Tuesday 13 July 2021
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fisheries management after the UK’s departure from the EU.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Charles. First, I place on the record my gratitude to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing time for this debate.
Before turning to the business of today’s debate, I want to say a few words about the recent and very sad passing of David Linkie, former editor of Fishing News. David’s work on Fishing News was more than just journalism; it was a mission to give a voice to the fishing industry and to the communities that depend on it. I will not claim to have agreed with every word he ever wrote, but we do not have to agree with someone to acknowledge their passion, sincerity and commitment, and in David, all that and more shone through. His contribution will be missed, and I am sure that hon. Members from all parts of the House will want to send condolences to his family.
I hope that David would approve of what today’s debate is about, which is giving a voice in Parliament to our fishing industries—industries that were promised so much by politicians, from the Prime Minister downwards, and that now look to him and them to deliver on what they promised. When the holding of today’s debate was first announced, I put out a call for evidence to hear the views of people in the industry and its associated sectors. I anticipated a healthy response, but even so I was astonished at the volume and content of what I received. The emails came in from all around the coast, from catchers, processors, engineers and traders, and all with the same message: the deal struck by the Prime Minister on Christmas eve is not what they were promised and, six months into its first year, it is causing massive difficulties.
One Shetland skipper spoke for many when he wrote:
“I run a small wooden 22-metre trawler around Shetland. We have a ridiculously small cod quota and we find it impossible to avoid cod, there is more cod around Shetland right now than at anytime in living memory but our quota is minuscule. It has been said by skippers recently that you can catch your year’s quota in one day! There are also plans to cut the cod quota further in 2022, so it begs the question why are we still using the broken quota system the EU put in place now that we are an independent coastal state?”
Magnus, a 19-year-old fisherman from Whalsay, who has plans to buy into a whitefish boat with a few close friends and so is the future of this industry, asked:
“Why is the fishing industry having to fight their own Government for survival? Why do their advisory boards have no qualified fishermen or ex fishermen or fish processors advising them? Why are they allowing uncontrolled fishing by foreign vessels in our waters?”
From Cornwall, at the other end of the country, a skipper wrote to me as
“someone who has fished for 40 years from my home village of St Mawes in Cornwall.”
“There were 18 boats worked here when I started, all with 2 or 3 crew and now we are down to the last 2 trawlers, both working single-handedly due to the constant negativity surrounding the industry. With Brexit we had a golden opportunity, the one and only chance to keep these vessels out to at least 12 miles, the meridian line would be the next goal but no, an unbelievably weak Government has put us in a worse position than before.”
In coastal and island communities around the country, the anger and frustration felt by fishermen is almost palpable. They feel let down and used, and they want answers. At the start of the year, we saw catastrophic gridlock as exporters seeking to take advantage of what would traditionally be the busiest week of the first quarter were unable to get their fish to market in continental Europe. Promises were made then that British businesses would be compensated for their losses, and I spoke to one local exporter in Shetland who was looking at a loss in the region of £50,000; he was not alone. The Minister and the Secretary of State made big promises about compensation schemes, but how did that work out? I spoke to the same person again yesterday. He had sought to mitigate his loss by selling his fish at a much lower price on the domestic market and, in doing so, he managed to limit his loss to £20,000 rather than the £50,000 loss that he had originally faced. When he applied for help to meet that restricted loss, he was told that because he had sold his fish—he had done the responsible thing—there would be no assistance for him. If, when the Minister promised in January to help exporters, she had meant that to qualify for that help, they would have to leave their fish to rot, she should have said so. Will she revisit how that compensation scheme has worked?
Processors have been badly hit as a result of their inability to source the labour that they need to run their businesses. One major processor in Peterhead told me a few weeks ago that he was constantly at least 10% down on his required staffing levels. That means that either he is paying overtime to his staff, or he has to restrict the range of work that he takes on; either way, it has a massive impact on his profitability. What is the Minister doing to bring home to our colleagues in the Home Office the need to ensure that the processing centres have access to the skilled labour that they need?
The Prime Minister’s deal was deficient in many respects. For the catching sector, one of the most dramatic of those was the loss of easy access to in-year quota swaps. The Secretary of State assured us that those could easily be agreed on a Government-to-Government basis. However, as we enter the third quarter of the year, having only recently and finally established the quota entitlement for this year, we still do not know how these in-year quota swaps are going to work. Can the Minister tell us when the industry might expect to be told how it will get access to the extra quota that it needs? With every week that passes, this becomes more urgent.
Another theme that came through loud and clear from fishermen in every part of the country was their unhappiness at the inequality of treatment when it comes to sea boardings by fisheries enforcement officers. In Scotland, that is the responsibility of Marine Scotland. Marine Scotland figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show a massive disparity between the approach to UK boats and to the French and Spanish fleets, which are allowed to go about their business virtually unmolested. Why is that? Is it, as was suggested to me, because fisheries protection officers do not have the same access to real-time catch data from foreign vessels as they do for UK boats? Again, the complaint is the same around the coasts; it seems that what is true of Marine Scotland is true also of enforcement agencies south of the border.
The Minister has heard me speak before about the practice of gillnetting off the west of Shetland. This practice is environmental lunacy. It is just about the most unsustainable form of fishing imaginable: it contributes massively to the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and means that for several square miles of water at a time, local boats are excluded from fishing areas that they have traditionally seen as their base grounds. For years, we were told that this was something that we had to live with as part of the common fisheries policy. That no longer applies, so why do we still allow it?
The Minister also knows, because I have told her, of the friction between local boats and gillnetters. When the Fisheries Act 2020 passed into law, I urged her to give the Maritime and Coastguard Agency powers to police the waters in our exclusive economic zone, between 12 miles and the 200-mile limit. She knows how close the Alison Kay came to disaster in her encounter with the Spanish gillnetter Pesorsa Dos. I have to tell the Minister, though, that the situation continues to be bad, and that in fact it is getting worse.
On Monday 28 June, Ross David Robertson and his crew, in his trawler Mizpah, were operating in traditional grounds north of Shetland when they were confronted by the Genesis FD 19, a 30-metre, 298-tonne longliner. It crossed the bow of the Mizpah and came within three metres of hitting it. Ross David Robertson told The Fishing Daily,
“‘We are trying to fish on grounds to suit our quota allocation but can’t get fishing because of these vicious wolf packs chasing us off. The seamen ship off these guys are totally horrendous. Put the fishing to the side on this matter, it’s the danger they put both vessels in that’s totally against the law,’ says Ross. Asked if he has experienced this before, Ross says that he has, and it is a growing concern for him and skippers across the fleet, but they are afraid that the authorities are not doing enough to protect the fleet and one day it will lead to a tragedy. ‘Yes, it’s happening too often,’ he said. ‘Last year another vessel did the same to us and I reported him to the Coastguard and MAIB but I didn’t hear any outcome, so I just presumed it was a waste of time.’”
I have met the Minister and officials from her Department and others about this, and they all come out with lots of good and detailed reasons why it is awfully complicated and difficult to fix. These reasons no longer hold water, however. Will it require a boat to go to the bottom of the sea before somebody takes responsibility and acts to end this irresponsibility?
I am aware that I have already taken quite a lot of the time given to today’s debate. I have a lot more to say, but I am afraid that that must be left to others. In January, I asked the Secretary of State if he would meet me and industry representatives to discuss the problems facing the industry. He ignored the request then and has done so since, so I make it again today. Will the Minister sit down with Members of this House and industry representatives? Will she listen to us and engage? If not, I fear the anger and frustration in the industry will only grow. Our fishing industry still has enormous potential, but to realise that potential requires political will. Do the Minister and her colleagues have that political will, and will they use it for the benefit of our fishing industries and the communities that rely on them?
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate arranged by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), for which I thank him. I am standing right next to the Minister, so I will try to be nice to her. It is not an easy job being a fisheries Minister at the moment, because there are many problems to sort out. I will get through all the problems as quickly as I can, and I hope that there may be some solutions.
First, on fishing in Norway, can we apply a temporary trade remedy with Norway to try to get our boats access to these waters? Naturally, we fish for cod in Norwegian waters. As far as shellfisheries are concerned, we still have major problems on the west coast, Wales and others, where we are still unable to trade from class B waters. We have been trying to sort out the different waters, but that seems to be hitting the buffers as well. This really needs to be sorted. It is not all the Minister’s fault. The European Commission could have been, and needs to be, much more amenable to get this to work. We must not be held up as an example to others that may leave the European Union. I rather fear this is where we are with shellfishing.
On international quota swaps, the lack of international swapping has left some companies with less quota than they had before Brexit, and it has left all companies with less flexibility over their quota management. Quota swapping is a key tool in compliance with landing obligations. English fish producer organisations collectively would like, believe it or not, a system that stays as close as possible to the previous one, so that swaps brokered by the producer organisations can be checked and signed off by all devolved Administrations and the swaps can occur at any point during the year. Otherwise, they cannot land the fish they catch. We have worked so hard on this over the years to try to ensure that we stop discarding fish.
The key principles are that whichever devolved Administration donates the quota should receive the incoming quota, and the organisation donating the quota should receive the full incoming quota, so that the levels of quota are kept where they are. There is no fisheries Minister for England, which means that English viewpoints are under-represented in the fisheries discussion. The process for Scotland should not necessarily be adopted for England if other processes would be better for management of English quota.
There are many things for the Minister to do. My final point is probably more for the Chancellor, and I have talked about this before. We must make sure that we give new fishing boats the same capital allowances of 18% a year so that our fishermen can have new boats, new gear and much better safety. That would be much better for the environment and much safer for our fishermen. At the moment, they get only 6% on a new boat and 18% on an old boat. The boats could be made in the north of England. We could have a north-south divide in so far as we could provide the north of England with great employment, and we could have fishing boats all around the country. It is up to us to now develop our fisheries, and I believe that we can.
Once the Minister has flattened out all the little local difficulties with the European Commission, we can get on and actually benefit from leaving the common fisheries policy, because environmentally it was disastrous. We will need to get stuck in so that our fishermen can get back to being able to fish and land what they catch.
Mr Parish, you were four minutes exactly. I am sorry, colleagues; these things are a nightmare to chair because other colleagues pull out at the last minute, but I can now up you to five minutes until further notice. [Laughter.] Seriously, if you put in for these debates, do try and turn up. As you have just seen, a colleague has been discriminated against because of another colleague’s failure to show. I call Angus MacNeil.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to hear that we are getting an extra minute. I recall that you and I entered Parliament at the same time, so it adds to the joy. As a co-sponsor of this important debate, along with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing it. I associate myself with his words about David Linkie, the Fishing News editor, who seemed to be ever-present at fishing exhibitions in Glasgow whenever I went there over the years.
Before I go much further, I would like to mention the Norwegian fishing deal and UK fisheries. I have a letter from Sir Barney White-Spunner, who points out:
“The recent…deal with Norway heaps more pain on an already hamstrung distant waters fleet. At the same time that Norway removed our right to fish for cod in its waters, the UK has given them the right to sell the self-same cod without any tariff at all to UK chippies. In effect the UK government has given the Norwegians the greater part of our market overnight and achieved nothing in return for English fishermen. We are calling on the government to apply a temporary trade remedy to bring the Norwegians back to the negotiating table.”
That deserves to be highlighted and brought to the fore in this debate. Many in the fishing industry in all parts of the UK are suffering quite badly.
I do not want to mention too much—I know I have been given five minutes, but I hope I will be under that time—but I want to talk about the cost and bureaucracy involved in fisheries at the moment. Before Brexit, three quarters of Scottish fishermen’s exports went to the European Union, but there has been an almost exponential rise in costs. Barratlantic, a local fish factory in my constituency, tells me that whereas a mere delivery note used to suffice, it now needs a catch certificate, packing lists and commodity codes, scientific names on consignments, a commercial invoice and an import and export declaration form. It pays the French Government VAT at 5.5%, and it also needs a health certificate. With the health certificate and all the rest, it needs to bring to the fore about eight pieces of paper before it starts exporting, whereas a delivery note once used to suffice.
The upshot is that the export cost to get a product to the continent has trebled from 32p per kilo to around £1 a kilo. Whereas consignments could be sent in three to four pallets, they now have to be sent in pallet loads of 10 to make matters viable and economical. Obviously, that affects the bottom line of many businesses. The Government really have to look quickly at ways of streamlining.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and I have been in touch with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on several occasions to try to get these matters streamlined so that multiple data entries and paperwork are not required. Some things could and should be digitised to enable the transfer of data from one place to the other without the onerous time. The eight pieces of paper that I have mentioned translate into a lot of hours and cost for people who need to get their product to the important markets where we export three quarters of our product.
The final thing I will mention is the £100 million scheme that was promised in January, although apparently the Scottish Government are still waiting for details of that compensation for fishing. Hopefully, the UK Government will be awake and quickly moving on that, because six to seven months has passed and things in Government often move slowly. However, the big promises were there and the big promises should be delivered. The promises were there because of the incompetence that was rained upon those selling fish produce to continental Europe as a result of Brexit and the deal that was struck, which meant all that bureaucracy had come into play.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Charles, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this debate, which I believe is the first fisheries debate that has been held since the signing of the trade and co-operation agreement at the turn of the year. Taking into account the fact that fisheries was centre-stage in the Brexit debate, it is long overdue.
Normally, we have fisheries debates immediately before the annual fisheries negotiations with the EU; straight afterwards, there is invariably a statement in the main Chamber when the Minister announces the outcome of those negotiations and Members have the opportunity to ask questions on behalf of their communities. This year, these particular negotiations, which were historic because they were the first conducted by the UK as an independent coastal state, were understandably concluded only last month, yet it appears that they have been conducted behind a wall of silence. There was no opportunity for colleagues to raise concerns beforehand and there has been no formal and full Government statement since.
The main headline seeping out of the negotiations is that it was agreed that the tonnage limits for the total allowable catch for non-quota species would not be enforced this year. That primarily advantages the EU fleet, it will lead to increased effort in fishing grounds that are already under enormous pressure and it will damage the English inshore fleet. That is hardly an auspicious start to the management of our own waters and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address that concern in her summing up.
Brexit provides an opportunity to manage our waters in a better and more responsible way, for the benefit of both the marine environment and local people in coastal communities, such as Lowestoft. Around the UK that can play an important role in levelling up, and internationally we can be a global exemplar.
In East Anglia, the fishing industry came together with local councils, Seafish and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership to produce a report—the Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries study, or REAF. The recommendations of that report have been adapted as a result of the disappointing outcome of the Brexit negotiations and I shall briefly highlight some of the revised proposals.
First, it is important that our fishing stocks are sustainably managed to bring economic benefits to local coastal communities. In the short term, the management of the under-10 metre pool system should be improved to better support the inshore fleet. That requires the Marine Management Organisation to change its approach to trading and valuing quota for the pool.
Secondly, the Government must ban bottom-trawling in marine protected areas, especially on the Dogger Bank. They should also look to restrict engine power in MPAs, which would not only safeguard our fisheries for future generations but reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Thirdly, the southern North sea should be managed as a mixed species fishery, with quota allocations and catch limits in line with the requirements of the discard ban. Funding and practical support should be provided to enable fishermen to trial new types of gear designed to minimise by-catch.
Finally, we need to make more use of data to better manage conflicts between fishing and other marine activities, such as wind farms. That can lead to arrangements that better manage the impact of displacement, which can have devastating impacts on local communities.
In conclusion, we have the opportunity—a golden opportunity—to put in place a world-class system of fisheries management. We have not yet grasped that opportunity. However, I hope and anticipate that, in her summing up, my hon. Friend the Minister will lay out the route map that will enable us to do that.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Sir Charles; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing today’s debate. The comments by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) were extremely pertinent—I am very much aware that he is in the party of Government and I am in the party of the Opposition, so perhaps I can express things in slightly different way, but I think his comments were very useful.
Having now come on to the theme of being in one of the Opposition parties, I hope that the Government will apologise to the UK fishing community for the disruption that has marked our departure from the EU, from the start up to the present day. There was, of course, no oven-ready deal. The Government left our fishing industry, and especially the Welsh shellfish industry, high and dry. Overnight, Welsh producers were cut off from their main export market, and that debilitating uncertainty is ongoing. Questions remain about how water is classified and the impact of that on the shellfish industry, particularly in England and Wales.
After years of promising control over our seas, the UK Government folded on the issue of access to UK waters. With asymmetrical interests within the UK fishing industry on access, perhaps one obvious route would be to better involve the Welsh Government in negotiations with the EU, so that we can ensure equitable and sustainable access to Welsh and European waters. However, I understand that the UK Government have seen fit to include the territorial waters of south Wales in an access region stretching from Grimsby in Lincolnshire, around the southern English coast and Cornwall, to Fishguard. Historically, only 10 EU vessels were licensed to operate in south Wales’ waters under the old area regime system. This huge new region opens up Welsh waters to 120 licensed EU vessels.
There is a series of questions here. Could the Minister explain why Wales’ devolved control over our territorial waters appears to have been swept aside? Were the Welsh Government consulted? Did they give up the means to manage conservation of Welsh fish stocks voluntarily, or did the Minister’s Government impose this action without consultation or consent? In addition, what assessment has the Minister made of the potential effect of displacement on Wales, especially on non-quota species, as the UK Government introduce marine conservation zones and highly protected marine areas around England?
If English vessels cannot fish locally, there is a real risk that they will put unsustainable pressure on Welsh stocks because of the Government’s actions. Equally pressing is the challenge of displacement facing our fishing communities as a result of a combination of measures, including a huge expansion in the area devoted to offshore wind farms and improved protection for marine environments. While the Welsh Government have control over marine protection—allegedly—they do not have control over the seabed on which offshore wind developments depend.
One solution would be devolution of the Crown Estate to Wales, as has happened in Scotland. That action would further holistic fisheries management in Wales and support not only our decarbonisation efforts, but the viability of our fishing industry. While I welcome the co-operation between the UK and devolved Governments on joint policy statements, it is essential that such co-operation is grounded in dialogue.
I cannot overstate this: the fishing industry has the knowledge and the vested interests to make conservation work, not from a distant office, but from the living environment of the sea. That would prevent a repeat of the key flaws within the common fisheries policy, such as the landing obligation, and would ensure that fair and sustainable practices were supported across the UK industry. I would particularly welcome any comment by the Minister on how the UK Government are addressing the issue of unlicensed fishing in UK waters, and what support they are offering to the Welsh Government on that issue.
I hope that today’s debate will improve the UK Government’s awareness and responsiveness to the challenges facing both the Welsh and the UK fishing industry, and I would welcome the opportunity to take these matters further in a meeting with the Minister. Diolch yn fawr.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing the debate. He and others have outlined the challenges faced by the industry, which impact communities across the UK, including the East Neuk of Fife in North East Fife, which I represent.
There is no doubt that fishing has faced and is facing a number of issues. Some of them are longer term, such as changes in consumer taste, the impact of overfishing and the climate emergency. I echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), expressing her faith in the expertise of the industry to help tackle that climate impact. We know that the short-term and more acute factors are covid over the past year and a half and Brexit. If we look to future management—the topic of the debate—it is clear that those two are the most critical and acute.
Alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who will speak later, I serve on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which has had three sessions, since the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, specifically focused on food and drink and fishing. At the first session, in February, attended by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) in his role as Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, representatives of the industry outlined a profound sense of disappointment, anxiety and betrayal about how the Government had handled the UK’s departure from the EU in respect of the industry.
The only hope for the future expressed by those representatives at that first session was for the negotiations in 2026 to be handled differently. It was clear that the impact on the industry was now acute and distressing, and that the Government are wholly to blame for that position. Export areas such as groupage have been impacted, which suggests that there has been no assessment of the impact, and that the fishing industry has been made lots of promises but left to fend for itself. No grace period was granted, despite requests. The industry had less than two weeks to respond with a plan related to the EU agreement.
At the second session, in April, I asked Donna Fordyce whether the Scottish and UK Governments were doing enough to progress electronic transmissions—to help move bulk market exports—and streamlining, which would reduce those errors. We again raised the issue of longer-term plans, particularly around funding. I echo the request to the Minister by my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney for more detail on what funding might look like. Elspeth Macdonald pointed out at that session that 60% of landings are in Scotland, and that that needs to be reflected in funding.
As others have outlined, having left the common fisheries policy, the industry still seems to be impacted by that, plus further restrictions brought about by our third-country status in relation to the EU. For example, regarding the haddock quota that we had under the common fisheries policy, the 57% that the Government obtained during the Brexit deal as a result of in-year quota swaps was a 5% cut in quota for that type of fish. We clearly need progress on in-year quota swaps, not just for this year but moving into 2022, so that the industry does not make further losses.
Although agreement has been reached in 2021, it is clear that a lack of progress for future years is critical. What is the progress for 2022? The likely risk is a knock-on effect. Will negotiations for that start next month, as discussed and expected at the Scottish Affairs Committee?
Hon. Members will have often heard a famous quotation by the American poet Maya Angelou, which is usually very motivational:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I would ask the Minister and the Government to reflect on how the fishery industry is feeling as a result of the past 18 months.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing this highly important debate—one that is very important to my constituents. As an aside, I have to say that I am personally very grateful that my right hon. Friend is where he is, because he has a considerable knowledge of fisheries from his constituency and that is very helpful to me. I do not have as great a knowledge, which is why I am glad that he is where he is.
I want to use three examples to underpin what I am about to say. The first is that of a gentleman whom I have mentioned before in this place. I had a conversation with him this morning. He is Mr William Calder, the owner of Scrabster Seafoods—the Minister and I have spoken about this gentleman. Today, Mr Calder has put it to me pretty starkly by saying that the cost of getting a 30 kg box of fish, such as monkfish, to his market in Brittany has just about doubled, and that is really eating into his business. It is a local business that employs locally, and it has been in existence for some time. By coincidence, yesterday he had an email from one of his hauliers, saying, “I am really sorry. Because of the situation and the way business has dwindled a bit, we are going to have to up our prices to move your fish from A to B.” Then there is something that I have mentioned several times: every hour and every day of delay cuts into the product being sellable at the end of it all, because absolute freshness is key. So that is Mr William Calder, my good friend, and anything that we can do to help him would be very welcome indeed. I shall return to him in a couple of minutes.
The second person I want to mention is my friend Mr Peter Sinclair, whom I have mentioned to the Minister before. He is the owner of a fishing trawler called the Reaper, and he has made the point to me that a boat owner is more likely to be inspected if they are British than if they are a foreigner. By means of a freedom of information request, my party has established that the stats say that a British boat owner is five times more likely to be inspected than a French or Spanish owner, which is not good.
That takes me to my third gentleman, who has had considerable newspaper coverage, not least in the Thunderer—The Times. Mr Ian Mackay is the skipper of the Loch Inchard. At the beginning of June, he rightly highlighted a most unfortunate incident—the sort of incident that my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland has referred to—whereby he went to his fishing ground expecting to be trawling, only to find that French boats, and sadly some boats flying the British flag, had established long lines. That meant that they pretty abruptly told him to get out of it and that he could not trawl, because he would damage their fishing gear. Eventually, after much aggressive toing and froing, he established an area of the ocean where he could trawl, but that sort of aggressive behaviour is simply not on.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland said, where is this going to end? Mr Mackay had boats cutting across his bows. We could well end up with deaths at sea, and that is something we cannot possibly countenance. I return to Mr Peter Sinclair, who has suggested to me that we should look seriously at some form of penalty for boats that have indulged in that sort of behaviour. Possibly an effective penalty would be to ban them from landing their fish in a British port. That would need to happen only once, and they would soon learn their lesson.
If we could have a meeting with the Minister, that would be very helpful indeed. I compliment the Minister on having had conversations in the past—I give credit where it is due—but promises were made to the fishermen about compensation and trying to sort out the problems, so I echo others’ call for a roundtable meeting involving the industry. That would be best. I have mentioned Mr Sinclair, Mr Mackay and Mr Calder because I know them personally from face-to-face discussions. If we have a roundtable discussion, it is absolutely important that they are at the table and are not just being spoken to remotely by an agency. I am afraid that Marine Scotland can seem a little remote in the way that it deals with fishermen. I am not aware that it has too many face-to-face conversations. I hope I am wrong in that; if I am wrong, I apologise, but that is the impression I get.
For your amusement, Sir Charles, I come from fisherfolk from the Black Isle on the highland side of our family. I think I might be the only Member in this place who actually once worked in a fish factory—I spent a winter in the Faroe Islands. We are a maritime nation. Salt is in our blood. Fish is good for the health of the nation. For hundreds of years we have taken our fisherman very seriously and we feel we owe them a debt. Now is the time for us collectively to pay that debt to them and show just how much we value them. They are brave people doing a difficult job. We do not want their lives to be made any worse.
It is a pleasure to be able to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. Let me start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael); we have a good tradition of following one another in debates, and it is always a pleasure to hear him speak with such knowledge on this issue.
I recently arrived at Westminster and am privileged to represent Brixham, Salcombe and Dartmouth, which have fine fishing fleets and a fine fishing tradition, which I hope I will ably represent in this place. I also pay tribute to David Linkie; I did not know him, but I did see his work and I know how much he meant to the industry. On that note, I also pay tribute to Jim Portus, who has stepped down as the head of the South Western Fish Producer Organisation, and I wish Juliette Hatchman the best of luck in taking on that new role. She will certainly have a number of us to deal with in the south-west.
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point that there is an opportunity for the fishing industry and there must be political will. At the same time, we must ensure that we are not playing party politics with this issue, because there are opportunities in leaving the European Union, one of which has recently been recognised. The Minister knows that all too well because I have been knocking on her door almost daily about it. It relates to bivalve molluscs and the gradations of our waters, and the fact that the Food Standards Agency has moved significantly in the last eight months to allow us to challenge anomalous results. Each of our constituencies will be impacted differently by that, but it is extremely welcome to see how we can move at pace. After organisations have been asking for those changes for 30 years, we have managed to see some of them come through in eight months. I hope we might see a little bit more of that approach. We can never give certainty, but we can look at reforming our domestic legislation and providing opportunities for the fishing fleets in our coastal communities.
The second point I would like to make is about highly protected marine areas and the Benyon review. I understand the point that Lord Benyon is making in the review, but we must also have faith in our fishermen to look after their waters. They want future generations to be able to make money and have a business and a livelihood; they want to look after their waters and their coastlines as much as we do. Whatever we do with highly protected marine areas, we must make sure it is in conjunction, co-operation and discussion with the fishing fleets.
I hope the Minister and the team at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will engage with as many people in this place and outside Westminster to find the right balance, so that we can operate in highly protected marine areas in a way that will work. There is also a move on the environmental side of offshore wind farms, which are also heating up.
In a rare moment of cross-party unity, I find myself in agreement with the Chair of the International Trade Committee, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) about the maritime fisheries fund, which I believe has now been replaced by the fisheries and seafood scheme—FaSS—about the £100 million. DEFRA has been generous about that, but it does not mean anything until it is produced. I appreciate that the Department has to jump through hoops with the Treasury, but a lot of people have been waiting close to seven or eight months to hear when that will happen.
Speaking of certainty, we have a transition period. We have an opportunity to provide a degree of certainty to the industry about what our future relationship with the European Union will be after 2026. I hope we can begin that process of reassurance, build up the opportunity to develop our fleet in our coastal communities and ensure that people understand where we are going and why the trade and co-operation agreement we have now is what it is. There is room for opportunity.
The Minister was very kind and gracious to come down to Brixham; unfortunately, I was not able to be there, but I know she met a number of my constituents. She will have heard a great deal about non-total allowable catch species. We need further discussions about what goes beyond 2021, because right now there is uncertainty. The disparity between what EU vessels can catch in our waters and what we can catch in their waters is of grave concern. There is a lot more we can do.
Two specialised trade committees have been established that will be linked to fishing: the first is on sanitary and phytosanitary measures and the second is on just fishing. How will those committees be set up, who will be put on them and what representation will there be from Westminster and DEFRA? The committees offer us an enormous opportunity to streamline the process of ensuring that we can get our exports up to where they need to be, which so many other Members have raised as a point of concern.
To end on a positive note, I received the statistics this morning from Brixham fish market. It is now earning £800,000 per week. In previous years, it was £300,000 to £400,000. It is selling 40% up on previous years. It is looking forward to a very prosperous summer. I know that is not the case universally across the United Kingdom, but it is worth noting that my fishermen in Brixham, England’s most valuable fishing port, are painting a very positive picture. I was asked the other day what they were doing on 5 November and they said: “We built the effigy of you, but we are just deciding whether to burn it.” I have been told they are not intending to quite yet.
It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Sir Charles, for this morning’s important debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing it.
Since 2016, the Government have repeatedly told fishing communities that there is a post-Brexit bonanza waiting for them, famously describing it as a sea of opportunity. In preparing for today’s debate, I contacted four fishing businesses in four different parts of my Argyll and Bute constituency to ask them exactly what that sea of opportunity had delivered to them. I spoke to Jonathan MacAllister, a trawler owner and skipper who fishes out of Oban; Connie Macaskill, the office manager of Easdale Seafoods; Fiona McFarlane, director of Islay Crab Exports; and Jamie McMillan, the owner of Lochfyne Langoustines. From Oban in the north to Islay in the south, they all tell a story of an industry struggling with falling prices and loss of markets, an industry drowning in bureaucracy and red tape, and one struggling to cope with labour shortages and facing huge transport and logistical problems. That is an existential threat to the industry in the west coast of Scotland.
Jonathan MacAllister has seen the price he gets for his catch fall by a third since 2019. The routine of landing his catch at Kilkeel in Northern Ireland is now time consuming and wrapped up in customs paperwork and red tape. That is assuming he can get a crew to go in the first place, as the new skilled worker visa is actually more of a hindrance than a help in recruiting non-domestic crew. He now struggles to get spare parts for his boat. The engine is American, it is distributed via Holland, the refrigeration unit is German, the condensers are Italian and the boat’s electronic control unit is manufactured in Denmark. He can no longer get vital spare parts quickly and cost- effectively, while the cost of delivery has soared too.
A few miles down the road at Easdale Seafoods, Connie Macaskill’s office manager job now requires a forensic knowledge of French customs and VAT regulations. Like so many other small exporters, Easdale Seafoods has had to adapt quickly to change its practices and has spent an awful lot of money just to stay afloat in this sea of opportunity. Although fish are zero-rated for VAT, Easdale Seafoods still has to pay VAT in advance and then reclaim it from the French authorities, which use the single euro payments area business-to-business scheme. However, very few banks in the UK are set up to use SEPA B2B and currently, this very small Scottish company has thousands of euros tied up with the French VAT authorities and has no idea when it is getting them back.
Like many Scottish seafood exporters, the shortage of qualified heavy goods vehicle drivers has added another layer of complication for Easdale Seafoods. It is the same on Islay. Fiona McFarlane’s company, Islay Crab Exports, is suffering from the lack of qualified HGV drivers, but that is just one of the Brexit-related problems facing the business. More pressing is a shortage of workers. Jobs that were once filled by EU nationals now lie unfilled and the business needs double the number of processors that it currently has. Fiona told me yesterday: “We have worked hard building our business and have invested in the future. I desperately need people to work. There are people who want to come and work, but it is just not possible.”
We live in an economically fragile constituency, and the situation is unsustainable. It was laid out starkly by Jimmy McMillan of Lochfyne Langoustines. He employs 23 people in the village of Tarbert. He exports about 40%, the cost of getting that to market has soared and three hours of every day is spent dealing with Brexit-related paperwork. His costs are £300 to £500 a day in customs fees alone. That is the reality of Brexit for the fishing communities of Argyll and Bute. That is the reality of the “sea of opportunity”. That is why we voted against Brexit.
I will leave the final word to Fiona MacFarlane:
“If people had all the information and knowledge of what Brexit really meant, they would have voted differently. Someone should be held accountable to the country for misleading the people.”
She is absolutely right.
Thank you, Sir Charles, and I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for setting the scene.
I am pleased to speak in a fisheries debate. I represent the village of Portavogie in my constituency. I am familiar with it. At the advice centre there fishermen give me their updates every month on the issues that are hurting them and the fishing sector. I am also pleased to speak on behalf of many fishermen across Northern Ireland—not just those in Portavogie but those in Annalong, Ardglass and Kilkeel as well—because they come to me with those issues through the fishing organisations.
Some good news to start with reached Northern Ireland on Friday afternoon: an email from the Marine Management Organisation advised fishermen that access to Ireland’s inshore waters—those between nought and six nautical miles off shore—had been restored, thus reflecting their traditional fishing patterns around the island. Some 140 fishing vessels from Northern Ireland and some 190 fishing vessels from the Republic of Ireland have been licensed to fish in each other’s waters. That is just getting things back into line again on that one issue.
I always start with the good news, before any other news, which is perhaps not as positive. Part of the hard sea border erected against our fishermen has been removed, and we are grateful for the efforts of all involved in securing that. We must now redouble our efforts to restore access for all Northern Ireland and southern Irish fishermen to territorial seas round the island of Ireland, especially between six and 12 nautical miles offshore.
An irony of the trade and co-operation agreement, the TCA, is that access to territorial waters inside the 12 nautical miles for EU fishermen was written into the agreement in an area stretching from the Humber to Saint David’s head in Wales. Mutual access is not available for UK fishermen to access waters off the County Cork coast, in waters known as ICES—International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—sub-area 7.g. Regardless of the historical nature of the fishing industries in both parts of the island of Ireland and the call to avoid a hard border on the island, access for our fishermen in Northern Ireland—from my port of Portavogie, and Ardglass and Kilkeel—has been denied.
Last Friday’s announcement, therefore, was a partial fix and I repeat calls to the Minister. I have the utmost respect for her and—I say this honestly—she is very responsive to the issues that I bring to her attention, and to the fishing organisations, and we really appreciate that. I want to put that on the record. I again call on the Minister to seek a resolution. I ask her to make this matter a top priority at the UK-EU specialised joint committee on fisheries.
What we are seeing in the Irish sea as a result of the hard fisheries sea border is displacement of fishing effort. Geographically speaking, the Irish sea is a small area and increasing competition for space is bringing all kinds of pressures to bear. At least 80% of the UK’s fishing effort throughout the Irish sea emanates from Northern Ireland, but sometimes, regretfully, at least a perception exists that there is a communication problem between the statutory authorities in England and the fishing industry in Northern Ireland. Again, I call on the Minister to ensure that the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England and the marine planning division of the MMO all fully engage with industry representatives in Northern Ireland.
I again wish to commend the Minister for being in contact and working with the Northern Ireland Fishermen’s Federation, in particular Alan McCulla and Harry Wick under the NIFF banner. It is a good relationship, which is working, although perhaps we need to tighten it up a wee bit.
I also call on the Minister to encourage our officials in the various statutory authorities to give more than simple lip service to terms such as “adaptive management” or “co-management scheme”. Nature is an evolving ecosystem and its management must not be set in concrete for generations to come. I want to reflect on what was said earlier about the management of MPAs, which complicates fisheries management, as does the construction of offshore wind farms. Increasingly, the eastern Irish sea is presenting itself as one giant offshore energy generation scheme. The Crown Estate’s fourth round of offshore leasing reinforces a squeeze on fishing operations in the Irish sea. There is a real danger that these developments are impinging on fish spawning and nursery grounds. It is not good enough to tell fishermen to reduce or move their fishing activities through the MPA process, when that creates a sense that they have been told to move on to make space for windfarm developers.
Over the past few years, ICES set out to track ecosystem interactions in the Irish sea, through its WKIrish programme—the workshop on an ecosystem-based approach to fishery management for the Irish sea—without, it would seem, any further discussion on how the ecosystem model could be incorporated into fisheries management. This point was raised last week at the UK sea fisheries science panel, with reference to an annual briefing to industry and other stakeholders about the ICES fisheries science advice for 2020. Perhaps the Minister could respond on that point as well.
Fisheries management boils down to livelihoods. We talk about the quota system. How that dividend is allocated within the UK has not been finally settled. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will soon be launching a further consultation on the allocation in 2022. Fishermen in Northern Ireland were let down by the allocation methodology used in 2021. We know that the Secretary of State is supportive of zonal management, but, like him, the Minister is well aware that that would penalise Northern Ireland because our maritime economic zone is small. I suggest to the Minister that, if special cases can be made for other parts of the UK—for example, Wales; I welcome that—a similar case should be made for Northern Ireland, given its relatively small part of the UK quota share.
The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke about Norway. I will not repeat that, as time does not allow. Will overfishing of mackerel by Norway result in reduced catches for UK fishermen? That is practical fisheries management in action.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I commend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this timely debate today, in which I am very pleased to participate. He began by setting out the staggering number of problems that fishing organisations are experiencing. He spoke of the promises made, by the Prime Minister downwards, to the fishing industry—promises broken, with little regard for the impact. He posed a question from a young fisher of his acquaintance that I found particularly telling—why is the fishing industry having to fight its own Government to survive? That is a very good question.
Numerous Members have outlined details of the great difficulty being experienced by those in the fishing industry. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland commented, the anger and frustration felt by fishing communities is palpable. It certainly is among those representatives who have been in touch with me.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) made some interesting points. As he said, this debate has been a long time coming, and there has been a lack of transparency around this year’s negotiations—in comparison, ironically, with what happened when the UK was still part of the EU. I would be pleased if the Minister could address that issue.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) called for apologies to the fishing industry and commented on Wales’s devolved control being swept aside, which is something we are certainly familiar with in Scotland. I note her calls for devolution of the Crown Estate to Wales, as has occurred in Scotland. My understanding from industry representatives is that relationships have improved considerably since that happened in Scotland, so I would certainly encourage her to pursue that aim.
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) made an excellent speech. He spoke of an existential threat to the fishing industry. His words were brimming throughout with a deep knowledge of the problems being experienced by businesses in his constituency and the harshness of the impact of Brexit on those businesses.
What of the sunlit uplands of Brexit? What a mess has been made of people’s lives in the name of taking back control. It was a nonsense, pursued by an unthinking herd of populist and arrogant politicians. It is causing massive damage. Some of us predicted damage, but I do not think any of us grasped just how bad it would be.
It has been particularly bad for Scotland’s food and drink industry, as we have heard, and for smaller producers, especially, who have seen their overseas markets disappear. Fishing got a huge skelping and it is not really feasible to transport fresh fish halfway round the world to sell into the Australian market, no matter how fabulous a deal the Government think they have done.
Fishing is, of course, a far more important industry for Scotland than it is for England, so it was a prime candidate for the flinging-under-the-bus treatment during the Brexit negotiations—and that is what happened. Now, there is no sea of opportunity, no easy access to the EU markets and no help from Government. They will say that there is £100 million available, but where is it, how is it being distributed and how come we are not getting any details? Even more importantly, do the Brexit Government think that that is enough to compensate for the damage that is being done to the industry?
When damage is done to the industry, it affects not just the crews on the boats but the communities back on land, many of which, certainly in Scotland, are sustained by fishing. Removing the industry will remove the lifeblood from those communities. Scotland’s coastal communities could be facing the same devastation in the 2020s that Thatcher’s Governments visited upon the industrial towns of Scotland’s central belt.
I am aware that this Government will not listen to the voices calling for action. We are well used to the sneering contempt from the Leader of the House, the airy-headed enthusiasm of the International Trade Secretary and the blank refusal of the DEFRA Secretary to acknowledge problems. Week after week, we hear the Prime Minister refusing to acknowledge the problems that are so evident to the rest of us.
Before Brexit, three quarters of Scotland’s seafood exports went to the EU, bringing in revenues of over £600 million in 2019. Since Brexit, those exports have been held up by red tape and logjams at the ports. Our fleets are still subject to the common fisheries policy, thanks to the atrocious deal negotiated by the UK Government. Members do not have to believe me that it is a terrible deal; they just have to ask the guy who negotiated it. Lord Frost thinks it is a terrible deal, too—that is one bowl of Frosties that is anything but terrific.
The Food and Drink Federation has produced figures showing that EU sales have all but halved—a £2 billion loss to the UK economy right there. These are not teething troubles. They are disasters happening in real time under the view of a Government that do not give a damn. It is clear that the Government had no idea what Brexit would bring and had not thought about the difficulties that would be put in the way of traders. They gave no consideration to the complex administration that takes hours of extra time—hours precious to the small and medium-sized enterprises that make up the bulk of the sector—or to the need for customs agents, health certificates and battling miles of bureaucratic red tape, the extra costs fishers now bear for fishing gear supplies, or the delays and extra costs of now exporting not just to the EU but to Northern Ireland. I now hear that Danish and Irish sectors are, unsurprisingly, picking up the lost UK market and that they are seen as more stable suppliers after confidence in the UK drains away.
We should not allow the Government to forget the difficulties that their hostile environment approach to immigration is causing the sector. Non-domestic crew who are brought over to Scotland under the new skilled worker system are being sent back because they fail the advanced English exam required of skilled workers, which comes at a great cost to skippers, who are left with no crew. The UK Government must look urgently at where they can usefully intervene to resolve that issue.
In September 2020, I remember being shouted down by virtually every Member present on Second Reading of the Fisheries Bill for daring to say that it was in no fit state to be passed any time soon. I gave a number of reasons, the primary one being that we had no idea what sort of deal the UK’s Brexit negotiators would arrive at or what the fall-out would be. Well, we ken noo, as they say in my neck of the woods.
I read again the Secretary of State’s speech at the start of that debate. It was stirring stuff—some would say a triumph of starry-eyed optimism over actual knowledge and foresight—pummelling once again the CFP punch-bag, though forbearing to mention the many advantages the EU brought in the way of open markets and easy access, and, ironically, lambasting it for its
“anachronistic methodology for sharing quota”,
which we are still largely subject to, and the
“uncontrolled access to UK waters for EU vessels.”—[Official Report, 1 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 65.]
Which, again, we are still basically subject to.
We were told that the Bill gave the UK powers that were needed irrespective of the Brexit outcome—powers that have ultimately come to nothing as fishing interests were sold away in those negotiations. I look forward to reading in years to come the close analysis of those deliberations and exactly how hard the negotiators fought for our fishing communities’ interests. That information will surely come out, as will, perhaps, a published account of the meeting between the Secretary of State, his officials and several blazingly angry fishing representatives after the truly terrible outcome of the Brexit agreement was finally made public.
It is actually quite useful to go back over that Second Reading debate to remind myself of the deception practised on our fishing communities by the Government and many of their MPs. Were Back Benchers really as convinced as they sounded then of the benefits of Brexit? I remind hon. Members of what one Conservative Member said during that debate:
“Only the SNP could take a sea of opportunity and turn it into an ocean of division.”—[Official Report, 1 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 93.]
I will return the favour now and say that only the hated Tories, with their hearts of stone, could pledge to the fishing communities of Scotland a bonanza, and then just shrug as it turned into a sludge of mendacity.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for the way he introduced this debate. This is a deeply political area. It genuinely matters, and it is important that we do not take cheap shots because people’s livelihoods depend on it. The way in which the right hon. Gentleman introduced this debate shows why he is held in such high regard by Members on both sides of the House.
I would also like to pay my respects on behalf of the Labour party to the friends and family of David Linkie. It is really important that we have robust journalism on fishing at this time, especially because so many promises have been made and so many promises have been broken. It is important that those people who serve fishing communities, both in this place in elected roles and in journalism, are as professional and thorough as David was, so I pay tribute to him.
As this is a fisheries debate, although not the annual fisheries debate that the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) from Waveney mentioned, I would also like to pay tribute to all the fishers who go to sea every single day to catch our food—it is the most dangerous peacetime occupation and they deserve our thanks—as well as organisations such as the coastguard and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which exist to save lives at sea. I support all efforts to continue allowing them to legally save lives at sea. If someone is drowning in the channel, they should have a legal right to save them. Sadly, that is not the Government’s current position with the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, and I hope that the Minister, in support of saving lives at sea—something so important for this debate—will have words with the Home Office to say that saving lives, wherever they come from, is the right thing to do.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to say thank you to my stepmother, who is one of those officers along the coast in Boscastle in North Cornwall. I thank him for that.
This is a debate that has been prompted by Brexit. It is because of the promises made by Ministers about fishing—the sea of opportunity, the additional fish—that we are here today. It is interesting that those who attended these debates before Brexit have not always done so after Brexit. Having made the case for Brexit, and then made the case for a harder form of Brexit, many of them are not here to stand up for their fishing communities in the way that those communities now need. As a small but perfectly formed representation of the south-west, we know that that is really important and we need to do it.
The betrayal of the promise on the six to 12 nautical miles is something that fishers find unforgivable. The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) was right to say that we should assess this on how fishers feel. Well, let me tell you: fishers feel betrayed, they feel abandoned and they feel lied to. That is because they have been betrayed, they have been abandoned, and in many cases they were lied to by prominent people whom they respected because of the offices they held and whom they believed would tell the truth, when that was not always the case. That is why the Members in this room, whom I genuinely believe care about their fishing communities regardless of which party they are in, must now clear up the mess that has been made by the Prime Minister and his botched Brexit deal. If we do not, fishing businesses will go under, and that is simply unforgivable.
I want to address a number of issues and to pick out others that have been raised by colleagues. The first is the plight of small boats. Throughout this debate, hon. Members have alluded to the extra difficulties for those people who work on our small boat fleet—the backbone of the British fishing fleet. In 2019, the Seafarers UK report, “Fishing Without a Safety Net”, found that many of those small businesses were struggling to afford the vital safety equipment that has been put in place. I very much enjoyed the Minister’s foreword to that report, which said:
“Small-scale fishing is a cornerstone of local coastal communities around our shores.”
She was right then and she is right now, but that is why I am so confused about why so much of the support provided by the Government throughout the covid period went to large fishing companies and not to the smaller fishing companies. So much potential help for those small businesses escaped them because of technicalities and because the people who sat on those boards did not value sufficiently those small boats and initiatives such as the brilliant Call4Fish, which came from Plymouth and helps provide those small boats with a domestic market. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, those small businesses were subsequently penalised because of how those rules were drawn up. I do not think that that is right. The hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) is right to say that the delays in bringing forward that money are unacceptable. The Minister and I will no doubt pick that up when we discuss the statutory instrument on MMO funding tomorrow morning. It is unacceptable that, eight months after we left the European Union, fishers have not been paid the money that was promised to them. Ministers need to sort that out pretty fast.
Ministers have been speedy to enforce on those small boats the catch app—a needless piece of home-grown, Conservative digital bureaucracy that is sinking many of those businesses. The catch app requires fishers to weigh their fish before they are landed, on scales that do not exist on small boats and that are not marinised. When those same fish are landed and get put through a grading machine, the same information is provided. We know that handling fish for extra time reduces their quality and price, yet the Government are forcing needless Conservative digital bureaucracy on fishers. It is simply nonsense, and I encourage the Minister to please look at that again.
I am also really concerned that much of the so-called windfall stock—the uplift in fish quota—does not exist. They are paper fish, deliberately enhanced and inflated in the stock assessments leading up to Brexit. We will not get them. I am not convinced that we are getting those extra fish; indeed, because of problems with quota swaps and with the science, many of our fishers up and down the coast are now seeing reduced quota. It is not the sea of opportunity that they were promised.
The hon. Member for Waveney, who knows that I am a big fan of his, praised his REAF initiative, and I would also like to praise it. It is a great example of what happens when communities come together. There are similar examples around the country and he does a good job of promoting his.
I would like briefly to pick up on shellfish. We are facing the potential collapse of the shellfish industry because the Government failed to negotiate a proper export arrangement for our shellfish. Live bivalve molluscs are a really important part of the industry not just in the south-west and in Wales but right across our coast. It is simply not acceptable that they were excluded and that a solution has not been put in place. Simply blaming the EU was the tactic before we left the EU. We now need solutions, not blame. Simply reallocating class B waters does not make those waters any cleaner or any better. If anything, the Government are opening themselves up to legal risk by saying that these waters are no longer as dirty as they were. We need a proper solution to the issue of the export of live bivalve molluscs. If that does not happen, businesses in the south-west and around the country will go bust within months. That simply has to be addressed. I encourage the Minister to listen very carefully to Conservative, Labour and other party Members who represent coastal areas.
I will not at this time, I am afraid.
I had hoped to be able to raise a number of points. In the spirit of praising people when they get it right, I want to thank the supermarket Aldi for stocking British fish. They are mainly Plymouth-caught fish. Whenever we go down the meat aisle at a supermarket, we see flags aplenty—we see the heritage of where that meat comes from—but we do not see that down the fish aisle. Why is that? It is because we mainly export the fish we catch and import the fish we eat. At a time when the Government have made importing and exporting more complicated, more costly and more difficult, we need to buy and eat more of our own fish. Well done to Aldi for taking a punt on that. I encourage other supermarkets, which will no doubt have their monitoring alerts for this, to stop ignoring British fishers and to put British fish on their shelves.
The plight of the distant water fleet is often ignored. It is a sector of our economy that has been hugely betrayed. I pay tribute in particular to the Labour MPs in Hull, who have fought the case on behalf of our distant water fleet. Those fishers are a living, breathing example of the betrayal that has been perpetrated against them.
The Minister will know that Sir Charles, I and other Members of Parliament have an interest in the bluefin tuna catch-and-release trial, which will ensure that those wonderful, amazing fish are not simply caught and eaten when they are in our waters, but can be used to propel and support the recreational fishing industry. The announcement that the Minister was hoping to make about that is a few months overdue, so I would be grateful to her if she could touch on it.
We have not spoken much about non-quota species in the debate, but it is a really important area. Non-quota species are the financial foundation of our entire fishing sector, and the Government’s deal allows EU fishing boats to take and exploit our non-quota species. They have failed to negotiate a real-time transfer of data, so we cannot even see to what extent they are doing it. That needs to be resolved urgently, to support our small boat fleets.
On a point that I hope everyone in the House will welcome, the Minister for Digital and Culture, the hon. Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), made an announcement today that will be a real boost for Plymouth. The campaign to have Plymouth Sound designated as the UK’s first national marine park—a campaign launched by a Labour MP, supported by the then Labour council, and now supported by a Conservative council—now has the support of the Government, with a £9.5 million boost that will support marine jobs and help bring our oceans and seas closer to people living on land. If we have learned anything from the debate, it is the fact that what happens at sea matters. We need more people to understand the fantastic array of marine life at sea, the importance and fragility of marine coastal habitats, and the importance of those jobs.
I want a proper debate on fisheries on the Floor of the House when we come back from the recess. I want to see proper, robust scrutiny ahead of any annual negotiations, which were mentioned by MPs on the Government side. Most of all, with an impending reshuffle and uncertainty about whether the Environment Secretary will still be in his place, I want the Prime Minister to apologise to fishers for the poor deal. I want him to take a personal interest in ensuring that those businesses do not go bust and in protecting the future of this industry. It is a brilliant industry and full of fantastic, innovative people. They deserve a proper plan to support their sector.
Of course, Sir Charles. It is always a pleasure to take part in a fisheries debate, and I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for organising it with our friends on the Backbench Business Committee. I thank all who have spoken today. If I may class them together, they are a group of colleagues with whom I deal very frequently on fisheries matters—I would include you in that as well, Sir Charles. It is always good to hear from colleagues, and my door is always open. We have had many bilateral and trilateral meetings over the last few months, and I encourage colleagues to continue to get in touch on behalf of their fishing industries.
I pay tribute to the fishing industry for its resilience, and to all who work in the seafood supply chain. I am reminded of that by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), who represents Peterhead and who is sitting in the Public Gallery. It has been a very difficult 18 months for the industry. The pandemic forced the closure of hospitality both at home and abroad, which has led to an abrupt loss of our markets. As we have heard again and again, exporters have had to adapt to the new conditions that we were subject to as we left the single market. On recent visits to Brixham—my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) was kind enough to mention that—and Grimsby, I met many people, including the great Jim Portus, who were really impressive and dedicated to this industry. Their expertise and knowledge will allow us to manage our fisheries in a way that is flexible and sustainable, and that enables us, I hope, to take advantage of our new opportunities.
On the future of fisheries management, there is a great deal to do about the administration. The 2018 fisheries White Paper laid the foundations for devising our new fisheries management rules. The Fisheries Act 2020 provides the regulatory framework. The TCA recognises the UK’s regulatory autonomy and that means that each of the four Administrations can reform fisheries management.
Fisheries management plans will allow better spatial management within a very complex marine environment, identifying where fishing can take place in an area while minimising environmental impact. We will start to develop our first fisheries management plans in England this year. We are also preparing a full list and timetable for the implementation of fisheries management plans in the joint fisheries statement that we plan to consult on in the autumn.
Quota was mentioned by many hon. Members, including the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. We have put in place a new method to apportion additional quota between the fisheries administrations. In England, we have allocated additional quota in 2021 based on a new method that gives the fleet segments of quota in the stocks that are important to them and also takes into account their capacity to fish that quota. My hon. Friend represents England very well, if I may say so—as do many hon. Members in this room and outside it—and he need have no fears on that front.
Quota swaps, which were also mentioned by many Members, are important. That is why the TCA provided for an in-year quota exchange mechanism, which will be established by the Specialised Committee on Fisheries. In the future, we expect quota exchanges just to be part of annual negotiations. I am very pleased to say that we have agreed with the EU an interim basis for fishing quota transfers, before the specialised committee establishes a longer-term mechanism.
The details are still being worked out, but we expect an exchange of lists to take place next week on 20 July, when the UK and the EU co-chair the first meeting of the specialised committee. Lord Frost has assured me and others that the devolved authorities and Crown dependencies will be fully involved in the process, which obviously matters to them. I am pleased to say that we have now got to a point of real resolution on this issue, and I know that many people within the fishing industry are working up—PO to PO—the details of exchanges at the moment.
On control and enforcement, which was also raised by many Members, we have a 24/7, effective and intelligence-led enforcement system, which is co-ordinated by the Joint Maritime Security Centre. In English waters, we have really increased resource dedicated to fisheries protection and we continue to work on this. We have made additional Government investment of £32 million in this space over the last three years. The MMO has doubled the number of marine enforcement officers since 2017, and it has two dedicated offshore patrol ships at sea and increased aerial surveillance. All this complements the existing electronic monitoring system. In terms of landings to inspect at sea, in the first six months of this year there were 228 inspections by the MMO at sea, of which 131 were on EU vessels.
The safety of the UK fleet remains our highest priority; the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has raised safety with me repeatedly and rightly, and I am always very keen to hear from him on it. We continue to monitor the presence and activity of vessels across our waters. I am aware of recent reports raised by the right hon. Gentleman and others of UK vessels being subject to bullying behaviour. It is really important, and I have stressed this to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and others in the past, that any such incidents are reported in real time, whenever possible. It is true that there is an area where, if the threshold for criminal activity is reached, UK police require, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the consent of the Home and Defence Secretaries and the flag state to take action. However, that does not preclude communications going straight to the vessel immediately, nor the gathering of evidence, which can be done by MMO officials, Marine Scotland officials or the police. That is why it is so important that these incidents are reported immediately.
That is a matter of great concern to both me and ministerial colleagues. I speak regularly about it to colleagues at the Department for Transport; we met at the end of last year to discuss it. We continue to work on a long-term solution. Last week was Naval and Maritime Security Week, which is a reminder that we need to continue to focus on this important issue. We work with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Seafish and the Fishing Industry Safety Group to lower the number of preventable accidents and deaths at sea.
I turn to funding. This year, the Government have spent £23 million on emergency compensation and £32 million on the replacement scheme for the European maritime and fisheries fund. We have also announced new funding, aligned with our reform of fisheries management.
The £100 million announced by the Prime Minister at the very end of last year will support investment to modernise and develop the seafood sector. It will focus on three pillars: infrastructure projects for the development and modernisation of ports, harbours and landing sites across the UK; the advancement and roll-out of science, innovation and technology across the catching and processing sectors; and projects that develop tailored training and qualifications. We will be hearing future announcements about that investment—probably starting with the science, innovation and technology strand, or pillar, of the £100 million—very shortly, certainly this summer. A large amount of money is involved and it is important that we get this right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes raises the issue of live bivalve molluscs with me several times a day. I am as angry as any colleague present that the EU changed its rules on the importation of our class B molluscs; I take that up with it at every opportunity and will continue to do so. We are looking at a number of options to support the industry, including grant funding in England to facilitate business adaptation through the fisheries and seafood scheme. We are working on securing access to new markets, promoting domestic seafood consumption and reviewing the classification of shellfish harvesting areas while—of course—protecting public health.
The fund is already open and we are debating a statutory instrument tomorrow that will facilitate the spending of that fund. The money will in the longer term help people adapt their businesses to help with depuration or possibly canning, but it will not help everybody. One of the solutions that I have just outlined ought to be helpful to all our live bivalve mollusc industry. I continue to work closely with colleagues from around the country on this and to bring the matter up with the Commission whenever we have the opportunity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) made a powerful speech; he is keen, as ever, to support the inshore fleet. He is right that there is not a one-size-fits-all management approach, which simply would not work. We need to draw on local knowledge to make sure that our fisheries management plans are suitable going forward.
I would be delighted to meet the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). Access is a reserved issue; the Welsh Government had to consent to the licensing of EU vessels in Welsh waters. We are not concerned that all those vessels will go and fish in Welsh waters, but we are concerned, for example, about valuable non-quota stocks such as scallops. We are working closely with the scalloping industry on the protection of those stocks and with the Welsh Government on management measures. I will be happy to fill the right hon. Lady in on any point.
Thank you for chairing what has been an excellent debate, Sir Charles; we have covered just about every sector and geographic area possible. It is unfortunate that nobody from Cornwall made it on to the call list. That was one notable omission.
Essentially, we can pull two strands from this debate. The first is how very different things could have been if we had had the implementation period, for six months or so, to bed these arrangements in. We said we needed that, but we did not get it.
Secondly, as we have heard from the different examples around the country, the worst fisheries management has always been the most centralised. If the Minister takes nothing else from this debate, she must take back the need to engage with the industry, devolved Administrations and local communities as widely and effectively as possible.
When the Backbench Business Committee offered us 90 minutes on a Tuesday morning, they asked whether that would be good enough. I replied, “Consider your hands duly bitten off!” I hope that they will feel that we have made good use of the time this morning. I want to see this subject back in the Chamber with a longer debate because this is really just the tip of the iceberg.
Thank you, Mr Carmichael. You and other colleagues have used the time extremely well; perhaps you could have done with a little more.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fisheries management after the UK’s departure from the EU.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed Aquind interconnector project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am pleased to have secured a debate on this crucial issue, which is of great importance to residents across my city of Portsmouth, as well as many other areas impacted by the Aquind interconnector project or concerned by its relationships with Government.
Since becoming the Member of Parliament for Portsmouth South, I have consistently represented the opposition of local people to this development, deemed a national infrastructure project. Many of my constituents have told me that they have been ignored by the developer and felt shut out of the planning process and, as Government get closer to making their decisions, they do not feel listened to by Ministers. That is why, in the limited time available, I wish to put on the record, first, my constituents’ concerns about the impact that the development would have on Portsmouth, its surrounding communities and its precious natural environment; and secondly, the concerns over the company’s relationship with a string of Government Ministers, some of whom are directly responsible for making decisions about whether the scheme goes ahead.
Whatever the alleged merits of the scheme may be, to ignore the overwhelmingly negative impact that it would have on Portsmouth residents, its businesses and the environment would be a dereliction of duty. I have heard from hundreds of constituents via my own survey work, through day-to-day correspondence or as a result of my engagement, alongside council planners, the local authority and community campaigners, to oppose these plans for Portsmouth and the surrounding area every step of the way. I have also summarised our concerns in submitting formal evidence to the examining authority and in raising key issues in written and oral questions in the House. I have written separately to successive Secretaries of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, on several occasions, with the views of my constituents. More recently, I launched a public petition, alongside Portsmouth’s local Stop Aquind campaign, to ensure that they are given a direct voice to share their objection to this disastrous project. Today I want to reiterate residents’ concerns, as well as those of other interested bodies in my city, such as the local authority, the university and Portsmouth’s small businesses.
The construction of the proposed interconnector would take up to seven years and would cause untold damage and disruption to people in Portsmouth, businesses and our local environment. The proposed corridor where trenching is due to take place threatens to disrupt key elements of transport infrastructure, including highways that act as vital arteries to our city. The city council believes that there will be significant disruption to residents, ranging from noise at antisocial hours to dust and loss of natural light, in a wide-ranging area from Farlington Avenue, in the north of the city, to Fort Cumberland Road, in my constituency.
That belief has certainly been reinforced by constituents whom I have spoken to. One constituent has told me:
“If this goes ahead then I’m in danger of not being able to drive out of the road I live in to commute to work. Why should I suffer”
this impact on
“my livelihood for something that most probably would never benefit my family or our community?”
“How can I look at my daughter and the future generation and say we did nothing and allowed business to come before saving our precious green spaces and protecting our ocean environment?”
I have example after example of constituents raising these points. I will happily share these with the Minister following the debate.
The congestion and disruption will inevitably have a detrimental impact on local traders, who have already endured 18 months of lost revenue and unprecedented uncertainty. I know that Aquind will also cause long-term disruption to Portsmouth’s valued open spaces, with the unmitigated loss of recreational space at Milton common and Farlington playing fields. A season or more of play could also be lost at Farlington, Baffins and the University of Portsmouth, with few alternatives in the meantime. In addition to the air pollution created by construction, there is a risk to our city’s precious wildlife at Milton common. I have raised before, during the planning process, the threat that the development poses to the Eastney and Milton allotments, which have been a lifeline for those who tend them, particularly during the pandemic. As it stands, the planning applicant has been unable to demonstrate to the people of Portsmouth any positive benefit that the project would bring to the city.
Throughout the process, there have been concerns about the transparency of the applicant and its apparent inability to disclose the information necessary to fully assess the impact of the proposed development. I am aware that changes have been made to the proposed route, but I remain concerned that more could be done to engage with those impacted by the construction and to avoid the worst of its effects.
Constituents also continue to be troubled by reports of the applicant’s previous donations to the Conservative party, and by the project company’s financial and domiciliary arrangements. In August 2020, The Times named Russian oligarch Viktor Fedotov as the ultimate owner of Aquind, but until then he had been able to remain anonymous by using a rare exemption in corporate transparency rules. The exemption can be made only if the individual successfully argues that their security is at risk. Yet sources told The Times that security and law enforcement agencies have no concerns that Mr Fedotov is at risk. If that is the case, why is Mr Fedotov so keen to hide his identity and his ownership of Aquind? Does that not concern the Minister? Will he set out what due diligence has been done on the project company and its directors?
The project’s financing is also unclear. Aquind’s annual accounts confirm that funding for the project is coming from loans from OGN Enterprises Ltd, which is based in the British Virgin Islands. Very little is known about that company, other than that it is linked to Offshore Group Newcastle, a previous venture of one of Aquind’s senior leaders, Mr Temerko, and that it collapsed into administration. We do not know where this money is coming from, who is providing it, or whether there is a complex financial structure behind the company in other secrecy jurisdictions.
Elements of the project give rise to further security concerns. Aquind plans to lay one of the largest data pipes in Europe alongside the electricity interconnector. It will hold 180 fibre-optic pairs, many of which will be available for hire by third-party clients, which could include telecoms companies, technology firms and banks. That raises similar concerns to those about the UK’s 5G network and Huawei.
In the light of the significant contribution that the project is expected to make to our national infrastructure, why have the company’s structure and finances been allowed to avoid rigorous scrutiny? Perhaps it is because Aquind has mounted a shady campaign to lobby successive Conservative Ministers behind closed doors, backed by heaps of cash. The Times reports that since 2012 the Conservative party has been given £1.6 million by Temerko or companies that he has directed, and £55,000 by Aquind since last August. That includes direct donations to a string of Tory Ministers. Just last week, the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), recused herself from speaking on the matter during BEIS questions because the Northumberland Conservatives had received funding from one of the company’s directors.
The Times has also uncovered a string of letters and meetings between an Aquind director—a Soviet-era oligarch—and Ministers past and present in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) also recused himself from handling the issue when he was Secretary of State after it was revealed that he, too, had received a donation and had shared a table with the same Russian-born businessman at the Tory black and white ball fundraiser.
In addition, letters obtained through a freedom of information request have revealed that the current Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), stated the Government’s ongoing support for the controversial project and agreed to lobby French officials to support it on their side of the channel. He has even taken to signing off his letters with affectionate handwritten notes. One October 2019 letter said:
“Excellent to see you at conference this year!”
All that makes a total mockery of the Planning Inspectorate’s independent examination and reinforces the points that the Labour party has made about this Government’s developer’s charter, which rides roughshod over local communities and prevents them having their say about developments in their area.
Despite the Government’s unashamed downplaying of the revelations, it is the Business Secretary who will make the final decision to give the project the green light. Any suggestion that the right hon. Gentleman is able to make an impartial decision about the project is now a total fantasy. Any decision that he does make will be tainted by accusations of cronyism. Given the significance of the project to the city of Portsmouth and the country at large, we should not have to drag the truth out of Ministers kicking and screaming. As one constituent put it:
“To proceed with this project in the face of overwhelming opposition would send a message that the interests of your rich Russian donors matter more than the people of Portsmouth and local democracy”
On behalf of residents across Portsmouth, I want to place on the record our fundamental objection to the project. I want to make it crystal clear to the Secretary of State and the Minister today that the project must be rejected. In the meantime, I wish to ask the Minister some questions. Will he commit to immediately publishing all correspondence with Aquind? Will his Department conduct a further independent review of this deeply controversial project to drag the truth into public view? Beneath the cosy relationships that Ministers have with their billionaire donors are choices that affect the day-to-day lives of people in Portsmouth. They deserve total transparency from the Government and a real say in decisions about the project.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) on securing this important debate.
Great Britain currently has 6 GW of electricity interconnection with Belgium, the Netherlands, France and the island of Ireland, supporting our security of supply, keeping consumer prices low and supporting our decarbonisation goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Interconnectors widen the energy markets and thus make them more efficient, transporting electricity from where it is cheaper to higher-priced regions. That predominantly leads to imports of cheaper electricity to Great Britain, delivering benefits to consumers, but in future it will allow us to export renewable energy to the rest of continental Europe.
Interconnectors also act as a source of flexibility, helping the system rapidly respond to changes in demand and supply, which is crucial when helping integrate intermittent renewable energy sources, and reducing curtailment, thus supporting decarbonisation. A study commissioned by the Department, and published alongside the energy White Paper, illustrates the decarbonisation that could be facilitated in Great Britain and the European Union by an increased level of interconnection to 2050. Interconnectors can contribute to security of supply by providing access to a wider pool of generation. They can also currently participate in the capacity market and can be available at times of system distress. They provide additional options to system operators, helping ensure system stability and security.
The Secretary of State has three months to take his decision on receipt of the Planning Inspectorate’s report, meaning that he has to make his decision on the Aquind interconnector on or before 8 September 2021. That decision will be taken in line with Government propriety guidance. Given the Secretary of State’s quasi-judicial role in determining the application, I cannot comment on specific matters regarding the proposal as that could be seen as prejudicing the decision-making process, but I can say something about the planning process for nationally significant infrastructure projects.
I want to make it clear that the system absolutely recognises how important the views of local people are. Indeed, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South talked about the potential adverse impacts on local communities. Clearly, that would be given appropriate consideration in the planning process, and therefore also in the Secretary of State’s decision-making process. When the developer makes an application to the Planning Inspectorate, the developer has to demonstrate that it has complied with all of its consultation requirements and that it has regard to consultation responses that it has received. At the pre-application stage, the developer has to prepare that consultation strategy and must carry out a pre-application consultation with the local community, in accordance with that strategy.
The developer has to explain how the application was informed and influenced by those responses, outlining any changes that were made as a result, and provide an explanation as to why responses advising on major changes to the project were not followed out. The Planning Inspectorate will also ask relevant local authorities whether the consultation was adequate. The Planning Inspectorate will consider the local authorities’ view on the consultation before deciding whether to accept the application for examination.
The application consultation with local communities cannot be taken lightly by developers. If the application is accepted for examination, an examining authority is appointed to examine it. People with an interest in the project can then register as interested parties and will have an opportunity to make written representations on the project. There may also be open-floor hearings, as well as hearings on specific issues, where interested parties can make formal submissions to the examining agent. I understand that during the Aquind examination there were two open-floor hearings, as well as issue-specific hearings on matters including traffic, air quality and the environment.
After that examination closes, the examining authority will write a report to the Secretary of State, containing its recommendations for the project. In the case of Aquind, the Secretary of State received the examining authority’s report on 8 June. As I have said, the Secretary of State then has three months to decide whether to grant or refuse development consent. For Aquind, the Secretary of State has until 8 September to make a decision. That decision must be based solely on the planning merits of the proposal.
Although it is not possible to comment on specific projects in the planning process, the Government are supportive of interconnection generally, as a core part of our energy strategy, due to its benefits in helping to provide an electricity supply that progresses towards our net zero decarbonisation goals in a low-cost and secure way. In last year’s energy White Paper, we committed to work with Ofgem, developers and our European partners to realise at least 18 GW of interconnector capacity by 2030, which is triple the current capacity.
In conclusion, I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the residents of the proposed area that the Secretary of State will take into account both sides of the proposal. He will base his decision on the work of the Planning Inspectorate and the quasi-judicial process that he has in front of him, rather than any of the accusations that have been thrown at him to influence his decision either way.
Question put and agreed to.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
This is a subject of the most profound importance to the whole of Buckinghamshire, so I am grateful for the opportunity to lead the debate. I convey apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), who is of course on paternity leave. I am sure we all wish to congratulate him on the birth of a child. This is, however, a matter of great importance to his constituents and he has given me a statement, which I hope to get to later. Likewise, I have apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), who is applying his considerable expertise to justice matters in the relevant Select Committee. I also have a statement from him.
I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) in her place, and I look forward to hearing from her later. For the record, although my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), as a Minister, cannot speak, he is present, because the matter is of close interest to his constituents. We should be in no doubt that the Milton Keynes arc—I have renamed it for him already; I mean the Oxford-Cambridge arc—could transform Buckinghamshire and the other counties that it touches. The principles at stake are of importance to the whole nation.
To give some background, in 2017 the National Infrastructure Commission launched “Partnering for Prosperity: A new deal for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford Arc”. Although the report initially focused on economic development, its focus was moved so that it referred to 1 million new houses as a key enabler for a new geography known as the arc. That would, of course, be a profound quantity of houses to put in that area.
There has never been satisfactory clarification of the requirement for 1 million houses mentioned in the report, or any further details about potential housing targets. I am told by my county council that the housing numbers that the Government linked to the arc have not been informed by local discussion or input, and that has contributed to local concerns about a lack of autonomy and local determination. In addition, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government commissioned AECOM to produce work to show where land was unconstrained and new settlements could be built across the geography. That work, again, did not seek local input from councillors or MPs, and it has not been formally shared or published.
The National Infrastructure Commission report shifted the emphasis on regional collaboration away from an economic driver to introduce housing as the focus; that is the real sense in Buckinghamshire Council. It crossed over the work that was already under way from England’s Economic Heartland, a collaborative strategic regional body focused on connectivity and economic growth, although the NIC arc covers a slightly different geography that is narrower than the area considered by EEH, which also includes Swindon and Hertfordshire. The key concern, however, and the thing to which I draw attention, is the prospect of 1 million houses coming into our counties.
I turn to engagement with local authorities. An arc leaders’ group was established in about 2017 as a coalition of the willing, although it went on to endorse joint declarations with Government that were signed by its chairman and announced without discussion with its membership. In the spring of 2020, changes to the governance of the leaders group were announced, shifting decision making to a majority-rule approach and away from the unanimous consensus under which the group had been established. That puts Buckinghamshire at a significant disadvantage. As a unitary, it has just one vote among 25 other local authority votes across the area. Oxfordshire, as a county council with five district or city councils, would have six votes.
Alongside those challenges in governance, the leaders group, without the endorsement of all the relevant local authorities, pushed through a measure to develop a regional spatial strategy, which is now frequently referred to as a spatial framework. Although that framework was set out as non-statutory, it has been made clear that Government intend to publish it and that in local planning decisions, similar weight is to be attributed to it as to the national planning policy framework. The arc spatial strategy would be a material consideration in the development and examination of local plans, and that raises concerns that it could be used as a vehicle to dictate housing growth in a way that undermines local decision making.
Of course, the initial attraction of all that was the prospect of central Government investment in infrastructure —that is needed in our area, as it is in so many places—but there are significant concerns. In August 2020, Buckinghamshire informed the Government that it could not continue to be part of the arc. This withdrawal was supported by and followed by the Buckinghamshire local enterprise partnership and the Buckinghamshire universities. Buckinghamshire has instead pursued a policy of developing its own more focused and ambitious recovery and growth proposal, which builds on the place-based approach, with the coterminosity of the council with its LEP, the business representative organisation Bucks Business First, the NHS clinical commissioning group, the hospital trust, and the voluntary and community sector. The point is that we have a county and it works—including Milton Keynes, at times—and we are very proud that it does so.
I will go through four of the key concerns before I turn to statements from my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury and for Buckingham. First, the political case for the arc has not been made. The initiative to establish the arc was not agreed locally; it has always been driven from the top down and there is significant local opposition, not just from Buckinghamshire communities but from community groups throughout the arc. Democratically, communities across the arc have made their views known in recent elections. In some cases, I am sorry to say, where candidates have run on an anti-arc platform, local authorities have flipped from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, including several authorities in Oxfordshire and Cambridgeshire, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the Liberal Democrats are up to their necks in the arc? They have people on standing committees, they have England’s Economic Heartland and they have the control of this process, and they have nothing more to offer than anyone else.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. Although he tempts me to elaborate on the points he makes, I hope that he will forgive me if I do not especially attack the Liberal Democrats in the absence of anyone to reply on their behalf—but I note their absence from this debate. Two months ago, communities in Chesham and Amersham notably sent this message in a startling by-election result. The point is that the Government are taking a top-down approach in imposing the arc, and they seem to be doing so without the effective engagement of the people in the area. Those people are pushing back, and quite right, too. I recall that in 2010, when some of us were elected and the Conservatives came to power, we abolished regional government. This is perhaps a point I will return to: having abolished regional government, we now seem to be, in a sense, reinstituting it through the arc.
Secondly, there are profound issues with local democratic accountability. Our council could find other local authorities and partners taking important planning decisions that are of the most acute interest to our residents, and imposing them on Buckinghamshire. Those decisions have the potential to be significant, generational and, crucially, permanent ones, such as on the suggested new settlements in Bucks, on the imposition of local development corporations and on the imposition of major new and unwanted infrastructure, such as the recently withdrawn expressway. That is the second key point—local accountability.
Thirdly, there are top-down housing targets. I have perhaps said enough about the idea of 1 million houses, but it seems to us that there is now is pressure for overflow from London. What is to become of our area and our beautiful region? My constituency consists of areas of outstanding natural beauty where it is not built on, plus the airfield. These are beautiful parts of our country. Enormous amounts of housing being put in there as overflow from London will cause major protests from the public, and quite right, too.
Fourthly, the spatial strategy for the arc appears to sit above local plans developed by the local planning authority. The interrelationship of the spatial frameworks with existing planning responsibilities is unclear, but it appears to insert this additional and more regional layer of government over what local authorities are doing. Framework proposals would need to be incorporated into new local plans or the plans could risk being found to be unsound, which would have real meaning for the ability to carry forward plans that met with democratic consent.
Those are my four key points. Colleagues have said to me in passing—perhaps some will say this in detail today —that there is a real problem of co-ordination. Before I come on to my colleagues’ statements, I say in passing that of course there is a problem with co-ordination. With great respect to the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), whom I will call my hon. Friend as he is sitting on my side of the House today, whenever big Government choose to plan society and the economy and to impose conditions and development top down, there is always a co-ordination problem. That is why some of us believe in the spontaneous order of the market, but that is not the fundamental point of today’s debate.
I want to put on record a statement from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, who says:
“Buckingham is well-placed to benefit from the Arc’s potential. But we, like our neighbours, must first address the rapidly deteriorating state of our local infrastructure. We have been hit hard by the construction of HS2 and multiple housing developments. Central government must realise and compensate for the damage that HS2 and other high-volume construction projects are causing.
The success of the arc locally depends on the delivery of ongoing local infrastructure projects—above all the Aylesbury Spur of East West Rail. With continuing uncertainty surrounding the spur’s implementation, my constituents and local businesses are growing increasingly anxious. A fast and efficient connection to both the county town”—
I should just add that I have always felt that High Wycombe was the county town, but I am advised otherwise—
“and beyond, is pivotal for realising the economic growth inherent in the Arc’s strategy. The Aylesbury Spur of East West Rail must therefore be built.
It must also be said that we have taken our fair share of housing. Housebuilding targets must be spread fairly and must take into account the tremendous amount of available brownfield land.”
That is the statement from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has asked me to say:
“Buckinghamshire has withdrawn from the Oxford Cambridge arc and has presented to MHCLG an ambitious recovery deal based on local devolution, which I wholeheartedly support. The council in conjunction with the Bucks LEP believe this deal will achieve the benefits of the arc but with local decision making remaining in local hands.
The proposed spatial framework has caused considerable concern in Aylesbury for an area already saturated with strategic infrastructure projects and housing development. By retaining decision making in Buckinghamshire, the recovery deal would represent the strategic aims of MHCLG and ensure local democracy.”
Saving the contribution that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield will make in a moment, I come on to our ask as Buckinghamshire MPs and for the council. We are not anti-growth; of course we accept that housing growth will continue at already high rates, and I particularly want sympathetic development for people in my area who desperately need a home to own. However, it must have local consent, and the targets must be determined and led locally.
In conjunction with our partners, we have already put forward an ambitious recovery and growth proposal to the Government, as I have mentioned. We urge the Government to work with Buckinghamshire Council to progress this bottom-up, democratically driven approach to creating jobs and economic growth, rather than the top-down targets imposed within the structure of the arc and its strategic spatial strategy.
I conclude by saying how much I look forward to this debate, which is overwhelmingly among hon. Friends. I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will not mind me saying that I look at the matter with a spirit of some disappointment. He and I were elected to this place in 2010 enthusiastically looking to reform the planning system and to abolish regional government, so I hope he will not mind me pointing out that we now seem to be reinstituting it by other means. I do not think this is going to meet local concerns at all.
As somebody who represents a constituency adjacent to Chesham and Amersham, I really do think this is a moment to think again; to respect the rights of property holders in our area and the needs of those who would like to buy a house; and to make sure that people have incentives to say yes to development, but also the opportunity to say no. I look forward to a think-tank paper, which I hope I have catalysed, which will set out those ideas in more detail, and I hope in due course my right hon. Friend will feel able to look at it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for securing this debate, which is very appropriate for not only those from our county, but those from adjacent counties as well. I pay special tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who is here to show solidarity and concern for his local residents. He is an MP, and our only Minister, who continues to put the needs of his residents first. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) for their contributions.
May I start by inviting the Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), to take a special trip to south Buckinghamshire? There is no better way to understand the complexities of what we are discussing in this debate than to visit and see at first hand what things are like in places such as Denham, Iver, Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross and Marlow. We would love to have the Minister, and I think he might enjoy the trip.
In addition to what my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has already alluded to, I would like to speak about the Oxford-Cambridge arc, the spatial framework and what appears to be a top-down housing target. Housing numbers are clearly the primary objective for establishing the arc and a token account is paid, through various vision documents, to innovation, environmental improvements or other place-based factors. However, it is unclear why the arc would be a key enabler for these in preference to working on a cross-boundary basis with existing strategic authorities, as initiated by England’s Economic Heartland.
I mention England’s Economic Heartland because Bucks, and particularly south Bucks, has the highest level of entrepreneurs, small business owners and self-employed people in the whole country. We are an economic powerhouse, and we will be so particularly after covid and the covid recovery. We are very focused on economic growth, job creation and vital infrastructure in Bucks. The housing will follow that, but we need to get the fundamentals right.
Local communities fear—as do I, as the local MP—that when that is combined with the changes to planning regulation, proposed planning regulation or the use of the old housing need algorithm, we will not be able to cope with the housing numbers that are placed on us. That is true of places across my constituency, but Bourne End and other towns have already seen the effects of over-development where all strategic green space and common land have already been given over to developers.
The spatial framework is something that I object to. With the existing planning responsibilities, it is unclear, as it appears to insert an additional layer of Government direction on housing and potential economic development. The framework proposals would need to be incorporated into new local plans, or the plans would risk being found unsound. Without a democratic mandate and with the possibility of facing strong opposition from local groups and planning authorities, it is unclear how these proposals would move forward. We do not have the strategic oversight of the London plan or a mayoral structure that has devolved power, so who would be accountable for this democratically unelected right to impose on us?
My hon. Friend has put her finger right on the heart of it. In other areas where they have these grand regional plans, there is a regional identity and a democratic personification of that in a regional Mayor. We do not have that in the Ox-Cam arc, do we?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Although I am not advocating any more devolved power, if people in London and the west midlands do not like the strategic framework, they can at least vote the Mayor out. That is not the case here, and we have some of the most economically valuable land in the country. Covid has only shown how valuable and desirable our part of the country is to live in. People want to move from London to south Bucks. My fear is that the housing numbers and the algorithm set will just meet the housing demands of London rather than meeting the needs of local residents, who are desperate for more infrastructure, GP surgeries, better roads, better wi-fi connectivity and the basic amenities already afforded to London residents. Again, I would welcome the Minister visiting and touring south Bucks to see the unique perspective and challenges that we face.
I ask the Minister and the Government to support the alternative Buckinghamshire approach. Buckinghamshire and its council are not anti-growth. It is accepted that housing growth will continue at already high rates. However, those targets should be determined at local level. Bucks, in co-operation with its LEP, Buckinghamshire Business First, and health partners already put forward to Government an ambitious recovery and growth proposal. Discussions on that have commenced.
We urge the Government to work with Buckinghamshire Council to progress this bottom-up, democratically driven approach, to accelerate jobs, infrastructure and economic growth, rather than follow top-down and imposed targets within the structure of the arc or strategic framework, without democratic accountability. We have seen examples of how well we can work together, because every single week those partners were working and talking together during covid, to deliver the covid response effectively for Bucks residents. I believe we can move forward with an economic recovery plan for Bucks and Milton Keynes.
I have a few questions for the Minister, based on concerns residents have continually raised with me, about housing numbers and demands. The concern from residents across south Buckinghamshire is that more people from London will come to Beaconsfield, Marlow and Gerrards Cross, and the vital housing of bungalow-style, single-storey homes for older residents or the children of Bucks residents who are desperate to get on the housing ladder, will not be provided. If a percentage of housing were allocated only to Bucks residents, that would go a long way in securing more local support on the ground.
Do the millions of homes mentioned as part of the arc factor into the existing extremely high housing numbers already proposed in Buckinghamshire, or will they be additional numbers imposed on us at some point? How up to date are the data that inform the supposed need for the arc in the first place, given that covid and Brexit have changed the numbers and demands for inner London, outer London and surrounding green belt areas? Is the demand still the same as it was before?
With yet more pressure being put on Buckinghamshire, we require more protection for our green spaces, which have been left, unlike in London, without the expected levels of protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe has AONB land, as has the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green). I have nothing, apart from Burnham Beeches, which is run by the City of London. I do not have a lot of common land that is protected. We do not have metropolitan open land, because that is an inner green belt protection.
There are basic statutory protections for existing green space that we do not have in my constituency. Most of our green belt land is agricultural green belt land, which is owned by independent farmers or the council. That is problematic for development because it can be sold off piecemeal, and whole areas of biodiversity and vital areas of green infrastructure will be lost for ever, because there is not strategic oversight or protection put in place on that land.
Many other members of the arc have that protection, but south Buckinghamshire does not. As the local Member of Parliament, I want to fight to ensure that existing green spaces, biodiversity and protection for the lungs of London are in place for future generations. The relentless expansion of development into the lungs of London will have a dire consequence, not only for Buckinghamshire but anyone in outer London who values decent air quality, lower carbon emissions and a better quality of life.
My hon. Friend reminds me of a discussion we had about the way that housing is built. Will she agree that it is really important that, when housing goes in, sufficient green space exists through developments, so that people can still feel that they are getting the benefits of the environment and an environmental amenity, even in the places right where they live?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. I thank the Minister and Government for initiating new nature reserves and the rewilding of areas such as Buckinghamshire, where we need to preserve green space, while adding strategic housing development. I welcome those excellent proposals and I am looking forward to working with the Minister on how we can take them forward in the county.
I would like to see a focus, particularly in Buckinghamshire, on biodiversity and on protecting the wild spaces, waterways, ancient woodlands, marshlands and meadows of south Buckinghamshire. The economic, ecological and environmental vandalism of proposals, done piecemeal, by predatory development, forgets the key and most beautiful part of living in south Bucks—the green space, the rolling hills and the quality of life that residents choose to have. Perhaps it is further from London and a longer commute, but residents are paying the price because they want to have that green space. I cannot express the value that every resident in Buckinghamshire places on that green space. They will fight to the death to maintain it and save it, not only for their community but for future communities. I as their MP will do the same.
I hope that the Minister will continue to look at alternative ways of incorporating new innovation that the Government is proposing for environmental biodiversity. First, the Government could perhaps include the Colne Valley Regional Park and Burnham Beeches in an expanded AONB or a national park, or they could find another way of providing additional protection when more housing demands are being put into the local area. If those things can be done in tandem with a locally led approach that values the opinions of residents in the county, we can move forward in a positive way, meeting the demand for housing but also preserving our green belt and green space and to build the infrastructure that we vitally need for the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for introducing the debate. It might be understood from his opening remarks that Buckinghamshire is the only place that is affected by and concerned about the arc, but that is not true. Oxfordshire is just as affected by it and just as concerned about it.
I want to start off with the example of the Oxford to Cambridge expressway, which was an essential part of the arc. That major infrastructure project was handled in the most abysmal way that I have ever seen. From the very beginning, nobody was consulted about it. In my own area, which had a large part of it, I was the first person to bring consultation on the arc to the parish councils in my area: I invited my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) to come with me and address them all at a meeting. By that stage, it was already too late. People had already formed their opinions on the expressway, based on misconceptions and information that came from nowhere. Most of that was wrong, as my hon. Friend was able to point out, but by that stage it was too late.
The other thing that I particularly stress about the expressway shows what could happen with the arc: from one end of the expressway to the other, from the Cambridge end to the Oxford end, there was an enormous difference. At the Cambridge end, most people accepted the need for an expressway to carry the traffic. From Milton Keynes to Oxford, there was no acceptance; there was a completely different attitude. Not once did I hear the Department for Transport, which was responsible for it, making sure that that distinction was well understood. If we are not careful with the arc, unless we go out of our way to make sure that we do things in a different way, we will end up facing similar problems. There is no doubt that road traffic is an issue that needs to be addressed.
With the expressway, we had the ridiculous situation that the whole project was initially paused. That created enormous problems for me electorally. What is the difference between pausing something and abolishing it? It did not make any sense. People were saying that they did not believe it had just been paused; they thought it was just temporary, to take the election into account. It was very difficult to overcome those objections at the time.
The expressway has now been cancelled and the explanation given by Highways England is that it needed the information in order to be able to look at other projects in the area. Why could it not have said that at the very beginning? Why could the whole of the project not have been dealt with in a different way?
I turn to some of the points that have been made about the arc. What is the arc? In the Government’s paper on the arc, it notes that the body that is being put together to try to push it through is made up of three county councils, 17 district councils, six unitary authorities and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. That is before we take into account any involvement of different Government Departments. The Minister is an excellent Minister, but he cannot handle all Government Departments at the same time. There needs to be involvement from other Government Departments to make sure that the project works, but that means that the body becomes overwhelmingly large and very difficult to control, which goes completely against the project with which I was involved when I first joined the House—our localism agenda. I still think that localism and involving local communities in the development of projects is a good place to start.
I have been critical of the arc project, but I see the potential in joining up 10 universities or colleges along the route of the arc. I see the potential in joining up things such as Harwell in Oxfordshire with the equivalent in Cambridge and I see the enormous benefit in trying to line up the fusion project in my constituency at Culham, to hopefully provide the energy and critical science that comes from that across the whole of the arc, but I go back to what I said about the expressway—there is no common identity across the whole arc on which a common strategy can be based, which makes it very difficult.
On the 1 million houses, it would be nice to hear from the Minister how that number is made up. At the time the plan was put forward, I tried to analyse where those 1 million houses were going to come from. Some—in fact, the vast majority—are already in local plans; it is not a million new houses that are being imposed on the area, but a million houses in total, some of which are already there and about to go for planning permission. How is the number made up? What additional housing is left and how will that be dealt with?
I do not take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe that most of the housing is directed towards London. There is a very good aim in trying to make sure that most of the housing picks up local development and local growth. The risk is that it will become so attractive to people from London that it will be very difficult to keep that aim going.
I want to ask a little more on the spatial framework. How is it going to work? What rights will local people have to be able to assess the projects that are being put forward? What criteria will they use to judge them? Who will make the decisions about planning issues and what sort of consultation will they have? Without those things, we will have lost a huge element of our localism agenda, which, for me, would be a great loss. I have put a lot of effort into that agenda over however many years have passed—it is a long time—since I first started, so it would be nice to know whether we are keeping some of it and can use it as the basis to make something happen going forward.
To conclude, I see potential in establishing a brilliant arc of science and engineering across that part of the UK, but we need a properly balanced assessment of what that will involve and of the losses that will come out of it for people. As my hon. Friends have already mentioned, these are some of the most sensitive and beautiful landscapes in the country. Think of how Buckinghamshire rolls into Oxfordshire: it is a seamless entity of nothing but beauty. We trash that at the risk of our future as a Government in this country.
Thank you, Sir Edward. I thank my good and hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for proposing this timely and important debate on an issue that will have significant implications for Northampton, the town that I represent.
Northampton, and indeed Northamptonshire, are a key part of the Oxford-Cambridge arc. Although Northampton may not have the international kudos of Oxford or Cambridge, let alone High Wycombe, it is none the less a vital component of this overall ambitious investment plan.
The Oxford-Cambridge investment arc has, at least, the potential to boost recovering growth in my constituency. Covid-19 has underlined the UK’s position as a global leader in the life science industry, and the Ox-Cam arc could be the investment accelerator that will help to create the infrastructure to prevent it from being strangled by its own success. Northampton is the home of Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA. It is within a 75-minute drive of the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Cranfield, which I was privileged to visit just last week to meet the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership, another critical piece of the structural jigsaw.
Northampton is a prime location, at the hub of the British strategic supply-chain network, for life-science and engineering businesses. The arc programme provides an opportunity to further realise that and, critically, to address the levelling-up agenda that the Government are championing. Northampton has a rich industrial heritage with great past glories—of which, incidentally, shoes and footwear were just part—and we must now focus our attention on the future of the industries that we do so well here, such as life sciences and high-performance technology. We do not just want the houses therefore; we want the business and the infrastructure from the programme as well.
The all-party parliamentary group on devolution, which I chair, recently produced an inquiry report on levelling up and devolution. Although all that I have heard about the Ox-Cam arc programme—including from my right hon. Friend the Minister—marks it out as ambitious and far reaching, it can also be complex and difficult to navigate, with its plethora of overlapping decision-making bodies—councils, LEPs, the central area growth board and the arc. How, where and with what legitimacy the programme’s decisions are made will be critical to its success. I say that with particular feeling as the first elections for the new unitary authority of West Northamptonshire, under the leadership of Councillor Jonathan Nunn, have just taken place. In our APPG’s report, we concluded that the UK is:
“one of the most fiscally centralised countries in the world and we should look to learn lessons from our international partners, many of whom are governed successfully with a more decentralised model. The UK also has one of the most regionally unequal economies in the world. Greater devolution of responsibility for local economic growth has long been necessary, but it is now extremely urgent.”
There is an opportunity, therefore, to use the Ox-Cam arc not only to recalibrate our economic fortunes but to rewire and improve the way that we make those decisions. To me, that means powers from Whitehall and those formerly held at Brussels—as my years on the European Committee of the Regions followed by years on the Committee on Regional Development of the European Parliament as an MEP have informed me—coming down closer to the people of the area. If that is what this means, then it is generally welcome. However, if it also means powers taken away from local government upwards and outwards to new regional structures—again, informed by my past as a county council leader, regional assembly member and a founding director of a local enterprise partnership—I would be much less happy about that.
The formal consultation on the Ox-Cam arc is about to begin. Details of the levelling-up agenda are about to emerge, into which the promised devolution Bill has either been folded or—let us hope not—buried. So my challenge to Government is to bite the bullet and transfer some of those distant Whitehall decision-making powers into the hands of local leaders, and that way unleash the potential of the Ox-Cam arc into something far more wide-reaching that will truly power the pistons of the levelling-up and devolution agendas in our country.
Very easily, Sir Edward. It is a pleasure to have a chance to contribute, and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) on securing the debate. If I may, I shall start with one of the points that he raised. Coming in as a Member of Parliament in 2010, we thought we were burying regional development agencies in the east of England, one of which was the East of England Development Agency. However, if one looks to the origins of the Oxford-Cambridge arc idea, essentially it is a regional development corporation idea: it stems from 2003, during the Blair period. It was given body and voice by the 2017 National Infrastructure Commission report by Lord Adonis—another leading figure of that period of government.
The first—and fundamental—question that has been raised by other Members during the debate is that this is a plan for an area that has no cohering identity. I almost feel like an interloper, Sir Edward. Before your inclusion of me in the debate, I felt like an interloper anyway, given the strong Buckinghamshire feeling about the debate —and all praise to Buckinghamshire. I am proudly from Bedfordshire and represent North East Bedfordshire. However, that makes the point, does it not? Essentially, this is not some grassroots, built-up, passionate call for helping our region to develop and unifying us into an identity that can have meaning for people on the ground—our local residents. No, no: this is a Blairite top-down plan, to be imposed on people in the region whether they like it or not.
I say “whether they like it or not” because, rather sadly, the spatial framework, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) spoke about, takes that additional step forward. It says that the arc’s 23 local planning authorities cannot continue to plan separately because
“planning at the local level for homes, business space, infrastructure and the environment is not integrated, and is unable to take an Arc-wide view.”
Well, my constituents do not want local planning to take an arc-wide view; they want it to take a local view—a neighbourhood view. The Government need to understand that the question that has been posed today is, how is that going to work when there is an absence of democratic accountability?
It is worse, because the spatial development framework goes on to say that all local plans must conform to the spatial framework, including the requirement that housing needs are met in full. Out of the window goes any discretion on housing growth targets. They must be met in full. For local authorities in my constituency, who are already achieving growth rates in housing well above the national average—my constituency is already growing at three times the national average—having a top-down target imposed with no discretion on local authority housing growth seems to me to raise major questions about democratic accountability.
Let us go to the two fundamental points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe. Where did this come from? Was it a plan for housing or a plan for economic development? If it was a plan for housing, let us get to the rub of the 1 million houses. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will say in a few minutes that the 1 million housing target is not a target. I know he will say that, because he has told me that in a debate, and it will be welcome to hear. The truth of the matter is that that target at the time included more than a quarter of a million extra houses that were going to be placed into the Oxford-Cambridge arc because that aspiration could not be met in London. It is an important point of principle of this Government to ensure that the housing needs of areas such as Greater London are met by regional authorities themselves and not displaced to other areas.
On housing growth, I would like to hear from the Minister what balance the Government will be able to provide for housing growth with the pieces of infrastructure that people care about. We have heard about expressways and railways, but what people care about in terms of infrastructure is: can I get an appointment with my doctor because my child is sick? Can I get my son or my daughter into a good local school? That is what people want to hear across the Ox-Cam arc and in the rest of the country. I know that the Minister and the Government are committed to that, but that is where our priorities should lie when we think about what to do with this particular region.
If the plan is an economic one, let us remember what the basis of it was: that somehow, by connecting or improving the connections between two major universities and other universities—of course, I would say Cranfield is also a major university, but let us say Oxford and Cambridge—we would unlock economic growth. That is the state-driven answer to how we unlock growth: “We can connect it.” So let me ask the Government: where is the international example of that having worked in practice? Can they name one example anywhere in the world where countries have joined universities to create economic growth? I bet they cannot, because most countries understand that we create economic growth around centres of educational excellence. We focus on the centres of educational excellence and build out that network of localities and business parks and innovation around where that core of academic excellence is. That is already happening in Cambridge, it is happening in Oxford, and it can happen around Cranfield. That is where the Government’s focus with the Ox-Cam arc should be moving.
There are some shared interests. There is the opportunity for more growth in housing. The Minister is absolutely right to focus on the core fundamental Conservative principle that everyone at every age should have the opportunity to own a home. That is something that we all want to do, and we want to do it in a way that is supported by local communities.
On the infrastructure, my colleagues from Buckinghamshire have already said bye-bye to the expressway, so we will have an expressway from Cambridge through Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes, and then we can stop off and get on—I do not know what they have in Buckinghamshire—perhaps a dirt track until we reach Oxfordshire, and back on the expressway again.
Heaven knows what will happen to the railway line. I know that the people of Cambridge are up in arms about it, and I know there are questions in North East Bedfordshire about it. If those transverse cross-country pieces of infrastructure are called into question, should we not have a rethink about how this interlacing, connecting Ox-Cam arc strategy would better be replaced with a central specific focus around certain areas for development there? There is probably more of a community interest between the good people of Buckinghamshire and the good people of Oxfordshire, and there might be a good common interest between the people of Bedfordshire, Milton Keynes and Northamptonshire, rather than saying that people in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough should somehow feel an affinity with the people of Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Alluding to the history between Oxford and my constituency, we were the first stop-off on the coach trip from London to Oxfordshire. The economic prosperity of Beaconsfield was built on providing meals, entertainment, hotels and livery to those making the vital trip from London to Oxford. There is that historic link, but my hon. Friend is right that the Oxford-Cambridge arc is not attributable to any of those historic qualities or natural linking that might be found in other regions.
My hon. Friend is right to bring in that historical perspective. Sir Edward, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister if we can have a Conservative vision of the Oxford-Cambridge arc? Let us not just take the Blairite vision off the shelf and say that the Government must now impose it.
What would a Conservative vision look like? First, it would be grounded in local democratic accountability, at the lowest possible level, with parishes, neighbourhoods and towns making decisions and not having them dictated by the state. Secondly, it would be a vision that rested primarily on the private sector to determine what would happen and where, and ensure both business and housing growth. We have recent evidence of that. According to Property Week, last year the Oxford-Cambridge arc was already seeing the largest inward housing investment. The market is working it out; we do not need a Government top-down plan to do it.
Thirdly, there is a role for Government in co-ordination, which we can understand, but the focus should be on international examples that can be repeated here, rather than trying to create something that has not got any international power and saying, “Let’s try and make it work here.” That means creating a focus of innovation with innovation grants and support in towns and cities across the arc.
There should be a focus on green transport initiatives and commuter transport initiatives, getting people from Cambourne into Cambridge in a green and environmentally sound way that works with the flow of people, building communities around Cranfield that work on unmanned vehicles, and undertaking initiatives around large public bus transportation systems in Oxfordshire, which are based on electric or battery-powered vehicles. Working with local councils to find out what people need locally, in combination with innovation and support from the Government, will allow the brains in those cities to create new champions who can create examples for the rest of the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) on securing today’s debate. I welcome the opportunity to debate the future of the Oxford-Cambridge arc and follow the lucid arguments advanced by the hon. Members for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), for Henley (John Howell), for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) and for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller).
I have very happy associations with both Oxford and Cambridge, having had the pleasure of living in both cities for a couple of years. I took my MSc in applied statistics at Oxford University and my MPhil in history at Cambridge University. I love both cities and their surrounding areas, and care about their distinctive character, history and future development.
However, the plans for the Oxford-Cambridge arc are already outmoded. Events have overtaken plans drawn up in a markedly different age. Covid-19 has challenged the assumptions that underpinned the Oxford-Cambridge arc back in 2016, which was based on a model of building 1 million new homes, along with a road and rail transport system to take people to places of work at various points across the arc. My first question for the Minister is whether Her Majesty’s Government have properly re-evaluated the assumptions underpinning the scheme, not just on population growth but on changes to patterns of commuting and working, and where people will be working in the future, to ensure that plans meet the needs of residents?
The spatial plan consultation, for example, should cover whether there is a need for genuinely affordable and social environmentally-sound housing; I believe there is. Local authorities should be given proper representation within the arc arrangement. I have discussed these important points with my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), the chair of the Labour party, who, fighting assiduously for her constituents as usual, has already met the Minister and his officials and has written to him. Although she could not attend today’s debate, I hope that her invaluable input will not be ignored, but instead incorporated into Government plans. Local people, businesses and leaders cannot be ignored. Proper consultation must be guaranteed.
We recognise the need for more homes, but have Ministers thought through the implications of 1 million new homes and the impact on existing communities, on the natural environment, on biodiversity and on levels of pollution? If we build 1 million homes, how do we balance the needs of the local environment? What kind of homes? We need homes for young people, just starting out, and homes for nurses, teachers, train drivers, supermarket workers and social carers—in other words, homes for the heroes of the pandemic. Where is the plan for affordable homes for those heroes? In all candour, I tell the Minister that the blue wall will not be happy if he ignores their views, as we have heard eloquently, again and again, from hon. Members today.
Then there is the question of transport. Central to the Government’s version of the Oxford-Cambridge arc will be the expressway, a massive motorway-building project, like something from the 1970s or 1980s. I welcome the Minister’s decision to scrap the expressway and I praise campaigners who fought so hard to make Ministers see sense, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who rightly called it
“a last-century approach to a 21st-century challenge”.
Yet again a Conservative Government is catching up with Labour policy, but dither, delay and retreat on the expressway cannot be replaced by dither and delay on the Oxford-Cambridge rail link. The Government must now give their full-throated support to the completion of phases 2 and 3 of the East West Rail link, linking Oxford, Bicester, Winslow, Bletchley, Bedford, Cambourne and stops along the way to Cambridge.
That investment in the railway is a superb opportunity for world-class station design and facilities for passengers; for full access for people with disabilities; for integrated transport systems linking up walking, cycling and bussing; for affordable spaces for local businesses and traders; for flexible ticketing and sensible pricing; and for environmentally friendly and sustainable use of buildings, energy and land. Most of all, the East West Rail link must be fully electrified. It must be a shining example of post-carbon, safe, clean and affordable public transport. The last point that I invite the Minister to address, therefore, is the full electrification of the East West Rail link. Rather than further prevarication and evasion, today would be a perfect opportunity to announce Government support for full electrification.
Labour supports investment in new homes, in new rail links, in projects that tackle climate change and in community building—in investing in a 21st-century economy—but they must be the right projects, based on the correct assumptions in our post-covid society. At all stages, they must engage every part of the community, not just the loudest and best organised, and never in a dash for growth at the expense of existing communities, never at the expense of people on low incomes, and never at the expense of our climate.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and it is certainly a pleasure to take part in a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), or the Member for Wycombe International, a doughty campaigner for his constituents. He spoke eloquently on the issues and the opportunities that face his constituency and Buckinghamshire.
It is also good to see that, beyond the confines of the county of Buckinghamshire, we have a great many other interlopers, as I think my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) described himself in a moment of lucidity. We also have my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and, remotely, for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer). It is good to see them. By their presence, they demonstrate how very large a space the arc is. It stretches from the southern border of Leicestershire all the way down to the London borders and crosses east-west a large chunk of our country. Having mentioned them, it would be remiss of me not to note, too, the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who has also always spoken up strongly for his constituency.
We believe the arc is a globally significant area. It is a very big space, which provides the homes for approximately 3.7 million residents. It supports over 2 million jobs and adds over £110 billion to our economic output every year. While London puts the United Kingdom at the heart of global financial and legal markets, the arc is the driving force for national innovation and science. We believe that with the right collaborative support from the ground up, not the top down, by 2050 we could see economic output in the area doubling to over £200 billion a year, with the addition of 1.1 million further jobs.
When I have spoken to colleagues across the House and to our colleagues in local government, I have always been at pains to express that this is not about house building; it is about economic development of a very large region for jobs, skills and the transport and other infrastructure required to build the hopes and opportunities of the people who live there. It is about housing too, but housing is not the central thrust of what we are trying to achieve. When I hear talk from the Chamber of 1 million additional homes, points that were made in a report of some five years’ standing, I reply by saying that is not a Government target and it is not a Government policy.
I pointed that out to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire in this Chamber, but I suppose the best way to keep a secret is to make a statement in the House of Commons. I think the only way that we can put to bed or break open this particular secret is to keep repeating the point that 1 million homes is not a Government target. More homes are what we need and require, because in certain parts of the arc space, Cambridge being an example, average house prices are 12 times the average salary of a local resident. In other parts of the arc, house prices are as expensive, so we do need to build more homes with the right infrastructure for the people who need to live in this space.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My fundamental point is that the local plans and local authorities remain the building blocks—if he will forgive the pun—for house building and commercial construction in the area. We certainly want to make sure that local authorities work collaboratively with one another to make best use of this space, but it is the local plans that drive the numbers.
To answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey), some authorities may wish to be ambitious and go further than the local housing need number, based on 2014 Office for National Statistics numbers. They may wish to go further. Others may have constraints. They may be green belt constraints, AONB constraints or other constraints. Those also need to be taken into account when local authorities take their plans to the planning inspector. It is for the planning inspector to decide what is a reasonable plan. If local authorities can demonstrate they have a reasonable plan, the numbers in that plan are what they are judged against, not the local housing need number.
I make two further points. The first is that if a plan falls out of date, it is the local housing need number that the planning inspector will look at if speculative planning applications come forward, so all authorities should ensure that they have up-to-date plans. Secondly, it is the case, generally speaking, that when local authorities collaborate with each other constructively, they can find ways of spreading their overall need across a wider space and thereby, using innovative means such as pursuing brownfield regeneration or using the permitted development rights tools that we have given them, ensure that there is less pressure on the all-important green spaces that we all know and enjoy.
If I may, I will address some of the points raised by colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield raised a number of points. She made it very clear that she wants local authorities to define what should be built, and our planning reforms emphasise that very point. We want local authorities to define the homes or the commercial properties that they need to build, the density and the design of them and the quality of them, to ensure that we get the right homes, the homes that we need. She also made the point that in her constituency there are certain challenges with affordability. That is one reason we have introduced the First Homes policy, which will allow the construction, through the planning system and developer contributions, of new homes discounted by at least 30%, which can be defined as for local people or key workers, for example, in order for them to benefit from the opportunity to own their own home.
We have also introduced the affordable homes programme for 2021 to 2026, which provides £12.3 billion of investment in affordable homes across our country. It will provide a significant number of new homes that local people can rent at reduced prices or that they can buy into, in a shared-ownership sense, at reduced increments, so that people can get on the housing ladder more easily.
My hon. Friend also raised the question of biodiversity and the importance of having green spaces that people can enjoy. We certainly recognise that, in the post-covid world, that will be important. She asked what the effect of the covid emergency would be. I think—like Zhou Enlai answering the question “What has been the effect of the French revolution?”—that it is as yet a little too early to say. But we do know that people need better green spaces. That is one reason why, in the national model design code, we have called for tree-lined streets and a better hierarchy of homes versus green space. We have also, in the Environment Bill, made it absolutely plain that when development takes place there must be a biodiversity net gain of 10%. We have also made it plain that local nature recovery strategies, to which she refers, are a fundamental building block of that Bill, which is soon to become an Act, and we shall bake those strategies into our plans for planning reform when we introduce legislation later this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley made, as ever, a very thoughtful speech. He raised the question of the expressway and how that was handled. I will certainly take his remarks back to the Department for Transport and to Homes England. I simply note that in that particular case the Government listened. Clearly, there was local concern about how the approach was made and the proposals were tabled, and the Government have agreed that another course should be taken.
A number of colleagues have discussed—again, eloquently—the question of the spatial framework. We will begin a consultation on the spatial framework very, very shortly. In building our approach to that, which began in February, we have taken on board the views of local businesses, local councils and local authority leaders, who, across the political divide, have given us useful input. We want to ensure that we carry the public with us as we undertake this spatial framework vision consultation. The questions that we will ask in that consultation over the next several weeks will be high-level ones: “How do you want your space to be used?”; “What sort of environmental considerations do you have and how do you want them baked into planning?”; “What are the transport issues that you face?”; and “What are the job and the skill opportunities that you want to see for yourself and the place where you live?” The answers that people give us to those questions will feed a set of policy prescriptions that we could then take forward into another consultation, again engaging local people and involving local authorities and local leaders.
Fundamentally, we want to ensure that local people really get to have their say and not just the usual suspects, if I can put it that way. That is one of the reasons why we have taken such great pains to use the most modern technological tools, such as apps, to reach as many people as possible, including in diverse communities—those people who are not usually touched by the sorts of dry questions that Government and our agencies sometimes ask, including young people, people from ethnic minorities and people from less advantaged backgrounds—so that we get proper feedback that can then inform the decision-making process. We want to make sure that there is proper consultation, proper feedback and proper engagement at the heart of this.
That is also our approach to the growth board that we want to set up, to ensure that business leaders across the area can provide their full and fundamental feedback as to what policies they want to inform this space, because—again—this process is not simply about housing. Homes are important, but so are jobs and the infrastructure to support those jobs, which is why we want to ensure that the growth board plays a vital role in the arc.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire asked the very important question: “What about the infrastructure that really matters to people?” Not the big roads or the great big railways that impress certain people, perhaps, but the GP surgeries, the clinics, the playgrounds, the schools and the extensions to schools. That is one reason why, in our proposals for planning reform, we are proposing an infrastructure levy to replace the community infrastructure levy and section 106, which I think most people and bodies, including 80% of local authorities, agree is a rather convoluted and opaque process for providing developer contributions. It tends to be loaded in favour of the bigger developers, it tends to be very slow, and it tends to result in the infrastructure that was initially conceived of being negotiated away.
We want a system that will provide infrastructure up front that is far less negotiable and that means communities get what they want when they expect it, and as they want it. That is one of the reasons why the proposals built into our planning reforms will be so important for community buy-in to the proposals.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South said that this process is not just about houses. Well, he is dead right; it is not just about houses. I have been at pains to be clear about that. It is about the economic generation of a very wide area in the centre of our country in the south, and not simply about houses. He also asked us to be collaborative. We will be, because we fully understand that if we are to succeed in this area, we need to engage the public and take them with us.
Sir Edward, I am conscious that I have now gone on for some 10 or so minutes, that there will be a Division soon, and that the Opposition spokesman wants to intervene, so I shall let him do so.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is most generous to do so. He has not responded to my key point about the east-west rail link. In order to assuage residents’ concerns and ensure that we are moving towards a greener post-carbon society, can he confirm that the east-west rail link will be fully electrified?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I understand his concern. He will know that this Government are the greenest Government that we have ever had, and the policies that we are pursuing and the commitments that we have made will ensure that that continues. For example, the future homes standard will ensure that homes built after 2025 are at least 75% more carbon-efficient than present homes. He will note that I am not the Transport Minister. DFT is looking at the proposals for east-west rail. We are all committed to it, and I trust that we will get an announcement sooner rather than later.
We are fundamentally committed to the arc and the economic opportunities it presents. We are committed to ensuring that local people are engaged in our plans. We want to ensure that the homes that are built to support the people who want to live and work in the arc are of the right quality, in the right places and are built with the grain of local communities.
We want to ensure that the right infrastructure to support those homes is developed at the get-go and not way down the line. We want to ensure that the jobs and skills in the arc complement those industries that are already there, and provide the jobs for the future. We want to take everyone with us in that enterprise. We believe that the arc can be a tremendous boon to our country and support to the local community. We are determined to see it happen and do it with the support of the local community.
It has been an interesting and informative debate. I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for some of the things he said. Before I come on to those, I was grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) reminded us that her constituents are so entrepreneurial. If people have taken enormous risks all their lives, in order to buy themselves a large house in a nice place, they are going to be upset and push back if we build houses in their view. We need to ensure that the system gives them some opportunity to say no and to be compensated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) was right to chide me that I had created the impression that this was a matter only for Buckinghamshire. He was followed very nicely by my hon. Friends the Members for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer). It was important that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley set out some of the co-ordination problems, and reiterated the importance of the localism agenda, which, Sir Edward, you will remember we were all great fans of early on when we came here. My right hon. Friend the Minister reinforced the importance of those ideas.
The highlight of the debate for me, if my right hon. and hon. Friends will not mind my saying so, was when my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South expressed a sentiment from my heart to his lips, about the pre-eminence of the name of High Wycombe. I was grateful to him for that. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire was right to remind us about the regional development corporations. He spoke most articulately, and I was grateful to be here for his speech.
There was tremendous agreement with the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that we had better appropriate the slogan “affordable homes for heroes” before the Opposition put it on all their leaflets. I certainly would like some affordable homes for the heroes of Wycombe.
My right hon. Friend the Minister made a very strong case for a doubled economic output, with 1.1 million new jobs. I hope he will not mind my saying that, when people hear of another 1 million jobs, they will wonder about the homes to go with them. He has been clear that the local plans remain the building blocks that drive the numbers. That will be heard across the region, in all the counties. I very much hope that councillors and officials will be reassured by that.
Finally, my right hon. Friend the Minister made the point that he wants to ensure that local people have their say over what is done. That is the fundamental point on which everyone here is agreed; and I am most grateful for that.
UK Emissions Trading Scheme: Wales
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the operation of the UK Emissions Trading Scheme in Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I commend the co-operative approach taken by the UK and devolved Governments in establishing the emissions trading scheme and in agreeing a common framework that treats each nation as an equal partner in our climate efforts. The scheme has brought coherence to one element of our combined efforts to achieve net zero.
There is, of course, room for improvement. I draw the Minister’s attention to concerns expressed by the Green Finance Observatory:
“The elephant in the room is that offsets are fundamentally not about mitigating climate change, or even about removing past emissions, but about enabling future emissions, about protecting economic growth and corporate profits.”
I hope that the Minister will reflect on those remarks when she sums up the debate. They raise two critical questions. First, how will businesses fundamentally reduce aggregate emissions, and do so rapidly? Secondly, what is the role of Government in facilitating that change?
In order to meet our climate targets, we must not only reduce overall emissions but adopt carbon-negative strategies. The most economical and natural of those is tree planting. I hope to expand on that point today and in doing so make a case for more closely linking the UK emissions trading scheme with a separate and voluntary carbon offset market. Both schemes encourage businesses to reduce overall emissions. They are currently unconnected in policy; they run parallel to each other. I accept the technical and policy challenges associated with directly incorporating carbon offsetting into the UK ETS, but I believe that an association between the two schemes, if established, would bring rigour, scrutiny and additional resources to the offsetting process.
Governmental intervention is urgently required to bring much-needed stability to the voluntary carbon offset market in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) recently highlighted that large companies are already purchasing vast tracts of agricultural land in the upper Teifi and Tywi valleys for forestry and carbon offsetting and are doing so in a manner that internalises financial gain and externalises the social, economic and cultural costs.
Those costs increasingly pose an existential challenge to Welsh farmers and rural communities and are inimical to efficient land use and a just transition. To echo the National Farmers Union, we urgently need to ensure a system that makes carbon offsetting mean the right tree in the right place. The Government, by acting as a broker and data-backed co-ordinator, can help to ensure appropriate land use for carbon offsetting, support the sufficient scale of planting and empower local farmers and rural communities to make a carbon-negative effort for themselves.
Wales’s forests are a natural economic and national asset at the very heart of our decarbonisation efforts. The lungs of our nation, our forests sequester approximately 1.84 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, while pollution removal by woodland was estimated to have an ecosystem value of more than £385 million back in 2015. Our forests are also essential for our environment and biodiversity. Indeed, of the 542 listed species of principal importance to the Welsh Government, 210 rely wholly or partly on woodland habitats.
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the crucial importance of restoring Wales’s peatlands, given that their climate change mitigation potential is 3,000 tonnes of carbon a year, equivalent to 5% of Wales’s transport carbon emissions? I am sure he will also take the opportunity to welcome the peat restoration projects led by parc cenedlaethol Eryri, the Snowdonia national park.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention and, indeed, will join her in congratulating the parc cenedlaethol on that work. Peatland restoration will be an incredibly important part of our carbon mitigation and sequestration efforts. More work to ensure that local actors such as the parc cenedlaethol can fully benefit from and engage in that process is what we as politicians and policy makers should focus on in the future.
The area of land covered by trees and woodland in Wales has tripled since the early 20th century, increasing from 88,000 hectares in 1905 to more than 309,000 hectares as of March 2020. It accounts for about 14.9% of the Welsh land area. That is significantly greater in percentage terms than in England or Northern Ireland, but the coverage lags behind our Scottish cousins and is lower than both European Union and wider European averages, so we have much further to go.
The “Woodlands for Wales” strategy suggests increasing tree planting to at least 2,000 hectares per year from 2020. The Climate Change Committee, recognising the challenge of reaching net zero, has been even more ambitious, recommending an increase to woodland cover in Wales from present levels to 24%. That would mean planting 43,000 hectares of new trees by 2030 and 180,000 hectares by 2050.
Set against that backdrop, Welsh farming finds itself at a perilous juncture, buffeted on the one hand by increased trade barriers with our largest market and uncertainty over future income support, and on the other by increasing pressure on land use. Welsh land, like all land, is of course a finite resource. If climate goals are to be met in a sustainable and fair manner, solutions cannot be imposed on rural communities. Instead, solutions can and should be implemented in conjunction with rural communities, and in a way that protects them from any damaging consequences. That is especially important when it comes to Welsh forestry and carbon sequestration. If we are to achieve the desired objective of reducing carbon emissions and promoting biodiversity, rural communities must be at the heart of implementation. Welsh farmers play a vital but often overlooked role in the climate equation, with over 109,000 hectares of woodland—just over a third of the total woodland in Wales—located on Welsh farms. To fulfil the stated tree-planting objectives, therefore, we need to understand the implications for the farming and food and drinks sectors, which rely on this agricultural land—land that is also essential to the wellbeing of the rural economy.
At scale, concerns about food security are increasingly valid. We must also account for the real risk of displacing food production elsewhere, to countries that may have higher carbon footprints and lower environmental standards. The last thing that any of us would want is for an unregulated carbon offset market to bring about the perverse scenario of productive agricultural land in Wales being sold to large corporations for the purposes of carbon offsetting while we increase our food imports from across the world. Such a scenario—namely, the offshoring of our food production—would make a mockery of wider sustainability efforts. I must warn the Government that there are anecdotal examples of such a scenario beginning to take root in some parts of Wales. We must therefore act now to ensure that it does not become widespread.
The best way forward would be to increase the support for farmers and rural communities looking to enter the carbon offsetting market for themselves. I pay tribute to the fantastic work by academics based at Bangor University. In particular, I thank Professor John Healey, Dr Prysor Williams, Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, Dr Tim Pagella and Ashley Hardaker for their outstanding research, which I commend to the Minister. If she were to review their work, she would note that substantial barriers to entry still exist for farmers and local landowners hoping to diversify into agroforestry. The UK ETS could play a transformative role, not only by better regulating the offset market but by providing the resources to encourage tree planting that is locally grounded rather than purchased by external, big business actors.
Practically, ETS revenues could be used to hasten a system of payments, as has happened in Ireland, so that farmers can afford to wait for a crop of trees to mature in order to derive an income stream. We could also look at land tenure restrictions and review contractual clauses that prohibit the planting of trees, which are especially important because over 30% of Welsh landed is tenanted.
Although such measures may seem parochial, they are fundamental to ensuring that we actually deliver a transition that is just as well as sustainable. We must work with farmers, who manage over 80% of land in Wales, to deliver a forested future that is critical to the overall success of our decarbonisation efforts. The alternative, in which big business can buy land, plant trees without any reference to local biodiversity and the optimum use of different parcels of land, all the while continuing with their polluting, business-as-usual practices, is unacceptable. Greenwashing, as the Minister will know, is an ever-present danger, but in this instance it would devastate Wales’s rural communities, culture and economy.
I hope that the Minister will address concerns that the ETS is not moving fast enough nor fundamentally reducing emissions. I also hope that she will agree that local groups and farmers should be supported to play an important part in the carbon offset market and in so doing lead the transition to net zero. We must not allow large corporations to buy farms, put rural communities out of home and land, and weaken local food production for the sake of greenwashed business as usual. More specifically, I would welcome any thoughts that the Minister might have on integrating carbon offsetting into the wider UK ETS framework to ensure that we have effective regulation of the market, the promotion of sustainable practices and the rewarding of responsible practitioners.
I hope that today’s debate, short as it is, has demonstrated the need for co-operative action across the UK to ensure that our greener future is ecologically, socially and culturally sustainable and, therefore, that the transition to it is a just one.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on securing this really important debate on the operation of the UK ETS in Wales. The four Administrations of the UK have worked together over months and years to establish what will be the world’s first net zero carbon cap and trade market and a crucial step towards achieving the UK’s target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We have drawn on our years of experience and global leadership in carbon pricing, going all the way back to the original UK ETS in 2002, to ensure that the new scheme has the flexibility and ambition to deliver for the whole of the UK. We share the combined objectives of driving permanent emission reductions across the UK while protecting the competitiveness of our businesses, be they steelworks in south Wales, ceramics producers in central England or whisky distilleries in Scotland. The UK ETS authority—the UK Government and the three devolved Administrations —continue to make good progress in the operational delivery of the UK ETS in our respective nations.
The UK ETS market opened on 19 May and there have now been four successfully completed auctions, with a fifth taking place tomorrow. Collectively, we published the free allocation table for stationary installations on 11 May, and we have since issued just under 40 million free allowances to qualifying operators. The allocation table for aviation operators was published on 28 June, and we will be issuing allowances to qualifying aircraft operations shortly, but we are committed to building on the process, and officials from the four Administrations are already working together on plans to further increase the climate ambition of the UK’s carbon pricing policy.
The UK ETS authority has already jointly committed to exploring a number of areas where we could go further and faster, and together we plan to set out our aspirations to continue to lead the world on carbon pricing. The overall cap for UK ETS is an obvious place to start, and we will be moving together quickly to consult on a consistent net zero trajectory for the cap, drawing on the advice from our statutory advisers, the Climate Change Committee. We will also be reviewing free allocation, which is a key measure to protect our industries, to prevent the offshoring of emissions—I think we all agree that that slightly defeats the point—and to ensure that the system is fair and equitable across the UK and its constituent nations, while maintaining the level of ambition that we really need to be able to get to net zero.
Together, we will tackle the case for expanding carbon pricing across the economy while encouraging innovation in emerging decarbonisation technologies. The hon. Gentleman’s challenge of connecting forestry with the ETS is one that we will indeed look at. We have committed to explore expanding the UK ETS to other sectors—two thirds of emissions are currently uncovered—including thinking about how the UK ETS can incentivise the deployment of greenhouse gas removal technologies, be they nature-based, as he identified, or indeed engineered not by nature. We shall enhance the effectiveness of the UK ETS, particularly for aviation, while recognising our international obligation in that sector.
A key objective of the UK ETS is to protect the competitiveness of UK industry, so as well as the free allocation of allowances to sectors at risk of carbon leakage, which is the offshoring of production and emissions, we are providing a package of measures to help businesses to decarbonise. On 17 March, the Government published the UK’s first-ever net zero strategy for industry. The document is the first strategy published by a major economy, and it sets out how industry can decarbonise in line with net zero while remaining competitive and without pushing emissions abroad. The strategy sets the expectation that emissions in industry will fall by around two thirds by 2035 and at least 90% by 2050 compared with 2018 levels, in order for us to achieve net zero. We have challenges ahead and we need to find the best, most effective and most impactful solutions.
The UK ETS is a jointly established, jointly operated scheme that has great potential for all Administrations.
I am grateful to the Minister for her response. As the work gets under way to expand the ETS scheme, will she ensure that the wider costs of any scheme, particularly carbon offsetting in local communities —whether those costs be the loss of agricultural land or the impact on the vibrancy of rural communities—can somehow be incorporated into the approach taken? I appreciate that it is a very complex issue and I do not pretend to have the answers, but could she reassure us that that will be considered as part of the future work scheme?
I take note of that. The hon. Gentleman may want to call for a similar debate with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to discuss other aspects of the funding that will go to those smaller communities as we change the systems, now that we are no longer under the EU frameworks.
The UK ETS is focused on supporting industry to make those transitions and has great potential for all Administrations. It recognises both the unique opportunities and, indeed, the challenges in each, which are all different. I endorse and agree with the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), and share their passion for all those nature-based solutions, which are critical to helping us to sequester carbon from trees to peat. I am a particular advocate for peat restoration across Northumberland, for obvious, biased reasons.
I encourage all Members to work with Government and Natural Resources Wales as we think about extending the ETS scheme, which we are just starting to do. We will seek to review it in some detail and think about how we can expand it. There is a great deal of room to continue the conversation. I look forward to working with Members as we set out the consultation in due course and make progress. I hope we will continue this important discussion and find solutions to ensure that these really important industries of ours can compete effectively on the international stage.
Question put and agreed to.
[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the hybrid arrangements. I must remind hon. Members participating virtually that they must leave their cameras on for the duration of the debate and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room—which is a very wonderful thing for all of us. Welcome. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I also remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this house has considered the introduction of Voter ID.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Gary. Today’s debate is on an issue and a piece of legislation that pose a direct threat to our democracy. Citizens casting their votes in polling stations in England, Scotland and Wales currently do not need to present any form of identification. It is in that context, where elections in the UK are being undertaken safely and securely, that the Government have presented the Elections Bill—a Bill that will cost more than £40 million over the next decade to address a problem that does not exist.
The Government state that the Elections Bill will ensure that elections are “secure, modern and fair”, implying the baseless assumption that they are currently not secure, modern and fair. Election administrators in local government work tirelessly to deliver safe and reliable elections. This year, local councils delivered one of the biggest sets of elections ever held, an incredible feat after a decade of austerity. Luton Borough Council, in my constituency, has had £157 million cut from its funding since 2010. Now the Government want to heap additional, unnecessary work on under-resourced election administrators. According to academic research, 99% of election staff do not think fraud has occurred in their polling stations, and 88% of the public think our polling stations are safe.
From 2010 to 2018, there were a total of five police cautions issued for personation at polling stations in the UK and four convictions. In 2019, a year that included a high-turnout general election, there was one conviction out of more than 59 million votes cast. Although those rare cases are serious, and allegations must be investigated, they had little or no impact on the outcome of the election. The Electoral Reform Society has stated:
“Adding a major barrier to democratic engagement off the back of so few proven cases would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
Can the Minister explain whether she believes that voting is safe and secure in Britain? The Government like to point to Northern Ireland, where they enforce voter ID, but the situations could not be more different. At the 1983 general election, 949 people arrived at polling stations in Northern Ireland to be told that a vote had already been cast in their name. Faced with high levels of documented, in-person electoral fraud, Northern Ireland introduced mandatory ID in 1985, and a free electoral ID card in 2002.
The introduction of voter ID in Northern Ireland did impact turnout, which was acknowledged in the Minister’s Department’s letter to Unlock Democracy in May this year, which stated that
“turnout appeared to be lower”
after the introduction of photographic ID as part of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. Around 25,000 voters are estimated not to have voted, as they did not have the required identification. Almost 3,500 people were initially refused a vote for not presenting identification. In a different context, and faced with military-style organised in-person fraud, an ID scheme was a proportionate response to protect the integrity of elections in Northern Ireland. That level of voter fraud has not been identified elsewhere in the UK.
The Government also rely on the misleading argument that if people need ID to pick up a parcel, why should they not need it to vote? Unlike picking up a parcel, voting is a legal right, not a privilege. Estimates suggest that around 3.5 million UK citizens—7.5% of the electorate—do not have photo ID. Furthermore, 11 million citizens do not have a passport or driving licence. Research estimates that about 1.3 million people in the UK do not have a bank account. This legislation would disproportionately impact sections of society. As Liberty has said:
“If you’re young, if you’re a person of colour, if you’re disabled, trans or you don’t have a fixed address, you’re much less likely to have valid photo ID and could therefore be shut off from voting.”
In Luton, we are proud of our super-diverse town. The 2011 census data showed that 45% of our population are not white—the very people that this discriminatory policy is more likely to impact—and not everyone can afford photo ID. A passport costs £85 and a driving licence £43. A Department for Transport survey found that 76% of the white population hold a driving licence compared with 52% of the black population. After the past year, the number of universal credit claimants in Luton South increased by 146% between February 2020 and March 2021, so photo ID will only have become more unaffordable.
Will the Minister explain why the Government are putting their energy into creating barriers to voting for already marginalised or deprived communities? I anticipate that the Minister will stress the free elector ID, but many on low incomes will not have the necessary free time or the means to access it. The ID process will require voters to take time off work or caring responsibilities to request it; those who can most easily take time off are those people who are most likely already to have ID. Also, in accessing the card and verifying the elector at the polling station there will be additional barriers, such as for those who wear face coverings or niqabs, or those who are part of the trans community, who, for example, may have changed their name.
Organisations such as Sense, Mencap, Age UK, Crisis and The Traveller Movement have all raised their concerns with me about how voter ID impacts people with complex disabilities, people with learning difficulties, the elderly, those who are homeless and Gypsy and Traveller people. The Bill has no provisions that directly address these concerns, so why is the Minister introducing a policy that will make voting more difficult for these groups?
Ministers repeatedly refer to evidence from the Electoral Commission, stating that the Government’s voter ID pilots at the 2018 and 2019 English local elections show there is no impact on any particular demographic group. However, there is a clear disconnect between the Cabinet Office’s statement and the Electoral Commission’s evidence. In both of its most recent reports, the Electoral Commission has said that it had no way of measuring the effect of photo ID on minority ethnic communities’ votes. Its report in 2019 states that polling station staff were not asked to collect demographic data about the people who did not come back. The commission recognises that that means it has no direct evidence of whether people from particular backgrounds were more likely than others to find it hard to show ID. Also, the Local Government Information Unit has highlighted that 37% of those who were refused a ballot paper did not return to vote, and in two areas just under half of those turned away did not come back with ID.
If the Government’s argument does not stand up to scrutiny, why are they intent on introducing voter ID? If no such voting issue exists, and if all the evidence points to voter ID causing voter suppression, what is the point of proposing these additional barriers to voting? I believe there lies the issue. This legislation cannot be unpicked in good faith, as the Government’s claims do not reflect reality. Instead, we have to take this policy for what it is: a discriminatory policy that will disenfranchise millions of voters. Much of the functioning of the legislation will be enacted through secondary legislation. Either the Government do not know how it will be implemented or this is simply an extension of whipping up a culture war, targeting black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, people with a disability, the trans community and the working class.
I am sure we all agree that encouraging high turnout is vital to sustain a healthy, thriving democracy. Imposing barriers on voting to tackle baseless allegations, which will lead to voter suppression, is disgraceful. The estimated cost of photo ID would be better spent on increasing confidence in our democracy through improving political literacy and encouraging engagement in the political process. Since 2010, this Government have cut youth services funding by 73%. Reversing those cuts would also help to improve democratic participation.
I have a question for the Minister. How does she expect me to explain the introduction of voter ID to my constituents, who are more likely to suffer voter suppression because of it, and to my council, which will have to undertake unnecessary additional work after a decade of cuts? I look forward to receiving specific responses to each of the questions I have asked and to each of the points I have raised, but I will conclude by saying that our elections are well run, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This dangerous legislation must be scrapped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to follow the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), although I have to politely disagree with some of her assertions.
In this country and most true democracies, the right to exercise the franchise is one of the most important symbols of the state as servant not master. Once every four or five years, voters go to the polls and give their verdict on the policies, commitments and ideals that they think will best suit their ambitions and hopes for where they live. It is a marvellous privilege, and we should not forget that there are still many places where people are denied that right.
Worst are those that go through the motions with an attempt to legitimise often ruthless, cruel and oppressive regimes through a veneer of respectability, in a charade of an election where every ballot box will be stuffed and every vote for the regime or junta in charge counted at least twice. That is why it is so important that our own democratic process is utterly unimpeachable. When we seek to bring the virtues of liberal open democracy to the rest of the world and promote our values, we cannot turn a blind eye to fraud and corruption at home. I do not need to look too far from my own constituency for examples of where that has already happened.
In Rochdale, a sitting Labour councillor who was serving as a member of the executive was caught voting twice in a local election. He accepted a caution from the police after claiming ignorance of the rules. This was a senior councillor who was still sitting on Rochdale Borough Council.
The rules should be clear and properly enforced. The idea of taking ID to the polling station is not a radical one. In fact, it is quite common around the world. Unless we are seriously saying in this debate that countries such as Germany, France and Canada are failed states or oppressive regimes, it could just be that we are the international outlier. I can speak only from my own experience, but on more than one occasion when I have been canvassing I have been asked by somebody whether they need to take their polling card with them to the polls, and on more than one occasion when I have been outside telling, I have been handed a polling card because people legitimately assume that they have to prove who they are when they go to vote. When told that they do not need to, many of them say, “You should probably do something about that.”
The idea is not even new to the UK. Voters in Northern Ireland have been providing proof of their identity since the 1980s, with no difficulty in the smooth running of elections. As long as there is access to a free recognisable form of photo identification that identifies that a person is eligible to vote and, more importantly, eligible to vote where they are attempting to, there should be no adverse effect on participation. It is even reasonable to assume that increased confidence in the integrity of our elections could encourage some of those who abstain to re-engage with the democratic process.
Voter suppression is a vile and unconscionable act, and accusations of it being levelled without a good faith basis are scurrilous and unbecoming. Voter fraud is sinister, and we have evidence of it already. A simple change requiring additional checks at the polls will go a long way to bolstering our political process, and we should, in short, welcome it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. It might come as no surprise, but I disagree with most of the comments made by the previous contributor, the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson). Voter fraud is an issue that the Tories have obsessed about for a long time without ever having proof that it is an issue that needs additional legislation and voter ID to resolve. Giving one example of one conviction does not actually underline the need to bring in such widespread legislation, which will indeed lead to voter suppression. Even the pilot trials that were undertaken proved that many people did not have ID with them, and even when they might have accessed ID, many did not return to vote and a lot of folk were effectively disfranchised. The Electoral Commission has admitted that it does not have enough evidence to draw strong conclusions from the results of the pilot, so again that undermines the argument for the legislation.
The Tories talk about democracy, but the Bill could disfranchise between 2 million and 4 million people from disadvantaged backgrounds or from ethnic minorities—in other words, non-Tory voters. We have already had the boundary reviews that give the Tories an advantage. We now have a Bill to put the power of calling elections solely into the hands of the Prime Minister, and now this. Those are all ploys to cling on to the levers of power. Then they are looking to extend the franchise to give Brits abroad the vote for life. Why? Because they believe there is an ex-pat cohort that will vote Tory.
In the talk about extending the franchise for life abroad, quite often we hear the example of a war veteran deprived of the vote. What they never say is that that war veteran is often stuck in a frozen overseas pension, so it would be far better to do something about that. Meanwhile, in Scotland, we extended democracy and the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds at the independence referendum—a move that was cynically opposed at the time by Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems. We have now brought that in for all elections in Scotland, and we have also extended the right to vote to refugees and foreign nationals with leave to remain. By contrast, down here, in a further bid to upset democracy and fair elections, the Tories want to curb the powers of the Electoral Commission. Their argument is that the Electoral Commission does not have sufficient powers at the moment.
The Scottish National party is the only major party not to have been fined for breaching election rules. Indeed, the Electoral Commission believes the fines that it can impose at the moment are now just seen by all three UK-wide parties as business-as-usual election expenses, so that is way bigger an issue than the 33 or 34 accusations of possible voting misrepresentation out of 34 million votes cast. Of course, clerical error quite often accounts for possible voter impersonation, so voter ID might not solve that in itself.
There is actually a far bigger issue for democracy than possible vote fraud: the attitude of the Tory Government, and how they reward chums and donors. We have a Secretary of State for Housing—he is still in place—who made an illegal planning decision that was going to save a Tory donor millions of pounds. We have the covid contracts fast-tracked to Tory donors, and the misuse of funds for the contract to Public First to undertake political polling in Scotland. It is shocking that the Good Law Project and openDemocracy—not to mention the SNP—are relying on the courts to hold the Tory Government to account.
Looking at elections, we have seen the dirty tricks and the personal data breaches by Vote Leave, which has also been subsequently quoted by the Tories, and so many people from Vote Leave migrated into advising the Tory Government. Instead of trying to disenfranchise voters, it would be better for all if the Tories created level playing fields for elections and were seen to be part of an open and transparent governance structure—not the unfortunate “them and us” set-up that we have at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I think the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) approached this issue with an attitude of “Let’s throw various things at the wall and see if any of them stick,” rather than a coherent argument.
The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) opened the debate by saying that this legislation is a direct threat to our democracy and is tackling a problem that does not exist. I am pleased to see on the Government side my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall). We are both former members of the Conservative party in Tower Hamlets, and we both vividly recall that this is a problem that does exist and has happened. I am afraid to say that, but for the brave work of a few individuals, without any support from our authorities, an election in our country’s capital city, next to the heart of our financial district, would have been taken away due to improper conduct. One of my great friends in the world is Councillor Peter Golds, and he behaved remarkably, along with others, to ensure that that election was not taken away.
I understand that the hon. Member for Luton South feels that she needs to defend her constituents and put her case forward, but I am not sure it is as coherent as she wants it to be. We all know that the example we cite at this point is that the Labour party requires identification to attend its meetings. Please explain to me why Labour party meetings are more important than the elections that decide our Government.
I would not normally intervene, but I want to clarify for the hon. Member that there is absolutely no requirement to show ID to enter a Labour party meeting. Indeed, I have been a member of the Labour party since 2004 and have never been asked to show ID to attend meetings. As hon. Members might expect, I am a very active member of the Labour party. I just wanted to correct the hon. Member on that point.
I commiserate the hon. Lady for her long membership of the Labour party—I hope it has not proved too costly. However, she will be aware that there have been many adverts for Labour party events that say that members must bring identification. I am very happy to provide screenshots of those events, but I think that she will accept the common point, and perhaps she could return to it later.
The hon. Member for Luton South referred to police convictions and the Electoral Commission. There was a sort of dampening down—“This is not really a problem, because the law is not really that concerned.” There is an argument on police resources and how much time is dedicated to this issue, but the point is that the Electoral Commission in this country is not fit for purpose, in my humble opinion. It has not directed enough resources to this issue.
Finally, on the idea that people do not have identification and that they would be unable to show it, my understanding is that 98% of people in this country have suitable identification. This is a de minimis requirement for people to be able to participate in a democracy. Our laws are made by the people who are elected. They come to this House to be the voice of the people. We should make sure that the process is fair, transparent and meets the highest standards we can possibly have. Do we really think that this small matter of having voter identification, which will help to improve the process, will somehow disenfranchise millions of people? It is a ludicrous suggestion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), who is my predecessor as chairman of the Poplar and Limehouse Conservative Association. I agree with everything he has said, particularly his generous remarks about Councillor Peter Golds and his campaign against electoral corruption.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) on securing the debate. We sit alongside each other in the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I often agree with everything she says in that Select Committee. Regrettably, I will disagree with almost everything she has said this afternoon.
The hon. Lady says that this is a problem that does not exist. How does she know? To answer that question, perhaps it would be helpful to have a potted history on how to commit electoral fraud. There is a marked register that sets out who has voted and who has not. In the case of council elections, it is very easy to tell, with a little bit of research, who the 50%, 60% and in some areas up to 70% of people are who do not habitually vote in council elections. Once someone is armed with that name and an address, they can go to the local polling station and give that name and address. Unlike at Labour party meetings, there is no ID—they just need to give that name and address to the clerk at the polling station and they will be handed that voter’s ballot paper.
If someone lives in a town or small village, the clerk might recognise that the name and face do not match up, but if they live in a crowded urban area—take Tower Hamlets, as a random example—where people do not know each other and do not know their neighbours, the ballot paper will be handed over with no questions asked. If someone were to do this perhaps later on in the evening, at 8 or 9 o’clock, when most people who were going to vote had voted, they would be able to do that successfully, and they might, in an urban area, be able to go around a few polling districts, if they have really done their homework, and vote several times for several people, before the close of poll at 10 o’clock.
Throughout the whole of this process, this is perhaps the most unique fraud of all. It is a fraud in which the victim does not know that they are a victim of fraud. If someone has decided not to vote in an election, they will not go out to check the marked register—if they even know what the marked register is, which most people do not. They will not go out to check that they have not voted in an election in which they have decided not to vote.
If a victim of electoral fraud does not know that they are a victim of electoral fraud, how does the hon. Member for Luton South know? I have not had an answer to that so far. However, this debate has a little while more to run, so I look forward to being enlightened on that point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) on obtaining the debate. I agree with her and share her sentiments.
I think I can speak with some experience. Others are equally experienced, but I first contested an election in winter 1974. I have contested elections since 1982 at every level—local authority, Scottish Parliament, United Kingdom Parliament and, indeed, the European Parliament. I have contested rural seats and, in particular, urban and deprived seats, so I think I have some experience.
Have I seen electoral fraud? Yes, but in almost 50 years’ experience, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of instances in which it has occurred. There are, of course, many apocryphal tales. I have heard them mentioned, sometimes by my own side, sometimes by others: keys to empty flats being used, to take polling cards; or staff in care homes taking the residents’. None of them actually bore any scrutiny. Does electoral fraud happen? Yes, we know that it happens. I have seen the sad situation in Northern Ireland, but that is not the situation either in Scotland or, certainly, south of the border. That is why the Government’s position in fact creates a worse situation for democracy.
As parliamentarians, we should be encouraging people to participate in the franchise. Although the elections that just took place in Holyrood did not go the way I would have wished, I very much welcome the fact that, despite the fears that many of us had, turnout increased. That can only be a good thing for democracy. We would be delighted to obtain these days the turnout when I first participated back in 1974. We have to ensure that we encourage participation, not discourage it.
I have been fortunate in my political life to have met Professor Henry Milner. I think he is probably still alive; he will be a very old man. I remember him speaking to me and lecturing me. He gave me a copy of his book “Civic Literacy”, which is a fascinating study that I would recommend to any Member. He compares and contrasts the high turnouts in places such as Finland and Scandinavia and the lower turnouts in places such as Australia and, indeed, Belgium—countries where voting is mandatory and it can be a criminal offence not to vote. He explains that high turnout is not about being able to vote at Tesco, and it is not about being given a free pen or whatever else. What matters is understanding, knowledge and awareness; people have to appreciate what they are voting for. It is not a simple, straightforward matter.
I accept that low turnout will not necessarily be blamed on impediments. As Professor Milner mentions and as we all know, people stood in the blazing sun in South Africa to vote for the end of apartheid, despite the difficulties in getting to vote. In the United States, it took ages for people to be able to vote and they went through difficulties and great delay, but they did so. That said, we have to remember that, as well as Professor Milner’s lessons about raising political awareness, education and civic literacy—by which he means measures such as public service broadcasting and access to a broader, open media—there is a lesson about making it as easy as possible to vote. Voter ID goes against that, and that is why it is counterproductive.
The measures are not as flagrant as what we see in the United States, but let us remember that what we see in the United States is something utterly shameful. The voter suppression that was practised by those who supported President Trump’s attempts to rig the ballot and remain in office came about after reconstruction at the end of the civil war, when those who could not retain ownership of people through slavery sought to retain it by rigging the ballot box. Sadly, voter suppression continues in the United States.
Voter ID is about voter suppression. For that reason, those who represent minorities have continued to express their concerns. Members may shake their heads, but this is not me; I am simply taking advice from the likes of the Electoral Reform Society, which I support and view as neutral. Those concerns also come from organisations such as Mencap, Crisis and those who represent the most vulnerable.
People sometimes criticise the referendum in Scotland, but it was truly startling: more people voted in the independence referendum than have voted in any election to the Scottish Parliament since. On that basis, voter ID is a counterproductive measure that discourages voting and is fundamentally wrong.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
The electoral integrity Bill, which is now called the Elections Bill, is a bit of a con. Putting the word “integrity” in the title—it is now in the long title—of the Bill cannot disguise that. It seeks to solve a problem that in reality does not exist, as we have heard. With only one person convicted of voter fraud and one person cautioned, it is very hard not to draw the conclusion that something else is going on here. If the Government disagree with that—I appreciate that they do—they need to let us see the evidence as to why they are so convinced that this legislation is necessary.
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) told us that he was aware—to his knowledge—that alleged election fraud had taken place, but by his own admission, that attempt was thwarted. That was before we had this legislation in place, so clearly the legislation was not necessary to prevent that.
I will not give way, because we need to move on. What we do have evidence for, from countries around the world where voter ID operates, is that it creates the barrier that we have heard about—a barrier to voting, and a barrier between citizens and their right to exercise their democratic choice.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) said that we do not know whether election fraud is taking place. All we can rely on are the facts, and the facts do not bear out the claim that there is a need for this Bill. Here is the rub: all the evidence shows that the more socially disadvantaged a voter is, the more likely it is that that voter will be further disadvantaged by the introduction of voter ID. Is this a mere accident? Is it a mere accident that the demographics most likely to be disadvantaged by the Bill are less likely to vote Tory? It must be an accident, surely. It must be an accident, because the title of the Bill—[Interruption.]
The Bill was called the electoral integrity Bill, and the long title still refers to “integrity”, so I am sure that any advantage or perceived advantage to the Tory party will be accidental.
The American experience tells us that voter ID resulted in reduced turnout among black, Hispanic and working-class voters, but of course this Government will know that. Research in the UK shows that the voters least likely to possess the necessary ID include the most disadvantaged groups in our community, but again, the Government will know that. The Government well know that 3.5 million voters across the UK do not have access to photographic identification and 11 million do not have a driving licence or a passport.
The example of Northern Ireland shows that an estimated 25,000 voters did not vote, because they did not have the required form of identification, but this information is not routinely published and no proper work has been done to analyse the further effects in Northern Ireland. The Government are willing to spend the estimated £10 million in implementing this exclusive, unnecessary scheme at a time when, as the Government will surely agree, spending is under real pressure, so it is almost impossible not to be suspicious of this measure.
In contrast, what do we see in Scotland? We see the franchise extended to 16 and 17-year-olds for the Scottish Parliament and local authority elections, and we see votes for foreign nationals who have leave to remain. Perhaps it is worth considering that, as a direct result of that, the voter turnout in May’s Scottish Parliament election was the highest for any election since devolution was established in 1999. There might be a lesson in that for proponents of this legislation. Surely any healthy democracy would seek to encourage voter participation instead of doing what we know suppresses turnout, for reasons that simply are not backed up by any convincing and sustained evidence. The so-called electoral integrity Bill, as was, is very much about elections, but let us be clear: it has nothing to do with integrity, which many argue is not really a priority for this Government anyway. Sadly, that is a problem for this Government, because the voters are watching and they understand what is going on here. The views expressed by those of us today who oppose the Bill speak for the electorate, who know.
I just inform hon. Members that we had a 22-minute suspension, so we now have to finish at 6.12 pm. Can the Front-Bench spokesmen keep an eye on the clock, because it is only fair to give the proposer of the debate some time at the end?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) on securing this debate.
It is striking that the general arguments against this measure are so consistent: it is a solution in need of a problem, its implementation will have a disproportionate effect on certain communities and it undermines our democracy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) said, it is part of a pattern of measures—something we must not lose sight of. The hon. Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) made an important point; he said that we cannot really quantify it, but a problem really exists. In evidence-based policy making, one would normally identify a problem and then craft a proportionate solution. This way, we have a so-called solution that we know will cause a problem, but we have absolutely no idea of the quantum of the problem it is there to fix, if it even exists at all. I say gently to the Government that one should develop policy on the basis of evidence rather than anecdote. It is no surprise, given the evidence that we have, that this measure has quite rightly been described as voter suppression.
Let me turn to the genesis of the current voter ID plans. When the noble Lord Pickles reported on electoral fraud in 2016, he highlighted what he called the trust nature of polling station voting, and he was absolutely right to do so because trust is at its heart; it is the great strength of the voting process. Regardless of whether one agrees with the first-past-the-post electoral system, once voters have properly registered to vote, they do not need ID or even a polling card. In this democracy, if someone is entitled to vote, they can turn up and can cast their ballot—or not—for whoever they please. Suppressing the right to do that by making it more difficult will reduce trust in the result, not increase it, because the public will assume, quite rightly, that in some way this Tory Government have suppressed the vote to fiddle the result in their favour.
We did hear stuff about Tower Hamlets, and I do not doubt for a second that a lot of shenanigans went on, but the criminals should be arrested under the existing law. We refer to Tower Hamlets, but let me remind hon. Members of Dame Shirley Porter, Westminster council and the homes for votes scandal, which the district auditor described as “gerrymandering”. At the end of the day, after many court cases and trials and a huge amount of money, the verdict was upheld by the House of Lords and she was asked to repay £42 million. If the public are concerned that somebody is at it, we have evidence of Tory gerrymandering designed precisely to win a handful of marginal wards in one local authority.
I do not think we should be going down the road of voter suppression, lest we end up with the head of the Post Office taking away post boxes for communities that do not vote Tory, as we saw in the United States when post boxes were removed from Democrat-voting areas during the last presidential elections. To proceed with this voter suppression plan, before the Supreme Court has made a determination on whether the pilot schemes that the Minister may pray in aid were even legal, further suggests that something is far from right.
When the Government responded to the various reports by the Lords Select Committee or the Joint Committee on Human Rights on this matter and various related matters, they said a number of things, such as that the potential for electoral fraud exists and
“the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 2WS.]
However, there was precisely no evidence that anyone has ever not voted because of the small potential for electoral fraud. They said that although the incidence of voter fraud may be low, its impact can be significant and takes away a voter’s right to vote as they want. That is true in the few cases of personation that we have seen, but the impact of voter fraud is not just low to the point of being almost insignificant; it is almost non-existent. This is, as almost everyone has said, a solution looking for a problem.
The Library has helpfully told us that the worst year for personation was 2016, with 44 allegations and a single, sole, solitary conviction. That is one conviction for personation in 2016, which was the year of the EU referendum—a ballot in which more than 30 million people cast a vote.
The Government have also said that showing ID for everyday activities such as picking up a parcel is something that people from all backgrounds do already, and that voting should be no different. In my view, that is a facile and puerile argument. Collecting a parcel is not a human right, but being able to vote freely in a democracy is.
Finally, the Government have said that voter ID does not have a negative effect on election turnout or participation. That is simply not true. We know from the pilots that the proportion of voters not returning after initially being refused a ballot ran at between 0.1% and 0.7%, which implies between 46,000 and 325,000 people in a UK election in the whole of Great Britain. This plan alone would likely deny somewhere in the order of a quarter of a million people the right to vote, so it will have an impact on participation. And as has been mentioned a number of times, the Electoral Commission has suggested that 3.5 million people would not have a suitable ID, which means that the impact could be substantially larger.
So, however the Government slice and dice it, whether the scale of the suppression is only a quarter of a million voters or 3.5 million voters, and whatever we heard in Tower Hamlets or whatever we know about for Westminster City Council, this would be voter suppression on an industrial scale, and I urge the Minister to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Edward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) on securing this debate. It is indeed a timely debate, given the recent publication of the Government’s Elections Bill. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, it was initially mooted that it would be called the electoral integrity Bill, but it has absolutely no integrity and absolutely stinks of voter suppression. Consequently, I am glad that my hon. Friend has secured the debate, so that we can set out the reasons why the requirement to show photo ID to vote is a solution looking for a problem.
I will focus my arguments on three key areas. The first is the fact that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in England, Scotland and Wales, and that voters actually have high confidence in our British democracy. The second is that requiring photo ID for voting is a huge waste of taxpayers’ money; it is estimated to cost £120 million over 10 years. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this policy is discriminatory: it will lock millions of people out of democracy. I think that once we start to break down the Government’s arguments for requiring photo ID, the mask starts to slip and there is a pattern of behaviour by which this is an act of voter suppression to try and rig future elections.
My first argument is that voter fraud is incredibly rare. When I say that, I mean that personation at polling stations is incredibly rare. I am the sort of person who looks at the statistics on electoral fraud when they are published, and it is an uncomfortable truth for all of us who are political activists that the main perpetrators of electoral fraud in this country are actually political activists. Indeed, it is something that I have seen in my own constituency, when one of the political parties that campaigns in Lancaster fraudulently filled in ballot nomination papers and made up people’s names and addresses. Sadly, that type of fraud is quite common.
What is very rare is personation at polling stations. Many colleagues have already set out the statistics on that. For instance, 2019 was a year with a high-turnout general election, but the UK saw just one conviction for personation out of 59 million votes cast in that year alone. To put that into some kind of context, a person is more likely to be struck by lightning three times than to be impersonated at a polling station. So, personation is incredibly rare, and I am really pleased that the British people actually have confidence in our democracy, with recent surveys showing that confidence in our elections is at its highest for 10 years—since record-keeping on this issue started.
So we have an electorate who are confident in our democracy, and very low instances of voter fraud. We should be proud of our democracy, and certainly not talking it down in the way that the Government are doing.
My second argument is about the colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. As we have heard from my colleagues, the Government are choosing to spend £120 million of taxpayers’ money to introduce the voter ID scheme, presumably to catch one case of voter personation. I would argue that the money would be better spent on 9,000 more police officers on our streets over the next decade, in order to deal with the rising knife crime that blights so many of our communities, or perhaps on solving the epidemic of violence against women and girls—it feels like the Government have chosen to ignore that at the expense of pursuing this policy.
Voter personation is absolutely a crime, but it is about priorities and scale. We are spending £120 million on something that is so tiny, whereas huge problems in our society are going unaddressed. I would argue that such a level of investment could be better spent on fighting the types of crime that I have just spoken about, or perhaps we could even give a pay rise to our NHS workers, who are exhausted after an absolutely torrid 18 months of fighting covid on the frontline. Perhaps we could instead consider funding our children’s catch-up education to an adequate level and supporting young people’s mental health. But no—£120 million of taxpayers’ money is deemed more valuable on this project, which is looking for a solution.
My final argument is that this policy locks people out of democracy. It is a regressive policy. It makes it more difficult to vote, and it puts barriers up. We have talked a lot about the people who do not have access to ID and marginalised groups, but it is actually also a barrier for those that do have ID, because it is an additional barrier. It means people looking around for their passport or driving licence before heading to the polling station. This policy can do nothing but suppress voter turnout, and when voter turnout is decreased, it is easier to manipulate elections and become more vulnerable to actions of potentially rogue states.
The hon. Lady kindly intervened on me, told me of her Labour party membership since 2004 and told me that people do not require voter ID to attend Labour party events. To return to Tower Hamlets, I am conscious that the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) hosted an event at St Paul’s church in Bow on Sunday 27 October 2019. On the poster for that event, which I have in front of me, it says very prominently, “Bring photo ID.” I am just curious as to why all the arguments that the hon. Lady is making do not apply to Labour Party events.
Attending a Labour party event is not a human right, but voting in a democratic election in a democratic country is. That is the first obvious point to make, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to talk about Tower Hamlets, because fraud was an issue in the election of Lutfur Rahman as mayor. I absolutely recognise that, and it is a serious issue, but if we are going to argue that personation at polling stations was the primary issue of fraud there, I would argue that we are actually missing the bigger picture, because there was postal vote fraud, there was illegal provision of false information, there was illegal employment of paid canvassers, and there was bribery and undue spiritual influence. It is important to look at such things as a whole, because the Elections Bill will involve taking a very small slice of the problem and, I would argue, using it for party political advantage because of voter suppression.
I do not think Sir Edward has the patience for me to give way a second time, but I am sure that we will have plenty of time to explore the arguments much further as the Bill comes before the House.
It is wrong for the Government to pursue the Elections Bill, which would require voter ID, when we are still waiting for the High Court judgment on the legality of the pilot schemes. The pilot schemes saw over 1,000 voters turned away from polling stations in just a few council areas. If we scale that up to a UK general election, we are talking about potentially changing the outcome of the election by locking people out of democracy.
This proposal is a colossal waste of money. It is a solution seeking a problem and it is a discriminatory policy that will lock some of the most vulnerable people, who need political representation the most, out of our democracy. I am proud of our British democracy. The British people have confidence in it, and it is about time that the Government started talking it up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I will aim to speak for no more than 10 minutes, leaving time for the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) to come back in at the end. I hope that is sensible.
I thank the hon. Member for Luton South for bringing forward this debate, and all hon. Members who have contributed. The Government and I are committed to upholding the integrity of our democracy, giving the public confidence that our elections remain secure well into the future. Voter fraud is a crime that we cannot allow room for. We propose to stamp out any potential for it to take place in our reserved elections.
The hon. Member for Luton South asks why I would do this. It is because I want more people to vote, because I want people to have their own vote and because, apparently unlike some hon. Members speaking today, I want to stop criminals having two, three, four or more, or scores of votes.
Personation—assuming the identity of another person with the intention to deceive—is, by definition, a crime of deception. It only comes to light later. It is very difficult to prove and to prosecute, but it is a crime and by no means a victimless crime. It is often the most vulnerable who find themselves targeted. The Electoral Commission stated in its review of electoral fraud in 2013:
“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.
I recognise the hon. Lady’s concerns about the diversity in her constituency. I am going to address many of those points today. I will start with a further point from the Electoral Commission’s own research, published by the University of Manchester, the University of Liverpool and the Electoral Commission in 2015, which warns that residents are at greater risk of being victims of electoral fraud in diverse areas.
Voter identification is important. It is a reasonable approach to strengthening our electoral system. It virtually eliminates the risk of personation occurring in the first place. Since its introduction in Northern Ireland, there have been no reported cases of personation. The EC has also previously noted that the confidence of voters that elections are well run in Northern Ireland is consistently higher than in Great Britain, and there are virtually no allegations of electoral fraud at polling stations.
Even the perception that our electoral system is vulnerable to fraud is of course damaging to public confidence. Data from our pilot evaluations show that the requirement to show identification increased public confidence in voting, and we all want that.
In 2016, Lord Pickles conducted an independent review of electoral fraud in the UK, which provided the evidence of vulnerabilities in our elections that must be addressed. In the case of Tower Hamlets, where an entire election was declared void by such fraud, he made a number of recommendations, including the introduction of voter identification at polling stations. Hon. Members speaking today, including the hon. Members for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) and for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), have added to that evidence base. It happens in our country, it is wrong and we have the power to act.
The introduction of voter identification is also supported by the independent Electoral Commission. It is backed by international election observers, such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s office for democratic institutions and human rights, which has repeatedly called for the introduction of ID in polling stations in Great Britain, saying that its absence is a security risk.
Many other democracies around the world, such as Canada, France and Germany, and the Scandinavian countries—already hailed by the hon. Member for East Lothian today—require some form of identification to vote, and they use it with ease. Showing identification to prove who you are is something that people of all walks of life already do every day.
As we have discussed, many constituency Labour parties require two types of ID to vote in Labour party selection meetings—but then, the picking up of a parcel has been called a privilege. Perhaps Labour Members think that membership of their party is for the privileged as well.
The suggestion that millions of voters will not be able to vote is simply not supported by the evidence. Cabinet Office research from earlier this year shows that 98% of electors already own the photographic documents that we propose, either in date or expired. The survey was the first of its kind looking at the full range of photographic ID planned. I note in passing that the figures used by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) are out of date and are not relevant to the identification that is proposed.
It is important to be aware that the list of approved photographic forms of identification will not be limited to passports and driving licences, but will include a broad range of documents already in use, including, for example, various concessionary travel passes, proof-of-age standard scheme cards and photocard parking permits issued as part of the blue badge scheme. Out-of-date ID will also be accepted as long as the elector can still be recognised from the photograph, and any eligible voter who does not have one of any of those forms of identification may apply for their free, locally issued voter card from their local authority. That is critical. Everybody who is eligible to vote must and will have the chance to do so. We will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders, including charities and civil society organisations, to ensure that voter identification works for all. I encourage hon. Members to look at our comprehensive equalities impact assessment, which was published alongside the Bill.
As a Labour Minister said in 2003 when introducing photo ID in Northern Ireland:
“If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]
Indeed, look at all the work that I led to ensure that elections could take place this year, despite the pandemic, with voters able to vote by a new proxy scheme, up to polling day itself if necessary. That is not a Government suppressing voters. I strongly suggest that sensible politicians drop that foolish language.
It is vital that such an important policy be implemented properly. That includes secondary legislation, which is a sensible approach. The roll-out of voter identification was successfully trialled in two years of pilots in a variety of local authorities, and we are building on that knowledge with research, modelling and planning, as we work with the electoral sector and wider organisation on the national implementation plans. Crucially, we will ensure that there is sufficient time and resources to support the hardworking elections teams to put it in place. Critically, there will be comprehensive targeted communications and guidance by the EC to raise awareness among voters.
Of course, introducing voter ID is only one of the measures that this Government are bringing forward to strengthen our electoral system. After all, personation is just one of the interlocking types of fraud that we have seen at polls, as argued by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and as demonstrated in Tower Hamlets. That is why, with our new Elections Bill, we are also tightening the rules for absent voting, giving greater protection to all people with a postal or proxy vote arrangement. We are legislating to clarify and improve the outdated legislation on the offence of undue influence of an elector.
Modernisation is critical inside the polling station as well. The test of identification already exists, but voters are asked only for their name and address, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall) rightly pointed out. I regret that some seem to oppose voter identification in principle, because that principle has been part of our elections for decades. It is right to do it, but we need to do it well, not badly. Victorian law needs to be updated, and that is what we are doing.
I thank the hon. Member for Luton South for bringing forward the debate, and all hon. Members who have contributed. We have discussed a number of important issues, and we will have much more debate as the Elections Bill progresses through Parliament. I look forward to that, because this policy is truly important to protect that most precious of things—our democracy.
We are the stewards of a fantastic democratic heritage, but it is not perfect and we must keep striving to ensure that it stays secure, fair and transparent in the face of the challenges that the modern world brings. Strengthening the integrity of our electoral system will give the public greater confidence that our elections will remain secure well into the future. The measures in our Bill are a reasonable and proportionate approach to give the public confidence in a core principle of our democracy—that their vote is theirs, and theirs alone.
We have had a long afternoon, with the votes in the House. I thank everybody for their participation. I thank in particular the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) for his comments, because I believe that this is just the Government’s attempt to cling on to the levers of power. I thoroughly agree with the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) that we should encourage participation and civic literacy. I particularly agreed with the right hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), who said that we need evidence-based policy, not anecdote. Finally, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith): we on this side of the House all know that this is a solution looking for a problem, and that £120 million of taxpayers’ money could be much better spent fighting crime with 9,000 more police officers.
Ultimately, the proposals will lock the most marginalised people out of democracy, including those with disabilities, the elderly and those from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. The Minister said that we must do everything to protect our democracy and I agree, but tackling potential fraud by actually disenfranchising voters is wrong.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the introduction of Voter ID.