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Petitions

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 18 August 2021

Petitions

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Observations

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

McVitie's Tollcross factory proposed closure

The petition of residents of the United Kingdom,

Notes that the Tollcross McVitie’s employs 468 people from across Glasgow East; declares that as such the proposed closure of the factory would be equivalent to economic Armageddon to what is already a fragile local economy; notes throughout the pandemic, Pladis Global’s employees worked at the Tollcross factory as key workers whilst much of the country safely worked from home; notes the workforce has been loyal and committed for many years, with some employees working at the Tollcross factory for decades; notes that many employees also have a family history of working at the factory and in some cases, several generations of the same family currently work at the factory simultaneously; notes that the McVitie’s company has had a continuous presence in Scotland since 1839 and that the brand has become synonymous with Scotland; declares that Pladis should honour the history of the McVitie’s brand in Scotland and the loyal workforce in the Tollcross factory and fully engage with local and national government, and ultimately reverse the proposal to close the Tollcross site.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to engage with Pladis and advise them to reverse the proposal to close the Tollcross site.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by David Linden, Official Report, 15 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 236.]

[P002669]

Observations from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kwasi Kwarteng):

The Government recognise that this must be a deeply worrying time for all employees affected by plans to close the McVities factory at Tollcross, as well as for their families and the communities in which they live. These workers are the force behind the global success of the McVities brand, some of whom belong to families who have worked at the Tollcross factory going back generations. They should rightly be proud to be part of its century long history, making the famous biscuits that have been household names in Britain for decades and that are equally enjoyed by people all over the world. The importance of the Tollcross factory to the local community and the regional economy cannot be understated.

Working with the Scottish Government and other partners—including the Action Group co-chaired by Kate Forbes MSP and Glasgow City Council leader Susan Aitken—the Government will do all they can to support every worker affected, including through the Department for Work and Pensions, Job Centre Plus, as well as the support they are able to access through the Partnership Action for Continuing Employment (PACE) in Scotland. Access to redundancy help and job search advice will also be available through The Department for Work and Pension’s Job Help campaign website.

There is also information on gov.uk and updated information packs provided to employers to help them signpost employees to the support that is available. This support includes:

connecting people to jobs in the local labour market;

help with job searches, including CV writing, interview skills, where to find jobs and how to apply for them;

help to identify transferable skills and skills gaps (linked to the local labour market) along with advice on what benefits they may get and how to claim.

Additionally, the Government’s Plan for Jobs is helping support businesses to recover from the pandemic and create more jobs, with measures such as VAT cuts, business rates relief, and cash grants for the most affected sectors.

While we recognise this is a commercial decision for the company, we encourage Pladis to work in a responsible and compassionate way with their employees, and engage constructively with the Action Group to carefully consider any counterproposals put forward. BEIS Ministers and officials stand ready to work with the Scottish Government to ensure a bright future for Tollcross employees, so that their skills can continue to be used to benefit the local economy in Glasgow and more widely.

The UK Internal Market Act 2020 provides the opportunity for the UK Government to complement and strengthen support given to citizens, businesses and communities across Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. For the first time in decades, we can provide direct financial support to regenerate town centres and high streets, improve local transport links and infrastructure, and invest in cultural, sporting and economic development that can level up the whole UK.

We will boost funding for communities, with the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund to support local infrastructure and £220 million to invest in local areas ahead of launching the UK Shared Prosperity Fund in 2022. This is in addition to the £1 billion Glasgow City Deal that supports tens of thousands of new jobs through infrastructure but also through innovative industries including high tech manufacturing, life sciences and advanced design.

Manufacturing is so often the economic anchor in local communities, providing good, well-paid jobs. The Tollcross site is no exception. BEIS is in regular dialogue with the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise and will continue to work with them, not only to support the Scottish Government’s effort to help those affected, but the broader manufacturing industry and economy in Scotland.

Cabinet Office

Voter ID

The petition of residents of the constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran,

Declares that the current statistics on voter fraud show that it is incredibly rare and that this is no widespread problem across the UK, thus voter ID requirements are a solution in search of a problem; further that the only type of fraud that photographic voter IDs could prevent is voter impersonation, which is even more rare each year; further that this legislation has been described as draconian, archaic and anti-democratic, as it puts a qualification on the franchise; further that the real consequence of this legislation will be this Government suppressing voting among lower income, ethnic minority, and younger people, all of whom are less likely to vote for the party now in Government; further that, in contrast to this archaic Government, the SNP Government in Holyrood is focused on measures to extend the franchise and encourage turnout; further that the SNP has already introduced votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, refugees, and foreign nationals with leave to remain; and further that voting should be made as easy as possible with no barrier to contributing to democracy.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to dismiss any plans to implement legislation that enforces voter IDs.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Patricia Gibson, Official Report, 20 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 930.]

[P002680]

Observations from the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith):

Voter identification is part of the Government’s body of work to strengthen the integrity and security of our elections. We will not remove voter identification requirements from the Elections Bill.

The Government were elected on a manifesto that committed to protecting the integrity of our democracy, by introducing identification to vote at polling stations. The Government have since announced that these measures are being brought forward as part of a wider initiative to tackle electoral fraud and give voters confidence in our elections.

Voter fraud is a crime that we cannot allow room for, so the Government are stamping out any potential for it to take place in our elections. Strengthening the integrity of our electoral system will give the public confidence that our elections will remain secure well into the future. Showing identification to prove who you are is something people of all walks of life already do every day. It is a reasonable and proportionate approach to extend this practice to voting and to give the public confidence in a core principle of our democracy—that their vote is theirs, and theirs alone.

An independent review of electoral fraud conducted by Lord Pickles highlighted the events of cases such as Tower Hamlets—in which the 2014 Mayoral election was declared void by corrupt and illegal practices—as evidence of vulnerabilities in our system which must be addressed. In addition to the recommendation in the Pickles report to introduce voter identification, the policy is supported by the independent Electoral Commission and is backed by international election observers such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Humans Rights, which have repeatedly called for the introduction of identification in polling stations in Great Britain, saying its absence is a security risk.

Personation—assuming the identity of another person with the intention to deceive—is very difficult to prove and prosecute: by definition, it is a crime of deception. However, it is by no means a victimless crime and it is often the most vulnerable who find themselves targeted. There are frequent anecdotal reports of personation, including most recently during the 2021 local elections. Often, it only comes to light if and when the real voter tries to vote later, after the crime has been committed.

That is why voter identification is so important, as it virtually eliminates the risk of personation occurring in the first place, and that is why the Government will not be dismissing plans to implement these measures.

Even the perception that our electoral system is vulnerable to fraud is damaging for public confidence. Data from our pilot evaluations in 2018 and 2019 show that the requirement to show identification increased voter confidence in the voting process. This is supported by the Electoral Commission’s recent survey which found that the majority of the public say a requirement to show identification at polling stations would make them more confident in the security of the voting system. Both rounds of voter identification pilots also demonstrated our ability to collaborate very successfully with local authorities and support them in delivering voter identification that works for voters.

Voters in Northern Ireland have been required by law to show paper identification since 1985, and the Labour Government introduced photographic identification at polling stations across Northern Ireland in 2003. Voter identification has been operating with ease in Northern Ireland for decades and has proven to be effective at tackling electoral fraud and improving voter confidence. This is also the case in many countries around the world, where voter identification works with ease.

The requirement for voters in the rest of the UK to identify themselves in order to collect their ballot paper already exists in law but this law is archaic. Voters are currently asked to provide their name and address, which is checked against the electoral register, in order to collect their ballot paper. This requirement is clearly vulnerable to fraud and so the Government are updating and improving it.

To that end, voters will be required to show an approved form of photographic identification before collecting their ballot paper to vote at a polling station in a UK parliamentary election in Great Britain and at local elections in England, and at Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales.

The list of approved photographic identification will not be limited to passports and driving licences. A broad range of documents will be accepted, including, for example, various concessionary travel passes, Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS) cards and photocard parking permits issued as part of the Blue Badge scheme. In addition, expired photographic identification will be accepted as long as the photograph is of a good enough likeness to allow polling station staff to confirm the identity of the holder.

Everyone who is eligible to vote will continue to be able to do so.

New research published by the Government shows that 98% of voters already own a photographic document that is on the list of acceptable types of identification under this policy. The figure was between 96%-99% across all age groups and regions and the research found that 99% of people from ethnic minorities owned an accepted form of photographic identification, as did 99% of those aged 18-29. This research can be found at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-9187/.

Where a voter does not have one of the approved forms of photo identification, local authorities will be required, by law, to provide a Voter Card free of charge. The Electoral Commission will deliver a comprehensive and targeted communications campaign to raise awareness for the changes to the requirements at the polling station and we will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, including charities and civil society organisations, to make sure that voter identification works for all voters.

Housing, Communities and Local Government

Sprint Route and Car Park

The petition of residents of the United Kingdom,

Declares that Transport for West Midlands should withdraw its proposal to build a 300-space Park and Ride car park on land adjacent to the Bell Inn, Birmingham Road; further that the proposed location of the car park is green belt land, which contravenes the National Planning Policy Framework and Walsall MBC’s Site Allocation Document; further that there was no consultation with local residents before this decision was made by Transport for West Midlands and that four mature trees have now been removed along Birmingham Road as part of this project, also without any consultation; further that no consultation was carried out by Walsall MBC before it approved an Environmental Impact Assessment Screening option for this site, removing important environmental safeguards by exempting the proposals from a full Environmental Impact Assessment.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to ensure that Transport for West Midlands withdraws its application to build a car park on green belt land.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Valerie Vaz , Official Report, 7 July 2021; Vol. 698, c. 1021.]

[P002674]

Observations from the Minister for Housing (Christopher Pincher):

Local authorities act independently of central Government. Government Ministers have no remit to intervene in the day-to-day affairs of local authorities, except where specific provision has been made in an Act of Parliament. Democratically elected local authorities are accountable for their actions to their electorate and must act within their statutory powers. Therefore, we cannot comment on the handling by Walsall MBC or any other planning authority of any aspect of the transport scheme or associated development to which the petitioners refer.

I am advised that, to date, no planning application has been submitted. In any event the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) cannot comment on the merits of the proposal since to do so could prejudice the position of the Council in the event that a planning application is submitted. MHCLG must also be careful to avoid prejudicing MHCLG’s own position since the application could come before MHCLG formally in the future.

Once a planning application has been submitted, the relevant local authority has to ensure that the appropriate regulations on publicity are complied with, for example, site notices and newspaper adverts, and where representations should be sent. Any additional publicity, including neighbour notification, is at the discretion of the authority. This will ensure that there will be an opportunity for the petitioners and other local residents to make their objections known and for those objections to be taken into account. There is also guidance at: http://planningguidance.planningportal.gov.uk/blog/guidance/consultation-and-pre-decision-matters/ which I hope will be helpful.

However, if the petitioners consider that the planning application is one which should be determined by the Secretary of State following a public inquiry, and if the local authority has not yet issued its decision letter granting planning permission, the petitioners may write to the Planning Casework Unit (PCU@communities. gov.uk) setting out the application details and the planning reasons why MHCLG should consider call-in of the proposal. It should be borne in mind that it is the Secretary of State’s policy to be very selective about calling in applications and, in general, this will only be where issues of more than local importance arise. This policy can be found at:

Treasury

VAT on sunscreen

The petition of residents of the constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran,

Declares that sunscreen should be reclassified as an essential healthcare item and be exempted from VAT due to the vital role it plays in preventing serious health conditions such as skin cancer; notes that sunscreen is currently classified as a cosmetic product in the UK and is therefore subject to 20% VAT, which adds around £1.50 to the cost of each bottle; further that Cancer Research UK has concluded that being sunburnt once every two years can triple the risk of melanoma skin cancer, and that melanoma skin cancer incidence rates have more than doubled in the UK since the early 1990s; further that 90% of cases of melanoma skin cancer are preventable by being sun safe; further that research conducted by Tesco found that 57% of UK adults think sunscreen is too expensive and 29% said they would wear it daily if it was a little cheaper, with 31% of parents surveyed stating that they cannot always afford to apply sunscreen to the whole family, often deciding to apply it only to their children.

The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to remove VAT on sunscreen to make it more affordable and to encourage people to protect themselves from the harmful effects of the sun.

And the petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Patricia Gibson, Official Report, 21 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 1100.]

[P002681]

Observations from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman):

The Government thank Patricia Gibson for submitting the petition on behalf of her constituents about exempting sunscreen from VAT.

Under the current VAT rules, sun protection products are subject to the standard rate of VAT. High-factor sunscreen is on the NHS prescription list for certain conditions and therefore is provided VAT free when dispensed by a pharmacist.

The Government’s approach to this matter is to support safety campaigns that ensure that sunscreen is placed within its proper context; as one of the precautions that people can take against the harmful rays of the sun, but one that does not provide 100% protection. Advice from leading cancer charities recommends a range of steps people can take for protection, which includes avoiding long periods of exposure, staying in the shade at peak hours, and protecting themselves with a hat and sunglasses.

Expanding the scope of current VAT reliefs would impose significant additional pressure on the public finances, to which VAT makes a significant contribution. VAT raised around £130 billion in 2019-20 and helps to fund key spending priorities including on health, schools, and defence. Any loss in tax revenue would have to be balanced by a reduction in public spending, increased borrowing or increased taxation elsewhere. Finally, it is never guaranteed that any reduction in tax on a given item would be passed on by the manufacturers to the end consumer.

In addition, this request must be viewed in the context of almost £50 billion of requests for relief from VAT received since the EU referendum, and such costs would have to be balanced by increased taxes elsewhere, or reductions in Government spending.

Therefore, although the Government keep all taxes under review, there are currently no plans to reduce or remove VAT on sunscreen products.