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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 2 November 2011

[John Robertson in the Chair]

Parliamentary Lobbying

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned. (Jeremy Wright.)

9.30 am

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Robertson.

“It’s an issue that crosses party lines and has tainted our politics for too long...an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money. I’m talking about lobbying—and we all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out. Today it is a £2 billion industry that has a huge presence in Parliament… I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works.”

All those words were from our Prime Minister when he was in opposition.

The purpose of today’s debate is to ask how far we have got. How far has the Prime Minister delivered on those promises? The political class is probably less trusted than at any time in history. After the expenses scandal, the public have the right not to trust us. They will look at what we do and will almost always reach the worst conclusion on our motives. It will probably take at least a decade for MPs and for politics to win back the trust and confidence that we enjoyed in the past.

What have the Government done in their 18 months in power? They certainly promised, in the coalition agreement, a compulsory register of lobbyists, but progress has not been promising. All parties promise to end the excesses of lobbyists when they are in opposition. In government, both the Tories and Labour have bottled it.

The reason why the previous Government did not progress on instituting reforms was revealed in a frank interview by a former Cabinet Office Minister, who said it was because he and the Government were lobbied. We members of the Public Administration Committee were also lobbied, and we made the point that the people we had before us, giving their excuses as to why there should be no interference and why they should carry on in their own way, were professional persuaders and, in many cases, professional deceivers. They had to present the best case, and of course they were brilliant at doing that, because they train people on how to give evidence to Select Committees.

Thank goodness that the Public Administration Committee took a stronger line; its recommendation was that we need more safeguards to cleanse the parliamentary stable. We were short of a smoking gun when we made our report in January 2009, but smoking guns appeared within weeks; there was the sting involving the four Members of the other place and the “cash for legislating” campaign, and the extraordinary, shaming

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episode of politicians for hire. A group of distinguished politicians with great reputations were shown on television putting their integrity and reputation up for sale for a certain amount of money. Potentially, that episode was a greater scandal than the expenses one, but as far as I can see, we are making virtually no progress on improving that situation.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing such an important debate. The definition of lobbying is difficult to grapple with when drafting legislation. Where would he place trade unions? Does he consider them lobbyists?

Paul Flynn: The answer is yes. Trade unions are lobbyists, as are charities and all kinds of bodies.

The main argument that was made to Labour Cabinet Office Ministers is presumably the same one that lobbyists are making to the present Minister. Lobbyists find it impossible to defend the existing secrecy and the fact that large organisations and rich and powerful bodies can buy access to the Government—that is indefensible, and no one would pretend that it can be right. As that argument does not work, they have invented a new one about how reform will upset all the good people—the nice, friendly, cuddly charities and the trade unions—who will also be damaged. That was the main thrust of the argument used against the previous Government to undermine reform.

I am sure that the Minister will be happy to tell us how many meetings he has had with lobbyists. How much has he been lobbied?

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. I have much sympathy with what he is saying, but it is very difficult for constituency Members who are approached or lobbied by investors or unions not to be seen as being lobbied. Surely that is part and parcel of an MP’s job.

Paul Flynn: One MP who gave evidence to the Committee was taking £70,000 a year from a commercial company. [ Interruption. ] Wait a minute. His offence related to the fact that the commercial company had interests in his Department. He said that jobs were going in his constituency and he was doing his job as a constituency MP. The answer the Committee members gave was that we all do our jobs as constituency MPs by fighting for jobs in our constituency, but we do not have to take a £70,000 bung for doing so, which is what the public look at.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and, as ever, I am following his remarks with close interest. Is not transparency the greatest safeguard? Do we not therefore need not only a register of lobbyists and an open record of contact between the Government and lobbyists, but full disclosure on the funding of lobbyists?

Paul Flynn: That is exactly what we need, and it was the main recommendation of the Select Committee.

I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he has had the same treatment as his Labour predecessor. Has he been approached by the lobbying organisations explaining how difficult reform would be, how difficult

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it is to reach a definition of “lobbyists”, and how reform will be so unfair to charities and trade unions? Will he tell us what he has declined to tell that splendid organisation, SpinWatch, which is investigating these matters—how many times and on what dates he has been lobbied, and what messages were conveyed to him? It looks as though the lobbyists have succeeded again by lobbying the Government to delay any activity or any sign of reform.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): We MPs are regularly contacted by interested bodies. We do not necessarily have all the information in front of us, but we have hard-held opinions—opinions that make us, and blend with us, so that we form a view on what we should do in the House. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that a balance is needed? Members have a job to do and have hard-held opinions that we wish to hold on to, but it is not wrong for lobbyists to come along and give us their opinions and their information.

Paul Flynn: Indeed, it is not. That, of course, goes on as part of the system. Lobbying lubricates the parliamentary system, and always has. We lobby and our constituents lobby; of course that goes on. We are against what the Prime Minister has called “corporate lobbying”. Those who engage in it are the people who are potentially the most damaging: those who are seeking contracts, but do not want to do it on the basis of open tendering, and instead want to go behind the scenes to have secret meetings with Government. Some extraordinary decisions have been taken by all Governments on the award of contracts.

We want to make sure that no Minister’s judgment will be distorted by the possibility of the revolving door. It is extraordinary how, shortly after retiring, former Ministers find lucrative jobs with companies that they once dealt with as Ministers. When a contract has been awarded—sometimes for billions of pounds—who is to say that no one tipped anyone the wink by saying, “If you go for company A rather than B or C, we’ll make sure you are looked after, and get your hacienda in Spain. You will have a lucrative job in retirement”? There are many examples—hon. Members may be aware of them—from all Governments of the revolving door after Government, and the possibility that Government influence has been used.

The problem is not that those concerned are doing well out of their contacts, or are sullying their integrity. The problem is that the decisions they take in Government may be corrupted by the prospect of future employment and riches. There are strong cases for believing that that has happened, and might happen again. Unless we can jam the revolving door and bring reform, that will continue. We cannot reform the system without transparency.

Alun Cairns: In 2006 there was a proposal to amend the Bill that became the Companies Act 2006, which would have got a handle on how much companies spend on lobbying. The hon. Gentleman voted against the amendment. Is that an inconsistency, or has he changed his mind since then?

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Paul Flynn: Is this “Mastermind”? I really cannot account for the tens of thousands of votes I have taken part in on clauses of Bills. I shall disregard the hon. Gentleman’s intervention as worthless.

In November last year, the Deputy Prime Minister promised legislation in the current parliamentary Session, which ends next spring, but that has now been delayed and we are likely to have no change until 2013. Let us look at what has been happening since then. Has there been reform? Has there been a new atmosphere in the House? Do we treat lobbyists differently? I wrote to an hon. Member to say that I would mention him this morning. I shall not mention his name or constituency, but I spoke to him at length this morning. What he is doing might be entirely honourable—he takes an income of £30,000 from lobbyists—but it is not acceptable or wise in the present post-scandal Parliament. I believe that suspicions will be aroused and people will say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” There may well be no fire. I am sure the man is behaving in the right way.

Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con): Surely in that case it is the job of constituents to vote the offending Member out. The issue is transparency. That is clear and on the books, and everyone can make his or her own judgment.

Paul Flynn: Yes, but the problem is that the public will, with some justification, believe the worst of us after the expenses scandal. They had all those assurances before. The excuses will not work, and we need clarity and simplicity in the way we behave. It is entirely wrong for a Member of Parliament to be employed by a company—£30,000 is a substantial amount, many times the minimum wage—and, having taken that money, to raise subjects on which the company concerned is campaigning, and then say, “Of course, this is about the interests of my constituency; it approached me on the issue.” That is what the hon. Gentleman in question says. I believe that the public are right to be suspicious of us, and I refer to the words of the Prime Minister in that regard.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Would the hon. Gentleman consider it permissible to do that for nothing?

Paul Flynn: No. The position is this. Someone may want to lobby on a subject, but what a Member is allowed to do should be a question of their interest, conscience, constituency and so on. If someone who is taking a considerable sum of money from an outside body appears then to be pursuing its business—what it is asking for—that is extremely foolish and dangerous. I have explained that at length and had a long conversation with the Member in question. I believe that there is only one Member in that position.

When I came into Parliament 25 years ago, probably a majority of the Members in one of the parties took money from outside sources. Some were openly referred to as the Member for this or that company. In the previous Parliament, one was referred to as the Member for Boots, with some justification—there is some truth in that view of things. We are Members for our constituencies, and are paid handsomely for our work. We are paid a full-time wage. We should not have

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income from outside. There is a splendid book on the subject, which I commend to hon. Members, that suggests that all MPs should put any income they receive above their salary into a charity fund. That would do something to restore the public’s trust in us.

What else has been going on? New interest in the debate has been precipitated by the Werritty scandal. That will continue and other hon. Members might want to speak about it. We have allowed honeyed words to be used, and have talked about a blurring of the ministerial code, when we know that what happened was a flagrant abuse of the code. The investigation will continue, and many matters arise from the Werritty scandal, which should be of interest to us.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Is not one of the ironies of the Werritty case the fact that Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report declared that Mr Werritty was not a lobbyist?

Paul Flynn: Indeed. I read it with some interest. Yesterday, three very senior figures, including past Cabinet Secretaries, came before the Public Administration Committee to discuss the matter. I was very concerned about what has happened. We know that in this case it seemed that a secret foreign policy was being created. Money was coming in from organisations that many of us would regard as having extreme aims, to subvert Government policy. Where commercial firms were involved, were they there to buy influence, or to influence contracts? Anything on those lines is entirely wrong, and if those contacts were made, they should have been made publicly and declared. They were not. We will have to learn the lesson there.

Even on smaller matters, can we trust the Government, who last year altered the ministerial code so that all meetings with lobbyists should be declared by Ministers, when this week we learn that one Secretary of State enjoyed a five-star dinner at the Savoy, held by a major lobbying firm, and that among the other guests was a company that was lobbying his Department? Instead of transparency and openness, we have the Secretary of State defending himself and saying that on that day he was eating privately, not ministerially. [ Interruption. ] Indeed, he is eating very well, and his eating habits are a matter of some interest to the House, and parliamentary sketch writers. However, that is a small example, although not of enormous significance: it is a sign of the lack of any conviction in government about instituting genuine reform.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): On the case that my hon. Friend cites, is he aware that that Minister was performing a quasi-judicial role, and that if a judge had had such a dinner, people would have gone to prison for contempt of court?

Paul Flynn: My hon. Friend is entirely right. We cannot deal in excuses and half truths any more, because of the position we are in. If there is a rule—and the Government created that rule, for goodness’ sake—let Ministers abide by it and not make silly excuses.

Advocates and paid representatives of some of the worst and most oppressive regimes in the world use this building and this House, to invite MPs—sometimes naive MPs—to visit their countries, to try to win their support. Among such countries, Azerbaijan and Equatorial

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Guinea are very active at the moment. Should we allow that to continue? Should we allow this building and its facilities, and the good will of Members to be used, in the way that other Parliaments have cosied up to oppressive regimes?

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Paul Flynn: My hon. Friend is going to mention Libya.

Robert Halfon: No, I am not.

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I am a vice-chairman of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. I have been there twice, and the visits are declared in the register. They have been incredibly educational, because I wanted to visit a progressive, Muslim and democratic nation that follows the rule of law. Surely my visits were a good thing?

Paul Flynn: My comrade Robert—as I call him—and I serve together on the Public Administration Committee, and we have many common causes. I would not suggest that there was anything untoward in what he does, and I am sure that he does not receive an income from the Government of that country. However, other MPs do, directly or indirectly, from some regimes. Money is being paid—it is all there. It is a question about the way in which we are going.

I want to pay tribute to Tamasin Cave of SpinWatch and the other organisations that have persisted in their support for the Select Committee’s recommendations about what all Governments are doing. We must ask ourselves: are the Government serious about the matter? Are we making any progress in rebuilding our reputations? Are we quelling what the Prime Minister called the public’s “worst fears and suspicions”? We have to be concerned about those fears and suspicions. The perception of how this place behaves is crucial.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has outlined the need for people to know about Members being approached and lobbied. Would it not be helpful if all Members did what some Members already do—I have done this in my constituency—which is to make it clear to the public and our constituents when we are lobbied and when we have refused to be a victim of a lobbying group, so that other lobbyists get the message that there is no point in lobbying MP X because he or she has made it abundantly clear in the local press that he or she will not be lobbied, receive favours or be fêted? That would help address the issue of perception that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Paul Flynn: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. That is precisely what we should do. We must take a puritanical line with ourselves to ensure that the public believe us. When the public read about what is going on and see the drip, drip of stories about links between MPs and others, they will assume that we are all in the business of being influenced by outside sources.

Simon Hart: I have spent the past 18 months encouraging constituents to lobby me, either as individuals or in groups. We have to be careful that we do not say,

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“A plague on all your houses”. Some constituency lobbying is extremely valuable, informative and educational, and we should encourage it.

Paul Flynn: I am grateful to hear from a former lobbyist. I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s previous career was lobbying for the abuse of small, loveable animals for fun—that was his message. I am sure that he would have found a welcome in the current Government if he was still lobbying for animal abuse, which is what he believes in and is his passion.

Simon Hart: If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, I recall that he was rather supportive of a donation of £1 million to the Labour party by the Political Animal Lobby, which he supported hugely, in the 1990s.

Paul Flynn: I certainly supported all animal welfare groups for many years in my political capacity, which is what my constituents want.

Kwasi Kwarteng: They were lobbyists.

Paul Flynn: Indeed—

Kwasi Kwarteng: And they gave you money.

Paul Flynn: No, they certainly did not give me money. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): My hon. Friend said a moment ago that we should be much more puritanical. I think that I am a Labour Cavalier rather than a Puritan, but we should have all sorts in our party.

My hon. Friend and I served on the Council of Europe for some years. I was astonished at the delegates bringing girlfriends, wives, staff and children, all at the same time, filling up the Members’ room and using expenses to put them up in nice hotels. Does he think that we should stop all that, and that Members should go on any such delegation visits by themselves?

Paul Flynn: The situation is quite clear. If that happens, anyone who goes out, including staff, should not add any cost to the public purse. If my right hon. Friend would like to investigate the case, he would find that even dinners at an embassy are now paid for at a rate of €30 for any guests.

Transparency about those who are getting through to the Government at the moment arose when the issue about good, selfish and commercial causes was raised again. According to a report in The Guardian, there have been 10 times as many meetings between the Government and corporate lobbyists as there have been with trade unionists. There have been four times as many meetings of corporate lobbyists with the Government as there have been with charities. Already, a process is going on secretly behind closed doors. The loud and insistent voices come from those who can afford to buy expensive lobbyists and access to Government.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern for transparency, and I am sure that a number of the cases to which he has alluded are regrettable or wrong. However, we must not besmirch the names of many people who work in the public affairs sector. I used to work in the related public

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relations sector. I hosted a reception for B&Q the other day in Parliament and many Members turned up, and I dealt with a public affairs company hired by B&Q for that purpose. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that—it wanted to get the message to parliamentarians about its excellent community work. What is wrong with that?

Paul Flynn: What is wrong with it is the incestuous relationship between Parliament and the lobbying world. Many Members, particularly new ones, used to be lobbyists—there is a bigger number than ever before—and many MPs hope to become lobbyists when they retire.

I have been speaking for a long time, so I will make my final point. Our great problem is that the tentacles of lobbying are sunk deep into the body politic, and it is very difficult to remove them. Two Governments have so far failed to do so, in spite of the Select Committee’s urgings. Of course there can be excuses and explanations, saying that there is nothing sinister about the issue, but I return to one of my previous points, which is that we must restore our reputation with the public.

Our reputation is in a terrible state after the expenses scandal. The public have a right to be suspicious of us and to disbelieve our excuses. If we give them a chance to say, “This action by an MP could be misinterpreted,” as in the case of the Member who was receiving income from a lobbyist, we should have a code of conduct that will remove any doubt. A person cannot eat privately one day and ministerially the other. He or she cannot blur the differences by ignoring the fact that someone who is giving advice and is present in a meeting is taking income from undeclared outside sources. That cannot be allowed—we cannot go on like that. We cannot have groups in this building taking money from oppressive regimes without its being clear what their programme is. The Prime Minister, when he was in opposition, stated clearly in splendid words that lobbying would be the major scandal of the future unless we have clear and simple root-and-branch reforms now that make no compromises and leave no loopholes. That is what is called for and it is also our purpose.

I shall end now, Mr Robertson—it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—as I understand that many Members wish to speak so that we can use the opportunity to ask the Government what they have done to honour the Prime Minister’s fine promise and when reforms will be introduced to ensure that we have a transparent system with a compulsory register.

Several hon. Members rose

John Robertson (in the Chair): Order. Before we go any further, let me say that a number of people wish to speak in this debate. Those on the Front Bench will have 10 minutes each, so there is 40 minutes between the rest of you. I would be most grateful if you all looked at timing your speeches.

9.59 am

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I will start by declaring an interest: I am a former lobbyist and an unpaid board member of a group which spends part of its time lobbying this place and other places.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing this debate. I hope that I encourage him when I say that I sympathise with much—but not all—of what he has said.

The Government’s progress in their first 18 months of office is rather more promising than that which their predecessors achieved in 13 years. The coalition agreement strikes the right balance between encouraging lobbying and ensuring transparency. People should know what we are up to over and above what they can obtain from the register and under the Freedom of Information Act. None the less, we must be cautious about some of the unintended consequences. I do not want to over-simplify things because, as I have said, I am on the same page as the hon. Gentleman in so many ways. The solution is not only the register but the codes of practice and the professional standards that underpin the register. As a former lobbyist, I attach the greatest importance to those matters.

As a Government and a party, we promote and champion self-regulation over statutory regulation. Having dealt with a number of regulators in my previous life, I have some experience of such matters. My experience of the Advertising Standards Authority as a regulator was pretty good. The organisation had teeth, it did things and it applied standards with which the lobby industry was entirely comfortable. My experience with other organisations, such as the Market Research Society, was less than satisfactory. When trying to table a complaint against an individual member of the MRS, we found that the president of the MRS was the very same person against whom we were lodging the complaint. I am talking about not just blurred lines, but real confusion, and I had a similar view of the Press Complaints Commission. I am probably one of the few Members in this Chamber who took Piers Morgan to the PCC when he was editor of the Daily Mirror. I was astonished by the complete contempt that he showed for that body—it was as if it was not there. He did not give a damn. At that particular moment, it was, as far as he was concerned, a toothless organisation.

Chris Bryant: It still is.

Simon Hart: The hon. Gentleman has more recent experience of the organisation than me.

Mr MacShane: The Leveson inquiry is investigating this matter. There is the huge question whether there needs to be a fully independent, backed-under-law body to which the public can go with press complaints. We have already debated that at length in the House, but will the hon. Gentleman, as a Conservative, support something much stronger—if not statutory—than the PCC to which the public can go with complaints about appalling press behaviour?

Simon Hart: I suspect Mr Robertson may get at us if we drift off lobby groups too obviously. All I will say is that there is a huge difference between a trade organisation and a regulator, and confusion arises when people try to be both. Any measure that separates the role of a trade representative and a regulator has to be something that we view positively.

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The hon. Member for Newport West has mentioned definitions. With the greatest respect to him, he over-simplified the situation. There are many worthy charities representing large numbers of people—in some cases, they represent smaller numbers of people—that fall into the lobby category. We must all ensure that we do nothing to interrupt the ability of the charitable sector to lobby us hard. If we do not permit or encourage that, we will create a worse situation as far as public confidence is concerned.

Robert Halfon: I note what my hon. Friend has said about lobbying by charities. Although many charities do a remarkable job, does he not agree that charities would be better off focusing on their charitable works? In 2009, Oxfam reportedly got 25% of its funding from the state, but then spent £25 million on what was described as “helping people to lobby Government”. Surely, most of Oxfam’s excellent work should be primarily focused on the front line.

Simon Hart: I agree with my hon. Friend up to a point. One purpose of the charities, however, is to persuade Government and political parties to recognise the needs of their charitable members and to legislate—or not legislate—accordingly, so it is a perfectly legitimate activity. Age Concern, for example, does very good work in informing and persuading us.

Mr Andrew Smith: On charities, what aspect of registration, transparency and financial disclosure does the hon. Gentleman fear might impede their legitimate activity?

Simon Hart: There is absolutely no problem with transparency. I was also involved in setting up a rural charity, so I do not have a problem with that in any respect. Bureaucratic red tape or cost impacts that cannot be justified would be a problem. There are people who make legitimate donations to charities because of the good work that those charities do. They like to do so in private, and they would be less inclined to donate if they thought that their donations were going to be seen by all and sundry. To want to contribute to a charity in private is a perfectly reasonable thing. We need to be a wee bit careful in exposing all donors to all charities, because that might have a detrimental effect on charities that rely on people who like to do such things under the radar. I am not saying that there is not a solution, but a balance needs to be struck.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but much of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) dealt with direct payments to people who are elected. For example, if a company pays a councillor, it is regarded as a bribe and it is illegal, but similar payments to an MP are perfectly legal. Is that not the kind of contradiction to which my hon. Friend was pointing?

Simon Hart: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. However, I am not as convinced as others that simply because somebody undertakes, in a way that is perfectly above board, a piece of work on behalf of a charity that it necessarily constitutes deceit in the eyes of the general public. There are plenty of Members of

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Parliament and elected members of other devolved institutions who have done their job with great distinction and worked on behalf of a charity that backs a cause that they were particularly aligned to, and they have not suffered at the ballot box as a result. What they have done has been open and accountable. We must take care not to assume that all those things are always seen as negative, because they are not and in some cases they can be seen as positive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has said, as long as the information is out there, it is up to the electorate, who I guess we all trust, to make a judgment. In many cases, that judgment has been made positively in respect of Members who have done it. I simply put the argument as it is without necessarily having a solution to it.

There are very good reasons for encouraging constituents, singly, in small groups or as official delegations, to lobby Members of Parliament on behalf of causes or concerns in the constituency. I would hate to see us introduce any measure that made it more difficult for our constituents to do that. The hon. Member for Newport West has goaded me on the animal welfare arguments. Of course, there are some fantastic charities, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that represent many millions of members and that can organise themselves on a constituency basis and lobby for a particular cause in that area. Good luck to them, because that is what they are there for, that is what we pay our membership for and that is what they should be encouraged to do. As I have said, we need to be careful about an unintended consequence that would actually put off all those people, make their access to us more difficult and make all the more awkward their ability to persuade, inform and educate us. We should not be involved in anything that suggests that.

On donations, we must be—as ever—extremely sensitive, for all the reasons that the hon. Member for Newport West has mentioned; I agree with him about that. However, that is not to say that all donations should always be made public, come what may, for the reasons of charitable good will that I mentioned earlier.

To be frank, if we end this process of trying to make lobbying more open, accountable and transparent, which is a process I support, by coming up with a system that is more toothless, more pointless and more expensive than the current one, rather than contributing to the restoration of public confidence in and enthusiasm for MPs and our political institutions, we will have the opposite effect. For that reason, I hope that we treat this matter with considerable caution.

10.10 am

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I listened with some amazement to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) saying that we should be careful, because people will be put off lobbying. I assure him that the people of Bassetlaw do not require paid advisers to lobby their MP eloquently and effectively. We have a word for it—democracy. My problem and my constituents’ problem is that access to MPs, and therefore access for my constituents, is squeezed and blocked by the number of paid lobbyists representing interests, gaining access preferentially and using their contacts, which stops the rest of us getting the access to the Government that we should be getting.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has used the term “incestuous”. I think that a better term to use is “interchangeable”, because we are becoming a Parliament of paid, professional lobbyists. The reason is that the political class, the advisers and the researchers are entirely interchangeable with the lobby industry—they are literally interchangeable. People spend a couple of years as an adviser, then a couple of years as a lobbyist, then they go back to being an adviser, then they go back to being a lobbyist and then they go into Parliament as an MP. That is the way into this place, although I will not embarrass the dozens and dozens and dozens of colleagues who have entered the House in that way.

Kwasi Kwarteng: What does the hon. Gentleman propose as a measure to stop that career development, because it is clear that many of our colleagues have followed the path that he has just described? Is he going to introduce legislation to stop that?

John Mann: The hon. Gentleman will want to listen to my speech. He may have a “career” in this House, but I have a vocation here, attempting to represent the interests of my constituents. That seems to me what being a Member of Parliament should be about.

Let me give an illustration of this interchangeability, or “incestuous relationship”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West has described it. We will go to the top and start with the Prime Minister, because of course the founder of Shandwick lobbyists was Lord Chadlington. Lord Chadlington was the Prime Minister’s patron to get his parliamentary seat in Witney and, as was reported in The Sunday Times in 2007, he offered the Prime Minister his little farm and pool, in which the Prime Minister’s family were invited to swim. Actually, he did a lot more than that, because the little farm is the same building that he gave the Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister used for the first six months that he was a Member of Parliament. And Lord Chadlington is a man who formed a lobbying company, which was eventually sold on to Huntsman—sorry, Huntsworth lobbyists. People can see that Huntsworth does not lobby me that often. [ Laughter. ]

Huntsworth has its tentacles across the world. One of its subsidiaries is called Quiller. The Minister will be smiling, because Quiller employs lots of people from lots of different political parties, including advisers. I have never heard of it myself, but apparently two of them were advisers to the Labour party; they were a Mr Smith and a Mr Slinger. I never came across them myself. There were also a Mr Alistair Murray, who advised the Liberal Democrat party, and a Mr Parkinson, a Ms Roycroft and a Mr Malcolm Morton, who were all aides to Conservative MPs. Indeed, the Minister will know Mr Malcolm Morton, because he was an adviser to the Minister. Saying that is not to criticise either the Minister or Mr Morton, but it demonstrates the interchangeability between the political world and the lobbying world. That preferential access is gained by personal contacts, which is what is fundamentally wrong with the current situation.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Would my hon. Friend also include those people who have worked for trade unions in this sphere, for example

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people who have been the head of education and research for their union or people who were trade union liaison officers?

John Mann: No, I would not—[ Laughter. ]

John Robertson (in the Chair): Order.

John Mann: I would not include them, in the same way that I would not include small business owners in the same category. The issue is this—what access is gained to Parliament?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): Double standards.

John Mann: The Minister says “double standards”. That is what the Government are attempting to do; they are attempting to distract us from this issue, because of the Werrity scandal, and make us look at another issue. This issue has nothing to do with “standards”; it is to do with access. If a Minister’s researchers and advisers become paid lobbyists, of course they have better contact and communication with that Minister, whether that is a Conservative Minister, Labour Minister or any other Minister. Of course that is the case and that is the problem.

The question, “What should be done about it?”, is fundamental. Before I answer it, however, there is another aspect that we must consider. Let us take the case of Bell Pottinger and the Werrity scandal. In that case, the question that arises is about the international role of lobbyists, because what has not come out is information about the role that Bell Pottinger was playing in Sri Lanka. People have been distracted from that issue, not least because Lord Bell is doing quite a lot of the public relations to try to cover his tracks and what was going on, which was Bell Pottinger representing the Government of Sri Lanka. According to the Catholic bishop of Mannar, under that Government 146,000 people have disappeared without trace, including many members of his congregation, and Bell Pottinger is there in Sri Lanka representing the interests of that Government. That is why transparency is important, and that is why we need to know if Ministers are having meetings with the Sri Lankan Government that were set up by Mr Werrity or indeed by anyone else. What is going on? Bell Pottinger is being paid to facilitate such things on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka.

I will conclude now because other Members wish to speak, but what we need are the following principles, which I will put to the Minister. The first principle is transparency. There must be absolute transparency in all the meetings that we have as politicians, and there is not. The lack of transparency is the fundamental weakness that exists, with people claiming that “private engagements” have happened. There should be no such thing as a “private engagement” for a Minister, and there should be very little of it for an MP. There should be transparency.

Secondly, where money and profit are involved, transparency is all the more urgently required and should be all the more available, because of the paying for access scandals that have bedevilled politics in this country.

The third principle relates to preferential access. There needs to be action on preferential access. How do we do that, because someone cannot stop their researcher

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from working for a lobbying company? It is a free world. However, there needs to be a recording of all ministerial meetings, and all MPs should be recording what lobbyists are attempting to do if they are successful in influencing them. Also, there should be a full ban on paid professional lobbyists having passes in order to access this place.

10.18 am

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn)—

Paul Flynn: Comrade.

Robert Halfon: I congratulate my honourable comrade on the Public Administration Committee on his remarks today. Underneath all the rhetoric from all parties, there is quite a lot of overlap. Although we need to be transparent and open, we should not necessarily see all lobbying as a sort of great conspiracy. I declare my interests, as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

In my view, there are three kinds of lobbying. The first, which has already been described, is constituents writing to us or contacting us on a range of issues. The second involves charities and pressure groups. Many of those charities have huge budgets for public relations and public affairs. Many also have former special advisers working for them who know the Government inside-out, and therefore have what might be described as privileged access. The third kind is the traditional lobbying being highlighted today, which involves private firms, trade unions and big public sector agencies, and the public affairs firms that they hire.

I am proud that in my constituency we have a large bingo club with 40,000 members, and I was only too pleased when, a couple of weeks ago, the Bingo Association came to lobby me about various taxation issues. I cannot see anything wrong with that; it is a good thing, because I want to support my incredibly popular bingo club. We should not condemn all lobbying as sinister and retrograde, because some of it can be used to inform us. Tonight, I have an Adjournment debate on university technical colleges, and e-mails and letters that I have received from all kinds of interest groups have helped me to prepare for it.

Paul Flynn: It should be clear to my hon. Friend that that is not part of our concern. I have tweeted him about his 40,000 bingo club members, and commiserated with him on the fact that such is his constituents’ despair over the future of the economy that they have all resorted to gambling.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend’s wit has no bounds, which is why I enjoy sitting on the Select Committee with him so often.

I support groups and websites such as SpinWatch, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, the Sunlight Centre and Guido Fawkes, because the more openness and transparency the better, but this will be incredibly difficult. Let us say that there is a lobby company called Westminster Communications—I do not know if there is—[ Interruption. ] There is. Okay, let us call it

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Westminster X. If we say that that company has to lobby, there is nothing to prevent it rebranding itself as Widget Strategies Ltd and describing itself as a management consultancy, as opposed to a political one. How do we then register all the businesses that come to see us? Do we have a blanket diary entry and register everything? It is not as easy as it looks.

The case of Adam Werritty has been briefly mentioned. I do not think that that was a lobbying scandal; it was to do with the relationship between special advisers and Ministers. Sometimes the boundaries of special advisers are unclear. Under the previous Government there were Lord Levy and Alastair Campbell, who became a semi-civil servant. There is a lot of confusion, and that is why the Adam Werritty thing needed to happen. The Government need to make the role of special advisers much clearer, including how many there should be and what their duties are.

I agree 100% with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West—he is almost my hon. Friend—about the issue of revolving doors, or Ministers leaving Whitehall and getting jobs. We had an interesting Select Committee sitting with Ian Lang, whose committee—the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—seems not to keep records of individuals whom it has advised not to take up Government jobs, or of individuals who have taken up jobs after leaving Government.

Mr MacShane: Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that it is not so much ex-Ministers who get these jobs, but senior civil servants, who award massive contracts in their Departments and very shortly afterwards go to sit on the boards of some of the companies involved?

Robert Halfon: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. There are scandalous cases of senior civil servants walking out of one door and in through another. I find it particularly outrageous that the Government spend millions of pounds hiring head-hunters and recruitment consultants, yet some of those recruitment consultants have former senior civil servants on board who worked in the human resources department and—surprise, surprise—the job is given to that head-hunting agency. There is no difference between head-hunting agencies raking it in from the taxpayer, and being hired by the Government to carry out some of the activities that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West described.

I regret that the previous Government did not do more. I was not around at the time, but a report by the Public Administration Committee urged the Government to compile a register on lobbying. However, the Government never failed to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It is rich of many Opposition Members to start to have a go at the Government now, when they had so many years to get this right and did nothing.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s confirmation that he will go further and bring in a proper register of lobbyists, including of organisations such as think-tanks and trade unions, which are politically active and part of the lobbying landscape. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) condemned people who work as special advisers and then become MPs. I was one of those dreaded people. My work as a political consultant and as a special adviser helped to prepare me for Parliament.

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The hon. Gentleman would not criticise a lawyer who had spent all his life learning law before becoming a judge.

John Mann: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The concept, and the word, is not “condemned”; it is about pointing to the danger of interchangeability. It is not about condemning individuals for what they do.

Robert Halfon: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the answer is that there must be openness and transparency, but it is not so terrible if a businessman hires someone who has worked in Government or for the Opposition because they understand what has been going on.

We must be more careful and much tougher with quangos—paid for by the taxpayer—that hire paid lobbyists to lobby the taxpayer for more money. Figures show that the Ordnance Survey and the Audit Commission spent more than £600,000 on lobbyists in 2009. Transparency and openness are key; all the problems will go away if everyone is clear about what is happening, and about which lobby groups are lobbying which Ministers and MPs, but there will be a difficulty with the definition.

10.27 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I warmly congratulate the comrades, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), and the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). It is an unusual alliance; perhaps they met around the sides of politics, from the ends of the Back Benches. I completely agree about transparency; it is key. Several Members have referred to the fact that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that he was eating in a private capacity, not a ministerial one. I suspect that he might, on occasion, have eaten in both capacities on the same evening and that, like a cow, he has more than one stomach, and is therefore able to ruminate on behalf of several people.

Robert Halfon: On a point of order, Mr Robertson. That seems to be a case of fatism. Is that not inappropriate?

John Robertson (in the Chair): That is not a point of order.

Chris Bryant: We need to remember that, in essence, we politicians are all lobbyists. We go through lobbies and try to advocate causes, and nearly every one of us—if not all of us—was in one shape or form a lobbyist before we came into Parliament. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) campaigned for workers’ rights when he was working for a trade union; I, as a vicar, argued that my local authority was not doing the right thing by local youth services; others have campaigned for better policing, and so on. We are by nature lobbyists—advocates—trying to persuade people of a better cause. For a couple of years I was a paid lobbyist for the BBC, doing its lobbying in Brussels. I am proud of that work, because at the time Rupert Murdoch was saying that the BBC licence fee was illegal state aid, and that the BBC should be closed down. I am delighted that we won that battle in Brussels, and I believe that it is perfectly possible to be an entirely honourable lobbyist.

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I remember when the Mental Health Bill was going through the House in 2007. As a Back-Bench member of the Bill Committee, I knew remarkably little about mental health and the specifics of legislation. If it had not been for a wide range of people who lobbied me and argued about elements of the Bill, I would not have been able to make as effective a contribution. In the end, I tabled the amendment that became the following provision in the Act:

“In this Act, references to appropriate medical treatment, in relation to a person suffering from mental disorder, are references to medical treatment which is appropriate in his case, taking into account the nature and degree of the mental disorder and all other circumstances of his case.”

To the ordinary eye—and, I suggest, to most MPs, unless they have a background in mental health—that seems a perfectly innocuous statement of what should be the case, but every single word of that provision was fiercely battled over, and rightly so, because of its effect on people who might be sectioned. It was not just mental health charities such as Mind and others that lobbied and provided advice; it was also pharmaceutical companies. If there is a list of evil people in the country, it starts with journalists, then politicians, and then lobbyists, and way at the far end are lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies, but my experience in that situation was that they provided invaluable advice. In the end, it was for me to decide the rights and wrongs and how I could best serve my constituents, but if people had not had such access to me, it would have been impossible for me to do a proper job.

Paul Flynn: The main opposition to any reform comes from those who wish to muddy the issue and suggest that we wish to hamstring some worthy body. The Prime Minister has given the definition of “secret corporate lobbying”; we should realise that that is the subject of this debate and the area in which reforms are long overdue.

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend misunderstands me, I suspect. I do not seek to muddy reform; I want reform. I want a register, and I will suggest a couple of other things as well, but I think that we must be absolutely honest, and part of that involves honesty about the important role that good lobbying can play in the political process, particularly for Opposition Members. Ministers have a host of civil servants who can produce briefings and so on; Opposition Members simply do not have access to that much support. Often it is provided by organisations. If at any point a Member succumbs so completely to the blandishments of some organisation that they effectively become its subsidiary, they stop being a good parliamentary Member and constituency representative. That is the line that I want to draw.

We should also bear in mind that lobbying is a British tradition. It is because there was a lobby outside St Stephen’s chapel that the whole system arose. I remember clearly that when Paris lost its bid for the 2012 Olympics, Delanoë complained that the British had engaged in lobbying. I saw all too often in Brussels that although Britain was good at advocating its case, other countries were not, because they simply did not understand how to go about it properly.

Some industries are particularly lobbyacious—and, Hansard reporters, that is a word, because I have created it. Broadcasting is particularly lobbyacious, because so

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many elements of its work are determined by legislation. We must take special care to ensure a level playing field for everybody.

There are enormous problems, many of which have been referred to, including corrupt lobbying: offers of financial inducements, nice holidays, easy trips and so on. Some methods are directly corrupt and illegal, and the House should deal ferociously with Members who abuse in that direction. Sometimes Members would be best advised not to go to the meal or engage. The rules applying to this House are much stronger than those that apply to the other House. If one wanted to engage in dodgy lobbying, one would be far better advised to do so through the House of Lords—the House of patronage—rather than through the House of Commons. That is another reason why I support reforming the House of Lords to make it an elected second Chamber.

Another way in which it is probably much easier to do a dodgy deal is with civil servants rather than elected Members. There is far less openness; often even the names of people who make important decisions on tenders are not known to the public. Some countries have purposely selected individual Members of both Houses as being more pliable and biddable than others, and have enabled long-term relationships with them. Those relationships need close scrutiny.

What counts as a lobbyist is also a problem. I do not mean to say that we should not have a register; it is one reason why we should. The Prime Minister was a lobbyist before he came into Parliament, and most journalists advocate most of the time in one way or another, especially those with opinion columns. When my constituents set up an organisation to oppose the closure of the Treherbert baths or protect the minor injuries unit at Llwynypia, they are lobbyists. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw is absolutely right. If their space to lobby me were crowded out, I would be failing utterly in my job. Every single diplomat who works for the Foreign Office is also, in essence, a lobbyist. I often feel that they are sent abroad to eat for their country. It is important to recognise the advocacy role of what we do.

The first key thing is that there should be no paid advocacy. That is a rule of this House, but it is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. We need absolute transparency about funding and who is engaged in lobbying, and particularly about who meets any Minister or civil servant engaged in making key decisions.

Thomas Docherty: On the point about influence, does my hon. Friend think that that should apply to Select Committee Chairmen, who have a lot of influence over policy?

Chris Bryant: That is a good point. Members of Select Committees that publish influential reports are often targeted by lobbying organisations. It would be no bad thing if each Select Committee had an open register of lobbying meetings held.

Passes to this place are a problem. When I worked in Brussels, getting a pass to enter the European Parliament on legitimate business was a simple, straightforward and open process. Here, it is clandestine. Lots of people end up finding an hon. Member who is prepared to give them one of their three passes. We should have a complete review of the system. Of course we must

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ensure security in this building, but everybody should have equal access. I would prefer to open the doors than keep them closed so that only some people have enhanced access. Nobody should have enhanced access due to big bucks or cronyism. That last element is difficult to control. I look forward to legislation introducing a register soon. I am not naive about the difficulties of determining what a lobbyist is, but it is essential that we clean up the industry.

John Robertson (in the Chair): I said that I would call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 20 minutes to 11, but I will give a few minutes to another speaker, as that is only fair.

10.39 am

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): I will be as brief as possible.

I worked in the public affairs industry for a year in 2009, but for a company signed up to the Association of Professional Political Consultants, which adheres strongly to transparency. There is a danger of exaggerating such people’s influence. Hon. Members returning after this debate should look in their recycling bins to see how much power the people that we are fretting about actually have. The truth is that we are inundated with lobbying all the time, and we throw away most of it. At the end of the day, it is down to our judgment whether we believe these people. As MPs, we are approached by companies or pressure groups that often smack of commercial interest and we can spot it a mile off. We might also get people who do not articulate their case very well, but we are the ones who can judge that and give them a voice when they may not have one.

I agree that there is a need to improve transparency, and particularly a need for a register of lobbyists. They should be required to list their clients and disclose whether anyone who works for them has had a previous Government role. However, I am nervous about going down the route of disclosing every meeting with people who are trying to lobby us, because it suggests that we base our opinions on the number of people who have lobbied us about something, rather than exercise judgment, which is what we actually do.

My final concern about publishing the details of such meetings relates to an unintended consequence whereby people say, “You met that group, so why can’t you meet us? You’ve met the People’s Front of Judaea, but what about the Judaean People’s Front?” It is difficult enough for Ministers to balance their work load. Do we really want to create a situation whereby organisations start to feel that they almost have an entitlement to meet Ministers on the basis that they have met somebody else?

John Robertson (in the Chair): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his brevity.

10.41 am

Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing the debate, which has been a good one. He is a doughty campaigner and several important

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issues have been raised. Among the many important issues raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) was that of unintended consequences. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) stressed the importance of the principle of transparency. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) made the point that there is a great deal of common ground between politicians in the House, and I shall revert to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) pointed out that lobbyists fulfil a useful role and that it is the question of regulation that concerns us. I also thank him for introducing us to a word with which I was not familiar—“lobbyacious.” Finally, we heard, briefly but pithily, from the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who underlined the complexity of the subject and warned us to be careful not to introduce unintended consequences.

I hope that Members agree that we should all do our best to establish a genuine consensus in the House on how best to register lobbying activity. It is well worth remembering that how best to regulate lobbyists featured in the manifestos of all three main British political parties during the general election campaign. The Labour party stated:

“We will create a Statutory Register of Lobbyists to ensure complete transparency in their activities.”

The Liberal Democrat manifesto stated that the improper influence of lobbyists should be curbed by

“introducing a statutory register of lobbyists”.

Indeed, the Conservative manifesto said:

“We will regulate lobbying through introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and ensuring greater transparency.”

The coalition agreement also has a commitment to a statutory register.

I hope that the Minister will indicate when the long-waited consultation paper will see the light of day. I read with interest his interview in the current House magazine, and it was rather unfair of it to refer to him as “Nick Clegg’s babysitter”. [Hon. Members: “Aah.”] I am glad that hon. Members agree that that is a rather unfair description. I dare say that some would prefer to describe the Minister as “David Cameron’s handmaiden.”

In that interview, the Minister alluded to several other constitutional issues, which mean that the register of lobbyists has slipped from the Deputy Prime Minister’s initial target of later this year. I sincerely hope that the Minister’s work load will not prevent him from keeping his promise of at least a consultation document in the next few weeks. If he could provide us with a publication date today, that would be most helpful.

When that consultation document is published, I hope that there will be a widespread debate and that the Government will listen carefully to the views expressed by all.

Robert Halfon: Although the hon. Gentleman rightly urges the Government to take action on this and for us to fulfil our election manifesto commitment, does he not regret that his own party did not follow through the recommendations of the 2009 report of the Public Administration Committee?

Mr David: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will address that point in a moment.

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It is important for the Government to learn from the unfortunate episodes that we have witnessed in this House in recent times. I also urge them to study carefully the experiences of other legislatures, particularly in Australia and Canada. There is no easy formula or one-size-fits-all approach—nothing can be taken off the shelf—but we can learn from what has happened in other countries.

I would like to make a few suggestions about the principles that I believe should underpin any future statutory register of lobbyists. Building on the cornerstone of transparency, to which several Members referred, the Public Administration Committee stated in its 2009 report that information in a statutory register must include

“the names of the individuals carrying out lobbying activity and of any organisation employing or hiring them, whether a consultancy, law firm, corporation or campaigning organisation.”

Secondly, it stated that the information should include,

“in the case of multi-client consultancies, the names of their clients.”

Thirdly, it recommended the inclusion of

“information about any public office previously held by an individual lobbyist—essentially, excerpts from their career history.”

Fourthly, the report said that there should be

“a list of the interests of decision makers within the public service (Ministers, senior civil servants and senior public servants) and summaries of their career histories outside the public service”.

Fifthly, it stated that there should be

“information about contacts between lobbyists and decision makers—essentially, diary records and minutes of meetings. The aim would be to cover all meetings and conversations between decision makers and outside interests.”

Those five points are a good starting point. Some will suggest that they do not go far enough, while others will say that they go too far. They are, however, a useful point at which to begin our discourse. As the hon. Member for Harlow suggested, some may wonder why the report was not implemented when Labour was in government. I shall pre-empt that argument by saying that, while it is true that Labour did not take up the Committee’s call for a statutory register, it nevertheless indicated in January 2010 that, if a voluntary system proved ineffectual, it would be necessary to go further. I suggest that the time has indeed come for us to go further.

There is a danger that our approach to this admittedly complex and difficult area could end up being too broad and general. We must also be mindful of unintended consequences, as a number of Members have said. We are all advocates and ambassadors for our constituents, and many of us support a wide range of organisations that do not fit the widely accepted definition of a lobbying organisation. We must be careful that we take that into account when we define which bodies and individuals should be included in a statutory register of lobbying interests.

Finally, a register of lobbyists will not wholly solve the problem of the exercise of inappropriate influence. Let us not forget that the friend of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), Mr Adam Werritty, was not a lobbyist as such. If anything, that episode clearly demonstrates that it is necessary for us to have in place a number of safeguards that are vigorously enforced. A statutory register of lobbyists, however, would be a vital element in ensuring that faith is restored once again in our parliamentary democracy.

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10.49 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing the debate, which has largely been helpful and balanced.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was useful because it put into context the fact that lobbying can be very helpful and that it enables Members of Parliament to be better informed. He gave the example of the Mental Health Bill. I had the same experience in opposition, when I worked with many disability organisations and charities. In opposition, some of the assistance and resources of lobbyists are needed to help the argument and ensure that legislation is framed properly and that well-informed questions can be asked. The problem occurs when those types of contacts are not transparent. The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) made that point. The issue is transparency.

I will say this from the start as it may pre-empt some interventions: we are committed to introducing a statutory register. We will publish our proposals for consultation before the end of this month, and then I hope we can engage in that debate. Several hon. Members have alluded to that matter. The reason we are publishing our proposals for consultation is very simple: we want to get it right. We need to get the definition of who would be captured by the term lobbyist correct. We must not stifle legitimate lobbying or the ability of our constituents and other people to talk to us or Ministers, but we need to ensure that the relevant information is out in the open. We must deal with the issue correctly, so we will publish our proposals and have a thorough consultation on which everybody—Members and those outside—can have their say. We can then ensure that we strike the right balance.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Is there not an element of “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza” in all this? As the Minister says, when the proposals are published, there will be consultation and debate. No doubt that will involve a considerable degree of lobbying. What will be his attitude to the lobbying approaches he receives as Minister during that consultation period?

Mr Harper: Let me come on to that at in a moment because I want to set out my thoughts logically.

I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) for his relatively consensual approach because it is important that we get dealing with the issue right. The subject affects all parties, and all parties have lessons to learn. We need to ensure that we approach the issue on that basis. He struck the right note, but to encourage other Labour Members also to take such an approach, I will remind them of what they did or did not do in Government. An amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats on having more transparency on lobbying was mentioned. Every single Labour MP here who was in the House at the time happily voted against that. The hon. Member for Newport West clearly paid very little attention to the new clause when he voted against it because if he had read it, it sounds as though he would have agreed with most of it.

Chris Bryant: What was it?

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Mr Harper: It was new clause 76 to the Companies Bill 2006, which was debated on 18 October 2006. Yes, the hon. Gentleman voted against it, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Newport West.

Paul Flynn: The Minister has eight minutes to build some kind of consensual approach to the subject, instead of which he is involving himself in petty political point scoring. Can he tell us how often he has been lobbied about the lobbying reforms since he has become a Minister and will he have talks with the Opposition to ensure that we have a consensual approach? Such an approach will possibly take us into the next Government, which is when many of us think these reforms will take place.

Mr Harper: I would have slightly longer to respond if the hon. Gentleman had not interrupted me. I was coming on to his point and was trying to deal with the questions he raised in his speech.

On the hon. Gentleman’s comment, the Government have made a lot of progress on transparency. We publish all the meetings that Ministers have with external organisations. If he had troubled to look at the written answers I have given—and, indeed, my meetings—he would see that I have had one meeting with the independent chairman of the UK Public Affairs Council on the subject. I have had no meetings to discuss the issue with lobbying companies and no meetings with anti-lobbying companies either. We will publish a comprehensive consultation, so that everybody can have their say.

That information on meetings has been published. If the hon. Gentleman had looked for it before the debate, he would have seen it. The details are available on data.gov.uk for the benefit of hon. Members. We also publish hospitality and gifts received by Ministers and special advisers, details of Ministers’ overseas visits, details of permanent secretaries’ meetings and Government procurement information so that we can see what the Government are spending and lots of other information.

The meetings that Ministers in the Department for Education hold are a very good example of departmental meetings. The sorts of people to whom they talk are not surprising. The most frequent meetings are with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo’s and the National Children’s Bureau. Those are the sorts of people one would expect Ministers in that Department to meet, so that they can talk about serious and important issues. Transparency is very welcome.

The previous Government did not make progress on the matter. Just before the election, they committed to a statutory register in response to the events that took place in March 2010. At that time, several former Ministers were accused of behaviour that, following the report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, led to their being banned from the House for a significant period. I only say that to calm down some Labour Members who get rather paranoid about the speed with which the Government are working. As I have said, we will publish the consultation paper this month and we will make progress. The previous Government did not do that during the 13 years they were in office, so can we just have a bit of calm? I am very happy to work with the hon. Member for Caerphilly who speaks for the Opposition on a consensual basis.

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Mr David: I simply make the point that we have an ideal opportunity to make progress now because there is a genuine political consensus. I therefore urge the Government to be constructive.

Mr Harper: Yes, and I am very pleased to do so.

The hon. Member for Newport West also referred to Ministers who take up roles on leaving office. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister strengthened the guidelines on that in the ministerial code he published last year. Ministers must seek the advice of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and they must abide by it. That was not previously the case. Ministers had to get the advice, but they did not have to abide by it. In addition, for the first time, my right hon. Friend introduced a ministerial code that bans former Ministers from lobbying for two years after leaving office. So, they are absolutely not allowed to go straight out of office, get a job and start lobbying the Government again. That is a very helpful step forward.

Robert Halfon: I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks about the advisory committee, but does he not think it would be better if it published its recommendations for everybody to see? We could then see which Ministers had followed the advice and who had not.

Mr Harper: I listened very carefully to what my hon. Friend said about the inquiry that the Public Administration Committee is undertaking at the moment and the evidence it has heard. Clearly, when it publishes its report, the Government will look very carefully at its recommendations and respond in due course. I look forward to the Committee’s report.

Thomas Docherty: The Minister referred to the website data.gov.uk. I have just had a chance to go on that website and can see that the Cabinet Office information has not been updated since December 2010. Does he think that that is transparent?

Mr Harper: My understanding is that all the meetings up to the end of April this year have been published. However, I will check up on the matter. It was my understanding because that information has been provided.

On the point the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) made, even some of his colleagues—I will not embarrass them by pointing them out—thought that his line about trade unions not being encompassed by the transparency rules is unsustainable. Given the fact that the party he represents gets 85% of its donations from trade unions and a quarter of its donations from a single trade union, I am afraid that his argument is simply not defensible.

John Mann: I have not put that argument. Lobbyists are lobbyists and trade union lobbyists are lobbyists. However, every trade union member and trade union official is not a lobbyist. A lobbyist is a lobbyist. I, for one, have never been one.

Mr Harper: But every trade union official who seeks to influence Members and Ministers is engaged in lobbying, and they should be covered by the transparency rules just like everyone else. They have nothing to hide and it is important that the hon. Gentleman recognises that as, to be fair, I think several Labour Members do.

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There will be some challenges about definitions and what we encompass in our consultation. That is why we want to listen and ensure that people can make a case and approach Members of Parliament, and that there is nothing untoward going on. We need to ensure that there is transparency, that people know what is going on, that Members of Parliament and Ministers are using their judgment about the arguments when they are making decisions and that people are not getting privileged access.

Transparency is a good thing. We will introduce our proposals this month and listen to what people have to say. I am very happy to have a dialogue with the hon. Member for Caerphilly to try to reach a consensual approach between the parties because the position will then be much clearer. The hon. Member for Newport West made a valid point that we need our constituents to have much more confidence in the system. I hope that we can reduce the chances of abuse and problems occurring in future.

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Living Standards (Telford)

11 am

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson, on a fine morning in Westminster. Having said that it is a fine morning in Westminster, it is a difficult time for families in Telford, who are struggling with higher food prices and energy bills, and who are worried about their jobs and their children’s futures. People in Telford are experiencing a significant squeeze on their living standards as a result of the global economic crisis and the deficit reduction strategy being pursued by the coalition Government. The global financial crisis has hit every country. The downturn was not created in Britain; it was caused by the irresponsible actions of the banks, which pushed up deficits in every major country. Every country, therefore, faces the challenge of getting its deficit down. The question is how quickly that should be done, and how to ensure that economic recovery is not choked off, which would make things worse.

I will return to that theme later, but I want to focus specifically on Telford and the situation that my constituents find themselves in. There is a very worrying trend in the number of people out of work and claiming jobseeker’s allowance in Telford. As of September this year, 2,929 are in that position. That is an 85.1% increase on the same period in 2006, with a 6% rise since last year. Some 345 people have been claiming for 12 months or more; that is 5% of 16 to 64-year-olds, and 6.6% of the economically active population. More than 1,000 people aged 24 and under claimed jobseeker’s allowance in September. A third of the total number of people unemployed are young people. More than three people— 3.4 people, in fact—are chasing every vacancy that is notified to Jobcentre Plus. The actual figure is probably higher than that, as companies tell me that they get hundreds of applications for every job that they advertise. I visit companies in my constituency, and they always get a flood of applications when they advertise a post.

Telford has a large number of public sector jobs, and some of the biggest private sector employers are reliant on public sector contracts. Uncertainty over job cuts and low growth in the economy generally—in fact, a virtual flatlining of growth—has left people worried about their future. In turn, that has a number of consequences, such as a sapping of confidence in the local housing market. A report published yesterday by the Home Builders Federation shows that in 2000, house prices in Telford and Wrekin stood at 3.41 times average earnings. In 2010, that had risen to 6.1 times average earnings. Lower-quartile house prices—the properties most likely to be bought by first-time buyers—have risen from £42,750 in 2000 to £107,500 in 2010. People are struggling to secure mortgages, and entry into the market is very difficult for first-time buyers. There is a burgeoning private rental market in Telford. Every week, when I pick up the Telford Journal, there are significant numbers of properties up for private rent—a clear sign that the sales sector of the local housing market is struggling, and that there is a lack of confidence.

That is the backdrop to an intense squeeze on living standards for those who are in work. We all know that inflation is high, with the retail prices index at 5.6%—the

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highest annual rate since 1991. The Government seem to be largely ignoring that fact. They are keen to downplay the importance of inflation in the economic landscape, like someone who thinks that if they cover their eyes the problem will just go away. For those on low and fixed incomes, including pensioners, inflation is a hammer blow, particularly when interest rates on savings are not keeping pace with inflation. Meanwhile, wages are being squeezed. Indeed, the Governor of the Bank of England has said that real wages this year are likely to be no higher than they were in 2005. This is the first time since the 1920s that wages have fallen over a six-year period.

Food prices are on the rise, and the big six energy companies have announced sharp rises in prices. Families now face average bills of more than £1,200 a year for gas and electricity. Across the west midlands, approximately one household in four lives in fuel poverty, spending more than 10% of its income on fuel costs. I regularly see constituents in Telford who complain bitterly about fuel prices. Households in poor-quality housing face even higher energy costs. We need a major review of how the energy market operates, and we need to bring greater competition into the market. Privatisation effectively created a six-company cartel for energy, with the big providers dominating the scene. We need to diversify that market if we can, or at least do what the Prime Minister suggested—I support him on this—and ensure better information on bills, so that people can compare prices against those of other providers. That is crucial. We need energy companies to invest more, and to try to bring down prices.

I mentioned the number of young people claiming JSA in Telford. The next generation has seen the future jobs fund and the education maintenance allowance scrapped. Alongside that, two thirds of universities plan to charge the new £9,000 tuition fee, and average fees will be more than £8,000. Clearly, the situation is very difficult for young people who are looking to get into employment, training or education. We need a massive drive to get young people into education, training or work. Our activity needs to be focused on the needs of young people in towns such as Telford.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the ways that standards of living can be improved for the constituents of Telford and The Wrekin is by ensuring that public finances are managed well, both nationally and locally? Given that Telford and Wrekin borough council has a new Labour administration, does he support my call for a council tax freeze in the coming years to help those who are struggling to make ends meet?

David Wright: Clearly, the council will have to look at its budget very carefully. It will have a number of pressures in the next year or so. We will have to consider the Government’s funding proposals for the local authority. Clearly, the council will look at its budget-setting. Its difficulty is that massive cuts are in place, and they are affecting the poorest people in our community. The answer to the hon. Gentleman is that we will have to wait and see. At the moment, I do not know what the council’s position will be on council tax.

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On household incomes, the Government’s decisions on VAT rub salt in the wounds of every family in Telford. The latest report from the Office for National Statistics states:

“The poorest fifth of households in the UK spent a higher proportion of their expenditure on goods and services that attracted Value Added Tax (VAT) in 2009/10 than in 1986…Poorer households in 1986 spent a smaller proportion of their expenditure, than poorer households in 2009/10, on discretionary items which attracted VAT…the data shows the poorest fifth of households in the UK pay more in VAT as a percentage of their disposable income than the richest fifth.”

VAT is hitting the poorest people in our community the most. We need a quick rethink on our VAT strategy. We need to ensure that we support households that find it very difficult to make ends meet.

I mentioned pensioners earlier, and I wanted to say that many of them in Telford tell me how important the winter fuel allowance and free local bus travel are. The yearly tax-free payment to help people pay for their heating in winter was worth £250 for over-60s and £400 for over-80s. I was extremely disappointed that the coalition decided that the payment will revert to £200 and £300 for the two age groups in the winter of 2011-12. I urge the Government to think again in their pre-Budget report.

I do not claim that Telford has problems that have emerged only in the past 18 months—frankly, that would be ridiculous. Telford and Wrekin has higher than average levels of multiple deprivation, especially in wards in the south of the town, and we have a significant number of children living in poverty. The End Child Poverty campaign group, which fights to give poor families a voice, estimates that 30% of children in the Telford constituency were living in poverty in mid-2010, compared with 23.1% in England as a whole; in some wards, the figure was approaching more than double that. Children are classified as being in poverty if they live in families in receipt of out-of-work benefits, or in receipt of in-work tax credits, and with a reported income of less than 60% of median income. Telford and Wrekin’s NHS trust states that 9,305 children are living in poverty in the borough.

Those problems have no quick fix. I am proud of the work of the previous Government, who introduced tax credits and a range of benefits to support children. Sure Start children’s centres have been a major success in the town, and the Building Schools for the Future programme promised the opportunity for every child to enjoy state-of-the-art learning facilities. Locally, that policy was supported on both sides of the council chamber, I am pleased to say, but we must still do more to support families.

People in Telford regularly raise the issue of the cost of child care and the continuing inflexibility of the labour market, and we need to do much more work on those policy areas, but the key to improving living standards in the town is to secure growth in the economy and attract more high-paid work. That approach helps people who are struggling and who are having their living standards squeezed, and supports business.

Immediate action should include the following five points—they will not come as too much of a surprise to you, Mr Robertson. First, a £2 billion tax on bank bonuses could fund 100,000 jobs for young people and build 25,000 affordable homes. Secondly, long-term

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investment projects, such as new school buildings, should be brought forward—we have done well in Telford with that kind of approach. Thirdly, the VAT rise should be temporarily reversed, which would give a £450 boost for families with children. Fourthly, there ought to be a one-year cut in VAT to 5% on home improvements and repairs, to help small businesses. Fifthly, there ought to be a tax break for every small firm that takes on extra workers. In short, in Telford we need Labour’s five-point plan for growth.

11.12 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Miller): I commend the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on securing this debate, which I am sure is important for his constituents. He covered a wide range of issues, and I hope that I can set out some of the action that the Government are taking. I absolutely understand his concern about the challenges that families face. I am sure that he welcomes the swift action that the Government have taken to address many of those underlying concerns. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said, if we are to provide the long-term stability that families need, the first thing that we must do is secure the public finances. The truth is that the Government inherited from Labour—the party that the hon. Member for Telford represents—the largest public budget deficit in peacetime history: it was some £156 billion, which is more than the deficit in many other developed countries, and it accounts for around 11% of our country’s annual income.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) set out five points for growth, but he could have had a sixth point: stop taxpayers’ money being used to fund unions in local authorities. Most people in Telford and Wrekin would rather see their taxpayers’ money spent on a weekly bin collection than on full-time union officials who will possibly campaign in local elections.

Maria Miller: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Councils have a real challenge in ensuring that they are using their money most efficiently. An important recent report by Scope showed a huge divergence in how councils are approaching their budget challenges. By making decisions on what is most important for our constituents and local residents, we can ensure that the money goes where it is needed most. I have great sympathy for his point about weekly bin collections. Ensuring that public finances are secure is at the heart of what our Government are all about.

Let me set out for the constituents of the hon. Member for Telford some practical ways in which the Government are taking account of the pressure on families’ finances. The cut in fuel duty made by the coalition counters some of the measures of the previous Administration. Rather than recognising the problems faced by families, the previous Government put this country on an ever-increasing fuel duty escalator, creating some of the problems that we are dealing with. Rather than continuing on that escalator, the Government decided not to implement Labour’s planned increase of 5p per litre in April this year and, in the Budget, announced a further 1p cut as well, recognising the real challenges faced by families.

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The other important issue that the Government have taken into account is the real financial problem that council tax causes families. A council tax freeze recognises the financial challenges that the hon. Gentleman rightly outlined. Our measures recognise those challenges and try to help families to make ends meet in these difficult times.

As a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, I very much feel that employment is the way out for many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and would enable them to achieve the standard of living that I know he wants them to enjoy.

Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the fantastic recent news that Jaguar Land Rover has decided to invest in my constituency will create an awful lot of employment, and not only in South Staffordshire? It will benefit many people working in the supply chain industry in Telford and across the region.

Maria Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that very real example of how British industry—indeed, the manufacturing sector—is benefiting from the stability that the Government have achieved by getting our public finances in order and ensuring that people feel that it is right to continue to invest in our country. It is not only large employers, such as the one that he cited, but smaller employers who look to the Government to ensure that Britain is a great place to do business. The work undertaken by our colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows the Government’s commitment to the issue.

We are improving support for new businesses with a 40,000-strong network of experienced business mentors. We are working to strip away regulations, and we are cutting corporate taxes. We will bring the headline rate down to 23% by 2014, making this country one of the most attractive places to set up a new business. We are giving micro-businesses a three-year exemption from all new domestic regulations from April 2011, and we are helping small and medium-sized enterprises to create new jobs by investing £180 million in 250,000 new apprentices. Those are the sorts of practical ways in which the Government are supporting the constituents of the hon. Member for Telford, so that they are not, as perhaps happened under the previous Government, consigned to unemployment, but given the opportunity to get into work.

If we look at the unemployment figures for Telford from 2008 to 2010, the sad truth is that the rate nearly doubled. Even more tragically, under the previous Administration, the number of young people who sought jobseeker’s allowance increased from a little more than 500 to more than 900. At a time when the economy was growing, the previous Administration did not do enough to help individuals get into work, and the recession has made a difficult situation worse for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. That is why my Department has been looking at a wide-ranging set of reforms. The universal credit will ensure that work will pay, and the Work programme will ensure bespoke and individual support to get people into work in long-term, sustainable jobs. That practical support will give his constituents the sort of job that will secure them the standard of living that he is fighting for them to enjoy. I hope that he will

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support the introduction of the universal credit and the Work programme, which will benefit his constituents in the way that I outlined.

As the Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I note the challenges that many of the hon. Gentleman’s disabled constituents will face, so the Department has been looking very carefully at how we can support and help disabled people into not just short-term but long-term employment, and help them to retain jobs that they may already have. I was pleased to note that Remploy Employment Services has supported almost 200 individuals in the past year in the hon. Gentleman’s area. It has helped individuals with disabilities or in challenging circumstances to get into work, and throughout the Shropshire area it has helped more than 500 people to get into employment. That practical help will really make a difference to the residents of Telford. That success story applies to the broader employment market as well.

Telford jobcentre has around 1,000 new vacancies every month. I hope that the individuals whom the hon. Gentleman represents will be able to get skills under their belt through the Work programme and take advantage of that job market. No one is saying that it is easy or straightforward. It is a challenge, particularly in an area that has had a great history of industry that has evolved and changed. I speak with a little knowledge, having been born and brought up not far away. The communities face real challenges. However, through the Work programme and the support that we can give people to get the right sort of apprenticeship training, we can help many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Perhaps they have felt that they did not have the relevant support to get into employment before, but we will provide support to help them get the sort of jobs that will give them the standard of living that I know the hon. Gentleman wants them to be able to enjoy.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about fuel prices and the challenges that families face, but I hope that he is reassured by my earlier comments on the actions that the Government have taken, particularly around fuel duty, to ease the burden on motorists. We know that the challenge goes further than that, and that the problem falls particularly on our older constituents. We have therefore prioritised the importance of the winter fuel payment, which will be £200 for those born before 5 January 1951, and £300 for those aged 80 and over. Indeed, we have gone further than the previous Government by permanently increasing the cold weather payment, which is a very targeted way of getting support to vulnerable constituents, about whom I know he will be concerned when he is talking about fuel duty. We are increasing that payment from £8.50 to £25. Again, in a practical way, we are recognising the challenges facing families, and particularly the most vulnerable in our communities. I hope that I have been able to draw together the issues that we are putting in place to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman brought up the issue of VAT. There is nothing fair about the deficit that the Government and the people of Britain inherited from the Labour Administration. It is not fair that so many families were trapped in a cycle of dependency. Our decisive dealing with the deficit has ensured that

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those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burdens and support the most vulnerable and those facing the biggest challenges in society. We have made sure that those on the highest incomes contribute more towards the entire fiscal consolidation, not only in cash terms but as a proportion of their income and consumption of public services combined. That is why we introduced the new fairness premium.

On the hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the role that VAT could play in trying to redress what he called an imbalance in fairness, I draw his attention to the fact that fairness is very much at the heart of the Government’s approach to addressing the fiscal deficit, and across the whole piece we are making sure that those who can pay bear the biggest burden.

Child poverty is an area for which I have direct responsibility. I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the child poverty strategy that the Government introduced in April. I also hope that he welcomes our evolving idea for a commission to look not only at child poverty but social mobility. I am sure that he wants to ensure that his constituents have social mobility, so that they can enjoy a better quality of life and standard of living. By drawing those two important issues into one commission, the Government can be held to account, and there can be the right level of scrutiny of our policies. The child poverty strategy underpins the Government’s ambition for children to be able to realise their potential throughout the country, whether they live in the north, south, east, west or, indeed, the midlands—the area that the hon. Gentleman represents.

The universal credit is one of the most potent tools for addressing child poverty. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have followed very closely the debate in this place and the other place. The introduction of universal credit, which tries to simplify our overly complex benefits system, will help around 900,000 individuals, including more than 350,000 children, out of poverty by making sure that work pays. People will understand that our very complex benefits system can be simplified and made to work for them, rather than there being a jungle of different benefits, as is the case at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of child care in making sure that work pays. I agree that that is important. I know from my constituents—I am sure that this is true of his as well—that the costs of child care can make all the difference to being able to get into work. The Government have recognised the difficulties that families face. We have reaffirmed our commitment to helping parents with the costs of child care by investing an extra £300 million in child care support under the universal credit system. Individuals who perhaps found it difficult to stay close to the labour market when they had children, because they were not able to do a full-time job, will for the first time have access to child care cost support. Individuals working fewer than 16 hours a week will be able to get the support that will enable them to do a few hours’ work a week. That will keep them close to the labour market, and perhaps when their children are older, they will be able to take on more work. The Government are trying to help families through difficult times in practical ways, so that they can build better lives.

I have covered many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. If I have left any out, I am sure that he will raise them with me separately. I hope that I have

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reassured him and his constituents that the Government absolutely understand the pressures that families are under at the moment. We are taking very practical steps to alleviate some of the financial pressures that families face. We are looking to the long term and putting in place the sorts of building blocks that will help families, individuals, and parents, and will help children to get the right start in life. We will help people to get the support that they need to get good jobs and keep them in the long term. We are trying to give them the standard of living that the hon. Gentleman and I want them to enjoy.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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High-Speed Rail

[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, for what I think is the first time.

Members may wonder why we are having yet another debate on High Speed 2. In fact, we are not; we are having a debate on high-speed rail in the north. I requested this debate partly because when we discussed the issue in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago, I felt that there were not enough contributions from the north, and I wanted to rebalance the equation. I do not want to debate the merits of HS2 today, and I do not really want to talk about anything south of Birmingham if I can help it. I want the debate to focus on the north, and I do not intend to stop at the Scottish border. I deliberately used the word “north” to encourage Scottish Members to participate in the debate.

I will try to make clear the terms of the debate, and also state what the debate is not. I used the phrase “high-speed rail in the north” to ensure that the debate was not about HS2—which to my mind is ultra high speed—but about high-speed rail as a concept. Equally, I make a plea for a slightly more consensual style, compared to previous debates. New infrastructure projects understandably excite high passions, but wandering into Prime Minister’s questions wearing a colourful badge that cannot be read by anyone watching TV, let alone other Members, does not benefit either set of arguments, and diminishes the dignity of the House. That does not mean, however, that we have to accept a mushy consensus on infrastructure projects. I accept that we will disagree, but I hope that we can do so in a polite and measured way.

If I were given billions of pounds to spend on transport in the north of England, would I immediately reach for high-speed rail links to London? Perhaps not. When “The Northern Way” transport compact first got going in 2006-07, it did not mention high-speed rail because that was simply not on the agenda. It focused on improved connectivity in the north of England, rather than between the north and the south, and it highlighted the importance of the trans-Pennine corridor. That importance was emphasised by the Government’s switch from the S-route to the Y-route, together with the issue of what to do with the Woodhead tunnels. I would also welcome a little reassurance from the Minister on the northern hub. Even if it is to be delivered in parts, will the sum of those parts still equal the whole of the vision? I trust that it will.

We must consider how we differ from our European counterparts. If I think of the Liverpool-Manchester metropolis, it rather reminds me of the Rhine-Ruhrgebiet in Germany, another heavily industrialised urban area. One difference, however, between this country and the Rhine-Ruhr area is the comparatively poor transport links found in our metropolises. We can learn a lot just by looking at Germany for a change.

I have no shortage of material for this debate, and although I could probably speak for an hour and a half without trying, I promise that I have no intention of

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doing so. I will try to take a step back and look at some of the more thematic policy issues and the effect that a decision to proceed with any form of high-speed rail north of Birmingham will have on Government policy making. I do not want to see half-baked solutions that run to other people’s political timetables.

Quality of policy making is crucial; it is what I came into politics to try to improve, and no matter what party is in power, I think that the quality and detail of public policy making in this country is bad. The quality of our understanding of transport in the north of England is, to my mind, entirely due to work by “The Northern Way” over the past five years, and I mourn its loss greatly. I do not blame the Government entirely for that loss, and it is a shame that many of the local actors who had the chance to fund “The Northern Way” after the closure of the regional development agencies did not take the opportunity to do so. The loss of “The Northern Way” has created a fundamental problem, because we have lost the pan-northern perspective and the ability to weigh up differing priorities in Yorkshire, the north-west and the north-east. We are seeing a retreat back to lists of regional priorities, with Manchester wanting one thing, Liverpool another, and Leeds something else, and there is no body that tries to pull those things together and says, “Your proposal is slightly better than that one.” We need some form of co-ordinating body that would allow such prioritisation.

I participated in the Transport Committee inquiry into high-speed rail—I assure hon. Members that it was a mammoth undertaking, and I do not think that my life will ever be the same—so I know how much controversy there has been not only over the detail of the route, but about which field the line will or will not go through, how noisy or quiet it will be, how big this will be and how small that will be. We have perhaps never seen such controversy over a single infrastructure project. The debate was based on the single premise—the single fallacy—that merely building infrastructure automatically promotes economic growth. It does not. It is not a case of “Build it and they will come”; we need look only at so-called Stratford International station to know that. Stratford International station in east London is remarkable in having no international train services—most impressive. It is a classic example of the sort of white elephant that those of us who are concerned about levels of public expenditure do not wish to see.

The Department for Transport’s promotion of high-speed rail has focused on the three Ls—Lille, Lyon and Lleida—as examples of how investment in high-speed rail in Europe has brought economic growth to the surrounding areas. However, for every city named by the DFT, the anti-high-speed rail campaign provides an alternative, and says that high-speed rail makes no difference at all, is a total waste of money and that we should not bother. At the end, it is rather like the Eurovision song contest on a city basis, with “nul points for Zaragoza,” and “dix points for Brussels.” That is not informative, and what matters is not so much the location, the name of the city or how good its PR effort is, but what the local government in the area chooses to do in response to hearing that it will get a high-speed rail link. That critical variable is often overlooked in the debate.

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In evidence to the Transport Committee, Professor Tomaney from Newcastle university stated:

“The stations themselves do not, on their own, provide those development opportunities. What is required is much larger-scale economic development planning.”

Hon. Members may think that I, a Conservative, would hide my head under the desk at that statement—“How could he possibly suggest economic planning? What an appalling thing to do!”—but it is more subtle than that. If we know that a high-speed rail link will go to the centre of Manchester, we have to deal not only with issues of dispersal, an integrated transport system and whether the buses and suburban trains interlink, but wider policy issues about housing and jobs, and schools policy in particular, which is often overlooked in transport planning. We should look at the wider policy, not just at issues of transport, and as the Government move forward and consider how to progress with high-speed rail, they must look at more than just transport.

There are risks, and it is silly to pretend that high-speed rail will be only a good thing and that nothing bad could ever happen. Professor Roger Vickerman also gave evidence to the Transport Committee, and pointed out that although the arrival of the TGV in Lyon and Lille benefited those two cities, it also sucked in some of the economic activity from towns in their immediate peripheries. Unless the correct decisions are taken locally, high-speed rail could arrive in one city and cause a diminution in economic activity in a neighbouring city, suburb or minor area. That is a possibility, but certainly not a given. There are no givens in this debate because, as I say, the situation depends entirely on the decision making at local and regional level. Whether someone is a supporter or a detractor—a friend or foe—of high-speed rail, they have to agree that that must be part of the debate, and I argue strongly that it has been absent from the debate so far.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): As a fellow member of the Transport Committee I, too, was on the visit to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Although we heard that argument made in Lille, in Frankfurt we heard a counter-argument: the Frankfurt to Cologne line had a significant impact in improving the whole region, not just the two places where there was a station. People argued strongly in Frankfurt that there was a benefit for the whole region between those two areas.

Paul Maynard: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is correct and almost makes my point for me: it is horses for courses. We can all point to examples of high-speed rail achieving one thing in one area and a different thing in another. The most interesting aspect of the German example that he points to is that Frankfurt is at the confluence of about four different Länder. It is quite difficult for Frankfurt to have regional planning when, at the level at which that tends to occur, it has about four different bodies to try to liaise with. That again shows the difficulties, but also that if the will is there, the correct decisions can be made that lead to economic growth.

That is perhaps the challenge that we have to face: at what level do we seek to take the decisions? I am firmly of the view that local transport consortiums—or whichever range of acronyms we wish to append to the matter this week—are crucial for moving forward. I would welcome

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information from the Government on how that is progressing. We can point to Transport for Greater Manchester as a very good example of what can be done. It is interesting and welcome that the differing integrated transport authorities are all moving at what I suggest is a slightly different pace in their own particular direction. Standardisation is being lost, and there is, I think, more local sensibility. That can only be a good thing, but it still does not resolve the problem that I shall refer to, with apologies to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), as the Skelmersdale problem. I mean no disrespect to that fine town.

Skelmersdale is in the travel-to-work area of at least two major conurbations—Manchester and Liverpool—yet it is not in either the Greater Manchester or Merseyside city regions. It is in the district of West Lancashire. That poses a challenge for transport planning, because we seem to have in this country a culture that says, “You are where you are. You are defined by your boundaries, not by your economic patterns or what actually happens in an area.” We also seem to have an unwritten rule that says, “You can only be in one club at any one time. You can’t be in both the Greater Manchester area and the Merseyside area at the same time. Heaven forfend!” That has consequences, as I hope the hon. Lady would agree, for her constituents, in terms of improving transport links to both the main areas.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman encapsulates the problem that my constituents have. The new town of Skelmersdale is 50 years old this year. It has no railway station and very poor transport links, and it is therefore isolated. If we could extend the development of high-speed rail through the north-west, that would bring economic benefits right round, not just to the Skelmersdale part of my constituency, but to the Ormskirk and Burscough areas, with the Burscough curves joining lines up to Preston. It is nonsense that in the 21st century we should be caught between two stools. We have no railway station and no transport links, and are therefore losing out on a huge economic benefit.

Paul Maynard: I thank the hon. Lady for that informative intervention. I know that there is no shortage of transport proposals in West Lancashire. She has not even mentioned the Ormskirk bypass yet. We could go on and on, I am sure.

To my mind, city regions have the best potential. I know that potentially they are also controversial. I am sure that many people would not want a return to Merseyside. However, I welcome the proposals from Lord Heseltine and Terry Leahy; if we are to have elected mayors in our great cities, they probably need to cover more than just the council of that name.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): As a proud Merseysider, I have to correct the hon. Gentleman and tell him that Merseyside still exists, certainly in transport terms. One of the important things that he is telling us is that interconnectivity between city regions that cover places such as Skelmersdale, and from Wirral to north Wales, is among the most important factors. There is already some good practice on the ground, certainly in Merseyside, in that respect. Is his point that we should

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deal with the reality of people’s lives, rather than having arbitrary decisions made in Whitehall about what councils do or do not exist?

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): Order. I ask hon. Members to keep to the substantive issue of the debate when making interventions.

Paul Maynard: I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) that this should be about people’s lives. Let us imagine that high-speed rail is coming to Liverpool. That will have an impact on the lives of people outside the former Merseyside as well as inside it, whether they are in Cheshire, Halton, Skelmersdale or wherever, and we have to respond to that.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I would like to turn the focus slightly away from Lancashire and Merseyside for a second. The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful argument for the importance of local networks and making the most of high-speed rail. That applies in Scotland as well. Does he agree that it is important that a decision and commitment is made at an early stage that the routes will run to Glasgow and Edinburgh, not just because that will benefit our areas but because it will bring particular added value to communities further south, which will gain from the extra business that the extension to Edinburgh and Glasgow will bring to communities all along the line?

Paul Maynard: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. That is precisely why I used the phrase “high-speed rail in the north”—because I did mean north as far as Scotland, and not just to the Scottish border. As I said, we seem to spend a lot of time trading cases of where high-speed rail has worked and where it has not. I have tried to ban the word “transformative” from my lexicon, because I have got so bored of hearing people tell me that high-speed rail will be transformative. I am not quite sure in what way or with what evidence—they just like to say it because it sounds good.

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, because it is on an issue that we have been talking about, but that there has not been much action around. When he talks about local areas, does he really mean that? I ask because I think that the programme will never take off unless there is a national planning committee that can oversee everything about the idea.

Paul Maynard: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I spent an hour at lunchtime trying to work out whether I was a Liberal or not. I was reading the yellow book from 1928, called “Our Industrial Future”, which recommended precisely what he has referred to—a national infrastructure planning commission that would take the decisions. That is all well and good, but I come from a different political tradition. I discovered that I was a Conservative after all. The reason why I am talking so much about local decision making is that for high-speed rail to have the impact that we all want it to have—in particular, for the rebalancing of the economy that the Government so value—there are decisions that will have to be taken at local level. My concern is that if we do not think about that now, it will not happen, so I

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hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the tenor of my remarks is designed to draw attention to where we need better local decision making, and where the DFT needs to factor local priorities into its planning.

I will try to draw my remarks to a close, because I have been going on for almost 20 minutes. In particular, I would like the Government to convene something analogous to “The Northern Way”, be it a ministerial committee for transport in the north of England, an advisory group or whatever. It should be something that will bring together all the different voices in the north for the purposes of understanding and reprioritising. A large number of projects have been proposed, with varying cost-benefit ratios that we have all looked at and analysed to the nth degree. We need some way of working out what the pan-northern priorities are. At the moment, I am concerned that that will not occur, so I hope that the Minister can reassure me on that key point.

2.50 pm

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on securing this important debate, with the specific title and terms of reference that he spelled out. I also congratulate him on his powerful description and analysis of many issues involved; I agree with a great deal of what he said, although not with every full stop and comma.

I want to make a few points about the project and how it relates to the north-west of England and the north of the country beyond Birmingham. I would like to draw an analogy with trams. At the moment, Manchester is trebling the size of its tram network, while Liverpool, Southampton and Leeds do not have trams. The important point that I draw from that is not that Manchester’s case, which is good for the tram network, was much better than the case of the other cities, but that the 10 districts of Greater Manchester and the three political parties were united. To cite the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), the politics in Merseyside were dysfunctional when it came to trams. Having all-party support and as much backing as possible for a project is almost as important—in some ways more important—than different economic cases, a cost-benefit analysis and an economic impact analysis.

It is important to keep such an all-party group together. This country has too little infrastructure, which damages the whole economy. One of the reasons why we have too little transport infrastructure is that we have not always been able to build an alliance between the parties. I could give example after example of where we should have had motorways, railways, trams and runways where we do not have them. Therefore I welcome a detailed debate, whether it comes from the Front Benches, the Back Benches or people with constituency involvement. The high-speed rail system is a major piece of infrastructure, which, whatever its impact to the north and the south, will help the country as a whole, and it is important to understand that.

I have read many cost-benefit analyses over the years, and while it is important to prepare them, the way in which the Treasury, the Department for Transport and

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other Departments look at them means that they contain so many variables that one can make them say anything one likes.

The important thing about the project is that it has been justified on two grounds. The first is that there is an immediate issue with capacity between Birmingham and the south, and the second, which comes along later, is that it will help rebalance the country, and the country certainly needs rebalancing.

On the second justification, I have spent my political life trying to get investment into the north of England and into Manchester in particular. If we want to use the project to rebalance the country, it is odd to start building it from the south to the north and not put a spade in the ground in the north of England for potentially 15 or 16 years. The reason for that is the reason that we always get from the Department for Transport: the capacity problem. Such an analysis of why we invest in infrastructure is one of the reasons why 95% of our capital expenditure on transport in England goes into London and the south-east—it is crowded there. If we use that as a basis for our investment decisions, we will always put it there and increase crowdedness, effectively subsidising congestion. I would argue that if we want to make an impact on the north-south divide, we need to start in the north and look at all the projects that are determined by congestion and overcrowding as economically transformative. I know that the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys will object to my use of that term; I rarely use it, but it is important in the context of getting as many bangs for our bucks economically, as well as dealing with the immediate transport problem. I ask the Department to look at the issue generally.

I think that the claims for the impact on the north of England from High Speed 2 are ambiguous. I did not go on the trips—I was not serving on the Transport Committee at the time—but there is certainly a case that Cordoba, Turin, Lille and Lyon have benefited. One could also make the case that high-speed rail has sometimes had a negative impact on those cities. The same is true with roads, or with any transport infrastructure, because roads go both ways: they can take economic activity away from or into an area.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): I represent Stoke-on-Trent, where there are fears that High Speed 2 could reduce connectivity if the line passes the city and does not stop there, while the capacity on the west coast main line—the Manchester-London route—is diminished. While Stoke-on-Trent might benefit from the growth of Manchester or Birmingham, there are fears in the city about its own connectivity with HS2.

Graham Stringer: There is a fear. There are genuine worries in Stoke, and potentially Coventry and south Wales, that there could be a negative impact. I would ask those areas please not to have a dog-in-a-manger attitude and say, “Let us not have this excellent new piece of transport infrastructure.” Let us work out how we can get investment in those areas, using either high-speed rail or something else. If people end up just opposing the project, they will damage the economic and transport base of the whole country.

Mark Lazarowicz: Does not the point that was semi-raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) underline the need for some

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form of regional transport planning? We do not want to build stations with no connections to the wider community and area; we want Stoke and other similar cities that are not on but near the line to have good links. We can see that in the best European systems, which is why the benefits are more widely spread there.

Graham Stringer: Absolutely. It makes sense that people can connect to other places if a high-speed line is built. I know that the timetables of the rail system in the north, which I know better than that in the midlands and Scotland, are slower than they were in 1880s—I say that in nearly every debate in which I speak. Taking out congestion points and improving the northern system and that in the rest of the country must be the best way to use the investment that is going into the project.

I want to finish on some points made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and by the Action Alliance, which opposes high-speed rail, in the document that it sent out today. First, if someone had £33 billion to spend in the north or the whole of England, they would not necessarily sit down and say, “This is it”; they would probably sit down for a long time and not agree to spend anything. However, the project is out of the starting blocks, and there are many benefits to be had from it. If someone were to ask, “Should the country have motorways?” the answer would be, “Yes, we should have motorways.” In the same way, we should have high-speed rail. That, together with all-party support, is the real justification for the £33 billion.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. High-speed rail is important to the north of England, but it needs to be developed alongside the classic network and also alongside aviation and road. We need a strategic transport policy that covers everything. High-speed rail is not the panacea, but it is part of a strategic transport plan.

Graham Stringer: The hon. Gentleman is right. Even though I am a member of the Labour party, I am always slightly cautious about having the perfect plan. When one is involved in transport plans or economic development—it does not matter whether it is in the private or the public sector—one has to be opportunistic and take what is there. Sometimes it can take too long to wait for the perfect plan. That does not mean that we should not think about how we can connect different parts of the system.

Like the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, Action Alliance makes the point that high-speed rail does not automatically bring with it economic benefits. Let us take, for example, the economies of Manchester and London, or Birmingham and London. Some argue that high-speed rail exposes them to bigger markets, which is true because the train goes both ways. A dynamic city or region is at a real advantage. What city would not want to be in a bigger market so that they can attract more people and investment? Although it is possible to fail in such an area, it is easier to succeed if there is high-speed rail.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I, too, was struck by the Action Alliance analysis that when we improve connectivity, the stronger city benefits and the weaker city loses out. If we follow that logic through to the end, it means that we should close the M6, the M1 and the west coast main line, which is ridiculous.

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Graham Stringer: It is ridiculous, but that does not mean that Action Alliance does not have a point in saying that it is dangerous; the world is dangerous. We have to take our opportunities to create jobs where we can. It does not automatically lead to growth, but it would be negative not to take this opportunity to have growth. To emphasise that point, let me make one more comparison between Manchester and Liverpool—I am not having a go at Liverpool because this, unlike the story about the trams, has a happy ending. There is a more solid case for saying that airports have a real economic benefit for regions. Unlike roads, they rarely have a negative impact. Merseyside county council did a lot of work on Liverpool airport. It extended the runway and got an estuarial take-off. The whole scheme should have had many advantages, but they were realised only when John Whittaker and the Peel Group took the opportunity and bought Liverpool airport and brought some commercial acumen and ability to it. There are real advantages here. I hope that we can keep the all-party alliance together because this project is important for the country as a whole. As it is called high-speed rail, perhaps it should be done from north to south because that would be slightly quicker than the schedules that are envisaged at the moment.

Nadine Dorries (in the Chair): I call David Mowat.

3.3 pm

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I was not expecting to be called. I would have preferred to wait a little before making my speech. I will be fairly brief. I want to touch on the business case figure for high-speed rail, which is estimated at 2.6, including the wider economic benefits. That is considerably higher than the business case of Crossrail. I know that we can all doubt the Department’s methodology, but nevertheless let us put that on the table first.

One of the arguments against the project is whether we can afford it. It costs £32 billion and we are in a time of recession. It is also worth saying that it will cost £2 billion a year, which will kick in more or less when Crossrail finishes. On a cash-flow basis, therefore, it is not too tough. The business case is predicated on capacity constraints. I have some conservative figures here. Over the last decade and a half, rail journeys have increased by around 5% a year. This business case assumes an increase of 1.6% a year. We do not know whether that will happen; it may not, but the figure is certainly not aggressive.

The business case has been criticised because it does not take into account people’s ability to work and be productive while travelling and therefore overestimates the benefit for time saving in terms of economic activity. It has been shown in a number of debates that such a view is false because if these trains are so full that everyone is standing up, no one can work on PCs or anything else. The business case is supported if we assume that.