12.37 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Although I count myself as a supporter of HS2, I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing a Second Reading for his Bill. I know that he has a long-standing interest in these issues as a former shadow transport spokesman, and it is always important to debate how public money—taxpayers’ money, if you will—is spent and to subject major public projects to close scrutiny.

The hon. Gentleman has said outside this place and has contended today that the House has not had an opportunity to scrutinise HS2’s funding and the costs and benefits of the project, but speaking as a veteran of

23 Jan 2015 : Column 507

the Public Bill Committee that considered the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Act 2013 and as a Front-Bencher during the introduction of the phase 1 hybrid Bill, I am not sure I can follow him that far. The truth is that the House has already imposed tighter spending controls on HS2. I submitted an amendment to the preparation Act that was accepted by the House and introduced a duty on the Government to declare any overspend, against both the annual and the total budget. The noble Lady Baroness Kramer conceded in the other place that that was

“a very vigorous reporting process under which the Government must report back annually and record any deviation from budget…which has put in place a very intense scrutiny process around the budget.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 November 2013; Vol. 749, c. 949.]

Of course, there can be no room for complacency. Delays after the election and substantial cost increases have not been to the Government's credit, and I would agree that the Government, perhaps distracted by their rail franchising fiasco, failed to communicate properly the reasons why the project is necessary. Of course, the overall figure, the £50.1 billion, includes a sizeable contingency buffer—as well as funds for new trains, some of which will run on existing lines—but that is not money that we want to see spent. We need to have a laser-like focus on bringing down the project’s costs. There cannot be a blank cheque for this or any other project.

Nevertheless, I do not see the case for such a dramatic course of action as that proposed in the Bill. We did not have a referendum on Crossrail, which is due to cost £16 billion, nor did we have a referendum on HS1, which cost £6 billion. I am happy to be corrected, but I am not aware that the hon. Member for Christchurch called for such a referendum at the time. On a day when an important Transport Committee report called for

“a fairer allocation of rail investment across the country”,

it would seem very strange to set such a precedent for a railway that will primarily benefit the midlands and the north. Moreover, a referendum would itself cost £85 million, given that that was the cost of the AV referendum.

Finally, and importantly, the phase 1 Bill Committee is now deep in its work. Three days a week, in Committee Room 5, mitigation is being agreed and the project is being improved. I cannot accept that further and prolonged uncertainty would benefit people on the route. Labour Members—albeit with one or two right honourable exceptions—believe that, provided costs are kept under control, HS2 will bring enormous benefits to the country.

Mrs Gillan: As was expected, the hon. Lady is in favour of HS2 and against the Bill, but would she care to tell us at what cost point her party would decide to abandon the project? She said that we must keep costs under tight control, but given that she must now know what the limits are, will she share them with the House? I think that that information is important.

Lilian Greenwood: The right hon. Lady has, of course, been a strong advocate on behalf of her constituents, and I know of her long-standing opposition to the hybrid Bill. Labour’s position is clear: we support HS2. It was a Labour proposal, and we want that Bill to be

23 Jan 2015 : Column 508

passed. However, I can do no better than quote what was said by the hon. Member for Christchurch, who, when he was an Opposition Front Bencher 10 years ago, said in the context of Crossrail

“no serious prospective Government—such as we are—would be prepared to write a blank cheque for any project, however desirable people might think it is.”—[Official Report, 7 April 2005; Vol. 432, c. 1607.]

A budget has been set out for this project, which includes a significant contingency element. We must maintain our focus on ensuring that the project is delivered within that budget, and, I have said, it would be preferable for the contingency money not to be spent.

Mr Chope: Does the hon. Lady’s support for the project extend to the £20 billion for Crossrail 2?

Lilian Greenwood: I have already said that the necessity for Crossrail 2 and whether it would attract a favourable cost-benefit analysis should be investigated. Crossrail needs to be considered on its merits, as do all other investments in transport infrastructure. A case must be made on the basis of the benefits that it can deliver and whether it represents a good use of taxpayers’ money.

Mrs Gillan: The hon. Lady said that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) had not called for a referendum on Crossrail 1. I understand that Crossrail 1 is funded partly through the rates and partly by businesses in London, and not entirely by the Treasury and the taxpayer’s purse.

Lilian Greenwood: I agree. Nearly all rail projects’ capital costs are publicly funded, although there are sometimes opportunities for private investment. I have no doubt that there will be opportunities to attract such investment in, for example, over-site development of stations in connection with HS2. However, when we need investment in our infrastructure, we must be prepared to commit public money. As I have said, I do not think that we should set a precedent in this regard.

HS2 will unblock the congested arteries of our ageing rail network, will provide vital additional capacity, and will transform the connections between the great cities of the midlands and the north. Our message to both the Government and HS2 Ltd is clear: take the phase 1 Bill to Third Reading, present the proposals for phase 2, and get this important project back on track.

12.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr John Hayes): This has been an interesting debate to which a number of Members have contributed. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on enabling us to explore these important matters. They involve HS2, of course: that is the matter of substance, because the essence of the proposal in the Bill is that it is of such significance that it should be supported only on the basis of the consent of the people, sought and gained by means of a referendum.

I do not want to delay the House unduly, but my hon. Friend would expect me to deal with the question of why a referendum is an inappropriate vehicle for such a decision. The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) focused on that—and, while I speak of focus, let me reassure her that no one’s focus is more

23 Jan 2015 : Column 509

laser-like than mine. She explained why she thought that a referendum was an inappropriate way of proceeding in respect of HS2. I intend to speak about that in some detail and at some length, and also with considerable respect for the argument advanced by my hon. Friend, the essence of which is that very big projects that have an environmental effect of this kind and an economic value of this type, and which involve costs of this scale, are of a character that necessitates a referendum.

Since I became a Transport Minister, straddling No. 10 and the Department, I have been associated with—indeed, I would like to say that I contributed to—our road investment strategy. The ideas for that began before my arrival, but I have been pleased to be very much a part of its formulation, and look forward to being part of its delivery. The road investment strategy, the biggest of its kind since the 1970s, looks forward to many decades: the effect of its provisions will last throughout my lifetime, and well beyond. It commits some £15 billion—indeed, a little more than that—to a plan that will affect places throughout Britain, consisting of 100 schemes.

Did we take the view that a referendum was necessary for that plan to proceed? Did my hon. Friend suggest that a referendum should be held in respect of a very large infrastructural scheme, which involved transport and would affect tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of our countrymen in connection with the works that would be carried out and the value that would result in the form of easier and better communications and safer and better roads? I have to say that the answer to that is no, at least as far as I am aware. The same might be said of a number of other infrastructural projects to which the hon. Member for Nottingham South drew our attention, Crossrail being a good example. I am not sure that a case can be made for a referendum in one policy area—indeed, one transport policy area—but not in others, when the drama, significance and scale involved are as great as what we saw in that road investment programme.

Mr Chope: My right hon. Friend surely needs to look at his own situation, because the Government say in respect of local authorities that may, for example, want to spend money on subsidising buses that if the consequence is that they are going to increase their council tax by more than 2%, they must have a local referendum. If it is good for local authorities, where the sums involved might be as little as £28 per household on average—if we take the average council tax—why is he saying that it is essential to have a referendum in that situation, but not in the situation we are addressing today?

Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend draws attention to the idea of holding a local referendum or plebiscite in a very particular area and on a very particular proposal. He does not propose in his Bill a referendum for those directly affected by HS2. He is not suggesting that we hold a referendum of the people of Birmingham, Warwickshire or Chesham and Amersham—or even Christchurch, although I am not sure they will be as directly affected as those in some of those other places. He is suggesting a national referendum, where people from Northern Ireland, for example, would have a vote on these matters, and he is doing so not because they are affected directly, but because of the cost.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 510

Mrs Gillan: I think my right hon. Friend has lost his rapier-like focus, because every taxpayer in every corner of the UK is going to be paying for this project. Every single taxpayer will be making a contribution and, as I pointed out before, the sum is £51 million for every constituency, so I am afraid his argument falls at the first hurdle.

Mr Hayes: And that is true of the road investment strategy, too. It is certainly as true of the road investment strategy as it is of HS2—it is as true of the £15 billion-plus we are spending on roads across the whole country. That £15.2 billion for the road investment strategy does not just affect people in terms of the value it brings; it is also funded by taxpayers in exactly the way my right hon. Friend suggests.

Dan Byles: If the Minister is suggesting that there might be more justification for holding a referendum simply of those directly affected by HS2, may I wholeheartedly endorse that and support him entirely?

Mr Hayes: What I am saying is that a referendum on this kind of matter is wholly inappropriate. The only referendum my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch cited in his speech introducing the Bill—and I understand why he has introduced it; it makes a perfectly understandable contention—was the referendum on what is now the EU. I have the Referendum Act 1975 with me and I also have a copy of the Second Reading debate when it was a Bill being discussed in this House. The arguments made then were that this was a matter of immense constitutional significance that affected the future of our nation as a whole in respect of its governance. That is a very different set of arguments from those, however well made, about the cost of a particular area of policy and the effect of that on a number of our constituents—and I include in that the effect, in the broadest terms, it has on the taxpayers contributing to it. That it is a very different kind of argument as my hon. Friend knows very well.

That kind of referendum has only been used in the way I describe. Indeed, my hon. Friend also mentioned the referendum by 2017 that has been pledged by the Prime Minister on our association with the EU, and which is of a similar kind to the 1975 referendum. There are many of us, including my hon. Friend, I imagine, who would argue that that new referendum is absolutely necessary because getting the fresh consent of the British people on the terms of our relationship with the EU is a matter of some urgency. I do not think, however, that one can argue that it is equivalent to the proposal he makes today.

Mr Chope: Are not the EU referendum and the referendum proposed in this Bill a lot closer than my right hon. Friend says? All the leading political parties’ Front Benches support our continued membership of the EU and it is time that the people had a chance to challenge that consensus in a referendum. Similarly with this Bill, the Front Benches all support HS2 funding to the extent of £50 billion-plus, but the people outside do not. Is this not a chance for them to express their own view on this matter?

Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend is a distinguished and experienced parliamentarian, but he is much more than that: he is both a wise man and a clever man—he will

23 Jan 2015 : Column 511

understand the difference between wisdom and cleverness —and he knows the argument he has just made is an argument not about equivalence, but about political coincidence. It is certainly true that the Front Benches at that time took a similar view, and the Front Benches do so now, too, as he heard when the shadow Minister spoke. That is a matter of political coincidence, however; it is not a matter of governance. I am arguing that the difference between this Bill and the 1975 Act that gave rise to the referendum in that year is that the advocates of that referendum made it absolutely clear that the referendum was necessary because it was on a constitutional matter of profound significance. I am not sure we can say that about a particular area of policy, however important it is. It would be unprecedented, as my hon. Friend knows, and in my judgment it would, for that reason, be ill-judged. Once we open up that hornet’s nest, I see the ugly prospect of plebiscites on every kind and type of subject. There are those who might welcome that, but I, as a confident exponent of the role of this House, would not do so. I think it is important that representative democracy is served by those who believe in—who have confidence in—the power of this House to take big decisions: to be bold, and to be sufficiently original to excite and inspire the people.

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab) rose

Mr Hayes: And there are few more original than the hon. Gentleman.

Stephen Pound: I did not wish to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman as the cloak of Chesterton falls about his shoulders, but would he not agree with the former Baroness Thatcher in her comment that these referendums and plebiscites are devices of dictators and demagogues?

Mr Hayes: I had that quote to hand—

Stephen Pound: Sorry.

Mr Hayes: There is no need to apologise, but the hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was about to say, and I did think, rather mischievously, as he intervened, of the Chesterton line that

“He who has the impatience to interrupt the words of another seldom has the patience to”

devise good ones of his own, but that is certainly not true of him, I have to say.

The point the hon. Gentleman is making is a perfectly decent one: once one gives way to the contention that every major matter—and I accept that this is a very major matter—not only requires the consent of this House, but furthermore, between elections, requires the consent through a referendum of the people as a whole, we have the dangerous beginning of a set of arguments which leads to the place suggested by the blessed Margaret Thatcher and the hon. Gentleman, which is almost one might say anarchic.

Mrs Gillan: I think that my right hon. Friend is taking this line because he is afraid that if a referendum on HS2 was offered to the people of the UK, they would vote firmly against it. Is he actually saying that an

23 Jan 2015 : Column 512

institution such as the City of Edinburgh council, which held a postal ballot referendum in February 2005 on its transport strategy, was wrong? I would say it was absolutely right.The people voted and rejected the proposals by 74% to 26%. The voter turnout was 62%. That vote gave people a chance to say how they wanted their council to spend money on a transport project. Is the Minister saying that Edinburgh council was wrong? Is not the truth that he is afraid that people would vote this project down?

Mr Hayes: It is not out of fear that I resist this proposal; it is out of courage. I am courageous enough to believe in the power, wisdom and efficacy of this place. I am not one of those politicians who is prepared to give ground to that destructive modern insecurity—that guilt-ridden doubt about our ability to originate, to invent, to inspire and to enthral—that so many of the governing class are said to feel. I believe that politicians can make a difference, and that they can take big decisions and be ambitious for what they can achieve for the country. So it is not fear that drives my resistance to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch’s argument; it is courage, and the willingness to be bold and to have confidence in the decisions taken by this House. I emphasise the point about the decisions being taken by this House, because this kind of project can succeed only on the basis of consensus.

Frank Dobson rose

Mr Hayes: I am coming to Euston in a moment, but I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman in anticipation of that.

Frank Dobson: Lots of people pull into Euston, and they want to continue to do so without being interrupted for the next 15 years by the works on HS2. In relation to the impact on my constituency, surely the point is that although all the proposals in the Bill—which the House has apparently seriously considered—have been abandoned, the work around Euston has not. There are no proposals for the people or for this House to consider at the moment, and no such proposals are expected until September, even though they were originally promised for last October.

Mr Hayes: The people of Holborn and St Pancras, in their wisdom, have chosen the right hon. Gentleman—for whom I have a great deal of respect, as he well knows—to speak for them. Members of this House are elected to voice the concerns of their constituents. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) finished her speech by saying that she would give way to her constituents and allow them to have the final word on this matter. Other Members have argued that they speak boldly for their constituents. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) said the concerns of those who have doubts about HS2 were being disregarded because they were seen solely as concerns about the constituency. I do not disregard them on that basis; those Members are doing their duty and their job in making the case for the people they serve, and they do so in the spirit—the Burkeian spirit, dare I say—that should drive all of us who believe in representative democracy and the role of Parliament.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 513

The intervention by the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) brings me to the matter of Euston, about which he spoke at considerable length—understandably, given his long association with that place. He will know that part of the advantage of the HS2 project is that it involves the redevelopment of Euston. He will also know that that will, in turn, involve the rebuilding of the Euston arch. There are those in Warwickshire, and in Chesham and Amersham, who might say that their local concerns are far greater than any consideration of what might happen at Euston, but I say that the emblematic significance of rebuilding the Euston arch will send a signal out across the whole nation that the Government are doing the right thing.

Frank Dobson: The Euston arch could be rebuilt tomorrow. We do not need a huge engineering project to justify it. We could simply dig the stones out of the canal and rebuild the arch where it used to stand, and we could do that tomorrow.

Mr Hayes: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the rebuilding of the Euston arch is associated with the redevelopment of Euston station, which is at the very heart of the HS2 project. Of all the London stations, perhaps the one that demands redevelopment most of all is Euston. I know that he would not eschew the opportunity to see the benefits of that regeneration not only for rail travellers but for the whole of that part of his constituency. I know that he was not dismissing the redevelopment of Euston or the rebuilding of the Euston arch. I think that, at heart, he is something of an aesthete. Surely he knows, however, that if the project does not go ahead, Euston will not be redeveloped in the way that it could be.

Frank Dobson: I fear that the right hon. Gentleman has been very badly briefed by his officials, because he ought to know—his officials certainly ought to know this, although they probably do not, if my experience is anything to go by—that there were outline proposals for the redevelopment of Euston station that virtually everyone in the locality approved of. They would like that particular redevelopment to go ahead, because it would not involve a vast amount of redevelopment around the station. Sir David Higgins appears to believe, based on his experience with the Olympics in east London, that the area around Euston is a brownfield site, but it is not. It is full of people, and they want to be left alone.

Mr Hayes: I want to say two things about that. First, the right hon. Gentleman knows that those redevelopment plans have been given life only as a result of this project. Secondly, I concede that it is important that any redevelopment should take full account of the interests and wishes of the people in the immediate vicinity. He made a strong case for them in his speech. It is critical that the communities that will be directly affected by that development should be integrally involved in what takes place there. He has been making this argument for some time and, as a result of the overtures that he has made today, I will commit the Government to engaging with those communities, to ensuring that what is done matches the local interest, and to involving him in that process. I am more than happy to have further discussion on the detail of the development of Euston, given what

23 Jan 2015 : Column 514

he has offered this debate today. In that spirit, I say to him that its development can be a good and indeed glorious thing; it does not have to be bad news for him, his constituents or the people in that vicinity.

Mrs Gillan: I am sure everybody, particularly the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson), appreciates the assurances the Minister is trying to give him. However, I understand that the designers have downed tools on Euston, because they were trying to do it within a £2 billion budget and they cannot redesign and deliver anything meaningful within that. So I would love to know what budget the Minister has set in the Department for the redevelopment, because this is a golden opportunity to inform people of the new budget for any redevelopment at Euston.

Mr Hayes: Let me tell hon. Members what I think about the redevelopment of Euston. This will perhaps come as news to my right hon. Friend and others, but I am absolutely determined that the development of Euston should be ambitious and bold in the way she described. I am absolutely determined that we should end with something that takes its inspiration from the arch. We do not want some vile, low-budget, modern monstrosity. We want a building that is grand and fit for the future, that is a landmark destination and that is as glorious as the new redevelopment of St Pancras or the addition to King’s Cross. We have a good recent record on what can be done at these large London stations. Let us do nothing less than that at Euston—indeed, let us try to do more. So, I will not be constrained in my ambitions in the way she says, and I could hardly be so, given that I claimed earlier to believe that politicians in this place should be bold, courageous, ambitious and inventive. I want a neoclassical building on a grand scale at Euston, and it does not take a lot of working out to realise that the inspiration—the genesis for that—should come from the redeveloped arch.

The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras was saying that although he understands that there will be a totemic significance to that building, we also need to consider its environs. I have pledged to him that we will engage with the local community, with local representatives and with him to make sure that the views and representations of the people in the surrounding area are built in to our thinking. I do not think we can say fairer than that.

Frank Dobson: The sort of thing the Minister is now saying is what HS2 has been saying endlessly to people and then ignoring them. The people in the area—not just their MP but the people themselves—were promised that the revised proposals for Euston would be made public for consultation in October last year and are now being told that these things may be available in September this year. That shows the quality of the consultation that has been going on—it has been listen and ignore.

Mr Hayes: The right hon. Gentleman understands that those are not matters for which I was responsible, but I am here today and I can seize the responsibility for saying to him that we will make those proposals available for local consideration and consultation, and I do not think it is unreasonable to say that we should do that by September. What I do not want to get to is a further statement in September saying that they have been

23 Jan 2015 : Column 515

further delayed. He is a very distinguished and experienced local representative. The way these things work best is when draft ideas—plans—are put forward, to which people can then add, and they then develop incrementally. That cannot be done until the conversation is started in the way he describes. So I think we need to move ahead with greater alacrity than he suggests has been the case so far.

Mrs Gillan rose

Mr Hayes: I have a lot more to deal with and I do not want to delay my progress, but I will give way to my right hon. Friend.

Mrs Gillan: I am sorry to press the Minister further, but I am interested in what he is saying at the Dispatch Box because the rumours are that the budget for any development at Euston is going to increase to about £7 billion. I stress that that is a rumour, but I hope he will be able to comment on it. He seems to be adding another layer of consultation and another delay to this project, which will of course add cost to it, so I would like him to set out the timetable for that consultation on Euston and tell me what sort of delay there will be on it. Will it be delivered in September? What is the budget? What are the proposals? If he is going to be able to say what he has said so far at the Dispatch Box, he must have that detail available. I think it is only fair he does this because any changes at Euston will, of course, delay the entire project between Birmingham and London.

Mr Hayes: Let me leave Department for Transport officials quaking when I say that I will give these commitments: the arrangements I have set out in respect of the further discussions and consultation with the people in the area that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras represents should be completed speedily; they should certainly be done within existing budgets; and the proposals should be brought forward no later and the measures I have set out should begin no later than September, as he requests. That seems to me to be perfectly reasonable, and I am happy to confirm that that has become the Government’s position, because I have said that it is the Government’s position.

I have clearly made the case that the Bill is an inappropriate means to consider HS2 further, on the grounds that a referendum is not the best way of moving forward. I think that I have begun to offer some reassurance to the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras about Euston. I know that he is not entirely convinced, but I hope that he will count it as progress that the Government have recommitted to the kind of proper discussion with the local community that will allow it to shape plans as they move forward. Although I do not wish to delay the House unduly, I shall now move on to other matters arising from this wide-ranging debate that need to be explored.

As she has done a number of times, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham made a spirited case on behalf of her constituents, and she cannot be criticised for inconsistency in her argument. She suggested that we were—I hesitate to use this phrase, but I will do so, for the sake of clarity—hiding costs by

23 Jan 2015 : Column 516

using 2011 prices. She will know that estimates are presented in 2011 prices to ensure that costs can be consistently compared as the project progresses. That is a standard approach for large projects that stretch over many years.

My right hon. Friend also talked about VAT. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs recently confirmed that HS2 Ltd can reclaim VAT. As she will know, that took effect at the start of 2014-15. As the National Audit Office has pointed out, VAT is an internal transfer within government, rather than an additional cost, so it would not be right to include VAT in construction cost elements.

Mrs Gillan: I did not raise the matter of VAT, but it is always good to have that information. However, the permanent secretary to the Treasury has given evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee and undertaken to provide us with the costs at today’s prices.

Mr Hayes: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying her position.

My right hon. Friend did speak about ancient woodlands—at some length, and understandably so. I agree that it is vital that we value ancient woodlands. Whenever possible, it our intention not to destroy ancient woodlands. Furthermore, it is important that we take whatever mitigating measures we can along the line as a whole to deal with environmental effects. I will be speaking shortly at a platform provided by the Campaign to Protect Rural England about aesthetics and infrastructure, and the importance of ensuring that good design characterises all that we do in major projects, whether rail or road. For too long we have assumed that the ergonomic argument was enough or, worse still, that it was enough to make the case just on the basis of utility, but all great infrastructure projects should have a positive effect with regard to what is built and what that looks like. Of course, it is not possible to avoid all destruction of existing landscape, but I nevertheless value my right hon. Friend’s contribution on ancient woodlands and I have something exciting to say in a moment about a particular tree about which there has been a national campaign.

Mrs Gillan: The Minister is going down a route which encourages me. Will he support me in calling for the full tunnelling of the area of outstanding natural beauty, and can his Department say now that it accepts full tunnelling of the AONB, as it is a precious piece of landscape that he obviously would want to protect?

Mr Hayes: There is already an immense amount of tunnelling in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. I have the map here. Although I cannot give any further commitment today, the Government always have at their heart a desire to do the right thing by the environment. In that spirit I shall speak about the Cubbington pear tree.

As I said, ancient woodlands are an important part of our natural heritage so they need to be protected wherever possible. The best way of doing that is to avoid them in the first place, as my right hon. Friend argued, where that is practical. I repeat that a robust assessment of environmental factors must accompany all aspects of

23 Jan 2015 : Column 517

this scheme. As part of that, there has been considerable debate about the 250-year-old pear tree in Cubbington wood. It is not in my right hon. Friend’s constituency but in Warwickshire, but I know she will care about it because she is a great admirer of ancient trees. That pear tree, the second oldest in Britain, I am told, has been the subject of a considerable campaign.

I have asked for a new arboreal study to see whether the Cubbington pear tree can be moved. I do not know if that can be done, but as the rail Minister for the day, I am delighted to say that we will commission that study. If it can be moved, the Cubbington pear tree will be saved. We have already committed to take cuttings if it cannot be saved, but I want to go further and make that commitment in the course of this debate.

The other central element of the debate has been cost. The question that has been raised is why the scheme is going to cost so much and why the target price for phase 1 has gone up. In fact, the target price for phase 1 has come down. It is now £16.34 billion, not the £17.16 billion figure that was originally published. I know that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will intervene in a moment and say yes, that is because of the removal of the HS1/HS2 link, and that is true. None the less, although we have increased the scope of the work that HS2 Ltd must deliver for the target price—the target price now has to include rolling stock, for example—we are determined that despite that bigger ask, there should be a new laser-like focus, to use the words of the shadow Minister, to ensure that this project is conducted as cost-effectively as it can be.

The Department and HS2 have a constant strong focus on ensuring that the project will deliver maximum benefit for minimum cost. The development agreement continues this focus on cost control by making it a key requirement of the delivery arrangements. So yes, this is a very significant project; yes, the costs are very great, but we can deliver it within budget as cost-effectively as possible. Again, perhaps I believe that partly because I am a confident Minister in a confident Government. I am bold about what we can do. I am ambitious. I do not by any means disregard the concerns of Members about these matters because it is important that the Executive are held to account, particularly on issues of cost. But I do say this. Governments and politicians can take one of two views: a reductionist view of politics—a dull, rather mediocre view—or the view that I hold, which is that big projects, with all their economic value and effect on wider well-being, are what characterise big countries.

Mrs Gillan: I assure the Minister that I have never had any poverty of ambition either for my constituency or my country in all the years I have served both. He is claiming that the costs have now come down on phase 1. Will he tell us the new cost-benefit ratio?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. The Bill suggests that we pose this question in a referendum:

“Do you support the use of …taxpayers’ money to pay for the construction of the HS2 railway?”

We are now drifting well away from the subject of the referendum and the total costs. We are discussing not the individual costs, Minister and Mrs Gillan, but that principle. I am listening carefully to the Minister, who

23 Jan 2015 : Column 518

could never be accused of not being ambitious and confident. I would like him ambitiously and confidently to return to the central proposition of whether there should be a referendum.

Mr Hayes rose—

Mrs Gillan: I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker; I have been leading the Minister astray. However, my points have been in the interests of the taxpayers who would be consulted in the referendum. I do apologise.

Madam Deputy Speaker: No apology is necessary; I am sure that nobody could lead the Minister astray even with the skills you show in representing your constituents, Mrs Gillan. Your points may be relevant, but we have been discussing only the minutiae and we need to return to the big picture.

Mr Hayes: If I may say so, Madam Deputy Speaker, you have done me a great service as well as the House—and not for the first time. Until now your generosity in allowing me to range widely has moved me. I anticipated that you would want me to return to the core of the Bill, and I will do so without further delay.

The core of the Bill is the proposal that a project—in this case HS2, but it could be any large infrastructure project—should proceed only on the basis of a further reference to the British people through a referendum. I flatly disagree with that, and it will not be accepted by the Government.

I was about to come to the end of my introductory remarks, but I am now inclined to make them my concluding remarks, given your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am minded to draw, as I briefly did earlier, on Edmund Burke, who said in 1774:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Weigh those words—

“if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

In other words, the representative must not lack the confidence, vigour, energy and vision to make a case on behalf of his constituents for the common good and in the national interest. It has been the business of this House for more than 150 years to usher in some of the greatest projects that the world has ever seen. Those include the railways built by the Victorians, which have stood the test of time and still prove themselves as the veins and arteries of this country. In their day, the same criticisms were made.

I have the railways Acts of 1833 and 1837 with me here today. I have seen the Second Reading debates. I know the criticisms faced by those who proposed that first generation of great railways—those big infrastructure projects; they were very like the criticisms made in the House today. Those debates were very like those that we have enjoyed about whether these things represent a threat or an opportunity. Those politicians, those Victorian leaders and those Governments did not duck their responsibility—they did what Britain needed. Today we remain grateful for their decisions, because we still benefit from them.

Let me be clear: the west coast main line, which despite having been upgraded since those Victorian times, has at last reached its capacity. Even on moderate forecasts, that line—the nation’s key rail corridor—will be full by

23 Jan 2015 : Column 519

the mid-2020s, despite the £9 billion-worth of improvements in recent years. We cannot continue to make do and mend. We must make a bold decision worthy of our nation’s future, in the spirit of those great leaders of the past, as ambitious and confident for the next generation as they were for us. As parliamentarians, we are elected to serve not only the constituents that live now but those yet to come, for the decisions we take will affect them too.

We have a duty to support this kind of infrastructural investment—to make the difference, to shape the future, not to hesitate to do the right thing—and that is precisely what we will do. That is why I ask the House to reject the arguments, however well meant and well articulated, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, and reject the Bill he has put before us.

1.31 pm

Mr Chope: With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I thank everybody who has participated in this debate. It will not have escaped the House’s notice that the only speeches against the Bill came from the two Front Benchers. In a sense, that sums it up. The only way we are going to be able to break out of this cosy consensus between those on the Front Benches is to allow the people their say.

The right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Frank Dobson) gave the House some fascinating statistics on exactly how unpopular the HS2 project and the associated expenditure of taxpayers’ money are. Established politicians, whether they be with great ambition, like my right hon. Friend the Minister, or not, should listen very carefully to the views of the people on these issues.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) made a very telling speech in which he emphasised the problems in his constituency. We have also had interventions supporting the Bill from the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and my hon. Friends the Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is here as well.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 520

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): I totally support everything that has been said and my hon. Friend’s efforts on behalf of all the people who are opposed to this project.

Mr Chope: I also want to thank a lot of people who have helped to raise awareness of this debate, particularly one of my constituents, Penny Gaines, who moved into my constituency relatively recently, having been forced out of the constituency where she lived before but unable to sell her house at a reasonable price because of the blight of HS2. She remains very strongly opposed to the project, as do large numbers of my constituents.

The question people ask at this stage of a debate is, “Where next?” I am reliably informed that if we pushed the Bill to a Second Reading, it would not receive the Government’s support for a money resolution and would therefore be unable to make any progress. It would not be able to go into Committee or be dealt with before the end of this Session—the last Session of this Parliament.

However, this issue is not going to go away. Our country is still running an annual deficit of close to £100 billion a year. The HS2 hybrid Bill is still in Committee and will be there beyond the general election. Come June, after the general election, there will be a fresh ballot for private Members’ Bills and I hope that a successful colleague will promote a Bill along the same lines as mine. We will then be able to drum up the necessary support to give the Bill a Second Reading, take it to Committee and, I hope, get it on the statute book.

As the right hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras has said, it is obscene for such a proposal to waste so much public money when taxpayers’ money is so scarce, and the Front Benchers, in a cosy alliance, are trying to force it through against the will of the people.

Finally, the £20 billion for Crossrail 2 is an additional cost to that for HS2. Without it, people getting off HS2 would not have anywhere to go because it would be so congested. My right hon. Friend the Minister gave no answer to that and there was no clear answer from the Opposition representative, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). I am afraid that typifies what has almost become a dialogue of the deaf on this issue. Ultimately, this is costing the taxpayers money, and the Government need to be brought to account.

I look forward to this Bill, or something like it, being reintroduced later in this calendar year and, ultimately, making it to the statute book. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 521

Overseas Voters Bill

Second Reading

1.36 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is another Bill relating to the forthcoming general election. It would ensure higher participation among those who would be entitled to vote if they registered, notwithstanding the fact that they are overseas. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on which I have the privilege of serving, has been considering voter participation. Although the focus at the beginning was mainly on the situation within the United Kingdom, during the course of our inquiry a lot more emphasis has been given to the situation of British citizens who are resident overseas and would otherwise be entitled to vote.

It is estimated that there may be as many as 5 million such people. How many of them are currently registered? The latest figure is about 16,000 of a potential 5 million or more. That is scandalous, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), whom I am pleased to see on the Front Bench, agrees that there needs to be much greater participation among electors who are resident overseas.

Clause 1 should, therefore, commend itself to the Government. It would impose a

“duty on the Electoral Commission so far as is reasonably practicable to…identify the names and addresses of British citizens resident overseas who would be able to participate in United Kingdom Parliamentary elections if they were registered to vote, and…facilitate the registration of those identified”.

Clause 2 of this simple Bill states:

“There shall be no restriction placed on the eligibility of a British citizen resident overseas to register to vote or vote in UK Parliamentary elections based solely upon the length of time that such voter has been resident overseas.”

That would remove the current 15-year restriction, a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) has a ten-minute rule Bill. The proposal has the support of the Conservative party and I understand that it will be a definite part of its manifesto—a pledge to remove the 15-year restriction on an overseas voter’s eligibility to vote if they are a British citizen who would otherwise be eligible to do so.

Clause 3 deals with internet voting. I am always keen to embrace new technology, as my wife and family will testify, so why should we not embrace new technology in the voting system? Anyone who is resident in the United Kingdom in the run-up to an election can obtain a proxy or a postal vote, or can vote in person at the polling station. That is much more difficult for those who are resident overseas. Obviously, they cannot physically vote at a polling station because we, unlike a lot of other countries, do not set up polling stations in our embassies or in other buildings in foreign countries. People who are resident overseas therefore have to rely on a proxy or a postal vote.

It is possible to organise a proxy vote if it is planned in advance and if the person who is overseas knows somebody in this country who can exercise it. However, with postal voting, it is difficult to ensure that the ballot paper is sent to the person who is resident overseas in

23 Jan 2015 : Column 522

sufficient time to enable them to put the ballot paper back in the post and return it to the United Kingdom so that it can be included in the count. That situation has been eased to an extent, because the Government have said that there will be a longer period between the close of nominations and printing of ballot papers and the date of the election. However, we know that a relatively small proportion of those overseas who are registered to vote actually do vote. One reason for that is the difficulty of registering their vote.

If we are to go down the road of internet voting—I know that some colleagues are sceptical about it—surely we should allow it for those who are overseas. Just as people can now Skype their friends and relatives who are overseas at practically zero cost, I see no reason why we should not facilitate, through the internet, increased participation among United Kingdom citizens who are resident overseas and who rightly take a close interest in what we do in this legislature.

I have said to a number of people who have written to me on this subject that if more British citizens who are resident overseas participated in our elections, it would strengthen the case for reforming things such as the rights of British pensioners overseas to pension increases and there would be a lot more pressure on Parliament to give those overseas pensioners justice. People would realise that we are not talking about just a handful of potential voters in a constituency, but about hundreds or thousands of people who could influence the outcome of an election.

This is a Bill with three straightforward clauses. It provides Ministers with the opportunity, under clause 3, to bring forward regulations to deal with internet voting. I have to admit that my drafting skills did not enable me to produce a detailed regime for overseas internet voting, so I am relying on somebody else to do the donkey work on that. However, it is important that the Bill states, as it does in clause 3(2), that any regulations must

“include provisions to prevent identity fraud and to ensure that only those eligible to vote can vote.”

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): It strikes me that if we start looking at internet voting for people who are resident abroad, that will prepare us for new provisions that may eventually be introduced in this country for the whole electorate. Those provisions will necessarily be complicated, so this proposal would be a good exercise to ensure that we were up to speed. We could register a discrete group of people for internet voting, in preparation for what I think will ultimately be introduced across the country.

Mr Chope: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend because there are two schools of thought. The first, which she articulated, is that this proposal would be a good test bed for internet voting. Others say that it would set a dangerous precedent, and that before we realise it we will have internet voting without control for the whole United Kingdom electorate, which will facilitate a lot of fraud. I think that internet voting for those who are resident overseas is a discrete matter, and we could develop a regime for that, and see how it works and whether we are able to introduce systems that prevent identity fraud and ensure that only those who are eligible vote. Based on that knowledge and experience, the House could consider rationally whether we wish to extend the system more widely.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 523

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I suspect there is an inevitability about voting online and that one day it will come, although we do not know what will happen. My hon. Friend mentions someone voting online when they are abroad, and if they are resident abroad that is easy to determine. What about if someone was on holiday or having a gap year or whatever—I do not mean a week in the sun, but a longer period of time? Would they qualify for online voting abroad as opposed to a proxy or postal vote? I can foresee difficulties in quantifying who would qualify.

Mr Chope: Clause 3 would apply only to British citizens who were ordinarily resident overseas, not those who happened to be on holiday. The latter group would be brought in only in the event of our extending internet or online voting to the United Kingdom electorate, and it is important to distinguish between those two groups. It is much more complicated to deal with people voting while on holiday than with those who are resident overseas.

Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s Bill because, as he would say himself, this is about the rights of British residents to vote in a general election. Has he made any comparison with other countries—perhaps, although not exclusively, in other parts of the European Union—that have similar arrangements? Should the Bill apply not only to parliamentary elections but, for example, to a referendum on the EU?

Mr Chope: I understand that the franchise for an EU referendum includes all those who are eligible to participate in a parliamentary election, and I would stick to that. If we encouraged more people from overseas to register, they would be able to participate in a national referendum that had been extended to all registered voters.

I sometimes monitor elections on behalf of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and almost all its 47 countries have more extensive systems for facilitating voting by their diaspora, as it is described, than we do. Many countries extend voting arrangements to providing facilities in embassies, consulates and other places, in addition to postal or proxy votes. Those countries believe—quite rightly—that their diaspora is an important part of that country, and that people should be encouraged to participate in its affairs. That can best be done by participating in elections. We are probably well behind the curve by comparison with the 47 member countries of the Council of Europe. That is another reason why the Bill needs immediate attention rather than putting on the back burner.

1.50 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is a pleasure to address another intriguing legislative proposal from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope).

The Bill contains three main provisions: the first is to require the Electoral Commission to register overseas voters; the second is to remove the limit on how long Brits can live overseas before they lose the right to vote; and the third is to allow internet voting for overseas voters. I applaud the hon. Gentleman’s interest in extending the franchise and participation, and in modernising the electoral system. I am also somewhat perplexed by that

23 Jan 2015 : Column 524

interest, because the Conservative party has been doing everything it can to exclude voters by rushing the implementation of individual electoral registration and opposing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. It has done little to encourage new ways of voting in this country.

I would not want to saddle the hon. Gentleman with the burdens of his party—he takes an independent line in many of these matters—but I note that the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and other Conservative Back Benchers were recently alleged to be asking for Irish citizens in the UK to lose their right to vote. They have denied it, but the right hon. Gentleman is on record as saying:

“It is ridiculous that the government of a country like ours could be decided by those who are not British citizens. It is high time we brought this law up to date.”

The Conservative party’s view on the right of Commonwealth citizens to vote remains unclear and I hope the Minister clarifies it. I am referring to the disgraceful report from Migration Watch UK that says that 1 million Commonwealth citizens who could be allowed to vote in a general election despite not having qualified for British citizenship should not be allowed to do so. The Cabinet Office response to that states:

“Excluding Commonwealth citizens would be a significant step and would require careful consideration.”

I hope that that consideration has taken place and that the Cabinet Office has no view to withhold the franchise from Irish, Commonwealth or other citizens who are currently entitled to vote in the UK. The Minister might want to make that clear.

Members who wish to leave the EU altogether—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Christchurch is one of them, but I might have picked up that nuance from time to time—would presumably want reciprocal voting rights between EU countries to be curtailed. I admire the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), if I understood him correctly. He said that he would wish UK residents overseas to have the maximum franchise in an EU referendum. I would have thought that they would overwhelmingly be in favour of EU membership, but that remains to be seen.

I mention those points because of clause 2, the central clause. Interesting alternatives to that are proposed, such as extending the franchise for UK residents overseas, perhaps by allowing reciprocal voting in national elections, which is to say that they vote in Italian, French or Spanish elections, and Italian, French or Spanish nationals living in the UK vote in our elections. Another option is allowing overseas voters to elect their own MPs in the French manner. I fear that the hon. Member for Christchurch has only scratched the surface, and that he is being somewhat selective, and perhaps even a little recherché, in his choice of clauses.

An estimated 7.5 million people are missing from the register in the UK, and 1 million more, particularly young voters, are at risk of dropping off during the process of individual electoral registration. The Opposition have promised that the next Labour Government will “overhaul our democracy”, no less, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the shadow Lord Chancellor. He said that we plan to

“make it as easy as possible for people to vote. Transforming elections so that voting is in tune with the busy lives people lead.”

23 Jan 2015 : Column 525

Plans could include: holding elections at weekends to raise turnout; polling stations opened days in advance to allow early voting access; trialling electronic and online voting, ensuring the system is accessible, affordable and secure; and opening up the franchise to young people. Seeing 16 and 17-year-olds vote in their thousands in the Scottish referendum last year was inspiring. Votes for 16 and 17-year-olds is an idea whose time has come. That is why Labour is committed to lowering the voting age. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), who are zealots for ensuring that registration and the maximisation of the franchise take place.

On the specific proposals in the Bill, given the pressures on the Electoral Commission I am somewhat sceptical about whether its priority should be the registration of overseas voters. More than that, I wonder whether even the strongest supporters of extending voting for UK residents overseas will see that as a priority. I think I am right to say that only about 20,000 of about 5 million UK citizens overseas are registered to vote. As I understand it, the principal argument for those who would wish to see the 15-year term extended is not so much that those individuals are not free, able or willing to register, but that they lack the right to vote after the 15-year period has expired. It is the duty of the commission, for democratic reasons, to maximise registration in the UK. However, it affects not only the result in individual elections but boundary reviews, the disposition of constituencies and the resourcing of local authority areas. Registration can distort social and economic, as well as political, factors.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Sam Gyimah): Surely the shadow Minister agrees that it is the duty of a democratically elected Government to ensure that everyone who is eligible and has a right to vote is on the register and is able to exercise that right.

Mr Slaughter: I think that is exactly what I was saying. If there is a priority, it must be to ensure that prospective voters in the UK are registered, because the outcome of elections can be distorted. The points I made in relation to individual electoral registration are exactly those.

Mr Gyimah: On the question of priorities, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that all voters should be treated fairly and equally, and that it is not for the Government to prioritise any one group of voters over another?

Mr Slaughter: Yes, I do agree with that. If the Minister is saying that he wishes to increase the resources going to the Electoral Commission, then so be it.

Notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Christchurch said, what I see from the Government’s most recent statements on this matter is that they are not minded to change the law at present. Therefore, the earliest that the current Government, or perhaps the Conservative part of the current Government, would wish to see any change would be the 2020 election. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong on that, but I think I am right. With the difficulties the Electoral Commission has been through and the pressures that have been put on it,

23 Jan 2015 : Column 526

particularly by the rushed introduction of IER, it is perhaps a pious hope to think that it will finally go out and prioritise the registration of millions of voters overseas.

On clause 3, we support the piloting of online voting—I do not think that the Government do, although I am sure the Minister will enlighten me if I am wrong. It would be curious, however, to begin that process by permitting overseas voters to vote online. Notwithstanding the reference in the clause to fraud prevention, I am concerned that the detection and prevention of fraud might be more difficult if people are voting from overseas. If concerns have been raised about electoral fraud through postal voting and other means in this country, how much more difficult will that be to deal with when those voting are both abroad and voting online? As has been said, we will eventually move towards online voting, and if that can be done securely and safely, that must be a good thing as it makes the process easier. To begin a pilot with something as atypical as overseas voting seems to me to be wrong and I wonder again about the cost.

Clause 2 is at the heart of the Bill, and I have no objection to reviewing the time limits. There is nothing sacred about 15 years, and the limit has previously been five and 20 years, and, as the hon. Member for Christchurch says, there are different rules in different countries, but I object to the idea that one can pluck this issue out from the many others I have mentioned. There is no reason, however, why this should not be considered as part of a package of questions about how the franchise works.

If anyone is going to be persuasive about this matter, I fear that it will not be the hon. Gentleman but a gentleman he might know called Harry Shindler. Harry Shindler, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in his club in London about three years ago, is the champion of this proposal. He is a remarkable man. He is now 93, he landed at Anzio, he fought at Monte Cassino and during the Italian campaign he met his wife. When they married, they settled in Italy and that is where he has resided since, although he is a regular visitor to London, mainly to lobby Parliament on this issue.

Last year, I am delighted to say, Harry Shindler was awarded the MBE for his services to British-Italian relations. That includes not only having a plaque put up to mark the liberation of Rome but the painstaking work that he has done over many years to help British service families and Italian citizens to track down missing relatives who were lost in the terrible conflict in Italy in the latter stages of the war. He is, as I say, a remarkable man. He has also championed this issue and he knows what he is doing, as he is also a former Labour party agent of many years’ standing. Although he works on an entirely non-political basis, I am sure that that training has served him well.

The case of Shindler v. the UK went to the European Court of Human Rights—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will make an exception in this case and say that that was an admirable use of that judicial body—but sadly for him he was unsuccessful. He was then in his late 80s, and the fact that he took that case, pursued that matter and diligently followed it through shows that the courage and tenacity that he has shown throughout his both military and civilian life continue. If anybody is going to persuade this House and the constituent parties to adopt the proposal to allow unlimited voting for UK residents overseas, it will be Harry.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 527

I cannot say that we will support the Bill today, for some of the reasons that I have given. I am sceptical about some of the clauses and about the priority that ought to be given to them, given all the other concerns that we have about electoral matters. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, and I think that we can return to it, but I wish that we could stop being so selective—and, perhaps, so partisan—about such issues. I wish that we could all genuinely try, across parties, to secure the maximum franchise.

I hope that we can look with an open mind at issues such as votes for younger people. I also hope that we can consider reforming some of our more arcane voting practices, and ensure—not just to be equitable, but to guarantee the continuing success of our democracy—that when people go to vote, they feel that they are participating in a genuinely open and fair process.

2.5 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Sam Gyimah): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for bringing this issue to our attention. I believe that this is his second Bill so far today, and his 10th private Member’s Bill in the current Session. I am sure that his constituents will be pleased that he has embraced this fixed-term Parliament, and is using all the time available to him. I understand that the next Bill of his to be debated—if we reach it—concerns the working time directive. I hope that he has provided exemptions for the overtime that he has been putting in today.

Before I deal with the substance of the Bill, I shall respond to a few of the points made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), particularly those relating to individual electoral registration. He said that its implementation had been rushed, and suggested that it had not been successful. As he knows, however, it has cross-party support. The legislation was initiated by the Labour Government and taken forward by the current Government, and online registration was introduced as part of that transition.

It is not often possible to say positive things about a Government IT project, but the move to online registration has involved more than 360 local authorities, and has involved matching individuals’ data and the data held by the Department for Work and Pensions. Nine out of 10 electors were successfully transferred. We are in the middle of a two-year programme, and in February the Electoral Commission will publish its assessment of its progress so far. I think it a bit premature for Opposition Members to bandy it about that 1 million students are missing from the register.

Mr Slaughter: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gyimah: I will in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman also said that 7 million voters were missing from the register. We must all recognise and accept—as I hope he will when he intervenes—that, according to the Electoral Commission, a significant number of people were missing from the register before the introduction of individual electoral registration. The fact that people are not on the register cannot be

23 Jan 2015 : Column 528

blamed on the fact that we are in transition to a new electoral system whereby individuals can register themselves rather than being registered by the head of the household.

Mr Slaughter: I believe that the register is 100,000 down in London alone, so I do not think that what I said was at all premature. It would be helpful if, rather than patting himself on the back, the Minister told us what steps he intends to take over the next few months to ensure that the register recovers lost ground. There is no problem with the principle of individual electoral registration, but there is a problem with the Government’s execution of that principle, which excludes a significant number of people and groups. That is a separate issue from under-registration. Under-registration needs to be dealt with in any event, and the Government have done precious little about it.

Mr Gyimah: Individual electoral registration is about making the register both as complete and as accurate as possible. We should expect that people who are on the register but who should not be will fall off as result of the transition, and as one in 10 were not automatically transferred, we should also accept that more needs to be done about people who should be on the register and are not. The Government are investing £14 million in targeting under-registered groups including students, minority ethnic groups and forces personnel. A significant amount of the funding has gone to local authorities, who have the responsibility for ensuring that the register is as accurate as possible. I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured that the Government are committed to making sure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch seeks to achieve three things: first, place a duty on the Electoral Commission to identify British citizens overseas eligible to vote in UK parliamentary elections and facilitate their registration; secondly, scrap the current 15-year time limit on overseas voting rights; and, thirdly, enable overseas voters to cast their votes via the internet. I welcome the good work done by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in this area, and I will seek to address each of these aims in turn, but it may be helpful if I first provide some of the wider context to the issue.

The recognition of the right of overseas electors to vote was first acknowledged in 1985. The Representation of the People Act 1985 provided for the first time for British citizens resident overseas to vote in elections to the House of Commons. That right was time-limited to a maximum of five years from the point when they were last registered to vote in the UK. The time limit has changed on two occasions since then, extending to 20 years in 1989, before settling on 15 years in 2002. I therefore agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith that the time limit is an arbitrary number; that is clear from the fact that it has changed over time. I will return to the question of the time limit later.

Only 35,000 overseas electors were registered to vote in 1991, and since then the number has decreased. That is a tiny proportion of those eligible. There are perhaps around 5.5 million British citizens resident overseas. We have no reliable information on the number who have been overseas for less than 15 years and so would be eligible under current rules to register to vote, but we can be

23 Jan 2015 : Column 529

sure that the number is substantial. It is certainly more than the 23,000 overseas voters who are currently registered. By contrast with what the hon. Gentleman asserted, I think it is right for my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to focus on this. If there are about 5.5 million British residents overseas and only 23,000 are registered, that should be a matter of concern to this House.


The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) is chuntering from a sedentary position, but before he arrived in the Chamber we did discuss what the Government are doing for people in this country who are not registered.

The big difference between local voters and overseas voters is that for those resident in the UK, registering to vote is primarily a matter of responding to local electoral registration officers when prompted to do so, typically during the annual canvass. Relatively few proactively take steps to ensure they are correctly registered. For British expatriates spread across the globe, a canvass of households is obviously not feasible. It therefore falls to the individual voters to take the appropriate steps to register. That is always likely to mean that a much smaller proportion of expats are registered. Of course, that does not mean that we should be complacent. It is worth putting it on record that, to date, the Government have done no research into the drivers of registration for overseas voters, and that needs to be looked at. At the moment, we are looking at the matter in the context of raising awareness of the registration process.

Changes that have been introduced by this Government have already done much to make it easier for British expats to register and to vote. The introduction of online registration last June in England and Wales, and last September in Scotland, has made electoral registration more accessible and convenient for all groups of voters. Indeed, people can register to vote in as little as three minutes using a smartphone. Online registration will particularly help overseas voters, as well as those groups about which the hon. Member for Hammersmith expressed concern, including transient voters, students and tenants. They should all benefit from the fact that they can register online.

Mr Slaughter: This is fantastical stuff. The initial matching for individual electoral registration in my constituency showed that the percentages in some wards were in the low to mid-40s. Thanks to the good work of the local electoral registration officers, the percentages have been pushed up into the 70s and 80s, but that is still very poor compared with the previous register. The Minister should not be complacent about the detrimental effect that IER is having on the register, and he has not yet addressed any of the issues relating to under-registration. This just shows that the Government’s priorities are completely wrong.

Mr Gyimah: This Government’s priorities on individual electoral registration are exactly the same as those of the previous Government. Significant resources have been invested to ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible. The hon. Gentleman has just said that the original matching in his constituency resulted in figures of around 40% and that subsequent work pushed the percentage up to the mid-70s. Surely that shows that the system is working, because when matching does not reveal a higher figure, resources are put in. The

23 Jan 2015 : Column 530

electoral registration officers are working extremely hard to push the numbers up and to make the register as complete and accurate as possible.

As I was saying, online registration makes registering to vote easier. Further steps that we have taken to improve registration for overseas voters include the removal of the requirement that a person’s initial application as an overseas elector be attested by another British citizen who is resident abroad. Many expats found this a considerable obstacle, and I am pleased that this Government have been able to remove it. A further change in the law now requires electoral registration officers, when necessary, to send a second reminder to overseas voters, and others such as service voters who are registered by virtue of a declaration, to inform them that their declaration is about to expire. I hope that this will further prompt people to re-register, especially those who are overseas.

The Electoral Commission provides information on its website about how to register and vote overseas, and it is working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to target UK citizens living overseas as part of its online advertising campaign ahead of the general election, particularly in countries with high populations of UK citizens, such as Australia, Canada, France, Spain and the USA. That campaign includes advertising on Facebook and other websites commonly used by UK citizens overseas.

As hon. Members will be aware, on 9 January the Government announced that almost £10 million will be given to local authorities. This is in addition to the £4 million of maximising registration funding provided last year. We are exploring how best to use the money to reach British citizens overseas and encourage them to use online registration to ensure that they have their say at the next election.

In regard to placing a duty on the Electoral Commission, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will know that the responsibility for compiling the electoral register lies with the electoral registration officer for each local area. The Electoral Commission’s role is to provide guidance to the EROs, to monitor their performance, to undertake research and analysis, and to promote registration. It has no remit or powers to compile data on British citizens overseas, and that would be an additional enormous burden, as the Electoral Commission is not equipped to undertake this role. That said, I am very conscious that the forces have a unit registration officer, and there is perhaps some scope to examine the role that embassies can play, bearing in mind, however, that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office considers its first and most important duty to support British citizens in difficulty.

As we have said, the current 15-year limit is arbitrary, and I hope the comments made by the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), would reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch that the Conservative party takes this seriously. My right hon. Friend said at our party conference:

“It’s extraordinary that millions of British people have been deprived of their right to vote by bureaucratic rules and complex red tape…The next Tory government will abolish unfair rules excluding millions from voting.”

So although there is no consensus in the Government at the moment, I hope my hon. Friend takes that quote as

23 Jan 2015 : Column 531

reassurance that the next Conservative Government would seek to abolish the 15-year-rule.

Finally, let me deal with the thorny issue of electronic voting. I started off by talking about the big piece of modernisation that has been introduced in this Parliament, which is not only the move to individual electoral registration, but the introduction of online registration. It has been apparent that this is a huge task, and moving to electronic voting would be a huge task for any Government. We cannot be under any illusion that it would be easy to achieve. The fact that electronic voting is incredibly rare across the globe is testament to some of the problems in delivering it. The online registration and move to the IER project has cost the taxpayer about £100 million, and if we were to move to electronic voting, we would have to ensure that we had very robust and secure systems. Given that we do not even have same-day registration for people to vote, that would be a big step for the Government to take. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) suggested the way forward could be having electronic voting for overseas voters as a test bed. Given how important general elections are, we should not be using electronic voting as a test bed when it could be decisive in the election outcome.

In conclusion, a lot has been done to modernise the system to register to vote in this country. Overseas voters should indeed be valued the same as voters resident in the UK. Anyone who has a right to vote in the UK should be valued, and any democratic Government have a duty to ensure that such people are on the register and can exercise their right to vote. Clearly, there is a discrepancy in respect of the number of overseas voters who on the register and the number who can exercise their right to vote. Although I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch to withdraw the motion, the Government should examine this issue in more detail in future.

2.23 pm

Mr Chope: I am grateful to the Minister for that response and for his repetition of the position that the Conservatives would support removing the 15-year restriction on the eligibility of British citizens resident overseas to vote. The only question he did not really answer was why the coalition minority partners are against such a change. Obviously, had they not been, my Bill would have been able to make progress today.

It is also interesting to note some of the points made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) on issues associated with individual voter registration. It is essential that we do not compromise on that principle. It is well established within the Council of Europe that every person who goes to vote should be individually registered, but our country has been a bit late in getting on that bandwagon. Some of the body language from Opposition Members suggests that they think that there should be flexibility on that, but I think that we should be resolute in saying that only those people who are duly registered and present themselves to vote should be able to vote. Having that said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 532

Working Time Directive (Limitation) Bill

Second Reading

2.25 pm

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I think that this will be the last of my private Members’ Bills to which I shall have the privilege of speaking in this Parliament. It is the 11th of my presentation Bills in this Session that we have had the opportunity to debate, albeit briefly in this case. I thank all the officials of the House for their assistance, and one in particular, who will know who she is, for her indulgence in helping me with the preparation and introduction of those Bills.

Clause 1 of this Bill would remove requirements under European working time regulation, so far as that applies to the United Kingdom, from

“any employee who with the agreement of the employer has chosen to opt out of the provisions of the”

working time directive and the European Working Time Regulations 1998. It would also provide that the directive and the regulations would not apply to

“doctors and other health professionals”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) has been a great campaigner on that issue, and the Government have often said that they want to sort out the absurdity of doctors and other health professionals having to work rigid hours, and therefore not being able to do the best for their patients. The requirement causes a particular problem for trainees. Something needs to be sorted out, but that will not happen unless our own Parliament takes control of the situation.

The clause would also provide that the directive and the regulations would not apply to

“any time spent by an employee on call and not working”


“the calculation of entitlements to holiday and holiday pay, bonuses and overtime”.

I have had the privilege of discussing recent court cases relating to that situation with the Minister and others, and she concedes that the current position will cost British industry tens of millions of pounds. The Government do not want that to happen, but what are we going to do about it? The Bill would allow us to disapply the working time directive from such calculations so that we could go back to having holiday pay, bonuses and overtime calculated on the basis of privity of contract between employer and employee.

The Bill contains much more material than we will be able to do justice to in the next couple of minutes, but I hope that I have put down a marker showing why it deserves to make further progress. The Government need to do something, instead of just sitting back and saying, “We’re terribly worried about all this.”

2.28 pm

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I rise briefly for two reasons, the first of which is that we have only 90 seconds left. Secondly, I speak as someone who was an employment Minister in the previous Labour Government between 2006 and 2007. During that time, one of the tasks that I was given by Downing street was to defend the working time directive opt-out, which was under threat from European states that were jealous

23 Jan 2015 : Column 533

about how Britain organised its working arrangements for staff. We were keen that people who, for a variety of reasons, wished to exceed the 48 hours that would be regulated as their working time were not prevented from doing so. We thought that people should not be prevented from working overtime or taking the opportunities that their employer provided because of some European regulation.

When I was defending the opt-out, my first port of call, to the surprise of my civil servants, was Paris. They thought that that was the wrong place to begin because it was the French Government who were the most insistent that the opt-out should be withdrawn. I thought that it was only courteous to speak to the French to let them know that we were in dispute about what they were trying to impose on British workers, and that we wanted to ensure that British people had the chance to make their own—

2.30 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 27 February.

Business without Debate

zero hours contract Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (21 November), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed onFriday 27 February.

household safety (carbon monoxide detectors)Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (12 September), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed onFriday 6 March.

funeral services Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on 27 February.

house of lords (expulsion and suspension) Bill

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con): I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Bill read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).

23 Jan 2015 : Column 534

Bat Habitats Regulation Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (16 January), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed onFriday 27 February.

Energy (Buildings and reduction of Fuel use) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February.

Houses in Multiple Occupation (Energy Performance Certificates and Minimum Energy Standards) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February.

Sugar in Food and Drinks (Targets, Labelling and Advertising) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February.

Defence Expenditure (nato Target) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (9 January), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 27 February.

Convicted prisoners Voting Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (5 December), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed onFriday 27 February.

Benefit Entitlement (Restriction) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on 27 February.

Road Traffic Regulation (Temporary Closure for Filming) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (7 November), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 535

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed onFriday 27 February.

Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill

Resumption of adjourned debate on Question (24 October), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Debate to be resumed onFriday 27 February.

House of Lords (Maximum Membership) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February.

EU Membership (Audit of Costs and Benefits) Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February.

Wild Animals in Circuses Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 536

Economy and City Link: Coventry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alun Cairns.)

2.35 pm

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): First, I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, the purpose of which is to discuss the general position of Coventry’s economy, which looks very positive on many counts. I also want to take a harder look at the labour market.

The Government are using all sorts of means to make the employment figures look good, but that can mask problems with pay, stability and the type of work involved. The recent collapse of City Link is a good example of why we need to look at the type of work more closely.

I start with the positives of Coventry’s economy. The Centre for Cities annual “Cities Outlook”, published this week, looked at 64 UK cities. There is plenty of good news for Coventry. Coventry came 10th for housing stock growth, 9th for highest business growth, 7th for jobs growth, 6th for the highest private sector jobs growth, and 4th for patents issued, largely in the automotive industry. I welcome that good news. There is much to be proud of.

In the same report, however, Coventry was ranked 59th out of 64 for its employment rate. I understand that that is 8.3% lower than the UK average. The employment rate has fallen by more than 3% in the past year. I want to guard us against sitting on our laurels; it is that background that makes any announcement about job losses very serious.

All that brings me to the situation with City Link. Let me be clear: it is not that Coventry is in trouble, but we need to be watchful of every major loss of jobs. We cannot be complacent and we need to make sure that we do not see a pattern of job losses. City Link provided 404 jobs in Coventry, the vast majority of which have now been lost. The collapse was announced on Christmas eve. Better Capital, the private equity firm that owned the company, is expecting to recover £20 million from the £40 million loan it gave; as a secured creditor, it will rank ahead of staff when proceeds from the company’s liquidation are distributed. The taxpayer has to foot the redundancy bill.

Why is that significant? Any unwanted job loss is a tragedy for the individual concerned. Getting new jobs is the immediate priority, and I am very pleased with how Coventry has risen to the occasion and businesses have come forward with jobs, but there are worries. I am very concerned about the self-employed drivers; at least, they are technically self-employed, but the idea is absurd—they were allowed to work only for City Link. They have been made redundant through no fault of their own. They will be doubly hit—they will not get redundancy payments, as things currently stand, and nor will they be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance.

We need to look into that type of employment, which is dangerously precarious. We need to consider the law in relation to this matter, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills agrees. We need to look carefully into what happened in the build-up to the company’s going into administration. I have met the Business Secretary, who intends to wait until the report by the administrator is complete before

23 Jan 2015 : Column 537

deciding whether the situation warrants an investigation. I personally believe that an investigation is warranted already, but I appreciate the Business Secretary’s position. Once the report is published, I will be keen to call for an investigation.

We cannot have a situation in which asset strippers can toy with workers so that thousands lose their jobs with no warning while the management are able to make plans. This is a good example of a situation in which many people who were counted as self-employed were left very vulnerable when the company collapsed. Furthermore, the owners were able to walk away with millions, while giving workers no notice period in which they could have started looking for jobs. Your type of work matters, your pay matters, your employment status and rights matter, your security and stability matters, your quality of life matters: it not just about the headline figures.

In addition to the recent job losses at City Link, a number of other companies have announced their intention to cut jobs in Coventry. This includes the recent closure of the Marks & Spencer warehouse, where about 150 jobs are expected to be lost, and recent job losses at Sainsbury’s. Peugeot Citroen will be cutting jobs, although the number now looks to be under 100. In November, Severn Trent announced plans to cut 600 jobs. Given that the city has had a decreased employment rate in the past year and is already below the national average, we need to make sure that there are no structural reasons behind this, so we must take each case seriously. I urge the Minister to pay close attention to the picture of jobs in Coventry and to comment on the attractiveness of Coventry as a place to do business.

I want to flag up a number of other concerns. Median annual pay in 2014 was £499 down on the 2013 figure, and that is £1,505 lower than the average in England. Gross weekly pay for a woman in Coventry is over £100 less than that of a man. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, Coventry was 63rd of 64 for the highest percentage of people with no formal qualifications—15.8%. That is something we really need to look at and work on.

That brings me to the bigger picture, which is that the Government are throwing taxpayers’ money at subsidising companies that pay low wages. We are seeing people pushed off JSA to become self-employed, often earning very little indeed and needing substantial income support. There is no training, support or career development—it is all about being able to keep unemployment figures down. Similarly, a third of jobs in Coventry are part-time. That figure does not show how many of these people cannot get full-time work. I have constituents who are technically employed, but for only a few hours a week. They want to work more hours, but they are not offered them, and the Government then have to top up their income. I urge everyone to watch last week’s Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme, “Low Pay Britain”. I am concerned that the employment figures are masking the reality and papering over the real problem, which is a lack of proper, well-paid, stable jobs that pay enough to live on and include future career opportunities. I ask the Minister to take this seriously, as I am sure she will. It is not enough to say there are jobs—it matters what types of jobs they are.

Cuts to local government funding have meant that Coventry city council has already cut well over 1,000 jobs and is expected to cut many hundreds more. For example,

23 Jan 2015 : Column 538

proposed cuts to the local welfare assistance scheme by central Government mean that payments under the scheme would have to come from council budgets rather than central Government. This would hurt those in the city who are in the most urgent need of help. I ask the Minister to raise this with her counterparts at the Department for Communities and Local Government. These cuts to local government mean that the council is not in a position to offer the support to the economy that ideally it might have done.

Coventry needs to take a hard look at the real story behind the employment figures to make sure that we are not storing up problems for ourselves in future and that we have a healthy and sustainable labour market that pays well and offers people a high standard of living.

2.43 pm

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the fact that a bell is ringing somewhere.

Mr Jim Cunningham: I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker—I did not realise that my phone was not switched off.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I take back that request to the Serjeant at Arms and accept the hon. Gentleman’s apology. The mystery has been solved.

Mr Robinson: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to take part in this debate. The Minister also agreed to my taking part, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), whom I congratulate on his initiative. I also thank Mr Speaker for granting this important debate.

The only mystery that remains to be solved is why exactly Jon Moulton made this acquisition in the way he did in an industry that was already in difficulty. One feared very much what the outcome would be for a company that had already experienced many years of extreme difficulty. The situation will no doubt be unfolded once the Department finishes its report and we have read its conclusions. Perhaps a further investigation will be necessary; indeed, my hon. Friend has called for one.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to address four aspects of concern. My hon. Friend has already said that we cannot be complacent in Coventry, but perhaps he will agree that the new leadership in Coventry has sent a very loud message that Coventry is open for business and to the new businesses of the 21st century. The internet and internet shopping are clearly going to generate a lot of such businesses. Indeed, we thought that that was what Mr Moulton was investing in and that there was a reasonable prospect for City Link’s future, although there was never any guarantee. It is a pity that the early venture has come to such a tragic and sad halt.

It is tremendous to see the approach being taken by Coventry’s leadership. After years of not making the progress we should have been making, the new leader, supported by her deputy, has made it plain that things

23 Jan 2015 : Column 539

have changed in Coventry’s approach to openness. We are looking to do things differently and are encouraging others to join us in a way that we might not have done in the past. It is in that spirit that we went down the City Link and other routes.

Mr Jim Cunningham: May I make it perfectly clear to my hon. Friend that in no way is this situation a reflection of the leadership of Coventry city council? I was analysing the general situation.

Mr Robinson: I take that point entirely and agree with my hon. Friend. Coventry has new leadership, but we have had a very bad setback. Some 400 jobs have been lost—which is a lot—on top of the other losses, to which my hon. Friend has rightly referred. We can ill afford such losses and we cannot and will not be complacent. That is why my hon. Friend wants to make sure that this has been properly handled.

I understand that Mr Jon Moulton, who guards his reputation jealousy—he has had a fairly good record up until now—is concerned that his motives be fully under- stood. The mystery is why on earth he invested to the extent he did in the first place, but that is for him to explain. He goes around saying that he has lost £20 million of his shareholders’ money—his company’s money—and £3 million of his own. That is a great pity, but he also caused the state to lose £20 million and—this is my second point, which I will come on to in a moment—1,000 drivers to lose their jobs. One can only ask: why would anyone put themselves in a position where ultimately they are held responsible for the collapse of their company? That will no doubt come out in the Department’s report.

The closure on Christmas eve was unpleasant. That is not a serious way for a businessman who guards his and his company’s reputation so jealously to run an enterprise for which planning is essential. That raises questions that should not have been raised, but Mr Moulton will now have to wait while they are investigated and we get answers.

I know that the Minister agrees with me. When we met the Business Secretary, he was very forthcoming and said that he wanted to make sure that nothing odd was going on. He was phoned on 23 December—one day before the announcement was made. The company had been trading with bad losses for months beforehand under Mr Moulton’s ownership and for years before that. What happened is hardly a surprise. The inevitable impression is that it was somehow or other contrived to be done in that way at that time. That impression will persist until we get the Department’s report in, I hope, the very near future.

If the report calls for an investigation, I know that the Minister—whom I am very pleased to see in her place—and the Secretary of State will approach it in the spirit of totally dispassionate and rigorous scrutiny. If such an investigation is needed, we shall, despite whatever embarrassment it might cause to those who agreed with Mr Moulton’s decision to make his investment, which has cost the taxpayer £20 million-plus, go to whatever lengths necessary to get to the truth of the matter. We have to do that for Coventry. We have made a new start and we are doing relatively well. We are certainly doing

23 Jan 2015 : Column 540

much better than we were. Frankly, we can do without setbacks such as this one, which came out of the blue on Christmas eve.

We look forward to the Minister’s response and I hope that she will answer the points that have been made about the report. Before I finish, I have one more important point to put to her. I am sure that everything about this incident will come out in the report, but I hope that it will also address a more general point that was alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South. It does not relate directly to this administration, but it does concern the 1,000 self-employed drivers. As I understand it, the drivers were self-employed but, under the terms of their contract, were not allowed to work for anybody else. They were self-employed, but they were really employed by the employer. This is a fine point of law. I am sure that the law is quite clear that the drivers were technically self-employed and that they were therefore not eligible for redundancy pay or jobseeker’s allowance, even though they had been paying in.

This is a wider point about self-employment. I know that the Treasury does not really like self-employment. It is not entirely right in that, but it is not entirely wrong either, as is always the case with the Treasury, damn it! This may be a narrow point, but the Treasury and the legal department should look at it in the context of the whole. It cannot be right that self-employed people who are making a contribution, paying their way and making no demands can end up in this situation.

There is good news about Coventry, with its new leadership. This is a setback, so we must have a report to clear it up and to see, once and for all, exactly what went on. Lastly, the position of the drivers has brought out a general point for us all to consider, and we wish to hear the Minister’s views on it.

2.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this debate at such an appropriate time. He called it to talk about City Link, obviously, but also about the wider issues relating to jobs in Coventry. I know that he has been a passionate supporter of businesses and workers alike in his constituency over the years.

We all agree that this is a worrying time for the individuals who were reliant on City Link for work, a significant number of whom were based in Coventry. There is a huge amount of sympathy for those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. The timing of the announcement has been mentioned. It is difficult for anybody to hear that bad news, but to hear it immediately before Christmas, when people hope to be celebrating with their families, is particularly difficult, so one cannot help but feel for those individuals.

That is why our focus is on ensuring that those who have found themselves out of work as a result of the City Link administration find new work as quickly as possible. We are helping the employees and subcontractors to do just that. We are also ensuring that City Link employees who are eligible for statutory redundancy payments get the money that is due to them as quickly as possible. The Jobcentre Plus rapid response service is available to employees and subcontractors at City Link. That is delivered at the discretion of each local district.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 541

That support is already being provided around the country. It can include things such as information, advice and guidance, help with job searches, CV writing, interview skills, identifying transferable skills or any skills gaps, and training to update those skills and to get certification to improve employability.

In Coventry, Jobcentre Plus is working with a local skills and employment company to provide extra support on employability and moving into work. Earlier this month, three sessions were held to support workers. In addition, the Coventry city council job shop and the local enterprise partnership’s growth hub are working closely with Jobcentre Plus to identify employers who have vacancies. It is positive that a number of local employers have expressed an interest in taking on City Link staff in Coventry. Although this remains a difficult time, it is encouraging to hear of City Link workers in Coventry who are already finding new work.

When the employer’s insolvency has led to dismissal, employees are guaranteed to receive—subject to certain limits—their wages and other payments they are owed, and that money comes from the national insurance fund. A dedicated team in the redundancy payments service is already processing those payments, and we will ensure that claims are processed as quickly as possible. Any City Link employees who want guidance on that redundancy pay can find that information at gov.uk.

Hon. Members mentioned those who are self-employed and could not necessarily work for any company other than City Link. They do not qualify for redundancy pay because of their self-employed status. We recognise that that issue is significant and has grown over recent years. We have protections for employees, a separate set of protections for workers that are not quite as enhanced, and then there are the self-employed. For many people, being self-employed works well, but some employers try to use different categories so that those people do not have the same level of employment rights. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is undertaking an employment status review to consider those issues in detail.

Mr Jim Cunningham: In one case that I am aware of, the individual is owed something like £90,000, which puts them in a terrible position.

Jo Swinson: Indeed, and individuals will be in different circumstances. As I said, for some people being self-employed works well depending on their circumstances, but the difficulty comes if that is used effectively to mask what is an employee-employer relationship. In addition to any concerns the Treasury might have, there are also issues about workers’ rights.

Mr Robinson: The point my hon. Friend and I are making is that those people are not allowed to work for anyone else. Generally, someone who is self-employed has the right to work at other places and build up other contracts. They can do other things and offload their risk. However, when they are obliged by their contract not to do that, we must consider that in the light of employment law.

Jo Swinson: I am not a lawyer so I will not give legal advice, but employment tribunals can consider the facts of any case in front of them. It is not simply what is declared in a written contract that determines the nature

23 Jan 2015 : Column 542

of an employment relationship; it is also about the facts of the case. Employment tribunals are able to interpret a case based on whether there is mutuality of obligation, and in previous employment tribunals, judgments on exclusivity clauses have been used to demonstrate that kind of relationship. I will not pronounce on any individual case, but there is flexibility in the employment law system for employment tribunals to consider individual facts. Because there is uncertainty about different types of employment—some of that is related to growth in zero-hours contracts and we are legislating to prevent the kind of exclusivity clause that has been outlined—we are undertaking that employment status review. I do not suggest that the solution is straightforward or simple, because a wide range of issues are being considered. Employment law and status have developed over many decades, and that review is an important piece of work.

The hon. Member for Coventry South mentioned the importance of quality jobs. Positive employment figures are a great good news story, but as the economy recovers we want to encourage employers to ensure that the jobs they create are quality jobs, and that where they can afford to they do not pay just the basic minimum wage. That safeguard and safety net is rightly there as a protection for the most vulnerable people in our labour market, but the minimum wage should not be a target. Responsible companies that are profitable and doing well generally want to pay above the minimum wage, and the Government encourage them strongly to do so.

On an investigation into City Link, the process after any company fails is that we ask whether it has been managed correctly, which is fair. We need to establish the full facts before coming to a judgment, as the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) said. As a result, the administrators have a legal duty to report confidentially to the Secretary of State within six months of their appointment on the conduct of the directors. We are trying to reduce that time in legislation to three months. It is important to point out that we do not expect a report to take six months; they are often done earlier than that. Insolvency Service investigators are currently in contact with the administrators and expect to be able to identify any matters that should be investigated well before that final six-month deadline.

When the necessary information has been received from the administrators, the Insolvency Service is in a position to consider whether there are any grounds for bringing disqualification proceedings against the directors. The administrators’ view is a relevant consideration, although ultimately the assessment of whether grounds for the disqualification of directors exist will be based on the Insolvency Service’s independent view and conclusions. A director can be disqualified for anything between two and 15 years. It is important to set out that process. We need to wait for the information. On a point of clarity for the hon. Gentleman, the report that is produced on the directors’ conduct by the administrator is produced confidentially to the Secretary of State. That will be assessed by the Insolvency Service. On that basis, it will then decide whether further action should be taken.

We have discussed the importance of City Link, but the hon. Member for Coventry South set out wider issues in Coventry’s economy. We are dealing with the damaging City Link situation, but it is worth recognising that there is a lot to welcome in the local economy in

23 Jan 2015 : Column 543

Coventry and Warwickshire. It is one of the higher-performing local enterprise partnerships in terms of investment and jobs created through foreign direct investment. It is an important location for firms experiencing employment and growth. Last weekend, Newcross Healthcare Solutions announced plans to open a new base at the Middlemarch business park, where City Link was based, which will create 100 new permanent jobs.

Others have chosen Coventry recently, such as LeanNova Engineering, which is creating 60 jobs, and Sitel UK, which is set to create around 300 new jobs, with potentially more to follow. They sit alongside high-profile names such as Capita and Bupa, which are expanding within Coventry. That builds on Coventry’s major manufacturing and engineering base, including such major employers as Tata, Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin, BMW, Rolls-Royce and Alstom.

It is not just the Government and I who see signs of encouragement. Coventry’s success was highlighted in a Centre for Cities report published this week, which notes that Coventry has outperformed its west midlands counterparts over the past decade, achieving an 8% increase in jobs and a 22% increase in business stock, which is a third higher than the national average. It has the second-fastest growth in private sector jobs among UK cities. I appreciate the concern about other companies mentioned in the debate, but there are none the less reasons for optimism in the Coventry economy.

Mr Jim Cunningham: I do not disagree with the hon. Lady. Lots of good things are happening in Coventry. I made that point, but I also considered other areas where we have got to do better.

23 Jan 2015 : Column 544

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman is doing absolutely the right thing as a constituency MP. It is important that we celebrate what is going well in an area, but we must also continue to strive and see where we can do more and provide further support for local economies. That is why the Government continue to work hard to improve conditions in Coventry and the rest of the country. The regional growth fund of £410 million has gone to 63 projects in the west midlands. Eighteen of those are in Coventry and Warwickshire, which is worth about £160 million of direct Government investment, and which should leverage in a total of £1.4 billion of private sector investment and create or safeguard more than 10,000 jobs. It is important that that continues. We are working with local enterprise partnerships throughout the country, and the Growing Places fund, the city deals and the growth deals are helping local enterprise partnerships to support their economies.

We have had a good opportunity to hear from Coventry Members about the challenging City Link situation and the importance of ensuring that the conduct of the directors is properly considered. Those processes are in place. There are positive signs within the Coventry economy, but it is important not to be complacent and to continue to work hard. The Government intend to continue to work alongside Members of Parliament, the local authority, the local enterprise partnership and other stakeholders to ensure that we continue to build a stronger economy in Coventry and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

3.4 pm

House adjourned.