Wednesday 6 June 2018
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered recent trends in employment rates.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am delighted to have secured the debate, not least because I missed the last one. I am particularly pleased that hon. Members from both sides of the House have risked coming along this morning for a second time—take two. The debate gives me the opportunity to update the House on the work of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment, on which I will focus.
However, I will first mention some trends in employment growth as a whole. My speech will not be full of statistics; it would be very dull and boring if it were. However, I must mention some, and having missed the last debate in April, I now have May’s Office for National Statistics figures, which show yet another rise in the employment rate, which is now at 75.6%. Had I turned up on time to that debate, it would have been only 75.4%, so in a way I am delighted to have missed that debate and to have an opportunity to update the House on the latest figures.
The overall unemployment rate is 4.2%. However, in the ONS figures, which are actually fascinating to look at, I always look out for the job vacancies, because quite often they tell a story in themselves. It is always of interest to see 806,000 job vacancies, which is 17,000 more than a year earlier. The largest area in which there are job vacancies is the services sector. Employment growth since 2010 has been called a jobs miracle, and long may it continue.
Let me mention one or two points about businesses. It is sometimes said that the Government create jobs, but I firmly believe that businesses create jobs and that the Government set the framework and create the environment in which businesses can flourish and then take on more employees. In that regard, the Government have cut corporation tax from 30% to 19%. Despite the doom-and-gloom cries about how that would reduce the tax take, the Exchequer has in fact seen an increased tax take as a result. There are 5.7 million businesses, which is an increase of 1.2 million since 2010. I am delighted that the World Economic Forum says that this country is one of the top places to do business.
Turning to youth employment, I am honoured and privileged to chair the APPG, which is a role I took over from my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). Under her leadership, we changed the name of the group from the APPG on youth unemployment to the APPG on youth employment, which is much more positive and actually much more reflective of the facts and the statistics on the grounds.
The secretariat for the group is provided by Youth Employment UK. I pay tribute to its work, and particularly to Laura-Jane Rawlings, who provides the secretariat and support. What the group does particularly well is bring young ambassadors into Parliament. We try to meet on the day the ONS statistics come out, but it is the young ambassadors who really bring our meetings to life. I would be delighted to invite the Minister to come along to one of our meetings, although I must warn him that the young ambassadors can ask some of the trickiest and most ticklish questions, so he will have to be on his mettle.
The ONS recently changed the day on which it releases its labour force survey statistics, from a Wednesday to a Tuesday, which I am told is because it gives MPs more of a chance to examine the figures before Prime Minister’s Question Time. Whether MPs avail themselves of that opportunity I am not sure, but that is the reason given for the change.
Looking at the 16 to 24 age bracket, the headline figure for youth unemployment for May is 12.1%. That is down from a year earlier and is in fact within touching distance of the lowest it has ever been on record, which was 11.6%. The highest, in 2011, was touching 22%. At each and every meeting of our APPG, I still say that it is too high—it is three times the overall unemployment rate of 4%.
We should perhaps not directly compare ourselves with Greece and Spain, where youth unemployment is 45% and 34% respectively. However, other international comparisons include Croatia on 23.5% and Denmark on 10%, but then Germany on 6% and the Czech Republic on 7.2%. We really should aspire to at least halve our youth unemployment rate. Interestingly, the youth claimant count is 3%. However, my view is that youth unemployment is still too high and that we must aim to eradicate it, or certainly to reduce it.
In the time remaining I will touch on our APPG’s most recent report and on what we will be doing in future, and I will then look at an innovative, multi-APPG report on the hospitality sector. Our most recent report, entitled “Those Furthest from the Labour Market”, had quite a wide remit. It looked at the barriers that young people face, from deprivation to disability. It made a number of recommendations, and I invite colleagues, and particularly the Minister, to look at all of them, but I will highlight what in my view are the three key recommendations.
First, we must ensure that all young people in education have access to work experience. That is absolutely key, as it allows them to develop soft skills, as well as to get information, advice and guidance, which must be practical but also inspirational. Secondly, one size does not fit all, as is so often the case in every sector. Education, employment and welfare services must recognise the unique potential of all our young people. Thirdly, we need better cross-departmental working. I would like the Minister to consider this point in due course, although perhaps not today. We need better co-ordination of responsibilities and services, including among the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Justice. I firmly believe that, through better cross-departmental working, we can truly look at youth unemployment as a whole. Our future reports will include looking at young care leavers entering the workforce and also young ex-offenders looking at education and employment.
I will briefly touch on the hospitality commission that I mentioned a few moments ago. It is a multi-APPG that includes the APPGs for youth employment, for the visitor’s economy, for tourism and hospitality in Wales, for education and the all-party parliamentary beer group. It will look at all aspects of the hospitality sector, including promoting careers, the diversity of the workforce and education and skills. Importantly, it will show that hospitality is not just a stop gap or a temporary job but can actually be career in and of itself. We had our first evidence session and we have two to go. I invite colleagues to look out for that report when it is published.
Finally, I will mention my constituency—it is always nice to be able to do so in this forum—and Dorset Young Chamber. I chaired the steering group when it was set up in 2016. It touches 13 schools, and not just in my constituency but right across Dorset. Ian Girling, the indomitable chairman of the Dorset chamber of commerce and industry, set up Dorset Young Chamber in response to an annual Ofsted report to Parliament in December 2015 that outlined the importance of strong careers advice and guidance and the firm need to improve the link between schools and employers. If we are to ensure that recent trends in employment rates continue, that will be absolutely crucial.
As part of the Dorset Young Chamber scheme, each school has a link with one local business that it can call on to help with careers advice, with an individual talk, or just to be that link between education and employment. The key is so often that young people see the purpose of their academic work and where it will actually lead in the end. I believe that is an invaluable link between education and employment and that that model could and should be adopted across the rest of the country.
I have tried to refrain from using too many statistics, but they are important and show just how far we have come since 2010. When it comes to employment, and especially the lives and job prospects of young people, we of course must not be complacent. We must continue to create the right environment to ensure that businesses expand and grow. I would like the Minister and the Government to keep a laser-like focus on youth employment statistics, not because the statistics are important in and of themselves, but because behind every number is a real person, a young person who is trying to get a job and a good start in life.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on securing this important debate. Sometimes we do not get into the nitty-gritty of the stories behind the statistics, so I would like to focus on that today. In particular, I will focus my remarks, as would be expected of a Plymouth MP, on the experience of Plymouth, which, as we know, is the centre of the world. However, I also want to delve into the statistics and to look at unemployment not in isolation but as part of a basket of measures, because there needs to be greater focus not just on one raw indicator, standing in isolation, but on the broader picture if we are to safeguard the job creation, stability and quality of employment that we all want to see throughout the country.
Unemployment statistics are only one part of the picture, and I am always a bit cautious about Government statistics, whether they were produced under the coalition or the current Government or, indeed, when Labour was in power, because they are designed to tell one part of the story only. Although the overall jobless figures may be falling, which is to be welcomed, in-work poverty, insecure employment and the use of zero-hours contracts are rising. Food bank use is up. The housing crisis continues, and the welfare system continues to be cruel, all too often creating poverty and worry, where it should be achieving the opposite.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for interrupting him so early in his remarks, but I want to take him back to what he said about Government statistics. I agree that we should be cautious and have a healthy scepticism about statistics, but, of course, the statistics under discussion are ONS statistics, not Government statistics, so perhaps we can lend them greater weight than a sceptical public otherwise might.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. How statistics are presented by Government can sometimes devalue some of the credibility that the original source may provide, and I am sure that we can all bring to mind examples of that. On the subject of statistics, I am a great believer in the way inflation is calculated. If hon. Members will indulge me for a few seconds, I will explain. Inflation is calculated by taking a basket of measures, of everyday goods, and calculating the inflation rate based on the real-world experience of many measures, many goods, not just one of them. In that sense, a basket of measures can create a fuller, more thorough illustration of what is actually happening.
The reality gap between individual employment statistics and the lived experiences, especially of young people, would be addressed much more thoroughly by having a basket of measures than by focusing just on the jobless figures or any other singular reality. I suggest that when we look at how we talk about unemployment statistics, employment statistics and debt, we look at a basket of measures, which needs to include employment, wages and wage growth, in-work poverty, child poverty, homelessness and temporary housing, disposable income, the number and penetration of zero-hours contracts and especially their demographic targeting, benefit take-up, sanction levels, household debt and overall personal indebtedness. Perhaps those things could be wrapped up together as a new basket of measures whereby we can look at the lived experience of people in employment, because all too often the fact that someone is in a job and that there is a tick beside that box is what is presented by Governments of all colours. We know that the lived experience of people in work, especially in today’s economy, where simply having a contract does not guarantee that someone will get any wages at the end of the week or month, devalues some of the credibility that the jobless figures or employment figures may have carried in the past, when employment was more secure and long term.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point. I thank the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) for initiating the debate. My hon. Friend discusses a basket of measures. Does he agree that one thing that we would want to establish, if it was a business that we were looking at, would be the number of hours being worked by those in work—that is, the number of hours or days available to work? That could be one of the measures showing that we actually have significant under-employment in this country and that, rather than a jobs miracle, we have something of a jobs mirage.
My hon. Friend has a way with words. Looking at the measure to which he refers as part of the basket of measures could well be useful. Indeed, we might also look at the number of jobs that individuals have, because although we have seen a rise in the number of people with contracts, many of those are part-time contracts, and people in Plymouth have certainly been telling me of needing not just one job but two, three or, in some cases, four or five jobs to pay their bills, because of the insecurity of those jobs and the hours they provide. Consideration of all those measures together would make possible a more informed value judgment about the state of the economy.
In recent years, we have seen a rapid shift towards a gig economy, and despite calls for an end to zero-hours contracts, many people are still struggling with the precarious nature of those contracts. There are some people who value zero-hours contracts, but my fear about what has happened with zero-hours contracts is that their utility for that small group of people has been overtaken by employers using them as a way of being more flexible with their workforce or cash flow. As a consequence, the utility of those contracts for a small number of individuals, because of the workplace flexibility they provide, has been eroded because they are being used to devalue secure work.
Before I came to the debate, I posted on my Facebook page—if anyone has not visited it, the address is facebook.com/LukePollard—to ask people what their experience was. I said, “I am going to a debate about employment statistics. Can you tell me your stories?” Normally on my Facebook page, I have a few regular posters, as I am sure other hon. Members do. What struck me about the response to this post was how personal, emotional and honest people were in telling me their experiences. If hon. Members have not done this on their own Facebook page, I encourage them to do so, because it helps to create a fuller picture.
Let me give some examples of what people said. Erin, who is one of my constituents, is a qualified secondary school teacher who has been forced to take zero-hours contracts by an employment agency for the past three years. She told me that, despite years of training, she was struggling to find permanent work, and that that has impacted her ability to pass the tenancy checks required for private renting. The figure for private renters in Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport is 43.5%, which shows just how important that can be. Erin now plans to leave the teaching profession for good and will be retraining in September. She is just one example of someone we need to retain in their role with more secure work.
Melanie is another example. She worked for three years at Royal Mail in Plymouth. She was on a fixed-term, 20-hours contract that was reviewed every six months. As a single parent, she spoke of the stress that the uncertainty of that brought, as she could never be sure that she would still have a job once the end of her contract rolled around. Although Melanie has managed to secure permanent employment elsewhere, her story is not uncommon.
Those types of lived experience are the stories behind the statistics. I am talking about the frequency of needing to go to another interview to get extra hours and then the concern and worry about what happens if an employer wants their hours to coincide with another employer’s hours. Those are concerns that many in this Chamber may not have experienced themselves, but they are genuine worries for many people up and down the country. That situation is adding to the complexity and inequality within our system.
Colleagues will know of the problems that universal credit has brought to the system. Indeed, the House of Commons Library points out that the roll-out of universal credit, which is taking place in part of the area that I represent but not all of it, skews the jobless figures for this period, so looking behind those figures is a little more complex and complicated than it might have been before universal credit was rolled out. I ask the Minister whether there is a way of navigating through that complexity and that added dimension to see what the underlying picture is. The roll-out of UC complicates that and affects our ability to get an accurate sense of where we are.
Universal credit is failing many people. We know the experiences that have been shared in this Chamber and elsewhere. Our benefits system should not allow people to spiral into more debt, and I am concerned about the sustainability of the system in its current form. Concerns around UC and the roll-out on to UC, especially for people in insecure work—although they may not be in the jobless figures that the Government provide—need to be addressed.
We also need to look at in-work poverty. I believe it is fundamental to most people’s reasons for entering politics in the first place—be they on the red team or the blue team—that they want to make the world a better place. The only disagreement I perhaps have with colleagues on the Conservative side is how to do that. In-work poverty should be anathema from the perspective of the Labour party, the Conservative party and other parties as well. We all aspire to help people into work so that they can provide for their families through the hard work of their own labour. If someone is in work and still unable to provide for their family, something is wrong with our economy.
We know that that is the case in Plymouth and elsewhere at the moment, because we are seeing a rise in food bank use. One day I hope that we will no longer need food banks and that the fantastic volunteers who staff them can be redeployed to other endeavours. However, I know that food bank use is going up, and having seen the work of the fantastic soup kitchens and soup runs in Plymouth, I know that demand is increasing among not just rough sleepers, but those in insecure work and temporary accommodation, who cannot make ends meet and who struggle to feed themselves and their families.
I highly recommend that Members of Parliament and those watching at home go out on a soup run. It is an eye-opener in terms of the lived experiences of those in our communities whom we may not see during the day. When they are handed a pasty or a banana from the back of an old Transit van—as happens every now and then in Plymouth—they give back stories and gratitude. It is a really humbling experience to see people who, in many cases, are now in work but still struggling to make ends meet.
We need safeguards to help those who are struggling to break into the job market and permanent employment, as well as to help those who are in the job market by making sure that work can truly pay. That is not where we are at the moment, and that is especially true for those with disabilities. One of my constituents, Jo, who works in the employment sector, told me that the job opportunities advertised for students and graduates often involve temporary contracts in low-skilled roles. Similarly, Mat, from Plymouth, shared his experience of having high-functioning autism and described his job search as “impossible”. That should shame us all. The challenge for us is how and where we present job adverts, what the employment process is and the jobs themselves. I am concerned that the lack of opportunities is impacting people in Plymouth on a personal and economic level, and we must act to contain the ongoing effects of not only unemployment, but under-employment and the impossibility of getting employment in many cases.
Many hon. Members will know of my desire to talk about transport. I occasionally talk about trains in this place. Connectivity for the far south-west is a complicating factor in the economic performance of Plymouth and the wider south-west economy, as it is for many other parts of the country. The investment we need in structural transport, both on road and rail, and bus services within cities, can open up and transform job opportunities.
I want to talk about buses for a moment, because when we look at under-employment, one concern that a number of people tell me about is that, without a car, they are sometimes unable to get to their workplace. That is because there is no public transport available or the buses stop at a certain time. That is especially true of low-wage service work. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole talked about our hospitality sector. Without decent public transport, it is impossible for those people to get to shops, tourist attractions, cafes and restaurants early in the morning to provide sleepless people with their coffee on the way to work. The concern is that that means some people are spending their already low wages on taxis to get to work before the working day has started, eroding the value of that day’s work for them.
There is a lot we need to do to look behind the statistics. I encourage the Minister to look at whether a basket of measures could be more appropriate. To an extent, the debate as to what goes in that basket of measures—just as the debate as to what goes into the inflation measure—tells a story about our modern Britain. For example, when we take a record player out from the basket of inflation measures and put in an MP3 download, we can see the way the economy is changing. That same principle should apply to how we look at employment statistics and the lived experience of people seeking employment or in employment. One day I hope we will be able to take out sanctions and food bank use from that basket of measures. That should be a collective aspiration for all parties. Until the time when they are no longer in use, we should feature those as part of that collective basket of stories—that human lived experience—that sits behind the unemployment statistics. There are many other things we could add into that basket, such as mental health provision, which I have not spoken about, but I hope colleagues might add to the list in the debate.
So I ask the Minister whether the Department has considered a basket of measures in how it presents these stories, and I encourage all hon. Members to do as I did on my Facebook page and to get the lived experiences of constituents, because it is the most powerful and humbling experience.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on bringing this important issue to the attention of Parliament today. Our two constituencies could not be further apart on the map, but listening to his remarks about his own constituency, it is clear that many of his concerns regarding youth employment are similar to my own.
I will focus my brief remarks on an issue that is particularly relevant to my constituency in the Scottish borders, namely the problems surrounding low pay. I want to develop some of the themes touched on by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). My constituency has higher than average levels of employment. Some 2,700 more people are in work now compared to a low of 2,000 in 2010. That represents a rise of 6.5%. We also have significantly lower than average numbers of people claiming out-of-work benefits. We are hovering around an all-time low. The number is now half what it was in 2013. These are undoubtedly significant achievements. More people in my constituency with the security of a pay package and the positive benefits of being in work is certainly a good thing.
Behind the rise in employment, however, there remains a problem in my constituency: low pay. Many more people are in jobs, but too many of these jobs are low-skilled and low-paid. Gross weekly pay in my constituency is £56 a week lower than the Scottish average and £61 a week lower than the United Kingdom average. That means that employees in the borders are taking home nearly £3,000 less in their pay than the Scottish average. Those on hourly pay take home £1 an hour less than the Scottish average and £1.30 an hour less than the UK average.
We have a significantly higher percentage of self-employed people in the Scottish borders and more lower-skilled jobs, which translate to lower than average weekly pay. I am not here to talk down self-employed people or lower-skilled jobs. They are hugely important. Many of the jobs in places such as Johnstons of Elgin in Hawick, in my constituency, may be classified as lower-skilled, but these are incredibly hard-working people, who produce some of the finest products on the worldwide market. Nevertheless, across the United Kingdom, we need to offer a range of employment opportunities, and the borders certainly has fewer higher-paid jobs than other areas of Scotland or across the UK.
What can be done to address this? There are two important points. The first thing is to ensure that unskilled workers are paid a fair wage and take home more of the money that they earn. That is why I absolutely support the Government’s introduction of a living wage and the continued increase in the personal allowance. Someone who used to be on the old minimum wage on a full-time contract took home around £11,100 a year in 2013. This year the same person, now paid the national living wage, would be taking home £2,600 more, thanks to the increase in the lowest wages and the rise in the personal threshold. That is effectively a pay rise of over 20% to those on the lowest incomes.
Secondly, beyond paying people more, in order to bring more highly skilled jobs to places such as those in my constituency, we need to look at why businesses are not basing themselves there at the moment. The main barrier to businesses in the borders is a lack of infrastructure, both physical and digital. I know that the borderlands growth deal will be looking at this as a matter of priority. A lack of decent broadband and transportation links is undoubtedly holding my area back.
I conclude by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole again for securing this debate. I urge all hon. Members to ensure that both the quantity and quality of employment across every part of the United Kingdom is a priority for the Government.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on securing this debate, albeit for the second time.
We can be in no doubt about the progress the Government have made on many fronts, in addition to economic growth, in the last eight years. We should never underestimate the impact that the 2008 financial crash had on our country. By the end of the recession that followed, our employment rate had taken a serious hit. Now, almost 3.5 million more people are in work and the employment rate is at its highest level since records began in the ’70s. That is something we can all be proud of. It is also worthy of note that since 2013, more than 6,000 additional disabled people have gained the dignity and respect of employment, and we can build on that excellent figure through the Disability Confident scheme.
There can be no doubt that it has been a long road, and it has been hard work. The Government have asked the British people to accept some tough choices. The people came with us on an eight-year journey and, like the Government, they can see that that period of hard work and difficult decisions is beginning to bear fruit. Our economy is growing, unemployment is down and we are finally spending within our means.
Of course, there is much more to this debate than simply employment records, as has been said. We must look at the type of work people are undertaking. Are people working part time when they would like full-time hours? Are people being exploited by insecure forms of work? Are wages where we would like them to be? I do not think they are there yet, although the living wage is a help. It is all very well to have record employment, but we must ensure that it is of the right kind.
I do not agree with the Opposition’s overly prescriptive policy of banning zero-hours contracts outright, or of branding all part-time or gig-economy work as bad. It is certainly not, and for many people those contracts work exceptionally well. I have spoken to students who welcome the flexibility of a zero-hours contract and to parents who are perfectly content in part-time positions that allow them to plan their lives around their families—what could be more important in life than family? I have heard from people who enjoy being their own boss, whether they are self-employed, as has been mentioned, or have the backing of an established company in an expanding franchise industry.
Many people have not secured the type of employment they would wish for, so I welcome the fact that the Government have commissioned the Taylor review of modern working practices, and have legislated to ban exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts. Those steps are proportionate and sensible, and offer real protection to people in the labour market, while allowing for individual circumstances, choice and preference. I commend the Ayrshire chamber of commerce for its “Developing the Young Workforce” initiative, which is extremely effective and welcome.
I stand in this debate conflicted. On the one hand, I look at the UK figures and the fantastic levels of employment, and I am proud of how far we have come. On the other hand, as a Member representing a Scottish constituency, I have concerns about how the economy north of the border is performing. Regrettably, the Scottish National party has missed five of its economic targets, which has cost more than £80 billion. That is a failure to grow the economy and to support Scottish businesses.
Since 2010, the UK has made great strides. There is further to go and more to do, but the direction of travel is right. I do not want my constituents to be left behind by a Scottish Government who are distracted.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, but I do not accept what she says. There are plenty of tools in the Scottish Government’s toolbox. There are so many levers that they do not use them, and sometimes they hand them back. The gift of sorting out the economy lies with Holyrood in partnership with the UK Government—not fighting against them, but working with them. That is where future success lies.
We have proven that with hard work, focus and determination, record levels of employment can be achieved and maintained. With progress being made in city deals and growth deals through both Governments working together—that is where the trick is—I am sure that Scotland’s economy will grow over time and that Scotland will, as always, make a significant contribution to the overall UK economy. However, good Governments know that the way to have more money for public services is to expand the economy, not to tax the people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Roger. I commend the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on securing this important debate on employment rates. He was remarkably upbeat in the face of the pending catastrophe of Brexit and its possible effect on future, and indeed current, employment rates in certain sectors.
I commend the hon. Gentleman’s work with young ambassadors. It is important for young people to get involved in such schemes and I am pleased that he is part of that. I also commend his call for better cross-departmental working to address youth employment and unemployment. As I know from serving on the Public Accounts Committee, there are often calls for that sort of cross-departmental, non-silo approach, and we have to keep on at those Departments, because it is so important and it will make a big difference in those areas.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) gave an excellent speech that cautioned against the selective presentation of figures by the Government, by Members of the governing party and by Opposition Members, which is very good advice. He also rightly talked of the need for a basket of measures, and about considering the lived experience of people in work, an idea at which the Government should look carefully.
It was good to hear the figures from the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), which show a rise in employment generally and among young people, and to hear about his contributions in regard to the ongoing problem of low pay.
I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) point out that the nature of employment needs to be examined, which was part of the Taylor review. We are yet to see the full implementation of that review or what parts the Government will act on, but iniquities in the type of employment that people undertake must be examined as well. However, I must strongly disagree with his presentation of the Scottish economy.
As we have heard from several hon. Members, there is some good news about employment rates across the UK, which I warmly welcome. I am pleased about the record lows in unemployment in Scotland and the increase in employment among women. There is lots more to be done to close not just the gender gap, but the gaps in disabled employment rates, as has been mentioned, and for minority ethnic communities. It is also good that the number of young people who are not in education, training or employment fell to 8% in Scotland last year. The Scottish Government have done a lot of work to create opportunities for young people. They have an excellent, well-established apprenticeship system that the rest of the UK might do well to have a peek at.
My city of Edinburgh has the highest proportion of high-skilled occupations among the major UK cities, including London, and unemployment rates have been lower for the last 10 years. There is a boom in the creative industries and in business start-ups, thanks largely to council and Scottish Government support, as well as the city being such a fantastic place to live. That success brings challenges, but hon. Members should not worry: I am sure we will always find room for friends from the south who are escaping Brexit.
To stay on the positive for a bit longer, it is heart-warming that so many Conservative Members are keen to talk about jobs and employment. What some might see as a Damascene conversion from the days of “Unemployment is a price worth paying” is very much to be welcomed, although I hope it is not just to “drool and drivel they care”, as Margaret Thatcher once said. Reformed and compassionate Conservatives might also want to have a word with their bosses about what I have to describe as the callous approach taken to people who cannot work for whatever reason of cutting cash that puts food on the table, as eloquently referred to by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.
The hon. Gentleman needs to look at the facts, because that is simply not true. [Interruption.] No, it is not. If he went back and looked at Scottish Government figures, and did not just listen to his party colleagues spinning that point, that would be good.
Returning to jobs, it is not only having a job that matters, but getting fair pay—enough to live on—and decent working conditions. Here, the UK Government are again falling short of the mark. The UK national living wage is not a real living wage. It is not based on the cost of living; it is a con-trick. The scourge of the working poor continues, as wages are frozen and the cost of living rises. More than two thirds of children in poverty have at least one parent in work—that is a shocking statistic—and a fifth of workers earn less than the living wage.
As has been referred to, we continue to see a rise in the use of zero-hours contracts, which were up 100,000 in 2017, compared with the previous year. It is time to sort that out. We have also seen the regressive Trade Union Act 2016, a deliberate attack on the ability of employees to defend their rights. I cannot see the Government sticking up for the rights of workers any time soon. This is a Government that had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the courts to scrap fees for employment tribunals and allow the poor access to justice. Frankly, I shudder to think what is in store for our rights after Brexit, but I imagine that at least the lawyers will be kept busy, as there will be an awful lot more court cases.
The employment regulations so loathed by right wingers are there to protect us—to ensure that work is safe and fair and that we have a voice when things go wrong. If the UK Government decide that fair work is important, and I hope they do, they could certainly do worse than to look to the Scottish Government for some inspiration. For example, they could look at the Fair Work Convention, which is successfully driving forward a very new approach, and recognise that working in partnership is more productive than just putting the boot in.
The UK Government could also support the Scottish Government in their successful drives to boost jobs in sectors such as food and drink, instead of imposing the self-harm of leaving the EU. We have already read of secret plans to sell out the fishing industry—again—and US demands for a deal that could lower food standards, end labelling protections and allow cheap US whisky to flood the market. Trade within the EU protects not only standards but jobs—134,000 in Scotland, according to the Fraser of Allander report on Brexit. Ignoring or denying that real and present threat to the employment trends we are considering today is not good politics. It is not working together; it is working against Scotland’s best interests. We cannot just sit back and let that happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on yet again securing this debate, and on his work on youth employment as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on youth employment. We have heard some very interesting contributions today, including from the hon. Gentleman himself, and I really look forward in particular to the group’s work on care leavers and prison leavers, who are a matter of concern; I am sure he shares that concern.
We heard a good contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who quite rightly raised the issues of in-work poverty, insecure contracts and food bank use, all of which have risen, as well as discussing how zero-hours contracts devalue the rights of employees. He also spoke about the importance of looking at a broad range of measures and at the lived experience of work; the testimony he received from his constituency, via his Facebook page, was very interesting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) made a useful intervention about the question of the availability of hours for people in insecure work, and said that rather than looking at a “jobs miracle” we are looking at a “jobs mirage,” which I thought was a pertinent way of describing the situation.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) spoke about the particular issues that rural communities face. He also called for the quality and quantity of work that is available to be a focus for the Government across the board.
The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) said that he did not agree with banning zero-hours contracts. I have to disagree with him on that, and I remind him that the number of people on zero-hours contracts is heading towards a million, so it really is a significant issue and I will touch on it later in my speech.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) quite rightly called for fair pay—enough for people to live on—and pointed out that the national living wage is not, of course, an actual living wage.
Increases in employment are welcome, but we also need to look beyond the statistics, as many Members have said, to see what the world of work is really like. Average real pay has still not returned to the level it was at before the financial crisis, and although inflation has started to fall, it has nevertheless outstripped wages for almost all of the period since 2010. Public sector workers have been particularly badly hit; they saw their pay frozen for two years, in 2011 and 2012, and since then any increase has been capped at 1% a year, regardless of the rate of inflation.
Then, of course, there is a generation of people who were in their twenties at the time of the financial crisis, so they have spent almost all of their adult life in this period of austerity. They are now in their thirties—an age when many of them will have young children—yet median pay for people in that group is nearly 9% below the level that it was at in April 2008.
The Resolution Foundation predicts that this decade is likely to be the weakest decade for real pay growth in almost two centuries. Some 20% of Britain’s 33 million workers earn £15,000 a year or less, and a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice forecast that the pay of those workers in particular would be squeezed over the next decade, as a result of trends such as the growth of the gig economy, automation and global competition. So can the Minister tell us what action the Government will take to improve the prospects of low-paid workers and what investment they will make in skills?
Around 8 million people are living in poverty in the UK, even though at least one person in such households is in work, and of course many people move in and out of low-paid work. Universal credit was originally aimed at smoothing the transition into work and at making work pay, but the cuts to work allowances announced in the summer Budget of 2015 severely damaged the work incentives that universal credit offers.
Reports by independent organisations such as the Resolution Foundation and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have made it clear that the increase in the national living wage and personal allowance do not compensate for the cuts to social security since 2010 for people on low income, with disabled people and single parents being hit especially hard.
According to a TUC report, the public sector pay cap, coupled with cuts to in-work support, means that the number of children in working families growing up in poverty will be 3.1 million this year, which is 1 million higher than in 2010. Will the Government listen to the call from the TUC and Labour to reverse the cuts to work allowances in universal credit and abolish the pay cap across the public sector, which Labour has committed to doing?
There are deep inequalities in the labour market, on the basis of where people live, ethnic background, gender, age and disability. The Government have repeatedly failed to address those inequalities, despite the Prime Minister’s fine words outside No. 10 Downing Street on coming to power. More than eight out of 10 companies employing more than 250 staff—such companies were required to report on their gender pay gap in April—paid men more than women and three out of 10 of them had a gender pay gap higher than the national median of 18%—in some cases it was over 50%. So now we know about those companies, but they will not face any action as a result, except perhaps reputational damage. Labour would introduce fines for companies that have a high gender pay gap that they have failed to reduce. Are the Government going to act on the gender pay audit, and if not, why not?
According to the Prime Minister’s race disparity audit, around one in 10 adults from a black, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or mixed background are unemployed, compared with one in 25 white British people. There are also significant differences in the kind of work that people do. For example, more than two in five people from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background work in low-skilled occupations. Audits are important to tell us what the facts are, but we need action to address the issues they raise. How are the Government going to do that?
I turn to the situation for disabled people. Back in November, the Chancellor disgracefully sought to somehow blame disabled people for the UK’s poor productivity record. That was particularly shocking given the Government’s approach to supporting disabled people into work. The Work and Pensions Committee has highlighted that funding for specialist employment support for disabled people will fall substantially, from around £1 billion under Work Choice and the Work programmes to £554 million over the lifetime of the Work and Health programme.
A study by WPI Economics for the Employment Related Services Association estimates that the number of disabled people receiving specialist employment support will drop from around 300,000—the number it was between 2012 and 2015—to only 160,000 between 2017 and 2020. That would be a cut of around 50%, so I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that, as it would not only be clearly detrimental to the lives of many disabled people, but would make no economic sense. Research by Scope suggests that a 10% increase in the number of disabled people in work would increase GDP by £45 billion by 2030 and benefit the Exchequer by £12 billion. If the Chancellor really wants to address the UK’s productivity problems, he might like to give those figures some thought.
The majority of employment support for disabled people will be provided through Jobcentre Plus by general work coaches. If the Government are going to take employment support back in-house, will they look again at providing specialist support, rather than adopting a generalist model for work coaches?
With youth employment, the figures are less rosy. One in eight young people aged 16 to 24 are unemployed, which is much higher than the overall unemployment figure. The number of young people who are economically inactive rose over the past year. That is a matter of real concern. Just over 11% of 16 to 24-year-olds, or 808,000 young people, were not in education, employment or training—NEET—in the final quarter of 2017. Only about two fifths of those young people were registered as unemployed. The rest were economically inactive and hidden from the benefits system. The proportion of certain groups that are not in education, employment or training is shockingly high. Some 30% of disabled young people and 40% of care leavers are NEET, as compared with 9% of other young people. The Children’s Society has made a strong case for there to be a specific marker for care leavers in universal credit, as in legacy benefits, so that we can measure their progress. Will the Minister commit to doing that?
Since April 2017, young people aged 18 to 21 claiming universal credit receive employment support through the youth obligation. After six months of what is supposed to be intensive support, they are required to take up an apprenticeship, training or a work placement. However, organisations such as Centrepoint are concerned that young people who face the greatest challenges in finding work—for example, care leavers—might need longer than six months and more personalised support to get to the point where they can do that. The all-party group has also made that point, stressing the importance of young people with greater challenges being given support in the first instance to develop basic skills. Can the Minister tell us what percentage of young people have found work through the youth obligation so far? Will he look at the case for personalised support for young people on universal credit through specialist work coaches?
The European social fund is a vital source of funding for employment support at the local level for disabled people and young people who are NEET, for example. In the present funding round for 2014 to 2020, the UK is receiving around £500 million a year, but ESF funding is important not only for the direct support it provides, but for attracting funding from other sources. The Government have announced that they will create a shared prosperity fund to replace the ESF, but time is running out to have a successor ready in time. They have said that they will publish a consultation some time later in the year, but no timescale has been announced. Can the Minister tell us when the consultation will take place? Can he tell us what he is doing to ensure that there will be no gap in the provision of employment support when ESF funding comes to an end?
Young people are also more likely to be working part time, in temporary employment or on a zero-hours contract than workers who are older. It is little wonder that the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority warned last year about levels of debt among young people that are built up in just trying to cover basic bills. Women are especially likely to be in part-time or insecure work. Some 55% of people on a zero-hours contract are women, and 45% are men. Similarly, a high proportion of people from some ethnic minority communities are more likely to be in part-time or insecure work. According to the Government’s race disparity audit, more than one in four Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers were employed in distribution or in hotels and restaurants, and one in five were in transport and communications industries, where low-paid, insecure work is common. Around 900,000 people are on zero-hours contracts.
More than half the zero-hours workers in a TUC survey said that they had shifts cancelled at less than 24 hours’ notice. People with caring responsibilities simply cannot afford to take shifts at such short notice. Having made provision for childcare, to then have a shift cancelled is particularly frustrating and expensive. Three quarters of the people responding to the survey said that they had been offered shifts at less than 24 hours’ notice, and a third said that they had been threatened that they would not be given shifts in future if they turned down work. How are people supposed to manage their finances and their lives when they are on zero-hours contracts—when they do not know how much money will be coming in each week and how much childcare they are likely to need? Will the Government ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, as Labour would?
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk spoke of the importance of the work of self-employed people. In evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee in January, the director of universal credit at the Department for Work and Pensions said clearly:
“Self-employment is a cause of in-work poverty.”
We should all be alarmed by that statement. The number of self-employed people has increased. They now make up about 15% of the workforce, or 4.8 million. That figure is for 2017, and compares with 12%, or 3.3 million, in 2001. The design of universal credit means it can fail to protect self-employed people on low income from poverty. Under the minimum income floor, self-employed people claiming universal credit are assumed to be earning the equivalent of 35 hours at the national living wage after a year, even though in many cases their earnings may be much less. That is exactly why they need to claim universal credit.
In February the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated that by 2022-23 more than two thirds of self-employed people claiming universal credit would lose out from the minimum income floor by an average of £3,000 a year. Someone who is self-employed, but on exactly the same annual income as someone who is an employee, can be entitled to less universal credit because it fails to take account of the fluctuating earnings that are a basic characteristic of self-employment.
In conclusion, high rates of employment should be good for those who are employed. They should mean higher wages and more security, but in reality people can face years as agency staff on temporary contracts, and zero-hours workers can have shifts cancelled at less than a day’s notice, with all the insecurity that that brings. It is little wonder that the TUC has reported parents being penalised by employers for asking for flexibility for family reasons, such as for simply wanting to take annual leave when their child is sick. Work should be a route out of poverty, but recent research by the Living Wage Foundation reveals that more than a third of working parents on low incomes have regularly skipped meals because they are short of money, and almost half have fallen behind on household bills. On coming to power, the Prime Minister promised outside Downing Street to be on the side of families who were just about managing, but it is clear that her Government are failing to do that. High employment rates are welcome, but they do not tell the whole truth about most people’s experience of the world of work.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) on securing, for the second time, this important debate on recent trends in employment. He made a fine speech, as did colleagues from all parts of the House. I have time in this debate to respond to a lot of the points that have been raised, and I will aim to do that. I will also come back to some of the points that my hon. Friend raised.
Sir Roger, I think you and I are probably the only Members here who were in the House in 2010, when the Conservative-led Government came into office. One of their first acts was to introduce an emergency Budget. At the time—both during the debate and subsequently—there were many siren voices on the Labour Benches that warned with great conviction that the Government’s policies would lead to a big increase in unemployment. Well, those doom-laden predictions have not come to pass; as Members on both sides have pointed out, we have seen strong jobs growth.
The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) is no longer in his place, but, frankly, to talk about this jobs miracle as a mirage is insulting. It is insulting to the more than 3 million people who now have a job as a result of the jobs created since 2010. It is also insulting to the employers—the hard-working companies and organisations that have created those jobs.
Will the Minister comment on the 900,000 people who are on zero-hours contracts and cannot manage their lives? They do not know how much money they are going to earn. They do not know how much childcare they need. It is a state of real insecurity, creating anxiety for a lot of people, and it is not good for the economy either.
I will of course come on to discuss precisely those points, because they are important.
The labour market statistics published last month by the independent Office for National Statistics—I point out once again to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) that it is independent—show that employment in the United Kingdom reached a record high in the last quarter of 75.6%. That was the 17th new record employment rate since 2010. Employment is up by more than 3 million since 2010. I place on record my thanks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole did, to all the businesses and organisations across our constituencies that have created those jobs. The unemployment rate has fallen to 4.2%, which is a 40-year low. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are now more than 800,000 vacancies across our economy.
Those who cannot quite accept that positive trend will say that all those jobs are low paid and temporary, but that is absolutely not true. Some 70% of the increase in employment has been in higher skilled occupations that pay higher salaries. Three quarters of them are full time and permanent.
A point was made about where those jobs are created and whether they are all in London and the south-east. I can confirm that 60% of the growth in private sector employment since 2010 has been outside London and the south-east.
Various colleagues, including the hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), made a point about zero-hours contracts. Such contracts represent less than 3% of all people in employment. The hon. Lady is right to say that that is around 900,000 people, but the number is down on the year. On average, someone on a zero-hours contract usually works 25.2 hours a week. Again, of those who stated a preference—to be clear, this is in the ONS’s own labour force survey—only 30% of those on a zero-hours contract stated that they wanted to work more hours. So when the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport talks about only a small number of people valuing such flexibility, I have to say that that is not what we see from the independent figures—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant).
I thank the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. Is he aware of the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace among staff on zero-hours contracts? What advice would he give to a young woman on such a contract who is experiencing that? Where can she go for support? How can she tackle it, and how can she remain employed, but in a safe environment?
Frankly, any kind of bullying and any such acts are completely unacceptable, whether someone is on a zero-hours contract or a full-time contract. As the hon. Lady knows, there are avenues open to people, but if she has specific cases, she is welcome to come and talk to me about them. It is important that we have flexibility in work patterns, which is what zero-hours contracts allow, but it is also right that the Government have banned exclusive zero-hours contracts.
We have discussed employment outcomes by groups. If we look at some of the groups that have historically been under-represented in the employment market, we have seen a significant improvement in their participation in the workforce. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) welcomed the record high of 71.2% in the female employment rate, which I of course welcome as well. There are now more than 3.8 million people from ethnic minorities in work—an increase of 1.1 million since 2010. The ethnic minority employment rate currently stands at 65.1 %, which is a record high. However, I completely accept that the employment gap between ethnic minorities and the white population is too high, at 12%, and we are working to address that. If I have time, I will talk about the response to the race disparity audit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock talked about disabled people. We have seen a welcome rise in the employment of disabled people—600,000 in the past four years—to around 3.5 million people today. He also talked about the Disability Confident scheme. More than 6,000 employers are involved in that and in Access to Work support. That is really important in encouraging everyone in our country who aspires to work to have an opportunity to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole made a powerful opening speech and highlighted the excellent work of the all-party group on youth employment, which he chairs. He has shared with various ministerial colleagues reports from inquiries that the APPG has conducted. Of course, I would be delighted to come to the APPG to discuss its work and to meet the youth ambassadors, who I am sure will ask challenging questions. As my hon. Friend highlighted, we have made progress on youth employment. The employment rate for those not in full-time education stands at 74.9%, and youth unemployment is down by 40% since 2010.
My hon. Friend made international comparisons, some of which I will repeat. The UK youth employment rate is 18.3 percentage points above that of the euro area and more than 16% above the EU average, but of course I agree with him that we need to do more. We therefore have a skills agenda, with a focus on apprenticeships and technical education. Colleagues have talked about the youth obligation support programme, which started in April last year, and about the ability to get work experience. We have also been encouraging work-based academies, which I think have been very successful.
My hon. Friend talked about whether there should be better working across Government on these issues. Of course, many are joined up. I can confirm that we have a number of taskforce initiatives where Ministers work together. He will be pleased to know that straight after this debate I will be having a meeting with the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills to discuss precisely these issues.
The Government are funding lifelong learning pilots, investing in a national retraining scheme, and delivering basic digital skills and careers advice for older workers who need them. We are also ensuring there is support to assist those with a health condition or disability, to make sure they are able to access the support they need to move into work.
On the cost of living, I know that all Members will welcome the fact that the ONS reported last month that salaries are starting to outpace inflation. I certainly want to see that very welcome trend continue. We absolutely recognise that people need additional support with living costs, and we have been providing that support. We have recognised that high childcare costs can affect parents’ decisions to take up paid work or increase their working hours. That is why, by 2019-20, we will be spending around £6 billion a year on childcare support. That includes 30 hours’ free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds. Within universal credit, claimants are eligible to claim up to 85% of their childcare costs. The outcome from independent evaluation in areas of early introduction shows that, with increased childcare support, parents are able to work more flexibly and increase their hours. We are championing shared parental leave and have introduced a right to request flexible working.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) welcomed the increase in personal allowances, which means that a typical basic rate taxpayer now pays more than £1,000 less in income tax than in 2010. We also introduced the national living wage in 2016, which increased by 4.4% this April. Thanks to the national living wage, full-time minimum wage workers have had a boost of £2,000 since 2016.
Numerous colleagues, including the hon. Members for Edinburgh North and Leith and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport and my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, talked about job quality and the Matthew Taylor review. Although we need to continue to work to maintain high levels of employment, I absolutely agree that we must also address the important issue of job quality. Among its recommendations, last year’s Taylor review asked the Government to focus on the quality of work and to identify a set of measures to evaluate job quality.
A strand of the Government’s industrial strategy has a focus on the creation of good jobs and greater earnings power for all, so the Government have outlined five foundational aspects of good work: overall satisfaction; good pay, which includes perceptions of fairness relative to one’s peers; participation and progression in the workforce, which includes the ability to work flexibly and acquire new skills; wellbeing, safety and security at work; and voice and autonomy in the workplace. It is self-evident that if people feel a sense of control over how they carry out their job, they will generally feel much more positive about it. The Government are working with experts to identify a set of measures against which we can evaluate quality of work, and I certainly look forward to the outcome of that work.
I have time to go through a number of points that colleagues have raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole talked about the hospitality industry, and we absolutely want to see a strong and vibrant hospitality sector. I recently met Brigid Simmonds, chief executive officer of the British Beer & Pub Association, to talk about the hospitality sector. In February this year, the Department for Work and Pensions ran the annual Hospitality Works campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the thousands of great career options that exist in the sector and to showcase some of the key employers we work with.
Yesterday, in Question Time, the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) raised the issue of introducing a seasonal hospitality workers scheme similar to the agricultural workers scheme. The one thing we know is that, after Brexit, there is a real risk that many roles in the hospitality sector could be eroded by the lack of available labour, which would impact on the domestic market, as well as on incoming tourists. Will the Minister briefly reflect on that?
I am, of course, happy to reflect on that. Perhaps it would be useful to have a discussion with the hon. Gentleman after the debate on any thoughts that he may have.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the claimant count, which is down significantly in his constituency from 2010. However, the claimant count is no longer a consistent indicator. The ONS has acknowledged that and removed it from its monthly labour market statistics. As he will know, we have launched a consultation on a new measure, and I hope that he and all colleagues will take part in that. Previously, the claimant count looked at people purely on jobseeker’s allowance, whereas now, with universal credit, which is both an in-work and out-of-work benefit, those numbers are increasing. They do not necessarily have a bearing on what is going on in the labour market, but clearly we need a consistent set of figures. I hope that colleagues will respond to that consultation, which closes on 21 July.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of in-work poverty for working-age adults. Whichever way one looks at it, poverty rates, whether relative or absolute, or before or after housing, are lower than in 2010. Adults in workless families are four times more likely to be in poverty than those in working families, which is why we are keen to see more people move into employment.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned people with disabilities. I have talked about the Disability Confident scheme and the Access to Work scheme. The number of people with disabilities in work has increased significantly over the last four years. That is something that both he and I greatly welcome. He also made a point about having a basket of measures. The Government already use a range of measures to assess labour market performance. We look at not only employment rates, but pay and productivity, security of work, and employment by labour market group—we have already talked about women, people from ethnic minority backgrounds and older workers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk raised the issue of productivity. That is an important point, in the sense that our productivity levels have lagged behind those of some of our peers for a long time. That is why we now have a national £31 billion productivity investment plan, focused on exactly the sort of issues that colleagues have been highlighting, such as housing, physical infrastructure, digital infrastructure and, of course, research and development.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith mentioned the working relationship between Westminster and the Government in Scotland. Actually, I have had a very good set of conversations with the Minister for Employability and Training in Scotland. In fact, when we spoke about Fair Start Scotland in our last conversation, he highlighted that as an example of the UK Government and the Scottish Government working well together. Of course we want to work together, but it requires both parties to come to the table when there are decisions to be made.
The hon. Member for Wirral West talked about the gender pay gap and the race disparity audit. That audit was conducted under a Conservative Government, by a Conservative Prime Minister who cares deeply about the issue. It is the first time that such an audit has happened, and I know the hon. Lady will welcome it. In terms of the plans we have to assist people, we have identified 20 challenge areas where the employment gap between the white population and the black and minority ethnic population is quite large. We are looking at a number of pilot schemes to see what can eventually be rolled out across the country.
The hon. Lady talked about public sector pay. As she will know, the Government ended the 1% pay policy in September last year, and pay review bodies will now come forward with proposals for pay that will be considered by the relevant Ministers. We have already announced that many of the lowest paid NHS workers will see double digit pay rises over the next three years.
I think I have answered many of the points that were raised, so I will conclude by saying that the recent trends in employment are very positive. It is a welcome development that we are starting to see wages outpace inflation, and the Government are enacting measures to help people with the cost of living. We are ensuring that our population, both younger and older workers, are able to upskill for the jobs of the future.
I am grateful to the Minister and to all colleagues who have contributed to today’s debate. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said that we must look at the stories behind the statistics. I completely agree, and I hope that I gave a sense of that in my speech as well. The Minister has answered the hon. Gentleman’s point about having a basket or range of measures, but I believe that we should perhaps do the same thing more broadly when we look at poverty—we should use a broader range of measures to look at that issue. The hon. Gentleman made a very interesting point.
The Minister responded to the point made by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) about the jobs “mirage”. I do not think that a fair look at the independent statistics bears out the hon. Gentleman’s soundbite, although I was pleased that he was able to make it to the debate, albeit for a short time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) raised a lot of issues that many of us in more rural constituencies will recognise, particularly on infrastructure and the importance of digital infrastructure, which is a vital part of the infrastructure that we need. He also mentioned the importance of getting more high-skilled jobs.
I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) raised the issue of the Disability Confident scheme. We must ensure that we narrow the disability employment gap. Importantly, he mentioned the Matthew Taylor review. The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) mentioned zero-hours contracts, but my hon. Friend the Minister made a very good point about cutting down on exclusivity clauses. That point was particularly welcome.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) accused me of perhaps being overly rosy. If I was overly rosy, perhaps she was overly pessimistic, not least about Brexit. Perhaps the hon. Member for Wirral West was also being a little pessimistic in her outlook, but I welcomed some of her thoughts. However, I was pleased that the Minister had time to make some points about zero-hours contracts in his response.
Finally, I was particularly pleased by the Minister’s comments on cross-departmental working. That is a key message, and it is something that must continue in not just this area but all areas. I am pleased that he has accepted the invitation and the challenge to come to the all-party group.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered recent trends in employment rates.
Type 26 Frigates: Base-Porting
I beg to move,
That this House has considered base-porting of Type 26 frigates.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. As the Member of Parliament for Devonport and its dockyard and naval base, I am proud to be standing here again making the case for ensuring that Devonport—the largest naval base in western Europe—is home to all the Type 26 frigates and, I hope, the Type 31s and the remainder of the Type 23 frigates with tails. As the son of a Devonport-based submariner, I know how important a strong defence is to our city. Plymouth is a proud military city, but it is living under the cloud of possible defence cuts.
We live in uncertain times, with the rise of Russia, new insurgent technologies and tactics destabilising countries across the globe, autonomous warfare, cyber-warfare, piracy and old foes investing in their militaries. I believe that the best deterrent against a rearming and resurgent Russia is a strong Royal Navy. I make no apologies for again making the case that many have heard me make in this Chamber and elsewhere: we need more and more capable frigates, and we must preserve our amphibious capacities and base-port all our new frigates in Devonport.
Given that a decision on base-porting frigates might be imminent in the upcoming modernising defence review, I hope that this debate will help to convince the Minister of the compelling case for basing all the new global combat ships—the Type 26 frigates—in Devonport. I will set out why I believe there is a compelling and convincing case for Devonport and why the Type 26 frigate is a platform we can be proud of. I will also talk about the critical cog in the Royal Navy, the backbone of the senior service—the men and women of the Royal Navy—and why basing them and the frigates in Devonport is the right thing to do. That is not just my view; it is the view of the cross-party Devonport taskforce, co-ordinated by Plymouth City Council. Whether Conservative-run, as it was up to May, or Labour-run, as it has been since May, there is cross-party support, consensus, and determination among all local parties to win these frigates, to protect our amphibious ships and Royal Marines, and to deal with the legacy of the old submarines. I know that the Minister values cross-party campaigning, and I hope we can demonstrate that today.
Devonport is already home to half the nation’s frigates. We are the base for the Royal Navy’s anti-submarine warfare Type 23 frigates. The Type 23s with tails are the frontline of our efforts to counter increased Russian submarine activity in the north Atlantic and protect our northern flank.
NATO revised its view of the north Atlantic and the High North in the maritime strategy, as the hon. Gentleman has just suggested. I understand his making the case for his own constituency, but is it not sensible to ensure that some of the Type 23s and Type 26s are based in Rosyth, for example, to give us extra cover in the north? We have seen many examples of incursions from Russian ships of late, so it would make strategic sense to base some ships—perhaps not the whole fleet—in Scotland, and particularly in Rosyth.
The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I disagree with base-porting older frigates there, but the idea of forward-deploying the Type 31e frigates, which I will come to in a moment, and basing them in locations other than just their base port is a good one, and he might want to pick up on that.
Devonport already has the skills and expertise to base the Type 23s. Indeed, it is arguable that we already have Type 26s in Devonport. I say that because HMS Argyll—a Type 23 frigate that is already equipped with much of the tech of a Type 26—is already one of our ships there. The hulls might need renewing, but that Type 23 frigate, which I was very pleased to visit on choppy seas earlier this year, is already carrying the combat systems—the tech and operational control functions—of a Type 26 frigate. Much of the crew of the first Type 26—HMS Glasgow—are already probably serving on Devonport-based Type 23s.
With quick access to the deep water of the north Atlantic, Devonport is ideally suited to counter the threats in the Atlantic and to support the continuous at-sea deterrent and carrier strike. Devonport has another ace up its sleeve: we are home to the world-class Flag Officer Sea Training establishment, under Admiral John Clink, who will retire shortly. Plymouth and navies around the world, including our own, are indebted to his leadership. FOST is the final hurdle that a ship and its crew must clear before being sent on missions around the globe. It is a jewel in the crown of the British armed forces and, like all good things in Plymouth, we rarely tell anyone about it. As a proud janner—someone born in Plymouth who lives in Plymouth—I feel I can say that Plymouth all too often hides its light under a bushel, and then hides the bushel. That has been the case with FOST, and I think we should speak loudly and proudly about its global role. Given the location of FOST, Devonport’s experience of basing anti-submarine warfare frigates, and its geographical position, there is a good case for allied nations using it more as a quick reaction base for surface ships. I encourage the Minister to look creatively at inviting NATO forces to use Devonport’s superb facilities in the months and years ahead.
The people of the Royal Navy are the backbone of the fleet. The crews of the Type 23s with tails have already made Devonport and Plymouth their home. They have found schools for their children and homes, and they have a genuine connection to our city and the areas around Plymouth. Those people will provide the leadership, specialist trades, expertise and crews for the new Type 26 frigates.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the importance of the crew to the local economy—they are very much part of our culture. He is probably aware of a study that either the council or the university—I forget which—did about 10 years ago. It showed that, surprisingly, quite a large proportion of the crew of any ship base-ported in Plymouth—or anywhere else, I imagine—live elsewhere in the UK, but a hard core, or a significant minority, live in Plymouth or the port area. They have a significant role in boosting our local economy and being part of the local social fabric.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. It is really important that we value the people who serve on our ships and, importantly, the people out of uniforms—the civilians—who support the base-porting of the ships and the jobs that result from that.
Many of the warfare and technical specialists who use the combat and operating systems on the Type 23s and Type 26s already live in a PL postcode. As south-west Members know, the PL postcode extends far and wide across the far south-west, as it should do. Preserving those roles and those people in our region is paramount in this basing decision. Confirming Devonport as a long-term naval anti-submarine warfare centre of excellence would support forces families as well as strategic efforts.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure he will recognise that this is about not just the PL postcodes but the TQ postcodes of south Devon. Many of the workers whose skills will be of benefit to the future Type 26 programme live and work there and commute to Devonport every day. To base-port the frigates in Devonport would boost the wider regional economy, not just Plymouth’s.
I too congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is important that we in this House acknowledge the very proud service history that he has referred to in his constituency. This is due serious consideration. Having the frigates based there will ensure job security and will send a very clear message that the modern defence strategy incorporates the ability to place ships strategically in strong defence areas. The hon. Gentleman represents one of those areas.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I agree that it is important that we build on the areas of expertise we already have. In Devonport, Plymouth and the wider south-west we have military expertise and a close connection with the armed forces, which aids recruitment.
The context of this debate matters. It is not just frigates that are based at Devonport naval base and serviced in the dockyard, but amphibious ships. When the news of the threats to HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines was first mooted last summer, I called for clarity and for Ministers to rule out those cuts. Some said that I was scaremongering, but the threat to those ships was real then and sadly is real today, as is the threat to HMS Ocean, our amphibious helicopter carrier, which will shortly leave Devonport for the last time and join the Brazilian navy as PHM Atlântico. That is when I launched the campaign to fight for more frigates in Devonport. I believed that we needed not just one extra Type 23 with a tail transferred from Portsmouth, but a commitment to make all the Type 26s and Type 31s Devonport-based, too. At the time, I said:
“I’m no longer content with Devonport being on the defensive and today call for all of the new Type 26 and 31 Frigates to be based in Devonport alongside our world class amphibious ships.”
Most of the Type 31e frigates, which will join the Type 26s as part of the replacement for the Type 23s, will be forward-deployed. The Type 26s will not be, so their basing arrangement is perhaps the bigger win for any locality, even if the Type 31e frigates may be with us sooner than 2026 for their larger sister ships. I also believe that the Type 31s should be based in Devonport, even if that is more paper-basing than base-porting in the traditional sense, due to the forward-deployed nature of many of the new lighter frigates.
In January I led a Westminster Hall debate on the Government’s national shipbuilding strategy. I made the case to the Minister for why Devonport is a world-class naval base and why it should be home to the Type 26s. The energy behind the will to base the frigates there also arises from the local community in the far south-west to protect our amphibious warships. The petition that I launched to preserve the amphibious ships and the Royal Marines attracted 30,000 names, the bulk of them from the far south-west, although the Minister will be pleased to hear that 34 people in his constituency also signed it.
Since then, however, we have seen further threats to our city with the confirmation that Stonehouse barracks, the spiritual home of the Royal Marines, is to close, as is the Royal Citadel, both in my constituency. There are also job losses as Babcock restructures.
The hon. Gentleman may be slightly mistaken. The announcement of the rebasing strategy was in 2015, long before the current process. This is not about party politics, because over the years Governments of all colours have not paid enough attention to Plymouth, but if the rebasing strategy happens and the Type 26s can be base-ported in Plymouth, does he agree that under this Government we shall actually see a growth in the military for the first time in a generation, and that is to be welcomed?
We shall actually see replacement of the existing Type 23s with Type 26s, so the risk is that we shall lose ships if we do not get the Type 26 decision, rather than gaining extra ships. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already losing HMS Ocean, sadly, so our naval base contingent is already one large ship down.
The modernising defence review is a chance to present a new vision for defence in Plymouth to back our jobs and secure our future. The review needs to be used as a positive way of encouraging more people to see their future not only in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, but in the industries that service the ships and our fighting forces. To do that, we need certainty on the future of HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines—from the volume and frequency of questions I have asked the Minister over the months since he took up his role, he knows that I feel strongly about that.
However, we must be under no illusion: the new frigates should not be based in Devonport simply as a sop for losing the amphibious ships. We have fought a cross-party campaign across Plymouth on three fronts: frigates; amphibious ships and Royal Marines; and our legacy submarines. We need to win on each of them, and we cannot afford to lose any one element.
The Minister knows that I have had concerns about the Type 31e and how lightly armed it is, but I have no such concerns about the world-class Type 26. It is a ship that our nation should and will be proud of. It is being built in Scotland—
Saying that, the hon. Gentleman allows me to ask whether he agrees that the fact that the Type 26s are being built on the Clyde shows the importance of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, both for UK defence capabilities and for the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde.
I agree entirely. The remark about the apprentice who will work on the last of the Type 26 frigates not being born yet shows what a long-term commitment to British shipbuilding the Type 26 programme represents and how important it is for us to secure other shipbuilding contracts, such as that for the fleet solid support ships, so that such ships are built in British shipyards, which many people across the House believe should be the case.
The Type 26 will be a world-class ship. My only concern is that there are too few of them—to be precise, five too few—and that we are not replacing all Type 23s with a Type 26. However, there is no doubt that this ship is world-class, can be put in harm’s way, will have the capabilities of a modern navy, and will be the envy of our allies and a worry to our opponents. Numerically, our fleet is small compared with that of Russia or China, but our capabilities are miles ahead. Indeed, these are ships that our allies may well sail as well.
I hope that Canada chooses the Type 26 platform for its six new frigates and that our cousins down under order nine of them for the Royal Australian Navy’s future frigate programme. There is cross-party support for selling not only the design of the platform but the expertise in the supply chain, because not all the export jobs for the frigates will be in building hulls, but in weapons, combat systems and other support items on the frigate, supplying value to the entire British supply chain.
I do not want to use any time saying why other bases would not work for the Type 26, because Plymouth and Devonport’s case is sufficiently compelling. Portsmouth is a good base for the carriers, the Type 45 destroyers and the OPVs, or offshore patrol vessels. Devonport should be home to frigates, refits and the Royal Navy’s amphibious capabilities—not all the Royal Navy, just the best bits.
Back in June last year, in my maiden speech, I called for more capable frigates, which the capabilities of the Type 26 deliver. Shortly after winning my seat in the general election, I wrote to the then Defence Secretary asking for a new Type 26 to be named after Plymouth. That was a campaign started by my predecessor, Oliver Colvile—formerly the Conservative MP. I supported it as a candidate, and I continue to do so now as an MP. I want to see one of the new city-class ships named after Plymouth, but there is little point naming her after Plymouth if she is to be based in Portsmouth, as I am sure the Minister understands.
With others, I have been working hard to lobby Ministers, making the case for Devonport. This has been a team effort, and our case is strongest in that cross-party spirit. I have also been lobbying colleagues on the Labour Benches. I am really pleased that Labour has backed my campaign, pledging that a Labour Government would base-port all Type 26 frigates in Devonport. Whether that Labour Government is sooner or later, the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), is right when she says that Devonport’s case for the new frigates is “compelling, comprehensive and convincing”. I agree with her on that.
Plymouth’s three Members of Parliament—all present today—the Labour leader of Plymouth City Council and the Conservative leader of the opposition are united in our belief that Devonport is the best place for the new ships. I have called for cross-party working on the issue since I started the campaign last year. Ministers have told me that that is the approach they want to see from Plymouth in the campaign, and I recognise that a strong and united campaign by Plymouth is vital to persuade the Ministry of Defence to decide in Devonport’s favour. We achieve more when we work together and less when we are divided. By the end of this debate I hope that Ministers will have heard from the united voice of Plymouth and the surrounding areas that Devonport is the ideal location for the Type 26 frigates.
From 2026 onwards, I want to see HMS Glasgow and her sister ships in Devonport, together with our world-class amphibious ships. In setting out the case for Devonport, I have also set out the cross-party and cross-Plymouth support that the campaign enjoys. Basing the new frigates in Devonport is the right strategic choice, the right defence choice, the best option for forces’ families, and the right choice for Plymouth, Devonport and our nation. I realise that the Minister has to make many tough decisions in his role—hard decisions, life-and-death decisions—but this is not one of them. This should be a simple decision—an easy choice for him. Devonport is the best location for the Type 26s. I encourage the Minister to make that decision in our favour at the earliest opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on his speech, much of which I agree with and subscribe to. I also congratulate the other Members for the city of Plymouth on being present to support the debate. It is right to describe the Plymouth campaign as city-wide, and the campaign is appreciated. It was certainly difficult not to come away from my visit to Plymouth with the strong impression of the support afforded over centuries to the Royal Navy by the people of the city of Plymouth. I appreciate the passion displayed by all hon. Members, the three representing the city in particular, and the Ministry of Defence and I understand the feeling behind the speech.
The decision on the base-porting of the Type 26 is an important one that will have to be taken sooner rather than later. When we take that decision, we shall take into account a number of factors that have to be considered seriously and carefully, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport will understand. We shall be looking at issues of logistics, infrastructure and personnel. On personnel, I echo the tribute he paid to the Royal Navy crews who man the frigates already based in Plymouth and to their support staff, whether military or civilian.
On the timing, does the Ministry of Defence grasp the issue about us needing a commitment not even sooner rather than later, but before the summer recess? We need a decision point that we can look at, and take back to people and say, “Yes, we will get a decision on it,” so that we will have delivered something from the campaign.
My hon. Friend tempts me to offer an answer now, but I am sure he understands that it would be remiss of me to make such a commitment now, especially as we are still awaiting the completion of the Modernising Defence Programme. However, I stress again that we are looking at the issues seriously, including training, force generation and cost. We will certainly make an announcement before the end of the year. I anticipate that we might be able to make announcements before then, although I would not want my hon. Friend to come away thinking that the intention is to have an early decision. We are trying to ensure that we make a decision based on the facts of the situation, and I assure my hon. Friend that the support that Plymouth is showing for the campaign is being taken on board. Plymouth’s capability and the capacity as a naval base is also understood by the Ministry of Defence. I hope that gives some reassurance, if not the exact dates that he was looking for.
Ultimately, we are looking very carefully at the rebasing; the fact of the matter is that we are building an enhanced Royal Navy. We will have more surface ships in the Royal Navy than we have had for a long time. We have seen the Royal Navy grow for the first time in a long time. All these decisions are under review. That is why it is important to understand that the decision on the Type 26 is not being taken in isolation. We are making decisions in the context of a growing Royal Navy. I suspect that every Member who has spoken in this debate would welcome the fact that the Royal Navy is growing. The reason for that growth is the new challenges that we face and the demand that we respond to them, and some of those were articulated by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.
We are aware of the long-standing support offered to the Royal Navy by Plymouth and the Devonport base since 1691. There is a 300-year history. It is very difficult to visit Plymouth without being moved by the contribution that the city has made to the prosperity and the protection of this country over 300 years. Clearly, the size of the estate is unique. It is the largest base of its kind in Europe, stretching over 940 acres, and has more than 100 listed buildings and 3.5 miles of waterfront. This is a base that has been providing support for our Royal Navy for a very long time. That history is clear from visiting the city of Plymouth.
The Government’s commitment is clear: to enhance the Royal Navy—the surface fleet and the submarine fleet. It is important to understand the context of this debate, which is the growth in the Royal Navy. We are committed to building our eight anti-submarine warfare Type 26 frigates. The hon. Gentleman’s support for our export campaigns in Australia and Canada is appreciated. We have run a fantastic campaign in Australia and we are running a fantastic campaign in Canada. The capability of the platforms that we are building, with the support of our fantastic shipbuilders on the Clyde, is something that we take very seriously. It is great to see this unified approach to highlighting the capability of the Type 26.
The contract to build the Type 26 was awarded in June 2017. We have already cut steel and are building the first blocks on HMS Glasgow, which is very good news. Some people have claimed that it is nothing more than a paper ship; any hon. Members who have been to the Clyde will be able to say quite categorically that that is not the case. The work is being undertaken and the quality of the work is excellent.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport highlighted the long-term commitment to shipbuilding on the Clyde that that order represents in his comments about the apprenticeships opportunities. The last of the apprentices who will be involved in the Type 26 programme have not yet been born. The Type 26 programme shows our commitment to long-term shipbuilding. I make no apology about the fact that we are also looking at the Type 31e. It is a case of identifying our capability need and what the Navy needs. The Type 31e is welcome from a procurement point of view. It is a general-purpose frigate being built to a cost limit, but it is also a new way of doing procurement.
When I travel around the world in my role—when the parliamentary arithmetic allows such travel to occur—I find it fascinating to see how closely defence departments in other countries are watching our Type 31 procurement. The capability and the cost of the Type 26 are recognised and have been recognised in the debate. Not many countries have the capability or the financial power to purchase such a high level of capability as the Type 26, but they are interested in what we are trying to achieve with the Type 31. The combined effort is showing a degree of confidence in our shipbuilding strategy, but it is also showing a confidence in our Royal Navy.
It is important to highlight that the Type 23 frigates have been and remain a significant part of the activities in Devonport. The decision to base the eight anti-submarine Type 23s in Devonport was correct. That decision has resulted in more coherence in our basing. I share the hon. Gentleman’s admiration for the crews of the Type 23; I have also flown on to Argyll and have enjoyed Thursday war games with the crew. The professionalism and the commitment of the crew was something to behold.
I take exception to the comments that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport made about defence cuts. We have to acknowledge this issue on a cross-party basis, and it needs to be very carefully articulated, because it contributes to a false impression of what is happening in defence. The Government are committed to increasing defence spending. We have a protected budget of £37 billion. That budget is increasing by half a per cent above inflation year in year out for the lifetime of this Parliament. That commitment needs to be understood.
We talk about cuts, but it is important to put that in context. We are increasing defence spending. The challenge is to manage that increased spending. When we casually use the word “cuts”, we are sending a message—often a false message—that is a reassurance to our opponents and that causes distress and concern for some of the people working in our armed forces. I understand the context in which the comment was made, but I want to put it on record that we are expanding and extending our defence capabilities and are spending more on defence. My own equipment budget is £180 billion over the next 10 years, which by any stretch of the imagination is a significant budget. That includes a £63 billion commitment to enhancing the Royal Navy. I am sure that most Members will acknowledge that that is a significant commitment.
I welcome the Minister’s comments. Clearly, we have to conduct the debate from a position of truth. We have a growing defence budget, but in Plymouth we have seen things like the defence rebasing strategy that have put people’s livelihoods and jobs in that city under threat. It has kind of paused; it is not going anywhere. We need the commitment. Will the Minister take back to the Department that we need something firm to deliver for the people of Plymouth in the very near future?
At the risk of repeating myself, I think the message has been heard loud and clear from the three Members from Plymouth and from other Members. The Ministry of Defence has heard that message. We have to put things in order, because we have to do things in the context of the Modernising Defence Programme, but I assure my hon. Friend and other colleagues that the message about the importance of this decision for Devonport has been understood.
The hon. Gentleman should be aware that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are safe until 2033 and 2034, which is the current situation. Those are the decommissioning dates for both vessels.
The situation in Plymouth and Devonport is still a significant success story. I acknowledge that there are challenges, but the activities taking place there—the flag officer sea training, Royal Marines Tamar and the commitment for the new oil jetty that has been built at Thanckes—are commitments and expenditure that highlight the fact that there is a very positive future for the base at Devonport. That positive future is not because we owe anything other than the right decision for the people of Plymouth, but that right decision will reflect the history of service and support that has been offered to the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy by the people of Plymouth and the people involved in the bases in Plymouth. We should be very proud of the fact that it is a key component of our defence infrastructure. The continued added investment made by the Ministry of Defence highlights the fact that there is a bright future for the base in Devonport.
I will close by thanking all hon. Members who have contributed to what has been a constructive debate. It is important to put everything into the context of a growing Royal Navy, for the first time in decades—we all welcome that. The context is an enhanced and increasing defence budget, but one that is still challenged, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport highlighted, such as the changing threat environment.
I stress to all hon. Members, especially the three hon. Members representing the city of Plymouth, that we have heard the message very clearly. That message will be conveyed back to the Department. I look forward to the result of the Modernising Defence Programme and, in due course, a decision being made on the basing of the Type 26 frigates, which are a world-class capability.
Question put and agreed to.
Northern Rail Services: Greater Manchester
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Northern rail services in Greater Manchester.
It is always a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. When I was elected 21 years ago, in 1997, our railways were still, in effect, publicly owned. The reality then was that the service was rubbish, and it had been rubbish for a very long time. John Major, the then Prime Minister, having starved the railways of investment, privatised them in indecent haste—I think he thought that would be his legacy; perhaps it is—just before he was forcefully expelled from office in the 1997 Labour landslide.
The ensuing Labour Government decided that there were more important priorities, particularly in health and education, than the renationalisation of the rail system. The truth is that we wrongly assumed, as far as public transport was concerned, that things could only get better. In fairness, there has been significant investment in the system in the intervening years, paid for by rail travellers through increased fares and passenger numbers. I am certainly not in favour of returning to the failed services delivered by British Rail in the 1990s, and I do not believe that anyone else is, but the fact is that the present system is broken and was unfit for purpose from the outset. That is clearly demonstrated today and every day in Greater Manchester and the north by the delivery of services by Northern rail.
Northern is the trading name of Arriva Rail North, whose franchise began in April 2016. Provided that it does not walk away, we may suffer it until 2025. Arriva Rail North has been a disaster from day one. It has been in freefall ever since, and it does not deserve to be entrusted with the franchise for another day. The Northern franchise, which is one of the largest in the UK, provides more than 16,000 train services to a population of 15 million people. In Greater Manchester, Northern trains call at 97 stations, which are used every day by a huge number of people, who depend on the service to go to work and education, as well as to enjoy their social and family lives. According to Office of Rail and Road estimates of station usage, there were nearly 81 million passenger entries and exits at Greater Manchester stations in 2016-17.
The quality of those services is essential to the lives of thousands of families and has an enormous effect on the economy of the north. It is a very big deal. We must not allow the political argument about our transport deficiencies to descend into the Government automatically supporting all private transport providers and the Opposition automatically attacking them all. Regardless of our views about nationalisation and privatisation, Northern rail is failing.
When Northern was first awarded the franchise, it promised more than 2,000 additional trains each week, with more frequent, earlier and later trains offering passengers greater choice. It promised a 37% increase in peak-time capacity. It promised 281 new carriages, plus the full refurbishment of the remaining fleet and the removal of all Pacer trains within three years. Yet according to the Office of Rail and Road, the punctuality of Northern’s services in Greater Manchester and Liverpool has plummeted from 90% to 83% since the start of 2017. It must be compelled to do much better, and fair compensation is central to improving its performance.
If we are to remain with a privatised service, franchisees must be answerable to passengers. As the situation stands, they are not. As we would expect from an operation focused on profit, Northern does little to encourage passengers to claim compensation. The Consumers Association, which publishes Which? magazine, has called for improvements in the delivery of compensation. Its research found that only a third of passengers who may have been entitled to compensation made a claim. The two main reasons why people fail to claim are that it is too complex and there is a lack of information about the claims process. The Consumers Association found that unsurprising, as the way train companies award compensation varies widely across the country. It reports that train companies can take up to 20 days to respond to claims, with one in four people needing to prompt the train company about their claim.
Northern’s compensation scheme excludes people with multi-modal tickets, despite Ministers stating that it must include them, and passengers are left waiting for as much as four months for a response to their refund applications. Over the past two months, things have gone from extremely bad to even worse. All that adds up to Northern’s record before the unbelievable timetable transfer.
When things go wrong at Northern—and things are certainly going wrong—the whole of Greater Manchester is in danger of grinding to a halt, because the road alternatives are often close to gridlock. The major problem at the moment is that Northern simply does not employ enough drivers to allow for flexibility. Its model is dependent on drivers working on their rest day. To make matters worse, the company clearly has industrial relations problems, and there has been no rest day working agreement since February. It blames industrial action for its poor performance, but when the Government privatised the system in 1997, they privatised its industrial relations, too. It is just not acceptable to blame the trade unions and no one else. The company must be accountable for disputes with its employees. It must manage its industrial relations. That is its job, not anyone else’s. The sad reality is that most of Northern’s employees despise their employer about as much as most of its passengers do.
In fairness—this is the only time I will say that—Northern’s operational problems have certainly been made much worse by delays to the electrification of the Blackpool to Preston line by Network Rail. Drivers have to undergo safety training before trains can operate on new lines, but Northern’s lack of planning meant that, from 16 April, drivers were pulled away from scheduled services across the network to undergo training. Services were cancelled every day, leaving passengers stranded at stations on their way to work. Northern knew well in advance that that combination of problems would leave it short of drivers to operate the timetable. Those problems should in no way have taken it by surprise, yet they have gone on for weeks and weeks. Sources tell me that on 16 May—a full month after the issues with driver training began and before the timetable fiasco—91 trains were fully cancelled, 140 were part-cancelled and 48 had a reduced number of carriages. Every day is the same, yet Northern buries its head in the sand and acts surprised by its driver shortage.
I have repeatedly asked why no strategy was in place and why there was no set schedule for cancellations so that passengers would know what to expect. Why were there no rail replacement bus services? Northern has provided no explanations for its failures. The restatement of its explanation that cancellations are due to driver shortages is simply not good enough; neither is the promise that things will improve by 2020. Northern, I am sad to say, reminds me very much of the Secretary of State, repeating the mantra, “It’s not our fault. Things will get better.” Ordinary, hard-working people’s jobs are at risk, and family livelihoods depend on the ability to get to work on time, yet Northern, along with the Secretary of State, has taken no action and just looked the other way. If my constituents were to apologise to their employers for being late for work every day, while assuring their bosses that their timekeeping would improve by 2020, they would be out of a job long before 2020—and Northern should be, too.
Unbelievably, when the new timetable began on 21 May, things got very much worse. There was clearly a major change: Northern admitted that 90 % of the new schedule was different from the old one, and services along what is already an overcrowded corridor were greatly reduced. Commuters in my constituency, with their long-term experience of this operator, were braced for a difficult experience that day, but they still expected trains to arrive. What they got was chaos. Right across Greater Manchester, passengers were left stranded on platforms with no trains and no information.
I am told that, on the first Monday of the new timetable, there were 196 cancelled services and 131 part-cancelled services across the Northern network. Forty-two of those cancelled services were due to stop in Bolton. Just over a week later, on 29 May, the number of cancellations had risen to 254, and as of 7.30 this morning there had been 50 cancellations, with 43 trains part-cancelled. Is it any wonder that my constituents are striving to pass their driving tests, buy cars and block up even more of our overcrowded roads? These are people who just want to go out and do a hard day’s work, and it is our responsibility and the Government’s responsibility to help them and encourage more travellers to get on the train.
The week before the new timetable was introduced, passengers were being told by train guards that the drivers’ new work schedule would not be completed in time. Passengers expected chaos, and train guards expected chaos. Only the Secretary of State and his so-called experts were in the dark. Drivers were expected to turn up for work on 21 May as though nothing had changed, even though 90% of services changed in the new timetable. When Northern said that services were cancelled because of staffing issues, they should have said they were cancelled because of management issues and its own incompetence. If it was as good at running trains as it is at making excuses, we would have nothing to complain about, Mr Howarth, and we would not be bothering you with this debate. The fact is, they failed to plan properly for the biggest timetable change in years. These are problems of Northern’s own making, and far too often it leaves Greater Manchester without the basic train service it is entitled to.
Passengers do not really want to know about new ticket machines and wi-fi on the train; they just want to go to the station and catch a train that is on time and that has a seat for them to sit down on. One of my constituents texted me to say she was stood in the toilet of a packed train with three other people she did not know. Let me tell the Minister that wi-fi cannot be used in those circumstances. He will understand my constituent’s concern.
I frequently say that we have an excellent train line in Bolton, which runs right through my constituency. There is potentially a great service—all we need is some trains with enough carriages. It is not rocket science, is it? When a peak-hour train with two carriages—instead of the promised four—arrives at Bromley Cross station in my constituency, an audible groan runs right down the platform, because people expect to have to fight to get on.
That is right, because nobody gets off in Bolton—they are going to Manchester. People are getting on the train all down the line, so the closer people are to Manchester, the smaller chance they have of getting on at all. Four-carriage trains are essential. That has nothing to do with the timetable issues. Promises on the delivery of extra carriages have been repeatedly broken by Secretaries of State and by the previous Prime Minister, who visited Bolton before the 2015 election and is now long gone down the line. We are fed up with the daily struggle to catch a train.
A seriously disabled passenger who wants to travel to work in Manchester from Bolton might as well give up their job, because catching a train in the peak period from Bolton is a rugby scrum, and people need to be 100% fit to succeed. It is a disgrace. There is no room for prams and no room for bikes, and it is absolutely impossible for anyone with mobility issues. In this country, in the 21st century, that is completely unacceptable. Northern must accept its responsibility and be called to account by the Secretary of State.
Bolton has suffered disproportionately from a terrible service over many years, and our experience is a result of problems that continue within the system. The division of responsibility between rail companies, Network Rail, rolling stock leasing companies and the Government has allowed them all to blame each other for failures, and passengers end up paying for them, sometimes with their jobs. What is wrong with this privatisation model is that passengers cannot vote with their feet and use another provider—and too many train operators know it. If publicly owned monopolies are unsuitable, privately owned monopolies are very much worse.
The ultimate responsibility for this catalogue of failures must lie with the Secretary of State for Transport. If not, what is the point in having a Secretary of State for Transport? I very much doubt that he will sort out these problems, but if he does not do that in the short, medium and long term, there is certainly no point in this Secretary of State for Transport, and he should clear his desk, along with Northern rail.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Sir David Crausby), who I congratulate on securing the debate. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. However, the residents of Stockport who I represent have been experiencing anything but pleasure from the introduction of Northern rail’s new and chaotic timetable, which came into force a couple of weeks ago.
There are many unacceptable elements to Northern rail’s timetable, but the most pressing for me is the glaring gap that has been created at peak morning rush hour, owing to the removal of the two most popular commuter services, the 7.50 am and the 8.01 am from Hazel Grove to Manchester Piccadilly, which also called at Woodsmoor and Davenport stations. That has meant that all three well-used commuter stations now have a 45-minute gap in trains to Manchester from just after half-past seven until around 8.20 am, and then no services again until 9 am.
That has left hundreds of commuters unable to get to Manchester on time for work, forced to arrive either much too early or too late. It has disrupted pupils’ ability to get to school, as well as having an effect on parents who have to co-ordinate dropping off their children in the morning, sometimes at multiple schools and nurseries. When passengers can get on a train, they are faced with huge overcrowding, with many unable to get seats, and some trains now have two cars rather than four. In one recent case, overcrowding led to a passenger needing medical attention after fainting in the cramped carriages. It is also forcing many commuters to abandon the rail network entirely and to travel by car instead, adding further to the already all-too-congested roads, including the A6.
It is not just the morning rush-hour services that are affected; Sunday evening services out of Manchester have also been cut or brought forward. For example, the last train back from Manchester to Romiley and other nearby stations is now at 9.45 pm, meaning that people who want to spend the evening in Manchester have to cut their time there short.
These timetable changes are having a damaging and hurtful impact on both the family and professional lives of my constituents. I have not even attempted to calculate the economic cost of the hours of lost productivity. Sadly, I hear consistently from residents about their impression that the rail industry as a whole does not care about passengers. There is extreme anger. The two words that have appeared most often in the dozens of letters and emails that I have had on this subject are “ridiculous” and “unacceptable”, and I must agree entirely with those descriptions. The sad fact is that this timetabling nightmare is overshadowing what should be welcome news of upgrades to infrastructure, more trains overall and new or refurbished rolling stock.
During my Adjournment debate on the last day before recess, I highlighted in detail how the issue affected my own constituency. However, it has become clear in the days that followed, as the stories shared by hon. Members across the House illustrate, that this is not just a case of a few hiccups of implementation on a few lines or services, but a systemic and structural shortcoming of the whole Northern rail timetable.
Much of the blame for this bungle falls at the feet of Network Rail. Its catalogue of delays relating to the electrification project from Manchester to Preston via Bolton, which the hon. Member for Bolton North East alluded to in his speech and which is now apparently two years overdue, has meant that train operators faced uncertainty over the state of the available infrastructure. That had a knock-on effect on their ability to plan an effective timetable. Also, they are unable to use the electric engines on that line and so are reliant on old diesel engines to make up for the shortage of rolling stock. That in turn caused Northern rail to put its timetable bids in late, by which time many of its required platform slots had been taken up by other operators. It has been a perfect storm of delayed rail upgrades leading to delayed timetable planning, leading to delayed or even missing trains.
While I have had some positive dealings with regional representatives of Network Rail, this whole debacle is a symptom of Network Rail’s aloofness, unaccountability and, at times, sheer arrogance in failing to communicate with either train operators or passengers, let alone Members of Parliament. When its chief executive Mark Carne, who does not readily reply to my letters, leaves later this year, I am sure he will not be missed by passengers—and certainly not by me.
However, while it may be justifiable to heap a large portion of the blame for the delays and their consequences on Network Rail, relevant questions must be asked of others, including the Government, given their ultimate control of Network Rail. What were the reasons for the further delay to the Bolton electrification project, which has caused this mess-up of the timetabling process? What assurance can be given that the work will not be subject to further delay? When the delays on the Bolton line upgrades came to light, why did Northern rail say it would still be able to manage, and why did it not flag up the depth of the problems that that would cause? Did the Department for Transport not know that the infrastructure delays would scupper the timetable? Why did rail experts advise Transport Ministers that it would all be fine? What searching questions did Ministers ask to verify what they were being told?
What passengers really want to know is what is being done to get us out of this mess. On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told me in the Chamber that he would bang heads together to sort out the 45-minute gap in morning peak-time services that is affecting my constituents so badly. Yesterday evening I met with him again to reiterate those concerns. Furthermore, this morning I met with both Network Rail and Northern rail, who gave assurances that the Bolton electrification project would definitely be completed this year and that that would enable Northern to plug the unacceptable gaps in the current timetable. I will have to hold somebody to account for that statement.
Questions still remain for passengers faced with a whole summer of disruption. Will Transport for the North, the regional transport body, conduct a formal assessment as to whether Northern rail is in breach of its performance targets as set out in its franchise agreements? If it is, what action will be taken? Transport for the North is currently co-running the rail franchise in the north, but is not using the full extent of its powers. Will the Department for Transport ensure that it uses those powers? Finally, do passengers really have to wait for the six-month timetable review, or will the Minister do all he can to get things moving more speedily? I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister. He is in an unenviable position, but I am sure he will appreciate the anger of my constituents and those of hon. Members across the House, and do his very best by them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Sir David Crausby) on securing a debate that is important to all our constituents in Greater Manchester.
As I said in the Chamber on Monday when the Secretary of State made a statement to the House, the problems my constituents are experiencing are not new. They have endured months of misery, beginning well before the botched introduction of last month’s new timetable and well before the delays in completing the infrastructure improvements. In fact, my constituents have been used for far too many years to an unreliable, infrequent service on clapped-out old Pacer trains, which are still running on the line despite promises of replacements to come, and they are frankly fed up with what they have had to put up with.
Although performance has not been good for a very long time on the line through my constituency between Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Oxford Road, the performance in recent months has been particularly abysmal. Day after day, constituents have been in touch with me about delayed, cancelled or overcrowded trains; trains that have only two carriages when they should have four; trains not stopping at all at scheduled station stops because they are too full for anyone else to get on, meaning that people who need to alight at those stations cannot do so and are taken well out of their way; huge gaps between services as not one, not two, but sometimes three consecutive rush-hour trains are cancelled, meaning people cannot get home from work to see their families in the evening; and a dearth of information for passengers, with information switching at the last minute from, “The train’s on time,” or, “The train’s two minutes away,” to, “The train’s 15 minutes delayed,” or, “It’s not coming at all.”
It is absolutely impossible for passengers in those circumstances to have any confidence in the service they need to rely on. No wonder that they are thoroughly fed up and furious. No wonder, as other hon. Members have said this afternoon, that they have started to drive to work or to other engagements, although many would prefer to take the train, because they know they cannot trust the service. As my hon. Friend alluded to, it is also no wonder that staff morale is so poor when drivers, conductors and other staff find themselves delivering a service that they know is substandard and for which they take the brunt of passenger anger. I have no doubt that that is contributing to the already difficult employment situation that my hon. Friend mentioned, with Northern itself acknowledging to me that absence rates are on the rise.
Passengers in my constituency do not really care whether it is Network Rail, Northern rail, Rail North or other train operators that are actually responsible for this mess and they do not really care about this passing the parcel of blame. They want someone to take responsibility for the whole system’s functioning, in order to fix the service and to make it reliable now. That is why I will put three particular questions to the Minister this afternoon.
First of all, we need a reliable, credible, up-to-date information system for passengers that tells them what is going to happen, and for that to then happen. My constituents have been relying on the now notorious hashtag on Twitter, #NorthernFail, to tell them what is going on; indeed, that has been my best source of information about what is happening to my constituents too. If #NorthernFail can give us up-to-date, real-time information about what is going on with the rail service, why on earth can Northern rail not?
It should not be too hard to give passengers reliable and accurate information that allows them to have faith that a service will run, rather than the situation they are in now, in which they do not know if a train will run or not. If that does not change, many of them will vote with their feet and simply not use the service at all. Will the Minister say what is being done to improve the quality and reliability of information to passengers, so that we can win back passenger confidence in the service and ensure that they can use it confidently in future?
Secondly, my hon. Friend talked about the compensation scheme that is in place, which I would also like the Minister to address. I was very pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Transport say in the Chamber on Monday that the compensation offered will be equivalent to that provided to Southern Rail users, who have suffered similar levels of disruption in recent years. It is absolutely clear that the current system is simply not adequate to compensate passengers for the level of inconvenience that they have suffered. The delay repay system does not address the persistent pattern of delay, cancellation, uncertainty and inconvenience.
That limited system has been exacerbated by passengers being frankly insulted by long delays in getting their compensation, by being refused for petty reasons and by being offered quite derisory amounts. Passengers have told me of compensation of £1 or £1.12, which is hardly worth the effort of asking for. What more can the Minister say to us about a proper, appropriate and fair compensation scheme that will recognise this persistent inconvenience? When will it be in place, how will passengers access it and what can they do to gain redress if they are not satisfied with the compensation they have had so far?
Thirdly, what will the Minister and his Department do going forward to monitor and enforce a Northern rail performance that complies with its contractual obligations under its current franchise, and what will he do to drive improvement? Passengers have been telling us for months that the service is dire, so I am at a loss to understand why it has taken so long for the Secretary of State to act. As my hon. Friend pointed out, this fragmented system is clearly not delivering for passengers, because Network Rail, Northern, the different train operators and numerous oversight and governance bodies all seem to stir the pot but do not actually take responsibility for putting things right.
Will the Minister describe exactly who is responsible at every level in this chain of command, from the operating companies to the infrastructure companies, to the oversight companies, and to the Department for Transport and Ministers themselves? I am not clear to whom the different demands and challenges should be directed, and I am tired, as are my constituents, of seeing blame passed all the way around.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers to these questions, but my constituents look forward most to assurances that a service that they have endured for too long will now finally see real improvements.
It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Sir David Crausby) on his comprehensive and historical analysis of the failings of the transport network, and particularly of Northern rail in its delivery of services to so many of our constituents.
I will focus specifically on the recent timetable changes and how they came about, and what I think the Government should have done to address these problems before they actually happened. I also have some specific questions about compensation and contingency arrangements. I was promised by the Secretary of State that things would improve by today, but I am afraid that the information I have so far is that there has been no improvement at all.
As colleagues have mentioned, there have been many issues with the new timetable, including a shortage of properly trained and available drivers who are qualified to run the new services, as described in last year’s Gibb report, and, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the overrunning of engineering works—specifically, the electrification of the Manchester-Bolton-Preston line. Those issues meant that the proposed new timetable had to be overwritten, delaying its launch and the driver training for the new routes. Network Rail’s planners were unable to confirm routes and times until a matter of weeks before the revamp, rather than the normal three to six months for a routine change. Will the Minister explain why the timetable changes were not deferred once these multiple problems became clear?
We have heard words of remorse from the Transport Secretary, Network Rail and others, but in addition to many constituents asking me to raise the matter with the Transport Secretary last November, many rail experts also raised these issues. They have been proven right. Why were they not listened to? How could this have gone so horribly wrong, and why was there no delay in implementing the new timetable?
The Transport Secretary said in the Chamber on Monday that
“both Northern and GTR were not sufficiently prepared to manage a timetable change of this scale… Neither Northern nor GTR had a clear fall-back plan.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 50.]
If that was the case, why were Ministers and officials within the Department not aware of it beforehand? Surely, given the sheer scale of the changes being introduced, they should have been closely monitoring this.
In Oldham East and Saddleworth there has been deep concern from passengers at Greenfield station for many months about the proposed new timetable, with a reduced service and capacity at peak hours, destinations changing from Manchester Victoria to Manchester Piccadilly and poor connection times via Stalybridge, as well as ongoing accessibility issues at Greenfield. I wrote to the Secretary of State about these issues last November, and in response the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), said the new timetable would deliver “significant reliability benefits”. The evidence has shown that response to be completely wrong. Given that “significant reliability benefits” have not been delivered, will the Minister ensure that future timetable planning now underway for the December changes will actively involve rail users and not ignore their concerns?
The impact of the timetable changes on people’s lives cannot be underestimated, particularly on those with caring responsibilities. Parents who were previously able to drop their children off at school before getting their morning train into Manchester now struggle to do so if they are to get into Manchester for 9 am. The changes to the timetable mean that there is a 44-minute gap between 7.45 am and 8.30 am, which is the time that they are able to do so after dropping their children off. Their return journeys are equally fraught, with not just too few trains between 5 pm and 6 pm, but the timings of these trains being at 5.17 pm and 6 pm.
We realised that the new timetable was going to play havoc with the lives of working people using Greenfield station in particular, but the chaos since 20 May has been far worse than we feared. Both Northern and TransPennine Express trains have frequently been cancelled and have too often been late as well. The TPE delays significantly impact on constituents interchanging at Stalybridge and have a knock-on effect on their arrival at work
As I told the Transport Secretary following his statement in the Commons, on Monday there were five cancellations at Greenfield station alone, and that was before the evening peak. That was under the new emergency timetable that was meant to address these issues, but made things worse. Such a level of incompetence from TPE and Northern is unacceptable and my constituents deserve much better.
The Government must ensure that appropriate compensation is paid to season ticket holders and that there is a reduction in general ticket prices. The announcement that there will be a special compensation scheme for passengers on affected routes on Northern is to be welcomed, but passengers affected by disruption to TPE services must also be included. The Government also need to look at wider compensation for people who may have had their wages docked or even worse. We have heard of cases where people are on final warnings and have been threatened with losing their jobs.
What details can the Minister provide on how passengers will receive appropriate redress for the disruption and other hardship that they have experienced since 20 May? My constituent’s children were under intolerable stress on their way to exams and experienced delays, which adds to their stress.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the situation faced by constituents trying to travel to exams. I know of exactly the same situation. Even more shockingly, when a taxi had to be used and the cost was claimed back from Northern rail, it said that such expense would not be covered by the compensation system.
Clearly that is absolutely unacceptable. I hope the Minister will reassure us that that will not be the case and that he will take that up with Northern.
We need timescales, eligibility requirements, details of how passengers can claim, and confirmation that entitlements will be similar to those conferred by last year’s Southern passenger compensation scheme, as mentioned by the Transport Secretary on Monday. Will the Minister confirm that compensation for poor service will be measured against the original timetable proposed, not the slimmed-down one now on offer? Will Northern tickets be able to be used on other operators and modes of transport, as called for by my colleague, the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham?
Northern’s action to set a unilateral timetable should not go unchallenged. I repeat my earlier point: passengers must be engaged with and consulted on the timetable. What discussions has the Minister had with Northern on customer consultation on the timetable? The Transport Secretary assured me and my hon. Friends the Members for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) on Monday evening that the emergency timetable will deliver significant improvements by today. I have mentioned what we have found out so far, but I will hold the Secretary of State to that.
What contingency arrangements are in place to remove the franchise from Northern if services do not rapidly improve for passengers across Greater Manchester? I would expect the contingency arrangements to be in place already. Finally, will the Department look to give Transport for the North the necessary policy and financial powers to ensure oversight of all suburban and regional services and work in tandem with Network Rail?
It is clear from this fiasco that our railways cannot be cared for properly from London, and the failure to fairly fund transport in the north exacerbates the problems we face, with deferred electrification and poor-quality, ageing rolling stock. The Minister will be aware that local and regional newspapers yesterday joined together under the banner #onenorth to fight for the north and called on the Government to prove their commitment to our region. I hope that his response will show that commitment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Sir David Crausby) on securing this timely debate, coming as it does with the fiasco of the timetable chaos. I will not repeat what my colleagues have said. Hon. Members have dealt with the issues and challenges and with the main problems with the transport system in the north, and they have also mentioned solutions.
I want to talk about the experience of people using transport in the north, and particularly my personal experience. I will declare an interest here: I am a regular traveller on the trains from Bolton to Manchester and then onwards. Most of the time, I never find a seat to sit on, and we are always crammed in like sardines. At peak times, many of us cannot get on the train at all because it is already fully crowded. I am not talking just about problems with people occupying seats or people standing; we are literally pressed against each other. As a result, some people cannot even get on the train, which means they miss that train. The next one is about 20 or 25 minutes later, which means people miss connecting trains. Students are delayed getting to universities, colleges and schools. Most of the people who work, especially in the early hours of the morning, often get to work late. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have had constituents write to me to say they have lost their jobs because they have been turning up late day in, day out. That is not an exaggeration—it is the complete truth.
On Monday I received an email from Mrs Dearden, who wrote:
“I’m writing to ask you to seek some responsibility and accountability from Northern Rail, and the Government, to sort out the sorry state of rail travel around Greater Manchester. I just wanted to add to your portfolio another tale of the family stress this is causing. My daughter-in-law, a solicitor, travels to work, in Preston, from Bolton every day. She also needs to take and collect her son to and from nursery. For the past few weeks the...unpredictable service that Northern Rail has been providing has meant that she has been faced with the ‘choice’ of getting to work later each day and leaving work earlier in order to collect her son from nursery. As you can understand, this doesn’t amount to a normal working week from her employer’s point of view, nor to her colleagues. It leaves her child, and his nursery, with uncertainty.”
She is not alone, and her case is not exceptional. Many thousands of people in similar situations are suffering extreme disruption to their family life and are being put under stress from a service that they, as customers, pay for. It is not a free service, but something they pay for.
The situation is not new. It has been going on for years. In February 2014 I met senior managers from Northern Rail, Transport for Greater Manchester and First TransPennine Express to discuss the problems with our rail services, and on 5 March 2014 I went to see the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to present a petition to him and to lobby for improved rail services. I have had frequent discussions with Northern and correspondence with subsequent Transport Ministers, but nothing has changed. It is clear that rail in the north is being discriminated against in favour of the train system in the south. I have nothing against people in the south having a great transport network, but I would like to see that in the north as well.
I want to thank and acknowledge those involved in the strong campaign that has been run by newspapers in the north, including The Bolton News and Manchester Evening News. All we want is a decent, safe, reliable rail service. I would like the Minister to ask the Prime Minister—clearly, the Secretary of State seems not to have dealt with this matter properly—to summon transport chiefs and business leaders to 10 Downing Street this week for an emergency summit to devise an action plan to get the region moving again, to announce a special compensation scheme for the passengers most affected by the delays and disruption, and to give Transport for the North the necessary policy and financial powers so that it can have full oversight of all local, suburban and regional services and work in tandem with Network Rail. It is quite clear, as has been pointed out, that our railways cannot be cared for properly from London.
The Government must commit themselves to a full and fundamental review of rail franchising. The Northern fiasco is just another example of franchisees over-promising and under-delivering. Will the Government also demonstrate a commitment to fair transport funding for the north, with a pledge to give the planned high-speed line across the Pennines equal priority with Crossrail 2 in London?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Howarth. I appreciate that many of your constituents in Knowsley have been frustrated in the past couple of weeks, whether travelling in the region or across the country. We heard about the issue in Monday’s urgent statement, of course. It was unprecedented: for 90 minutes 65 MPs of all parties relayed to the House the pain that passengers throughout the country were experiencing, including anxious students not able to get to college to sit vital exams, children late for school, adults late for work and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) has said today, people who have lost their jobs. Family life has been disrupted and childcare made impossible; people do not know when they are going to get home of a night, and businesses struggle when staff do not arrive. In the heart of the tourist season there is the fiasco of trains being cancelled at peak times in the Lake district—we stand with the businesses there.
I was struck by the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who talked on Monday—column 63 in Hansard—about people who were fasting during Ramadan standing for five hours in blistering heat. Trains have been cancelled and delayed; they do not stop. People have been failed—“Northern fail” is the expression that comes to mind. The situation is not just in the north, but across the country. I know that passengers in the south-east in particular have also had years of that pain. We have a broken railway system.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Sir David Crausby), who eloquently highlighted the pain of his constituents, particularly the pain caused by Arriva Rail North. Electric trains in his area should have been running from Manchester via Bolton to Preston last year, but it will be lucky if they do so by the end of this year. Northern provides a poor service to passengers and they now have their worst punctuality rating in eight years. As we heard, only 83% of their trains arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled time. Of course, in the past week things have got worse, with trains often being cancelled altogether at weekends.
The story for passengers in Bolton is one of broken promises, within a completely deficient system, and they are of course dependent on a completely deficient compensation scheme. As we have heard, it is far too complex for passengers to engage with, and it does not work for multimodal transportation, so fewer people claim on it. We have heard that disabled people and parents with prams have no chance of using the railway. At certain points on the line the trains are already packed, as there are too few carriages to meet the need. In the new upgraded rail system there is still a need to install the overhead gantries for the power lines at places such as Chorley, Bolton and Salford. However, because of poor ground conditions due to uncharted shallow mines around those locations, a third of the foundations were unsuccessful at the first attempt. All that work was outsourced to the failed company Carillion.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate—the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who put some pertinent questions to the Minister, and my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Bolton South-east, and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)—for sharing the impact of the rail meltdown on their constituents. The upset, anger and frustration that have been heard in the House this week are nothing compared with the actual pain that we have heard about directly from the public. Despite all that, the Secretary of State could not find it in himself to apologise for the part that he played. The only reason he remains in his post this afternoon is that the Prime Minister is too weak to sack him. All that we got was his belief that he was clever in apportioning blame to everyone but himself. Others are to blame—I grant him that; but the person in charge, at the heart of it all, is the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister will offer an apology on his behalf for the fact that he has utterly failed the British public.
So what do we know? Network Rail ran into serious trouble during control period 5, not completing many of the planned infrastructure projects, including promised electrification upgrades. Did the Secretary of State know? Yes; he personally intervened, cancelling many electrification projects. Hon. Members will remember that that was the day after the House rose last summer—presumably to avoid questioning of the kind that happened on Monday. The right hon. Gentleman announced that trains that do not even exist would run in the future, and said they would replace the planned new electric rolling stock as on the TransPennine Express route.
It is deeply offensive that new trains that cannot accommodate wheelchair users have been put on that line. We heard how Network Rail failed to complete its timetabling programme and how the Secretary of State, despite initial denial, knew that that was coming over the horizon. He said on Monday that he took calls weeks before the new timetable was due to be introduced, but in his statement he failed to mention that, with regard to a company limited by guarantee, he was the one person in charge—allegedly. Therefore he is fully to blame. If he neglected or negated his responsibilities he should resign.
People in the industry whom I have talked to have told me that the crisis was long predicted. When the company moved the timetabling function to Milton Keynes a significant proportion of the very skilled timetabling staff were lost, so there were not the personnel to do the work required. I have also been told that the process of rescheduling an entire timetable normally takes the best part of a year, and at least nine months. Given that the project commenced in earnest in February, it was not likely to meet its own timetable, to be stress tested and to be sure to work.
The glaring absence is the fact that the Secretary of State did not at any stage intervene and postpone the new timetable—and we learned why. He is, it now appears, the only person on both sides of an apparent Chinese wall dividing his Department. On a wing and a prayer he ordered that the timetable change should go ahead. There was a threat that the operators—the private, fragmented companies that he always defends—would sue him or the Department if the timetable was withdrawn. They had received promises from him on the new timetabling: that in May they would be able to run their new trains, on new infrastructure and at new times. Their financial structures, including how they would afford to pay their levies to the Department and how they would pay their shareholders, could not be delivered unless all the new slots ran on the promised terms in the new timetable, as set out in the franchises.
I think that we can expect law suits to come flooding in now. After all, those private companies’ sole reason for existing is to drive profit out of the state. Those rail companies had hired their new trains for the new electrified lines and expanded timetables. I remind Members that they do not own their rolling stock, but lease it by contract at an exorbitant rate from consortia of investment companies and fund managers. These private profit companies exist to drive profit out of the train operating companies, which in turn drive profit out of the state, taxpayers and passengers. They have disposed of their old rolling stock and moved it on to their next customers, while the new rolling stock cannot operate on the de-electrified lines—you could not make it up, Mr Howarth.
Then there are the train operating companies, and today we have heard much about Northern rail and its failure. It went ahead and signed contracts, demanding that services be run down to the bone. We heard how it cut the number of crucial staff to maximise its financial gain, and it failed to maintain or recruit sufficient staff to run on the new timetable. It knew what was coming over the horizon, and it failed. It is also trying to get rid of train guards, the very people at the heart of looking after the needs of passengers. We have ended up with not enough trains or staff to meet the needs of a rushed and untested timetable, although I must say that the staff have been phenomenal across the rail network, and we salute them for all that they have had to contend with over the past few weeks.
Only the Secretary of State and his Ministers sit at the top table and the interface of track, timetable and train. He knew about these challenges but did nothing. He let this chaos happen, either through sheer incompetence or by hoping that it would be the least worst option. He is the head of every decision, which is why either he must resign or the Prime Minister should sack him.
One subject that was not mentioned on Monday was how much all this will cost the public or passengers through future ticket increases. The money has to come from somewhere. I am sure the TOCs will call for compensation—they always do—and we also have the compensation scheme, and a commitment to a new compensation regime, which fellow MPs are already saying will be insufficient and that more will be required. Will students who were not able to sit their crucial exams, or businesses that could not open their doors because their staff had not arrived, be able to claim compensation? How much will all this chaos cost? I put that point specifically to the Minister, because ultimately taxpayers or passengers will pay, and they need to know how much it will cost.
This story will not end happily ever after. First we get a revised timetable that, as we have heard, has in many places been much worse than the original one. Then we get the mass cancellations across the service. We have heard that whatever timetable is applied, the chaos will run for months and months into the summer. What has the Secretary of State offered? An inquiry that will report at the end of the year. Thank goodness the Transport Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), will provide answers long before then through its own inquiry. The Secretary of State’s inquiry will not report until after the next set of timetable changes have been put in place in December, although I have heard that those changes have fallen behind schedule.
This chaos has forced passengers off trains and into their cars—a modal shift. We talk a lot about a modal shift across our railway system, but we aspire to it going the other way. When rail services do not work and fail the public, people jump back into their cars because they have no other option. That leads to more congestion on our roads, more frustration and more pollution to exacerbate our poor air quality. I am sure that the rail companies will challenge the Government about that fall in patronage.
The great British public have been completely let down by this Government and their failed rail model, and they are right to be furiously angry at the Secretary of State, who blames everybody else—the bosses at Northern rail, for example—while forgetting that he is in charge. That simply could not happen under Labour’s proposals for a new model of public ownership. We will scrap the juggling of multiple private company interests and have one rail service that works together in the interests of passengers. The Secretary of State could make a start by moving towards that model—that would massively satisfy passengers across the north—and he could take the contract away from Northern rail, and use his powers to start providing reparations for this complete disaster on our railways.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Sir David Crausby) on securing this important debate and giving us another opportunity to discuss the disruption on Northern rail services.
The Department is focused on ensuring, as rapidly as possible, that the industry restores reliability for passengers to acceptable levels. I assure passengers who have been affected that I share their frustration, and we have heard from hon. Members across the House about how their constituents have been affected in a number of completely unacceptable ways. I echo my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s words of sympathy on Monday, as well as the apology that he gave to the House. That mirrored the apologies from the chief executives of Northern rail and Network Rail, as well as from train operators in other parts of the country, for everything that has gone wrong and for all the difficulties that have been caused to people in the north of England and other parts of the country.
The new timetable was introduced on 20 May, and as a number of Members have acknowledged, this episode has overshadowed what should have been a positive story for our railways and the economy as a whole. The May 2018 timetable change was planned to deliver more services up and down the country as part of the biggest modernisation of the railway since Victorian times, taking into account the great growth in passenger numbers in recent years. As we have heard, for Northern rail, which is co-managed through the Rail North Partnership on behalf of Transport for the North and the Department for Transport, that timetable change unfortunately resulted in significant disruption and inconvenience for passengers and the travelling public as a whole.
Northern’s new timetable was planned to improve services for passengers across the north, and it was intended to increase services by 1,300 a week. It was designed to give passengers the benefits of the unprecedented investment that we are making, including an expanded train fleet. It was also intended to take advantage of big infrastructure projects such as the Ordsall Chord, which has linked Manchester’s three main train stations for the first time, as well as the upgrade of Liverpool Lime Street and of tracks between Manchester and Liverpool. Further investment will deliver faster and more frequent services, with more seats, by 2020. That includes upgrading the route between Manchester and Blackpool via Bolton and upgrades to the Calder Valley routes, ahead of significant improvements to the transpennine route from next year. By 2020, all Northern and TransPennine Express trains will be new or refurbished, with—finally—the Pacer trains entirely gone.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the regional disparity in funding, which they indicated was part of an underlying problem. Going forward, we want to ensure that any disparity that there may have been in the past gets comprehensively addressed. I hope hon. Members will find it comforting that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority analysis of planned central Government transport investment shows that, over the next four years, the north will receive more investment on a per-person basis, at £1,039, than the south, at £1,029.
I want to go into more detail about what went wrong and answer the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) about who knew what, when, and about why there was not adequate intervention if that was indeed the case. I will need to backtrack on the sequence of events. After the decision was taken in the summer of 2017 to de-risk the potential delay of infrastructure from the major timetable change in December 2017, Northern planned to introduce changes in two phases, in December 2017 and in May 2018, with the May 2018 change, recasting services around Manchester, being most significant. The planned changes for May were underpinned by planned line speed improvements and electrification of the route between Manchester and Preston via Bolton. As hon. Members have noted, that would enable Northern to operate electric rolling stock, freeing up diesel units to provide additional capacity on other parts of Northern’s route.
In line with normal industry deadlines, Northern submitted its proposed timetable for May 2018 to Network Rail in August 2017, and Network Rail agreed it in November 2017. Network Rail had expected to complete the work that would facilitate that timetable change before May 2018, but faced significant complexities based on the interconnectivity of the network and the planning by all operators, and in January 2018 it acknowledged that it was unable to complete the work as expected. Those delays were further exacerbated by the disruption caused by Storm Emma and the severe cold spell—the beast from the east.
After it became apparent that the Manchester to Preston electrification was not going to be completed for May 2018, Northern took on the task of wholesale replanning of rolling stock, staff rostering and driver training to accommodate the lack of wiring on that route. As hon. Members will know, that is because drivers have to undergo essential safety-related route training before trains can operate on new lines. For Blackpool, that meant retraining 400-plus drivers from all the depots that operate that route.
Were not some of the delays, and the causes of the delays, predictable? Surely there should have been contingencies in the upgrading process and plans that would have accounted for that. If that was not the case, what is the Minister doing on, for example, penalties in relation to the franchise so that he is able to claw back from the providers?
That is a good question, and one of the things that Stephen Glaister’s review will be looking at very carefully. It will look at all the processes that went into the creation of the May timetable and all the planning and preparation around it, to answer those kinds of questions and to see what lessons can be learned for future timetable changes, including the December timetable change. I will come on to compensation, if the hon. Lady hangs on for a second; I want to ensure that I complete the account of how we got to the May timetable change and what lessons we can learn from that.
I was talking about the training of drivers. Some drivers have been unavailable for their normal train-driving duties while they were and are undergoing that training. To make a difficult situation worse, Northern was unable to ask its drivers to work on their rest days for the last three months of this period, because, as hon. Members will know, ASLEF declined to extend the rest day working agreement that ended in February. That meant that Northern has not been able to absorb those exceptional or last-minute training needs and provide the additional flexibility for the train driver rosters that it needed to.
Let me turn to the questions about who knew what, when, and about where the DFT was in all this. In January, Network Rail informed the Department that it would not complete its upgrade of the Manchester to Preston route in time for the May timetable change. In response, Northern developed a new timetable in a compressed period and briefed stakeholders on the reasons why that was required. Following that, the late completion of the Blackpool to Preston blockade in mid-April meant that Northern had less time to complete those plans and its driver training. Northern then did not finalise its plan for the timetable until three days prior to its introduction. Industry readiness boards assured the Department and the Secretary of State that the timetable was ready for introduction, and the Department was not made aware of any expectations of high levels of cancellations.
Hon. Members have asked about compensation to reflect the significant inconvenience experienced by passengers. There is no doubt, and the Department accepts, that Northern passengers have faced totally unsatisfactory levels of service. I have met with many colleagues in the House, and I have also heard directly many stories from the travelling public of how the disruptions have impacted the lives of all those constituents.
It is entirely right for all those affected by the disruption to be properly compensated. I encourage passengers, in the first instance, to continue to use Northern’s Delay Repay compensation mechanism for affected journeys. Northern operates the Delay Repay compensation system for all its passengers. Under that scheme, as hon. Members will know, passengers are entitled to claim compensation for each delay of 30 minutes or more that they experience, whatever the cause of the delay. There are no exclusions for weather or other delays outside the control of the rail industry.
The Office of Rail and Road guidelines require train operators to respond to claims within 20 days of their receipt. Northern has assured the Department that it is working hard to respond to all claims within industry standards. I acknowledge the complaints that the hon. Member for Bolton North East has made about various aspects of the Delay Repay scheme. The Department is discussing with Northern ways in which we expect it to reduce its processing time for Delay Repay claims.
In his statement on Monday, the Secretary of State announced that, in addition to the standard Delay Repay compensation mechanisms, there would be a special compensation scheme for Northern passengers, subject to agreement by the board of Transport for the North. It is to be funded by the rail industry and will ensure that regular rail customers receive appropriate redress for the disruption that they have experienced. The industry will imminently set out more detail of the eligibility requirements and how season ticket holders can claim. However, the Secretary of State has already indicated, at a high level, that he expects that the scheme should offer Northern passengers who have experienced protracted disruption of this kind similar entitlements to those under Southern’s passenger compensation scheme last year.
I want to allow us a few days to refine the details of how the compensation scheme will work. We are working carefully with all players in the industry to ensure that a fair scheme is put forward that adequately provides redress to passengers. The Secretary of State has been clear that this will be funded by the industry. We will be bringing forward further details imminently, which I hope will answer the hon. Lady’s question.
What are we doing concretely to fix the problems that have occurred? Acting through the Rail North Partnership, the Department for Transport has put in place an action plan with Northern, which includes improving driver rostering to get more trains running now, increasing driver training on new routes, additional contingency drivers and management presence at key locations in Manchester, and putting extra peak services in the timetable along the Bolton corridor. Northern has also announced that, until the end of July, it will run fewer services than were originally planned, per the May timetable, to give passengers greater certainty and to increase opportunities for driver training. I believe that this temporary measure is necessary to stabilise the service, enabling improvements to be introduced gradually. Northern will then get back to a full timetable service.
The interim timetable, rolled out on Monday, will see an approximately 6% reduction in the number of train services—about 165 out of the normal 2,800 daily services. Northern is expecting to start to see significant improvements this week, from today, as their drivers are fully rostered on to the new interim timetable. The timings for today, as of 10.35 am or so, saw Northern achieve 86% on the public performance measure. With 665 or so trains operated, 2% were very late or cancelled, which is about 15 trains. There is positive progress here. This is Northern’s best weekday morning performance since the timetable changed. That 86% compares with weekday out-turns of between 60% and 70% for the first two weeks following the introduction of the May timetable.
I have not heard an explanation of why Northern could not suspend bringing in the new timetable. The Minister has just outlined that the new interim timetable has made a difference. Why could it not have thought about bringing in an interim timetable in the middle of May, instead of the new changed timetable?
The May timetable is a big timetable change. It is roughly four times larger than any previous change over recent years of such timetables. It was a six-monthly timetable change. It was a very big change that reflected the massive investment that has been going into the rail system and all the opportunities to create new services across the country. In those circumstances, the timetable change did not just affect Northern and Thameslink, it affected every train operation in the country. All those other train services around the country had interlinkages with the train services being run by Northern, Thameslink and other Govia Thameslink Railway services.
As a consequence, simply suspending the timetable was not possible, because all the other train operators had put in place their own driver rosters and driver training programmes for all the other services running across the rest of the country. Not introducing the May timetable at that point would have been a far worse and more disruptive solution. This is progress. We recognise that there is significantly more to be done. We want to get back to where we were meant to get to, which was the full introduction of the May timetable, as soon as we can, but we want to do that gradually and to reintroduce services as soon as we can, once the appropriate driver training has taken place.
How can we ensure this does not happen again? As I have mentioned, work has begun to set up the independent inquiry into the timetable, implementation and deliverability of future timetable changes. That will be chaired by an independent transport expert, the chair of the current independent regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, Professor Stephen Glaister. In parallel to the inquiry, the Department for Transport is assessing whether Northern met its contractual obligation—a subject which a number of hon. Members asked about—in the planning and delivery of this timetable change. We will carefully assess Northern rail’s planning, risk assessment and resilience in preparing for the May timetable change.
We are currently reviewing whether Northern is in contravention of the franchise agreement. If it is found to be so, it would be referred to the Department’s enforcement advisory panel. The purpose of that panel is to review any contraventions of the franchise agreement fairly and consistently across all franchises. It will seek to respond in a consistent manner where different train operators commit similar contraventions, taking account of the Department’s enforcement policy and previous enforcement decisions, and will recommend the appropriate response, including any remedial plan or enforcement action, if required.
Work has been underway over the last few weeks on this question, and we expect to come to a conclusion as soon as is reasonably possible.
In assessing whether Northern has breached its franchise agreement, it is important to bear in mind that there are other players in this story and Network Rail is an important one. While bearing in mind Network Rail’s failure to deliver the infrastructure I mentioned on time, I want hon. Members to be assured that we will hold the operator to the terms of its contractual obligations.
I want to give the hon. Member for Bolton North East a chance to wind up at the end. I thank all colleagues for their contributions. I remind them that once this phase has been completed, passengers on Northern will benefit from 1,300 extra services a week. Rail users of Northern have much to be hopeful about in the future of their rail services. Brand-new trains will soon be introduced, building on the improvement to timetables and stations already made in recent years. We are working closely with train companies to drive down cancellations and will support Network Rail and the wider industry in delivering these significant improvements.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) raised the question of promises. Let me tell him that I have had enough promises to fill a small filing cabinet from Northern rail. When I last met Northern rail and it made further promises, I said, “I’ll put them with the rest of them and believe it when I see it.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about winning back confidence and the issue of compensation. It occurs to me that compensation is absolutely vital, because nothing will focus the mind of an operator such as Northern rail more than money. Not only must we ensure that passengers are compensated; the operator must be deterred from delivering such a poor service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) talked about timetable issues and the question of removing the franchise. I did not hear the Minister talk about removing the franchise, but I was pleased to hear that it is at least being looked at. It does need to be seriously looked at, and certainly a little more than it has in the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) talked about family stress and the devolution of power to the north. I can tell the Minister that there is a perception in the north that if this had happened in London and the south-east, the Army would have been called in, Northern would have had the franchise removed and the Secretary of State would have been sacked already. Whether that is fair or not, that is how people in the north feel. There is an important job to do to ensure that that is not how people see it.
In conclusion, I want to see a better service that is fit for local people. That is something that we should all have in common, so that we can move forward without any political prejudice.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Northern services in Greater Manchester.
Hezbollah’s Rocket Arsenal: Southern Lebanon
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal in southern Lebanon.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his place to listen and respond. I called the debate because on the northern border of one of our closest allies, Israel, there is a rocket arsenal of up to 150,000 missiles aimed at all its major towns and cities, and something should be done about that. In the debate, I will rely heavily on a superb report by the High Level Military Group, “Hizballah’s terror army: how to prevent a third Lebanon war”, which was published in October.
The High Level Military Group is a group of distinguished international senior military figures, including our own General Lord Richard Dannatt and Colonel Richard Kemp, which has looked into the issue thoroughly. The report gives us a stark warning:
“The last war between Hizballah and Israel in 2006 was a severe blow to the terrorist group. But since then, Hizballah has been able to recover militarily, amassing a huge stockpile of weapons, developing and fielding new and more precise and lethal systems, and gaining combat experience fighting for Iran and…in Syria.”
On the subject of Hezbollah being a terrorist organisation, does my hon. Friend share my view that the distinction that we choose to make on our side—that there is a military and a civil wing to Hezbollah—is entirely artificial and that Hezbollah sees itself as a unified terrorist military organisation?
Yes. Not only do my right hon. Friend and I agree that there is no distinction, but so does Hezbollah. In October 2012 its Deputy Secretary General, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said:
“We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other… Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, are in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority.”
To follow up on that point, at a protest outside the Israeli embassy in Kensington in July, Israeli flags were burned and Hezbollah flags were waved with impunity. Does my hon. Friend agree that that sends a signal of lauding a terrorist organisation that should infuriate all British people?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We will probably see more flag burning this Sunday at the al-Quds demonstration in London. I deplore all flag burning. As British Members of Parliament, we have probably seen the Union Jack burned more often than most other flags. It is frankly a disgrace that Hezbollah can parade on the streets of London. Let us remember that its flag has a raised machine gun on it, which demonstrates its belief in violent resistance.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the al-Quds march in London. One of the reasons why the distinction that our right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) sets out is a problem is that that is how Hezbollah gets away with flying those flags. When it is challenged about being a proscribed military organisation, it effectively has some small print at the bottom of the flag that says it is the civilian wing, and the police are then not empowered to do anything about the march. Does my hon. Friend think that issue should be tackled?
Yes, I absolutely agree, and I hope that the Minister will relay to the Home Office the concerns that have been raised about that here. As we have discussed, Hezbollah does not see a difference between a military and a political wing. Very distinguished international bodies have banned Hezbollah outright and have proscribed it as a terrorist organisation, including the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council. Frankly, we should join them.
Before I took those three helpful interventions from distinguished colleagues, I was in the middle of quoting the High Level Military Group report, which continues:
“There is nothing predetermined in strategic life, but the new configuration of forces in the region could lead to a new war that, because of the regional dynamics and new security imperatives, will be much more violent and destructive than the previous ones.”
We have been warned.
In case I get distracted during the rest of my contribution, I will go on to the solutions that the High Level Military Group outlines. Having extensively researched the subject, including through visits on the ground, it states that
“our assessment is that a new and grave conflict is only a matter of time, and the international community must act to help prevent it.”
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend in mid-flow, but by drawing attention to the financial backers of Hezbollah and Hamas—the Iranians—whose mission seems to be to create mayhem, chaos and murder in the middle east, should we not send a message, as strongly as possible, that Iran’s malign and wicked influence in the region is a threat to peace and we will not tolerate it?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Iran is the bully in the playground. According to the High Level Military Group, Hezbollah is
“an Iranian creation that sits as the crown jewel in Iran’s regional strategy of jihadi revolutionary warfare”.
In short, it is
“the most powerful non-state armed actor in the world.”
It is potentially more lethal than ISIS, and it is all backed and funded by Iran.
Does my hon. Friend agree that support for terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, poses a serious threat to Israel and its borders? Does he also agree that a massive failing in the Iran nuclear deal was the immediate lifting of sanctions, which allowed Iran to plough millions into proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that sanctions relief funds the jihadi revolutionary network driven by Iran. It is not just Israel that is under threat, but Saudi Arabia. Iran is effectively establishing rocket arsenals in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah, in Gaza with Hamas and now in Yemen against Saudi Arabia with the Houthi rebels. We should call that out.
That excellent report continues:
“Urgent steps are required to contain Hizballah and de-escalate the tensions on the border between Israel and Lebanon.”
The first point for the Minister is that there must be
“a clear recognition of the geopolitical ambitions of Iran,”
which we have just discussed,
“its religiously motivated imperialism and its pursuit of Israel’s annihilation as the core driver of the danger…The international community must take actions to curtail Iran’s activities, raise the cost of its behaviour and engage in efforts at deterrence.”
Apparently, with our new relationship with Iran, we were meant to be able to dissuade it from engaging in that sort of activity, but it seems that since the nuclear deal was agreed, if anything, Iran has stepped up the pace.
The report’s second recommendation is that
“the more specific problem of Hizballah must be addressed from multiple angles. Within Lebanon itself, the political cost of the integration of this terrorist organization into the fabric of the state must be raised. Thus, European nations should legally proscribe Hizballah as a whole, ending the fraudulent distinction between ostensible political and terrorist wings of the organization. Similarly, donor nations to Lebanon, led by the U.S., should make new investments conditional on a plan to strip Hizballah of its de facto status as the leading force in the country… The full implementation of UNSC”—
United Nations Security Council—
“resolutions 1559 and 1701, enforced by an expanded mandate for UNIFIL”—
the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—
“and the requisite political pressure, should be a central part of such an effort.”
The third recommendation is that
“the West should strongly support Israel in its efforts to de-escalate the tensions. There is no plausible legitimate explanation for Hizballah’s efforts to arm itself and threaten Israel other than the explicit religiously motivated Iranian drive to destroy Israel.”
Again, in the clearest possible terms, the report sends us a serious warning that war is very likely in the short term in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah is Arabic for “Party of God”—that is what the name means—and it is a radical Shi’a Islamist terror group based largely in southern Lebanon. It was founded in 1982, with Iranian support, after the first Lebanese war. Hezbollah takes all of its ideological inspiration from the Iranian revolution and the teachings of the late fundamentalist Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah seeks to violently impose its totalitarian ideology on Muslims and forge a radical, Iranian-style Islamic state in Lebanon in its determination to destroy Israel and drive out western and other non-Islamic influences from the Muslim world.
The Hezbollah leader is known for his venomous, anti-Semitic rhetoric and has called repeatedly for the destruction of the state of Israel. Hezbollah is linked to a history of international terror attacks. It now has de facto control of Lebanon’s Government and boasts the country’s largest military infrastructure, including up to an estimated 150,000 Iranian-supplied rockets capable of striking anywhere in Israel. Iran provides financial support for Hezbollah, with weapons, technology and salaries for its tens of thousands of fighters.
At the time of the last Lebanon war, in 2006, it was estimated that Hezbollah had between 10,000 and 15,000 rockets, and about 10,000 fighters. Now, in 2018, the rocket arsenal has increased tenfold, to up to 150,000 rockets, and Hezbollah has as many as 45,000 fighters, many of whom are battle-hardened from experience in Syria. As well as having a military footprint on the ground, Hezbollah is also involved in drugs and arms smuggling, money laundering and document fraud.
Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has only one purpose and that is to threaten Israel. Israel has no territorial ambitions in southern Lebanon at all. Moreover, Hezbollah has not only imported weapons from Iran but it now has the capability to manufacture such weapons itself in at least two rocket factories located in Lebanon.
The rocket arsenal includes everything from Katyusha rockets at one end, which have a small payload and a very limited range, all the way up to Syrian B302 missiles, Zelzal-2 missiles, M600 missiles and Scud B missiles at the other end, which can reach anywhere in Israel. Although Israel has anti-missile capability, with its anti-missile batteries, taking out 150,000 rockets that are all fired basically at the same time would be impossible for any military force to achieve.
Another problem is that this rocket arsenal is not all lined up on the border, so that everyone can see it; it is embedded in more or less every Shi’ite village located in southern Lebanon. Effectively, therefore, Hezbollah is using the population of southern Lebanon as a human shield for the development of its weapons systems. What is rather more serious is that Hezbollah is not only using the Lebanese civilian population as a human shield, but effectively using UNIFIL as a shield for its activities as well.
At the end of the second Lebanese war, Israel withdrew under the terms of UN resolution 1701. One of the clauses in that resolution said that UNIFIL should disarm military actors in southern Lebanon. Members do not need just to believe me, because the report states:
“UNSC Resolution 1701 mandates that UNIFIL monitor the cessation of hostilities, accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces as they deploy throughout the south, and to take ‘steps towards the establishment between the Blue Line”—
the border with Israel—
“and the Litani river of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL deployed in this area’.”
It is clear to me and to the High Level Military Group that UNIFIL has completely failed in this part of its mandate and that it has effectively allowed a tenfold increase in the rocket arsenal that Hezbollah can deploy against Israel.
My big ask to the Minister is that we need to use our good offices in the United Nations to strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate, so that it can proactively disarm Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal. Otherwise, what is the point of UNIFIL? I would even go so far as to say that, although there has not been any major outbreak of fighting in southern Lebanon since 2006, it is not clear to me that that has anything to do with UNIFIL’s presence on the ground there. If anything, UNIFIL’s being there has effectively allowed Hezbollah the space and cover it needed to build up its rocket arsenal, which would not have happened if UNIFIL had not been there in the first place.
We can also play a part, as many right hon. and hon. Friends have said, by banning Hezbollah in its entirety and proscribing it as a terrorist organisation, because it entirely meets the criteria for full proscription under the Terrorism Act 2000. The Home Office guidance to that legislation states:
“Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Secretary may proscribe an organisation if she believes it is concerned in terrorism, and it is proportionate to do. For the purposes of the Act, this means that the organisation: commits or participates in acts of terrorism; prepares for terrorism; promotes or encourages terrorism (including the unlawful glorification of terrorism)”—
we will see that “unlawful glorification” on the streets of London this Sunday during the al-Quds march—
“or is otherwise concerned in terrorism”.
Hezbollah is the most destabilising factor within Lebanon itself. It has now become a state within a state, and it has built up a massive rocket arsenal that threatens one of our closest allies. The evidence is there for all to see, especially by those in the Foreign Office, and it is now time for Her Majesty’s Government to take action.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for calling me to speak and, as always, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate, and other colleagues on their interventions and other contributions. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the thoughtful and detailed way in which he set out the concerns, based on the report, “Hizballah’s terror army: how to prevent a third Lebanon war”, by the High Level Military Group.
According to sources in the region, Hezbollah’s military capability has grown significantly since the start of the Syrian civil war. I do not have precise figures to respond to my hon. Friend with, but reports suggest that Hezbollah could now indeed have as many as 100,000 rockets, including hundreds of advanced rockets with a range of up to 300 km. That is deeply concerning and a clear threat to the stability of the region. The premise of my hon. Friend’s debate is entirely correct and fully well founded.
In addition, Hezbollah is also in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701, which my hon. Friend mentioned and which stated that there should be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than those of the Lebanese state and that only the Government of Lebanon were permitted to authorise the sale or supply of arms and related materiel to Lebanon. I will say more about our detailed support for Lebanon in a moment.
I thank the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate—I also apologise to him for not being here earlier to hear his full speech.
The Minister mentioned the 130,000 to 150,000 rockets. Is he also aware of the 50,000 soldiers, including reservists, that Hezbollah has? Does he agree that Israelis are entitled to be concerned about the relationship between Lebanon and the Hezbollah terrorists? Quite clearly, there is a connection between the two at this moment in time, so Israel has every right to have fears.
Yes, Mr Speaker—sorry, Sir Christopher. I am giving you an elevation there—in due course.
In response to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, yes, the premise of the debate is correct; there is no argument about that here. Hezbollah is a dangerous and destabilising force. It sits on the northern border of Israel. Israel has every right to be concerned and to seek support in relation to dealing with that. That is what I would like to explain in terms of the United Kingdom’s relationship here.
I confirmed the United Kingdom’s support for the position in UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701 when I was at the International Support Group for Lebanon meeting in Paris last December and at the Rome II ministerial conference on support to the Lebanese security forces in March. The joint statements that followed those meetings, which were agreed by a large cross-section of the international community, emphasised the role of the Lebanese armed forces as the sole legitimate armed force of Lebanon. I should add that Israeli overflights of Lebanon also violate UN Security Council resolution 1701 and contribute to increased tension in the area. The activity by Hezbollah risks triggering a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel on a scale far beyond that seen during the 2006 war. That could devastate Lebanon and further destabilise an already vulnerable region.
The UK has made clear our concern at Hezbollah’s destabilising actions in Lebanon and the region. We operate a policy of no contact with the entire organisation, and we have repeatedly condemned the group’s support for President Assad’s brutal regime in Syria.
No, not at all, and I would not seek to do so. I was saying that when people are looking for violations of resolution 1701 in the region, as they do, that is an issue that comes up. Clearly, the risk of the missiles is far beyond that of Israeli overflights. I mentioned it simply because if people are going to take note of the resolutions, then everyone should do so, but I fully understand the context in which the overflights take place.
The UK proscribed Hezbollah’s external security organisation in 2001. In light of Hezbollah’s support for militant groups such as Jaysh al-Mahdi, which was responsible for attacks on British troops in Iraq, we extended the proscription in 2008 to include Hezbollah’s military wing, including its jihad council and all units reporting to it.
We are working with our European partners to challenge Hezbollah’s malign activities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering set out. We are a key player in international efforts to strengthen the global response to money laundering, terrorism financing and crime. The UK is a founding member of the Financial Action Task Force. We spend significant resource on strengthening that global network, working with it and the Financial Action Task Force regional body for the middle east and north Africa. We fund and deliver a significant amount of technical capacity-building, including in the middle east. We also designate certain individuals linked to Hezbollah under the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010.
I hope the Minister will forgive me if he is about to cover this point in his remarks, but I was listening very carefully a few moments ago when he said that the British Government have no contact with any part of Hezbollah. I welcome that, but I genuinely do not understand why we make the distinction in the way we do between the military arm and the non-military arm. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) said, the organisation does not make that distinction in that way.
The distinction has been drawn for some time. We recognise Hezbollah as a political entity in Lebanon in an exceptionally complex Government structure that I am sure all colleagues are aware of. That does not mean we do not keep all its activities under careful monitoring. We have no contact with any part of the organisation, but it is not Government policy to discuss organisations that are not on the proscribed list, including speculation as to whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription. Beyond that, I cannot say anything further. What I want to spend time in the debate doing is illustrating the work that the United Kingdom undertakes to undermine the criminal and terrorist activities of Hezbollah and what we do to strengthen Lebanon in relation to its response to Hezbollah.
Just before my right hon. Friend moves on to that important part of his remarks, would he not accept that the UK Government should judge Hezbollah by the totality of its actions in terms of criminality, drugs smuggling, terrorism and militant activities? By proscribing Hezbollah, we would send the strongest possible message that the UK abhors terrorism in all its forms.
I have no need to express our view on terrorism any more forcefully than my hon. Friend has, as what he said is the policy of the United Kingdom. I have already said what we are doing to try to mitigate the effects of Hezbollah, but I have also said I will not be drawn down the line of proscription, because we do not discuss organisations and whether proscription is possible. If he will forgive me, I would like to say what we are doing to strengthen Lebanon and fulfil some of the obligations of those UN Security Council resolutions, which are crucial.
We maintain that the best way for the UK to help to tackle Hezbollah and its weapons and to support Israel is threefold. The first part is to support UNIFIL, which is important, and I will come on to that point later. The second is to support the defence of the state of Israel, and I do not think anyone queries whether the United Kingdom does just that—we do so in a number of different ways. The third is to strengthen and empower the Lebanese state, which should not be seen as a bit-part player; it is crucial, but all too often it is left out of discussions. It is important we do what we can to protect Lebanon from wider instability in the region.
The region is mostly difficult. Many difficult characters fill Government positions and political positions throughout the region, not all of whom would be elected to our parish and town councils, because of their backgrounds. That is the reality of life. We draw careful distinctions, as we are right to do. It does not make life impossible, because it should not. If I may, I will explain how we try to deal with that.
Lebanon’s security services have a vital role to play in ensuring the country’s stability, security and sovereignty. That is why we promote their role as Lebanon’s sole guarantors of security. Power must be in the hands of the state, not the hands of non-state actors beholden to external forces. With an accountable and professional military in place, the Lebanese people would have less cause to turn to others for their security. That is why we have been working with the Lebanese armed forces since 2012 on a £61 million project to help secure the Lebanon-Syria border. Once complete, the Lebanese armed forces will have secured the entire Lebanon-Syria border for the first time in Lebanese history.
With our support, and the support of other key donors, the Lebanese armed forces have developed and modernised over the past 10 years, to become a respected, professional army capable of protecting Lebanon. I was pleased to meet them and see some of our work there last autumn when I went to Lebanon. The Lebanese forces demonstrated that progress in August last year by defeating Daesh on the Lebanon-Syria border in an operation involving UK-trained troops and border positions constructed with UK assistance. We want to help maintain that success. That is why, at the Rome II conference, I announced an additional £10 million of security support for Lebanon.
However, that security support from the international community will not be sufficient on its own to ensure a stable and secure Lebanon. It is vital that Lebanon’s next Government make clear political progress to strengthen the Lebanese state. We welcome Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections since 2009. We now hope to see the swift formation of a new Government addressing crucial issues. Lebanon cannot afford to be a factor for conflict in the middle east, because that will attract instability to itself.
The next Lebanese Government will have the important task of protecting Lebanon’s stability and security. They must do so by robustly implementing the policy of disassociation from regional conflict, by abiding by the provisions of all relevant UN Security Council resolutions—in particular 1559 and 1701—and by ensuring that the state’s legitimate security institutions hold the monopoly on the use of force. While the UK wants to continue to support Lebanon, I fear that the international community will find it increasingly difficult to do so if the next Government do not take concrete steps on those crucial issues. It is imperative that we see progress.
To conclude, Hezbollah’s actions and the reported size of its weapons arsenal are deeply concerning to the United Kingdom and a threat to stability in an already fragile region. The best way to tackle both those things is a secure and stable Lebanon with strong institutions, a professional army that inspires the trust of its people, and a Government who protect Lebanon from wider instability. We stand ready to support Lebanon in upholding these values and addressing the challenges it faces and to support those threatened by Hezbollah. We will continue to help them in relation to this difficult situation.
Question put and agreed to.
Voter ID Pilot Schemes
I beg to move,
That this House has considered voter ID pilot schemes.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. The voter identity pilot scheme that was used in five local authority areas in this year’s local elections signals one of the most disproportionate and ill-thought-out changes to our electoral system in recent years. As the only Labour Member of Parliament representing an area used in the pilot scheme, I feel compelled to give the other side to the story that is being given by those merely repeating buzzwords and top lines on behalf of the Government.
The foundations for the pilot are well known and, arguably, well intentioned. It is true that at election times there is the potential for cases of fraud or voter impersonation. I do not dispute the fact that any attempt at fraud or voter impersonation is wrong, should be thoroughly investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted. Electoral fraud is a serious crime, but to suggest that it is a widespread problem is gross hyperbole, and the introduction of voter ID schemes is akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
In Great Britain, excluding Northern Ireland, where they have their own arrangements, there were 21 cases of alleged impersonation in polling stations in 2014, and 26 cases in 2015, amounting to 0.000051% of overall votes cast. In 2016 there was one successful prosecution and three cautions. In 2017 there were just 28 allegations of impersonation and one prosecution, equating to 0.000063% of overall votes cast.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate; she is making an excellent speech. On the point that she has just raised, is that not precisely why the respected and independent Electoral Reform Society is opposed to the scheme? The Equality and Human Rights Commission also warned the Government that a voter ID scheme would have a disproportionate impact on protected characteristic voters, such as those from ethnic minorities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities. That is precisely why the scheme should not have gone ahead.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is right that the Electoral Reform Society has criticised the scheme, stating that electoral fraud at the ballot box
“is an incredibly rare crime because it is such a slow, clunky way to steal an election—and requires levels of organisation that would be easy to spot and prevent.”
I will talk about protected characteristics later in my speech.
I rise to speak only because the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) mentioned the Electoral Reform Society. It is worth putting it on the record that after the election the Electoral Reform Society alleged, early in the day, that 4,000 people had been turned away from voting. It turns out that that number was massively overstated; the real number was actually, at most, 340. That was beautifully demolished by the Radio 4 programme “More or Less”. It is worth putting it on the record that the ERS was not very accurate in its analysis.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those points, but the reality is that it is very difficult to monitor how many people were disenfranchised, because some people did not turn out to vote or left the queues. That was certainly the experience in my constituency, which I will talk about later. I expect that the figure probably is quite a lot higher than the 300 that has been quoted.
The introduction of voter ID laws would make no difference to allegations of fraud with postal votes, proxy votes, breaches of secrecy, tampering with ballot papers, bribery, undue influence or electoral expenditure, which are arguably the areas where most electoral offences occur. Let me repeat: any attempted voter fraud or impersonation is wrong and should be thoroughly investigated, but the figures relating to alleged fraud at polling stations do not point to any widespread issue or problem relating to impersonation. An overhaul of the voting procedure by introducing identification requirements has been a step too far.
The hon. Lady mentioned Northern Ireland a moment ago. Given what she says, presumably there is evidence of marginalised groups being discriminated against in Northern Ireland. As I understand it, voter identification has taken place there simply and effectively for many years. What is the evidence of discrimination?
There has certainly been clear evidence of people being disenfranchised in my constituency, which was part of the pilot. In fact, in Bromley, the area I represent, prior to the scheme being launched an impact assessment said that the scheme was likely to have an adverse impact on older people and trans people. That is evidence from Bromley’s risk assessment.
I want to make some progress. I have big concerns about the potential disenfranchisement of voters in areas where people who are legally entitled to vote may not have identification in line with the requirements. Even before discussing the concept of voter ID, the requirements across the pilot schemes were wide ranging and different, meaning that aggregated findings or comparative analysis will both be questionable in any Government evaluation. Bromley, Gosport and Woking required ID documents, whereas Swindon and Watford required only a poll card. Interestingly, none of the trial areas had a significantly poorer or more ethnically diverse population than the national average, or any recent historical examples of voter fraud or voter impersonation.
As I said, Bromley Council’s impact assessment stated that there would be a noticeable effect on the elderly and trans people. It highlighted concerns that voters in those categories would be less likely to have up-to-date documentation in line with the requirements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said, prior to the roll-out the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned the Government that voter ID schemes would have a disproportionate impact on voters with protected characteristics, particularly those from ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities.
Before committing to any further changes to the way in which citizens vote, we should look at the experience of other countries that have rolled out identification checks at elections. Experience from the United States has shown that voter ID schemes disproportionately affected marginalised groups, because those who could not afford to drive or go on holiday often did not have the specified documentation. Figures from the last census, recorded in 2011, show that 9 million people in the UK do not hold a driving licence and 9.5 million do not hold a passport. To put that in perspective, figures from the Electoral Commission show that 24% of the electorate do not have access to a passport or photographic driving licence.
Furthermore, 3.5 million people in Great Britain— 7.5% of the electorate—do not have access to any form of photo ID whatsoever. If voters live in shared accommodation or often move, they are also less likely to have bills or paperwork in their name. With regard to the groups highlighted in the various equality impact assessments, we must consider the impact on those unlikely to have up-to-date ID. The recent Windrush scandal has shown that even those who are legitimate citizens and voters have struggled to access services to which they are entitled. Further expansion of voter ID schemes could see the Windrush generation denied their democratic rights, adding further insult to injury.
Notwithstanding those points, it has also been reported today in The Guardian that two barristers have called into question the legality of the pilot, given that it made voting harder, casting further doubt on a scheme that might have unlawfully denied people their right to vote.
The hon. Lady speaks about passports and driving licences, yet even Woking, which was an ID pilot area, allowed lots of different forms of photographic identification—I think 10% of those who voted had a senior bus pass, and various student cards were also admitted. She talks about millions of people being disenfranchised. In Woking only a tiny percentage of people did not hold any of the forms of strict ID—and, of course, such people could always apply for a free elector card.
I will go on to talk about the experience in Bromley, where people were turned away. A number of different forms of ID could be taken to the polling station, but nevertheless people were disenfranchised, and I will speak about that in a moment. Unlike in Swindon and Watford, where voters were required only to bring their polling cards, in Bromley, Gosport and Woking, where formal ID was required, voter turnout was marginally down compared with the 2014 local elections. The scheme took place in five areas, but I can speak specifically, and with first-hand experience, about the impact of the trial in Bromley. Reports on polling day from the Bromley wards within my constituency highlighted numerous cases of voters being turned away and prevented from rightly casting their vote. The council’s figures suggest that 154 people in Bromley were unable to cast their ballot on 3 May. When I was out campaigning on the doorstep, I was told of a significant number of people telling activists that they would not be voting because they did not agree with the principle of being asked for ID. Although that is direct evidence of voter disenfranchisement, it is unfortunately incredibly hard to measure.
On polling day, four polling stations in the Crystal Palace ward in my constituency had already turned away multiple people by 10.30 am for not having the correct ID. When I went to vote at 8.45 am at my polling station, I was told of two people who had already been turned away. In addition, the increased time that it takes to do ID checks puts a strain on the rate at which polling stations can process voters. In the morning on polling day there were reports of queues in Bromley due to the extra processing time, and of voters leaving before casting their ballots because, understandably, people do not necessarily have the extra time to wait while also juggling family and work responsibilities.
I also heard reports of polling station staff not being fully briefed on what ID was acceptable. In one case, a voter with a bank card was initially refused, but subsequently showed the polling staff the guidance that stated it was a valid form of ID. How many people might they have turned away before being shown the correct guidance? Another case involved a voter with a utility bill on their phone, who was told by staff to go home and print the document out. The polling station staff clearly had not been given guidance on whether a digital copy was sufficient. Such examples suggest that polling stations across Bromley were not adequately prepared for the trial and that Bromley’s measurements of 154 voters being turned away are far from exact. I believe that many more people might have been turned off from voting.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an important issue. She is quite rightly highlighting some of the challenges that voters might face when we introduce a new system. Would she also accept that this was a pilot scheme, and that we aim to learn from pilots? Is she, in principle, supportive of the idea that voters should prove who they are when they go to the polls?
No. For the reasons I have already set out and will continue to set out, I do not, in principle, support the changes because, as the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Reform Society have identified, it is likely to lead to widespread disenfranchisement. I say that 154 people being disenfranchised in Bromley is 154 too many.
Studies from the University of California have shown that such schemes are merely a tool for voter suppression. Does my hon. Friend agree? As the Windrush scandal has aptly highlighted, many people within the UK do not even have one piece of ID, let alone several.
I agree that the scheme seems to disenfranchise certain groups, and that is something we should all be very worried about. The Labour party has been clear, repeatedly, that we believe the pilot to be misguided. I understand that more than 40 campaign groups that share our view have contacted the Cabinet Office, calling on the Government to drop any further roll-out.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and I promise that I will not intervene again. She mentions the Labour party. Why is it that she does not think people should have to prove their ID when they are voting in public elections, yet my understanding is—although I am obviously not an expert—that the Labour party in internal party elections, such as those for selecting candidates, insists that people have to show ID to prove who they are? Is that not a little hypocritical?
It is right when people vote in internal Labour party elections that they can demonstrate that they are a Labour party member. That is completely different from someone exercising their democratic and fundamental right to vote in elections for their representatives in local government or in Parliament. The analogy is misguided and wrong.
When the issue of the pilot schemes was recently raised at Cabinet Office questions, the Minister suggested that the pilot was deemed by the Department to be a success. However, there is no doubt that voters were denied votes and that voters were put off—disproportionately so, in comparison with previous reports of voter fraud. Can a flagrant disregard for disenfranchising voters really be regarded as a success? In the year of celebrations marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 and women being entitled to vote, do we really think it is appropriate to advocate a scheme that has irrefutably excluded some voters?
Turnout at general elections has faltered over the past 25 years and it was encouraging to see a 2.5% increase in votes cast at the 2017 snap election. I am concerned that, were the scheme to be rolled out further, we would see greater issues at the next general election.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I wonder whether she shares my concern about vulnerable groups. None of the five trial areas had significantly older, poorer or ethnically diverse populations. How can we be sure that a large number of such voters would not be disenfranchised?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. I have very real concerns that if the scheme were to be rolled out in inner-city London constituencies or Manchester constituencies, for example, where there are much larger ethnic minority communities, swathes of the electorate could be disenfranchised. In my view, swathes of voters could be turned away if this scheme was rolled out country-wide at a general election. Voter ID does little to instil confidence in our electoral system or encourage greater participation—in fact, quite the opposite.
On current data, figures and analysis, we have a pilot scheme that risks disenfranchising many and creating issues that did not previously exist. The 2017 figure that 0.000063% of overall votes cast were allegedly fraudulent is set against data that shows that 7.5% of the electorate do not hold any photographic ID, which means the number of those at risk of disenfranchisement outweighs the number of allegations of voter fraud by a factor of more than 119,000. I have previously used the analogy of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but I am no longer confident that that is a sufficient metaphor to describe the utterly disproportionate methods we have seen trialled this year.
Although the schemes will now be evaluated by the Government and the Electoral Commission will prepare its own report, I am concerned that the schemes will be clumsily rolled out across the country through secondary legislation without due care and attention, as exhibited in the run-up to the pilot, and we could find ourselves with a cumbersome, ill-thought-out electoral process that leaves thousands of legitimate voters without their democratic voice. At the moment the Government find themselves patting each other on the back, congratulating themselves on a job well done, but I must tell the Minister that the pilot cannot be regarded as a success. I have voiced legitimate concerns on behalf of my constituents who took part in the pilot, and their opinion and experiences must be taken on board. If not, this Government will have voter disenfranchisement added to their ever-growing charge sheet on alienating the public. It is surely time to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for securing this debate. It is really important that the House has the opportunity to discuss voter ID.
Some Members may be aware that I laid a ten-minute rule Bill to discuss voter ID before the House. Since I presented that Bill, many constituents and others from around the country have raised the subject with me, expressing their enthusiasm for the scheme. Many people find it incredible that they do not have to show ID when they go to a polling station. They have to show ID when they collect a package from Royal Mail, and in so many other parts of life—it is a common and accepted thing. Why, when engaging in such an important matter as democracy, is the threshold for participation so low? A minimum threshold of proving who you are to engage in democracy is quite reasonable.
As my hon. Friend says, it is important for someone to be able to show their identity. Does he welcome the fact that a range of different mechanisms were tried in the different pilot areas? Is he also aware of the fact that in Northern Ireland, where they have had this system in place for many years—a system that was legislated for by a Labour Government—any voter can have an ID card free of charge to use specifically to prove their identity in an election, and that that does not seem to have caused particular problems?
That is of great importance, and I agree entirely. A range of forms of identification were checked in these schemes, and a variety of options could be used. Northern Ireland, where there is excellent participation, is a role model for how the scheme can be implemented in the rest of the country.
Northern Ireland has invested millions of pounds over a considerable period to put that scheme in place. Such a scheme would have to be rolled out across the whole of England, but in these austere times we are led to believe that we do not have the money for our NHS. If we have the money for this pilot scheme, surely money should also be spent on much worthier causes, such as our NHS and our education system.
I think we have a different point of view. I hope that my constituents regard our democracy as very important and worth investing in. Northern Ireland is a role model for how this can be delivered. It is interesting that there has been no evidence forthcoming from Northern Ireland about people with protected identities being disadvantaged. I would have thought that Opposition Members might focus a bit more on the evidence from the United Kingdom, rather than referring to the United States of America, which has a very different system.
People expect to show ID. In fact, people often think they are disenfranchised because they have lost their voter card. It is posted out weeks before the election, and if people lose it they think, “I don’t have my card, so I can’t vote. I’m disenfranchised.” If we use forms of ID that people carry daily, they will feel more confident attending the polling station, presenting their ID, voting and participating in our democracy. As was highlighted previously, that is no less than the Labour party expects.
At the moment, we are just looking at trial schemes. It is important to have evidence from trials before we roll out the scheme across the country. There were five pilots around the country for checking voter ID.
My constituents are also concerned about postal voter fraud, and there was a postal vote trial in Peterborough, Slough and Tower Hamlets. When people think about voter fraud and corruption of the political system, they think of Tower Hamlets. It was not the Mayor of London but a Mayor in London who was kicked out of office because of irregularities in the voting system in Tower Hamlets. Statistics such as 0.000-whatever per cent are not very relevant when a Mayor in London has been kicked out of office. I welcome these pilots, and I hope the Minister will give some indication of when the scheme can be rolled out across the country, because my constituents would welcome that.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I am delighted to follow my fellow five-a-side footballer, the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), who passionately outlined her position, but as the hon. Member for Bolton West just outlined, although Tower Hamlets was not in the voter ID pilot, we were a postal voter pilot, so we have some experience of this. I will speak briefly, because other colleagues want to contribute.
I support the Government’s efforts to protect our democracy. I am not persuaded by the argument that people have been deterred, and especially not by the argument about pensioners not having passports or driving licences. Every pensioner in London has got a freedom pass. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the freedom pass, which is photographic ID—I do not know any pensioner in London who does not have such a card, which allows them to take advantage of free travel—is an appropriate document for the trials.
The hon. Member for Bolton West mentioned Tower Hamlets. We have had allegations of fraud in every single domestic election except 1997, including of personation, intimidation and postal vote manipulation. The ID proposals should deal with personation. Intimidation has been dealt with by establishing sterile areas outside every polling station, which are policed by the Metropolitan police at every election. I think postal voting is still far too lax, which is why I am glad Tower Hamlets participated in the pilot. Every political party has been spending far too much time harvesting postal votes from its supporters. Anyone can sign up for a postal vote, which is to the parties’ advantage, but I think that devalues postal voting and lightens the democratic burden on the citizen to participate in our democracy.
The final paragraph of the Tower Hamlets briefing that I sought for this debate, which was very superficial, says:
“On completion of the two stages the data compiled was extracted and forwarded to the Electoral Commission for analysis in accordance with the requirements of the order. Once analysed by the Commission all stakeholders—namely the Commission, Cabinet Office and Tower Hamlets Returning Officer—will meet to compare the data extracted, review the process and explore the merits of these pilots and any further schemes that may be considered necessary in the future.”
My question to the Minister is, is there a timeframe for when we might hear what the conclusion of that analysis was?
Postal voting is far too easy. I had a look at the briefings from the House of Commons Library, the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Reform Society. I had to chuckle at the briefing from the Electoral Reform Society, because one of the frequently asked questions it attached to its response is:
“Don’t you need ID to vote in Europe?”
“Nearly all European countries have mandatory ID card schemes with either free or low-cost cards. As the ID cards are mandatory all voters have ID cards, so no groups of voters are discriminated against.”
I am very disappointed that, when the Labour Government proposed ID cards, we were beaten back by the liberal left, the libertarian right and the media, which said, “This is outrageous and too expensive.” It not only would have dealt with voter fraud and personation but would have improved security, dealt with NHS tourism and helped to deal with benefit fraud, but the proposals were defeated.
Voters welcome the opportunity to defend their right to vote. That is a precious privilege that we need to defend—I do not think that that view is something that is under attack. I will be listening to the Minister, because I think these pilots are important. Serious questions are rightly being asked of the pilots, and the Government will have to defend their conclusions, but I am not opposed to the fact that the pilots took place, as we need to defend our democracy as best we possibly can.
My constituency of Woking was one of the areas that had a voter ID pilot, and I think it is fair to say that it was the strictest of them all. It demanded a specific item of photographic voter ID or an elector card, which could be applied for before 5 pm on Wednesday—the day before polling day. Woking Borough Council has already submitted an interim report, which states:
“Voters across the Borough were required to show one of a number of approved forms of photographic identification before they were issued with their ballot paper at the polling station. Where electors did not have one of the approved forms of identification, there was the option to obtain a free Local Elector Card, with 57 of these cards issued during the trial.
Figures demonstrate that out of 18,851 voters who attended a polling station, 99.73% of electors provided the right form of photographic ID. In total, 51 people (0.27%) brought the wrong ID or attended with no ID and were not issued with a ballot paper. The report indicates that overall turnout to the election was unaffected by the trial, comparing favourably to previous elections at 37.75% compared to 37.71% in 2017 and 35.81% in 2012 (when the last Borough only election was held)”.
That is a pretty remarkable result.
Ray Morgan, Woking Borough Council’s chief executive and returning officer, expressed satisfaction with the trial:
“Given that 99.73% of voters brought a correct form of ID and engaged positively with the pilot and only 0.27% did not, I think we can call this trial a great success. I would like to thank Woking’s electorate for their cooperation and understanding throughout the trial. I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of all members of polling station staff and Council officers in the lead up to the election, and on the day, to make the new process such a success.”
I would like to add my personal thanks. Mr Morgan continued:
“Following our experiences in the polling stations on 3 May, I see no reason why bringing ID to vote cannot be embedded in our democratic process and have already expressed my desire to the Cabinet Office that Woking continues to participate in any future trials.”
We have heard some good speeches on both sides of this debate, but I remind those who seem to have set their face against voter ID for local and parliamentary elections that only a handful of votes can be crucial. In one of the 10 wards up for election in Woking this summer, one of the candidates won by just 10 votes and another by just 16 votes. Indeed, in recent years in Woking we have had single-figure majorities in different wards.
Given the numerous different ways to determine a draw, whether tossing a coin, drawing a straw or pulling a card, would it not be advantageous in the event of a dead heat in an election for voters to know that every one of the votes cast had been genuine? The election may be for a town council, borough council or a Member of Parliament, and at a time of minority Governments, as we have now, that could determine the Government of the country.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent and important point. In the 2017 general election, as we all know, the constituency of North East Fife was won by the Scottish National party candidate by only two votes. Further parliamentary seats were won by fewer than 100 votes, such as Perth and North Perthshire with 21 votes, Newcastle-under-Lyme with 30 votes, Southampton, Itchen with 31 votes, Richmond with 45 votes, Crewe and Nantwich with 48 votes, Glasgow South West with 60 votes, Glasgow East with 75 votes and Arfon with 92 votes. A small number of votes can swing seats at a parliamentary election and therefore determine who are the Government of the day.
I would make two points in response to that. First, one should not necessarily accept that all those who were refused the right to vote were genuine voters. Everyone received several reminders about voter ID and had the opportunity, if without the right ID, to get a local elector card. It is important to note that people must come to the polling station with the correct ID, as they do in Northern Ireland. Woking went out of its way to publicise that. This was effectively the first time ever that people were asked to present voter ID at the polling station, and personally I think that the number of refusals was remarkably small. For a pilot area, a one-off, I do not think that anyone would expect anything else.
Furthermore, as I have said already, the turnout increased by comparison with the most equivalent elections. If we extrapolate from that, that is hundreds of thousands of voters across the nation in a general election.
I do not want to explore this cyclical argument too much, but let us say that we learn from this experience and voters become used to it, so that instead of 0.2% the figure falls to 0.1%. Does the hon. Gentleman believe, even so, that it is proportionate for 45,000 people to potentially be excluded, when only 28 allegations of voter fraud were made in the last general election?
Of course, Sir Christopher. In response to the intervention, I would say a couple of things. First, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said when introducing the debate that none of the pilot areas had a history of voter fraud. I am afraid that that is not the case in Woking: there is a history of voter fraud, in one ward in particular. When Opposition Members talk about the very few accusations of and convictions for personation, that is a vast underestimate of the potential level of fraud.
Anecdotally, I am afraid to say, where postal voter fraud has happened in the past, lots of personation was almost certainly going on as well. I have heard horror stories from various parts of the country, including Woking, because personation is so easy. All that is needed is to know that someone is going on holiday, and anyone of the right sex can simply turn up at the polling station giving that name and address. That is all that is required, so in a marginal ward with a history of voter fraud, it is ridiculous to suggest that personation has not been taking place. Furthermore, we know from our history that personation in Northern Ireland did take place.
To sum up, it is well past time for us to have voter ID for our British elections. It has worked in Northern Ireland and worked remarkably well in our pilot areas, and I urge the Minister and the House to adopt it expeditiously.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this debate, but I have to state clearly that I cannot support her point of view. I shall speak from a Northern Ireland perspective and explain in a short time—a very short time, as it turns out—exactly what we have done.
The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland is the returning officer and has responsibility for electoral registration, compiling the electoral roll and managing all elections in Northern Ireland. By and large, that has worked pretty well. Before the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, the head of household was required to register all residents who were eligible to vote. The 2002 Act changed the registration procedure, introducing individual electoral registration and requiring eligible voters to provide the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland with their signature, date of birth, national insurance number and current residence. The Act also required voters to present photographic identity.
Many people in Northern Ireland therefore acquired an ID card, first, for purposes of electoral identification and, secondly, because when travelling from Northern Ireland to the mainland, photographic evidence has to be provided. The ID card was a method of doing so. People could get an ID card for the price of two photographs, whereas applying for a passport cost £68, or £40 for an Irish passport. That was how it was done, so people saved money.
Over the years, we have encouraged our constituents to apply for ID cards, and many have done just that. ID cards were introduced to counter a lack of public confidence in the electoral process in Northern Ireland. By and large, the Act changed that. There are still some issues with proxy and postal votes, but those can be looked at and changes made. A voter ID card scheme is one that I would support fully.
I will give a quick example of where frustrations can arise. My parliamentary aide’s sister came into my office one election to say that she had moved house. Having completed the sale on the day that registration closed, she thought her vote would stay with the house, but the person who bought it registered there and she lost her vote. That is an example of where people need to be sharp. By the way, that was not illegal—it was the system running as it should, and there is nothing wrong with that. The fact that I may have lost two votes is only part of it; the rules were being enforced.
I will conclude, Sir Christopher, because you have been clear on your timescales. There must be reform here on the mainland and there must be further reform in Northern Ireland to address proxy votes and postal votes. It is essential that we encourage more people to get on the register and use their vote, but also that we are as confident as possible that the vote returned reflects the will of the electorate and is not a result of fraud or scamming. That is what we need to do, and I would encourage the Minister to do that in England as well. Let us do it everywhere, right now.
We have a real problem in this country with democratic participation and engagement. At the last general election, 14.6 million people who were registered and entitled to vote did not do so. In all parts of the country, at every local election we do not have a majority of those who are entitled to vote taking part in the election. In other words, our democracy hangs by these very shoogly nails, and we all ought to be extremely concerned about the situation. It therefore bewilders me that in the midst of all the things we need to do, the Government are committing so much concern and energy to this particular issue, which as far I can see has not been demonstrated to be a problem at all.
As others have said, we are talking about 28 alleged cases of personation last year—one case for every 1.6 million people who voted.
I am afraid I do not have time.
That seems to be a problem so marginal as not to require Government attention. We also know that the public are not concerned: a survey released today by the Electoral Reform Society showed electoral fraud at the very bottom of a list of potential concerns the public have about the voting system
I am sorry, but I will not take interventions because we are short on time.
Unlike in Northern Ireland, where there was a serious problem, the instances alleged appear to be sporadic and individual rather than as a result of any organised campaign to scam an election—I have yet to see any evidence that the latter is the case. Given that, why are the Government so concerned and being egged on by some members of the governing party, for whom this seems to have become something of an obsession? Indeed, I note that someone recently put in a freedom of information request to the Human Tissue Authority, which regulates dead bodies, to ask what information it has about electoral fraud, as if we are looking at zombie voters coming to influence the situation.
As the evidence is not there that this is a huge problem that needs to be tackled, there is a case in what the Opposition are saying. In fact, the motivation is party political, with people seeking a party advantage. It is the case, is it not, that photo identification is less likely to be held by people who are unemployed, people who earn low incomes, black and minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities and migrant communities? All of those people have one thing in common: they are less likely to vote for the Conservative party. It seems to me that, as the hon. Member for Woking (Mr Lord) said, potentially very few votes influence the outcome of an election, if photo ID achieves the suppression of participation by voters in those categories—
I am sorry, but I have only 60 seconds left.
There is a severe problem here. We need to look seriously at the results of the pilot. I would like the Minister to respond. It will not be good enough if all the Electoral Commission does is speak to the returning officers in those five areas and finds out who voted and who was turned away; we need to know much more than that. We need the breakdown of who was turned away and what their characteristics are, to see whether there are any particular trends. More importantly, we need to know not just who was turned away but who never turned up in the first place. People have suggested that there was no effect on turnout, but surely that was in part because there was a publicity campaign in those five areas, so people will have known that if they did not have photo ID, there probably was not much point in going to the polling station. Clear scientific research needs to be undertaken to find out whether that was the case before there is a further roll-out.
I plead with the Cabinet Office and the Minister to understand that there are much greater priorities in improving our electoral system than this. It is surely time, in the 21st century, that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote. It is surely time to have automatic registration. And it is surely time that we piloted online voting, where there would be absolute security in who votes and absolute guarantees against personation and fraud.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing the debate. I very much echo the concerns she raised.
It is deeply concerning that voters, some of whom have voted their entire lives, were denied a voice in last month’s local elections as a direct result of discriminatory policies introduced by this Government. The Government present voter identification as a solution to tackle the specific issue of voter impersonation in polling stations. Electoral fraud is a serious crime and every allegation must be investigated fully. Indeed, isolated incidents of electoral fraud have taken place and it is vital that the police have the resources they need to prosecute.
However, the proposals outlined by the Government are clearly disproportionate. In 2017 there were 28 allegations of impersonation out of nearly 45 million votes cast—one case for every 1.6 million votes cast. Of those 28 allegations, one case resulted in a conviction. None of the five English boroughs that took part in the pilots has experienced a single instance of impersonation in the past decade. The scale of electoral fraud in this country has caused many, including Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, head of politics at the University of Liverpool, to describe voter ID as
“a solution in search of a problem”.
Does the Minister agree with that assessment?
The Government clearly recognise the flaws in their argument. When pushed, they claim that voter identification is designed to tackle the perception of electoral fraud. However, new research published today by the Electoral Reform Society shows that mandatory ID in polling stations is one of voters’ lowest concerns—just 4% of voters believe ID is the most important priority for our democracy. The top issues for voters were: ensuring that elections are free from the influence of large financial donations, an accurate voting register and balanced media coverage. That shows just how out of touch the Tories really are. To quote Professor Toby James from the University of East Anglia:
“Concerns more often arise from accusations of fraud made by politicians in the media, rather than concrete cases.”
A concern shared by Opposition Members is that restrictive voter ID requirements could disenfranchise voters. Approximately 3.5 million electors do not have any photo ID, and 1.7 million lack even a bank account. That makes mandatory voter ID with no free provision a barrier to many people exercising their right to vote. There is also a significant financial barrier to obtaining ID. Only recently the Government pushed through unpopular proposals to increase the cost of adult passports from £72.50 to a whopping £85. In this context, it is deeply concerning to read a comment posted by Islington Conservatives on Twitter the day after the local election that, “Voting is not compulsory so ID doesn’t need to be free”. Will the Minister condemn the statement made by her colleagues in Islington?
Article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights, which was incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, protects our right to free elections, including the right to vote. Under the law, voting is a right, not a privilege, and voting rights are closely linked to the rights to freedom of expression and to freedom of assembly. It is therefore extremely misleading for the Government to argue that voting is like picking up a parcel from the post office, where some ID is required.
The European convention on human rights outlines that the right to vote is not absolute—conditions can be imposed, which is why it is lawful to have residency or minimum age requirements. However, these conditions must pursue a legitimate aim, be proportionate and not prevent free expression in choosing the legislature. As I said, the measures piloted last month are clearly disproportionate to the amount of voter impersonation in England, and therefore do not fulfil the legal requirement.
I have no time.
I would also be interested to hear the Minister’s response to today’s intervention by Blackstone Chambers. According to Anthony Peto QC, the joint head of Blackstone, and fellow barrister Natasha Simonsen, schemes
“that restrict or discourage voting, or that inhibit voters,”
are beyond the scope of the Representation of the People Act 2000. Those leading barristers concluded that the pilots were illegal because they were incorrectly imposed by ministerial diktat rather than through Parliament. The Conservative party appears to have completely disregarded the rule of law. Does the Minister agree that, following that intervention, it is impossible for her Government to justify their undemocratic and unlawful plans?
The Windrush scandal demonstrated that it can be difficult for some communities to provide official documentation. This is the same hostile environment all over again, and it is shutting our fellow citizens out of public life. The Government were also warned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and more than 40 leading charities and academics in two separate interventions that voter ID requirements have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and people with disabilities.
I have to start winding up, because I am running out of time.
I will wind up really quickly.
Does the Minister seriously believe that the Government are making voting accessible for everyone? The Labour party believes in a democracy for the many, not the few. We want everyone’s voice to be heard, no matter what their background, which is why we call on the Government to abandon their dangerous plans.
May I first thank the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for requesting the debate, and everyone who has taken part in it?
Haven’t we heard some big words from Opposition Members? We have heard “disenfranchised,” “discriminatory” and “voter suppression” bandied about. Last time I looked in the dictionary, disenfranchisement meant not having the right to vote. We have one of the largest electoral registers this country has ever seen. Having every opportunity to cast a vote, with carefully designed safeguards and a safety net, is not disenfranchisement, it is not voter suppression and it is not discriminatory. Let me get that out of the way at the start.
The success of the pilots highlights that a reasonable and proportionate measure was taken. Voter turnout remained steady in all the trial areas—indeed, in one area there was a notable increase. The overwhelming majority of people cast their vote without a problem. I pay credit to the returning officers in the pilot areas, who were undeterred by some ill-informed and regrettable scaremongering in the run-up to polling day. They delivered successful awareness-raising campaigns to ensure that voters knew the requirements in their area. It is of course returning officers’ duty to ensure that registers are as accurate and complete as possible, and it is absolutely their duty—and it is in everyone’s interest—to get people on the register and get them out to vote.
While I am on the subject of legal duties, let me answer a point made by the hon. Members for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith). The powers to make such pilot schemes are contained in section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000. The hon. Gentleman, perhaps mistakenly, suggested that no Act defined such a scheme. That is simply wrong; it is in the Representation of the People Act, which enables changes to be made to the rules regarding the conduct of elections. That Act was of course fully debated and passed by Parliament.
As we have heard, the estimates by the Electoral Reform Society, which is a political lobby group, of the number of people who were turned away from polling stations were wildly exaggerated. I really wonder why hon. Members should trust the survey that the society published today when the facts so clearly speak against its record. Data from returning officers in all five participating local authorities show that 340 electors who were asked to return to the polling station with the correct ID did not return. That represents just 0.06% of the electorate and 0.14% of votes cast. I have of course put those data in the Library.
The experience in Northern Ireland, where paper ID has been required since 1985, and photo ID since 2003, shows that once that requirement has become established, voters find it easy to be part of that reasonable idea. Indeed, the responsible Minister at the time—a Labour Minister—was clear that no one would be disenfranchised by those measures.
Despite repeated claims by the Opposition, many of the people I spoke to about the pilots before the elections, as others will have done, thought they were a common-sense approach. Some—particularly people from Austria, Canada, the Netherlands and the many other countries where showing ID is a normal part of the voting process—were surprised that we did not already need to take ID to the polling station. It is clear to me that people value their vote individually and want collective confidence, which is what the scheme is about.
I read what the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge wrote in some recent articles about electoral fraud, and about voter ID in particular. I am shocked that she does not seem to think that electoral fraud of this type could influence elections. Do those stolen votes not count? Do they not undermine confidence in the very process that puts us in this place and gives us the privilege of being here? Does not any type of electoral fraud threaten the resilience and integrity of a democratic system and the confidence that people have in it? What level of fraud would be palatable? How many voters is it okay to silence and have robbed of their vote? Electoral fraud is real. By definition, it is difficult to detect if it is done effectively.
I will not. I have to conclude, and the hon. Gentleman and others have had their chance to contribute.
Voter ID is of course just one element of efforts, which I hope command cross-party support, to protect and sustain the electoral system, which should be precious to us all. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for coming along to express his support for voter ID. Indeed, he explained that he would go further and do more to protect the voting system. That is why we at the Cabinet Office, in partnership with the independent Electoral Commission and Crimestoppers, are working to ensure that people feel encouraged to report electoral fraud if they see it. I marvel at how the rest of the Labour party cannot bring themselves to support such efforts.
At the moment, it is easier to vote in someone else’s name than to collect a parcel at the post office, so doing nothing would be wrong. We cannot allow a crime to happen until it reaches a certain level. It is doubly unfortunate that the Labour party continues its scaremongering, especially given that the previous Labour Government introduced photo ID at polling stations across Northern Ireland in 2003. Although today’s Labour party might not think doing that is an acceptable step to protect our voting system, constituency Labour parties think it is good enough for them, as they routinely insist on ID. Doing one thing and saying another seems unprincipled to me. On top of that, Opposition Members came here to quibble about the numbers. This is not about statistics; it is about the principle. Why do they disagree with the principle of tackling electoral fraud?
Electoral fraud is not a victimless crime. The Electoral Commission stated in its 2013 review:
“The majority of people in communities affected by electoral fraud are victims rather than offenders. The people who are likely to be the victims of electoral fraud can be described as vulnerable.”
In his report on electoral fraud, Sir Eric Pickles explained clearly that it was
“local residents who lost out from the crooked politicians who bullied them and wasted their money. The law must be applied equally and fairly to everyone.”
I remain committed to ensuring that equality is integral to everything we do in elections policy. I met the EHRC earlier today, and we share common ground on ensuring that whatever we do has the rights of electors and the fairness, equality and inclusivity of our electoral system at its heart.
The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge made repeated reference to photographic ID. I think she knows that was not helpful. That is not what the pilots required. Let me put on the record that no one needed to purchase ID documents to be able to vote in the pilots. Local authorities provided alternative methods free of charge, to ensure that everyone who was registered had the opportunity to vote.
The Government will reflect on the voter ID evaluation that the Electoral Commission publishes in July. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) will find that the Electoral Commission has published the list of the data that it will use in that evaluation. We will use that as an opportunity to review, among other things, how the awareness-raising campaigns operated and what could be improved.
I say again to the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge that I am grateful to her for bringing forward the points she made and for staying in touch with residents in one of the important pilot areas, but her arguments are not convincing. This really is a simple matter of principle: do we or do we not believe in stamping out electoral fraud? I do.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).