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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 27 June 2012

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Council Tax Benefit Localisation

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(PhilipDunne.)

9.30 am

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Mr Howarth, to have this debate under your chairmanship. I requested it because of my concern about not only the impact of council tax localisation and the 10% cut in subsidy to already hard-pressed local authorities such as mine in Wigan, but the cumulative effect of the welfare benefit changes disproportionately impacting on people in low-paid work. Council tax benefit is widely claimed; some 5.9 million low-income families claim it, more than claim any other means-tested benefit or tax credit in the United Kingdom. It is a crucial benefit for people in work who are struggling to pay rising bills for food and fuel, and contributes hugely to making low-paid work pay.

A consultation paper published in August 2011 made it clear that although no detailed regulations had been published—they have not been published even today—current claimants of pension age will see no reduction in support and that their entitlement will continue to be protected by national rules. Will the Minister say whether any more categories of claimant are likely to be protected by statute? In Wigan in 2010-11, there were 34,000 claimants, and the Department for Work and Pensions paid a grant of £26 million. On current expenditure, a 10% cut would obviously lead to a £2.6 million shortfall, on top of swingeing cuts of more than £66 million already being made to Wigan council’s funding from central Government.

Another issue to be considered in Wigan is the number of pensioners claiming council tax benefit. More than 40% of people of pension age are claiming it, so the burden on those of working age becomes disproportionately higher with a potential 20% reduction across all working-age customers, and that is before the protection provided to any other groups that the authority might wish to protect—carers, for example.

It is worth reminding hon. Members that council tax is one of the few debts for which the final penalty is imprisonment. Even with council tax frozen and no cuts in council tax benefit, the number of people seeking help from the debt charity, Consumer Credit Counselling Service, because of council tax arrears rose by more than a quarter in 2011. The cost, both human and financial, of collecting more money from people who are already at their wits’ end and struggling to pay their bills must be factored in by local authorities. My council has identified that collection will be difficult and involve a high level of direct contact. In effect, it is saying that it could cost more to collect than the amount collected.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing such an important debate. She echoes many of the points that have been made by

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my local authority, Trafford council—particularly about the cost of collecting council tax and management of the benefit. It has pointed out that as housing benefit moves to universal credit, the current team that processes both benefits in the local authority will not be able to shrink by the same sort of proportion as the value of council tax benefit will, so it will become extremely inefficient. Some 80% of current benefit staff will have to be retained, but only for a rump of processing. Does that make cost-effective sense for councils?

Yvonne Fovargue: No, it is not cost-effective, and another factor is that council tax benefit offences are imprisonable. Does it do anyone any good to put people into prison for a short time for a very small debt?

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): I welcome this debate. Has my hon. Friend seen the announcement by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on this very point? It said:

“The poll tax experience showed how difficult it can be to collect small amounts of tax from low-income households that are not used to paying it.”

Is that not the scenario that we are getting back into?

Yvonne Fovargue: My right hon. Friend must have read my notes, because I am coming to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It warned that limiting spending will give councils an incentive to discourage low-income families from living in the area. As in the past, they will be left to chase desperately poor people through the courts for small amounts of unpaid tax. During the 1990s, I worked in an advice agency; I can honestly say that I do not want a repeat of the poll tax debacle. That policy, like the current one, involved the poorest people paying the most in the most deprived boroughs.

When I look at the options being considered by Wigan council, I despair. Wigan has an excellent council with an enviable track record of working with employers, and a very active local chamber of commerce that provides new employment opportunities and supports existing businesses. However, given the difficult economic climate, and despite active promotion of employment and growth, Morrisons recently announced the closure of Rathbones bakery, with 160 job losses. Any closure or relocation of a major employer places an increased burden on already hard-pressed councils, and insisting that they collect a small amount of council tax from people adds to that burden and puts them in an impossible position.

The issue is compounded by the fact that the grant is predicated on the amount of benefit in the previous year, so any large influx of people into the council tax benefit system will have a destabilising effect on the council’s budget. Indeed, there may be a perverse incentive to encourage such people to leave the borough—a return to the poll tax scenario.

Wigan and similar local authorities have stark choices. They could abolish backdating for working-age customers, but savings would be minimal. They could abolish the second adult rebate, but the savings would also be minimal. They could establish a weekly minimum payment of £1 upwards, but again the savings would be minimal. They could change the capital disregards on a sliding scale, penalising people who save, but, once more, the savings would be minimal. They could disregard income

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from child benefit, maintenance payments and disability benefits, but that would hit the most vulnerable the hardest and could be open to challenge on grounds of discrimination.

Such a move would certainly save money, albeit with the greatest cost falling on the most vulnerable. Awards could be capped at a percentage of liability, which could deliver savings, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said, given the huge increase in the number of council tax bills, collection would be very difficult because some people would be paying council tax for the first time. That would lead to an increase in collection costs. Again, there are echoes of the poll tax.

The new scheme would have to be in place by January 2013 with the IT changes completed and ready to go online. Is the Minister confident that the IT systems will be in place in time for an introduction in 2013? My local authority certainly has worries about that. It wants to know how progress of the IT systems will be monitored, and how they will be supported in their introduction.

Another issue that localisation of council tax benefit raises is its relationship, or not, with the universal credit. The credit is supposed to simplify the benefits system, reducing the number of different benefits and means tests. Keeping council tax support separate and allowing it to vary throughout the country surely undermines that simplification. Universal credit was supposed to rationalise work incentives by replacing the jumble of overlapping benefits with one single means test. That may vary throughout the country, so how will people judge how well work will pay, if it does, in different areas? Will the Minister explain how work will always pay, given that a localised scheme will be introduced prior to the universal credit? How will the two line up and interrelate?

That is not the only change that will affect working families in April 2013. For those who also claim housing benefit—let us not forget that seven out of eight housing benefit claimants are in low-paid employment—the outlook is even more bleak. The under-occupation penalty or bedroom tax will also come into effect. Wigan has a shortage of one-bedroom properties, and more than 8,000 residents are under-occupying. They will be unable to move, because we simply do not have one-bedroom properties, so they will face a minimum 15% reduction in housing benefit—approximately £12 a week.

The increase in deductions for non-dependants is already increasing by approximately 30% a year. In 2013, the deductions will be almost double what they were in 2010.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is interesting that my hon. Friend mentions the non-dependant deduction in relation to housing benefit. Was she as surprised as I was that the Prime Minister said in a speech on Monday that it was dreadful that housing benefit was lost if an adult child went into work? He did not seem to realise that his own Government had just substantially increased the deduction.

Yvonne Fovargue: Yes, that was somewhat surprising.

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This is a difficult period in which to be a young person. The single room rent changes for the under-35s looking to rent privately are coming in, limiting housing benefit to £57.73, when a one-bedroom flat in Wigan costs approximately £90 a week.

Singly, any one of the changes will affect people on a low wage in a way that is extremely hard to cope with; cumulatively, they could well deliver a fatal blow. It is well reported that only a small decrease in income will push a struggling family from the position of just about managing to pay their bills to that of not coping, and sinking into unmanageable debt.

Mr Howarth, you would not expect me to miss an opportunity to remind hon. Members that the advice agencies that were hitherto there to help people and rescue them from that struggle are also struggling, and that the removal from the scope of legal aid welfare benefits and most debt work will have a significant impact on those agencies. That is coupled with the local authority reductions in funding, which could be even larger given the measure under discussion and the cuts that local authorities may have to make. There may be little or no support for people who could face the loss of their liberty due to council tax arrears.

As the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government stated:

“The proposals for the localisation of council tax support seem to us to provide an illusion of delegation with a minimum of real discretion, virtually guaranteeing that the funds available to support working-age…people will be squeezed.”

These hard-working families are already squeezed; councils are squeezed; and it is inevitable that, yet again, the poor and the vulnerable will suffer.

9.42 am

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing the debate. Being out of circulation for a month or two has not lessened my concerns about this issue. I want to place those concerns on the record again.

In the debate, we are considering three distinct aspects, but they are getting tangled up with one another. One is the localisation of council tax benefit. As a Liberal Democrat, I am firmly in favour of as much localisation as possible. Indeed, it is difficult to disagree with it, but the constraint of having to protect all pensioners—a laudable aim—clearly puts great pressure on some councils.

Let me give the example of East Dorset, part of which I represent. There, it is estimated that the impact of the cuts in council tax benefit for those in work will be something like a 33% reduction. We do have these differentials.

Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): The concerns that the hon. Lady is raising on her local council’s behalf are shared by the London borough of Bromley, which has a large retired population and an increasing ageing population. The impact that she mentions is, in Bromley, in the order of 25% for the working-age population. That is a concern that they share, too.

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The point is one that we need to keep reinforcing. As the hon. Member for Makerfield pointed out, what is happening is not true localisation, because

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councils have very little flexibility. Although I am certainly up for the localisation of council tax benefit, what we have before us at the moment—of course, it has still to be discussed fully in the other place—is not delivering what we want.

The second strand is deficit reduction and the cut of £500 million. That is a distinct aspect, even though it has a knock-on effect on the whole picture. I shall return to that in a moment. The other strand is that the Government have made it possible for councils to raise additional income through the empty homes premium and the flexibility to increase council tax on second homes. Again, I applaud that, but we all know that even though the sum of money that could be raised is £500 million, things will not match up council by council, so we do not have a complete solution to the problem that we are discussing, although some help is available.

I feel very strongly that, as the Local Government Finance Bill and all its implications are being discussed in the other place, there must at the very least be consideration of some transitional measures to help the people who will be hit. They will almost certainly be the low-income working families. Those people are right on the margins and just trying to improve their lot a little, but they get well and truly clobbered. As people have pointed out, that goes against the principle of universal credit, and I think that across the House we do support the principle of universal credit.

I cannot help but refer to the fact that £500 million was found yesterday to defer the increase in fuel tax. That will help our hard-pressed constituents, but, as I understand from “Newsnight”, it was found in underspent budgets. My message to my hon. Friend the Minister is this. Please can he go and have a look at those underspent budgets, because at the very least a transition would help some of our very vulnerable and well deserving people. They are hard-working, but are going to be in quite a trap over the next year.

Of course, if we do not make reductions in council tax benefit—many authorities will not want to do that—we move to cuts in other services, so the effect knocks on and on. I even had representations from my fire authority on Friday. It was concerned about potential cuts in its budget as a consequence of what is happening. It is an enormous issue. Everything sounds simple and laudable to start with, but as we work through all the implications, there is a strong case for at least looking for some mitigation measures. I hope that the Minister will put pressure on his colleagues. I know that the issue will be hotly debated by all parties in the other place. I hope that we will have an improvement in the situation.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. It might be helpful if I explain that the first of the two Front Benchers will be called at 10.40 am. There are rather a lot of hon. Members wishing to speak. If Members exercise a self-denying ordinance and stick to five minutes, we should be able to get everyone in. I will leave Simon Danczuk with that thought.

9.47 am

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Howarth. I welcome the debate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue)

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for securing it. My comments will concentrate on two things: first, the purpose of the policy change and, secondly, the impact that it will have on our constituents.

One would like to think that Government make such changes to improve services, to improve people’s lives and to improve decision making. Unfortunately, this change does little to improve matters, because of how the policy is being introduced. If I were a cynical person, I would argue that the change is about saving money and redistributing money away from poorer areas. The Government have cut the funding for council tax benefit by 10%, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) pointed out. That is a saving of £500 million, but surely that is an arbitrary figure. It is another example of the Government making decisions without evidence. It is not based on fact. Why is it 10%?

I understand from the Local Government Association that the Government estimate a decline in the number of council tax benefit claimants in 2013-14 of about 12%, but as the Local Government Association states, it is not clear why the number is expected to decline. Perhaps the Minister can shed—[Interruption.] Yes, the number is probably going to increase. If the Government’s other predictions are anything to go by, in terms of unemployment, economic decline and the amount of money that the Government need to borrow, surely the number of council tax benefit claimants will increase. The Government are pushing their cuts on to local government to administer. That is the reality. Not only that, but because they have protected certain groups, such as older people, areas with higher need will carry a greater burden. That is after local authorities have had funding cuts of 19% over the past two years.

Let me point out that the public are not daft. The local government settlement, public health funding, the new homes bonus, repatriation of the business rates and now council tax benefit are all skewed towards better-off areas. In effect, the Government are stuffing money into the back pockets of wealthy local authority areas. That is the reality of the policies they are pushing forward. The public can see exactly what they are doing and they see that it is unfair.

The Government are also shifting risk. That cannot be dressed up as localism, because the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has given himself powers to prescribe who receives the benefit. Unhappy with wheelie bin collections and council newspapers, he gave himself more power. For such a big guy, the Secretary of State is obsessed with the minutiae of local authorities. He has the power, but local councils carry the risk. When the Department for Work and Pensions managed the budget, it was based on annually managed expenditure. When it transferred to councils, it was based on a cash-limited funding pot, so all the financial risk has switched from central to local government.

The other risks associated with the policy concern timing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) pointed out. Will councils be ready in time? Is the software ready and appropriate? What happens if local groups challenge the decisions made locally? All the change is happening in a short time frame, when local authorities face unprecedented cuts and other major changes to their financial systems.

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In conclusion, the issue is not only about systems and whether the power lies with central or local government; what concerns me most is the impact that the change will have on hard-working families—people who are not that well-off and people who struggle to make ends meet. Everyone here knows that in many towns and cities across the country, local councils will have to do the Government’s bidding when it comes to increasing the amount of council tax that working families pay, because council tax benefit is being cut. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, of which I am a member, said

“The proposals for the localisation of council tax support seem to us to provide an illusion of delegation with a minimum of real discretion, virtually guaranteeing that the funds available to support working-age unemployed people will be squeezed.”

I rest my case.

9.53 am

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on the case that she put forward in opening the debate today.

I would go further than my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) and say clearly that the measure is not about reforming the benefit system or creating a fairer system, but a cynical move by the Government to impose crude cuts on individuals who can least afford it. It is a cynical way to cut the money given to local councils.

As we have seen, and heard from my hon. Friend, local authorities, including my own, are facing a massive financial squeeze. The Government were not satisfied with the in-year cuts that they placed on Tameside and similar authorities. Tameside has had to reduce the budget over three years by almost £100 million, which has a major impact on what a local authority can do. It is not only Tameside; the picture is mirrored across the country. The areas most in need feel the pinch the hardest, which means that their local authorities’ capacity to help them is greatly diminished.

A Government proposal such as council tax benefit localisation affects real people. The figures from Tameside council show that in 2011-12 nearly £20 million— £19.3 million—was spent on council tax benefit, which is 32,245 claimants. A 10% reduction would amount to £2 million. According to the Government, among those claimants, the 13,569 pensioners, who received £8,481,078-worth of council tax benefit, are protected, which means that the squeeze is forced on 7,990 families with dependent children, who last year received £5,288,698-worth of council tax benefit. Those are the same families with dependent children who are being attacked at every level of Government policy, not least through the reduction and removal of tax credits.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that among those who will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of the measures will be the bailiff agencies? There has already been a significant increase in the use of bailiffs to recover arrears from the kind of low-income families that he mentions. My local authority used bailiffs 30,000 times over three years for

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council tax and housing benefit. The faster the population churn, the more likely it is that bailiffs will be used. Using bailiffs for very small amounts of money—huge for the families concerned, but small for the bailiffs—is likely to lead to yet another surge in the sector.

Andrew Gwynne: I agree with my hon. Friend completely. I know from my casework the pressures that are put on local authorities to collect the money owed to them and to collect it quickly. They utilise all tools at their disposal, including bailiffs, which brings great distress to families who simply struggle to find even small amounts of money. It pushes them further into poverty. I totally accept the point she makes.

What has been completely lost by the Government in all the debates that we have had, most recently in the consideration on the Floor of the House of the Local Government Finance Bill, is that council tax benefit is an in-work benefit. Listening to Ministers at the Dispatch Box, one would think that the changes were all about the feckless poor, who do not deserve the benefit, and about removing money from them—the undeserving poor. I will not get into a debate about the deserving and undeserving poor—I leave that to the coalition parties—but I know from my constituency that a great number of the people who receive council tax benefit are in work. They are in low-paid, and often part-time, work. If we are to create a benefit system that is about making work pay, the way to do it is not to go ahead with such measures.

The Minister and I share a local authority. I have mentioned Tameside.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): On the in-work benefit point, does my hon. Friend not think that it is an absolute nonsense that the Government say that the 10% reduction will strengthen local authorities’ incentive to promote employment and growth in the local economy, given that those who receive the benefit are already working? As he said earlier on the cuts, local authorities do not have the money left for the job and growth promotion tasks that they might have wanted to do.

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend is right. That shows what nonsense many of the statements of the DCLG are. It makes no logical sense.

My constituency shares a local authority with the Minister’s. One of the perks, I suppose, of having a cross-borough constituency is that I can quote two councils. The Minister will know that, even in Stockport, which is by all standards a much more prosperous borough than Tameside, there are areas of deprivation and social need. There will also be families in low-paid work, who will feel the squeeze from measures such as the one we are debating. From a local point of view, therefore, I urge the Minister to listen to Stockport council, which has concerns about such measures, and wants them to be thought through better before they must be implemented.

I agree with the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) about localism. We all believe in localism—certainly those of us who came through local government. I spent 12 almost happy years on Tameside council, which was a great training ground. However, if we are to make localism work, it

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must be genuine. The council tax benefit reforms are, I fear, localising the cuts and the blame, not genuinely localising a scheme of council tax benefits. That is because the Government have made the false assumption that all councils have a level playing field. Tameside council is completely different from Stockport council. It has a different level of ability to raise income and supplement loss of income, whether that is through localisation of the business rates or raising extra council tax, to pay for services or shortfalls in budgets such as council tax benefit. I urge the Government to consider their proposal carefully, because they are clobbering the working poor.

10.2 am

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this significant debate and I pay tribute to her. She has highlighted an important issue.

I want to follow on from some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). I agreed with many of the comments of the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who made them in a calm and reasoned manner and highlighted the effect of benefit changes on the working-age population. I thank Durham county council, my local authority, for furnishing me with some figures to suggest the scale of the impact in my area.

The Consumer Credit Counselling Service reports a rise of almost a third in the number of people who rent their homes and seek advice on council tax debts, and a rise of more than a quarter across both renters and owners. That dramatic increase comes as a result of the worsening financial situation for ordinary people, particularly in my area, that is made tougher by the plethora of coalition Government policies, which seem to be hitting the poorest hardest. By scrapping the existing council tax benefit system at the same time as cutting funding for benefits, the Government will only exacerbate the financial problems that ordinary families face in areas such as Easington.

Ring-fencing council tax benefits for pensioners is, on the face of it, an idea to protect some of the most vulnerable, but the other side of the coin is that the impact on working-age households will be all the more severe. Indeed, just before the debate I twittered that I hoped to catch your eye, Mr Howarth, and one of my constituents, Madeleine, contacted me and asked me to be at pains to point out the impact on people like her—single adults in work who are claiming council tax benefit.

There are 43,710 homes in the former Easington district council area that makes up the bulk of my constituency, 13,800 of which are in receipt of council tax benefit. That amounts to almost one third of households. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, council tax benefit is the most comprehensively claimed benefit. It is claimed by 5.9 million households across the UK, a rate that is higher than for any other means-tested benefit or even tax credit. The plans to force local authorities to deliver a localised benefit system will create unfair disparities between council areas and regions.

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Welfare benefits are, in the main, determined at a national level; I am referring to the determination of benefit levels and qualifying entitlements. However, the present proposals have the potential to undermine the fairness of the overall benefits system. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has made it clear that the proposals mean that councils must choose between cuts in essential services, cuts to benefits for working-age households or a council tax rise. Sir Merrick Cockell of the Local Government Association has highlighted a starker choice for councils:

“They can either cease helping the working poor, or continue to support them by taking money from other services or putting up council tax”.

A report by the LGA yesterday suggested that by 2020, because of external pressures—principally meeting the costs of adult social care—local authorities are likely to provide only those services that they are statutorily obliged to provide. Not only is the coalition shirking its responsibility and passing the buck to local government; it is cutting funding by 10% for good measure— £500 million, as the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said.

The policy of localisation of council tax benefit is completely at odds with the Government’s rhetoric that there should be no increase in council tax. Durham county council has 63,000 claimants and an estimated spend of £55 million for 2012-13. Almost half of claimants in Durham are pensioners, who the Government stipulate will face no cut. Therefore the burden will clearly fall on the one quarter of claimants in County Durham who have dependent children; the one tenth of claimants who are in work on low wages; and those who are out of work and looking for work. The latter group has grown in number, particularly in the north-east and especially in my constituency, under the policies of the coalition Government. Indeed, the DWP’s own research shows that 3 million households currently entitled to claim council tax benefit do not do so. That figure is likely to rise in tough economic times.

It is true that pensioners are protected, but the proposals place only an “expectation” on councils to protect vulnerable groups. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield said, that throws up a raft of other problems. Indeed, Durham county council is not alone in its concern that councils may face a legal challenge owing to local interpretations of which groups should be treated as more vulnerable than others; my hon. Friend mentioned carers.

Other concerns include the danger that as the financial burden will now fall on local taxpayers, should costs increase owing to conditions largely outside a council’s control—I might mention the rising cost of adult social care—the impact on services, benefits or rates will be overwhelming. The proposals are inherently unfair and go against the grain of the Government’s plan for a streamlined benefits system. It is not acceptable for the Secretary of State to wash his hands of his responsibilities.

10.9 am

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I make heartfelt apologies to the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) and to all hon. Members for not being here at the start of the debate. We had

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a bit of a train crisis meeting, so I apologise for my delay. I will make a short contribution because I am conscious that many others wish to speak.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and I have written to the Secretary of State asking for more clarity on this matter. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us that today. If not, perhaps he could put out further notices clarifying the definition of what is “vulnerable” and what is a “vulnerable group”.

At the moment, council leaders and officers are struggling with how this system will look. Initially, the view was pessimistic, but that is often the case when there is a cut in funds, and there has to be a redistribution of the pot. In constituencies such as Suffolk Coastal, a significantly higher proportion of the population are pensioners. There are concerns that the impact of the measure on people of working age will be considerably more, given that pensioners will see no impact on their council tax benefits.

However, I say as a supportive Back Bencher that there is a challenge on us all to try to do things with the welfare state. We should see the issue as a way to encourage our local government partners to be part of the solution, which is to attract businesses and employment and to make the system a key part of encouraging people to get out to work.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): I know that, through circumstances beyond her control, the hon. Lady was not here for the early part of the debate. The point that has been made over and over again is that council tax benefit is an in-work benefit. Many of the recipients are deemed, as those who are disabled are, to be incapable of working. Therefore, the argument that councils can mitigate that by attracting more employment fails at that basic level.

Dr Coffey: I understand why the hon. Lady says that. [Hon. Members: “Because it is true!”] Hon. Members should allow me to develop my argument. The average wage in Suffolk is considerably lower than that of counties nearby. It is probably lower than that in Lancashire and possibly lower than that in Liverpool, where I grew up.

District councils must try to attract higher-quality, skilled businesses to our area, so that they are not solely reliant on tourism and agriculture, which traditionally pay fairly low salaries. This system is part of a mechanism to encourage local councils to attract such businesses. With more businesses in an area, there will be a greater retention of business rates, with district councils, not county councils, taking 50% of such rates. Perhaps this measure is a blunt stick to encourage local councils to do their bit and to help their residents get higher skills and higher-value employment. We may be using a blunt stick to achieve that, but the aim is to say to local councils, “You have a role to play in the economic benefits for your area, and you should not simply be a processing house for benefit claims.”

Mr Howarth, I said that my speech would be short. I have taken one intervention, and I now leave it to other hon. Members to continue the debate.

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10.14 am

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this important debate. I want to make three points. The first goes back to something that the Communities and Local Government Committee said in October, following the evidence that we took last July. We were against not the principle of the changes but the way in which the Government were going about them. Importantly, we said:

“We recommend that the Government delay the introduction of the new Council Tax support system by a year or more, if consultation with local authorities indicates that this would reduce the risks inherent in introducing many complex changes concurrently.”

That is an important point. Since then, the Local Government Association has repeatedly said that it has concerns with the timetable. In its briefing to us, it said that it urged the Government

“to give councils the necessary time to do this in the most considered, flexible and cost-effective way possible.”

In January, Capita wrote to all the local authorities for which it provides services, saying that it did not think that it could deliver the necessary systems in the time scale. I do not think that that advice has changed. Certainly, when I spoke this morning to Councillor Bryan Lodge, the cabinet member for finance in Sheffield, he said that the advice had not changed. When we had the debate on the Local Government Finance Bill in January, it was interesting that the Minister did not draw attention to that letter from Capita, although he was well aware of it at the time.

What is the situation now? Are the Government saying that despite all the concerns of local councils, the LGA and service providers such as Capita, they believe, in their wisdom, that this can all go ahead on time and without any problems—not just for councils and the administrators, but for the people who receive the benefits at the end of the line?

I just think back to Sheffield in 1999 when we had privatised the housing benefit service and transferred it to Capita in a rushed and botched way. I remember the constituents, often elderly, coming to my surgeries in tears not because they had done anything wrong but because the administration of their benefits was in chaos and, as a result, the arrears on their council tax and rent had risen. They were distraught because they had never been in arrears in their lives. I worry that we will go back to that situation.

The responsibility will be not with local councils but with the Government who will push this through on an unacceptable and unattainable timetable. I say to the Minister that it is not too late to stop. I am talking about not the intention but the ridiculous timetable on which the Government have embarked. If this was simply a question of localism and of saying to local councils, “Do it the way you want,” there would not be a problem.

George Hollingbery (Meon Valley) (Con) rose

Mr Betts: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Communities and Local Government Committee.

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George Hollingbery: I am a member of the Select Committee and have something to do with the production of its report and the idea behind it. I have always recognised that this is something of a complex area.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are some very real technical complexities in putting this system in place, but there is also an appetite among Ministers for shared systems and projects across large local areas? For example, in Hampshire, there are 16 different district councils, so a shared scheme across the area would make a lot of sense; it would save money in administration and so on. Necessarily, though, it will be a complex system to put in place, with legal agreements that will need to be considered and thought through. A little more time for that might also be very welcome.

Mr Betts: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; we will get a better scheme for having it slightly later. The savings will be better, as will the service to our constituents.

I say to the Minister that if this was simply a question of saying to local councils, “Get on and devise your own schemes,” they could do it. The problem is that they do not know how to devise a scheme in respect of the advice and detailed regulation that come from Government, because they have not got it yet. It is because the Government are insisting on regulating the details of a localised scheme so closely that they are in these difficulties.

I have two further brief points. One is about the 10% cut. If councils cannot devise their own schemes, they will have to opt for the existing scheme, which means that they will have to find the 10%; £4.5 million in Sheffield on top of the £200 million of cuts that the council is trying to make. That goes for every council in the country—cuts on top of cuts. That is the problem that the Government are forcing on local councils. There is the invidious choice of finding this money from other services, which are already being cut very substantially, or making the cuts in the benefits of people of working age on top of the cuts in benefits and working tax credits that those same families are having to take. It is the cumulative effect on those families that the Government have done no proper analysis of.

Finally, we still do not know from the Government how the administration of the system will work. They are localising council tax benefit and centralising housing benefit. There is a simple arrangement now for people whose income changes: they go down to the local council and speak to someone. In Sheffield, there is the home visiting service for the elderly and disabled, where someone comes along and helps them sort out both benefits. Now we will have a council tax benefit that we go to the council for and a housing benefit that we will have to go online for—or on a telephone to someone in Jobcentre Plus. For elderly people, that will be an impossible arrangement.

The Government say they will talk to local councils to find a way forward. As I understand it, there is no clear idea from the Government about how these two complex benefits will be arranged in the future when we will have two completely separate systems that people have to go through to get their problems sorted out.

10.19 am

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Diolch, Mr Howarth, for calling me to speak.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this important debate and on making a very informative speech. She speaks with great authority on these issues, as a former worker in the Citizens Advice service, a service that I am also very proud to have worked for before entering this place.

I will concentrate my remarks today on the effect of these proposals on Wales. Of course, I should begin by saying that I am not opposed to the devolution of council tax benefits to Wales; normally, I would be here in Westminster Hall strongly welcoming that move. However, it seems inherently wrong that it should be done with the insistence that a 10% cut be made to the amount of benefits that can be provided. Essentially, we are telling some of the most vulnerable members of our society, who currently rely on benefits to maintain their standard of living, that they will get less in future.

No justification has been provided for the cut at a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet and when the median income is declining sharply, as we saw from the HBAI, or households below average income, figures released recently. Following a week in which tax avoidance by multi-millionaires was the main news story, it is depressing that we are once again debating measures whereby the UK Government are attacking the living standards of those at the bottom of society—working people who require additional support.

There are 328,000 claimants of council tax benefits in Wales, making it one of the most widely claimed benefits in Wales. In my own local authority area of Carmarthenshire, there are 19,090 households that receive council tax benefit in one form or another—approximately 23% of all dwellings on which council tax is charged. Sadly, though, and at the risk of upsetting the colleagues around me today, I must say that the Labour Government in Wales have spent more time on scoring political points against the Tories in London than on developing solutions to the problem of a 10% cut.

The cut was first announced in the summer of 2010—immediately after the general election—and yet two years later, and only months before its implementation, the Labour Government in Wales are still complaining that they do not have the necessary information. Last week’s meeting of the Welsh Government with the Secretary of State for Wales was, according to media reports in Wales, not overly fruitful, although perhaps the Minister can update us on that meeting when he sums up later.

We are still waiting for the Welsh Government to announce their position on this cut, although hopefully they will do so soon, given the publication last week of a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which made a number of suggestions. The IFS said that, to meet the 10% cut, the Welsh Government could impose a straight “salami slice” that would reduce the amount of support for all claimants. Alternatively, they could make reforms that would reduce the amount of support for council tax received by those living in higher-banded properties. They could introduce reforms that means-test support for council tax more aggressively, or introduce a reform to the current discount for single residents, changing underlying council tax liabilities.

We have yet to hear the Welsh Government’s response to the IFS report, but they have said that they face a challenging budget and will simply pass on the cuts in one form or another to Welsh local authorities. Given

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that Labour said in the election for the National Assembly of Wales that they would shield Wales from Westminster’s cuts, it is a gross dereliction of duty for it simply to pass those cuts on. That “challenging budget”, after all, comes as a result of Labour’s failure to reform the Barnett formula when they were in power in Westminster.

In the meantime, the Scottish Government have announced that they will protect recipients of council tax benefit from the cuts. The contrast between a strong Scottish National party Government in Scotland and a lethargic, supine Labour party in Wales could not be clearer. My party strongly favours fiscal responsibility and accountability for the decisions made by the Welsh Government, but this 10% cut should not be passed down to Wales by the Con-Dems and nor should it be passed on to the people of Wales by Labour.

10.23 am

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Howarth, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) for calling this debate. My contribution will follow on neatly from that of the last speaker, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), because I will talk a bit about the situation in Scotland.

When I came into the House two years ago and this whole debate about localism began, I was wont to go around saying to my colleagues, “Huh! We’ve had this for the last three years”—I think that was how long it had been by that point—“and it isn’t working.” That was because the Scottish nationalist Government had introduced in 2007 a policy of localism, although they did not quite call it that and they did not perhaps talk about it in quite the same way as others. However, the impact has been exactly the same as elsewhere.

The problem is that talking about delegating decisions to local authorities is all well and good, but if at the same time the financial squeeze is put on, that is not real delegation of power. That is what we have seen in Scotland; we have now seen it for five years. We have had a council tax freeze, which nobody has been able to break out of. It is a very populist notion. I know that people think, “Oh, that’s great, you’re freezing the council tax,” but we must remember that those who receive council tax benefit—the poorest and most vulnerable people—got absolutely nothing from it. The measure is actually highly regressive, and it is also cumulative year on year.

In that financial strangulation, a council tax freeze is applied. Then, as has happened in Scotland this year, local government starts to be given less money and is told, “There you are, it’s over to you for all sorts of decisions.” That has been very damaging and very difficult for local government. Although some local councils in Scotland embraced the notion of a council tax freeze at the outset—wrongly, I think, and my own Labour group on the City of Edinburgh council, although they were then in opposition, pointed out the flaws in the notion right from the beginning—most of them have now realised that the situation is very difficult for them indeed. Without a local area having the power to raise its own resources and have control over its finances, localism is not really localism, and that is the root of a lot of the problems that we have discussed this morning.

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Obviously, Scotland faces the same situation as other places, in that the money is simply being cut by Westminster. What the Scottish Government have done about that so far is disappointingly limited: they have said they will not impose the 10% cut, although the cut will be coming from London. That sounds good on the surface, but only half of that money is coming from Scottish Government funds; the rest will come from local government. Therefore, local government in Scotland is experiencing the squeeze in exactly the same way as local government in other places.

The Scottish Government made that announcement shortly before the local government elections in May and said, “We will be saving Scotland from this 10% cut,” but they did not say that that will have an impact on other services, and that half of the money to deal with the cuts will be found from local government, which already has reduced resources. To anybody who thinks that the Scottish Government have some magical way out of these difficulties, I would say, “That is just not the case.”

I regret the fact that, at the moment, there is still a lack of clarity in Scotland about how the proposal will work in future, how it will be developed and how a new form of benefit will come out of the present situation. It is all too easy for the Scottish Government. Their line on most things at the moment is to say, “Well, if you vote for separation, everything will be solved.” It’s land of milk and honey stuff, but a lot of the problems that I have mentioned will still be there.

I hope that in the next few months the Scottish Government will not wait for this nirvana that they claim is to come but instead will start to think seriously about how we create a proper benefit in Scotland for all the groups who receive council tax benefit. For example, the current system for council tax benefit has some details that we do not want to lose. On carers, the current structure of council tax benefit includes a carer’s premium, which makes a difference to many households with caring responsibilities. We have just had carers week, and a lot of warm words have been said about carers. Let us hope, however, that all local authorities up and down the country that will be affected by this change—both the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government will be creating a new form of benefit—do not forget carers.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. Three Members still wish to speak. If they can each confine themselves to speaking for three to four minutes, we should be able to get everyone in.

10.28 am

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Howarth, for giving me the opportunity to speak. I draw attention to the interest that I have declared in the register.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this debate, which highlights what I consider to be a very instructive example of how not to effect change in social policy. We can have arguments about the merits of localising council tax benefit, and those arguments have been deployed today. Some people believe that the change is important as part of a localist agenda; others believe there is a

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problem in separating the administration of housing benefit from the administration of council tax benefit. Those arguments are perfectly legitimate, but let us put them aside for a moment and assume that making the change is a sensible route to follow. How would this Government—if they were an intelligent, sensible Government—go about making it?

There are three fundamental objectives. The first is to be clear about the policy, so that everyone involved knows exactly how the change will work, what the expectations are, and what the success measures will be—how it will be judged a success or otherwise. The second key objective is to have detailed consultation with everyone affected. As we have heard, the number of people receiving the benefit is approaching 6 million—no other benefit has more recipients. Such a consultation should identify any especially adverse impacts on particular groups, contradictions between elements in the policy that could have perverse effects, and any other such anomalies, so that the policy can be refined and then work effectively. Thirdly, there needs to be plenty of time, to enable the change to be introduced in an orderly and well-planned way.

The Government have failed all three tests. That is an extraordinary comment on how they, looking increasingly like a bunch of incompetents, have approached the issue. Although the objective of localisation is clear, the policy is still wrapped in ambiguity. How will the arbitrary 10% cut that the Government are imposing—a cut that runs against any principle of sensible policy change—be implemented if the Government’s objectives are to be met? Those objectives are that pensioners and other vulnerable households should be protected, and that there should be no work disincentives. I challenge the Minister to tell us—he has failed to do so when previously challenged—how any organisation can make a 10% cut in the overall benefit level while protecting pensioners and without creating work disincentives. Protecting pensioners will result, on average, in a 16% cut to others, substantial numbers of whom are in work. We still wait to understand the detail. Why is the policy not clear, even now?

Consultation, the second objective, has been notable by its absence. A few local authorities are beginning to consult with their residents, but they are shackled because the full details of the scheme are not yet available. The legislation is still only part way through Parliament—in the upper House—and the regulations have not been published. Local authorities are trying to do the right thing but are unable to do so properly, and the vast majority of the population, therefore, have very little idea of what will soon hit them.

That brings me on to the third criterion, the implementation timetable, which is, perhaps, the most lamentable failure of all on the part of the Government. The scheme must be implemented from April 2013, which means that councils must have all arrangements in place by the end of January next year, which is just seven months away. Before that, they must carry out detailed consultation, to ensure that all groups in the area are aware of the implications, and they then need to refine their policy to take account of the results. They also need to brief software suppliers, put the administrative arrangements in place, and do all the publicity, so that people know how the new arrangement will operate and, indeed, as the Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts)

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rightly highlighted, to ensure that people understand how the complex new arrangements, which will involve different applications for housing benefit and council tax benefit, will work. All that must be done in seven months. In the best possible circumstances, with the regulations published and everything clear, that would be a tall order, but in the current situation, where we do not even know what the law will require, it is impossible. That is why people are saying, “It is simply beyond the scope of any reasonable local authority to be able to administer this without administrative chaos.”

I remind the Minister of what happened when housing benefit was introduced. His party was not part of the Government at that stage—it was a Conservative Government—but the process was highlighted at the time, in the early 1980s, as probably the worst administrative fiasco in the history of the welfare state. I put it to the Minister that he is now part of a Government who are moving in a direction that could well receive similar criticism in seven months’ time, when they try to put in place, with an impossible timetable and a lack of clarity on policy, a series of measures that will have far-reaching effects on the income levels of large numbers of people. This is a shambles. It is not how administrative or social policy should be carried out, and I sincerely hope that the Government will listen to all the appeals to delay the measure, to allow proper time for the administrative changes to be made in a proper way.

10.34 am

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Chairman, for this opportunity to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing such an important and timely debate. I also congratulate everyone who has contributed so far, and I agree with every word they have said.

Time is short, and it is difficult to put every argument forward. As a former councillor of 28 years in the London borough of Ealing, I am only too well aware of the impact that this Government policy will have on those least able to bear the financial consequences of the irresponsibility of the bankers and the Government’s failed economic policies.

Before I address directly the localisation of council tax benefit, I want to remind the House of the cuts that local government is already struggling to deal with, as a result of the Government’s decisions to cut too deep and too fast. Local government across the country is taking a 28% budget cut, a much greater cut than for almost any other arm of Government. In Ealing, the council is faced with an £85 million cut over four years, which is more than 30% of its controllable budget. It has found 70% of the cuts through creating greater efficiencies, cutting out waste, renegotiating contracts, increasing its income, cutting back on senior management and finding new ways of working. Only 30% of the £85 million cuts have fallen on front-line services. That is what a Labour council can do when faced with an unprecedented financial challenge, made worse by the Government’s economic incompetence. But, as the cuts continue to roll in, it can only do so much.

The Government’s scheme to give councils the responsibility for delivering council tax benefit while cutting the funds to pay for it by 10%, is just the latest

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additional financial burden that councils face. The Government are also telling councils that they must protect pensioners from any cuts to their council tax benefit, which is a good thing, but, with the 10% cut in the grant, other groups of council tax benefit recipients, including the working poor, will receive cuts of up to 40% in their benefit, depending on the number of pensioners in their area. Where does that leave the Government’s policy to make work pay? In tatters, I suggest.

In addition, the grant, reduced by 10%, is a one-off settlement, which means that councils will have to bear all the risk of any future increases in council tax benefit take-up caused by the loss of local jobs. That is a considerable risk, given the current fragile state of the UK economy and the ongoing crisis in the eurozone. The eurozone could fall apart at any moment, and cause a further wave of financial turmoil and job losses. What should a council do if a major employer experiences difficulties and goes to the wall, creating significant job losses and a huge take-up in council tax benefit? On top of the already draconian cuts it is dealing with, it will have to cut other services to meet its council tax benefit obligations.

This is localism of the worst sort. The Government are giving the responsibility and the risk to local government, but are cutting the budget by 10% and telling councils who they should give the benefit to. True localism would give councils both the financial means and the freedom to decide how to administer the benefits, and to whom.

Local government is already bearing the brunt of the Government’s failed austerity programme, and this cut is a cut too far. It will hit the already vulnerable, including the working poor, and it flies in the face of everything that Members on this side of the House believe, and of what the Government profess to believe. The Government are out of touch, and are cynically trying to blame local councils for the cut that they themselves are choosing to make. The public will see through that, and the blame will lie fairly and squarely with the Government, unless they U-turn yet again.

10.39 am

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): I shall be extremely brief. It is a serious mistake to miss council tax benefit out of universal credit. Universal credit was supposed to be universal, but if council tax is not included, it will not be.

I have three questions for the Minister. First, will universal credit be counted as income in the means test for council tax benefit? Secondly, will local authorities have access to universal credit data when calculating people’s council tax benefit? Thirdly, does the Minister accept, as has been made clear in this debate, that many councils will not be in a position to implement the new system in time for April next year?

10.40 am

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this debate, and all my other hon. Friends who have spoken. They are too numerous to mention individually in the time available,

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but all of them have expressed concern about the unfairness of the policy. It is unfair even according to the standards of the Government, who seem to have elevated inequity into a policy position.

The policy represents a circle that is impossible for councils to square. The shift from annually managed expenditure to cash-limited expenditure, coupled with a 10% budget cut—while pensioners must be protected, which we support—means that the brunt of the cuts will fall on the most vulnerable people in the community. Who are those people? Many of them are poor working families. The cuts that they will bear—entirely arbitrary, depending on how many pensioners are in the local authority—will range from 13.4% to 25.2%. The national average will be 17%. If councils try to protect other vulnerable groups such as disabled people and carers, as the Government default scheme suggests they should, the cut for working families could be as much as 40% of benefit.

The Government trumpet that they have taken people out of tax by raising the tax threshold. Those gains, such as they were, have already been wiped out by increases in VAT and changes to housing benefit and tax credits. For many poor families, they will be wiped out yet again by the increase in council tax. The sad thing is that the Government do not even recognise the existence of such families. The Minister for Housing and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), said to the Select Committee that

“if somebody is in work they will not be receiving the benefit because they will not need to”.

How wrong can one be, and how wilfully blind? A parliamentary answer that I received from a Department for Work and Pensions Minister, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), told me that 743,600 people are non-passported recipients of council tax benefit and in work. There are others on passported benefits, of course, who are in part-time work.

Looking at the local authorities of which my hon. Friends have spoken, there are 3,430 such people in the Wigan borough and more than 2,000 in my own. Stockport has 2,860, Tameside has 2,830, Rochdale has 2,900 and County Durham has an incredible 5,810. Do the Departments talk to one another, or is this, as most of the Opposition believe, a piece of Government spin designed to convince everyone that the benefits go to people who are out of work?

The implication, of course, is that people are out of work through their own fault. That would be nonsense even if it were true, given that there is a double-dip recession and 2.6 million people are unemployed, but it is not true. The benefit often goes to families trying to do the right thing by going out to work for low wages because they believe in the value of work and in setting an example to their children. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said that councils that pay higher wages can attract more businesses. That is interesting, given that Government policy is clearly to depress wages in many areas of the country by targeting regional pay in the public sector. They are driving wages not up but down.

Who else will be hit by the legislation? There is no protection at all in the Bill for people with disabilities—even those in the support group for employment and support

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allowance, who are not expected to seek work even if it is available, which in the current double-dip recession is unlikely. Nor is there any protection for those in the work-related activity group, who by definition are not expected to seek paid employment to increase their income. How ludicrous it is, then, for the Government to claim that their purpose is to spur councils on to create more jobs when many of the people affected are in work or defined as unable to seek work.

Another group who will suffer, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), is carers. Carers are defined by the national insurance credit regulations as caring for 20 hours a week or more for someone in receipt of certain benefits. Carers are the people whom the Prime Minister called the unsung heroes of society in 2010. Now they will be rewarded with a council tax increase. What are they supposed to do? If they stop caring and go out and get a job, the state will pick up a burden costing millions of pounds for the social care that they were providing. A tax increase for carers and disabled people and a tax cut for millionaires—nothing could better sum up the Government’s distorted priorities.

As some of my hon. Friends have mentioned, as with the Government’s plans for business rates, the poorest areas will be hit hardest. I have already given some figures. The number of people in Manchester who are in work and receiving council tax benefit is more than 8,000. In Liverpool, it is more than 6,000. In Salford, a much smaller authority, it is 3,500. By contrast, South Bucks has 420, Melton has 440 and the City of London has 40.

That means that councils with a lot of people in that category are being hit by a triple whammy. First, defaults will rise. As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield reminded us, that is an imprisonable offence. Secondly, it will be much harder for councils to mitigate the effect on people in work, simply because there are more of them. Thirdly, they will lose a significant amount of money from their local economy, as people try to make up the shortfall with income that they would otherwise have spent in local shops and businesses. My own local authority, for instance, will lose £1.3 million. Wigan will lose £2.6 million, Tameside £1.9 million and County Durham a whopping £5.5 million.

George Hollingbery: Is it not true that from an individual rather than a collective point of view, the cuts will actually fall hardest on those areas with the oldest demography rather than the greatest poverty? That is where the most distortion will happen. Collectively, there are areas with more people in receipt of benefit, but of course the budgets reflect that already.

Helen Jones: Actually, they do not. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Local Government Finance Bill, he will see that its impact falls on the poorest authorities in the country. I have no doubt that there are difficulties in some areas with pensioners, but let me give him figures on what some of the wealthier areas will lose: Hertfordshire will lose £293,000 and Melton £246,000. Like the rest of the Government’s financial initiatives, this is designed to hit the poorest areas most—and, of course, it transfers all the financial risk to local authorities.

If more pensioners claim, as is likely under this system, that will be a good thing, but the money will have to be found in a cash-limited system. If unemployment

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increases, especially if a big employer closes down, the money will have to be found either from the poorest people receiving benefits or from cuts in benefits elsewhere. When the Government say that they wish to include council tax in the local business rate system, they fail to say that safety nets will kick in only if a council’s income falls between 7.5% and 10% below the baseline.

Joseph Johnson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Jones: I am sorry, but I have to wind up; otherwise, I will exceed my time.

This ill-thought-out system will produce disincentives against working and hit the poor and vulnerable most. The Minister needs to think again.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on launching the debate, and the many colleagues who have contributed to it. It will be extremely challenging to answer all the points raised, so I will pick out what seem to me to be the key ones. It is time that will limit what I am able to say, certainly not the strength of the arguments.

There has always been recognition in the House that welfare spending needs to be targeted properly and that more needs to be done to tackle poverty by getting people off benefits and into work. Part of achieving that, and part of the Government’s strategy for doing so, is to return control over council tax support to councils and for local authorities to have the freedom to decide how to help provide for the most vulnerable in their communities.

Grahame M. Morris: Will the Minister give way?

Andrew Stunell: Yes, although it will reduce my chances of answering all the points that have been raised.

Grahame M. Morris: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on this fundamental point. Will he recognise that housing benefit is an in-work benefit?

Andrew Stunell: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman meant to say council tax benefit, which is what we are debating. I certainly accept the figures given by the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones). Of course, some of the recipients of the benefit are in work. That is not in doubt or dispute.

I remind Members that council tax benefit expenditure more than doubled between 1997 and 2010. Much of this debate has centred on two different but overlapping things: localisation, which, on the whole, Members present seem to approve of; and the reduction in the total amount of money being distributed, which, on the whole, they seem to disagree with. I understand the difficulties that this creates, but I remind Members that the reason why we have to reduce central Government spending is the inheritance that the Government received in 2010.

Helen Jones: Will the Minister give way?

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Andrew Stunell: No, I will not.

At that time, there was a gap of £400 million every day between the amount being spent by the outgoing Government and the amount they were receiving, in tax and other receipts—£400 million was being added every day to the national deficit. The measure we are discussing is part of the Government’s strategy to put this country’s finances back on a firm footing. As has been noted, it consists of a reduction of £500 million per year—not per day—as a contribution to closing the gap between public expenditure and public income.

That brings me to the contributions of hon. Members representing constituencies in Wales and Scotland. In both those nations, the allocation of the reduction is strictly in accordance with the Barnett formula, and that reduction is no more ring-fenced in its decrease than any increase under the formula. It is entirely a matter for the Welsh and Scottish Administrations to decide how to proceed on the schemes in their respective countries. It is important to make that point.

[Official Report, 17 July 2012, Vol. 548, c. 1MC.]

That brings me to the many points that have been made about the implications and ramifications of the reductions. I want to illustrate how far wide of the mark some of those comments were by reference to a point made by the hon. Member for Mackerfield.

Helen Jones: Makerfield.

Andrew Stunell: I apologise for mispronouncing the constituency name; I ought to know better, as I come from that part of the world.

Under our proposed scheme, Wigan metropolitan borough will face a reduction of £2,130,661. I am happy for that to appear on the record.

Helen Jones: Will the Minister give way on that point?

Andrew Stunell: No, I will not give way on any points, because I want to proceed.

In another part of the Local Government Finance Bill, we are giving Wigan metropolitan borough the capacity to change its current discounts and exemptions for empty homes and second homes. Wigan metropolitan borough, which I am sure the hon. Member for Makerfield would agree has considerable social and economic problems, will be able to raise £2,173,854, if it chooses to exercise

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its discretion fully. The difference between those two figures is £43,000 in Wigan’s favour; under the Bill, it will have capacity to raise more revenue than it will lose.

That important point very much undermines the arguments made by a number of Members. It brings a sense of reality—[Laughter.] The nature of things is that very few Members of Parliament have detailed experience of local government finance systems; they are highly dependent on the advice they receive from local authorities and their senior finance officers. If Opposition Members asked their individual local authorities how much they would be able to increase their income if they took advantage of the Bill’s proposed discounts and exemption changes, I think that, almost without exception, those Members would be substantially surprised.

In my remaining two minutes, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her comments. I welcome her back, because she has been absent from the House for some time. She has not lost her touch. She made it very clear what she thinks about the issue and has been consistent and persistent in making her point. The authorities in Dorset and Poole can, if they choose to, offset the reduction in support for council tax benefit via changes to the exemptions that they levy.

The hon. Member for Makerfield made a point about the schemes that local authorities will introduce, but I am sure that it will be obvious to her that Wigan can continue with exactly the same scheme as it has now, if it wishes to do so. If it continues with that scheme, it will not need the guidance and support that we have already issued to local authorities on all the relevant matters. Indeed, some local authorities are already carrying out public consultations on alternative schemes and will have them in place by 1 April.

Mr Betts: On a point of order, Mr Howarth. The Minister has not referred to the deliverability of the timetable, which is a crucial issue.

Mr George Howarth (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman is experienced enough to know that that is not a point of order.

Andrew Stunell: Wigan does not have to do that, because if it takes advantage of the discounts and exemptions that we have given it, it will be able to carry on with its current scheme.

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Human Rights (Kashmir)

11 am

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I welcome the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne).

This is a short debate on a very controversial and difficult issue that concerns an awful lot of British citizens who have links with Kashmir. One or two colleagues have asked whether they may make interventions and, as a courteous chap, obviously I say yes, but I want to get most of my points across first and the Minister must have his time to reply. I fear, however—I mean no disrespect, having sat in his chair—that the Government line on human rights in Kashmir is not likely to change as a result of anything I say today. To be fair to the Minister, that line has not much changed in recent years in any case.

To put some points on the record, I am not attacking India per se. I admire India, its democracy, its rule of law and its vibrant culture, and I wish it well, but precisely because I do like and admire India, where I think that there is grievous fault I have an obligation to point it out. I do not want to go into the long history of Kashmir and the original UN resolutions, which were violated when the Kashmiri people were not allowed a plebiscite—as the UN had instructed—or their independent say on their future status 60 or more years ago.

I strongly welcome the dialogue initiated a year ago between the Foreign Ministers of Pakistan and India, which has certainly led to a helpful increase in communication and trade between Kashmir on the Indian side and Kashmir on the Pakistan side. Unfortunately, because of continued violence in Indian-occupied Kashmir—35 people have been killed since January—that trade and the opening of bridges and bus communications have been placed under threat.

I do not intend to get into much discussion of the general problem of terrorism. India is absolutely right to lay charges against Pakistan and individuals and organisations in Pakistan in connection with the Mumbai massacre and other assaults on the integrity of India, just as Pakistan is right to express some generalised concern about the more than half a million soldiers directly on its border—a situation that is bound to increase military tension. If for any reason we had an army of half a million Europeans stretched between Ostend and La Rochelle and if all their manoeuvres were predicated on invading England, as all the Indian army manoeuvres are predicated on invading Pakistan, we might get a bit twitchier.

I do not want to go back into the history of the 1980s and what we can now see, historically, as the disastrous decision of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush to create the Islamist jihadis as part of the cold war campaign against the Soviet Union. We sowed dragon’s teeth when we gave them weapons to hit at the Soviets: the jihadis took those weapons home and have stayed in possession of them ever since, giving birth to al-Qaeda and successive waves of Islamist terrorism.

I do not want to go into the history of why, after the Russians left Afghanistan, there was no concrete western help, in particular to resettle the millions of refugees for whom Pakistan had to take some responsibility.

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Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr MacShane: I shall make a bit more progress in my speech, even though my hon. Friend is one of my closest colleagues and friends.

Most estimates put the Indian army present in Jammu and Kashmir since democracy was suspended there in 1987 at between 500,000 and 600,000. The estimate of the number of people who have died largely if not exclusively as a result of the behaviour of the Indian army—there has also been terrorism on the side of Pakistani and Kashmir militants—is put at between 60,000 and 80,000. Indian soldiers and security forces operate under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act—one of the most iniquitous laws anywhere in the world—which prevents effective prosecution of actions undertaken in the name of Indian security in the region. Those 60,000 to 80,000 people killed—the equivalent of 10 Srebrenicas—represent far more Kashmiri Muslims dying at the hands of the Indian army than all the Palestinian Muslims who have been killed in the middle east conflicts of the past decade, and yet the world is silent.

The Foreign Secretary is always ready to lecture the Israelis on human rights abuses, as we have seen recently, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, but on Kashmir there is complete silence. There are 32,000 widows in Kashmir, 10,000 unaccounted-for, disappeared people and 100,000 orphans as a result of Indian security forces’ handling of the problem in the past few years.

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr MacShane: I will make some progress and then give way as much as possible. I am a courteous person but, please, let me make some of my points.

I am greatly concerned about the 10,000 disappeared people. In Latin America, there was great publicity about the disappeared victims of various military operations, in particular in the 1970s and ’80s, and yet the 10,000 Kashmiris who have disappeared after being taken away by the Indian authorities, never to return, get no publicity or world concern.

The Indian lobby in Britain, as we know, is one of the most influential, pervasive and well financed in the world. Pakistan also has its spokespersons, but the people of Kashmir are largely voiceless, save for some interventions, notably from my noble Friend Lord Ahmed of Rotherham. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) is another tireless champion of Kashmir. His early-day motion 2607, tabled earlier this year, draws attention to the horrible discovery of mass graves of some 6,000 men near the line of control, the border that separates the two Kashmirs. In Europe, we recall Katyn and Lidice with horror, but on the mass graves in Kashmir, we hear barely a word.

I have tried on several occasions, both since he has been in government and when he was the Conservative foreign affairs spokesman in opposition, to get merely a single word of concern from the Foreign Secretary. Frankly, I had more chance of getting England’s footballers to score from the penalty spot than I had of getting the Foreign Secretary to speak out for the human rights of Kashmiris. The official Government position is clear. The long-standing position of the UK and what spokesmen

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say is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, one that takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or to mediate in finding one—

Mr Virendra Sharma: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr MacShane: Let me finish telling hon. Members what the spokesmen say—that we welcome the positive steps taken by Pakistan and India to build trust and confidence.

Frankly, that is not good enough. In relation to many other areas of the world, we have a position and we are prepared to speak out, but on Kashmir we are utterly silent. Kashmir is the far away place in the world of which we would prefer to know nothing and of which the Government certainly say nothing. Let me be clear that the same admonition applies to the previous Government. I remember my right hon. Friend, the late Robin Cook, early in his days as Foreign Secretary, thinking that Kashmir was an issue of some concern. When he tried to raise it, however, he was abused in New Delhi and some ugly pieces were spun by Indian media and propaganda.

Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr MacShane: I shall give way in a moment. He was traduced to the point that he effectively shut up on that issue—[Interruption.] There are 21 minutes to go, so I hope that there is time for everyone to speak.

I am making a point about the present Government but, believe me, it applies also to the last Government. I see Kashmir as one of the great issues of concern for the Muslim community around the world. That is certainly true in my constituency where the problems in Kashmir are constantly reflected in the Pakistani papers printed here in Britain—the Jang, The Nation, the Dawn—and on PTV, which many of my constituents watch. British citizens hear daily reports of the unpleasant behaviour, and sometimes much worse, by the Indian security forces. The issue is of great concern to British-born citizens, and we do ourselves no good as a Parliament by pretending that it is simply something that can be solved by a little exchange of words between Islamabad and New Delhi.

Human Rights Watch has a number of recommendations. It wants to initiate

“an impartial investigation into reports that the Eighth Rashtriya Rifles Battalion in Doda has been responsible for summary executions…rape, and other assaults on villagers”,

including the disappearances to which I referred. I do not want to go into details of the rape allegations, which are particularly distressing, but it is very clear that if any of that had happened in territories near Europe or in the Balkans back in the 1990s, the International Criminal Court would have been involved. People have been sent to the court accused of far lesser crimes than those committed by the people responsible for what has happened in Kashmir on the Indian side.

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Human Rights Watch says that

“all reports of extrajudicial executions, ‘disappearances’, deaths in custody, torture, and rape by security forces and unofficial parliamentary forces in Kashmir are investigated promptly by a judicial authority and those responsible should be prosecuted in civilian courts.”

It says that the Indian Government should disarm

“and disband all state-sponsored militias not established and regulated by law and prosecute members of such groups who have been responsible for extrajudicial killings, “disappearances”, assaults, and other abuses.”

It also says that the Indian Government should establish

“a centralized register of detainees accessible to lawyers and family members (something promised since 1993 but not delivered)”,

and provide much better

“police training, perhaps after consultation with international experts, on gathering adequate evidence for rape prosecutions. Medical workers who have examined and treated rape victims should be protected from abuse.”

Those recommendations all come from Human Rights Watch. Britain could play a part in that, as could the European Union.

Joseph Johnson: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. I will be brief. As hon. Members will know, the EU and India are five years into negotiating a complex free trade agreement in which the issue of human rights will soon rear its head. Given that the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister for Europe in the previous Government, where does he stand on inclusion of an essential elements clause mandating protection of human rights in any eventual agreement? The previous Government made a particular exception for India, allowing the Commission to continue to negotiate with a view to not having an essential elements clause, one that appears in 120 other agreements around the world. Would the right hon. Gentleman recommend that the EU includes one going forward?

Mr MacShane: I certainly would. Alas, I was not Minister for Europe during the period to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Governments occasionally make mistakes, and that did not come under my purview. However, he makes a powerful point, and I hope that the EU authorities who are listening, including Baroness Ashton, will take it on board. I will send her a copy of the debate, and perhaps the Minister will write to her underlining the cross-party agreement on the point.

Mr Virendra Sharma: Will my right hon. Friend tell us where he obtained the information that 80,000 people were killed in Kashmir?

Mr MacShane: The information has been readily available on the websites of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for a number of years. The figure is an estimate. Let us say it is 70,000 or 60,000. Even if one person is subject to disappearance, rape or torture, that is one too many, so quibbling about the numbers does the cause of justice no good.

I am very willing to condemn, and have regularly publicly condemned, terrorism emanating from Pakistan and the blind eye that Inter-Services Intelligence and the Pakistani Government, in different shapes, and the Pakistani Parliament have turned to Pakistan-generated terrorism. I have said that to leading Ministers and to General Kayani face to face in Islamabad, so my record, I hope, is reasonable on this issue. I believe that it is

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right that on behalf certainly of British citizens I make this point. This is not an intellectual human rights conference. I make this point on behalf of very many people in my constituency who are very concerned that we are not getting justice for the Kashmiri people.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. This issue is of great concern to a large number of my constituents as well. May I underline the point that he made? We do stand accused of double standards if we give prominence—rightly—to human rights abuses in so many other places in the world, but appear silent on the vital issue of Kashmir.

Mr MacShane: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I raised the question of Yulia Tymoshenko, and the Prime Minister told me last October in the House that unless she was properly treated and released from prison, it would be an issue of grave concern to the UK. Then finally it was announced that Ministers would not go to Ukraine for the football. This Minister pointed out, quite rightly, that it was unlikely that attending the final would need to be on the agenda.

Frankly, if we make such a statement about a woman who should not be ill treated but who is alive and seeing doctors, why are we silent on Kashmir? Why are we silent on Kashmir? Why are we silent on Kashmir? That is what my constituents are saying, and I hope the Minister will address that.

Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab) rose

Mr MacShane: I have said to all the colleagues who have written to me that I have no problem with hon. Members intervening. It is up to the Minister, because it is his time, whether he wants to allow other colleagues to come in, but certainly I acknowledge that my hon. Friend did contact me with a request to intervene.

Simon Danczuk: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an excellent contribution on this important issue. I have visited Kashmir. There is always a lot of emphasis on discussions and talks between India and Pakistan, but does my right hon. Friend agree that what is missing is the fact that we rarely listen to the people of Kashmir themselves?

Mr MacShane: I agree.

11.17 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): I am grateful for the chance to conclude this short debate and it is a pleasure to do so under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) on giving us this opportunity. It is a slightly unsatisfactory version—sort of a Twenty20 version—of a parliamentary debate, in which the finer points are not developed as much as we would like. But it is better than having no opportunity at all.

The promotion and protection of human rights is at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy, so I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman on that central point. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made absolutely clear our determination to pursue every

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opportunity open to us to promote human rights and political and economic freedom around the world.

As the Foreign Office Minister responsible for human rights, I can state with complete confidence that we do not shy away from raising human rights issues with countries where we have genuine concerns about what is happening. The Government have made a commitment to promote human rights consistently. I recommend to all right hon. and hon. Members the Government’s fairly recently published annual human rights report, an extremely comprehensive document that records the type of work that we are doing.

Stephen Pound: Does the Minister not accept that, ultimately, human rights violations can be resolved and solved only by a political agreement and that even the most frozen conflict—that is the appropriate word for the area around Kargil—can be thawed? We have on the table the Simla agreement, signed by the leaders of both India and Pakistan in 1972. Is the policy of the Foreign Office to support the implementation of the Simla agreement, which provides a way forward for both peace and human rights in this troubled area?

Mr Browne: I am grateful for the intervention. Having put on the record the Government’s unequivocal commitment to a human rights policy on a global scale, let me get to how we see the India-Pakistan relationship and the nub of this question. I will take on board the intervention that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Joseph Johnson: Will the Minister clarify where Britain stands with respect to the EU Council decision of 1995, reaffirmed in 2008, that all trade agreements and co-operation agreements should include an essential elements clause?

Mr Browne rose

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Browne: I will take all the interventions, then respond.

Mr Virendra Sharma: I thank the Minister for giving way. Other Members raised the point that there is no dialogue between the Indian Government and the Jammu and Kashmir people. I hope the Minister agrees that there is a democratically elected Government of Jammu and Kashmir, who work closely with the Indian Government. I believe that the Government recognise that. Does he agree?

Mr Browne: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney).

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I was pleased to visit Azad Jammu and Kashmir on a private visit—Mirpur and Dadyal. I met the press club of Mirpur. Does the Minister agree that it is important that the free press of Azad Jammu and Kashmir should be able to report freely any human rights abuses, so that we get accurate reporting and information? That is what is keeping Syria on the news agenda. We need more such good-quality journalism from Kashmir.

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Mr Browne: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman).

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): I thank the Minister for giving way yet another time. I look forward to the answers to the interventions.

Does the Minister agree that there is a massive difference between what is going on in Jammu and Kashmir and in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir? In Jammu and Kashmir, there is free access for the press, Amnesty International and every other international body that wants access to see what is going on. In Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, what is almost a lawlessness still prevails. The human rights issues that the right hon. Member for Rotherham raised seem to be one-sided. The problems of the region as a whole should be looked at.

Mr Browne: Thank you, Mr Howarth, for allowing me to pioneer a new format for debates. I am conscious that a lot of Members want to put their core points on the record, and I was keen to give them the opportunity to do so. A number of points were raised, some of which were assertions of fact; whether those points were on England’s likelihood of progressing or something else, I am happy to stand by them.

Let me put the Foreign Office’s position on the record, and people can draw conclusions from what I say. The United Kingdom enjoys close relations with India and Pakistan; they are both long-standing and important friends of the UK. The Foreign Secretary visited Pakistan earlier this month to underline Britain’s commitment to a deep, long-term strategic relationship with Pakistan. He held wide-ranging discussions on the strength of the bilateral relationship, the importance that the UK attaches to upcoming elections in Pakistan and the UK and Pakistan’s mutual interests in promoting stability in the region. Of course, the UK enjoys a warm, forward-looking strategic relationship with India, the world’s largest democracy. We have regular contact, including when the Prime Ministers of the UK and India met at the G20 summit in Mexico last week.

We recognise the importance of a strong relationship between India and Pakistan, which is why the Government welcome the renewed engagement in recent months between India and Pakistan. We have seen a series of high-level talks this year, including a visit by President Zardari to India in April, when he met Prime Minister Singh, and we welcome new Pakistani Prime Minister Ashraf’s pledge to continue to seek better ties with India. The commitment of both leaders from both sides to improving bilateral relations is laudable, and we support it.

Substantive progress has been made in the relationship, in particular in recent steps taken by both countries to liberalise trade. We hope that both sides will take further positive steps to develop their engagement. Ultimately, however, we recognise that the relationship between India and Pakistan is one that they themselves will need to build and the pace of dialogue is for them to set.

On Kashmir, the nub of the debate, the Foreign Secretary has stated previously in the House the position of successive British Governments on Kashmir. That has been consistent—that any resolution must be for India and Pakistan to agree, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. As India and Pakistan are currently making efforts to build confidence in all

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aspects of their relationship, it is important that they be given space to determine the scope and pace of that dialogue.

I fully understand the strength of feeling about the issue among many people in Britain, including those in the House. However, no matter how well intentioned, any attempts by the United Kingdom or other third parties to mediate or prescribe solutions would, we believe, hinder rather than advance the progress that many people wish to see.

The Government continue to monitor closely developments in Kashmir, particularly with regard to the human rights situation on both sides of the line of control. As the House knows, Kashmir has been plagued by militancy in recent years, which has undermined the security and prosperity of the Kashmiri people. We continue to call for an end to external support for violence.

It is encouraging to have seen a significant reduction in violence in Kashmir over previous years. We all recall the violent protests that occurred in Indian-administered Kashmir during the summer of 2010, when more than 100 civilians were killed and a number of security forces personnel were injured. During the unrest, there were allegations of excessive use of force by security forces against protesters and allegations that protesters themselves had used violence. We sincerely hope that the cycle of violence is now coming to an end.

We recognise that there are human rights concerns in both Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. We are aware of reports from organisations such as Amnesty International on the large number of detentions in Indian-administered Kashmir, and we have been following, too, the work of the State Human Rights Commission on reports of unknown and unmarked mass graves. Prime Minister Singh has made it clear that human rights abuses by security forces in Kashmir will not be tolerated. We welcome the decision by the Indian Government to allow the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, to pay a fact-finding visit to Kashmir in March. I understand that the State Human Rights Commission is considering how to pursue the findings.

Prime Minister Singh’s appointment of three interlocutors to engage with a wide range of interested parties to help resolve the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir was a welcome initiative. The Indian Government have recently published the interlocutors’ report, which sets out a range of confidence-building measures, including addressing some of the human rights concerns that we have discussed today. I understand that the Indian Government will take a decision on how to implement the report after a period of consultation.

As for action by the United Kingdom specifically, the officials in our high commissions discuss and raise issues in Kashmir regularly, both with the Indian and Pakistani Governments and with contacts on both sides of the line of control. Our resources from the so-called conflict pool also support work promoting human rights, conflict prevention and peace-building efforts.

Highlights of activity under the conflict pool include support for Track II dialogue to help build confidence and create a constituency for peace as well as support to strengthen civil society networks and media development to support peace initiatives. As part of UK bilateral aid

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to Pakistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir also benefits from support to promote economic growth, health and education.

Joseph Johnson: Returning to a more general tack on the same theme, does the Minister agree that human rights observance should be a condition in principle of all EU trade agreements?

Mr Browne: Sorry; the hon. Gentleman did raise that important specific point. Over the past few weeks, we have seen greater co-operation at European Union level on human rights policy and big advances in how we project the consensus view from across the European Union on advancing human rights around the world. That has been an important component of EU agreements. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the specific details with regards to the free trade agreement that has been negotiated with India. Obviously, we also want to see that agreement take effect.

Mr MacShane: Will the Minister write to everyone?

Mr Browne: I will put a copy in the Library of the House of Commons.

In conclusion, it is clear that a resolution of the dispute over Kashmir must be for India and Pakistan to find, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is for that reason that we should welcome the progress made of late to build confidence between the two sides, but we recognise, too, that there remains much to be done. Through our bilateral contacts with both India and Pakistan, we will continue to encourage the steps they are both taking in strengthening their relationship which, as both sides have themselves agreed, will enable discussion on long-standing bilateral issues such as Kashmir.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Alan Turing

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a pleasure, Mr Betts, to serve under your chairmanship today. It is also a pleasure to see so many hon. Members from all parties and backgrounds here to speak in this important debate. I hope that, unlike many debates in this place, this will not be a party political debate, and that we can work together to commemorate an important event. Unfortunately, due to the parliamentary timetable, the House was not sitting on Saturday 23 June, on which date Alan Turing was born exactly 100 years ago.

Last week, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart)—it is a pleasure to see him here—made an application, which I and others supported, to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate in the House to commemorate that centenary. It was a pleasure to support that application, but the Backbench Business Committee, in its wisdom, decided that that route was not the best one, and proposed this one instead. I am delighted to have secured this debate to discuss Alan Turing, and the things he did, and the things we did to him.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important and excellent debate. Does he agree that although this is an excellent forum for discussing the achievements of Alan Turing, it would be good to see more great scientists celebrated on the Floor of the House?

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She is, of course, right. She and I both work to try to promote science, technology and engineering in the broader sense. It is a shame that in this country we do not always recognise scientists—the Clerk Maxwells as much as the Alan Turings. There have been a few links with the House: I have previously spoken to the hon. Lady about one of my predecessors, Isaac Newton, who was the Member of Parliament for Cambridge university. His contributions in the scientific field were perhaps greater than his political contributions. I hope that we will be able to mark the contributions of people in the academic and scientific fields in the years to come.

We have now the opportunity to debate a truly remarkable man and, sadly, a truly depressing chapter in British history. Before doing so, I want to mention Professor S. Barry Cooper of the Turing centenary advisory committee. He has worked tirelessly to spur this debate, and to run a number of events throughout the country to commemorate the life of Alan Turing.

I also want to thank the library of King’s college, Cambridge, which has been a fantastic resource. Alan Turing was a fellow there, as well as a student, and it continues to preserve and promote the life and times of that exceptional man, and his contribution to the modern world. We will not have time today to cover everything that he did, and I invite hon. Members to come and visit the wonderful library at King’s if they wish to know more.

Last Saturday, people throughout the world, including the good people at Google who changed their doodle for the day to a Turing machine, celebrated the centenary

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of Alan Turing’s birth. The purpose of today’s debate is to contribute to those celebrations, to mark them with our parliamentary brand, and to draw the Government’s attention to the need for us to remember and to commemorate his life in further ways.

In Turing’s famous 1950 article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, which set out the famous Turing test—the test of a machine’s ability to exhibit human behaviour, he concluded that we could see only a short distance ahead, but that we could see plenty there that needs to be done. I suspect that politicians of all colours agree with that statement. If one phrase encapsulates his thinking, his brilliance, and the tragic circumstances in which he was forced to live and die, it is that. He looked at the world around him, exposed what was in front of him, and set a generation of scientists and mathematicians down paths that have changed our world. The tragedy is that no amount of intelligence or foresight could insulate him from a society that was determined to suppress him, and a country that so cruelly mistreated him. Today, we have an opportunity to honour his life and his achievements. One hundred years after his birth, we have a chance to try to put right what the country got so badly wrong.

A citizen of the world from an early age, Turing was born in India before boarding in England. His intellect was recognised very early, and by 16 he was reading Albert Einstein and extrapolating from his work. In 1931, he matriculated at King’s college, Cambridge, having won an open scholarship to study mathematics. By 1935, he had a first-class degree and a fellowship there. He was just 22. In the following year, he published his first seminal article.

I am sure that many hon. Members would like a complete run-down of how the Turing machine revolutionised the theory of computation, and the understanding of mathematical proof through hypothetical computing machines. We are limited by time, and other hon. Members want to speak, so I will refrain from referring to everything that Turing tried to do, but his contribution to human knowledge before reaching his 25th birthday was profound.

After the publication of Turing’s article, he was awarded a visiting fellowship at Princeton, and obtained his PhD. But it was during the war that he first began to have a tangible effect on our country and the world around him. The day after the UK declared war on Germany, he reported to Bletchley Park. He had previously worked for a year part-time for the Government’s code and cipher school, the predecessor to GCHQ. When war broke out, he dedicated himself to the defence of a country that took him for granted.

Turing was immediately assigned to the cryptanalysis of Enigma, the most crucial code-breaking programme of the war effort. So valuable was his contribution to the security services that the papers remained secret and were released only in April this year. They show just how many breakthroughs Turing made in the race to break Enigma. A fascinating question is whether any other human could have made the contributions he made at that time. He was awarded an OBE for that work, but his work remained top secret.

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Turing’s contribution to cryptography had a profound impact on the war, but perhaps his most lasting contribution was to computing as a result of his work on cryptography, and the articles he wrote in peacetime. Phrases such as the Turingery technique, the electro-mechanical bombe, and the Banburismus process are hardly commonplace, but they revolutionised our understanding of computers and what they could make possible. Turing’s work directly influenced the creation of the world’s first programmable digital electronic computer. Another fascinating example of which we should take heed is how hard it is to work out what the results of research will be when it starts.

After the war, Turing began work on the automatic computing engine, the pilot of which influenced the construction of the first commercially available computers: English Electric’s DEUCE and the American Bendix G-15. For those achievements, we owe him a huge debt

In the late 1940s, Turing moved to Manchester, and turned his attention to more abstract work in mathematics. Having revolutionised cryptanalysis and modern computing, he then turned to the philosophy of computing and came up with ideas for problems that are still unsolved today. Part of his 1950 paper, to which I referred earlier, created the Turing test. It was designed to ask how to tell the difference between a computer and a human. The test is, essentially, whether someone can reliably tell, without seeing what is happening, whether they are communicating with a computer or a human. Online communications provide a number of examples of it sometimes being hard to tell what is responding but, so far, no artificial intelligence can reliably pass the Turing test.

A version of the test is used daily by millions of people around the world. CAPTCHA—the completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart—is the catchy name for those words that are typed on websites to show that someone is a human and not a computer program. The theory behind that—it is used to secure things across the web every day—is directly influenced by his article 62 years ago.

Turing’s contribution to our understanding of artificial intelligence is no less significant. His idea about how to tell whether a computer can “think” is vital to the modern theory of artificial intelligence. That is not all. In his later years, he worked in mathematical biology—a field that I used to dabble in when I was doing research—and particularly morphogenesis, which is how embryos develop into the organisms they eventually become. He also worked on Fibonacci numbers in plant structures, and his general contribution to the concept of pattern formation is still considered central to the field and has applications in how zebra patterning occurs and many other fields. Again, no one could have foreseen from Turing’s early work where it would lead today, and what would come out of it.

We could spend hours of parliamentary time talking about every one of Turing’s achievements, and I freely admit that I have missed out a huge number of them. Perhaps a full six-hour debate, and many volumes of Hansard, would be enough to list everything that he did, but I hope that the brief summary that I have given provides some tribute to him. But we are not here just to mark Turing’s scientific achievements, or his contribution to the defence effort during the war. Whenever we talk

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about him, we must discuss how he was treated towards the end of his life, and how he was forced out of the world to which he had contributed so much.

In 1952, Alan Turing was convicted of gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. His crime was admitting to a relationship with another man. The way it came about is particularly sad—it should never have come about in any way—in that the relationship with the man was, in fact, with somebody who tried to burgle his house. When he reported it, the police became interested in the crime that he had committed by having a relationship with a man in the first place.

When he was convicted, under the laws of the time, he was given a choice of imprisonment or a “cure”—the rather barbaric cure of chemical castration. Faced with two awful choices, he chose the latter, perhaps in the hope that he could continue to live a meaningful life with his liberty at least intact. None the less, he lost his security clearance—essential to all the work that he was doing—his work and even the freedom to discuss his work with colleagues. He lost his right to live his life.

Two years later, in 1954, he died from cyanide poisoning at the age of 41. We have no idea what he could have achieved if he had lived a fuller life. One of the great tragedies is that we did not even give him the honour of a conclusive inquest to understand exactly what went on. We still debate, including in the past week, the circumstances of his death and whether it was suicide or an accident. Some suggest that he created a deliberately ambiguous scenario in which to die. We do not know; we did not check at the time.

A number of tributes commemorate him. His code-breaking machine was commemorated on a stamp. Last week a new plaque was unveiled in my constituency at King’s college, and there are others, which I did not have the chance to look at, in Manchester and on his childhood home. There are academic conferences, symposiums and colloquiums galore, as well as workshops, public lectures, films, art, opera, plays, books, concerts and poetry. The Olympic torch bearer in Manchester ran past his statue to mark it. There has been some interesting discussion about the coming Olympics; I mentioned Turing in the parliamentary links day on the link between science and sport, but I had not realised then that he had entered the Olympic marathon trials in 1948 and come fifth. That would be a challenge for most scientists, computer scientists or engineers today, and one which I will certainly not try to replicate. Nature ran a full issue about Turing. Overseas, Obama has spoken about him and how important he was.

In 2009, the previous Government issued an official apology. I pay tribute to that and am grateful that it happened, but there is still a lack of official recognition for one of the greatest Britons who ever lived, whom Time magazine selected as one of the hundred most important people of the 20th century. That lack of recognition is particularly apparent when we think that it was our Government who so cruelly mistreated Turing and who failed to treat him correctly. We owe it to him to do something further on the centenary.

I accept that the way he was treated as a homosexual was not unusual to him. There is a long history in this country of treating homosexuals in a way that we would now consider completely and utterly unacceptable. I am pleased that the Government have taken steps on the broader issues, with, for example, the Protection of

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Freedoms Act 2012, which allows the Secretary of State to disregard criminal convictions for homosexual acts by consenting adults. I am pleased that that will now happen to ensure that a person will not be considered as having committed, been charged with, prosecuted for or convicted of a criminal act for such activities. It is important because there are people still alive who bear comments on their Criminal Records Bureau checks about activities that we would certainly not consider criminal now.

There is a lot that we should be doing. The centenary is a good opportunity to mark our debt to Alan Turing and the errors we made as a country. I am sure that hon. Members will talk in more detail about the need to do that. There is a call, supported by a very large petition, for him to be granted a full pardon. It would not change his death or the way that we stopped his work from continuing, but it would be an important sign that the Government accept that Governments made a mistake in the past. It is important to many people who are still affected by the historical decisions that we made.

It is also suggested that Turing be commemorated on a banknote. I accept that banknotes are not the responsibility of the Minister, but I hope that he will listen to that proposal and pass it on to those who print the banknotes. Those two simple acts would make amends for the way in which British society treated such a great man, and embed his story and work into our national consciousness. I hope that the Minister will agree to those suggestions.

Chi Onwurah: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way a second time. I agree with the points he makes so eloquently and movingly. Does he agree that Alan Turing, given his life and achievements, would be a much better name, and indeed brand, for technology and innovation centres, which have been named “catapult centres”? Catapults are rather sloppy bits of engineering that have the habit of destroying what they project. I will be writing to the Secretary of State to make that suggestion. Will the hon. Gentleman support it?

Dr Huppert: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I share the concern about catapults. The idea of a catapult satellite centre seems particularly odd. That is not how I would choose to launch a satellite into orbit. It is worth saying that from an energy efficiency perspective, trebuchets—a slight variant on catapults—are extremely impressive, so there is some interesting technology in that area.

I share her concerns about the name. There is an issue with technology and innovation centres. We could talk about them for about 10 minutes, I suspect. Hermann Hauser, the constituent of mine who came up with the proposal for technology and innovation centres, suggested “Clerk Maxwell centres”. I know that the Select Committee on Science and Technology suggested “Turing centres”. I do not mind which it is. There is a strong case for both and I hope that we can honour both. Either would, in my view, be better names than “catapult centres”. I suspect that renaming scientific research centres is not part of the Minister’s purview, but I hope that he will look carefully at the other suggestions made and, whatever hon. Members suggest, I hope that he will pass them on to the appropriate Ministers for consideration.

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Whatever the response, I hope that the Government will take the chance to recognise that in the centenary of Turing’s birth we have the opportunity to celebrate someone whose contribution to our society and world has hitherto not been sufficiently marked. He showed the world the infinite potential of human ingenuity and the machines that that ingenuity could make possible. He changed our world and our society. He showed the world how machines could help humans, and we treated him in the most inhuman way. I look forward to a full debate from hon. Members, who I thank for coming to mark such a great man, and to a full response from the Government. We owe him no less than our full discussion.

2.47 pm

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate and making such an excellent and rounded speech about Alan Turing. I suspect that the Hansard reporters are greatly relieved that the hon. Gentleman did not go into more technical detail on some of his papers.

Before I move on to the main body of what I want to say, may I say that the hon. Gentleman is right? The Science and Technology Committee is disappointed that the catapult centres were so named, rather than “Turing centres”. “Catapult centre” is a ludicrous name. If there is anything that this debate should do, it is to integrate the story and memory of Turing more into our national consciousness. The name would be one way to do that. I have certainly tried to do it in Manchester.

I am not usually given to hagiography and apologies or pardons to dead people; they have their place, but I do not see the point. Such is the extraordinary story and tragedy of Turing, however, given both the distinction of his mathematical and scientific mind and the tragic end he came to, that almost anything we can do to commemorate him is worth doing. People may disagree, but of all British scientists, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Alan Turing are probably the most distinguished. There is tough competition. In Manchester alone, we have John Dalton, Joule and Thomson. One can go round the country to see what a fantastic scientific pedigree it has. In my reading of Turing, what he did and the depth in which he thought about problems puts him in that league of the most distinguished.

I really want to make some personal comments about Turing. Although I came from Manchester, I had never heard of him until I was reading a popular book on science and mathematics; it was really more about Gödel and Hilbert. I looked up Turing’s name and found his story, which was so devastating that I set about doing two things.

At the time I was leader of Manchester city council, which was at the centre of the campaign against clause 28 and of anti-discrimination policies across the board. In almost every speech I made, whether it was about the age of consent or clause 28, I told the story of Turing. It was one way of bringing him into evidence. In doing that, I came across a number of people who had worked with him. I was privileged to talk to them about his work and how they had been affected by the man himself and the quality of his work.

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I will tell one anecdote about Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, who was one of those people. Hon. Members may not have heard of her, but she was a distinguished mathematician who led the Conservative group on Manchester city council for a period in the 1970s—which, I am pleased to say, was a pretty thankless task. She had chosen not to go to Bletchley Park during the war because she was having children, but she worked with Turing at Manchester university after that.

What happened to Turing had a huge impact on the 1970s. In the mid-1970s, there was a free vote on Manchester city council to set up the first gay centre in the country. The Liberals, as they were then, were not represented, but the Conservative party and Labour were and both had their bigots. Dame Kathleen’s experience of knowing Turing meant that she was one of the leading Conservatives who voted for the centre, which was not a popular position in the party at the time. There is a straight line running back to that vote in respect of some of the progressive policies that we followed in Manchester.

I did what I could. I supported the raising of funds for the statue of Alan Turing in Sackville park, and we held a moving commemoration there last winter with the author of the main biography of Turing. At one stage, I was also given the delegated power to name the road that now runs past the Etihad stadium in east Manchester. I took the opportunity, against competition from a lot of other names, to call it Alan Turing way. That was in line with every other great scientist who has worked in Manchester, and some who have not, who have had roads, streets and buildings named after them. I was proud to have done that.

I want to finish by saying that the brutality of what happened to Turing at the end—it was more typical of what happened in the 1950s—makes us realise that, although there is little progress in some parts of our society, we have moved on in other areas; we have become much more humane than we were then. I recently spoke at a memorial service in Manchester for a gay activist who, sadly, had died. After the campaigning he had been through in the 1970s and 1980s, he was astonished to find that as he was dying the Cabinet had a policy in favour of gay marriage. It was an extraordinary transition in British society.

I have mentioned a number of great British scientists with whom Turing is comparable, but there is another scientist of a much older vintage who reminds me of him. Archimedes used his profound scientific knowledge to invent a number of instruments with which to defend his city in exactly the way that Turing helped this country to survive and win the second world war. Estimates vary on how much impact Turing’s work had, but he could have saved many hundreds of thousands of lives and shortened the war by two years. When we have a very great scientist who is comparable with Archimedes, we should all work hard to commemorate him, whether it is on bank notes, buildings or roads. His is a profound and sad story.

2.55 pm

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing this debate and on his full and eloquent tribute to a man whom I regard as a

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national hero. I am glad that we have this opportunity to pay a tribute to his life and work and to debate the controversial issue about his crime. It is significant that we have this 100-year anniversary in which we can talk about what he contributed both in terms of his work in the war and his ongoing academic work at Cambridge and Manchester. I am glad that Members from those cities are attending this debate.

In the latter part of my speech, I will talk about the issue of a pardon. However, I want to begin by highlighting Alan Turing’s great achievements. My own connection and interest in him and his work is through Bletchley Park, which I am lucky to have in my Milton Keynes South constituency. The comment of the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer)—that he did not know about Alan Turing’s work until relatively recently—is significant, because it mirrors what has happened to Bletchley Park itself.

After the war, very few people knew what went on at Bletchley Park. I have met some of the code breakers who worked there, including a husband and wife team who did not know what the other was doing, such was the secrecy of the work. No one is to blame for the fact that for many years after the conclusion of the war, there was no recognition of the work that went on there. The code breakers all signed the Official Secrets Act. Much of the work that they were doing was still of significance at the advent of the cold war. It is not surprising, therefore, that not much was known about it.

Only relatively recently has there been rightful publicity and commemoration of the importance of the work at Bletchley Park. I want to put it on the record that I am full of praise for the current chief executive of Bletchley Park Trust, Iain Standen, and his predecessor, Simon Greenish, who have done an enormous amount of work to save the site in the first place, because it is literally falling to bits in places, and also to turn it into a major heritage site on the computing and wartime code-breaking side where people locally, nationally and internationally can come and learn about the work that was done there.

My hon. Friend mentioned that for many years, Turing’s work was not known outside very narrow academic circles. Last summer, I had the pleasure of bringing a family friend, a professor of artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon university in Pittsburgh, to Bletchley Park. For him, it was like coming to see the holy grail; the first academic paper on artificial intelligence was there. It is, in academic communities, a significant exhibition.

The fight to get the Turing papers at Bletchley Park is an interesting story. “Big society” is a phrase that is much debated and much maligned, but the story of the Turing papers is an interesting example of how different parts of the community can come together. The papers were being put up for auction at Christie’s and there was a real risk that they would be lost overseas. But through a combination of a grant from the national lottery, a generous donation made privately by Google and thousands and thousands of individuals making small contributions, the money was raised to save the papers.