House of Commons
Monday 23 April 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I would very much like to associate the Government with your comments and warm wishes, Mr Speaker.
I am sure that the whole House will also wish to join me in offering our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Matt Tonroe, who died while on operations on 29 March. He served his country with great distinction, and his service will never be forgotten.
The strategic defence and security review created a national security objective to promote our prosperity, and we are committed to supporting a thriving and internationally competitive defence sector. We have published our national shipbuilding strategy and refreshed the defence industrial policy, and work is under way to develop a combat air strategy. Exports are central to our approach, and British industry, working with the Government, is looking at how we can exploit opportunities.
I would be very happy to look at those options. I hate to correct the hon. Lady, but actually a quarter of a million people are working in the defence industry, supporting not just the UK, but exports as well. I encourage her to have a dialogue with my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who is doing a piece of policy work on how we can work more closely with industry in promoting prosperity.
While it is of course quite right that the Government should do everything that they can to support the British defence industry, the truth of the matter is that it is an international business. In our area of the south-west, Boeing, Airbus and Leonardo—all foreign-owned—are the main employers and contributors. The F-35, which is a fantastic aeroplane, is made in America, but 15% of the total value of that plane comes into Britain, enabling us to buy the planes ourselves.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the international nature of our defence industry. We have to be looking more and more at how we can develop partnerships with international businesses and, when we are looking at procurement decisions, how we can deliver not just best value for the MOD, but the very best for jobs here in the United Kingdom.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Treasury about the awarding of contracts? The Treasury takes the view that the lowest price is the best way forward but, in many cases, money will come back to the Treasury straightaway in tax and national insurance contributions, so should not that be taken into account when we award contracts?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very thoughtful point about how we approach the whole defence procurement argument with regard to the real benefits to UK plc. We should start to look at this. There are different approaches in various countries, and Germany’s approach is quite different from the United Kingdom’s. We need to think about what lessons we could learn as a Government and what approaches we can adopt.
One of the Department’s key aims and priorities is to promote prosperity for the whole United Kingdom, and a key element of that is exports. In the past 10 years, we have seen over £70 billion of exports. We have had the recent, very positive news of Qatar signing up to £5 billion for the Typhoon. Good progress is being made with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and further progress is being made with Belgium. We are in very detailed discussions with the Australian Government over Type 26 frigates, and we hope that we may be able to make some progress on persuading them to consider buying those in future.
Mr Speaker, let me join you in congratulating the Countess and Earl of Strathearn on the birth of a healthy child, especially today, on the feast day of George, the patron of England.
Will the Secretary of State join me and Scottish National party Members in welcoming NATO allies to Scotland for Exercise Joint Warrior? Beyond the all-too-rare sight of complex warships in Scottish waters, does he agree that this is a suitable time to remind ourselves of the centrality of the north Atlantic to the security of these islands? Will he reassure all hon. Members that that centrality will be reflected in the modernising defence review?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing unusual about British warships being all around the coast of the United Kingdom. Of course, we are very proud of the naval base at Clyde and the central role that it plays in our nuclear deterrence. We are conscious of the increasing threat that Russia poses in the north Atlantic, which is why we have been making investment, including in Poseidon aircraft and with the announcement of £132 million to be spent at RAF Lossiemouth. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) was able to join me at Lossiemouth just the other week to highlight that important investment.
I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. May I also associate SNP Members with his earlier comments about Sergeant Tonroe?
One of the ships in the Clyde—actually in Glasgow—last week was Her Danish Majesty’s ship Niels Juel which, like all frontline support ships of the Danish royal navy, was designed and built in Denmark. When small northern European countries of 5 million people can design and build all their naval support vessels at home, it is astonishing that this Government cannot—or maybe will not—do the same. Will the Secretary of State address the crucial issues of national security and taxpayer value that underline last week’s plea from shipbuilding unions?
At the moment, the Prince of Wales is under construction at Rosyth—that is a major investment—and our commitment to the eight Type 26 frigates is also to be celebrated. Just the other week, I was at Govan to see the major investment that we are making there. I thought the hon. Gentleman would celebrate that investment in Scottish shipbuilding, rather than trying to detract from it.
Mr Speaker, may I associate the loyal Opposition with your comments regarding the royal birth? We extend our condolences to the family of Sergeant Matt Tonroe.
Within the next few weeks, the Government will have to make the final decision on how to handle the order for the fleet solid support ships. Given that that huge contract could be worth 6,700 jobs for British shipyards, with huge benefits for the supply chain, does the Secretary of State accept that there is a very strong case for awarding the contract to British shipyards?
I thank Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition for their comments.
We have one of the greatest commitments to shipbuilding in this country, and we see that in terms of not only the Type 26, but the Type 31e. There is a great opportunity for shipyards right across the United Kingdom to take part in these contracts, and we will look at every stage at how we can do the very best for jobs and opportunities.
The Department regularly looks at CBRN capability as part of the annual financial planning round. The Ministry of Defence will consider its overall CBRN capability as part of the modernising defence programme.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Will he update the House on the continuing contribution of MOD personnel now that the urgent response to the Russian chemical attack in Salisbury has moved into the recovery and clean-up stage? Can he confirm that our armed forces have everything that they need to continue to keep all our constituents safe from such attacks in the future?
Very much so. It is pleasing to be able to report the progress that Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey and Sergei and Yulia Skripal have made since that attack. Let us not forget the important role that the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces played in assisting the police with their investigations. More than 170 armed forces personnel were involved and, due to our unique capabilities, 192 British service personnel will be involved in the clean-up operation in Salisbury.
I am aware from constituency work locally for Thales that the UK has invested in a state-of-the-art biological surveillance system. Given the horrific nerve-agent attack on British soil, will the Secretary of State confirm that there are sufficient resources in his Department to deal with such attacks, whether they are at home or, indeed, against our forces overseas?
I can confirm that that is the case. We are stepping up our investment and putting a substantial amount into our capabilities and facilities at Porton Down, which will ensure that we continue to preserve our world-leading position and expertise in this field.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
May I ask the Government how they work with the UN Security Council and organisations such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to identify stockpiles of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons across the globe, and what steps they have taken to achieve de-escalation?
We have always worked incredibly closely with those organisations, and it is a shame that nations such as Russia have not always had such a positive and collaborative relationship with them. We share our expertise and knowledge with them, and we have been incredibly open with them to make sure that they have a clear understanding of the threats and dangers that this country faces as a result of Russia’s hostile act.
We need to invest in our defence capabilities against changing and emerging threats in warfare, including the unchecked use of lethal autonomous weapons. Has the Secretary of State seen last week’s House of Lords report on artificial intelligence, which concludes that the UK’s definition of lethal autonomous weapons is
“clearly out of step with the definitions used by most other governments”.
That makes it harder to reach an agreement on regulation, so will he commit to reading that report and revising the definition?
As we mark 100 years since the end of world war one, it is appropriate once again to underline our appreciation of the charities that support the armed forces community. You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that many household names such as the Royal British Legion, Blesma, Combat Stress and SSAFA were formed around that time to look after the thousands of injured returning to Britain. I meet and engage with charities weekly, as does the Secretary of State, who last week visited Tedworth House, the excellent recovery centre run by Help for Heroes.
The Royal British Legion plays a key role in supporting our veterans, including on Armed Forces Day, when we celebrate their role across the country. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Royal British Legion on its work, and will he visit the Havant branch when his diary allows?
May I associate my party with the wonderful news shared by Baron and Baroness Carrickfergus?
The Minister should know that the Defence Committee is looking at the support available for serving and former personnel. Does he recognise the geographical difficulties and legacy of security concerns that affect veterans who live in Northern Ireland?
When I had the pleasure of attending the Defence Committee, I was able to discuss those matters. I also had the pleasure of visiting Belfast, where the hon. Gentleman will know that I took a look at what support needs to be provided and furthered to deal with the particular situation there. I hope that that will be ongoing, and that the Secretary of State or I can visit in the near future.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the importance of working with those who are in prison. COBSEO, the confederation that looks after all the armed forces charities, is bringing together clusters of support in the justice sector. I met those charities, and we are seeing what more we can do to provide support for people who are in prison.
The Government’s disgraceful treatment of the Windrush generation has caused deep anxiety and distress to those who have emigrated from Commonwealth countries and served in our armed forces. It cannot be right that veterans who fought for this country are now frightened that they could be deported due to the callous immigration policy that the Prime Minister has spearheaded, so will the Minister outline what concrete action the Ministry of Defence is taking to help to rectify this scandalous state of affairs?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting observation. The Government have apologised, and will continue to apologise, to those affected by the current situation. A taskforce has been set up in the Home Office to deal with it and, as I said at the weekend, we apologise for what we have done. I hope that previous successive Governments will do the same, because it was a collective effort whereby bureaucracy got in the way and did not look after those people, who are very much Britons and should be allowed to continue to live here. If any veterans are affected, I would be more than delighted to look into the situation and make sure that we underline our support for those people, who are very much British citizens.
Russian Military Activity
Russian military activity has been more assertive over the last few years. Russia has pursued a 10-year programme of military modernisation that has bolstered its armed forces. We recognise the importance of responding with allies and partners, and that has been the strength in our united action following the Salisbury attack. We are enhancing our deterrence and defence policies, especially through NATO, to prevent Russian aggression.
The National Cyber Security Centre describes Russia as
“our most capable hostile adversary in cyberspace”
and recently released a joint technical alert with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security about malicious cyber-activity carried out by the Russian Government. Will my right hon. Friend give an update on the progress he has made to improve our active cyber-defence to protect Government networks, industry and individuals from high-volume cyber-attacks?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to highlight that increasing threat. The Government have committed to spending £1.9 billion to ensure that our defences are in the best possible place. As the nature of warfare starts to change, and as the threats increase, we have to be realistic about the fact that the two realms of cyber and conventional forces will increasingly start to merge. We should not just think about the importance of defending ourselves in terms of cyber-security; it is also about conventional forces.
Russian submarines are increasingly aggressive, so is the contract for Astute boat 7 signed and is the Secretary of State alive to the need to accelerate future capability research so that we can get back on top in this arena?
I very much hope to be able to update the House and the hon. Gentleman in the not-too-distant future. We are very conscious of the importance of our deterrence, which is absolutely pivotal for keeping this country safe, and our submarines in the north Atlantic are absolutely central to that.
When the threat from Russia receded at the end of the cold war, we understandably cut our defence budget to 3% of gross domestic product. Given events—from Salisbury to Syria—demonstrating that, sadly, that threat is now reappearing, should we not seek to get back to that sort of level of defence expenditure, and will the Secretary of State lay that pertinent fact in front of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
My right hon. Friend tries to tempt me. We have to be realistic about the fact that the threat picture is changing. It has escalated considerably since 2010—even from 2015—and we have to make sure that we have the right capabilities. That is why we are carrying out the modernising defence programme: to deliver the right types of capabilities for our armed forces to deal with the increasing threat that we face. We have to be realistic about the challenges—those posed by Russia are far greater than the challenges that were presented as an insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan—and how we get the right mix of military equipment and capability to deal with that increased threat.
The Secretary of State cannot be accused of excluding from his answers any consideration that might in any way, at any time, to any degree, be considered material, for which we are immensely grateful. However, there is a premium on time, because we have a lot of questions to get through.
Given the increased activity of Russian submarines in our waters and our reliance on allies for maritime patrol support, will the Secretary of State now admit that it was a gross mistake to cut our maritime patrol aircraft in 2010 without a planned replacement, leaving us without that capability for nearly a decade?
I suppose, having spent time in the Whip’s Office, that the freedom to get on the Floor is a shock and we become too verbose.
I do not accept that it was a mistake and I am proud that we are investing so much in the new Poseidon aircraft to make sure that we have the new, exciting capability that will be able to support our forces in the north Atlantic.
I remain concerned that the Government have not learnt the lessons of the past when it comes to cutting capabilities, leaving serious gaps in our defences only to have to replace them further down the line. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that the modernising defence programme will not cut our Albion class amphibious warships before their out-of-service dates of 2033 and 2034?
There are many right hon. and hon. Opposition Members who care incredibly passionately about our armed forces and will do all they can to support them: I know that the hon. Lady is very much one of them. But when we talk about the risks and threats that are posed to our armed forces, I sometimes think that we should be worried about the Leader of the Opposition a little more than anything else.
In the modernising defence programme we are looking at all our capabilities and how we ensure that we are able to adapt to the increasing challenges and threats, but I will not prejudge that programme. We will look at the evidence and the information that comes from the public and the wider defence community.
I discuss armed forces recruitment regularly with the principal personnel officers of each service and with the Chief of the General Staff. Implementation of the recruitment improvement plan is a priority and I am monitoring it very closely.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. This is precisely why, in the Royal Navy, for example, we have associations with technical colleges. In my own corps, the Royal Engineers, we have a tremendous offer, in which young recruits are enrolled as apprentices and trained not only as infantry soldiers but in specialist engineering trade skills, such as brick laying, electrical and carpentry.
A constituent of mine, Mr Lamb, served in the Army for 43 years, the last 13 being spent in recruitment. Contract changes meant that in January this year he was discharged 72 days before his 60th birthday and his planned retirement date. He tells me that, despite senior officers seeking to find him employment, the date was fixed and he lost 72 days of his pension. Will the Minister look carefully at how Capita is fulfilling its contract so that recruitment personnel are not disadvantaged?
My hon. Friend is a champion for her constituents. As she knows, I wrote to her on 26 March regarding this matter. I would be delighted to meet her again if she has any further questions she wishes to raise with me.
In general terms, we work closely with Capita. I have mentioned before at the Dispatch Box how we are looking at moving to a more regional recruiting mechanism and ensuring that we have young role models.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) on asking this question on the day Capita has announced a loss of half a billion pounds. That comes as no surprise when we look at the mess it is making of the recruitment project, which is not a channel for recruitment but a logjam. There are huge delays, with many people losing interest in the meantime. Will the Minister admit that the contract has failed and that it is time to bring it back in-house?
I do not accept that. I have looked at this incredibly carefully. I have met the chief executive of Capita on several occasions and we continue to work very closely with Capita, which is investing large amounts of money. There have been challenges—there is no doubt about that—with the introduction of the new defence recruiting system. The manual workarounds have not worked, but I have seen at first hand now how most of those issues have been addressed and I am confident that, in future months, we will move forward with this contract.
Does the Minister think that decisions such as moving the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers HQ from the proud military town of Wrexham to yet another base in the M4 corridor incentivises recruitment in places such as north Wales, or puts people off?
Capita’s performance on Army recruiting has been distinctly sub-optimal, such that throughout the Army it is now almost universally known by the unfortunate nickname of “Crapita.” Given the company’s half-a-billion pound loss this morning, given that it has debts of £1.7 billion, and given that it is rumoured to be preparing a £700 million rights issue, what assurance can the Minister give the House that we have a plan B in place in case it were unfortunately to go the way of CarillionAmey?
May I start by thanking my right hon. Friend, not least for his report, “Filling the Ranks”? It has made a major contribution to addressing some of the issues that we have faced over recruitment, some of which are way beyond the realms of any contract with Capita and are a result of the changing dynamics of the British population. But I accept his broader point that there have been challenges within this contract. If he is asking me if I am confident that we have a business continuity plan in case things go absolutely awry, which I do not think they will, then yes.
Does the Minister agree that the armed forces used to have a reputation for having the best trainers in our country? They were admired everywhere. Is he also aware that the number of people coming to our armed forces with the highly specific engineering skills that we need—my father was a Royal Engineer—is dire at the moment? We need recruitment, and we need it now.
The hon. Gentleman builds on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). We have a number of schemes in place, such as partnerships with technical colleges and ensuring that all new recruits are enrolled on apprenticeships. There are few careers where someone can start with minimal qualifications and leave with a level 6 apprenticeship—that is degree level—in engineering. I am very proud that the armed forces continue to offer that opportunity to our young people.
Type 26 Frigates
The Secretary of State for Defence visited the Clyde last Thursday to witness the completion of the first Type 26 units. This unit will form part of the first ship, HMS Glasgow, which is due to be accepted by the summer of 2025. The Royal Navy will then train and prepare her and she will enter service in 2027. HMS Cardiff, HMS Belfast and the remaining five ships will then follow.
The Minister will know that Sheffield companies have been key to the Royal Navy’s supply chain since we provided the tools to build wooden battleships such as HMS Victory. He will also know that there have been three HMS Sheffields, serving with distinction from the Arctic to the Mediterranean in the second world war, but the last was decommissioned in 2003. Does he agree that it would now be right to recognise the city’s contribution to the Navy by naming one of the Type 26 frigates, “HMS Sheffield”?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Indeed, he has written on this issue to the Secretary of State. The process by which ships are named is understood by the hon. Gentleman, and I agree entirely that the city of Sheffield has every right to be considered as a potential city to be named after in terms of the Type 26s, but the process will be followed as per the usual manner.
The Minister will be aware that, on Monday, after much talk between Plymouth and Portsmouth, I launched a campaign to have the Type 26s port based in Plymouth. Will he meet me and a leadership team from Plymouth to outline why this key city in the nation’s crown deserves to have the ships port based there?
I would of course be more than delighted to meet my hon. Friend and a delegation from Plymouth. I was very pleased to visit Plymouth and was very impressed with what I saw—for example, the work on the refurbishment of the Type 23—so it would be a pleasure to meet that delegation from the great city of Plymouth.
Given that the Type 26s are currently being built by the greatest shipbuilders in the world, at the Govan shipyard, will the Minister also confirm the timetable for the Type 31 frigate and whether that will be built in Govan, too?
The Type 31 process is well under way. We are pleased with the number of consortia that have shown an interest in the Type 31, and I hope that the Clyde shipbuilders will be putting in a very good price, which will ensure that the Type 31 will be delivered on time and on schedule.
If we are to have an HMS Sheffield, we must certainly have an HMS Goole, because we are, after all, a port. More importantly, with Australia and Canada both likely to make decisions on the Type 26 this year—in the coming weeks or months—does my hon. Friend agree that getting those contracts will ensure we have sea-to-sea-to-sea interoperability? Does he also agree that having four of the “Five Eyes” powers on the same platform—New Zealand might also get it—would send a powerful message?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The Type 26 presents us with an important opportunity for partnership working with Australia, Canada and perhaps New Zealand. The campaign in Australia has been strong, positive and upbeat, and I sincerely hope it will be successful.
Future Accommodation Model
As the House will be aware, we are developing new accommodation options for service personnel. The programme is called the future accommodation model and we hope to run a pilot towards the end of the year.
There are serious problems in the private rented sector surrounding affordability, quality and security of tenure. Does the Minister share my concern that splitting our forces communities by pushing service families into the private rented sector risks reducing their quality of accommodation and life, as well as impacting on retention and recruitment rates?
I must correct the hon. Lady: nobody will be forced to do anything, but the option will be available to them. We are providing more choice for our armed forces personnel, who can choose to stay on the base, rent or indeed get on the housing ladder and purchase a property. Of course, house prices vary up and down the country, so we need to make sure that there is a process to ensure a subsidised capability so that nobody is left out of pocket. However, there is a choice; nobody will be forced into any of this accommodation.
Service families in Woolwich are understandably anxious about what the future accommodation model might mean for them, but the immediate concern for many is the poor service they regularly receive from CarillionAmey. What are Ministers doing here and now to improve the quality of the subcontracted maintenance and repairs service?
The hon. Gentleman’s question gives me licence to clarify the longevity of what is happening at Woolwich. He will be aware that there is a proposal to close the base itself by 2028 and that the Royal Anglians will move, as will the Royal Horse Artillery. There is time between now and then, however, and we need to make sure we look after our armed forces personnel. He will also be aware that we have had problems with the CarillionAmey deal—the previous Defence Secretary called the company in to say that things were not up to par—but we are working to ensure that the contracts are met.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that most young people in the armed forces want not to rent but to buy, and can he say what more can be done to support the Forces Help to Buy scheme, which appears to be quite successful?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Help to Buy scheme is a critical part of the programme we are rolling out. The pilot scheme will begin at the end of the year. The feedback from the armed forces federations is that it will give armed forces personnel and their families the choice they are calling for.
Leaving the EU: Defence and Military Aerospace Industry
The Ministry of Defence is working closely with the defence industry to understand the implications and opportunities presented by the UK’s departure from the European Union. Through our future partnership with the European Union, we want to explore how our industries can continue working together to deliver the capabilities that we need. It is, however, worth noting that current major European collaborative capability projects, such as Typhoon, are managed bilaterally or with groups of partners rather than through the EU.
Last month, we heard that the UK could no longer participate in the Galileo satellite programme post Brexit. That is a huge blow for our industry as a whole and our defence capabilities in particular. Will the Minister tell us exactly what he is doing about it?
I agree that the issue of Galileo is concerning. We have made representations at the highest level to both the European Union and the French Government. We believe that this is an important issue and that the UK’s contribution to the Galileo programme is significant. I think the hon. Gentleman will agree, however, that the European Commission’s comment that the UK would be a security risk is simply unacceptable.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that any synergies in terms of industrial strategy across military expenditure should be concentrated on NATO, where there is a plethora of different weapons systems and pieces of equipment? It is much more important to concentrate on the fact that Britain is remaining a key player in the NATO alliance.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that NATO is the mainstay of our defence capabilities, and I also agree that the relationship with NATO partners is significant and important for the future. From an industrial capability perspective, however, I think that the Prime Minister made a clear commitment to our willingness to work with our European partners in the future, and I hope that they will demonstrate the same good will in return.
Protecting our sovereign military aerospace capability is very important. However, the Typhoon orders will last only until 2026; we have no new orders for the Hawk until the Qatar deal comes through; and Taranis is being kept in a big hangar and we do not really know what is happening with it. What is the position of our UK aerospace defence industries? The lead time is at least 10 years. What discussions has the Minister had about the sixth-generation strike fighter, for example?
The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will meet the Qatari Defence Minister later this afternoon to discuss the Typhoon and Hawk orders. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the long time that it takes to develop new capabilities. We launched the combat air strategy so that we would have an idea of how we should proceed. The United Kingdom has a huge capability in this sphere and we need to build on it.
I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. I think it is fair to say that when Ministers—including me—meet our opposite numbers from the European Union, they stress the need for other EU countries that are in NATO to fulfil the 2% obligation. It is interesting to note that some of the Baltic states, for example, are very clear about their commitment, but we need some of the larger players in Europe to fulfil their obligations as well.
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor and, as the Prime Minister announced last month, the Ministry of Defence will benefit from an extra £800 million in the current financial year, including £600 million for the Dreadnought submarine programme. The Government are committed to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, and the defence budget will rise by at least 0.5% above inflation in every year of this Parliament. The modernising defence programme will ensure that our armed forces have the right processes and capabilities to address evolving threats.
In a recent report, the Defence Committee said:
“We seriously doubt the MOD’s ability to generate the efficiencies required to deliver the equipment plan.”
How can we have confidence in the Government’s ability to deliver, even with an enhanced budget, when the modernising defence programme is seemingly focused on efficiencies and the budget is already over-reliant on projected savings?
Part of the reason behind the modernising defence programme is to look at how we can drive inefficiencies out of the system, ensure that we deliver on the commitments we need to make, and see how to respond to the changing threat environment. That is why we took the decision to take defence out of the national security capability review, as we recognised that we need flexibility in the system to deal with the changing threat picture.
One way to ensure that we have enough money to spend on defence is to take full account of British industry’s opportunities and contribution when making procurement decisions. End-to-end helicopter manufacturing in the south-west is a strategic asset supporting more than 10,000 jobs and £700 million-worth of exports. Will the Secretary of State discuss with me developing a specific defence industrial strategy for helicopters?
My hon. Friend is a strong advocate on this issue and a defender of jobs in his constituency. We are committed to spending more than £3 billion with Leonardo over the next 10 years, but I would be very happy to meet him to discuss how we can develop our strategy. It is about not just manned rotary but unmanned rotary. What are the options and opportunities that we can exploit to ensure that our world-leading industry continues to hold that top spot?
I am very grateful for the progress that the Secretary of State is making in securing additional funding for defence. As these discussions continue, will he reassure the House that the needs of our enhanced forward presence in Estonia will be taken into consideration and that they will receive the fire power and protection they need?
I can assure my hon. Friend of that. I recently visited our enhanced forward presence in Estonia and it is pleasing to be able to announce that we will be adding to that presence, with more Wildcats stationed there to support operations. An additional 70 personnel will join them.
The National Audit Office found that the MOD had not included £9.6 billion of forecast cost in the 2017 equipment plan, including the cost of buying the Type 31e frigates. Does the Secretary of State think that that kind of mismanagement is likely to help his discussions with the Chancellor about additional funding?
Our armed forces are looking closely at everything we have committed towards investing in. With a changing threat environment, we are looking at how we can do things more efficiently, at how we can make our money go further and at what we will need to deal with those increasing threats. I am confident that we can put a strong argument to the whole of Government on the importance of defence to our nation’s security.
The armed forces aim to attract talent from the widest possible base from across the UK. The skills, education, training and experience, as well as enhanced reverence for our country, enable recruits to progress as far as their aptitude will take them, regardless of their socio-economic background, educational status or ethnicity.
We know that in many of our cities at the moment young people feel trapped and that their only life choice is which gang to join. Will my right hon. Friend explain what the armed forces will do to help reach into those communities and help those young people transform their life chances?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I recall that as a platoon commander I got to know my soldiers very well and they came from a variety of backgrounds, some very tough. They were forever grateful for the sense of purpose and the second chance—the new direction—that the armed forces provide. Whether someone is born with a silver spoon in their mouth or has a penchant for pinching them, they will be treated with the same discourteous irreverence by the sergeant major when they arrive on the parade square and will be knocked into something of which both the armed forces and the nation can be proud.
When a young person leaves school, perhaps in a deprived area, and joins the armed forces and makes a success of that career, what encouragement is given to them to go back to that school and say, “I was at this school—I know where you smoke the fags behind the bike sheds—and you too can make a success of a career like mine”?
I am pleased the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue. We are looking at ways of encouraging and rewarding those who go back to their peer groups to say, “I have benefited from the armed forces.” Let us not forget that those who sign up to wear the uniform are not only of benefit and service to the armed forces themselves; they take away with them the transitional skills of leadership, determination, grit, tenacity and teamwork that can be transferred into society as a whole. Everybody benefits from a life in the armed forces.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; we are definitely in the EPNS family.
I welcome everything that my right hon. Friend has said from the Dispatch Box. Following up on what the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said, rather than just using those who have been in the military, what opportunities are there to use active champions who are currently serving in our armed forces to take that message of social mobility into schools and colleges in areas that really need to hear it and would benefit from hearing it?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We are looking to improve recruitment and retention, and one aspect of that is the cadetship programme, which is growing every year. The programme invites those who already have a connection in the armed forces to go back to tell the communities where they started how they have benefited from their service in uniform.
Departmental Staff: Wages and Conditions
The Ministry of Defence strives to attract the brightest and best from across the country, and whether they are in uniform as part of the civil service or serving in our armed forces, they deserve to have fulfilling jobs that are fairly rewarded.
In response to a recent parliamentary question, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions informed me that cleaners in her Whitehall Department were being paid the London living wage. However, when I asked the same question of the Secretary of State for Defence, I was referred to an earlier answer in which his Ministers admitted that they did not know how much MOD cleaners were being paid. Will the Minister take this opportunity to clarify why he does not know the salary levels of the low-paid staff in his Department, and will he pledge not only to find out but to ensure that all the cleaners in his Whitehall Department are paid the London living wage?
The hon. Lady asks a detailed but important question. There are 3,000 staff who are paid the national minimum wage, and I will certainly look into the details regarding the cleaners, because there seems to be a discrepancy in the answers she has been given. I will resolve to sort that out for her.
Cyber-security experts at GCHQ in my constituency are at the frontline of our nation’s defences as never before, and although they did not join up for the money, their skills are much in demand in the private sector. Does my right hon. Friend agree that paying our cyber-experts fairly has never been more important to national security?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which we are looking at in case we require transferable skills from other units. There are two approaches: we can either grow the skill set from the start, or we can outsource and look to working with other companies. When it comes to cyber-security, it is important that we have the talent to allow us to ensure that our cyber offensive and our cyber defensive are very strong. To that end, we need to ensure that we pay people the correct salaries.
Baltic States: NATO
Don’t worry, Mr Speaker; I will endeavour to speak very slowly, for a change, and maybe at length.
We have a strong and enduring defence relationship with our allies in the Baltic states. Since April last year, UK forces have been deployed in Estonia as part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence. The UK acts as the framework station in Estonia, leading a defensive but combat-capable multinational battlegroup to deter aggression. The UK also contributes to the US-led enhanced forward presence battlegroup in Poland.
This might be an opportunity to give a lecture on Estonian, Lithuanian and Polish relations with the UK—while keeping you happy in your Chair, Mr Speaker. In the meantime, I very much welcome what the Secretary of State has said about the increased support to the Baltic states. Will the Minister also look at the possibility of giving training and support to members of the Baltic states’ armed forces in the UK? He will be aware that a recent parliamentary question revealed the fact that no one from Lithuania, Latvia or Poland had attended the MOD’s highest profile UK-based courses. Is that not something that we should try to rectify?
I would be delighted to look at that. Indeed, I am sure that the House will be delighted to know that the one request I received from just about every nation when I was travelling in east Africa last week was for further places on UK training courses—our Royal College of Defence Studies, our advanced command and staff course, our higher command and staff course, or even at Sandhurst. Places on such courses are incredibly valued by overseas nations. Unfortunately, demand exceeds supply, but I will look carefully at what more we can do to support our Baltic colleagues.
Armed Forces: Capacity
We are committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces. The services are meeting all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
I do not recognise those figures. We have just done a review of the pilot training scheme and will shorten and simplify the process, which has not changed much in the past 30 years. Owing to successes in selling our aircraft overseas, some of our pilot training system is occupied by overseas pilots, so we need to look carefully at how to find a balance to ensure that, with the limited capacity available, we can continue to train all the pilots we need.
A recent NAO report found a 26% shortfall in the staffing of intelligence analysis in the armed forces, but those specialists are crucial to our national security and to our fight against cyber-crime. Given the threats of information warfare from a variety of disparate groups—from terrorist organisations to states such as Russia—does the Minister agree that we cannot keep our country safe on the cheap?
We are certainly not keeping our country safe on the cheap, which is why we have committed to spending more than 2% of GDP, and our defence budget will continue to rise from £36 billion this year. However, I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to find innovative solutions when it comes to recruiting cyber-specialists, which is precisely why we are now doing that in the reserves. We have changed the rules about who can join and their backgrounds, which has proven to be a tremendous success.
Last year, the Department deployed the British Army to Malawi for four months to run counter-poaching training in support of the Foreign Secretary’s aim to combat the illegal wildlife trade. It is a role that plays to the strengths of our young commanders and soldiers, who are experts in fieldcraft, tactics and intelligence fusion. It is a testament to the quality of their training of the rangers that arrests in Liwonde, Malawi, have increased by 50%.
With our ivory trade ban and our summit this autumn, what an opportunity we have not only to assist the work in Africa, but to give some of our armed forces real experience in training and, potentially, the use of drones. Could we not expand this training opportunity alongside this autumn’s summit?
After the success of the pilot project, which has been funded for three years, I am delighted to report that we will indeed be doing exactly that and will be expanding the programme to two more wildlife parks in Malawi. That sits exactly within the priorities of Her Majesty’s Government’s Africa strategy, which runs across three Departments.
Has the Minister also had discussions with the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania, where huge numbers of elephants have been lost over the past 20 years, particularly in the Selous game reserve? If he has not had such discussions, perhaps they could be offered to the United Republic of Tanzania.
Indeed, poaching is responsible for the deaths of approximately 20,000 elephants every year, which is why I am delighted that the pilot project seems to have made such a positive impact over the past year. As I have already mentioned, we will be looking to expand the project as part of the Government’s Africa strategy.
Departmental Expenditure: Aid
I must confess that I did not expect to get to this question.
Official development assistance, or aid, exists to support the welfare or economic development of recipient countries. As such, military activity can be reported as aid only in certain very limited circumstances, as defined by the OECD. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Defence budget assumes £5 million a year—0.01% of the budget—for activity that may be counted as aid.
I can confirm that is the case. Sometimes with a certain element of sadness, much of what the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces do cannot be counted towards aid expenditure. Our peacekeeping in South Sudan and our hurricane relief operation in the Caribbean alone come to £100 million-worth of expenditure. None of that can be counted as humanitarian aid and support, which I think all of us in this House would agree it most certainly is.
I would like to thank all our armed forces who played a leading role in the recent targeted strike to degrade and deter the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons. Their skill and professionalism, alongside our US and French allies, is second to none.
For reasons of development time and capability, the combat air strategy cannot come soon enough. Will Ministers please confirm that the modernising defence review will include consideration of potential national partners so that the export consequences, as well as the workshare ramifications of potential partnering with the United States, Europe or an eastern partner, can be assessed, and assessed in good time?
I am afraid that I probably will not be able to give my hon. Friend quite the answer he wants, as we probably will not be looking at that as part of the modernising defence programme but, as part of our combat air strategy, we are looking at how we can develop those alliances. We may have to start looking further afield and not just to our traditional European allies. There is a world market out there—how can we develop new relationships with different countries and develop our future sixth-generation combat aircraft with them?
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Taking that as a yes, how is it that more than half a million pounds of LIBOR funds has been spent by the MOD in support of armed forces welfare, when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—the Minister for defence people—has said categorically that
“LIBOR funding should not be used to fund Departmental core responsibilities”?
Is it not time for the Secretary of State to admit that it was a serious misjudgment to use LIBOR funds in such a scandalous way? When will his Department be paying back that money?
I am sure the hon. Lady is very well aware that the Ministry of Defence does not actually administer LIBOR funding—that is the Treasury. So much of the LIBOR funding has made such a difference, not just to those who have ceased to serve in our armed forces but to those who continue to serve. We are very grateful for the positive impact of that funding on so many of our services.[Official Report, 24 April 2018, Vol. 639, c. 6MC.]
I pay tribute to the large number of charities that support our military sector and our armed forces community. There are more than 400 charities and it can be unclear where individual personnel should turn. The gateway has been fundamental in providing help to individuals who are unsure of where to turn for support. I am delighted that I will be visiting the gateway in the next couple of months.
We continue to work closely with our allies, not just South Korea, but Japan and the United States, in trying to bring about a peaceful solution to the challenges on the Korean peninsula. We are also proud that we have HMS Sutherland conducting operations in the theatre and supporting all our aims to get a peaceful resolution to the challenges we face in Korea.
It goes to show our commitment to and investment in Scotland, which I know my hon. Friend and his colleagues on our Benches have been championing continuously. We have not only the investment in the Poseidon aircraft, but the welcome news that another Typhoon squadron will also be based at Lossiemouth going forward.
The support for veterans does not just come from the MOD; it comes from a wide variety of Departments across Whitehall. That is one reason why we have set up the veterans board, which is chaired by the Defence Secretary and brings together the other representatives—the Secretaries of State from those Departments. Clearly, we need local councils to do more to recognise the homelessness issue and the housing issue, to make sure that those who have served are not disadvantaged because of their service.
On 1 July 1918, 134 workers, mainly canary girls, were killed in a terrible explosion at the national shell-filling factory in Chilwell, in my constituency. Will the Minister please ensure that the Defence Infrastructure Organisation makes good the memorial at the Chetwynd barracks in good time for the centenary commemorations, which the community very much wants to support?
It is appropriate for the whole House to pay tribute to all those who supported the war effort, including the canary girls. They were known as that because putting together the munitions turned their hands, and indeed their complexions, rather yellow. It is important that we pay that tribute, and I will certainly endeavour to look into where the memorial is and get back to my right hon. Friend.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. One example we can offer is the current Boxer programme, which is at the assessment phase. Currently, we expect more than 60% of that to be onshore and going to the UK, but there are opportunities to increase that further. I have already had discussions with several companies based in the north-east on that very project.
Following on from what has been said earlier about the cadet force, does the Minister agree that the cadets are a great introduction to military life, because as well as giving children positive role models, they help to promote social mobility? Will he update the House on what steps the Department is taking to encourage the participation of state schools in the cadet movement?
What our cadets do is extraordinary, right across the country, and we have had a roll-out of 500 new cadet units this year. This is about the ability to promote social mobility and giving youngsters an opportunity to really succeed in life—that is what our armed forces do. The cadet units are a brilliant way of giving young people the opportunity to get a taste of military life and they provide those role models. The question we need to be asking is: can we be doing more to inspire young people in our schools? I think the answer to that is a most certain yes.[Official Report, 24 April 2018, Vol. 639, c. 6MC.]
Let us be absolutely clear: Britain has been guaranteeing the security of continental Europe since long before the creation of the European Union. Let us also be clear that the foundation of Europe’s security is NATO, not the European Union. Our commitment to the security of continental Europe is unwavering, and we will play a leadership role in European battlegroups in the future, but another country will have the opportunity to do that this coming year.
I was delighted to welcome the Secretary of State to RM Condor in my constituency last week to see the fantastic work of the Royal Marines. I was equally delighted at his recent announcement about trying to mitigate the tax from the SNP Government in Scotland that is unfairly put on our brave service personnel. Can my right hon. Friend give me an update on progress in that area?
I thank my colleagues who have campaigned so hard to highlight the fact that 70% of service personnel based in Scotland will be worse off as a result of the Scottish Government’s “Nat tax”, which they are placing on our brave service personnel. We hope to be able to report back on the conclusions to that in the next six weeks. We do not want anyone who serves in our armed forces to be worse off as a result of the taxes being placed on them by the SNP.
Has the Secretary of State had a chance to review the misguided policy of his predecessor to close the Dale barracks in Chester, which has only recently been refurbished and enjoys high satisfaction rates among the soldiers stationed there and their families?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a tough rationalisation programme going on. The MOD owns 2% of the UK, which is more land than we need, and there is a requirement for us to build housing on it as well. We are having to take some very tough decisions in certain areas that hon. Members will be concerned about. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his case one-to-one.
If it turns out to be a genuine point of order, I would have to imagine, albeit wrongly in this case, that it was a leap year, but we will have a go, if it flows directly, as I am advised, from Defence questions and is in no sense a cheeky continuation of existing argument, but is a genuine search for a ruling from the Chair on a procedural matter.
I can say that I have never been cheeky in my life, Sir. At the last Defence questions, the Minister of State was unable to answer my question about why the Type 31 frigates were not included in the MOD’s equipment plan. The Minister promised that I would receive a written answer. Six weeks later, I have still not received an answer. Mr Speaker, can you advise me what on earth I have to do to get a reply from the Government?
That is plainly unsatisfactory. No Member should have to wait six weeks for a reply. As colleagues of any experience in the House will know, the Leader of the House takes particular responsibility for chasing Ministers to ensure that replies are timely and preferably substantive. If the hon. Gentleman received an assurance on the Floor of the House that he would receive such a reply and all these weeks later he has not, that is completely unsatisfactory. I sense that he knows that he has probably found his own salvation by raising the matter on the Floor of the Chamber this afternoon in a way that will not go entirely unnoticed.
Voter ID Pilots
The British public deserve to have confidence in our democracy. There is clearly the potential for electoral fraud in our system and that undermines confidence and promotes perceptions of vulnerability. When fraud is committed in elections, it is not a victimless crime; people’s votes are stolen or someone is elected who should not have been elected.
Earlier this year, the Government announced that they would be conducting pilots for voter identification at the local elections in May this year in line with our manifesto commitment to legislate to ensure that a form of ID must be presented before voting. Voter ID is part of the Government’s commitment to improve the security and the resilience of the electoral system that underpins our democracy and will promote greater confidence in our democratic processes.
In making these changes, we will bring our electoral system in line with others such as that in Northern Ireland or Canada, which operate successful programmes, and recognise that there is an increasing expectation that someone’s vote should be protected and carefully guarded. We already ask that people prove who they are in order to claim benefits, to rent a car or even to collect a parcel from the Post Office, so this is a proportionate and reasonable approach. Democracy is precious and it is right to take that more robust approach to protect the integrity of the electoral process.
The independent Electoral Commission has, since 2014, pushed for the introduction of ID to strengthen the system, and it has welcomed the voter ID pilots as a positive first step towards implementing its own recommendation that an accessible, proportionate voter identification scheme should be introduced in Great Britain. In a recent report for Democratic Audit UK, academic Stuart Wilks-Heeg stated that, after the scheme was introduced in Northern Ireland, there was no evidence to suggest a fall in turnout, but that there was plenty of evidence that fraud declined sharply.
Indeed, it was the previous Labour Government who introduced photo ID at polling stations across Northern Ireland in 2003, and, as I have said, it has not affected turnout there, and it has helped to prevent election fraud. The Labour Minister at the time said:
“The measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters”,
“no one is disfranchised”.—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 740.]
The opportunity to pilot voter ID in May 2018 was offered to all local authorities in Great Britain, and five—Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford and Swindon—have committed to do so. Proxy voters in Peterborough will also be required to show ID before they can vote on 3 May 2018. I personally have taken the opportunity to speak to each local authority about the design of their pilots and the methods that they have applied to ensure that their electors are aware of voter identification and that each elector’s needs are understood. Local authorities will notify every eligible voter by including information of the ID requirement on their poll card.
No one will need to buy ID documents to be able to vote, and the ID requirements will not be limited to a passport or driving licence. In these pilots, voters can use a wide variety of ID, from marriage certificates and passports to bus passes and bank cards, depending on where they live. If voters do not have the required ID, local authorities are providing alternative or replacement methods to ensure that no one is disenfranchised. Everybody eligible to vote will have the chance to do so.
These pilots will help to identify the best way of implementing voter ID, and we look forward to each authority’s findings. I have responded to the recent letter from the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and I will make a copy of it available in the Library of both Houses. All local authorities involved have completed equality impact assessments, and the Electoral Commission will be independently evaluating the pilots, with results published this summer.
We want to ensure that our elections are as accessible as possible, and that there are no barriers to democratic participation. We have recognised that, for example, people with a disability face different issues when registering and voting. We have run a call for evidence to hear directly about their experiences to enhance the Government’s understanding, so that we can help those people to register and cast their vote. We have also recently made it easier for survivors of domestic abuse to register to vote anonymously for fear of revealing their address to an ex-partner, as there were fears that that was preventing survivors from registering to vote.
The aim of the pilots is to protect voting rights, and it comes in the context of protecting and improving our democracy. Pilots are important in order to find out what works best. Electoral fraud is unacceptable on any level, and its impact on voters can be significant. It takes away an elector’s right to vote as they want—whether through intimidation, bribery or impersonating someone in order to cast their vote. The Cabinet Office, in partnership with the Electoral Commission and Crimestoppers, launched the “Your vote is yours alone” campaign only last month to encourage people to report electoral fraud if they see it.
I am passionate about protecting our electoral system. The impact of electoral fraud is real and it is criminal. It steals something precious from a person and undermines the entire system for everyone. I do not want to see our democracy dumbed down; it is rather a shame that the Labour party appears to.
Thank you for those comments, Mr Speaker, and for granting this urgent question.
The Minister talked widely about the system in Northern Ireland, but the Electoral Commission recommended that, as in Northern Ireland, these trials include measures such as free voter ID cards, which have not been rolled out by this Government. That means that the trials taking place in the English local government elections are very different from what is already occurring in Northern Ireland; it is a false comparison.
It was revealed yesterday that the Equality and Human Rights Commission wrote to the Cabinet Office raising serious concerns about the Government pilots. The commission warned that ID requirements will have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people—who may not have ID in the right gender or name—and people with disabilities, and that some voters will be disenfranchised as a result. Will the Minister confirm that the measures being piloted in May do not violate article 1 of the European convention on human rights? What assessment has she made to support this position?
The Windrush scandal has demonstrated that it is difficult for some communities to provide official papers. This could prevent legitimate voters from taking part in our democratic process, which we all value. It is the same hostile environment all over again, shutting our fellow citizens out of public life. Have the Government conducted an assessment of whether any of the Windrush generation will be denied their right to vote on 3 May?
According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Government failed to carry out adequate equality impact assessments. This echoes the same concerns raised by a coalition of more than 40 leading charities and academics earlier this year that called on the Cabinet Office to abandon the pilots. How can the Government justify their positon given this widespread condemnation?
Let us be in no doubt that electoral fraud is a serious crime, and it is vital that the police have the resources they need to bring about prosecutions. However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission raised a valid concern that there was only one conviction for electoral fraud involving impersonation, following the 45 million votes cast last year. That is one vote out of the 45 million votes cast. What steps will the Government take to ensure that the pilot schemes are proportionate to the level of electoral fraud, and that they are not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut?
We cannot allow this Government to pilot discriminatory measures that could disenfranchise legitimate voters who already face a multitude of barriers to democratic engagement. I urge the Minister to abandon the Government’s plans for trialling voter ID on 3 May.
As I set out very fully—I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make my remarks in full—I have answered the EHRC very carefully and laid that answer in the Libraries of both Houses so that people can read the full background to these pilots and the parliamentary process that they have gone through. I can confirm that it is my belief that this policy does not violate the first article of the ECHR and that these are not discriminatory measures.
The hon. Lady asked me about the Windrush affair. The relevance of that to this matter is that those from a Windrush background are already eligible to be on the electoral roll in the sense that British citizens and qualifying Commonwealth voters can vote in all elections. I am conscious that a statement on Windrush is to follow, so it would not be helpful if I detained the House by discussing that issue in the detail that it deserves.
The hon. Lady suggested that these pilots are not proportionate. I am concerned if Labour Members think that any level of crime is not worth going after. Is that what we are hearing from them? There is considerable concern about a lack of confidence in our democratic system that is increased when we see a perception of electoral fraud. This policy is designed to increase confidence in our system and to make it harder for someone to commit such a crime against another person. Electoral fraud is not some kind of victimless crime; it hurts a person—a victim—who has had their voice taken away.
I wonder whether Labour Members have instead come here with a different purpose in mind. Do they perhaps think that they are going to lose votes through this policy? I have here a letter written to a local newspaper—it happens to be the Norwich Evening News, a very fine organ—from a Labour party councillor who is concerned that this policy is going to affect
“those most likely to vote Labour.”
Is not that the real story that we see in Labour Members’ concern? Are these not crocodile tears because they are concerned that they are going to lose votes that they perceive they own? I think that is a disgrace.
Is there anything in these pilots, if successful, that would help with the problem of people voting more than once, which some people thought occurred in the last general election? I fully support the initiative to have more honest voting.
This policy does not directly address the particular concern that my right hon. Friend raises, but I understand why he does so. I share his concern about allegations of any type of electoral fraud, and it would be a matter of electoral unlawfulness if a person were to vote twice in the same election.
Happy St George’s Day to you, Mr Speaker, and to all Members of the House.
This voter ID pilot is nothing more than an expansion of the hostile environment—it is Windrush part 2. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that this will disproportionately affect people with protected characteristics. It will affect older people, transgender people, people with disabilities both physical and non-physical, and ethnic minorities. This is an absolutely ridiculous situation. This Government are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Scottish National party fully accepts that electoral fraud is unacceptable, but it is also infinitesimally small, and those who are perpetrating such things are already being brought to justice.
The Electoral Commission’s figures indicate that 3.5 million people in the UK—7.5% of the electorate—do not have any form of photo ID. Are the Government going to pay for them to have photo ID? If not, this is a barrier that is being put in the way of people exercising their democratic rights. Just at the end of last month, the Government put up the fees for passports to £85 per person for a paper passport and £75.50 for an online passport, further putting the price of getting these voter ID documents beyond the reach of most ordinary working people.
In the case of right to rent, all those who analysed this Government policy said that it would increase discrimination, and that has been found to be so. Those with protected characteristics, particularly ethnic minorities, have found it harder to rent, and the policy is discriminatory. Will the Minister pay due attention to the findings of the pilots, and will she bring them before this House for full discussion and full scrutiny before she moves this forward any further?
I fear the hon. Lady did not catch the part of my opening remarks where I made it clear that passports and driving licences are not the only type of identification being asked for in these pilots, and nobody will need to purchase ID documents to be able to vote. Indeed, the authorities in question are using a range of ID, some of which is photographic and some of which is the kind of routine identification someone would use to be able to pick up a parcel from the post office or indeed, as I saw this morning when some constituents came into this place, to sit in the Gallery and participate in democracy here.
The key point is that these pilots are doing something that people regard as proportionate and reasonable by using routine identification that we already use in everyday life. Indeed, we would use ID to apply for benefits and to do a range of other things under Government services. We would, of course, also use ID to register to vote in the first place. This is only another part of the same voting process for which we already ask people to prove who they are.
The hon. Lady asked me whether I would bring the pilot results back to the House. I can confirm that I will be keen to ensure that the House is updated on the progress of the pilots, and I will be considering them in terms of my ministerial responsibility. As I said, the Electoral Commission is conducting its own independent evaluation of the pilots and will publish that this summer.
My final point is that the independent Electoral Commission supports the introduction of ID to strengthen the system. The Electoral Commission thinks that it is important to have a proportionate voter ID scheme such as I have described to protect our voting system’s integrity. The hon. Lady seems to be overlooking that rather important supporter.
If I buy an item and am out when it is delivered, I have to go down to the Royal Mail sorting office with photo ID to collect that item. Why is it so unreasonable that I have to prove who I am to exercise my democratic right—something money cannot buy?
That is precisely right. We are talking about a precious and intangible thing: the right to vote as we think fit and the right to enjoy confidence in the democratic system. That is what these pilots are about. My hon. Friend allows me to repeat the point that I would very much like to go out to citizens of the pilot areas. If anyone is concerned that they might not have the ID that is being spoken about, they should speak to the local authority, which will organise alternative arrangements. That is the crucial point—nobody who is eligible to vote will miss the chance to do so.
The Minister is making a pretty poor job of defending the indefensible. Is it not the case that what she is setting out today is not only a huge hammer to crack a nut but actually, in disguise, a blatant attempt at voter suppression, by making it very difficult indeed for those who already have difficulties to vote? Many of those people come to visit me in my advice surgery because they cannot prove their identity to access benefits; she now wants to take their democratic rights off them.
We are talking about people who are already eligible to vote then being able to confirm who they are when they come to do so. I am concerned that I have just heard from the hon. Lady that she does not even stand by the previous Labour Government’s decision to do this in Northern Ireland, which has not damaged turnout and has reduced the impact of fraud. Why does she stand against reducing electoral fraud?
Bromley is one of the pilot areas. My hon. Friend the Minister might like to know that in every single case where a person has contacted the local authority to ask if they have the requisite ID, they have had it, and certificates have not been necessary; that Bromley residents will have had five mailings, which is more than any ever before at a local election, and there has been specific targeting of older people through 500 community organisations and more; and that not one person I have spoken to on the doorstep has had any difficulty with the system, and many welcome it. Does she accept that this is a wholly bogus attempt by the Opposition to discredit an entirely sensible pilot?
It is incredibly important that electors hear that reassurance from their Member of Parliament, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend has been able to put that on the record. I can confirm that Bromley is offering the choice of photographic and non-photographic identification, and electors can also apply for a certificate of identity, free of charge, from the local authority. That is the crucial point. Every elector who is eligible can secure alternative arrangements should they need them. What we are hearing from the Opposition is a self-interested argument. Instead of doing voters down they should talk our democracy up.
The Minister has done a really good job in explaining the pilots and taking no notice of the scaremongering from the Opposition. Will she confirm that she remains absolutely committed to increasing the participation of traditionally under-represented groups in our electoral system?
I certainly will. I mentioned earlier the case of people who have been obliged to register to vote anonymously. It is extremely important that we come together in a cross-party manner in the House, as we did for anonymous voting, so that we can help people to register to vote in a way that secures their safety. We are talking about a way to improve the voting system overall and protect people from a type of crime—electoral fraud. It is incredibly important that we look at all citizens’ interests in having a system in which they can be confident.
May I first congratulate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their third child?
Will the councils taking part in the pilot register and publish the number of people who are turned away because they do not have the correct identification, and will they identify in that number how many are legally entitled to vote?
I would certainly expect the authorities to have the capability to be aware of such data. As I have laid out, the Electoral Commission will conduct a full evaluation and I have no doubt that we will make sure that we can assess a range of data. I was a little concerned to hear one of the hon. Lady’s colleagues on television yesterday saying that the Liberal Democrats would accept a low level of electoral fraud. I am very concerned to hear Opposition parties in the House say that it is okay to have a certain level of crime and that they would not support sensible, proportionate measures that will protect the voting system for everyone.
The fantastic elections team in Swindon is proud to have been selected for one of the pilots. Despite all the heckling and scaremongering from the Opposition, not all hope is lost for the Labour party, as only last week, the North Swindon Labour party used exactly the same voter ID scheme for the selection of my latest parliamentary opponent.
In her opening statement, the Minister spoke about potential electoral fraud. In her first answer, she spoke about perceptions of fraud. The measures are wholly disproportionate to deal with perception and potential, because any obstacle will drive people off the register. As her Government say that they support frictionless trade, why does she not abandon the proposal and continue to support frictionless democracy?
We are doing something that other parts of the world already do very successfully. I have named Canada and mentioned Northern Ireland. We are talking about something that is entirely proportionate and reasonable, and that produces successful elections in trusted democracies. The real issue is that people should be able to have confidence in the system, as I said earlier. It has been hard to have confidence in the system in the past, given examples such as the electoral fraud in Tower Hamlets, which was extensive and of grave concern to many people. We are looking at measures that will help people in places like Tower Hamlets and around the entire country have greater confidence in their voting system.
I feel I am living in a parallel universe where it is somehow discriminatory to introduce the pilots now but not in Northern Ireland in 2003. I heard about the five leaflets informing voters. What was done to ensure that those who do not have English as a first language were made aware of the need to find voter ID?
That is an excellent question. As I said earlier, each local authority conducting the pilots has been sure to communicate to voters in the way that will work best. That supports why we are doing this as local pilots: because returning officers in given areas know their electorates best. I have confidence that each pilot authority has communicated locally and the use of other languages will have been taken into account where required.
We have heard countless stories about voter fraud in 2017, so does my hon. Friend agree that, far from showing the issue to be small scale, as Opposition Members seem to be suggesting, the fact that there has been only one conviction shows just how difficult it is to enforce a law when there is no identification requirement at polling stations?