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The amendments concern the effect on the Isle of Wight of the Government's proposals for votes to have more equal weight, which has been a subject of much debate both inside and outside Parliament. I know that myself, having visited the Isle of Wight at
the invitation of its Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), last autumn.
As we said in the earlier debates, the Government believe that the principle of one elector, one vote-or, rather, one vote, one value-is paramount. [Interruption.] I think we all agree with the first proposition. There is consensus on that. It is right that electors across the UK should have an equal say not just in their choice of local representative, but in who forms the Government of the day. As I said in the previous debate, for votes to have equal weight in a single-member constituency system, constituencies must contain a broadly equal number of electors.
Although absolute equality would be right in principle if-as was said in a previous debate-we were all desiccated calculating machines, but in the real world some flexibility is needed to recognise local circumstances. Exceptions compromise equality, so the Government's view is that the number of exceptions must be very limited. [Interruption.] Calm down. The Bill presented to the House by the Government provided for only two specific exemptions from the parity rule for two Scottish island constituencies-Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland.
The rationale for those exceptions was clear. They are remote island groups not readily combinable with the mainland, and legislation in practice already recognises their unique geographical circumstances.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the Minister, who is always generous with his-with the House's time. He mentioned the issue of the highlands. Is he not aware that in Scotland there are many islands? I look to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), where there are a large number of islands attached to the mainland. North Ayrshire and Arran also has an island.
Mr Harper: My point was that the exemptions were for remote island groups not readily combinable with the mainland. In the two examples that the hon. Gentleman gives, the islands are already combined with the mainland as a parliamentary constituency. That is a clear distinction. I do not understand the point he makes.
Albert Owen: I represent a distinct island community. Previously, when I supported the Isle of Wight and other constituencies being lumped together, the argument was that it did not have enough electorate. Now the Government's proposal is for two distinct seats on the Isle of Wight, with 50,000 electors each. My constituency, Ynys Môn, the isle of Anglesey, has 50,000-plus, so the rationale has changed. Will the Minister reconsider the uniqueness of islands? The existence of a bridge does not make it any less an island or a community.
The hon. Gentleman should wait to hear my argument. In the previous debate, Opposition Members made great play of the fact that when the House of Lords votes on matters, this House should consider them. The Government were clear about the Bill that we introduced. We were clear in the House of Lords about our argument. We resisted Lord Fowler's amendment, but Members of all parties in the House of Lords did not agree with the Government. If hon. Members will
allow me to make some progress in my argument, I will explain why the Government have tabled the amendments in lieu.
The Scotland Act 1998 provided a specific exemption for Orkney and Shetland. There are other constituencies that include or comprise islands, but these have either already been combined with the mainland or, in the Government's view, such combination would be possible. Clearly, the Isle of Wight does not face the same geographic circumstances as the island constituencies in Scotland. Newport is only three hours from London, and there are regular ferry crossings. In shaping our proposals, we took account of the fact that the island increasingly looks to the mainland in pursuit of greater partnership-for example, in the creation of the Solent local enterprise partnership, which is supported by the island council and covers the economic area of south Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. [Interruption.] Well, I am arguing that that is why the Government thought it was perfectly possible to combine the Isle of Wight with the mainland. The House of Lords, though, took a different view.
In coming to the view that the island should not be granted a specific exemption, we concluded that the practical problems that would arise for an MP attempting to represent a constituency that is already the length of Wales, as in the case of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, or some 12 to 13 hours from the mainland by ferry, as in the case of Orkney and Shetland, would not arise for a cross-Solent MP. We were not persuaded that an MP could not effectively represent two different communities, as a cross-Solent MP would have to do. Many Members represent constituencies that contain citizens with a range of diverse cultures, languages and interests.
We have, however, listened to the arguments put forcefully in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and in the other place, most notably by the noble Lord Fowler, who is with us this evening in spirit, and the noble Lord Oakeshott. We judge that the strength of opinion evidenced by the vote on the amendment in the other place, which had cross-party support, including strong support from the Labour party, is such that the Bill should be amended so as not to require a constituency shared between the Isle of Wight and the mainland.
The amendment passed by the House of Lords was intended to achieve that, but it would leave to the discretion of the Boundary Commission for England the question of whether there should be one seat on the island or two. We believe that that poses some practical problems. For a start, the amendment does not specify the basis on which the Boundary Commission should decide how many seats to allocate the Isle of Wight. Nor does it except the constituency or constituencies on the Isle of Wight from the calculation of the electoral quota. The Isle of Wight's smaller or larger than average constituencies would therefore have an effect on the average size of other constituencies across England. If an exception is to be made for the Isle of Wight, we believe that it should be treated the same as the other exceptions in the Bill in a consistent and fair way.
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab):
Does the Minister accept that the Boundary Commission has considered the boundaries of the Isle of Wight on a number of occasions, and has previously discussed whether there should be two constituencies? It has rejected that
option on the grounds that it would be difficult to define where the boundary should be and what the islanders' wishes were. If the Boundary Commission had discretion over exactly what happened, there might be a repeat of those previous processes unless it were directed to conclude otherwise.
Mr Harper: On the hon. Gentleman's point about the views of local people, when I visited the island myself and spoke to people there, they were very clear that they were not being prescriptive about whether they wanted one seat or two. The clear message that I got was that they did not want one that crossed the Solent. They did not say that they wanted only one seat-they were relaxed about whether they should have one or two. I believe that the nub of Lord Fowler's point was about the nature of a cross-Solent seat, and our amendments in lieu reflect that.
Andrew George: There are, of course, other parts of the country, including Cornwall, where people recognise boundaries in precisely the same way as people on the Isle of Wight recognise their boundary on the Solent. Is the irony not lost on the Minister that when we have 650 seats in the House of Commons the Isle of Wight has one, but when the Government are seeking to reduce the number of seats in this House significantly, they double that representation?
Mr Harper: If the hon. Gentleman will let me finish my argument, which does not have very much- [Interruption.] No, I am just saying that I have not got to that bit yet. If he will let me, I will get to it.
The amendments that we have proposed in lieu of Lord Fowler's amendments would resolve the problems that I have mentioned. The Boundary Commission would be required to create two constituencies wholly on the island. They would obviously be outside the range of 5% either side of the quota-otherwise we would not be having this debate in the first place-but each would be closer to the quota than a single island constituency would be. That would ensure that electors' votes were closer in weight to those cast elsewhere in the UK, which we believe is important.
Our amendments also make consequential adjustments to the formula used to apportion seats to the constituent parts of the UK and to calculate the UK electoral quota, so as to be consistent with the approach taken to the other exceptions in the Bill. To pick up on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who is not in her place, they will therefore provide the Boundary Commission for England with a clearer task than under the amendment made in the other place.
Tristram Hunt: What is the difference in actual votes between the 76,000 quota and Isle of Wight constituencies of 110,000 or 55,000 people? Would 3,500 votes mean another whole constituency in the House, when the number is going from 650 to 600?
I am sadly not able to do the maths at the Dispatch Box, but we have examined the matter, and what I have just said is borne out. I will do the maths when I sit down, or maybe inspiration will strike me, but two seats would be closer to the quota than one. That is
the basis for our decision, which is very clear [Interruption.] The debate in the House of Lords supporting the amendment of the-[ Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I know that hon. Members feel very strongly about this matter, but persistent heckling really is not what we expect in the Chamber. Interventions, yes, but not heckling.
Mr Harper: The amendment that was accepted by their lordships' House, which we accept in principle, was supported by all parties. The Cross Benchers supported it, along with every Labour peer who voted in the Division, some Liberal Democrats and some bishops. However, we believe that the Boundary Commission needs to be given clarity and certainty so that we do not end up with a confusing and challengeable boundary review.
Mark Reckless: We might note the precedent of what the Boundary Commission has done in the past when it has had to choose whether to give, say, two or three seats to a London borough. Its decision has been based on trying to get as arithmetically close to the quota as possible. The amendment clarifies exactly that principle for the Isle of Wight. If the matter had been left to the Boundary Commission, precedent suggests that it would have given the Isle of Wight two seats rather than one.
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is quite right, but it is important for the Boundary Commission to be certain about the matter at the beginning, so that it can then undertake the rest of the boundary process. If the decision were up to the commission and it were to make a certain assumption in its initial proposals, and then come to a different conclusion as a result of the extensive written consultation process and public hearings that we have laid in place, it would have to make a radical change to the proposals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, who is now back in her place, said in a previous debate, certainty and clarity are very important to ensure that the boundary review is carried out properly.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I support the amendments fully, but once the Isle of Wight has been given two seats, the argument for absolute uniformity has fallen, which it did not in the case of Na h-Eileanan an Iar, the Shetland Islands and so on. If the Isle of Wight can have special treatment, why not Cornwall and, as far as I am concerned, why not Somerset? Every county now has a special case to make that ought to be considered. In largely accepting the Lords amendment, the Government have given the game away.
I think that my hon. Friend helps my argument. As I said, this is part of the parliamentary process. The Government introduced a Bill, which did not include an exception for the Isle of Wight. When Lord Fowler tabled his amendment, the Government strongly resisted it-indeed, we were criticised for doing that-but the House of Lords took a different view. My hon. Friend mentioned Cornwall, but the House of Lords debated Cornwall, voted on it, and decided, by a considerable margin, that the case for Cornwall had not
been made. I appreciate that some hon. Members disagree, but that was the view that the House of Lords reached. It did not reach the same view about the Isle of Wight. There was a majority of 74 in the other place for making an exception for the Isle of Wight. That was not the Government's position, but a strong message from the other place.
Inspiration has now struck me, and I can answer the question that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) asked. Based on 2009 figures, one seat would be 34,366 away from the UK quota and the two seats would be 20,748 away from the quota. That is a significant narrowing of the difference.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Although the Lords are wonderful guardians of our constitution, the debate has seen any number of perfectly sensible amendments rejected, and the Government have not lost a single vote in the House. I therefore do not see the logic of saying, "We must give in to the Lords on this, but on everything else we'll tell them they're wrong and send the Bill back."
Mr Harper: I think the difference is the strength of view in the other place on the matter. [Interruption.] That view was also consistent and cross party. The Labour Lords who voted in the Division in the other place all supported Lord Fowler's amendment. It is therefore extraordinary that Labour Members are making so much noise now. The Government have acknowledged the debate at the other end of the corridor. Given my hon. Friend's previous comments about their lordships, I would have thought that he saw more strength in the case. On the basis of the arguments that I have set out, I hope that that case will be supported.
Chris Bryant: I am sorry, but I think that that is the shabbiest speech I have heard from a Conservative Member. The Parliamentary Secretary appeared to suggest that Labour Members are now arguing against what we supported in the House of Lords. We support what was carried in the House of Lords: we would prefer the amendment that was carried there to be accepted here. It is absolutely shoddy that the Government, to give themselves an extra parliamentary seat, will provide for two seats for the Isle of Wight. It is not so much a gerrymander as a ferrymander.
As the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) effectively said, the Parliamentary Secretary has driven a coach and horses through his own argument. His argument so far has been that there must be equalisation at all costs. It has been, "Don't recognise local ties, county boundaries or ward boundaries." He tries to insist on mathematical perfection, but when it comes to this one place, there must be an exception.
We agree that there should be exceptions. We believe that there should be some other exceptions, too. The argument that the Parliamentary Secretary makes could and should apply to Cornwall, Somerset and all the counties-and, indeed, ward boundaries. We should recognise more exceptions.
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD):
I wish that the hon. Gentleman could have presented that argument precisely and briefly when the Bill was previously in the House, then perhaps we could all have had the chance to debate the subject at an earlier stage. However, does
he agree that the debate about Cornwall in another place focused on cultural issues rather than geographical considerations? Sadly, the Government's approach does not address those factors.
Chris Bryant: Absolutely. Some specific geographical issues need to be borne in mind. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will hate any reference to my constituency, but a former Member of Parliament for the Rhondda, Alec Jones, was once presented with a suggestion that the Cynon valley should be included in the Rhondda constituency, even though for much of the year it is almost impossible to get from one to the other. Alec Jones wisely said, "Bloody hell, somebody's got hold of a flat map." Those are precisely the sort of arrangements that we will end up with.
Chris Bryant: I will not, because the hon. Gentleman voted for the programme motion. There is a short time left and we ought to hear from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who should be the only hon. Member for the Isle of Wight.
The argument that has been adduced in favour of the Isle of Wight should surely apply to Anglesey, too. There is no argument against that-except for the fact that it is represented by a Labour Member, and happens to be in Wales.
There is an additional problem with the Government amendments. Because they are trying to force two parliamentary seats on the Isle of Wight-I suspect that that does not reflect the view of the people of the Isle of Wight; they think that it should be separate from Hampshire, but they have not argued for two seats-it will be difficult to draw the boundary. We are more likely to end up with one constituency of 60,000 or 65,000 and one of 30,000 or 35,000 than an exact divide.
Someone of cynical mind could look at the list of parliamentary constituencies for which exceptions are being made and draw conclusions: one, by virtue of 13,000 sq km, to the Liberal Democrats; one, for Orkney and Shetland, to the Liberal Democrats, one, for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, to the nationalists-at the moment, but I hope for not much longer-and two for the Isle of Wight. Some have suggested that that means two Tory seats in the Isle of Wight. It may be one Tory and one Liberal Democrat: perhaps that is the rescue seat for the Deputy Prime Minister come the next general election.
Let us go over what happened. When I first heard of the proposals, I got together with the County Press, the island's weekly paper, and Isle of Wight Radio, our local radio station, to see how "we" could fight "them". It was energising to do that. We all met representatives from the island's Labour party and Liberal Democrats-and, of course, the Conservatives-as well as the chamber of commerce, and the One Wight campaign was formed.
Although opinion was divided on whether the ideal solution was for one or two MPs, we were united at the outset in the view that what was simply unacceptable was the notion of one and a half MPs, with one part of the island placed in an unholy alliance with a part of the mainland.
Eventually we all agreed that even if the island were to remain under-represented, that was a price worth paying. We got support from many places. Among many others, printing was done free of charge by Crossprint; Marc Morgan-Huws of the bus company Southern Vectis donated the use of the One Wight bus, which thousands of people signed, and Paul Bertie of World Leisure printed T-shirts for the campaigners. I would like to thank them all, as well as those whom I do not have time to mention. Everyone involved played a significant part.
My amendment was not debated in this Chamber and there was no vote, but I want to place on record my gratitude to the hon. Members from all parties who pledged their support for it. I like to think that we would have won if the opinion of the House had been tested. None the less, the Bill went to the other place unamended, and the island's cause was taken up by Lord Fowler, who is a long-term resident of Seaview, on the island. His skilful management in the other place led to a significant victory and a majority of 74 in favour of keeping the Isle of Wight separate. He found support from all parties, as I did, for the island's cause, in addition to considerable support from the Cross Benches.
I thank all the noble Lords and Ladies who supported the amendment, and I pay tribute to Lord Fowler. His many years of experience in this House and the other place stood him in good stead in fighting the island's cause. The whole island owes him a debt of gratitude. I hope that Seaview residents, after short congratulations and celebrations, will permit him to return to a once-again peaceful island.
The fact that islanders were prepared to be under-represented added to the strength of our argument, but the Government were scrupulously fair, and once they accepted the case that we should be separate, they offered us, like the Scottish islanders, over-representation, which I welcomed.
I admit that I felt a twinge of sadness at the thought that I would be the last MP for the Isle of Wight, but the right decision has been made for the island and I support it unequivocally. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for listening to the arguments and for making the right choice, albeit rather late in the day.
Albert Owen: It is a great pleasure to follow a fellow islander in this debate. I supported the Isle of Wight exception all the way through, and like the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), I have been consistent in the view that there should be exemptions for unique island constituencies such as his and Ynys Môn-the Isle of Anglesey.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister, who has had a difficult job in presenting the Bill to the House. He has been courteous and amicable in taking interventions. He was rigid in his responses, and always said that he would not give an exemption to the Isle of Wight and gave his reasons for that. However, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) said, the Minister has now let the cat out of the bag: the exemption is a political fix, pure and simple. To argue for days and days in the House for no exemption for the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and other historic places, and then all of a sudden to make a U-turn for political advantage, is an absolute disgrace.
The people of Anglesey are proud people. It has been a seat since 1535, during which time it has been represented by four different parties, which is perhaps unique in the House. The Liberal Democrats represented Anglesey for many years, as did the Conservatives. I can tell the House that Anglesey will give its verdict in the May elections on its shabby treatment by this coalition Government of Liberals and Conservatives.
Wales has not been treated fairly in the Bill. The 25% reduction in the number of seats is an absolute disgrace. What is more, the Anglesey community is unique. It is coterminous with the county council. It has unique linguistic as well as historic characteristics, but they have not been recognised.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight was supportive of islands such as mine, and I am still supportive of his, but the Government have gone a step too far by conceding seats that will represent in the region of 50,000 to 55,000 electors. If they want to put that down as a marker, they should reconsider seats such as Anglesey. The island will be a single constituency in National Assembly for Wales, so there will be confusion at the next elections if they take place on the same day. One set of voters will be voting for the island and another set will be voting for the island-plus. That is completely and utterly wrong, and the Minister should reflect on it. He is looking at his notes, and he has been courteous all the way through, but I hope that he can now somehow please Wales, because thus far, Wales has been treated grossly unfairly.
Dr Whitehead: I want briefly to reflect the view from the other side of the Solent. I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), who has fought a magnificent campaign on the principle that the Isle of Wight should be a constituency in its own right. Indeed, the island is a unitary authority. It has close links with the other side of the Solent but it is a distinct community, council and island, with its own practices and traditions, rights and functions.
Before becoming a unitary authority the island was divided into two district authorities. As hon. Members who took any interest in that arrangement will know, the division of an island that is essentially a unitary entity proved extremely difficult. I predict that should two seats be required for the Isle of Wight, a similar difficulty in defining what part of the island goes-
"If less than 40% of the electorate vote in the referendum, the result shall not be binding."
The Government oppose the inclusion of this amendment in the Bill on two key grounds. First, it goes against our view that people should get what they vote for, and, secondly, it introduces the perverse consequences associated with thresholds.
Before going into those arguments, however, I should remind colleagues that we have debated the question of whether to impose a 40% turnout threshold before, when an amendment to this effect was tabled on Report by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). I note that he has tabled an amendment today that seeks to reintroduce his proposal from Report, turning Lord Rooker's proposal into a straightforward turnout threshold by mandating the Minister to repeal the AV provisions in the event that turnout is less than 40%. It is worth recording that, when this House voted on that proposal
the first time round, it was resoundingly rejected by 549 votes to 31. On that occasion, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), speaking for the Opposition, said that he did not think it appropriate to bring in a threshold.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): My next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), is often very wise, and I have had the chance to reconsider my position on this matter. Possibly the Minister has, too. I realise that the Deputy Prime Minister-he who has just discovered that there are alarm clocks in Britain, and who feels the pain of the cuts by shopping at Sainsbury's instead of Ocado-is the most derided politician in the land at the moment, and that people are not exactly going to be galloping to his support, but is not a 40% threshold appropriate for a constitutional change such as this?
Mr Harper: I shall treat the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks as political posturing and nonsense that have nothing to do with the Lords amendments. On his second point, I shall explain why I will be urging the House, in a consistent way, to take the same view on these matters that it took in Committee and on Report, whereas the hon. Gentleman, if his Front Bench follows suit, would seem to be demonstrating a bit of shameless opportunism.
Mr Harper: I am sorry; I did not quite understand my hon. Friend's point. We debated and voted on his proposal on thresholds in this House, and it was defeated by 549 votes to 31- [ Interruption. ] Well, my hon. Friend should have another go, because I did not really follow the point he was making.
Mr Cash: This is an electoral reform proposal in which we are asking the electorate to decide in a referendum what they want to do. Does he not think it a little shameless that the question of whether that decision should be subjected to the 40% test should be decided by the House of Lords rather than by the House of Commons? Perhaps my hon. Friend can answer if I put it that way.
Mr Harper: No, I think that the decision should ultimately be made by the elected House, which is why I will ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to disagree with the Lords amendment. I hope, following the logic of my hon. Friend's argument, that he will support the Government in the Lobby.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Does the Minister acknowledge, as we are facing a considerable and potentially irreversible constitutional change, that a precedent has been set by the Scotland Act 1978, which made provision for a turnout threshold? That was among the reasons why the then Labour Government subsequently foundered, following the withdrawal of support by the Scottish National party. So a precedent has already been set for a turnout threshold.
Mr Harper: In that case, it was not proposed by the Government, so I do not think that that makes the case. There was a clear vote in Scotland in favour of the proposal, but the turnout threshold was not reached. That did not settle the question; it merely enabled the question to fester for a number of years without being settled. I do not think that my hon. Friend is correct.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend says that he wants this matter to be decided by this House, but would not that be the effect of Lord Rooker's amendment? If there were a lower than 40% turnout in the referendum, it would be for this House to decide what to do. Is that not a good idea?
Mr Harper: No, because it is more important to allow the people to decide. The coalition wants to enable the public to decide. I will explain in a moment why the effect of a threshold would be to deny the public that opportunity.
Mr MacNeil: The Minister is absolutely right to say that the 40% turnout threshold for the referendum in Scotland was wrong. As he said, it ensured that the will of the people was not acted upon. In fact, the will of the people was acted upon with bells on 18 years later, because the scare stories in 1979 brought us a Scottish Parliament that was far more powerful than an Assembly. The point tonight is that in a referendum on first past the post versus AV, there is a simple choice either way. If the public are sufficiently supportive of first past the post, it will win in a straight run-off against AV-and vice versa. If neither system can garner sufficient support, then so be it, but the Minister is absolutely right to say that there should be no threshold whatever. There should simply be a straight choice between the two.
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the most convincing arguments was heard in our previous debates in this House, which is that a turnout threshold effectively makes every abstention a no vote. People abstain from voting in referendums for any number of reasons, but treating all those who abstain as effectively expressing a preference is not the right thing to do. A turnout threshold would give those in favour of a no vote a positive incentive to stay at home. As I said in our earlier debate, we should, as democrats, encourage people to go out there and vote yes or no. The important thing is that people take part, and a turnout threshold would encourage some of them to stay at home.
Such a barrier would also create some very strange mathematical scenarios. For example, if 39% of the electorate turned out, the result would not be binding, even if 75% of those votes were in favour of change. So, even if the public had expressed a clear preference, it would not count. On the other hand, a result in which 41% of the public had turned out, even if it were a narrow 51%:49% result, would count. There is no logic to that proposal; it makes no sense.
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab):
This whole argument is against a motion that was not passed in the other place. It is against one that was defeated where there was a threshold that amounted to a veto on the result if the turnout were below that threshold. Does the Minister not accept that this Lords amendment is completely different in character? All it does-although it is a very important "all"-is to ensure that if there is a turnout
of less than 40% in total, the matter will come back to this House. To pick up the Minister's example, if, say, there were a 39% turnout and 75% of that 39% had voted in favour of a change in the voting system, I cannot conceive that this House would fail to endorse it. On the other hand, if there were a 25% turnout and if it were approved by only-
Mr Harper: No, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Government are simply trying to ensure that the public get the choice. If we insert a threshold-even the one put forward by the noble Lord Rooker, which was supported in the other place by a majority of only one-it effectively means that we are saying to the public that even where there was a clear decision, it would not be binding and the matter would come back to this House. If we were to agree with it, there would be no point; if we were to overturn it, it would be outrageous. Thresholds are not part of the traditions and practice in this country. We have discussed the one example of where it was used, and we found that it was not a very good precedent.
As drafted, the Bill that left this House offered simplicity and, above all, certainty-the certainty that every vote would count and not be distorted by an artificial barrier. When people go to the polls on 5 May, we should listen to what they have to say, whatever their view. As well as the issues of principle that I have outlined, there are also some technical and practical deficiencies. Before I go on to them, I will take an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin).
Mr Jenkin: I echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that the amendment only requires the House of Commons to think about a poor turnout and how to respond to the result under such circumstances rather than automatically triggering a small yes vote with a low turnout and a new voting system. Does the Minister not recognise the irony of his position? Here we are looking at a referendum that might introduce a new voting system under which a Member elected to this House will be required to get 50% of the votes cast, yet we cannot even put in a threshold to require a 40% turnout to give credibility to the result of a referendum. What serious constitution around the world does not have some form of threshold and why should we not introduce one in this case?
On the effect of AV, it is not, of course, the case under our system of optional preferential voting that it is necessarily 50% of the votes cast that counts; rather it is 50% of the vote remaining in the count. If lots of people choose not to accept a preference, AV does not imply that a Member of Parliament must get more than 50% of the vote. I simply disagree with my hon. Friend. He will know that I am as unenthusiastic about the alternative vote as he is, but I think the right thing to do, which is the Government's policy, is to have the referendum so that he and I can go out and argue for a no vote, while other colleagues wanting a yes vote will make that case. We can then both seek to get as many people as possible to vote on our behalf. The Government's view is that if there is a turnout threshold, it will provide an incentive for those who favour a no result to stay at home. I do not think that we should be encouraging that.
There are some technical and practical deficiencies, some of which were partially addressed in Lord Rooker's Third Reading amendment, which the Government did not oppose pending full consideration in the Chamber. The definition of electorate was dealt with, as was how the turnout would be calculated. A problem with the original amendment was not remedied, as it leads to the creation of an internal contradiction in the Bill. It makes no consequential change to clause 8 to clarify that, in a case where the turnout is less than 40%, the referendum result is no longer binding. As it stands, clause 8 provides that the result is binding, irrespective of the turnout.
In addition, neither amendment makes any reference to what kind of process would follow a non-binding result. In the debate, the noble Lord Rooker and his colleagues indicated that, in the event of a yes vote where the turnout was less than 40%, the question of whether the AV provisions should be implemented should return to Parliament. That point has been repeated by Members of all parties, but it is not made clear in the Bill or in the Lords amendment with which we disagree. There are also some issues with the definition of turnout.
Mrs Laing: It is in my capacity as acting Chairman of the Select Committee that I wish to make this point. The amendment is-sadly, because I want to see thresholds, but not as the amendment introduces them-deficient. It is not clear. The definition of vote is not clear and the definition of electorate is not clear. The Electoral Commission provided the Select Committee with the evidence-I do not have time to provide it now, but it is on the record-and if a law is not clear, it is bad law.
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend is quite right. I was just coming on to the point that there is also the question of whether the definition of turnout in their Lordship's amendment is correct. Lords amendment 8 specifies that
"the turnout figure is to be calculated on the basis that 100% is defined as the total number of individuals who are entitled to vote in the referendum, as defined in section 2; and... under Part 1 of this Act".
That means that the turnout figure would not include those who had voted on the day, but whose votes were deemed, for whatever reason, to be void. Those void votes are not counted. As the noble Lord Wallace noted in the other place, the Government's view is that if eligible electors go to the polling station and vote, they have "turned out", so they should be included within the turnout figure, even if their vote is subsequently deemed to be invalid. Although this aspect clarifies how to interpret Lords amendment 1, it does not necessarily do so in the right way.
Mr Gray: The Minister rests his argument on technicalities, which no doubt the Government could sort out by tabling amendments themselves. Returning to the main point of the debate, does he agree that the noble Lord Rooker's amendment would allow this House to decide how low the threshold should be if there were a very low turnout in the referendum? In other words, if, for the sake of argument there were a 5% turnout, would the Government believe that to be sufficient? No, I do not believe they would. If it were 35%, I believe they would. What level of turnout does the Minister believe to be a reasonable level to account for "the will of the people"? What would he view as a sensible turnout in the referendum-25% or lower?
Mr Harper: My hon. Friend has made a number of points. Let me say first that I did not rely on the technical arguments; I made the principled case at the outset, before adding that serious technical amendments were involved. Although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) pointed out, the Government's original position was simple and clear, the Lords amendments are complicated, and introduce a great deal of uncertainty.
In referring to what the House might do if the amendment were passed, my hon. Friend drew attention to the fact that some Members, understandably, wished to use an amendment passed in the other place by a majority of one as, effectively, a threshold amendment. If the threshold were below a certain point, they would wish to block the decision of the people. As I said earlier, we have taken the view that we should give the decision to the public, that we should campaign in favour of whatever is our side of the argument, and that we should all provide an incentive for the maximum possible turnout rather than some of us providing an incentive for those favouring a particular side of the argument to stay at home.
Mr Winnick: There may well be a 40% turnout, but the turnout could be higher. Who knows? It will depend greatly on the campaign, and on the people's interest or lack of it. However, will the Minister answer the question raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray)? At what point below 40%-10%, 15%, or 20%-would the Government conclude that the result did not carry any credibility whatever?
Mr Harper: We have already discussed what constitutes the appropriate level of turnout, and the issue arises constantly when elections are held. However, when a general election produces a Government who may make significant changes, we do not say that a Member of Parliament has not been elected because the turnout was low. Indeed, when we debated the issue on another occasion, it was observed that a fair number of Members of Parliament would not be here if that had been the test. That is not the way in which we make judgments in this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said that, as the Electoral Commission had pointed out, leaving the provisions in the Bill risked rendering the outcome of the referendum unclear both in law and on the ground. We think that the public should make the decision, and that the referendum should be binding and not subject to the turnout threshold. Our colleagues in the other place debated this proposal with their usual consideration and care, but, having done so, voted for it by the slimmest of margins-a majority of one. Having considered both the practical difficulties and the issues of principle, I believe that the arguments for overturning the decision in the other place are compelling. I ask the House to oppose both these amendments and the consequential amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.
Chris Bryant: The Minister's last few words were something of a giveaway. He suddenly introduced a threshold of his own: a special threshold for votes in the House of Lords, which must secure a bigger majority than one for the Government to take them seriously. That is an interesting innovation.
I will vote yes in the referendum in May, although I hear what is said by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), and I pay tribute to him. I recognise that the first occasion on which the House of Commons sat on its own was in his constituency, but that was only because it had been summoned to Shrewsbury first to see the hanging, drawing and quartering of the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Gruffudd-and that really was a shame.
I will support the alternative vote, which is why, in Committee, I strongly opposed what I considered to be wrecking amendments in respect of thresholds. However, I believe that this is an exceptional referendum for two reasons. First, unlike the vast majority of referendums that have been held in this country and many others, it will not just advise, but will implement legislation. That means that, if there is a yes vote, we will not have a second opportunity to consider all the elements of how the alternative vote will be implemented.
Secondly, as we have asserted from the outset, we do not believe that this referendum should be combined with elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and with local elections, because that will produce very different turnouts in different parts of the United Kingdom. There might well be deep resentment in one part of the United Kingdom because another part, on a very different turnout, had ended up with a different result.
Stephen Williams: No threshold was involved in the referendum to create the National Assembly for Wales in the summer of 1997. The area represented by the hon. Gentleman, Rhondda Cynon Taf, voted yes in that referendum. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the votes of his own constituents should have been invalidated because the turnout was not above 40%?
Chris Bryant: No, I am not saying that at all, but that referendum was not an implementing referendum; nor was it held at the same time as other elections. That is a completely different matter therefore, and I think we behaved entirely properly in introducing our legislation for Wales. Incidentally, in the 3 March referendum I shall also be voting in favour.
Mr MacNeil: Is the hon. Gentleman really saying, "These are my principles on referendums, but I don't like them so I've got some other ones"? He says one thing on the one hand, and another thing on the other. There is no consistency at all from the Labour Front Bench.
Chris Bryant: No, that is not true. [Interruption.] Yes, it is interesting to hear an argument for consistency from a Scottish nationalist. That is almost as interesting as hearing that argument from a Liberal Democrat. [Interruption.] I note that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) was already laughing before I said that.
"there is no fixed determined policy that we are completely and utterly in all cases implacably opposed to thresholds. Nor, for that matter, is there a belief that we ardently should have thresholds."-[ Official Report, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 847.]
"I fully understand that there are others who say that because of the way in which the Government are pushing forward with this legislation and because it is an implementing referendum, a threshold would be appropriate."-[ Official Report, 2 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 849.]
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): I ask the hon. Gentleman to cast his mind back to 1979, when we had a Scottish referendum under the 40% turnout rule. A majority voted yes, the whole issue festered for 18 years, and when the Labour party came back to power and it had another referendum, it rightly learned the lessons of the past and did not have a 40% threshold. Will he please learn the lesson of the past?
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. That was why I was opposed to the versions of thresholds that were brought forward in Committee. There were two different versions. One was that it was necessary to get 25% of the electorate to vote yes, as well as more people voting yes than voting no. The other was a 40% threshold. If neither of those two conditions were reached, the result was to be an automatic no and we were to stick with first past the post.
That is not what this amendment's threshold would do. This is a very different referendum, and consequently needs a very different style of threshold. All this threshold
would do is say that Parliament ought to have a second thought. It would say that if we do not get up to 40%-if, for instance, the turnout in England is 15% or 20 %, whereas in Scotland and Wales it is closer to 43%, 44% or 45%-there ought to be a moment when Parliament thinks again about the implementing process in going forward.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished constitutionalist, and I wonder whether he thinks that in the context of referendums being used more frequently, and for deciding on European matters and constitutional issues, it would be a good idea to settle on a threshold for all referendums, so that people knew where they stood.
Chris Bryant: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am very grateful to be called distinguished about anything, but I do not think he would carry the House on that point. I am not a fan of referendums generally at all, because I think the whole point of parliamentary democracy is that Members are elected to take decisions, provide leadership and represent the people in our constituencies. I think that is the best way of advancing policy. However, where there are referendums, I think it is better if they are advisory ones rather than implementing ones. That is the point I would make about the whole referendum issue before us.
My basic point is that we have many elections in this country where we do not require a threshold in order to give legitimacy to the result. We know that this referendum is very likely to be taking place on the same day as elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and local government, and because of the historical pattern of those elections we also know there is likely to be a low turnout in them. In 2009, only two of the 23 wards that elected councillors in the city of Bristol had a turnout of more than 50% and only six had a turnout of more than 40%, and 15 had turnout percentages in the 30s or 20s, yet we do not say that the councillors elected to represent Bristol were not legitimate. We know that turnout usually dips in the year after a general election, and the turnouts in 1998 were even lower. In May 1998, I was last elected as a member of Bristol city council, in Cabot ward, on a turnout of 18%, although I received more than 53% of the vote. Nobody said that I was not fairly elected to represent the electors of that ward.
Stephen Williams: I am about to stop to allow others to get in. Bristol's turnout is traditionally higher than that of most of the other great urban areas of this country, yet we do not say that the people elected to run our great cities in England are not fairly elected and cannot make those decisions. We do not have thresholds for those elections, so we should not have a threshold in this circumstance either.
Mr Straw: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I am a supporter of the alternative vote system, as I have made clear, not least in a tract that few people read, to which I contributed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) in 1986. I also spelt it out in this House on 9 February 2010 in a very big debate on AV. On the issue of consistency, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) may recall that he voted against the whole idea of having a referendum on AV then, so there is always a place in heaven for sinners to repent. On the threshold, I say to him that the excuse of technical defects in an amendment is the last refuge of a Minister who has nothing to say. If the only problems with Lord Rooker's amendment are technical defects, he should ask the parliamentary counsel to draft amendments and they will go through like a dose of salts.
On the principle, the Minister was arguing against an all-or-nothing threshold, saying that if we did not reach the threshold-this is a very different one from that for the Scottish Assembly in 1979-the whole of the referendum's result would be nugatory. That is not the case here, because this is a skilfully put together threshold. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda says, it does not render nugatory a result on a 39% or 35% turnout; it brings the matter back to this House. However, were the turnout derisory, we would of course need to think again. For those reasons, I strongly urge hon. Members from all parts of the House, regardless of their view on the merits or otherwise of AV, to vote for this Lords amendment.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Last night, Lord Rooker, to whom I pay great tribute, said that his amendment required tweaking, which is what my amendment (a) does. In a nutshell, it says that if the threshold of 40% is not reached, the Minister would have an obligation to introduce legislation to repeal the alternative vote provisions. Why do I say that?
I say that for a very simple reason, which is that when this House votes to pass legislation for a referendum so that the people can decide, just as it is necessary, according to the principles of the Bill, for there to be a system of preference voting that is said to be fair, so it has to be fair for the electorate as a whole to know that when the decision is taken there is a proper threshold. According to all the constitutional authorities, there is no credibility in a referendum whose turnout is less than 40%-I am talking about turnout, not a yes vote, which is what the Cunningham amendment related to in the 1970s. I tabled my amendment in order to be useful, to help the Government get this right and to help the Lords, who have done a great job, ensure fairness for the electorate by providing that a 40% threshold is the principle on which the provisions should go forward.
Mark Durkan: The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has referred to the wrecking amendments we debated and voted on in Committee. Essentially, what we have tonight are wrecking amendments that are bubble-wrapped. No matter what the sophistry of Opposition Front Benchers or anyone else, we know what the intention is: to put a serious and direct brake on the possibility of the referendum being won.
There will be barely 11 weeks of campaigning given the time left, and the imposition of a threshold will create a completely unequal situation. In the south of Ireland, people deliberately created all sorts of confusion during referendum campaigns so that they could say, "If you don't know, vote no." If we agree to anything that passes for any sort of threshold, people in this country will have an incentive to say, "If you don't know, don't vote", knowing that votes that are not cast will count as votes against. That is completely unfair, and if people are supporting the Bill in the name of equal votes, they should not support a threshold that creates a completely unequal situation.
Mr MacNeil: If the threshold were accepted, would that mean that if neither the first-past-the-post nor the AV systems were acceptable to the people, the single transferable vote must be preferred? The threshold argument has to cut both ways.
Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. People might have a variety of reasons for not voting, such as that they do not believe the alternative vote is a big enough reform of the voting system. If people do not vote, that does not mean that they are voting for the status quo.
Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that over the past few weeks we have had to ask questions of the Government in relation to Home Office statements not being made to this House. We have strong indications this evening that tomorrow the Home Office is to make announcements on immigration policy that affect the immigration cap. We believe that the press lobby have been informed; indeed, the Minister responsible has offered an off-camera briefing to the press on the issues involved. How can we take this issue forward when it seems that the Home Office has now become a serial offender?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I am grateful for having been given notice of that point of order. There is no information about a Government statement tonight. Those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. Advice could be taken from the Table Office, and I suggest that he seek it there.
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred in consequence of this Act by a Minister of the Crown, government department or other public authority.
I should like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) for introducing this important Bill. I am pleased to confirm the Government's support for the Bill, subject to certain amendments at the Committee stage. On Second Reading, it was the will of the House that the Bill should be discussed in Committee.
The primary measure that the Government are supporting is the requirement for contracting bodies to consider how they might promote or improve economic, social or environmental well-being when commissioning services. This includes a requirement that authorities consider whether to consult the persons who will benefit from the service. The decision on how authorities should take account of this wider value is left to the authority. It is already best practice to take account of wider value when undertaking procurement and to consult in such circumstances, and guidance and tools are already available. For an individual contracting authority, the costs are likely to be small. The measure therefore triggers the need for this new money resolution, which I commend to the House.
Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab):
I do not wish to detain the House for much longer on this matter. The Opposition supported the Bill on Second Reading, and we wish to see it go into Committee,
where we think it can be strengthened. We very much want local authorities to have these strategies in place to promote social enterprises and to consider how they can better meet the needs of their communities and continue to develop public services in a way that it is truly responsive to local needs. We therefore support the resolution.
That the Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 4) Rules 2010 (S.I., 2010, No. 3038), dated 23 December 2010, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23 December, be approved. -(James Duddridge.)
That the Rules of the Court of Judicature (Northern Ireland) (Amendment No. 3) 2010 (S.R. (N.I.), 2010, No. 430), dated 23 December 2010, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23 December, be approved.- (James Duddridge.)
That the draft Control of Donations and Regulation of Loans etc. (Extension of the Prescribed Period) (Northern Ireland) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 17 January, be approved.- (James Duddridge.)
Mr Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) (Lab): Now is an appropriate time to sound a warning about the changes that are being made to economic development structures in north-east England. The extent to which the coalition Government intend to abandon the Labour Government's approach to these issues is now clear, as is the outline of their successor strategy, such as it is. It is my contention that the coalition approach is fundamentally wrong on both counts.
The economic development issues facing north-east England are not typical of those facing the United Kingdom as a whole. Of course our region is not sheltered from national and international economic trends. Regional economic development in the north-east is dominated not so much by our unique industrial history as by our transition from it. No region has done more to help itself, and there was a broad consensus in the region on the economic development strategy until the last election.
I had the honour and privilege of being Minister for the North East in the Labour Government. I tried to do the job in a less partisan, party political way, certainly less so than my other ministerial job. My objective was to drive up the prosperity of the region by broadening and diversifying its employment base, with an emphasis on the private sector. That strategy was right for the north-east. It is not for the state to pick private sector winners and losers, but it is for the state to respond at regional level to private sector-led initiatives and to work closely with the private sector in bringing promising projects to fruition.
Our region is essentially two conurbations and a rural hinterland. We make up 4% of the United Kingdom's population. The single regional structure of the Government Office and, in particular, the development agency worked well for us.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unique thing about the north-east is that there has been support going back many years not just from councils and the public sector, but from the private sector, the TUC and other sectors recognising the need for the region to speak with one voice?
Mr Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the great things about economic development in our region is that it has proceeded with consensus, with buy-in right across the region sector by sector, including the public, private and voluntary sectors. We have understood the need to stick together, to talk to each other and to speak coherently on these issues. The fact that we did so is one of the great successes of our region.
Through the single approach that we took, we were able to avoid the poverty of ambition and the attendant dangers of parochialism. Working relationships across agencies and between the private and public sector were good, and there was a general feeling in the region that we were getting somewhere.
On Teesside, the issues relating to Corus and the process industry have features in common. The way forward has to be private sector-led. The private sector needs dialogue with national Government through the regional development agency. It is not reasonable to ask local government, even neighbouring local authorities acting in concert, to deal with issues of this scale. The same is true for the economic development potential of the underused industrial sites at the east end of the Tees valley.
In our region, there was general enthusiasm for the carbon reduction strategy, and for applying our traditional industrial and manufacturing skills to the challenges of combating climate change. There is excitement about the development of the electric car at Nissan. The region is also host to other electric vehicle manufacturers. The Clipper offshore wind factory at the Walker technology park is the only such factory in the UK so far. The potential for the development of printable electronics at Thorn, the innovative photovoltaic products of Romag glass, and the strong case made by Rio Tinto at BIyth and the mutually compatible bid from Tees Valley to be part of a carbon capture and storage pilot, all show how deep and widespread the region's enthusiasm for this approach goes. We are, as the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) pointed out recently to the House, host to the United Kingdom's green pub of the year, the outstanding Battlestead's hotel at Wark.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): There is great enthusiasm not only for green pubs but, as my right hon. Friend said, for the new technologies in the region. Does he agree that as well as being great in the private sector, that enthusiasm needs to be matched by the public sector so that the supply chains and the skills that the new technologies need are provided?
Mr Brown: I strongly agree with all that. In my discussions with individual public sector agencies, as well as with private sector companies, that enthusiasm was matched right across the piece. People understand the importance of it and see the opportunities for the economy of our region. One of my misgivings about the Government's approach is that the public sector's ability to respond is financially constrained.
The policy approach that we adopted meant that our region had the fastest growth rates of any English region right up until the banking crisis. The Pricewaterhouse study of One North East found that, over a five-year period, the agency had directly created more than 24,000 jobs, helped to create over 1,000 new businesses, helped a further 1,700 companies improve their business performance, helped more than 6,000 people into employment, and assisted more than 98,000 people to gain new skills. In particular One North East's work in the area of business competitiveness and development, which covers activities such as overseas investment and enterprise support, realised an overall return of £8 for every £1 spent.
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab):
I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend did on behalf of the region as Minister for the North East, and in particular to the support that he gave us in Easington. What is his view of the cost of redundancy following the winding up of the regional development agencies,
which the Minister has indicated will be £464 million over the four years, including salaries, redundancies and transition costs? The alternative, the local economic partnerships, have no budgets. Does my right hon. Friend think they are an effective vehicle to drive economic growth in the region?
Mr Brown: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention and for his kind remarks about my involvement as regional Minister. I was tremendously impressed by the work that is going on in Easington district, the exciting film projects that we visited together, the work of the coal board residual authority in his constituency, and the opportunities that there are, working with Durham county council, to bring to an end long-standing and intractable labour market problems in the eastern part of County Durham. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his predecessor, our friend John Cummings, for the enormous amount of work that has been done locally to try to give hope where at times it seemed that there was not much room for it. I felt that we were getting there, and it would be very sad if the ideas and projects that I am so enthusiastic about, and that I know my hon. Friend is so enthusiastic about, end up set back because of events in the region.
My key point is that the economic development agency was the principal agent of change and transition in north-east England. Far from being a burden on the taxpayer, it repaid its cost, in the region, several times over.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I echo the warm thanks of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) to my right hon. Friend for his work as regional Minister. We all saw the benefits of that.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Nissan, which he mentioned earlier, on winning the European car of the year award for 2011, one of many awards that it has won for its Leaf electric vehicle? Does he agree with Nissan, especially in the light of the recent rise in unemployment figures, that that achievement and all the jobs it has created in the north-east would not have been possible without the grant for business investment scheme that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has now scrapped along with the very successful RDA, One North East?
Mr Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Nissan was able to take advantage of support for industry that was in place under the previous Government. What it is doing is not just manufacture a new motor car, because, as its Leaf advertising says, it is much more than that. It is a completely different form of transport. It is a very exciting development and we all wish it well and are proud to have it in our region. I know that she is proud to be the constituency MP for it.
That project would not have happened had it not been for the active intervention of the then Labour Government in making grant support available. It was actually because of the intervention of the then Secretary of State and his willingness to champion development in the north-east of England. We had rivals and competitors in our friends in continental Europe, who were also bidding for the plant. It speaks really well for the work force at Nissan that they are so highly regarded within
the Nissan family of companies that they were a contender for the project. The clincher, however, was the support that the Government gave and their willingness to stand by the region.
My fear is that public sector cuts will affect the north-east disproportionately. As well as the closures of the economic development agency and the regional office, there are redundancies in each of the local authorities and other public bodies and vulnerabilities at the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs complex at Longbenton in east Newcastle. If the Minister can say something reassuring about that site, which is the largest single concentration of public sector employees in the western world outside the Pentagon, it will be welcome.
Jobcentre Plus does a good job for us in the north-east. It has had to cope with major redundancy rounds at Atmel, Northern Rock, Nissan and Corus, and it has handled those difficult situations as well as anybody could. It is asking a lot of the labour market to absorb those redundancies and the ones brought about by public spending cuts. The effect of those cuts is cumulative, the more so because the people whose jobs are going have similar skill sets and career aspirations. The Government's response is that an expanding private sector will take up those employees, but those who advocate that policy must say what private sector and where.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for kindly allowing me to intervene in his debate. Is he aware that since mid-August, newspapers in the region have announced more than 20,800 new private sector jobs and more than £4 billion of private sector investment? I appreciate that, like any region in these difficult times, we face tough challenges, but there is a good news story to tell as well. As the region's MPs, we all have an obligation to talk up the north-east, not just to concentrate and focus on the challenges that we face.
Mr Brown: Nobody has talked up the private sector economy of the north-east more than I have, not just now but when I was the Minister for the region. My strategy was to broaden and deepen the region's employment base by broadening and deepening private sector employment opportunities. I have never said that we are over-reliant on the public sector, but the correct way forward for our region is the development of private sector employment opportunities. That is why I said at the outset that there was not much disagreement about questions within the region. There was a consensus about what we were trying to do and how best to proceed. The region's Members of Parliament, regardless of party politics, found it easy to discuss those issues among ourselves and make common cause on specific projects.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Is not the reality that we have learned from a long history of being cast adrift, when nobody had any plan for the north-east? In the past 10 years, we learned to work together, ably led by my right hon. Friend. The private sector, the public sector-everybody-pulled together. There was no difference between us, and we experienced a renaissance in the north-east, which none of us ever thought possible. It was tremendous, but it is being set back by the Government who have come to office in the past year.
Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Is it not a matter of regret to the right hon. Gentleman that Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Redcar and Cleveland were recently rated as being in the bottom 10 in economic strength out of 324 areas in the country? Does not that give weight to the Government's policy of creating Teesside local enterprise partnership?
Mr Brown: We all understand how difficult things are on Teesside, and I have lent my shoulder to tackling those problems, just as other hon. Members across the region have done. However, it is my strong view that we need a single, regional approach rather than allowing our efforts to become fragmented. In particular, it is a terrible mistake to say to those with the most difficult problems-I will say something about the specifics shortly-"You have to sort your own problems out without the help of the rest of us." The great strength of our region is that we have all stood together, geographically and across party politics, public sector and private sector, including the public sector agencies that are not directly politically led. We have all stood together with the same focus, in an earnest endeavour to work together to give a coherent single voice to government for the good of the region. That is the correct approach.
Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who, in his time as Minister for the north-east was a real friend of Teesside, not just of Tyneside. Following on from the interventions of the hon. Members for Stockton South (James Wharton) and for Redcar (Ian Swales), we have enormous potential in Teesside and Hartlepool, with process industries, the nuclear industry and the potential of renewable energy, but that needs help and support. My constituency has 4,000 unemployed people but only 76 vacancies at the local jobcentre. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there needs to be more marrying up of that enormous potential in the private sector and central Government support, which the current Government are not providing?
Mr Brown: I agree, but, above all, we need to strengthen the employment base in the Tees valley, and that means focusing on the potential of the key employers-Corus, if the transition takes place, the chemical sector, the process sector, the potential in the under-utilised land at the east end of the Tees valley, the exciting opportunities in Teesport and the new distribution agreements with Tesco and Wal-Mart. Those are exciting and significant developments, providing a whole new range of activity for the port. I wish them well, but they must be supported by the region's speaking with one voice. The new job opportunities are for the whole of the north-east of England. Indeed, they are for the whole north of England, going right down to the midlands, and covering all points north, including Scotland.
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