage and the importance of votes for women—and women voting for women, of course. Thousands wanted to register to vote yesterday but were unable to due to massive demand. Will the PM update the House on what he is doing to ensure that everyone has the chance to register to vote and can do so in this vital vote for a generation?
First of all, let me join my hon. Friend in remembering what the suffragettes stood for, what they achieved and the fact that we achieved universal suffrage in this country. She raises voter registration and I am sure that the whole House will want to know what the situation is. Look, it is extremely welcome that so many people want to take part in this massive democratic exercise and in this vital decision for our country. Last night, there was record demand on the gov.uk website from people concerned that they might not be registered to vote in the referendum, which overloaded the system. I am clear that people should continue to register today. The Electoral Commission made a statement this morning, urging the Government to consider options that would effectively extend the deadline, which should include legislative options, and we are doing that and discussing it with the commission today. We are working urgently with it to do just that and to ensure that those who register today and those who registered last night will be able to vote in the EU referendum.
I think it would be appropriate if the House recognised and remembered the life of Muhammad Ali. He was not only the greatest in his chosen field, but someone whose courage and wit inspired so many. Indeed, I had the honour of meeting him in London in the 1980s and met his wife Lonnie with Doreen Lawrence only a couple of weeks ago. I think we should commend his bravery in facing Parkinson’s disease and his courageous campaigning on civil rights, anti-racism and peace. Truly, all of us have lost one of the greatest.
Yesterday, I met some workers from Sports Direct who were coming to Parliament to give evidence to the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills about the company’s shocking behaviour, including non-payment of the minimum wage and a culture of intimidation and fear on top of the insecurity and exploitation of zero-hours contracts. Philip wrote to me this week with his concerns and said that the scandalous scourge of zero-hours contracts is blighting the lives of many already low-paid people. Will the Prime Minister do what some other European countries have done and ban exploitative zero-hours contracts here?
Let me join the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to the life of Muhammad Ali. He was a hero in the ring and an enormous role model outside the ring. What he did in terms of breaking down barriers and encouraging integration is something we should all celebrate. When standing at this Dispatch Box, I am sure that we all try to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, although that is not always possible in the circumstances that we face.
On Sports Direct, I absolutely abhor the appalling practice of not paying the minimum wage, and this Government have done more than any previous Government to crack down on non-payment. We have levied almost 5,000 penalties since 2010. We continue to name and shame eligible employers when the investigation has been closed, something which did not happen before. Penalties for not paying the minimum wage are at a record high, and the total value of penalties last year was over 15 times bigger than in 2010. On top of our national living wage, we are going after unscrupulous employers and making sure that people get the deal that they deserve.
On the issue of zero-hours contracts, we legislated in the last Parliament to stop exclusive zero-hours contracts, but we followed the conclusions of our consultation, which said that we should not go further than that and that some people want to have the choice of those contracts.
The case of Sports Direct shows that Mike Ashley certainly is not Father Christmas. Indeed, he makes Scrooge look like a good employer. I think we should commend Unite the union and its members for exposing what went on. It shows that we must strengthen, not weaken, workers’ rights, particularly when criminal activity is involved.
However, the Government’s Employment Minister, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), said that if we leave Europe,
“we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation”.
Perhaps the Prime Minister can help us. Does she speak on behalf of the Government when she promises to reduce the “burdens”, as she describes them, of employment legislation, or on behalf of whom does she speak?
The Government are in favour of staying in a reformed European Union because we are stronger, safer and better off. One reason that many people will want to stay in the European Union is that they believe it provides an underpinning of rights for workers and employment rights. I would make the point, in addition, that we in this House have repeatedly chosen to go over and above those rights: we have had the right to request flexible working for all workers since 2014; we went well beyond the EU directive on maternity leave by giving 52 weeks’ maternity leave; we have provided shared parental leave; and we give eight days more annual leave to full-time workers than the EU working time directive. I believe that this modern, compassionate Conservative Government have an excellent record on these things, underpinned by our membership of the European Union.
If this is a modern, compassionate Conservative Government, as the Prime Minister describes them, why do they have an Employment Minister who wants to reduce the “burdens”, as she describes them, of employment legislation and make work less secure? I will quote one other person who has given some opinions on these matters:
“I can’t guarantee every person currently in work in their current job will keep their job.”
That was the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is the Justice Secretary. He seems equally relaxed about employment rights. The Prime Minister has an Employment Minister and a Justice Secretary who want to reduce workers’ protections, which they describe as a “burden”. Can’t he do something about that?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are holding a referendum. That is what is happening. The Government have a very clear position, which is that we are stronger, safer and better off inside the European Union. That is the advice that we are giving to voters in our country, but of course there are Ministers in the Government who, in a personal capacity, are campaigning on another side of the argument. I do not agree with them—I do not agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said and I do not agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) said. I could not be clearer about that. The Government have a clear position.
On this issue, not only do the right hon. Gentleman and I agree—not only do the Conservative Government and the Labour party agree—but we have the support of the Liberal Democrats, the support of the Ulster Unionist party and the support of the Green party. This is one occasion when business, large and small, and the trade unions are on the same side. I think that we should celebrate that, and get out and campaign as hard as we can.
What I do celebrate is the work done by trade unions all across Europe that persuaded the European Union to bring in four weeks’ paid holiday, laws against sex discrimination, rights for part-time workers and rights for agency workers.
Two weeks ago, I raised with the Prime Minister the proposed amendment to the posting of workers directive, which would close a loophole that allows unscrupulous employers to exploit migrant workers and undercut wages here. Will he now reply to my question and confirm that he will argue in Europe for that amendment to close the loophole that allows this exploitation to go on?
As I have said, we support the current draft. We want to see this sorted out. We have been working with the Dutch Prime Minister who is leading this work, and we think that an amendment would be worth while. The current draft is good and we back it.
I am very pleased that the Prime Minister backs the amendment, but I hope that he backs it to ensure that it goes through. Another issue that I raised with him a couple of weeks ago is the anger over tax avoidance that exists all over this country and indeed all over the western world. I agree that we are more likely to make progress on tax avoidance inside the European Union than outside it, but his Members of the European Parliament have not been supporting country-by-country tax transparency, which would force companies to publish their tax payments in each country in which they operate. Will he now tell us when that will be supported by his MEPs and when it will go through so that we can close down just one of the many tax loopholes that currently exist?
I would argue that no Government have done more nationally to crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. I would also argue that no Government have done more internationally to bring this up the international agenda: I made it the centrepiece at the G8; we have driven change in the OECD; and we are now driving change in the European Union. Let me confirm that my MEPs do support country-by-country reporting, and they have said that over and again, and I am happy to repeat it again today.
I am really pleased that the Prime Minister’s MEPs support this transparency; we are all delighted about that. I just hope that they get round to voting for it when the opportunity comes up, because that would certainly help. He will be aware that Labour’s position is that we want to stay in the European Union to improve workers’ rights, tackle exploitation, and drive down tax evasion and tax avoidance, but we are concerned that those issues are not the priorities of members of his Government and his party, such as the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), and the right hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Witham. They are talking about trying to destroy any of the social advances made within the European Union. Does he talk to them about that at any time? Do they speak for themselves or for him and his Government? If they speak for themselves, how are they Ministers at the same time?
Here I am trying to be so consensual. I am doing my best. I could mention that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) was out yesterday spinning for Nigel Farage, but I do not want to play that game. I want to stress the unity of purpose that exists, particularly over the issue of tax evasion, because there is a serious point here. What we have in prospect in the European Union, in part because of British action, is the idea of saying that if large foreign multinationals want to invest in the European Union, they will have to report their country-by-country tax arrangements not just in Europe, but all over the world. That could drive a huge change in some of these very large companies in which there are great concerns. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and I can unite and say that this would be a good thing, as it shows that when Britain pushes an agenda in Europe it wins, and it wins for our citizens.
Q2. The Prime Minister has repeatedly stated that he secured changes to reform the EU. Will he now confirm that, on 23 June, the voters are not guaranteed any treaty change in EU law as no treaty change was achieved despite a promise to deliver one, and that an international agreement cannot change EU law? Finally, will he stop denigrating our great country, because it is a sign, if any were needed, that he is losing the argument? (905134)
I know that my hon. Friend has very strong views on this issue, and I have very strong views on it, too. On the specific point that he raises, I am afraid that he is not correct. In the renegotiation, we secured two vital treaty changes: one on getting Britain out of ever-closer union; and the other on the protection for our currency. I do not accept for one minute that supporting Britain being a member of a reformed European Union is in any way doing our country down. If you love your country, you want it to be strong in the world. If you love your country, you want opportunities for your young people. If you love your country, you do not want to act in a way that could lead to its break-up. That is why what I want to see is not Nigel Farage’s little England, but a strong Britain in Europe.
Last week, thousands of dead from both sides in the battle of Jutland were remembered in commemorations in which the Prime Minister joined the First Minister, the Princess Royal and the President of Germany, along with thousands of other people, on Orkney to remember the tragedy of so many people losing their life. European co-operation emerged from both world wars as the best way to secure peace, so does the Prime Minister agree that we should never take peace and security for granted, and that that is a strong reason to remain in the European Union?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There were very moving scenes as we stood on that cemetery ground, with the British and German frigates in the background together in Scapa Flow—a sight that I will not forget—as we commemorated and remembered how many people lost their lives. I want to be clear about this: the words “world war three” have never passed my lips, let me reassure everyone of that—[Interruption.] Of course, they have now; well spotted. But can we really take for granted the security and stability we enjoy today, when we know that our continent has been racked by so many conflicts in the past? Like all Conservatives, I would always give the greatest credit to NATO for keeping the peace, but I think that it has always been a Conservative view that the European Union has played its role as well.
This is not about world war three, but about the realities—the facts. There have been wars on the European continent, but outside the European Union; they have happened in the Balkans, in Ukraine and in the Caucasus. It is a fact that there has never been a single example of armed conflict between member states of the European Union. Will the Prime Minister, in the little time that is left ahead of the European referendum, take the time to stress the positive advantages of co-operation, peace and stability for us all, and not just of the single market or the rights we have as citizens? Peace and prosperity are an advantage to us all, and that is why we should remain in the European Union.
I very much take on what the right hon. Gentleman says. I think that the strongest argument for the Government’s position of wanting us to stay is that we would be better off, and that that market of 500 million people is essential for our businesses. The argument that I was just making—that we will be stronger in the world, in terms of getting things done for Britain and for our citizens—is important, but the argument that we are safer and more secure because the European Union is a means for dialogue between countries that were previously adversaries is one that I never forget. However frustrating it can get around that table with 27 other Prime Ministers and Presidents, I never forget that these are countries that were previously in conflict. Now, we talk, we discuss, we argue and we decide, and that is a far better way of doing things.
Q5. If my constituents in the coalfields of Nottinghamshire are to share in the economic success driven by this Government, they need access to employment via good-quality public services. Can the Prime Minister give me any assistance in my campaign to open up the Robin Hood line by extending it to the villages of Ollerton and Edwinstowe, so that we can get people on a train and to a job? (905137)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Quality infrastructure is essential for our economy, and I am pleased to say that following representations from my hon. Friend and others, the Department for Transport has revised the conditions for its new stations fund, so that projects such as the Robin Hood line that are in an earlier stage of development can benefit from Government money to kick-start them and get them going.
Q3. In 2003, the current Prime Minister and most of today’s Cabinet joined Tony Blair and his Cabinet in voting for the war in Iraq. This is historically factual and cannot be denied. Will not the judgment of Chilcot be discredited if the report fails to recognise that the then Prime Minister honestly and genuinely believed that his actions, given the information available, were the right thing to do at the time? (905135)
What I say to the right hon. Lady—I remember the powerful speeches she made at the time and all the concerns she had for people in Iraq, particularly the Kurds—is that we should wait for the Chilcot report and for what it has to say. I have absolutely no idea what is in it, but I do know that its publication is coming quite soon.
Q10. The European Union recently admitted that it now has a black hole in its finances of €24.7 billion—about £19 billion. Eighteen months ago my right hon. Friend declared that he would not pay the EU a £1.7 billion surcharge—effectively a fine on British taxpayers for growing our economy—yet he was later forced to pay up. What reassurance can he give the House that hard-working British taxpayers will not be forced to pour money into that EU black hole if our nation votes to remain in the European Union? Does he, like me, accept that our only option to halt such payments is for our constituents to vote to leave the EU on 23 June? (905142)
The reassurance that I can give my hon. Friend is that we fixed the European budget for a seven-year period between 2014 and 2020, and we fixed a total for that budget that was lower than for the previous seven-year period, which means that European budgets are going to go down, not up. That cannot be changed. This is a very important point. That overall ceiling of spending is determined by all 28 Prime Ministers and Presidents. There is a veto over changing it, just as there is a veto over the British rebate. The only person who can give up the British rebate is the British Prime Minister, and as long as I am Prime Minister there is absolutely no prospect of that happening. As my hon. Friend ended his question with a remark, I will end my answer with a remark: there is no expert saying that we would make a saving from leaving the EU. The only black hole would be in our public finances, because we would have a smaller economy and lower tax receipts, so we would either have to cut spending or put up taxes to make up for that fact.
Q4. It is time that buses, like trains, were required to provide audiovisual information. This would benefit not just those who are blind or deaf, but many general users. I have written to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), on this subject. Will the Prime Minister commit his Government to signing up to an amendment to the Bus Services Bill that would allow such a measure to be implemented in order to provide accessibility for all? (905136)
I will look closely at what the hon. Gentleman says. I think I am right in saying that the Bus Services Bill is a devolved matter, so it affects issues in England rather than in Scotland, but let me look carefully at what he says, because we want to make sure that disabled people can properly use our bus services.
Q11. My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is five years since the announcement by Pfizer in Sandwich that it would scale down operations. Since then, with enterprise zone status, there has been a true renaissance of high-tech businesses on the site, and employment levels are now nearly up to where they were previously. My right hon. Friend has previously promised a trip to South Thanet. May I invite him once more to see on site the success of Discovery Park in my constituency? (905143)
I am delighted to answer that offer and say yes, I would like to go. I remember very well that it was early in the 2010 Parliament when Pfizer made that decision. There were real concerns that it would lead to an exit of jobs and investment from my hon. Friend’s constituency. I want to pay tribute to David Willetts who, as Minister of State for Universities and Science at the time, did a great job working with others, including with the local MP, to get businesses to locate in the constituency, and to show that there is a very strong pharmaceutical and life sciences industry in our country, providing the jobs that we need.
Q6. With industrialists such as GlaxoSmithKline and Hitachi warning that if we left the EU, jobs would be lost, the Brexit economist Patrick Minford has revealed that under his side’s strategy, manufacturing would be mostly eliminated. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on the Brexit leaders to say how many other people’s jobs they would sacrifice on the altar of their own political ambitions? (905138)
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that one of the reasons why international companies such as Hitachi invest in Britain—of course, we also have excellent labour relations, the English language, and a very hard-working workforce and great engineers—is that we are members of the single market. I thought that what the head of Hitachi said this week about wanting us to be the European headquarters, and to manufacture those trains in the north-east and sell them all over Europe, and how that might not be possible if we were to leave, was an incredibly powerful statement. In my clear view, jobs come first, and if people want to vote for jobs, they should vote for remain on 23 June.
Q14. Speaking at many universities, colleges and schools across England, and at events organised by Universities UK, University Alliance and the Russell Group, I have been struck by young people’s strong interest in remaining in the European Union. Does the Prime Minister agree that Britain should take a firm lead in the European Union to promote the interests of young people’s careers and research, and their opportunities in the future more generally? (905146)
I think our universities have been pretty much unanimous in recommending that we vote to remain in the EU. I think that is partly because of the opportunities young people will have from being part of a single market of 500 million people, but also because our universities do very well out of research funding that helps to create the businesses and jobs of the future. We contribute about 11% of the EU research budget, but receive about 16% of the allocated funding. Staying in Europe is good for students’ opportunities, good for young people’s opportunities and good for our science base.
Q7. Yesterday in the Defence Committee, the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West, commented that the Ministry of Defence had effectively run out of money for shipbuilding. Given reports that another Russian submarine has had to be escorted out of UK waters overnight, does the Prime Minister share my concerns that the delays to beginning work on new frigates at the Clyde shipyards are causing real problems? Does he agree that it is essential that the money is allocated to deliver this programme in full and on schedule? (905139)
It is certainly not the case that this country has in any way run out of money, or run out of ambition, when it comes to shipbuilding. We are currently building the two largest ships the Royal Navy has ever had. We will shortly be commissioning the Type 26 programme, as well as the offshore patrol vessels. The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that there is only one way we could threaten shipbuilding on the Clyde, and that is by pulling out of the United Kingdom and seeing jobs decimated as a result.
The beauty of a referendum is that every voter has an equal voice, every vote carries equal weight, and Members of Parliament have no moral or political superiority over anybody else. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the referendum is not a consultation but an instruction to Parliament from the British people? Is it not therefore incumbent on all of us to accept in advance that remain would mean remain and leave would mean leave, and that any attempt to short-change or distort the verdict of the British people would be a democratic outrage?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: every vote counts the same. We have asked the British people for their opinion, and we should treat their decision as an instruction to deliver. I know many people would like me to be a bit more nuanced in what I think, and to say there are two options that both have some merits and that it is a balanced decision. That might have made my life easier, but the problem is that I do not believe it. I very strongly believe that we are better off if we stay in. That is why the Government and I are saying so clearly to the British people: better off, stronger, safer. But in the end, it is the British people’s decision.
Q8. Only last week, the Prime Minister was rightly extolling the virtues of the EU as a means of tackling pollution, yet over recent months the UK Government have led efforts to water down a key EU directive aimed at reducing the number of people who die every year from breathing toxic air. Can he tell us why? (905140)
What we are doing in our own country is making sure that we improve our air quality, and that we go for these clean air zones. We have seen a major reduction in particulates in the air over the past few years, and we are going to continue doing just that.
What the Prime Minister said today on Europe is right: we have to go and campaign. I remember, Mr Speaker, what you said yesterday about notifying Members if one is going to visit their constituency, so may I say to the Prime Minister that a group of global-looking leave campaigners will be descending on Witney at lunch time this Sunday? I will be there. Will the Prime Minister be able to join us? Given what he has just said, will he confirm that if the country votes to leave, he will be able to stay on as Prime Minister and negotiate the exit?
First, I am very sorry that I will not be able to meet my hon. Friend—I am making an appearance on the “Andrew Marr” programme on Sunday—but I would recommend that he goes to The Fleece pub in Witney and spends as much time and as much money as he can there, rather than on anything else.
Next week, the annual national parliamentary prayer breakfast will take place in Westminster Hall, at which 600 community and faith leaders and over 100 MPs will gather. Yet also this week, we hear of a Christian union being banned from holding prayer and Bible study meetings, purportedly on the grounds of the Government’s anti-terrorism Prevent strategy. Does the Prime Minister agree that such action was never the purpose of a strategy intended to address terrorism and extremism?
Of course what my hon. Friend says is right. I am very sorry I will not be able to attend the prayer breakfast, because I know it is a very good event, and it brings a lot of people together and means a lot to Christians around our country. On the point she makes about the Prevent duty being misused, I have not heard of that exact example, but it is clearly ludicrous. People do need to exercise some common sense in making these judgments, because it is quite clear that that is not what was intended.
Q12. Every day, around 6,000 people—many of them children—take on new caring responsibilities, providing unpaid care for an older or disabled family member or friend, yet many carers tell me they feel abandoned by everyone, including the Government. In this Carers Week, will the Prime Minister pledge that his Government will do much better for the 9,500 carers in my constituency, and the 6.5 million carers across the country? (905144)
I certainly take this opportunity to pay tribute to carers across our country for the selfless work they do, for the immense amount of money that they save taxpayers every year through what they do, but, above all, for the love and commitment that they give to the people they are caring for. What we have done is try to help by, for instance, increasing the number of carers’ breaks, because many carers will say that the one thing they need to go on caring is an occasional break and time away from their caring responsibilities. We should continue to work on all those things to help our carers.
The largest single source of employment and wealth in my constituency is the London-based financial services market. Does the Prime Minister agree that the opportunity to continue trading freely in a single market in financial services of 500 million people and a completed capital markets union is an unparalleled and optimistic opportunity for my constituents, and one that no sensible businessman would ever turn his back on?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Here, it really is worth understanding exactly what this single market means: it means that a financial services company based in the UK effectively has a passport to trade in 27 other EU countries. If we are to leave, and if we leave the single market, we lose that passport right, so, by definition, many of the firms would have to relocate at least some of their staff to another European Union country. HSBC has said it would have to scrap 1,000 jobs. JPMorgan said it would have to scrap 4,000 jobs. Lloyd’s came out and said that many jobs in insurance would be under threat. This is a concrete example of why the single market matters. I would make the point—because this does not just affect my hon. Friend’s constituency—that two thirds of the jobs in financial services are outside London, and this accounts for 7% of our economy, so when experts warn of effects on jobs, growth and livelihoods in our country, this is a classic example of why they are right to make that case.
Q13. Does the Prime Minister agree that a vote to leave on 23 June would be a hammer blow for the British steel industry? Will he agree to meet me to discuss a number of the decisions being made in the context of the Tata sale process—imminent decisions that will have a huge impact on thousands of jobs in my constituency and right across the country? (905145)
I am working very closely with the hon. Gentleman, as is my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, to help do everything we can to secure a future for Tata Steel. The sales process is progressing, and that is encouraging. I would say that, yes, for steel, we are better off inside the European Union, because together as 28 countries, we are far better able to stand up to the Chinese or, indeed, the Americans over dumped steel. Where we put in place those dumping tariffs, you can see 95%, 98%, and 99% reductions in the quantity of Chinese steel in those categories being imported into the EU. We still face a very difficult situation—there is still massive overcapacity —but we are definitely, for the steel industry, better off as part of this organisation, fighting for British steelworkers’ jobs.
Will the Prime Minister address an issue that the remain camp has so far fudged? Our present immigration policy, in all truthfulness, cannot control numbers coming in from the EU to the benefit of our public services, and also actually discriminates against the rest of the world outside the EU.
Having spent my evening yesterday with Mr Farage—or Farridge, as I like to call him—I am confused about what the leave camp actually wants when it comes to immigration. I thought it wanted less immigration, but now it seems to want more immigration from outside the EU into our country. My view is that we should restrict welfare in the way that we have negotiated, so that people have to come and work here for four years before they get full access to our welfare system—no more “something for nothing”; people pay in before they get out—and then we should focus on proper controls on migration from outside the EU, on which we have made some progress over recent years and can do some more. That is the right answer. As for the alternative of an Australian points system, if we look at Australia, it has twice as much immigration per head as we have here in the UK. That is not the right answer for Britain.
Last week I was delighted to welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Faversham in my constituency to visit our largest local employer, Shepherd Neame. There, we heard that having a strong and stable economy is vital for the ongoing success of Britain’s oldest brewery. Does he agree that leaving the European Union would put in jeopardy that strong economy, and with it British businesses, British jobs, and British livelihoods?
My hon. Friend is right. Shepherd Neame, which is the oldest brewery in the country, could not have been clearer about wanting to stay in a reformed European Union, because it wants a strong and successful economy, it wants to be part of a single market, and it recognises that that is in our interests. She and I very much enjoyed the pint of Spitfire we had at about 10.30 in the morning—the things we have to do to win this argument! But we have an absolute commitment to carry it through.
Given the number of people who will be travelling from all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, I am sure, to the Euros next week—[Interruption.] We welcome everybody, and given Leicester’s success in the premiership, Northern Ireland, at 150:1, is almost certain to win. Will the Prime Minister ensure that given the number of visitors, the security threats and all the rest of it, the British embassy and consular staff are fully geared up, resourced and staffed to deal with the problems that will undoubtedly arise?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I am sure that this is one occasion when the whole House will want all the home nations to stay in Europe for as long as possible. [Interruption.] Come on now. I am going to be watching; our first game is England-Russia, and I will be watching very carefully to check that we get very strong support.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which is that this is a very big security undertaking. Half a million people are planning to leave the United Kingdom to go to this tournament. We have set out very clear travel advice, because people do need to know that obviously there is a significant terrorist threat in France today, and there is a potential threat to this tournament. We have set out very clearly that the threat level in France is critical and the threat level for the tournament is severe, and people need to know that. The French security operation is enormous— 77,000 police and gendarmes, 10,000 military personnel, and 13,000 security guards. We are providing additional counter-terrorism and public order support to the French, including deployment of additional police on trains to France and more UK Border Force outbound checks. We are also helping with sniffer dogs and in any other areas that the French ask us to.
We all want to see an absolutely great celebration of European football. I wish all the home nations well. It is brilliant that Northern Ireland has made it to this tournament, and I know we all—[Interruption.] And of course Wales, and of course England. I look forward, in the breaks in the campaign, to watching some fantastic football.
I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. Whatever your view, Mr Speaker, or anyone else’s on the question on the ballot paper on 23 June, the EU referendum is a very important moment in our democracy. Over the past three months, 4.5 million people have applied to register to vote. Very high levels of voter registration have been successfully handled over the past month by the systems, and in the last week alone more than a million people have applied. Yesterday, 525,000 people successfully completed their application. That is a record. At its peak yesterday, the website was handling three times the volume of applications at the previous record peak, which was just before the general election last year.
My strong view, and the view of the Government, is that anyone who is eligible should be able to register to vote in the EU referendum. Unfortunately, because of the unprecedented demand, there were problems with the website from 10.15 pm last night. To give the House a sense of the scale of the demand, the peak before the 2015 general election was 74,000 applications per hour. Last night, the system processed 214,000 per hour at its peak before it crashed. Many who applied to register after 10.15 pm were successful, but many were not. The problems with the website were resolved around the deadline at midnight.
We are urgently looking at all options and talking to the Electoral Commission about how we can extend the deadline for applying to register to vote in the EU referendum. The website is now open and working, and we strongly encourage people to register to vote online. Anyone who has already registered does not need to submit a fresh application. We are also offering extra resources to electoral registration officers to cover any additional administrative costs.
A huge amount of work has gone into encouraging people to register to vote in a timely fashion. We began the registration drive ahead of the May elections. From the middle of April we began in earnest to promote registration. Departments, local authorities and civil society organisations have all helped to boost voter registration. I want to pay tribute to the work of all of them—everyone from Idris Elba to Emma Watson, and all others who have been involved. We are targeting under-registered groups, and consistently high numbers have registered throughout the past few weeks. It is in all our interests to ensure that as many people as possible are able to vote on 23 June at one of the most important moments in our democracy in a generation.
Last night, tens of thousands of people trying to exercise their democratic right to register to vote were told, “The computer says no.” I welcome the announcement today that people should continue to register to vote and that their applications will be valid. However, we are no clearer about exactly how the Government plan to make this happen and what the new deadline for registration is.
I want to offer the Government Labour’s complete support across both Houses to do whatever it takes to get through any necessary legislation. This should be done today. What legislative options are open to the Government, and is one of the options being considered a statutory instrument, which could be quickly and efficiently scrutinised today? What is the new deadline to register to vote? People need complete clarity on how long they now have left, and it needs to be well advertised. Last night’s chaos was totally unacceptable. What stress testing was done on the website in advance, and what provisions were made for the predictable rise in traffic?
What will be done about postal votes, given that the deadline for applications is 5 pm today but is available only to those who are on the register? Will the Minister confirm that this will also be extended? People would never expect to be turned away from a polling station despite being in the queue before the close of the polls. Those queuing up online last night must not be turned away. We need clear answers on how they can still make their voices heard.
First, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for Labour’s clear and unambiguous support for action—if necessary, legislative action—to put this right. The support of the Labour party in both Houses will be important if we need to get through emergency legislation. We are looking at legislative options, including secondary legislation, and I look forward to taking up such an option. We need to make sure that we get the details of any emergency legislation exactly right, since we will have to pass it at pace.
On the deadline that the hon. Lady mentioned, people should register to vote now. Those registrations will be captured by the system. We then have the legal question of whether captured applications can be eligible for 23 June, and that is the issue that we might have to deal with in legislation. [Interruption.] Labour Members are saying from a sedentary position, “What is the deadline?” I am absolutely clear: people should register now—today—and we will bring out further information as and when we can.
We did of course undertake stress tests, which the hon. Lady raised. We tested a significantly higher level of interest and of applications than at the general election last year, which is the best comparator, but, as I have said, the level of interest was significantly higher than the peak then and, because of the exceptional demand, the website crashed. Ultimately, the problem was born out of the fact that thousands and thousands—hundreds of thousands—of people want to vote, and the interest that that shows in expressing their democratic wishes is to be recommended.
May I first commend the Government and my right hon. Friend for so successfully engaging millions of people that they want to register and vote in this referendum? That is definitely a good thing. I am afraid the problems he has encountered are born out of the fact that the Government and the Electoral Commission were ill prepared for the surge of registrations. The Government spent millions of pounds on promoting registration, so they should have been prepared.
This issue now arises: there is a cut-off in our legislation because the register has to be finalised and published six days before the date of the poll for the referendum—there have to be five days remaining so that any name on the register can be challenged during the first five days it is on the register—which leaves very little time for anything like legislation.
May I advise the Minister that it is probably legal to keep the site open for a short period—a few hours, to capture those who did not have the opportunity to register yesterday—but any idea of rewriting the rules in any substantial way would be complete madness and make this country look like an absolute shambles in the run-up to the referendum, which is such an important decision? Will he bear those things in mind, or risk judicial review of the result?
Order. There is no entitlement in these matters for the Chair of a Select Committee to deliver an oration, and a short question is required. I have been mildly indulgent of the hon. Gentleman, because these are exceptional circumstances, but if people could be pithy from now on that would help.
We prepared extensively for a peak in registrations, but the extent of interest in registering was unprecedented. My hon. Friend mentioned the period for which registrations may be valid in future in any legislative measure that we bring forward. He suggested that that should be for a short period, and I agree. That is to rectify the problem of people not being able to vote last night, so we are likely to bring forward proposals with that short period in mind.
I do not think that we can understate the seriousness of the great catastrophe that has happened. If we consult the people of this country on such an important decision for the first time in 40 years, and deny tens of thousands of our citizens the ability to participate, that will tarnish and call into question the entire process. It is not enough to come to the House and say that registration is open and it is okay for people to continue to register; we need an assurance that people who register today and from now on will be able to vote on 23 June. I had hoped that the Minister would have come here today not just to say that there might be a need for legislation. We want to see it! The Government should bring forward the emergency measures, and they will have the support of the SNP.
Again, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support. On the question of bringing forward legislation, we are still in discussions with the Electoral Commission. It has stated that it would support a legislative approach, which I warmly welcome. It is important to remember that the unprecedented success of our registration drive led to the amount of people trying to register late last night, which caused the technical problems.
At 9 o’clock last night the Prime Minister debated with the leave side for an hour, which caused a surge at 10 o’clock in people wanting to vote. Extending the registration period for a short time would be far better than trying to bring through rushed legislation. Give it a few hours today, give people notice of it, and get on with it.
Without any doubt this is an emergency. We are talking about a few hours of time being made available. If, for instance, the Opposition were prepared to allocate one half of their Opposition-day debate today, would the Minister guarantee that that half-day would be given back?
I am sure that those on the Opposition Front Bench are grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind offer. For people’s registrations to allow them to vote on 23 June, we would need to legislate. If that legislation takes place tomorrow, registrations made today will be valid for the vote on 23 June. Therefore, the clear message from the Prime Minister, and from me, is that if people have not been able to register to vote, they should do so now. It is incumbent on all Members of the House to continue to state that if people want to vote in the referendum on 23 June and they are not yet registered, they should register now.
I congratulate the Minister on the flexibility that he and the Government are showing, and I am pleased that so many people want to register, particularly young people who, as we know, are by and large very enthusiastic about remaining in the EU. It is clear that a short final deadline should not now be announced, in case the same thing happens again. The system must be able to cope with what might be another surge, and I suspect that a deadline of a few hours would be ill-advised.
As my right hon. Friend will imagine, we are putting in place measures to ensure that the system has yet more capacity, in case there is further high interest because of the news about the potential extension that we and the Electoral Commission want. On the deadline, the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee set out an important practical consideration, which is that from the closure of registration for the referendum, electoral registration officers must ensure that the electoral roll is correct, and it is important that there is enough time for that to happen. That is why any extension would be for a short time, rather than for a long time.
In 2014, we achieved 98% registration in Scotland and an 85% turnout, with no collapse of a website or registration, and no difficulty at the polling stations. However, we were not starting from a position where hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens had been effectively disfranchised by the process of individual registration and the lack of electoral canvass. The Government were not worried about that, because it mostly involved young people whom they did not think would vote for them anyway. Now the Minister is concerned, and he is standing in this House, hoist by his own gerrymandered petard.
It is a shame to bring a note of discord to what was otherwise a reasonably consensual discussion. If it were not for our online voter registration system, people would not be able to vote up to a midnight deadline at all. The website collapsed because of the success of online registration, and the huge demand for participation in this incredibly important referendum. The United Kingdom is much, much larger than just Scotland, and the scale of the challenge is more significant. That is why we are taking action to ensure that registration means that people can vote on 23 June.
I am proud to have been the Minister who introduced online registration, which I think has been a great step forward in our democracy. I fundamentally disagree with the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who thinks that individual electoral registration is problematic, because I think that it is the right thing to do in our democracy. I chair the all-party group on democratic participation, and I urge the Minister and the House to consider some of the recommendations that we have recently brought forward to improve the state of the registers. It is important that as many people as possible are registered to vote, and I commend the Minister’s calm approach to the situation this morning.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and she is right to say that there is no link between IER and last night’s registration difficulties on the website. I will study her recommendations with great interest, and I understand that she will soon meet the Minister responsible for constitutional affairs to discuss the matter.
It would be an absolute scandal if people who tried to register before the deadline were deprived of a vote in what is the most important vote in any of our lifetimes. Will the Minister pull out all the stops until the last possible moment to ensure that people can vote? Will he also address the concern raised by my constituents who live and work abroad, and who have heard that there are problems with processing the huge numbers of postal and proxy votes that are coming back in at local level, and ensure that those votes are counted?
There are very high numbers of registrations for postal votes, and indeed of registrations by post as opposed to through the website. We are dealing with all those issues. The right hon. Gentleman asks me to pull out all the stops; believe me, we are.
Even before the failure of the electronic system we heard that thousands of polling cards had been sent inappropriately to people who do not qualify to vote. Given the great strain on the system caused by the surge, will the Minister explain exactly how that sort of mistake will not be made again?
I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I would like a wee bit more clarity on how all this is going to work, as that is the important issue. Last week I had a meeting with the electoral officer in my constituency, who informed me that demand for postal votes has been at unprecedented levels—she has never seen anything like it in her life—and that they were trying to do the processing as quickly as possible. Postal vote applications have been delayed, or sent in but not returned. Any delays in processing cannot be tolerated. What is being done to help those who have applied but whose applications have not been processed?
Work has been done to address the challenge of the incredibly high interest in postal voting, and resources are available to deal with those issues and make sure that everyone has the democratic right to vote. Ultimately, this is about making sure that everyone who is eligible and wants to has the opportunity to register to participate in this great festival of democracy.
It is very important that people have the opportunity to register to vote, but this issue has consequences not just for the referendum but for other elections. There are 4.5 million new people on the register; has the Minister thought about the consequences of that for the Boundary Commission’s drawing up of constituencies, as it will be doing so on numbers that are now completely wrong?
I am ambitious for my country, which is why, earlier today, I voted by post to remain. Everyone else who wants to do so should be able to. What estimate has the Minister made of the number of people who were able to register after 10.15 pm last night and, by extrapolation, the number who were not?
The Minister is clearly putting a great deal of energy into ironing out this particular glitch, but he needs to be seen to be fair to both sides, given the likely closeness of the result on 23 June. How much energy is he therefore applying to quantifying the number of non-eligible EU nationals who have been sent postal votes? Clearly, after the event some in the leave camp may call things into question if we have not quantified what correspondence was sent out in error.
We know that that number is less than 5,000, according to the Electoral Commission, and the problem has been fixed. By contrast, it will be impossible to know the total number of people—asked for by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)—who between 10.15 pm and midnight last night tried to register but did not succeed, because some people tried again and succeeded. That is why seeing what we can do to extend the deadline—which seems to have broad support across the House—is the right way forward.
I am really proud that work by my former employer HOPE not hate has led to so many people registering to vote in the past two weeks. Will the Minister answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) about what will happen to the postal vote deadline?
I welcome the news that thousands want to register for the referendum, and the extension will encourage even more people to do so. However, having seen at first hand long-standing failures of IT infrastructure such as the NHS connecting for health programme, it was little surprise to me that the IT infrastructure was not able to keep up with the volume of registrations. What lessons will be learned from this latest episode, and how will the Cabinet Office provide solutions for the age-old problem of IT infrastructure as it looks to pursue a new Bill on data later in this Parliament?
Clearly we all want as many people as possible to take up the franchise and vote. The news that more than 4 million people registered for the referendum in the spring is not a shock, because we raised that possibility with the Leader of the House and others in the aftermath of debates on the boundary review. Surely the fact that those 4.5 million people registered to vote in the spring calls into question the legitimacy of the foundation data upon which the boundary review is to be conducted.
Young people are disproportionately likely to be unregistered to vote. May I urge the Minister not only to extend the deadline as far as possible but, once that is done, to promote it as clearly as possible in places where young people are most likely to be, such as Facebook and other social media?
There has been a huge amount of support and communication, both on social media and more broadly, from the wide array of people I referred to in my statement. I encourage all those who have spent the past few days explaining to people that they have to register to vote, to get out there and encourage people to register to vote now—today—knowing that we are doing all that we can to make sure that those registrations will allow people to vote on 23 June. Huge numbers of people have been out there on social media doing that already, so I say to them: get out there again now and spread the word.
The Minister must surely accept that the surge in applications to vote reflects not just the interest in the referendum but the number of people who have, in effect, been disfranchised. Why is he content for the boundary review to go ahead on false figures, and why will he not make a commitment to the House today that the Boundary Commission will work on accurate figures rather than the dodgy statistics that we have seen previously?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The boundary review has to operate from an electoral roll on an agreed date. That date was agreed by this House. In the past, the review operated on a 10-year cycle, and the electoral roll was therefore 10 years out of date by the time it was reviewed. We are now moving to five-year cycles, so we have brought in more frequent use of electoral roll data by the boundary review. If we could not have a drop-dead date we could not have a boundary review at all.
The fact that someone has a national insurance number does not of itself establish that they are eligible to vote in the referendum. Will my right hon. Friend explain what checks are being done to verify that everyone who applies is genuinely able to vote in the referendum?
That is an incredibly important question. The eligibility requirements were debated extensively in this House. After someone applies to register online, the application is not taken at face value but is checked against Government data to make sure that that person meets the eligibility rules set by this House. That is one reason why there needs to be time between the deadline and polling day—to make sure that exactly the concerns that my hon. Friend raises are met.
The Minister keeps saying that yesterday’s significantly higher numbers were unprecedented. There were 525,000 applications yesterday and 485,000 on deadline day in 2015. Why then was the system not prepared and able to cope, and is it not now time for automatic registration?
The spike was much bigger than the hon. Lady’s figures, which are accurate for the whole day, I suggest, because there was an intense spike after 9 pm. The question for the system is how many people are trying to apply at once, and that figure was three times higher than in the peak before the 2015 general election.
The Minister is making a bad situation worse by refusing to give a clear answer on the deadline for registration. I want to ask him about the agile technologies that form the basis of online registration, and which were chosen for their very scalability when properly implemented and resourced. These are the same technologies as form the basis of other digital services, such as universal credit and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which might also be subject to unprecedented but entirely predictable surges. Will he commit, therefore, to laying before the House a detailed report on why a scalable technology was unable to deal with a predictable surge in demand?
The hon. Lady asks a reasonable question, which we will be looking at in the lessons learned exercise. I would pick her up on one point, though. On the issue of clarity around what people should do now, it is incumbent on all of us to get out there and say that people should register now. We will come forward with legislation, should we choose to—[Laughter.] I think the House can gather that it is highly likely. Should we choose to, we will come forward with legislation setting out the deadline, but what matters right now is that people get on the website, which is currently working, and register to vote. Let that message go out loud and clear.
What guidance would the Minister give to those who want to vote by post? I am still not clear what is happening with the 5 pm deadline this evening. If someone registers today and is informed tomorrow that they can vote, but only by post, will the Government not be open to judicial challenge?
No; the two issues are separate. If someone wants to register, or applied to register yesterday, but is not available to vote on 23 June, a postal vote could not be organised in time, but they can still vote by proxy. That opportunity is available, so that they can express their democratic wish.
The House has heard a “carry on” registration message from the Minister and the Prime Minister. Should people in Northern Ireland listen, given that online registration is not available there? There were separate difficulties in Northern Ireland arising from strike action over proposals to centralise electoral office services that affected those offices yesterday and last week.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), I remember the glorious sunny day in September 2014 when hundreds of people queued up outside their local authority offices to hand in their voter registration forms. Were any lessons learned from the surge before the Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 general election? Will the Minister confirm whether there is now capacity to deal with any further surge when the deadline is finally announced? As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) hinted at, will he also confirm that we are talking about online registration and that the paper registration deadline has passed?
It is absolutely right that anybody who last night wanted to but could not register to vote be given the opportunity to do so, but given that the referendum result might be close, what legalities surround an extension of the deadline, and what advice has the Minister taken in case a close result, whether a yes or a no vote, is challenged legally?
We are consulting and working closely with the Electoral Commission and lawyers to make sure that anything we bring forward is watertight. We all want the referendum to take place on 23 June, and we all want everyone who wants to and is eligible to vote to be able to do so.
Following on from the question by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the industrial action in Northern Ireland, has further provision been made to allow people to register, including for a postal or proxy vote? The proposed closure of rural offices in Northern Ireland will only heighten the problem in future years.
It appears that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been given a blank cheque from all parties in the House for any legislation tomorrow, but we still need the certainty of a date from when registration will not entitle someone to vote. If the message goes out today that if people keep on registering they will be able to vote, it will lead to problems either tomorrow or towards the weekend. Will the Minister indicate that if someone does not register by the end of today, their vote will not count on 23 June?
I would like to echo the comments of the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). The “Missing Millions” report made many recommendations, including on automatic registration. May we have a commitment today that following this example of poor practice and failure, automatic registration proposals will be brought before the House?
We will look into the use of alternative sources of data, but we are not yet persuaded on the case for automatic registration. Most importantly, right now we are concentrating on ensuring that people who want to and are eligible to vote will be able to.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker. The Minister has said he thinks that emergency legislation will be necessary if we are to deal with the problem now facing us. I think the whole House has said it wants the matter dealt with, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) made clear, the Opposition want to be as helpful as possible. It would be difficult to bring forward legislation and carry it through today. If it is primary legislation, it would have to come to the Floor of the House, so I presume the earliest would be tomorrow. If it is secondary legislation, it would be difficult because a Committee would have to be set up before Monday. It would obviously be better to deal with it tomorrow. My mere suggestion is that if the Leader of the House could come to us later today with a business statement to make it clear what will happen tomorrow, it would be in the best interests of the House and voters, as well as the other House, which will have to deal with the legislation as well.
I am in the happy position of agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. It is certainly open to the Government to bring forward business tomorrow, and I have a sense that that would be widely anticipated and enthusiastically supported in the House. To have some advance indication from the Government that that is their intention would be useful, and a supplementary business statement would be the ordinary, though not the only, way of providing the information.
Well, crikey, Mr Speaker. As I have made clear, it is likely that legislation will be needed, and I warmly welcome what the shadow Leader of the House said just now. We will work with him and through the usual channels to make sure that this is done as effectively as possible. I will take away the point about whether we should have a business statement today in order to facilitate that.
I will take further points of order if they appertain to this matter. If they are on unrelated matters, they should come after the Standing Order No. 24 application. It is unrelated, so I save up the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman cannot have a commitment that is more important than the Chamber. He is the ultimate parliamentarian. We shall hear from him soon, and I am becoming increasingly excited about the prospect of doing so.