May I respectfully ask that the statistics that I have given are sent to every MP, every Assembly Member, every Member of the Scottish Parliament and every Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, as well as to every councillor across the land, so that we get some pressure from below? As well as Governments passing laws from above, we will get some pressure from

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below. If most MPs realised that their electoral registration officer was not fulfilling their duties, they would be on to them, but nobody knows about these facts and figures. So I ask the Minister if she will use her offices to ensure that this vital information is sent out to all MPs.

I realise that I have a colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), who wishes to speak, so I will—

Albert Owen (in the Chair): I remind Members that the wind-ups will not start until 3.30pm.

Chris Ruane: Okay. In that case, Chair, I shall go on even a little bit longer. [Laughter.]

Some of the issues pertaining to Northern Ireland have been mentioned by a number of Members—

Jim Shannon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Ruane: I will give way on that issue, because I know that my hon. Friend is from Northern Ireland.

Jim Shannon: The hon. Gentleman has made that point about Northern Ireland. Just for the record, Mr Owen, I want to say that many people are not registered and those who vote perhaps give an indication in the wrong ballot box—that is my opinion, of course. However, after the disgraceful decision to remove the Union flag from Belfast city hall, the number of people who registered to make a decision and make a change went up greatly. Of course, by that stage it was too late. So, if people want to make a change, vote early.

Chris Ruane: Hopefully early, but not often. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

In the case of Northern Ireland, when the changes were introduced in 2006—I admit that they were introduced by a Labour Administration, and that the requirement to have that annual canvass and get out there “on the knocker” was not in place and there was continual registration—registration rates went down in the five or six years afterwards, to 71%, meaning that 29% of people were not registered. If the analysis is made, we will find out that those people, in the main, will be people who live in council houses, or tenants of social landlords, unemployed people or low-paid people, and quite often they will be black or minority ethnic. So quite often these are the people on the margins of society, and as I say there are currently 6 million of them missing from across the UK and the figure for Northern Ireland is proportionally higher than for anywhere else in the UK. So we need to learn the lessons from Northern Ireland if we are rolling out this Bill.

It has been claimed by the Electoral Commission, and I think by the leader of the Liberal Democrats as well, that these changes will be the biggest changes since the introduction of universal suffrage. If they are that big, we need consensus, and if there is not consensus I can promise the Government this—if Labour gets in at the next election, there will be a massive push from Back Benchers and Ministers to undo what has been done.

Labour did not politicise the issue of electoral registration for the 13 years that it was in government. I wish that it had. I was taking the message back to Ministers—Labour Ministers—and saying, “This is a big issue. We have 3.5

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million people unregistered.” We could have politicised that issue. If those 3.5 million people ever voted, they would have been our voters. And in fact it was not 3.5 million people; it was 6 million people. If those 6 million people are added to the register, there would be no need for the equalisation of parliamentary seats, because the vast majority of those 6 million people would be in Labour seats. So this issue of registration has massive implications and I urge the Minister, and her team and the Prime Minister, to listen carefully and not to go about this process in a party political way but in a fair, balanced and consensual way.

When Labour came to power in 1997, after we had been out of power for 18 years, the first thing we did was to give away power. We did that by introducing proportional representation for European elections. In Wales, we went from four Labour MEPs to one. That was not in our party political interest. We had a majority of 180 Members of Parliament, and we could have established the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly without PR, but we did not. We could have dominated those institutions, certainly in Wales and Scotland, but we did not— we did things in a balanced way. Again, that worked against us.

What did we do with quangos? They were stuffed with Tories. The quango king of the country lived in my constituency. He was on £86,000 a year in 1996—more than the Prime Minister. What did Labour do? There was no more of that. We took out big, full-page adverts, usually in The Daily Telegraph, asking for good, decent people. We said that things would be non-party political. We gave away power in local government in Scotland. Everything was balanced.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. I am sure hon. Members want to get back to electoral registration.

Chris Ruane: In conclusion, I ask the Minister and her team to look at this issue in a non-party political way.

Siobhain McDonagh: I know how important my hon. Friend thinks the canvass is for electoral registration. Does he share my concern that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill suggests that a Minister can abolish the canvass? Does he also share my concern that the canvass will consist of knocking on a door and exhorting people to fill in the form? If they have refused to fill in two previous forms, why would they fill in the third? At the moment, the canvasser stands there with a member of the household and completes the form with them.

Chris Ruane: That is an eminently sensible point, which I support.

In conclusion, partisanship should not be shown on this issue. The Minister should look at the lessons from Northern Ireland and from the data matching and data mining. She should also look carefully at the level of fines and at best practice from around the UK, including my constituency. If she does all those things, she will be supported by both sides of the House and all parts of the country.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab) rose—

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Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. Before I call Sheila Gilmore, I remind Members that I will call the Front-Bench spokesman at 3.30 pm, and no other Members have indicated that they wish to speak.

3.12 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing the debate.

We assume that the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill will complete all its stages at some point and that individual voter registration will go ahead. The Bill will come into force in a period when quite a lot of important things are going on electorally. In Scotland, the process will take place at much the same time as the referendum, which raises considerable issues for electoral registration officers, who will have to manage the processes simultaneously. For the purposes of the referendum, there is a proposal—what happens will depend on the view taken by the Scottish Parliament later this year—to enfranchise 16 and 17-year-olds. If that happens—the Scottish Government have certainly indicated their intention to do it—it will raise procedural questions about how these things are done. Electoral registration officers in my city, for example, could therefore be dealing with a large number of issues at the same time as individual electoral registration.

Like many Members, I think it is important that we put in the effort. The canvass is important. It does not necessarily have to be hugely more expensive, although equally we should not take money away from electoral registration officers. We need to know where the effort needs to be put in, and if electoral registration officers do not know, they need only ask political parties, which can certainly tell them, because the differences in electoral registration in different parts of our constituencies can be extremely stark. We can almost predict where the low registration will be before we go into certain streets and start looking at the electoral register to discover just how many households are missing from it. Armed with that knowledge, we could concentrate on areas where we already know there is a shortfall. Things will only get worse—there is no doubt about that—so we need to concentrate on certain places.

We may need to think laterally about making it easier for people to register. For example, I was out knocking on doors at the weekend and the Member with me pointed out that several of the apparently unregistered houses belonged to council tenants. How did we know that? We knew what kind of new doors the council had recently put on those houses, and we took a bit of guess, albeit it was a fairly safe deduction. Those people had probably moved into those properties relatively recently. New tenants go through various processes with the council: they sign tenancy agreements and some, but not all, apply for housing benefit. That is an ideal opportunity to register people at the same time. People have to do a lot of things—they sign up for the electricity and other things—so why not make electoral registration part of the process, so that they can automatically register as they take up their new tenancy?

Often, it is those very people who come to our surgeries—they are certainly coming to my surgeries at the moment—and say things like, “I’ve just had this letter saying I’ll have to pay something towards my rent

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from April. I’ve never heard anything about this. I don’t know anything about this.” They see these things as politics, but politics is, of course, about things that happen to them. Once people realise that, they begin to be get a bit more interested, but no doubt some of the people who come to see us and are very angry are not registered. We therefore need to think about making electoral registration as straightforward as possible.

We could go into schools to register young people; that is not at all unreasonable, because once people are registered, the forms will continue in future years. I do not see why it is not possible—this was raised previously—to allow people to register quite late in the election run-up. When there is an election, people’s minds turn to registration. With modern technology and the ability to deal with late registration, we could perhaps let people register virtually up to the election, as happens in parts of the United States. If we do that, people who become interested and who see that the election matters will not find themselves unable to vote. I have known people turn up at a polling station only to discover to their horror that they are unable to vote. At times, they get very angry about that, because they have been fired up by what they have heard.

One thing that is slightly worrying to somebody who sat through the debates on the Bill and who is a member of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform is that we are now hearing that the situation in Northern Ireland is not as rosy as we were led to believe. The Select Committee looked at the issue and took evidence on it. We were aware that there had been a fall-off in registration initially, but we were given repeated assurances, first, that it was a temporary phenomenon that had been overcome and, secondly, that the rest of the UK would learn from the process and not make the same mistakes. Now, however, we hear that it might not be such a temporary phenomenon. That may be because there was concern at the outset, so extra effort was made to improve the position, but that declined again when the foot was taken off the pedal, which clearly shows that we have to keep putting in the effort. That is a matter of some concern because of the assurances we were given. Those of us who raised concerns about the Northern Ireland situation were told that we really had nothing to worry about, that it had been resolved and that things were moving forward much more successfully. That is not the case.

In the lead-up to the changes, the Government need to look carefully at improving registration levels, which clearly are not good enough in some places. That would be necessary even without individual voter registration. That may require electoral registration officers to work far more closely with their fellow local government employees, laterally in relation to council housing, but there is also housing association housing. They might even work with some private landlords to see whether a link can be made, because that group of tenants is probably the most mobile and they are the ones falling through the hole.

Once we have all the household figures from the most recent census, which have not been published yet, we will clearly see what we know anecdotally from our own areas, which is how much more private renting there is now than there was even 10 years ago. That is such a

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mobile population that it is probably a major factor in reducing levels of electoral registration. How can we make contact with people when they move in? Can we find ways whereby electoral registration officers do not sit somewhere, isolated, but work with letting agents, perhaps, to make the forms available?

Jim Shannon: One of the problems with the Northern Ireland process was that the data-processing system was not working correctly, so the information was not all collated. One of the reasons for that was the funding. Wherever a data-matching process is set up, bringing all the different bodies, benefits and rent allocations together, it should show where the person is, but it does not always work that way unless there is funding to ensure that that the data-matching process takes place. That is a lesson that has been learned in Northern Ireland. The system has not worked. It must work better.

Sheila Gilmore: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that comment and insight into problems that have arisen. There are dangers in relying on a technological answer. As we found with some of the data-matching pilots, different organisations record things very differently, although perhaps that should not happen; the technology does not always work; addresses are not always referred to in the same way. Such small differences mean that although the technology should make it possible to identify where a person is, even if they were not previously on the register, that may not happen. A small difference in the description of the address is enough for the technology to let people down.

There is nothing better than the individual approach, and we should not rely on technology to perform that task. Technology has a place, and if it makes certain things easier, all well and good. It may provide a base to start from, but it is wrong to assume that it will somehow get us out of the problem. Getting out to people where they are—for example, by having an electoral registration officer sitting in a supermarket with a stall and forms to catch people while they are there—is not a bad idea. There are all sorts of ways to engage better with people. I hope that that will be taken seriously, that electoral registration officers will be given the resources and information they need, and that good practice will be shared so that that can happen. Otherwise things will get worse. It is deeply depressing to go to what I suppose in my constituency is a typical tenement building and to find that of perhaps eight or 10 residences, barely half are registered, even under the present system. It is not good enough.

3.24 pm

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): This afternoon’s debate has been excellent, and I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing it and on his first-rate contribution. He set out clearly many of the issues. It is a timely debate, because, as a couple of hon. Members have mentioned, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill is now back on course after being mysteriously delayed by the Government in the other place. It is back on track and we look forward to its return to the Commons.

Several hon. Members have made good points. We heard about the situation in the United States of America where unfortunately voter suppression is all too often a

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political tactic of the right. I am sure that we all deplore that. Some hon. Members mentioned the need to focus on groups that are under-represented on the register: black people, young people, disabled people and those who are very mobile. We need to make a special effort to ensure that our electoral register is as complete as possible.

We have also heard about the Government’s change of heart when the Bill was passing through the Commons about whether a penalty should be imposed for an individual’s non-compliance in the process of registration. We welcome that, but we of course pressed the Government in Committee on how that would be administered and how much the fine would be. At that time, they understandably said they had not reached a final decision, but they have now had months to consider, and I wonder whether the Minister will say precisely how much the fine for individual non-compliance will be.

We also heard, importantly, about Scotland and were reminded that there will be a referendum in 2014 on Scotland’s continued membership of the Union. That will of course coincide with preparations for individual electoral registration. Uniquely in that election, but I hope not as a one-off—I would like the principle to be extended—young people of 16 and 17 will be given the vote for the first time. That will inevitably, I think, put great pressure on the electoral registration process north of the border.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent said, the debate is about the nature of our democracy and democratic participation. The electoral register is the lynchpin of our democratic process, and we all want it to be as accurate as possible. No one condones the examples of fraud that have taken place, but we must not exaggerate the amount. Just as importantly, we want the electoral register to be as complete as possible. We all want as many people as possible to have the chance, in a modern, thriving, healthy democracy, to exercise their democratic right.

I want to put some specific questions. First, on Northern Ireland, many of us were led to believe, as was mentioned in the debate, that the situation there was a good example to follow. We all recognise that the situation there is different from Great Britain’s, but nevertheless individual electoral registration was introduced there. We were told initially that there was a fall-off in the number of people on the register, but that that had improved. However, we now understand from the Electoral Commission that there is a marked reduction in the number. The commission’s report gives a number of reasons, but clearly one is to do with the decision taken in 2005 to discontinue the annual canvass in Northern Ireland. That appears to have had a significant impact on the chief electoral officer’s ability to track population movement.

Members have referred to the fact that people are increasingly mobile these days, and that is particularly an issue in our inner-city areas, including here in London. A key lesson that must be learnt from the Northern Ireland experience is the importance of retaining the annual canvass. We have discussed this issue at some length in the House, and Members have expressed concern about the Government’s possibly not continuing with the annual canvass. Although clause 7 of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill provides Ministers with the power to amend or abolish the annual canvass,

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the Bill also states that the Minister must have the approval of both Houses and that the Electoral Commission must prepare a report. I welcome that, but I would like a cast-iron commitment that the Government, in learning from the experience of Northern Ireland, have no intention whatsoever of scrapping the annual canvass.

Siobhain McDonagh: Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister not only not to scrap the canvass but to ensure that canvassers can still help individuals on the doorstep to complete their forms?

Wayne David: That is an important point, because it is entirely complementary to the broader point about maintaining the annual canvass. An annual canvass is successful because it is about face-to-face contact; it is about electoral registration officers having a relationship with people and providing information about how they individually can complete their forms. The two points go well together. I would therefore like a cast-iron commitment from the Government that they have no intention whatsoever of putting a question mark over the future of the annual canvass.

That leads on to my second point, which is about the role of electoral registration officers. The ERA Bill proposes in sub-paragraph 6(2) of schedule 4 that the words “so far as is reasonably practicable” are introduced in relation to the role of electoral registration officers. I do not think that that the provision was modified in the Lords. Some people have suggested that that weakens the role of EROs and means that they cannot do their job as effectively, and although that is not necessarily the case, it introduces the potential to further allow EROs to limit the scope of their intervention. The important flexibility that currently exists is in danger of being weakened, and I would like reassurance from the Minister regarding EROs’ essential role in ensuring that individual electoral registration is implemented fairly and effectively.

Following on logically from that, I think that we all realise that, for electoral registration officers to be effective, they must have the necessary resources to do their job properly. The Bill’s explanatory notes state:

“A total of £108m was allocated at the Spending Review in 2010 to meet the cost of implementing Individual Electoral Registration. This includes £85m resource funding in 2014/15 to fund registration officers to make contact with each potential elector individually and invite them to register in 2014”.

There has also been reference to an extra £13 million per year being provided.

Chris Ruane: I take my hon. Friend back to the statistics for house-to-house contact given by the Electoral Commission in its document, “Managing electoral registration in Great Britain”. If the Government have supplied £108 million, there should be no excuse for that contact—knocking on people’s doors—to go down massively. What does my hon. Friend think is the reason for that? It happened under the Tory watch.

Wayne David: We must be mindful of the tremendous pressure on local government at the moment. Although moneys might be nominally provided for electoral registration, I would like the resources to be ring-fenced, to ensure that they are used for the process for which they are stipulated. We are not blaming local authorities —we can all understand the tremendous pressure that they are under in a cuts climate and that education and

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social services and so on require resources—but if money is not ring-fenced, it is all too easy for it to be surreptitiously shifted from one budget to another. That is why it is very important that the Government commit to introducing ring-fencing.

Jessica Morden: Does my hon. Friend agree that, if fines should come in, the money from them also should be ring-fenced for electoral registration purposes?

Wayne David: I understand my hon. Friend’s sentiment, but I do not think that it is quite that easy. A wrong impression might be given—a bit like with speeding fines—with electors under the impression that local authorities were deliberately fining people to ensure an extra source of income.

Jessica Morden: Just to clarify, I meant that if fines were introduced and the money went somewhere central, the Government should somehow consider how the money could be ring-fenced for electoral registration purposes. I appreciate that if the money went to a local council there could be a perverse incentive not to register people to charge more fines.

Wayne David: That is a sound sentiment, and I would welcome the Minister’s response. We certainly all recognise that adequate resources must be provided if the system is to work. Money, from wherever it comes, is to be welcomed, and we need as much of a focus as possible on this issue.

I understand that the Government, according to their implementation plan, were to come forward with a funding mechanism for local authorities by last December, and I also understand that that has happened. Have the Government gone a step further, however, and not simply talked about a funding mechanism but begun to consider how much local authorities will have and whether there will be differential allocation according to the amount of work that is necessary in each area? I refer back to a point made earlier about under-represented groups. The Government, through the Cabinet Office, have been doing good work in liaising with various groups that work with under-represented elements in society, but there is a need for extra targeted resources, to ensure that we get under-represented groups fully registered.

Finally on funding, I want to ask about the situation in Wales. I understand that last year there were ongoing discussions with the Welsh Government about a sum possibly being devolved for them to carry out their work in relation to local authorities in Wales. Can the Minister enlighten us on whether the discussions have concluded and what sum has been allocated for individual registration in Wales?

This is important legislation, and it is commendable that so many Members—Labour Members, at least—have attended the debate. I am slightly concerned that more Government Members are not here, but I hope that now that the Bill is once again making progress, thanks to last night’s definitive decision in the other place, our constructive dialogue will continue when the Bill returns to this House.

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3.39 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Miss Chloe Smith): I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for providing us with a helpful and interesting debate. I will attempt to answer the various questions that have been raised, and I hope that I will entertain the Chamber for the remaining 21 minutes.

On the point of sheer entertainment, I will mention my constituency, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned his. The Chartists enjoyed their moment in Norwich, too. I live round the corner from Mousehold heath, the scene of a great point in the history of democratic and somewhat rebellious engagement, which is a fine thing to mention in this debate.

On a perhaps drier topic, encouraging individual registration is vital, and I reassure the Chamber that the Government do not lack ambition on that. It is the role of the Government, politicians, political parties, electoral administrators and plenty of others to encourage people to register to vote. The Government are committed to doing all we can to maximise registration levels, and to consider ways to modernise the system to make it as easy and convenient as possible to register to vote.

The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament and provided us all with a few moments of excitement last night, with perhaps a few raised heart rates here and there, will go some way towards changing the electoral registration process for the better by introducing individual electoral registration. The Bill will create a legislative framework to allow alternative channels for registration, such as online registration, which I am pleased to confirm will be available from July 2014. The Bill will also provide for the use of data matching to verify applications, to confirm existing entries on registers during the transition to IER and to find individuals who do not currently appear on the register. We have already carried out pilot schemes.

Siobhain McDonagh: Does the Minister agree that the findings of the data-matching processes so far indicate that the electoral register is the most accurate record in existence? The electoral register is more accurate than the records of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, perhaps because it is compiled by people who live in a particular area and who go door to door.

Miss Smith: In some ways, the hon. Lady is right. The electoral register, by its nature, is a repository of solid information, but it is important that we put to work other data sets held by different levels of government to maximise numbers. We all want the numbers to be maximised, and we must find the best ways to do so. We are carrying out various schemes to test the usefulness of matching electoral registers against several public authority data sets. A further set of pilots will commence shortly, some of which will address students and recent home moves.

Chris Ruane: Will the Minister explain why the date for introducing IER, which was agreed with all-party consensus under the previous Labour Government, was moved forward one year from 2015 to 2014? Why was that consensus broken?

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Miss Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman, in general terms, for his flashes of bipartisanship both in this debate and, occasionally, in the main Chamber, but I regret that some of his, dare I say, time-filling appeared to descend into slightly more partisan commentary. I will be similarly partisan in response: the version introduced by Labour cost more than our version to the tune of some £100 million, and I think it is worth comparing schemes on that basis. The previous scheme would have caused confusion because, effectively, it sought to run a voluntary version of individual registration alongside another process. I believe that the version before us is somewhat cleaner.

Chris Ruane: I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. Why, specifically, was the date moved from 2015 to 2014? Was it to gain party political advantage for the general election and because the Government foresaw the deadline for the next review of parliamentary boundaries in December 2015?

Miss Smith: In short, no.

Other hon. Members have asked various questions about data matching, which I must address so that I answer everyone in time. In particular, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked about the use of credit reference agencies, which is a point that he has raised capably many times. We considered the possibility of a pilot using credit reference agency data, but I am advised that running such a scheme within the existing legislation would be difficult. As I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), I am interested in finding as many useful sources of data as possible, and I shall continue to look for them. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and I will continue that debate as we continue our research, but I am aware of a number of shortcomings in using data from credit reference agencies.

There will be a move to digital applications from the current paper application form, which will make registration more convenient for a number of people. The move will increase accessibility for many people with disabilities. I will be talking to the Electoral Commission later this week, and I am happy to raise the points raised by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden on the accessibility of the forms. We will be actively encouraging applicants to use the online system, which we intend to be the primary channel for applications. It is important, however, that we retain the option of a paper form to cater for anyone who is not ready for the move.

I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point on absent voters. She generously explained how important that group is in her constituency, and often, those in that group are older voters, whom we will consider carefully. I certainly would not wish to see any such group disadvantaged, and I will watch that carefully.

Sheila Gilmore: The Minister suggests that she wishes to watch the process carefully, but of course the Government have the power to change their mind about the proposal that people with postal votes should not be automatically rolled over. There is still time to do that before the new process comes into play. Rather than simply reacting to a problem after the event, perhaps the Minister might consider a change of mind.

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Miss Smith: I thank the hon. Lady for that reminder of what a Minister is and is not capable of doing. I repeat that I will be watching all these matters like a hawk. Some are within our direct control, some are for the Electoral Commission and some are for Parliament as we complete the process. I reassure her that I am deeply interested in ensuring that we maximise registration levels in all corners.

The current plans for registration include the annual canvass, and I fully assure the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent that it will continue to be used for as long as it remains the best way to ensure that the register is as complete as possible. If data matching is used, and we hope that we might now be able to match well over two thirds of voters by using that method, a whole new world of possibilities is opened up as to how we might, on an annual basis, register the right people. I do not think a situation in which the annual canvass is less effective than new methods is beyond our lifetimes. I do not suggest that I know what those methods might be—I deliberately take a long view in posing this scenario—but it is possible to use the legislation ahead of time to introduce a power to give an instruction not to use an annual canvass if other methods have become more effective. I repeat that we are all interested in effective methods. I am not interested in ineffective ones. However, Members will have heard the fuller debate on that issue in the Chamber earlier this year when it came before the Commons. I reassure them once again that all the safeguards will remain in place before any such abolition will be considered.

Wayne David: I welcome what the Minister says up to a point, but rather than hypothetical future scenarios, we are looking for proof that the Government are learning the lesson from Northern Ireland, as the Electoral Commission said, and recognising the centrality of annual canvasses. What might happen in future is a matter for another time; we want a categorical affirmation that the lessons from Northern Ireland have been learned and that an annual canvass is here.

Miss Smith: It is important that I go on to Northern Ireland before we run out of time. We are absolutely clear that we will be learning and have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland, and we have looked carefully into the Electoral Commission’s report. We are taking steps to prevent a fall in registration levels upon the introduction of individual electoral registration by retaining the annual canvass—as I said, we have no plans to abolish it in Great Britain—by moving the 2013 canvass to early 2014 to allow a more accurate and up-to-date register to be used at the beginning of the transition to IER, and testing and evaluating the benefits of data matching, about which I spoke briefly, by confirming eligible electors through the data match process. That confirmation will give us a substantial baseline level of completeness throughout the transition to individual registration. All those things are vital. We have always recognised that the transition to individual registration poses a risk to completeness rates, so we are putting in place those safeguards.

Chris Ruane: Registration rates in Northern Ireland are down to 71% and could go lower. At what percentage—60% or 55%, for example—does the Minister believe that we will stop having a properly functioning democracy?

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Miss Smith: I do not intend to answer that with a number, but as I have said many times and will say once more, we are all interested in the maximum level of registration in this country.

Mr Andrew Smith: Will the Minister respond to the very good point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) about the crucial difference that can be made by the ability of the canvasser on the doorstep to help people complete the form? Will she reconsider it and commit to moving in that direction?

Miss Smith: I will. I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman asks, as it reminds me to ensure that I answer the hon. Lady’s question. I do not believe that there is anything to prevent canvassers from helping on the doorstep. I am happy to come back on that in further detail, as I see that we are running out of time.

On the civil penalty for failing to make an application to register when requested to do so by a certain date, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent asked me for a figure. It is currently subject to keen stakeholder engagement, and I look forward to being able to update the House in due course. In passing, I note under that heading that the civil penalty is about deterrence, not making money. The sum will fall to zero once the individual registers. There is no interest in turning it into a money pot; that is simply not what it is for. I reassure the Chamber that through the safeguards that I have described, we want a situation in which we have confirmed the majority of existing electors and automatically retained them in the register, which will allow us to ensure that the register is at least as complete as it is now while improving its accuracy during the transition to individual registration.

It is important that I discuss some other measures in the time available. The IER system must be flexible enough to respond to changes in society. Beyond the transition, we will assess the most appropriate channels for applications. We want it to be digital by default, and we want an IT service to underpin the process for validating all applications, in whatever format they are made.

The Government are, of course, committed to funding the transition to individual registration, as has been noted throughout this debate. We will fund local authorities in England and Wales directly through grants made under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003, allocated for the purposes of paying for the transition. Local authorities will receive a non-ring-fenced specific grant to pay for the move to IER. It will not be included in the formula grant. Appropriate safeguards already exist in the legal duties, which will be seen by the House in secondary legislation, and those duties rest on electoral registration officers. Local authorities will clearly be obliged to fund a number of business-critical activities, and that is in compliance with their statutory duty to pay EROs’ properly incurred expenses. I am happy to deal with that matter more in correspondence if Members wish.

Encouraging democratic participation is vital, and I hope that hon. Members have noted my commitment to it in the flavour of my comments in this debate. We are

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seeking to work with a range of organisations to engage individuals and communities from all sections of society in the political process. I am afraid that I cannot avoid using a minute to respond to some of the more partisan points made by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane). Nobody owns voters, places or cities. We all go out and work for them. I am sure that he joins me in that sentiment, and I look forward to working with him in his more bipartisan moments.

We know that registration levels are disproportionately low in some groups; I think that everybody has made that point in this debate. To help us understand current levels of electoral registration, we have carried out a detailed programme of research, including funding an Electoral Commission study on the completeness and accuracy of the register, an independent academic review of all available research and further studies into exploring the barriers to registration for groups missing from the register under the current system.

I said that I would mention some places on which the data-mining pilots are particularly focused. As I think hon. Members know, they are to be focused on attainers, students and recent home movers, among others. I have no concerns about being approached by Universities UK or the National Union of Students, although I note that those groups met my predecessor at a more urgent stage of the Bill. However, I am happy to have further such discussions with them. On the points made about student voters, I note that only 13% of halls of residence currently use block registration. That is instructive, as it suggests that there are alternative methods. It is vital to treat young people as adults who can and ought to register in their own right and under their own responsibility.

On other ways that we are working with groups in broader society, the Northern Ireland experience is helping us plan activities. We are working with Bite the Ballot and Operation Black Vote to increase understanding of the importance of voting and the process of registering to vote; I have done such events in Norwich, and I think it is important to do so.

We are continuing all those efforts to drive up registration rates as we move towards IER. To do so, we need partnerships with a range of organisations in the private, state, voluntary and community sectors. As I said, I welcome and appreciate all the good points made in this debate. I shall be speaking to the Electoral Commission later this week, as I do regularly as part of this work, and I shall impress on it as part of its responsibilities to communicate about registration to the broader public—hon. Members will know that that is one responsibility of the EC—the good points made in this debate.

In conclusion, the Government are fully committed to doing what we can to increase voter registration levels. There is no silver bullet solution. I do not think that increasing democratic engagement is the Government’s responsibility. To borrow words from the Scripts’ recent song “Hall of Fame”, I think it is a question for students, teachers, politicians and preachers. It is also a question for parliamentarians, parents, carers, role models and officials from political parties. We must provide people with compelling reasons to vote.

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Post-16 High Needs Provision (Warrington)

4 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): As always, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, but this is a debate I would prefer not to have; I would prefer that it was not necessary. However, some of the Government’s decisions on funding for post-16 high needs provision may damage some of the most vulnerable young people in Warrington—young people whose disabilities are profound and whose care needs are extensive. We have a duty to ensure that they are provided with the best we can give them. Yet when Warrington received its allocation in late December, it found itself plunged into a crisis because the amount of money allocated to it for the provision was far less than the amount needed for the number of places it required. I believe that that is not what the Government intended.

When the Secretary of State for Education announced changes to the funding system last March in a written ministerial statement, he said:

“Improvements to funding for high needs provision will mean it can be more responsive and will enable greater choice for children, young people and their parents.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 89WS.]

The Government’s own impact assessment said that the changes should

“improve accessibility of such provision to disabled pupils and students and should impact positively on equality of opportunity for this group.”

However, we cannot have choice if there are not enough places. We cannot have equality of opportunity if no funding is available. That is the position that young people in my local authority may find themselves in next year, because when the responsibility to commission post-16 high needs provision moves from the Education Funding Agency to the local authority, the amount of money that transfers over will be less than what the authority is spending now and will certainly not be enough to meet the number of places required next year.

Part of the problem is that the funding is based on the number of places needed in 2010-11—that is a three-year time lag. It is different from the way we fund other post-16 provision, which is based on the previous year’s figures. I would be grateful if the Minister explained why it is different and why young people with such special needs should be disadvantaged in this way. Warrington’s funding will be based on a year when it required 88 places, but it already requires 151, and next year it will require 186. Even with the uplift given to the 2010 figures, Warrington estimates that it will have enough funding for only 109 places—£1.5 million—whereas the amount it estimates will be needed is £3.9 million.

I commend officers and the portfolio holder for children and young people, Councillor Colin Froggatt, on the work they have done. They have said that they fear being able to fund only what are called elements 1 and 2 for special needs provision, which is course fees plus £6,000; they do not believe that they will have money for any top-ups at all. That will leave disabled young people in Warrington at a disadvantage compared with those in boroughs that can afford to pay top-ups to providers. I do not believe that we should fund special needs provision in such a way. Whether someone can

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get a place in the appropriate facility should not depend on the borough they happen to live in. I do not believe that that is either the Minister or the Government’s intention, but that is the consequence we are facing.

I can find no logic in the figures for Warrington. The special educational needs block grant of EFA funding is 35% nationally, whereas in Warrington it is 25%, yet the proportion of people with special needs in Warrington—0.5%—is close to the national average of 0.53%. There is no logic to the figures.

The EFA has sought to focus attention—wrongly, I believe—on the increase in the numbers of young people placed with independent specialist providers in Warrington. Interestingly, the EFA took 2009-10 as its start point, which is completely different from the one it uses to assess funding. True, only six young people were placed with ISPs that year, but there were 12 in 2010 and there are 19 now. The EFA is funding them, so presumably it agrees that that provision is appropriate for their needs. Warrington does not spend a much larger percentage of its budget on ISPs than is spent nationally—it spends 41% as opposed to 39% nationally. The Minister will know very well that, on the sort of numbers we are dealing with, the difference between those percentages is statistically insignificant and can be accounted for by one young person with vey high needs.

Nor is it the case that Warrington has not sought to improve its special needs provision. The local authority is seeking to build a special needs campus on the site of the former Woolston high school, with provision included for post-16 young people. However, the Government have delayed that by threatening to take the building away to give to a free school. They cannot have it both ways; they cannot say, “You must place fewer people outside the borough,” if at the same time they are delaying provision inside the borough.

Everyone has agreed that the figures on the number of places the authority will need next year are robust. Officials from the Department have been through them with local council officials, and there is no dispute about them. I have asked the authority to provide me with some examples of the sort of young people we are talking about. It gave me an example of a young man who is severely learning disabled, has communication and behavioural difficulties and is a wheelchair user. He needs one-to-one support throughout the day and access to physiotherapy, occupational therapy and a hydrotherapy pool. He is placed in independent specialist provision at the moment, but the Minister will know very well that for young people with such a high degree of need, it is often impossible to cater for them in-borough, because the numbers are so low that the facilities required cannot be built. The authority also gave me the example of a young person who has a place locally. He has epilepsy, autism and communication difficulties, and he too needs one-to-one provision throughout the day. Those are the kind of young people who deserve the best we have to offer.

A local authority cannot control the numbers needing that type of provision, nor can it magic them away. It must deal with the young people as they are. If we do not provide for their needs, we let down not only them, but their families, who invest an enormous amount of time, effort and emotional energy in caring for them. The least we can offer them in support is the right care and education for their children.

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What, then, is the authority to do? It has been suggested to it that it should take some of the money allocated to under-16 SEN provision, but the Minister knows as well as I do that that budget is already stretched to its limit. He will have seen people in his surgery, as I have, who cannot get provision for their children of school age. Even if the authority can do that, there will still be a gap of approximately £700,000. Where is that money to come from?

The council was told by officials that it could take the money from elsewhere in its budget. Frankly, those officials are living in cloud cuckoo land. Warrington has already faced cuts of £50 a head in spending power. It has had to take £32 million out of its budget, and according to the Government’s own figures—the Government may have to revise those figures, because I know a number of authorities double-counted some things—as a result of this year’s settlement it will have to reduce its spending by 5.5%, or about £12 million. As in all authorities, adult social services, which might have been expected to provide some of the extra funding, are under huge pressure because people are living longer and requiring more support. It is unreasonable to argue that we should take money from other vulnerable groups to fund those in our community with the most pressing need, whether they are children with special needs at school or vulnerable adults.

The authority finds itself in an impossibly difficult situation. Seventy-seven young people could be left without funding for their places next year. No guidance is coming from the EFA on which young people should be allocated places. The authority’s hands are tied, because the guidance states that it should honour existing commitments and, to paraphrase, should not seek to renegotiate existing contracts, except in exceptional circumstances. Apparently, exceptional circumstances do not include not having enough money. In any case, the providers of many of those services are few and far between and operate, as the Minister knows, in a sellers’ market. To suggest that the contracts could be negotiated down is unrealistic and untenable.

We are left in an appallingly difficult position, which I hope the Minister will help us to resolve. The test of a society is how it deals with the most vulnerable—those who have no voice to argue on their own behalf, which is the case for many of those young people. The test of a Government is how they deal with unintended consequences. I do not believe that this Government intended these consequences, or that they intended to leave young people with serious disabilities and a high level of special need without places in the coming year.

There has to be another look at the provision. There has to be a way of resolving the problem through discussion between the council and the Department, because at the heart of this dispute are those young people. They did not seek this problem, they do not deserve to have the consequences foisted on them, and they deserve to have their needs met. That is what I hope the Minister can do for us this afternoon. It is simply morally wrong that those young people should be left without the provision they need next year. I hope that, in his answer, the Minister will offer us a way to resolve the issue, to the benefit of some of the most vulnerable young people in our area.

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4.14 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate, which is important for her constituents. It is, in particular, important for a group of vulnerable young people, whose case she is right to raise today. I am grateful for the opportunity to address her points and to explain the reason for our funding reforms. I will then talk more about the specific situation in her constituency and council area. I assure her that we are taking care to help local authorities and providers prepare for the changes that will happen later this year. We want to ensure that they are given the flexibility to use the funds that we will make available through their dedicated schools grant allocation in a way that best meets the needs of the children and young people they are responsible for.

I offer some reassurance that we take the concerns that have been expressed by local authorities, including Warrington borough council, seriously. Officials in the Education Funding Agency and other parts of the Department for Education have been working closely with local authorities for several months to help them understand the reforms and the necessary adjustments to funding, and that process is ongoing. We have relied heavily on the information that authorities and providers have given and used that to inform the distribution of funds. Where there have been discrepancies or anomalies, we have tried to be even-handed in our approach so as to get as fair a distribution of funding as possible.

Before I go into the detail of the process and of the particular local issues that have been raised by the hon. Lady, it might be helpful if I explain the rationale for the funding changes, which could lead to the consequences to which she referred. We have a disjointed funding system, with different arrangements for the funding of children and young people, depending on whether they are in the pre-16 or the older age group and on whether they continue to attend school or are in further education. Our aim is to establish much closer alignment between the pre-16 and post-16 funding arrangements for those young people who have special educational needs, learning difficulties and disabilities. Local authorities will be required to establish a single high needs budget for use in meeting the needs of all age groups up to 25.

Local authorities currently have statutory duties to make provision available for all students aged 16 to 19 and for those aged 19 to 24 who have a learning difficulty assessment. They only have a funding responsibility for such students in schools, however, not for students in specialist or general further education colleges or sixth-form colleges. Additional support funding for those institutions currently comes directly from the Education Funding Agency, as the hon. Lady mentioned. Although the agency takes into account the local authority’s decisions on student placements, we believe that better funding decisions will be taken, and a more efficient use of resources achieved, if the commissioning and funding responsibilities are more closely associated within local authorities. That is one of the key aims of our reforms to the funding of young people with high level needs.

In seeking arrangements that offer good value for money, as taxpayers expect, I assure the hon. Lady that we are not using the change as an opportunity to cut funding overall.

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Helen Jones: I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying, but does he not accept that if the responsibility for commissioning those places transfers to the local authority, the funding has to transfer as well? The funding that is transferring to Warrington is less than that which will be spent this year, and is certainly not enough to meet the places that we need next year.

Mr Laws: I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, and I hope that I will be able to address some of them and put her mind a little at rest as I go on.

On the national picture, our plans are to increase funding for post-16 students with learning difficulties and disabilities. We spent £585 million in this area in 2011-12, and we are planning to spend £639 million in 2013-14, which is an increase of 9%. In previous years, the budget for specialist provision, which is now administered by the EFA, has not been fully utilised. We are not reflecting that underspend in the transfers we are making to local authority high needs budgets, so overall spending on young people with high needs throughout the country is set to increase by a significant amount over this period.

In the new system, post-16 funding will be of two kinds. To provide stability to providers, a proportion of funding will be based on places, which I think the hon. Lady understands. Providers will receive an amount per place of nearly £11,000 for the year. That funding will be guaranteed for the year, whether or not the places are utilised, and it will flow to all providers from the Education Funding Agency according to a national formula. The other kind of funding—top-up funding—will reflect the excess of additional support costs over the place-led funding, and will be paid in every case by the local authority responsible for placing each student. This element of funding will follow the student and therefore ensure that funding is not allocated to empty places.

The hon. Lady rightly highlighted the local impact of the changes that we are making. Hon. Members will understand from what I have just explained that to move to this better system we must make adjustments to local authority funding allocations. As the hon. Lady indicated, budgets have been based on what was spent on high needs students resident in each local authority area in the 2011-12 academic year, which is the latest full set of data that the Department holds. Since last August, the Education Funding Agency has shared information with, and gathered information from each local authority. That is to inform the distribution of funds between the place-led element, which is driven by a national formula, and the student-led element, over which the local authority has discretion. In fairness to all local authorities, we have not attempted as part of the process to redistribute the budgets between them.

We have encouraged authorities to collaborate with all the schools and colleges that are currently educating their students with learning difficulties and disabilities, so that they understand the scale of demand for future high needs provision and can decide how best to meet that within their high needs budget. This exercise will enable the place-led funding for each school, college or other provider to be settled so they can plan for their intake in September. The remainder of the funds will be with local authorities, as part of their high needs budget, to allocate as top-up funding for individual students.

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The process so far has been complex for some local authorities, including Warrington, because the pattern of provision has changed significantly in some areas in recent years, or because the required information has not been readily available or verifiable. Some authorities claimed increases in the number of high needs students of 25% or more over three years. Warrington council was one that declared such an increase—in fact, an increase of some 65% from 113 in 2011-12 to a projected 186 in 2013-14.

Helen Jones: I want to draw two things to the Minister’s attention. First, the local authority tells me that part of that increase can be accounted for because it has become better at identifying those with special needs. Under the old system, which was run through Connexions, we were not good at identifying those with high-level special needs. Secondly, I hope the Minister accepts that the figures given by Warrington have been verified by his own officials. There is no dispute about how many will need provision next year.

Mr Laws: That is important because the Department must be able to distinguish between areas where the figures may be unreliable and those where they are reliable. We recognise that there may be issues in Warrington.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): It is true that the rate has gone up significantly in the last year, which is causing the anomaly. Even after it has gone up, it is still lower than the national average. Surely that is relevant to the way in which the computation is done, because it does not imply any abuse.

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend makes an important point. When looking at the statistics and trying to understand why the changes have taken place in specific authorities, my officials will carry out such checks to test the credibility of the data. We believe that this level of increase may in some cases result from misunderstanding or inaccurate predictions of the number of students with high-level needs because that scale of growth in numbers is not reflected across the country in the lower age groups. To manage expectations, the Education Funding Agency set a limit of 24% to cap the projected increase in the number of student places, and has encouraged authorities in some cases to provide more realistic estimates of places where the original increase reported cannot be justified. I am not saying that that is the case in Warrington, but in some areas that has been a concern. A cap has been necessary to be fair to all local authorities.

As a result of the exchange of information between Warrington council and the EFA, the position reached just before Christmas was that the post-16 element of its high needs allocation will be £677,000 next year, within a total high needs budget of £18 million. The EFA is now looking at more recent information from the council to see whether further adjustments are necessary to the amount allocated to it. The particular issue in Warrington is that it has predicted a significant increase of 65% in the number of places and a significant increase in consequent costs since 2011. Within the increase in recent years, a much larger number of students have, as the hon. Lady said, attended non-maintained and independent special schools and colleges, which tend to be more expensive.

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Although the window for further adjustments to dedicated schools grant allocations has now generally closed, the further education and school sixth form elements of those allocations are not due to be finalised until early March. In general, we expect all local authorities to live within the overall dedicated schools grant that they have been allocated. For Warrington borough council that is £146 million, within which the high needs allocation is £18 million. We are aware that there may be unintended consequences arising from the changes due to specific local circumstances, such as those set out today by the hon. Member for Warrington North and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat).

An opportunity remains until 22 February for a few local authorities to make an exceptional case to the Education Funding Agency, and I assure them that the EFA and my officials will look carefully at whether adjustments can and should be made if the changes have affected particular areas in ways that were not predicted, and if they are material. In its review of such cases, the agency will ensure that any further adjustments are not to the detriment of other local authorities. We want to be as fair as we can to all authorities.

Helen Jones: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous. Will he or a Minister in his Department meet a delegation from the borough council to try to iron out the issues, because they have serious implications for some very vulnerable young people?

Mr Laws: I will certain meet the hon. Lady and representatives from the council. Indeed, there will be a dialogue, as I have said, between the Department, the

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EFA and her local authority to ensure that there is a sensible conclusion. She will understand that until the process has been completed, I cannot give a cast-iron assurance of any outcome, but I can assure her that we are treating her concerns seriously, and looking into them. If adjustments are necessary, we are open to making them in a limited number of strong cases.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to how students aged 16 to 24 with high needs will be funded. This is an important question for many young people and their families, and I hope that I have been able to provide some reassurance about the national picture and reassurance that concerns at local level will be treated seriously if they are based on clear evidence that changes in recent years have not been taken fully into account. Our funding reforms will be complemented by new legislation later this year. It is being designed to address some of the wider problems with the current support systems for young people with learning difficulties and disabilities. In the meantime, we will continue to work with local authorities, including Warrington, and schools and colleges across the country to implement the funding changes, and to monitor and assess their impact. We will of course make adjustments in future years if that proves necessary.

I thank the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend for raising this issue seriously and in detail. As I said, I cannot give a commitment today, other than to say that we are engaging seriously with her and her local authority. We will examine the issue carefully, and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues from the area, if that is appropriate, to discuss the matter with officials. If we believe that changes are necessary, we will implement them.

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Leisure Services (North East Lincolnshire)

4.30 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. With your permission, I have invited the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) to share the debate with me. I have advised the Minister, who is happy with that, and I hope that meets with your approval. The Minister has indicated that 10 minutes will be sufficient for his summing up.

I appreciate that this matter is ultimately one for the local authority, which in this case is North East Lincolnshire unitary authority, so I appreciate that it will be difficult for the Minister to give a direct response. However, although it is a matter for the council, a considerable amount of public money is involved and one of the funding streams is, either directly or indirectly, Government money. Local opinion is very strongly of the view that the current proposals for the future of leisure services in the borough will, if implemented, provide lesser facilities for a considerably greater cost.

In recent years, the authority has rightly undertaken a review of its leisure services provision and updated it to meet changing circumstances. One scheme that unfortunately fell by the wayside as a result of the financial incompetence of the Learning and Skills Council was a learning village situated only a few hundred yards from Scartho baths, which I will talk about in a moment. Unfortunately, the revised conclusions that have been proposed rest on rather doubtful projections that are hotly disputed by campaigners, who, after receiving expert advice, have put forward some well reasoned alternatives.

The most contentious of the council’s proposals is the closure of the Scartho road swimming pool, known locally as Scartho baths. The pool is approaching 50 years of age and it is accepted that significant investment is required if it is to be given a new lease of life. I should mention that the pool is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, but it serves the whole of the council area and beyond. The council is proposing a 25 metre pool at Grimsby leisure centre, which is on the outskirts of the town and access by public transport is difficult for a great many local people. The leisure centre itself is now 40 years old and I acknowledge that it also needs refurbishment. It houses a range of facilities, most notably an ice rink, and I will return to the future of the rink shortly.

I am usually reluctant to criticise the local authority publicly, as I recognise that we as Members must work with our local councils, irrespective of their political colour, on a range of issues. However, this issue has been dominating the local media in north-east Lincolnshire and is therefore an exception. The hon. Gentleman and I have been supporting local residents, and in particular the Save Scartho Baths campaign, and there is overwhelming local opposition to what has been proposed. The hon. Gentleman went so far as to use his Christmas card to highlight the council’s folly.

Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I posed in a swimming costume.

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Martin Vickers: Indeed—a new form of campaigning, which I am sure will catch on.

The hon. Gentleman and I have met with a developer who has considerable experience of providing similar facilities for local authorities and with the private sector. They have offered to carry out a free survey and feel confident that alternatives exist that could deliver more for the money available. Surely it makes sense to pause and accept that and other offers the council has received to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money. Local people, even if the final decision goes against their wishes, at least deserve the satisfaction of being involved in a proper consultation and a fully transparent process. It is possible that the companies, having studied the proposals, met council officers and visited the sites, would conclude that the council’s proposal is the best way forward. It is unlikely, but it is possible. It is a disgrace that the council is denying those opportunities to deliver more for the taxpayers’ money. If more cost-effective solutions are available, surely they should be considered. It is suggested that for around £2.5 million the Scartho baths could be refurbished, adding another 15 to 20 years to its life.

Following the introduction of the Localism Act 2011, I know that the Government are keen to ensure that local authorities undertake proper consultation before making such major decisions about local facilities. It is not unknown for councils or even, dare I suggest, Governments—surely not this one—to go through what could be described as a sham consultation, but the one undertaken by North East Lincolnshire council on this issue reached a new low.

The consultation was undertaken when, following a public outcry, the matter was referred to the council’s scrutiny panel. Residents were quite reasonably expecting an extended, detailed debate, together with a proper consultation, to be able to indicate whether the Scartho pool should be refurbished or replaced. The only mention of the pool in the consultation was in one of the questions, which said, “The following facilities are coming to the end of their life, which would you replace? Please choose one of the following: Grimsby swimming pool or Grimsby leisure centre.” Other questions included, “Should the council continue to provide quality leisure facilities within the borough? Yes or No.” It would be difficult to answer anything but yes. Question 2 was, “Given the tough decisions the council is having to take around substantial reductions in funding, should it replace ageing leisure facilities?” Again, it is hardly possible to say no. It is irresponsible in the extreme for the council to plough on in such circumstances.

Campaigners have consulted a wide range of experts, and I am sure that the demand for transparency suggests that the council should at least stop and consider alternative proposals. It is possible that additional funding might be available. I spoke to the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and he has indicated that there might be pots of money for which the council might be able to bid. I believe that now is the time for the council to pause and reconsider how best to move forward with the backing of local people.

That excellent journal of local record, the Grimsby Telegraph, carried a letter from one of my constituents, who says, having heard the council state that

“this current administration is committed to investing in tourism and leisure, I find it very reassuring. My difficulty is understanding

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how and why they seem to be getting it so wrong. Any reader of this paper will have noticed that they are getting little or no support for their proposals. The majority of the public, especially those who use our leisure facilities, find no justification in pulling down Scartho Baths. Indeed, it is just the opposite.”

I am sure that the plea will have reached the local authority. Until now, it has not acted on it, but I hope that further consideration will be given.

I mentioned the Grimsby ice rink, which is located at the leisure centre and is also under threat. In part that is due to the coolant used to keep the ice frozen, but my point is that the loss of the rink now seems inevitable, because although a previous council resolution stated that moneys returned from the council’s investments in Icelandic banks would be ring-fenced for either a new ice rink or refurbishment of the existing one, I understand that that ring-fencing has now been removed. The ice rink now seems doomed—yet another blow for residents of the borough.

The Grimsby and Cleethorpes area is a low-wage area: the average salary is £20,000 or thereabouts, which is considerably less than the national average and £3,000 less than the regional average. Although some excellent private facilities offer good discounts, the reality is that many people across the borough rely on leisure facilities provided by the council. I must say to the Minister that North East Lincolnshire council has not fared at all well from recent funding decisions by his Department, but that is a debate for another occasion. We all accept that we are living through particularly difficult financial times and that the authority must consider whether an £8 million new build is better than spending £2 million or £3 million on a refurbishment, particularly when most local people believe that they would be getting a better facility.

Like many local people, I learned to swim at Scartho baths and skate at Grimsby leisure centre—neither very well, it has to be said. We value the facilities and firmly believe that the council should call a halt to what is proposed, reconsider, involve local people in its decision-making process in a meaningful way and engage with Government agencies again to see whether, in this post-Olympic world, other funding streams are available. All we ask, as the local Members of Parliament, is that the council pause and reconsider. Surely, local people deserve that.

The Deputy Leader of the House said in his reply to the pre-Christmas Adjournment debate in the House, when I raised this issue previously, that my plea for the local authority to listen again was on record and that he hoped that the council would reconsider. I hope that this Minister will also ask that it do so, and perhaps a little more successfully. If the Department for Communities and Local Government can exert any pressure on the council, local people, I can assure him, will greatly appreciate it. Our plea to the council is a plea to pause and reconsider. Surely, that is not too much to ask.

4.40 pm

Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): It is very important to raise this issue, and I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in doing so. I emphasise at the start that we have no desire to challenge the council and still less to try to dictate policy to the council. That is

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not the job of MPs. The council takes the decisions relevant to the council, and the swimming baths are relevant to its portfolio. The point of the involvement of MPs is, first, to represent the views of our constituents, and very strong opposition was demonstrated to closure of the Scartho Road baths. Indeed, a petition was signed by more than 5,000 residents of the area against closure. There was a strong feeling that they had not been properly consulted. We took up the case and managed to secure another consultation, although, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) said, it was not adequate, as the questions were fairly loaded towards the closure of the Scartho Road baths. However, the council did accept the need for a new consultation.

Our responsibility is, secondly, to get the best possible deal, in the light of the very acute financial stringency that the current Government have imposed on our council. It has suffered very badly in the cuts—certainly worse than any authority in the south would have suffered, or many richer authorities have suffered. Our responsibility is to get the best possible financial deal on the provision of swimming facilities, and we asked whether the best possible deal was achieved by refurbishing Scartho Road baths, which is 50 years old. In fact, it had its birthday in December. That is the first time a swimming baths has been almost as old as the Member for the constituency. However, the pool, like the Member for the constituency, is still in good condition and eminently refurbishable. Or was the best financial deal achieved by going for a new pool? That is what the council wanted to do. It wanted to establish that pool at the Willows leisure centre in Cromwell road. The aim was not to pay the staffs of two centres to do work that could be done by the staff of one centre and to economise in that fashion.

Another of our responsibilities was to ensure, if the council did go for a new pool, as it wanted to do, that that pool was the best possible pool, with the facilities that children, young people and adults need to train to become future Olympic champions and to go into championship swimming. There is now a passionate desire to train. A growing number of kids want to train to develop Olympic capabilities. There is a growing demand for that kind of facility and training. We want Grimsby to breed champions—it has in many other areas—and that means having the best possible facilities for the whole region. Ours is a region of 250,000 people; it serves the needs of 250,000 people. A good leisure pool, up to proper Olympic standards, would be a facility for the whole area, which is under-provided for in many respects.

In the light of what I have described, we thought it best—we thought it sensible—to take soundings from pool providers. There are a number of expert pool providers. They are comparatively unemployed—under-employed certainly—at present, with the cuts in council spending. We wanted to take soundings and get costings. One provider in particular, from the north-east, undertook to come down and give us free estimates and free advice on the best course.

We discovered during our inquiries that providers were building pools at much lower cost than the council was estimating would be necessary to build a 25-metre pool, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes said. They could even provide a 50-metre pool—in other words, a

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pool up to Olympic standards. To train in such a pool, anyone from the Grimsby and Cleethorpes area would have to go to Ponds Forge, at Sheffield, which is the nearest available Olympic-sized training pool. Anyone who wants to go on to championship swimming has to train in such a pool, and that is the nearest one. Why should we not have a 50-metre pool for our area? That is the question. The provider that I have mentioned said that that was possible at a price that was still lower than the council was estimating it would cost to provide a 25-metre pool in the Willows leisure centre.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I congratulate my two constituency neighbours, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), on this excellent debate. A 50-metre pool is of course something that North East Lincolnshire council could work with other authorities in the area to try to provide, because we do have a vision of making ours an area of sporting excellence. North Lincolnshire, the East Riding and Hull could be brought into that potentially.

Austin Mitchell: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to express admiration for my appearance in a swimming costume, but as he raises a financial matter, I agree absolutely with what he says. There is no reason why we should not co-operate with other local authorities to provide something central for the area in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, which would remain the centre of population. That could draw swimmers, in the way Ponds Forge does to Sheffield, to the Hull area.

The provider said that the pool could be provided at a cost lower than the council had estimated for 25 metres, although the costs of running it would be higher. It would also be a pool that had diving facilities, which the council does not now intend to transfer from the Scartho Road baths to the leisure centre baths. Modern young people in training, particularly at championship level, need diving facilities and a diving well in the pool as well. All that could be provided at a lower cost than the council was estimating. We therefore argued that it was best to bring in these consultants to lay the ground—to give us proper information on what could be done and what was available. It is sensible, in taking any decision, for people to have the fullest information and the fullest costings before they let the contract, so that they know what they are doing.

It is important to keep Grimsby swimming, especially the young people. Swimming is for life, after all. Swimming is for health and swimming is for well-being. We want it to be encouraged and sustained in our area. This is where the Minister, I hope, will be able to help us and where Government can help. I do not expect the Minister to say, “By God, these two are all right and the argument is strong,” give way immediately and provide Grimsby with the money to establish a big pool, but I do hope for advice from the Government and from the Minister on the provision of facilities for Grimsby. What advice—what help—is available?

We had before the Public Accounts Committee the people responsible for the Olympic provision, which was very successful. I asked them, “What does Grimsby get out of the legacy from the Olympics?” After a certain amount of hemming and hawing, one official came up with the idea that we got the experience of and

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enthusiasm for volunteering. That is not enough. We need money as well to support local activities. What finances are available, first, for refurbishment of an existing pool and, secondly and more importantly, for the provision of a new, bigger pool—it could be a regional pool—to provide top-rank facilities of Olympic standard with a diving facility for the whole area? What finance is available from Government? How do we set about tackling this?

We want a centre of excellence for Grimsby, Cleethorpes and the surrounding area, to help local young people who aspire to be swimmers—perhaps in the Olympics and the swimming championships, which are now so important—to achieve their ambitions. Grimsby deserves the best. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes and I will ensure that it gets it.

4.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) for securing the debate and to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) for his comments. Hon. Members will no doubt be aware that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport sets the policy framework for sport funding decisions. Day-to-day decision making on the distribution of funding for sport and physical activity rests with the funding bodies, which, to touch on the closing comments of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, are Sport England and UK Sport.

We all know, and have all recorded, how much the summer’s Olympics gave this country and how proud we are of everything achieved. Members here will rightly be particularly impressed with and want to praise the abilities of medallists from Lincolnshire, such as Sophie Wells, Hannah Macleod and Georgie Twigg. If we are to repeat the success of last summer’s games in 2016, we must ensure that our athletes have the best possible conditions in which to train. That is where today’s debate becomes particularly topical and why the Prime Minister announced that UK Sport will receive about £125 million a year over the next four years to provide sports’ governing bodies with the certainty that they need to put in place long-term plans.

In the few moments that I have available, I shall touch on a couple of specific points. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby commented on how funding is distributed between the north and the south. If he will excuse me, I must challenge him. The Library has published reports recently that show that the situation he described is not the case. I speak as a Member of Parliament for an eastern constituency in the south, which has had one of the biggest cuts in the country, thanks to the legacy of the funding settlement of the previous Government under Labour. I would strongly argue that point.

The hon. Gentleman also tempts me to talk about legacy opportunities. We will feed his comments through to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, because, as he will appreciate, it is an issue for that Department in particular. He is right about the concern to ensure that people across the country benefit from the legacy of the Olympic games, which partly comes down to the sporting opportunities that young people have to become the superstars and Olympians of tomorrow.

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The Department for Communities and Local Government has responsibility for local government, including promoting the leadership role that local authorities play in the strategic management of the public estate in their areas. I know that hon. Members here all share the view that we need to disperse power from central Government to society—my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and I took part in a debate a couple of weeks ago outlining that view. Localism is just that: doing everything that we can as close as we can to the residents and citizens we represent, fully involving them in decisions about their areas—local people making local decisions on local issues, with central Government involved only when absolutely necessary.

The Government have strengthened the distinct role of local government as an autonomous political institution that builds and leads communities and provides services. Our actions are giving local authorities unprecedented freedom to get on and work in the best way for residents and local businesses. The Government’s approach to localism is therefore about passing power down to citizens —greater power held locally by accountable local authorities to help them to make a difference in their communities.

It is to their great credit that all three Members here today are working not only cross-party, but cross-border to represent their residents. We should ensure that the local authority is very much aware that this is not about party politics, but about Members across borders and across parties coming together to do what they can to ensure that their residents’ views are represented. I acknowledge that and I think it only right that the local authority takes notice of the fact that Members have come together in that way. My thanks go to the hon. Gentlemen for putting forward such a cohesive position.

If Members will excuse me for being simplistic about this, there is a great quote from, I think, a Spiderman film:

“With great power comes great responsibility”.

In this case, that means that for local councils and authorities to be able to say that they clearly represent their communities, they must look at, listen to and work with communities to ensure that they make decisions with them. Members have made a strong case today, and in this case, whether or not that is true, the local community council and local authority need to look carefully at how they have gone about making their decision. I shall return to that point in a moment.

Local communities hold their councils to account, ultimately through their voting power at local elections. Local councillors making decisions should bear that in mind; it is an important part of the democratic process. The Government have also introduced measures that increase transparency to allow local people to have a better view of what is happening locally, to create more openness and to strengthen democratic accountability. We have introduced greater transparency on how public money is spent locally, and in this case, Members have clearly done a great job in highlighting decisions to local people.

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The Localism Act 2011 introduced the community right to challenge, which enables communities and the voluntary sector to question how services are provided and to have the ambition to challenge and make plans to take them over. In this case, it is not necessarily impossible for local communities to look into that right, if they feel strongly.

As a result of the changes that we have made, local authorities have greatly improved the way that they manage their assets. There is still room for improvement to ensure that they make the right decisions, with the best value for money, in the best interests of local residents. To continue to support and drive the agenda forward, the capital and asset pathfinder programme, delivered by the Local Government Association with support from the Department, has already supported 26 councils. Councils that have been involved in waves 1 and 2 have already achieved significant local savings and have gone some way to offsetting the reduction in the rate support grant. Wave 3 of the programme, launched on 26 October last year, concentrates on promoting local growth as well as delivering efficiency savings. It sounds as though local authority in this case should look at that.

The Government believe that it is for local authorities, in consultation—I stress, in consultation—with their communities to decide how to make best use of their assets, including the relative benefits and costs of replacing or refurbishing assets, because they are best placed to know what works and what is most appropriate for their local area, in a way that central Government cannot. To do that, local authorities must consult and work with local residents and take their views on board.

Members commented on whether a consultation was genuine. I hope that they note that we responded and made changes following the last consultation that I ran in my Department on the business rates retention scheme, which shows that even central Government—to pick up on the comments earlier—can, should and do listen to consultations when making our final decisions, and local authorities should do so, too. We encourage, and I strongly encourage, local authorities to engage with their communities when considering options for managing their assets. We consider it best practice for local authorities to consider the preparation of their asset management strategies in consultation with their communities.

In conclusion, as Members outlined at the beginning and will understand, I am not in a position to comment on the specifics of the scheme my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes highlighted, because I have not seen the business case weighing up the relative financial situation. I have set out the Government’s general approach and view, and I support the concerns of the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). Local authorities should consider the most efficient way to use what are ultimately scarce resources and, most importantly, that they do so in genuine consultation with the communities that they serve.

Question put and agreed to.

4.58 pm

Sitting adjourned.