I am nervous hearing hon. Members talk about different levels of air passenger duty in different parts of the United Kingdom, just as I am nervous about all the

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matters that break up the Union. Although we want the freedom to travel, we have to be very careful, or all we will end up doing is stealing our own labour forces from one another.

Jonathan Edwards: On that point, does the hon. Gentleman therefore oppose the move to devolve corporation tax to Northern Ireland?

Danny Kinahan: No. I like the fact of corporation tax. I have just said that we have to be careful, so I am being careful on that matter. We need to find the right balances that work between us. That is why I want to see an all-party group on the Union, so that we can talk through these ideas.

Tourism in Northern Ireland is run by Tourism Ireland, which runs it all from an all-Ireland basis, focusing only on tourism in Northern Ireland. So if Ireland decides as part of its rail policy to put in a direct line from Dublin to its airport, making it easier to get there, that is not part of the tourism policy that we have a say in, and it further damages our economic chances. I am told that, as a result of the block grant in Northern Ireland, if we lost air passenger duty and had to pay for it there would be a staggering cost of £55 million. I would love to know the details behind that. Yet I am also told that Belfast international airport thinks that if we got rid of air passenger duty, it could bring in 5,000 jobs and some £5 million. That should open up the whole economy to working better, which is what we want to see.

I want to mention one rather dour side of this: our way out of the troubles in Northern Ireland in the past was a thriving economy, with people travelling the world and seeing how other things work. We want everyone to travel. We want them to come home and to bring back ideas. Air passenger duty is severely damaging us, and we therefore want to see it removed. Even if it is removed in stages, can we at least start to look at that? We want to see Northern Ireland open for business, just as we want to see the United Kingdom open for business.

3.9 pm

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): Thank you, Sir David, for letting me speak even though I had not put in a submission to do so. I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for bringing this issue forward for debate.

We have had some excellent contributions. I will be relatively brief. First, I want to pick up on the contribution by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), who made some excellent points, particularly about APD’s original purpose of changing behaviour and, arguably, getting people to use other forms of transport. Under all Governments of all hues, when a tax is applied, it becomes a revenue stream. It then goes into the big, black hole of revenue and is not used for the purpose it was intended for. There has not therefore been the intended investment in other forms of transport, which would allow greater connectivity.

As we know, APD has had unintended consequences. We have heard from hon. Members about different regional airports that have suffered badly because of APD—none more so than my regional airport, Prestwick,

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which my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) discussed. We have heard it argued that taking away APD can create jobs and additional revenue. At Prestwick, APD has cost jobs and cut tourism, so it has clearly cost the Government money. It stands to reason that taking away APD can reverse that harsh reality.

Another issue, which has not been touched on quite as much, is that passengers using regional airports often have to go via the main London airports. They then suffer a double whammy in terms of APD. A family of four from the States—they could be tourists or expats who want to visit family—would have to pay four times £71 in APD for each flight, or about £560 for the round trip. If they took a further flight to a regional airport, they would then have to pay four times £13 each way, so the APD would be more than £600. It is no surprise that that is off-putting and has caused a decline in passenger numbers.

That is why there should be a reduction in APD. I welcome the fact that responsibility for the issue will be devolved to Scotland, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s plans to reduce the duty. If it is reduced, it will give our regional airports a chance to create their own routes, which will then generate competition with, say, the London airports. If we can get away from having to do the double hat on APD—with people flying from one airport to another and then onwards, as I have just outlined—that would give us a better chance of opening up new routes and new connectivity.

For me, that is the nub of the issue on APD: it is off-putting in the first place, and it is doubly off-putting if people have to make another flight from a regional airport. I therefore welcome the Scottish Government’s plans. We have had excellent contributions today, and I hope the Government will take note of them.

3.12 pm

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing this important debate. As the SNP spokesperson on transport, I obviously take a keen interest in this issue.

The hon. Gentleman described the positive impact regional airports can have on the economy—jobs, direct investment and the growth that stimulates further jobs down the line. Members around the Chamber have talked with common purpose about supporting regional airports and those who have to travel from the periphery.

The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said that regional airports are being held back by APD, but I would suggest that this goes even further: they are also being held back by a lack of flexibility in policy on route development and route protection. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said that devolving the relevant powers would make a difference, and I think they will when they come on stream for Scotland. That is mainly because Scotland’s regional airports will not get the benefit of High Speed 2. Even if HS2 does come to Scotland, they will not see a difference.

Mrs Spelman: For the record, it is right to say that the Scottish Government do want HS2 to reach Scotland. They have given clear evidence to that end.

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Drew Hendry: Absolutely. We would be delighted to see HS2 reach Scotland; indeed, we have always said it should start in Scotland and be developed southwards.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned the impact that the development of regional airports has on tourism. Nowhere is that more true than in her constituency, but it is now an expensive destination because of the policy we have had. As we heard, Elvis left the building, and he was not encouraged to come back subsequently—regrettably, he cannot do so now.

The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) talked about APD’s effect on Blackpool airport. He said that the airport needs support, but that it has been left in a precarious position over the years. That is very similar to the position in Inverness and Dundee, so I have a great feeling of common purpose with him. We must make sure that routes are not dropped just because there is a more profitable option elsewhere. These routes are important lifelines for the communities they serve.

We have heard about the proposals for the reduction and abolition of APD in Scotland. I am pleased to say that those are yet another good idea from the SNP Government, and they seem to have gained quite a lot of support around the room. They make sense, and it is important that we go ahead with them.

As the MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, I understand the impact of APD. Regional airports such as Inverness and Dundee have long suffered the inequity of APD, but they are not alone, because other airports suffer too, and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen are not well served by APD either. As we have heard, Prestwick could very much benefit from the proposed change. Air connectivity is vital to the local economy, and I am pleased that it will be—in fact, I am impatient for it to be—in the Scottish Government’s hands.

The UK introduced APD in 1994 to raise revenue from the aviation industry, anticipating that it would have environmental benefits through its effect on air traffic volumes. When it was introduced, it took the form of a flat £5 charge on flights in the UK and a £10 charge on other flights. It has been changed many times over the years. It was doubled in 1996, lowered in 2000, frozen between 2001 and 2007 and doubled from February 2007. It was then changed under the Labour Government in 2008 and the coalition Government in 2010. In 2013, it was increased, and the Chancellor made further changes in 2014 and 2015. This APD hokey cokey, married with the here today, gone tomorrow effect on routes and regional airports, has done nothing to help regional economies in places such as Inverness and Dundee or in the other constituencies represented by Members around the Chamber.

I point to those changes because, throughout all these years, successive Governments have failed to support regional airports. My constituents have suffered under the current approach. In addition to devolving APD powers as quickly as possible, we need public service obligations on routes to regional airports, as well as guarantees on those routes. We also need more flexibility on route development.

By 2016, £210 million less per annum will be spent in Scotland by inbound visitors than would have been the case if APD had not risen since 2007. That is a staggering

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figure. When power is transferred, the Scottish Government are committed to reducing APD by 50% by the end of the next Parliament, with a view to eventually abolishing the tax when public finances allow. Their plans to abolish APD have been welcomed by the British Air Transport Association, Aberdeen and Glasgow airports, VisitScotland and the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.

Sophie Dekkers, the UK director for easyJet—Scotland’s largest airline—has said:

“When APD is halved passengers in Scotland will quickly feel the benefit, with easyJet and other airlines adding more services to existing destinations and launching flights to new destinations from Scotland.”

Again, that would be welcome news for my constituents, who have long suffered the effect of here today, gone tomorrow flights.

Jim Shannon: In the scenario that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, if Scotland were to abolish APD, and given that the Republic has already done it, Northern Ireland would be the meat in the sandwich. It is important that Northern Ireland as well as Scotland gets to do it. Does he agree?

Drew Hendry: I absolutely agree, and support the devolution of powers to the nations of the UK in that way.

A consultation on a Scottish replacement to APD has been launched by the Scottish Government. It will give the people of Scotland and other interested parties the opportunity to provide their views—public views—on the design and structure of a Scottish APD. A Scottish APD stakeholder forum has also been established to help provide expert policy input in the preparation of policy proposals for Scottish APD, involving the air transport industry, environmental groups and tax practitioners and advisers. Devolution of APD to the Scottish Parliament will provide an opportunity to design a replacement tax that better supports our objective to improve connectivity to Scottish airports, generating new direct routes and increasing inbound tourism.

Reducing APD will have a positive impact on passengers, business costs and connectivity. However, as I have said, our support for regional airports should not end there. We need to make sure that the UK Government will do more to support regional airports, with a review of the current public service obligation regimes. The current criterion is too narrow and limits opportunities for regional airports.

3.21 pm

Rebecca Long Bailey (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, especially since this is my first speech as shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. I am pleased to be working with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury today; no doubt we will spar together on other occasions. I offer my thanks and congratulations to the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing an important debate on a topic that is of concern to me not only in my capacity as shadow Exchequer Secretary, but because my constituency will be affected.

I thank the hon. Members who spoke in the debate. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) gave a passionate account of the impact that air passenger

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duty has on her local airport, Prestwick. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) spoke about the plight of Blackpool airport, especially in the light of its closure not so long ago and its struggle to get back on its feet. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) rightly questioned the future viability of APD generally. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some important points about how Belfast has suffered in its competition with Dublin airport. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) highlighted the fact that the time for debate is now: it is an important issue and we need to get a grip on it quickly. The hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan) made some fantastic points relating to Northern Ireland, and there were also fantastic contributions from the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry).

Air passenger duty was highlighted in recommendations by the Smith commission. I reiterate my party’s support for the implementation of the commission’s recommendations as set out in the Scotland Bill. Inevitably, that will have consequences, but that should not undermine the principle of devolution for Scotland, and indeed Wales and Northern Ireland. That said, we cannot escape the fact that the Scottish Government’s anticipated reduction of air passenger duty by 50% in the next five years and their intention to abolish it altogether when finances allow are predicted to have a significant effect on regional airports in England, especially those close to the border. HMRC research conducted in 2012 suggested that the number of passengers using Newcastle airport would decline by 10% the short term, and that Manchester, the closest airport to my constituency, would lose almost 5%.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton, whose constituency neighbours mine, cited evidence in a previous debate on this issue that if one easyJet and one Ryanair flight were moved from Manchester to Glasgow, the Treasury would lose £2.9 million and 450 jobs would be lost in Manchester. That is of course a forecast, but we can already see the effects of variable rates of air passenger duty by examining the situation in Northern Ireland. Belfast International has suggested that it loses between 570,000 and 1.5 million passengers a year to Dublin airport, where no APD is levied. Dublin airport has run a marketing campaign specifically targeted at attracting Northern Ireland passengers, and in 2013 the number of passengers from Northern Ireland using Dublin airport increased by 12%. With the possibility of powers to determine APD rates being devolved to Wales in due course, the issue is set to have an impact not only on airports in the north of England, but on those in the south-west.

Jonathan Edwards: As the hon. Lady has mentioned my beloved homeland, will she confirm that it is now the policy of the Labour party to support the devolution of APD to Wales? Previously—I appreciate that it was before the hon. Lady was elected to the House—the Labour party abstained on such votes on Finance Bills. I should be grateful for clarification, because that would be quite a shift in her party’s policy.

Rebecca Long Bailey: I shall come on to my party’s position in due course.

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I was saying that the possibility of powers to determine APD being devolved to Wales could lead to an impact on airports in the north of England and the south-west. York Aviation has predicted that, with Cardiff airport no longer subject to air passenger duty, Bristol airport would lose 440,000 passengers, up to 33 routes, 1,500 jobs and more than £800 million from local GDP. That concern has been cemented by a warning from Ryanair’s commercial chief that the company could double its profits per passenger by flying from Cardiff instead, should APD rates be set to zero there. It is therefore clear that the devolution of powers to set air passenger duty will have a profound effect on England’s regional airports, so I am glad that the Conservatives heeded the advice of my colleagues the then shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) when they wrote to the Government in September last year, calling on the Treasury to start work on a mechanism to prevent English regional airports from being disadvantaged by devolution to Scotland or anywhere else.

I welcome the Government’s publication of a discussion paper outlining three possible options for tackling the issues affecting our regional airports. I have a few specific concerns about the consultation, on which I am sure the Minister will be able to put me at ease, but first I ask the Minister for an update on the progress of the consultation as a whole. It is my understanding that the closing date for submissions was 8 September, but as yet there has been no published evidence and no conclusions from the Government. Will the Minister say when the Government’s response will be published? More specifically, one solution discussed in the paper is to devolve the power to set rates of air passenger duty to local or combined authorities, either partially or fully. That seems to have implications for our compliance with EU state aid rules. The Labour party supports reform of the EU state aid rules, which would be a much better subject for renegotiation that those chosen by the Prime Minister. None the less, the current rules will apply.

One problem is that the Government cannot vary national tax rates in a way that is more favourable to specific regions. For that reason funding for the relevant local authority would be reduced by the full value of air passenger duty receipts in that area. HMRC research indicates that full devolution to a local authority containing one medium-sized airport would require a staggering reduction in funding of £45 million a year. The point of devolving the powers is to allow regional airports to avoid undercutting by rivals. Can the Minister confirm that under that option a local authority that took that course would receive no extra funding from central Government and would have to deal with a cut of £45 million? He will understand our concern that even the devolution package the Chancellor proposes will not contain much in the way of revenue-raising powers, nor anything like the scope that the devolved Administrations have to make savings elsewhere. Also, does he share my concern that if local authorities are able to set their own levels of APD, it will start a race to the bottom, which, taken to its logical conclusion, would result in an overall loss to the Treasury of £3.2 billion?

Alan Brown: The hon. Lady talks about a race to the bottom and says that different regional airports cutting APD could result in a net decrease overall. Does that

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not run contrary to the argument I have just been making, which is that cutting APD increases passenger numbers, jobs and revenue? Does she therefore agree that her argument could be flawed?

Rebecca Long Bailey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. Hopefully, when the Minister responds about the progress of the report, he will be able to shed some light on those issues specifically.

The third option outlined in the discussion paper is to provide aid to regional airports that will be particularly affected by the devolution of APD, but I am particularly concerned that that would do little to neutralise the effects at the airports that will feel the greatest impact. Airports such as Manchester and Newcastle would be too large to be eligible for such aid under the proposal, so the measure would be ineffective in tackling the problem where doing so will have the biggest impact. Furthermore, providing direct aid has an obvious fiscal implication for the Exchequer, so it would be helpful to clarify whether that would be provided by the Treasury or would again involve corresponding cuts to other local authority funding.

Finally, it would be helpful if the Minister touched on the environmental implications of air passenger duty generally. I have had a number of queries regarding that, particularly from my own constituents. Aviation is, of course, covered by the EU emissions trading scheme, and we anticipate that the fifth carbon budget will address the sector later this year, but it would be helpful if he were to outline how the proposals under consideration will interact with our obligation to decarbonise, especially if we are moving towards little or no APD, and how a devolved settlement will work alongside nationally set targets.

In conclusion, there is a degree of consensus that this matter must be addressed urgently, and we welcome both the Government’s consultation and today’s debate. There are a number of points on which we would welcome further clarification, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

3.30 pm

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): Sir David, it is a very great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing the debate and setting out his case so well. Indeed, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles on her appointment as shadow Exchequer Secretary—I speak as a former shadow Exchequer Secretary—and am delighted to welcome her to the Front Bench.

The Government have a long-term economic plan to rebalance growth across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, strengthening our economy as a whole. That includes the commitment to a major transfer of

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power to our great cities, counties and nations so that local people can take more control of the decisions that affect them.

As part of that plan, the Government are delivering the Smith agreement for Scotland and will devolve air passenger duty to the Scottish Parliament. In accordance with the St David’s day package, the Government are also considering the case and options for devolving air passenger duty to Wales. In England, the Government are creating a northern powerhouse by pushing ahead to deliver a package of devolved powers to major northern cities and investing in transport and infrastructure. In the north-east, for example, the Government are in good discussions about the potential to devolve further powers and responsibilities to the regions.

Mrs Spelman: I am sure that the Minister would appreciate the sensitivity of this issue for west midlands MPs. If he is not going to mention the fact that the Government are in negotiation with the west midlands local authorities about the creation of a midlands powerhouse, we will be a bit disappointed.

Mr Gauke: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly in the context of a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, to refer to the progress that we want to make in the west midlands, which is very much a priority area as well. I was going to touch on that. The case for the midlands engine set out today by my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden is important.

I turn to English regional airports; I know they have expressed concerns that air passenger duty devolution will impact negatively on their business. The Government appreciate those concerns. Regional airports play an important role as local employers and enable the transport of people and products nationally and internationally. That improves connectivity, increases trade and helps to create new jobs. Consequently, the Government are undertaking a review of how to support regional airports in respect of such impacts. That is why the Prime Minister stated earlier this year:

“We are not going to accept a situation where there’s unfair tax competition…We will do what’s necessary to make sure that England’s regional airports can succeed.”

Drew Hendry: Does the Minister agree with the points made around the Chamber earlier about the fact that, whether someone is in a regional airport in Scotland or England, the economic growth that can be generated by changing the tax regime to encourage trade will enable all the regions to become more successful? They are not necessarily a threat to each other.

Mr Gauke: The Government have made significant progress on the devolution of taxes generally. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the announcement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the retention of business rates, for example. I know that business rates are already devolved in Scotland, but allowing English local authorities to retain business rates is an example whereby through aligning incentives, as it were, we can create the conditions for economic growth in every part of the United Kingdom.

I will deal with the specific points on APD in a moment, but first let me address the issue of the regional airports review, because, as part of that review, the

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Government published a discussion paper at the summer Budget this year. The paper explored three potential options for supporting regional airports affected by devolution: the first was devolving APD to regions within England; the second was varying APD rates within England; and the third was providing aid to regional airports.

The paper explored how the options could work and highlighted key points for consideration. The period for feedback on the options is now closed. We received a large number of responses and would like to thank all interested parties for their valuable responses to that consultation. We are carefully considering the views and evidence that we have received. We appreciate that the aviation industry values stability and certainty in the UK tax system and we will respond to the views expressed on the options in the discussion paper in due course. The response will set out how the Government wish to take the matter forward.

Jonathan Edwards: The Government have devolved APD to Northern Ireland and Scotland. The draft Wales Bill, published today, is glaring in its omission of any mention of APD being devolved to Wales. Is there a reason why the Government are rolling back on devolving APD to Wales?

Mr Gauke: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the remarks that I made a few moments ago. In accordance with the St David’s day package, we are considering the case and options for devolving air passenger duty to Wales. That consideration is ongoing. Once a conclusion has been reached, I am sure that he will be looking very closely at our response.

If I may, I will respond to some points that have been made in this afternoon’s debate. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) raised the issue of whether APD is a good tax or whether we should just scrap it. It is worth bearing in mind that it raises £3.2 billion each year, which is an important part of the Government’s overall revenues. We consider that APD is a fair and efficient tax that ensures that the aviation sector contributes to the public finances. The amount of tax paid by people who can afford business class travel or luxury jets is much more than that paid by a passenger going to the same destination in economy class.

In recent years, we have reduced long-haul rates of APD and frozen short-haul rates for five years, and we are exempting children. APD is the main way in which the aviation sector is taxed. International treaty agreement means that there is no tax on international aviation fuel and no VAT on international flights. Unlike many countries, the UK does not charge VAT on domestic flights. It is also worth pointing out that the aviation sector is performing strongly. Passenger numbers grew by 4% in 2014 compared with 2013.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) referred in an intervention to a PwC report arguing that abolishing APD would boost GDP, create jobs and pay for itself. We do not agree with the assumptions behind the 2013 and 2015 PwC reports on APD. Our view remains that abolition would have a limited effect on GDP and cause a net loss of tax

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receipts. As I said, APD makes a contribution towards the public finances. Abolishing it would put pressure on the Government to increase less efficient and more regressive taxes.

Alan Brown: The Minister makes the point that APD is one way of taxing the aviation industry and he thinks that it is a fair tax, but will he acknowledge that the UK charges a much higher rate? The UK’s short-haul rate in economy is more than double the EU average; in terms of the medium-haul rate, the UK charges €90, whereas the EU average is €24. The UK is aggressively taxing the aviation industry, and that is what the whole thrust of the debate is about. The Government may want to tax the aviation industry, but we are arguing that our industry is heavily over-taxed compared with those in other countries.

Mr Gauke: Our rates are higher than those in many other countries; I am not disputing that. I am arguing that we are not convinced that abolition of APD would pay for itself. Presumably the Scottish Government are also not convinced, because they have not brought forward proposals to abolish APD. It may be an aspiration for the long term—when finances allow—but that does suggest that there would be a loss of revenue.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire referred to the experience of Prestwick airport and the effect on tourism—a perfectly legitimate point to raise. As I said, we accept that APD rates are high on an international comparison. However, we think that APD is a very small component of a tourist’s overall spending on a trip to the UK. Some analysis done by Treasury officials over the summer suggests that depending on how long a long-haul passenger stays in the UK, APD probably makes up less than 2% of total spending on travel, hotels and subsistence, so although I accept the point, we have to put it into the context of the wider costs that may apply.

Drew Hendry: I am listening to the Minister’s comments about the effect on Prestwick airport. Does he accept that Prestwick, along with other regional airports whose local economies rely heavily on tourism, would be affected exponentially by additional costs for passengers? The Scottish Government’s approach—to reduce immediately and then remove APD—is likely to serve those economies better than taking no approach at all.

Mr Gauke: What I will say—this is the case for devolution; I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I might agree on this—is that we shall see. We have the chance to see whether that approach has an impact on tourism levels in that area. We will be able to see that from the evidence that emerges, and that could help to inform future decisions. We have that flexibility, and the Scottish Government are able to exercise the policy that they think fit for Scotland.

Dr Whitford: Do we not have an example available to us in the Republic of Ireland? It got rid of its tax and certainly has reported a massive upsurge in tourism. The point is that when someone is looking at choices of where to go, they do not think about the money that they will spend having a meal out; they are looking at how much it costs to get there and how much the hotels

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are. The issue is what they see on the internet up front. We are a tourist area, as the Republic of Ireland is, so we would get a similar benefit.

Mr Gauke: The hon. Lady refers to the increase in tourism in the Republic of Ireland, but according to the last numbers that I saw, the percentage increase was not very different from that for tourism in Northern Ireland. That suggests that APD perhaps is not that significant a factor in bringing tourists to a particular area. In the context of Scotland, however, no doubt the hon. Lady will be keeping a close eye on the impact of the APD changes on the tourism industry in her area, as indeed will the UK Government.

While I am on the subject of Northern Ireland, I shall pick up the points raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim and the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We do recognise that Northern Ireland is the only part of the country with a land border with another country that has a lower rate or no rate of APD. Many Northern Ireland passengers drive to Dublin to catch flights; I acknowledge that. APD is not the only reason why Northern Ireland passengers travel to Dublin for flights, but I accept that it could well be an important factor.

We have already devolved direct long-haul APD to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has now set long-haul rates at zero, effective from 2013. We have not had a request from the Northern Ireland Executive, as far as I am aware, for full devolution of short-haul APD. Obviously, we would have to consider any such request if it was made, but the principles set out by the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles do apply when it comes to devolution within a member state of the EU. The funding would have to be found locally, so any cost from forgone APD would have to be taken, as it were, from the Northern Irish block grant. The same principle applies in relation to corporation tax and devolution.

Some people have suggested that the way forward might be to offer an APD holiday, under which new routes could benefit from no APD liability for the first few years of their operation. We recognise that that kind of approach might encourage operators to open new routes—routes that currently do not exist. However, the Government also have a number of obligations to be fair and transparent in how we levy taxes. We would probably have to offer any tax holiday policy to all airports, rather than focusing on regional or underused airports.

The result of such a policy would be that some operators of flights to certain destinations would pay less tax than others that served the same destinations. Existing operators would be placed at a considerable commercial disadvantage. It would clearly be nonsense if two different flights from the same departure airport to the same destination airport were charged different levels of tax. The operator of the more expensive flight would, we suspect, mount a legal challenge against any discrimination, which they might win. There is also the potential for airlines to game any APD holiday. For example, the operator of an existing Manchester-Dusseldorf route might easily switch to Liverpool and/or Cologne to lessen its tax bill, which would offer no advantages to the UK.

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Julian Knight: The Minister has just mentioned that an operator might switch from, for example, Liverpool to Frankfurt to take advantage of an APD holiday. Surely, they could do that already, because the APD rates are far higher in this country than they are in our competitor economies.

Mr Gauke: If there was a dramatically different regime for new routes to and from the UK versus existing ones, there is a risk that there could be a certain gaming of the system. In order to qualify for a lower rate of APD, an operator might attempt to make a relatively minor change to a route, such as flying to a different German airport close to the original one, and thereby replace an existing route with a new one. That would do little to improve the use of, say, Birmingham International airport, as my hon. Friend seeks to do—given the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, it might be unwise to try to increase the number of users to 36 million—and we would merely see a lot of churn, rather than the increase that my hon. Friend would like. On that and related ideas, we are considering all responses from interested parties to our consultation, and we will respond in due course.

Drew Hendry: I am grateful to the Minister for being generous with his time. I believe that he is talking quite a lot of sense on the difficulties with APD holidays, but does he agree that what we need is flexibility over route development? In other words, we need not only starter routes but more frequency on those routes. Indeed, perhaps we need public service obligations to guarantee those routes, which would allow them to bed in, to become established and to reach critical mass.

Mr Gauke: The hon. Gentleman, who is his party’s Front-Bench spokesman on transport matters, raises an important point, but I question whether APD is the correct way of achieving the objective that he seeks. In the context of APD, there are some challenges, and the gaming of the system is one risk.

Having welcomed the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, I must point out that her shadow Treasury colleague the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris), the shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury, told the House on 29 June:

“I would increase the rate of APD.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1275.]

To be fair, that was before he was appointed to the shadow Front-Bench team. I do not know whether that is the Labour party’s position. I will leave that question hanging.

Mrs Spelman: The message that we are getting, and it is one that the Treasury often has to give, is that relieving the tax would generate a return for the Treasury through increased economic activity. That is the argument that everybody always uses for tax reduction. None the less, will the Minister be clear with us about the timetable for the review of the options to help regional airports, since it was announced in February?

Mr Gauke: My right hon. Friend anticipates the response that I would generally make, as Treasury Ministers are required to do fairly regularly, regarding requests

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for tax reductions or spending increases. I cannot add to what I have previously said about the review. We will respond in due course. This is a detailed and complex area. One thing that has emerged from the debate is the fact that there are complexities, and that unintended consequences can result from pursuing certain policies, so we wish to consider the evidence carefully. We are in the process of doing so, and we will respond in due course to the points raised in the consultation. A number of options have been set out this afternoon and, although the consultation is closed, we will want to look closely at the contributions to the debate to develop our thinking on the matter.

Rebecca Long Bailey: I refer the Minister back to his comment about my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) mentioning in a previous debate that he would be in favour of increasing APD. As has been highlighted by many of the contributions today, we are now working in a different economic landscape in light of the fact that control over APD has been devolved to Scotland. We need to assess the economic impact of APD across the regions, because the playing field is not level. I hope that the Minister will heed my comments in that regard.

Mr Gauke: I certainly understand the point that the hon. Lady is making. To be fair, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West made his remarks in June, and I appreciate that that was before he was on the Front Bench. It is a bad habit of Government Front Benchers to point out remarks made by Opposition Front Benchers before they were appointed to the Front Bench, or even selected to be on the Front Bench.

We have recognised the potential impacts of APD devolution, and we are conducting a review to make sure that other cities and regions do not lose out. We are listening to interested parties and we will set out the Government’s next steps in due course. The Government have a long-term economic plan for the great nations and regions of this country, which clearly includes the west midlands. The Government are giving local people more control over the decisions that affect them and strengthening the UK economy as a whole.

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3.57 pm

Julian Knight: Thank you for your chairmanship of this debate, Sir David. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions and the Minister for his reply. I was particularly impressed, not for the first time, by the contribution of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford). I looked wistfully out of the window when she mentioned golf on this beautiful sunny day, and I look forward to having a round in her constituency at some point. When she mentioned Prestwick airport and Elvis, I was reminded of the famous story about Elvis creating perhaps the biggest PR gaffe of the century when he was interviewed by reporters on his one and only trip to the UK. Having landed at Prestwick airport, he came out of the plane and said that it was absolutely delightful to be in England. That, obviously, did not go down very well.

The hon. Lady spoke passionately about Prestwick and the problems that it has encountered in recent years. The Scottish Government have plans to reduce APD by 50%, and I watch with real interest to see what the economic effects will be; I imagine that they will be more considerable than our Treasury takes account of. In many other hon. Members’ constituencies, there is not the same opportunity for devolution. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) said that his airport was hanging by a thread and faced the potential of greater competition from Scotland post the 50% cut in APD.

Some of the most telling contributions were made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan). They said that the disparity in APD rates in Northern Ireland and the Republic is creating further social and economic divides when it comes to travel, and that, frankly, they feel as though the system is broken and it is time to fix it. I believe that many hon. Members would agree with that theme.

My neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) spoke about the necessity of approaching transport in a joined-up fashion and the potential that HS2 will bring. The problem is that currently, we feel as though airport duty, the idea of which is effectively to price people out of planes—

Sir David Amess (in the Chair): Order.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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Travellers (Mole Valley)

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

4 pm

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered Travellers and planning in Mole Valley constituency.

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and to see the Minister joining us. Having been in that position some years ago myself, I do not envy him.

Mole Valley constituency consists of Mole Valley District Council and the eastern wards of Guildford Council. It is close to London and to Epsom downs so it is attractive to Travellers from afar. Mole Valley District Council is smothered—I think that would be the right word—with building restrictions. Sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the green belt protect, in total, an astonishing 90% of the district. The level of protection for the Guildford wards in my constituency is probably the same.

The councils and the population accept the need for Traveller sites but not without limit. For example, Mole Valley District Council has 11 authorised sites and has recently given planning permission for an enlargement of two of those sites. The majority of the sites are private. In drawing up its draft local plan, which is still in progress, there are indications that the planned housing numbers might be reduced to reflect the difficulty of allocating land for houses where the proportion of green-belt land is so high. This, however, does not seem to apply for the requirements for Travellers. The current assessment for Mole Valley alone is 42 additional sites by 2027. When looking at this, would the Minister reflect on the fact that Surrey County Council, which runs the local authority Traveller sites, has a waiting list across the whole of Surrey for 65 families, rather than the 42 just for Mole Valley alone? My first plea, therefore, is for the Traveller site requirements to be dramatically lowered for Mole Valley District Council, Guildford Council and councils with similar problems but without quite the demand when we look at it in the large.

I wish to focus on the way in which a very few Travellers manipulate the system in ways that would not be entertained by settled residents or by planning authorities looking at the action of settled residents. In saying that, I re-emphasise the number of successful, popular sites in the area that cause no difficulties and no arguments, and where there are agreements on planning.

I wish to touch on two examples. One is in Guildford—a site on a little narrow private lane off the A246. The A246 is a busy two-lane road linking Leatherhead with the A25 to Guildford. There is, nearby, an authorised site off a similar small road to the west of the A246. The wee road I am focusing on is narrower and off to the east. There are a few properties in the lane but generally development is severely limited as the road goes through, or close to, an area of natural beauty and ancient forests, and is entirely in the green belt. A Traveller from outside Mole Valley inherited the land, squatted on it and, over a short period of time, placed a number of caravans, trucks and cars there. He ran a number of different businesses from the site, as indicated by

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advertisements but denied by the owner when questioned. He originally claimed that his children were living with him but that appears to have ceased apart from his 18-year-old son, who works there from time to time.

Currently, a mother and children originally from the site on the other side of the A246 are there periodically but claiming residency. This is refuted by the neighbours, who have kept tabs and notified Guildford Council. Guildford Council wrote to the mother telling her not to move on to the site. That instruction was ignored. Guildford Council has interviewed the Traveller about the children and their residency. The children are registered in the local school and with the local GP. However, that would apply from the site that they moved from in the first place; the residency is still claimed. Of course, when the council officer goes to check, she makes an appointment and, of course, forewarned is forearmed.

The planning situation is that the Traveller applied for permission for a Traveller site, which Guildford Council—correctly, in my opinion—rejected. That went to appeal, which the inspector also rejected, setting the middle of July this year as the date for the site to be vacated and set back to its original state. This was to allow the Traveller time to find alternative accommodation. Of course, nothing has happened. Instead, there has been an increase in activity and it appears to me that the presence of the children is being brought to the fore in anticipation of the council placing an enforcement notice, which, if the pattern follows, will be appealed, causing a further delay.

The Mole Valley District Council case relates to green-belt land adjacent to a farm and the River Mole. This pastoral land was sold to a handful of Travellers in 2003. Mole Valley District Council served an injunction on the families not to move on to the site, which was ignored; they moved their caravans to the site in August 2003. They then applied for a nine-pitch site in October 2003, which was refused. The appeal on that refusal was refused in November 2004. A year later, a further application for four pitches was refused in December 2005. The appeal in May 2007 refused it but allowed residency for four years, expiring in May 2011, to allow for alternative accommodation to be sought. One month before the expiry date three further applications were submitted. All were refused, all were appealed and all appeals were refused, except that temporary permission was granted until 10 April 2016. Again, that was to find an alternative site because of the children.

Since the Travellers’ 2003 arrival at the site, the area has been fenced, a fast-growing hedge has been planted and a number of caravans and a few other buildings of a more permanent design have been placed there. Also, to my amusement, two large, high, wrought-iron electrically-operated gates have been erected between pillars, as if they were the entrance to a minor stately home.

The farmer adjacent to the site has, with considerable difficulty, obtained planning permission to enlarge his home to accommodate his modest family. The difficulty he had was that the same planning regulations applied to him as to his Traveller neighbours. I suppose he could have gone ahead and built to his desire and then run a long series of applications and appeals using his children to squeeze the authorities. He did not. He went through the proper procedures, slowly and carefully, and got the appropriate permission. If he had not done so, as I am

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sure the Minister would agree with me and the planning authority, it would have forced him to demolish. Interestingly, that happened to a neighbour in the Guildford case, whose property happened to be three inches too large and had to be pulled down and rebuilt.

Both of the Traveller examples I have given are a flagrant abuse of our system. Our system was made for people to recognise it and to use it for the benefit of themselves and the community. Neither group of Travellers is from Guildford or Mole Valley, yet the councils feel—or, in the case of Mole Valley, have been told—that they have a responsibility for the families. If those families had arrived asking for social housing, they would have been told, “No.” They would have been told that they were intentionally homeless.

I ask for four small things. First, as I mentioned at the beginning, I ask for a reduction in the expected required numbers to reflect the green belt and similar restrictions for the authorities I mentioned and others like them. Secondly, I would be interested in the Minister’s interpretation of his recent changes in the regulation. Could they influence cases where the children are being used to manipulate planning? I realise that he cannot specifically use the two examples that I have mentioned, but he can talk broadly enough for me to be able to interpret with a bit of help.

Thirdly, does the Minister accept—I hope he does—that, in cases where the Travellers are not originally from the council area, the local authority should not be landed with the responsibility for accommodation or sites? Effectively, the Travellers are homeless by their own hand.

Finally, as we probably will not get quite what I would like out of this debate, is the Minister willing to accept a small—I mean small—delegation from Guildford and Mole Valley to come with me to discuss the problems? These are not the only Traveller problems in the area, and the problems will continue unless we can finally put a stop to this. As the Government have said, and as the Minister has said, the same should apply to settled families as applies to Traveller families.

4.10 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Brandon Lewis): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on securing this debate about planning for Gypsies and Travellers in his constituency. He has outlined examples that many of us have experienced either as councillors or Members of Parliament, let alone as Ministers. There is frustration in communities about such behaviour. I make it clear that we are committed to encouraging sustainable development, and it is important that local authorities plan for the future of their communities, including Travellers, in a way that is locally appropriate.

The Government attach great importance to the protection of our green belt. The green belt prevents urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open, and we do not want to see that protection eroded. We understand that green belt is highly valued by local people in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country. That is why our policy makes it clear that most

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forms of development on the green belt are inappropriate and should not be approved except in very special circumstances. He raised four particular queries at the end of his speech, and I should be able to address all four in the next few minutes.

Local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given in their planning decisions to any harm to the green belt. We have made it clear that Traveller sites, whether temporary or permanent, are inappropriate development in the green belt and that local planning authorities should strictly limit the development of new Traveller sites in the open countryside. Increasing the amount of authorised site provision should not be at the cost of the countryside, the green belt, other sensitive areas, such as the ones he outlined, or the interest of the settled community.

This is a challenging issue, and I share my hon. Friend’s concern that planning decisions can sometimes appear to fail to find the right balance between adequate supply and protection of our treasured landscape. However, applications for such sites undergo rigorous scrutiny by the local planning authority, informed by comments from local communities, and such decisions are rightly for the local planning authority to take. He has outlined a number of examples where appeals have held up the local authority’s decision.

As Members will know, the previous coalition Government consulted on proposals to ensure fairness in the planning system, to strengthen protection of the green belt and the countryside and to address the negative effects of unauthorised development of land. We announced new planning policies in August 2015, including an updated planning policy for Traveller sites, implementing many of the proposals on which we have previously consulted. We changed the planning definitions of Gypsies and Travellers so that they now refer only to those who lead a genuinely nomadic lifestyle. We believe that if a Gypsy or Traveller has ceased to travel on a permanent basis, they should have their planning applications considered under national planning policy with the rest of the settled community, with everybody being treated exactly the same.

Through the Housing and Planning Bill we are seeking to ensure that the assessment of housing need covers Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community together, fairly addressing the perception that some groups receive favourable treatment—that is not the way forward. We have also introduced policies further to protect our green belt and sensitive sites. If a local planning authority cannot demonstrate an up-to-date five-year supply of deliverable sites, it should no longer be a significant material consideration when considering applications for the grant of temporary planning permission in those areas. We have made it clear that, subject to the best interest of the child, unmet housing need and personal circumstances are unlikely clearly to outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm so as to establish very special circumstances.

Local authorities should also strictly limit new Traveller sites in the open countryside. We have made it clear that, in exceptional circumstances where a local authority is burdened by large-scale unauthorised sites that have significantly increased their need, there is no assumption that the local authority is required to meet that Traveller site need in full.

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The Government are concerned about unauthorised development of land, which can cause irreparable damage to the environment, endanger the safety of occupants and neighbours and undermine confidence in our planning system, which is a point my hon. Friend rightly raised. We have already introduced measures through the Localism Act 2011 to enable councils to deal effectively with those who choose to ignore planning rules. Those measures give local councils the powers to deal effectively with retrospective or misleading applications. Again, he gave a good example of where that has happened. All should be treated the same.

Our new policy goes further by ensuring that intentional unauthorised development is a material consideration that should be weighed in the determination of planning applications and appeals. My hon. Friend rightly said that I cannot comment on individual sites in and around his constituency, not least because the circumstances of each case are unique and because of the quasi-judicial role, but I appreciate how controversial some Traveller sites can be. We have made it clear that that is no reason for local planning authorities to fail to provide the sites that Travellers need, as required by policy, within planning rules by which we all abide. Delaying the establishment of a robust supply of sites to meet need in a way that is consistent with policy as a whole merely exposes local planning authorities to unplanned development, which may prove more controversial in the long term than the provision established during a local plan process.

The previous coalition Government rightly did away with Labour’s top-down approach to planning, under which targets for Traveller pitches were forced on local authorities by unelected regional bodies. Instead, “Planning Policy for Traveller Sites” outlines local authorities’ responsibility to plan for their Traveller communities, just as they are required to plan for the rest of their communities. Our policy aims to increase the number of Traveller sites in appropriate locations, in line with objectively assessed need—no more, no less.

Sir Paul Beresford: Will the Minister reflect on my point that, using the current procedures, it is estimated that Mole Valley District Council will have to find 42 sites by 2027, but the waiting list for Surrey as a whole is only 65? Will he therefore reflect on the possibility of changing the rules sufficiently to reduce the number required by the current regulations?

Brandon Lewis: If my hon. Friend bears with me for a moment or two, I will address directly that point and his four other points.

We are ensuring that we provide fair treatment, which is why we share my hon. Friend’s concerns about unauthorised encampments and the disruption and expense that they cause for local communities. On that direct point, areas should consider their housing need when they develop their local plan, which also contains a duty to co-operate. There is therefore an issue about working with neighbouring authorities on a fair spread of Traveller

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sites, as they would for any other part of their housing need. That links to his fourth point, which was a request to come to see us with a small delegation from the authority. I am happy to arrange that meeting with Baroness Williams, the Under-Secretary who deals with such issues on a day-to-day basis. I will liaise with her after this debate and arrange for the delegation to come in to have that conversation.

Councils and landowners often think that they are powerless to stop unauthorised encampments, but I am keen to stress that extensive powers are open to them. My hon. Friend may be aware that in March 2015 the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice and I sent a joint ministerial letter to council leaders and police and crime commissioners, and I am happy to let him have a copy of the letter. We expressed our concern that local authorities and the police are not seen to be doing enough to stop unauthorised encampments. To accompany the letter we reissued a summary of the robust powers that councils and landowners have to remove unauthorised Traveller sites.

I will just make a couple of final points. I have touched directly on the issue about the changes around children and their assessed need as opposed to the needs of the green belt itself. Indeed, that answers my hon. Friend’s question about the local planning process that deals with the housing need for the area, so that the needs of Travellers are dealt with alongside those of everybody else in the area. He made a very relevant point in that regard.

We are committed to encouraging sustainable development. It is important that local authorities plan for the future of their communities and deliver the housing that is needed. Travellers are part of our communities and local authorities must ensure that they have appropriate provision, but Travellers should be treated in the same way as everybody else and abide by the same planning rules.

We attach great importance to the protection of our green belt, and local planning authorities should ensure that substantial weight is given in planning decisions to consideration of any potential harm to the green belt; I expect to see that happening right through the planning system. Traveller sites, whether temporary or permanent, are inappropriate developments in the green belt, and personal circumstances and unmet need are unlikely to clearly outweigh harm to the green belt and any other harm.

We have updated planning policies for Gypsies and Travellers to ensure fairness in the planning system, to strengthen protection for the green belt and countryside, and to address the negative effects of unauthorised development of land. The Housing and Planning Bill will take that process one step further.

Question put and agreed to.

4.21 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Individual Electoral Registration

4.28 pm

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of individual electoral registration.

For Parliament, 2015 has been a year for celebrating our democracy. Across the country, in schools, festivals and in the media, people have joined us in celebrating a journey that started 800 years ago with the signing of Magna Carta and led to our sitting here today. However, this year could end with a body blow to our democracy that could have repercussions for years to come.

The transition to individual electoral registration should reach its end in December 2016; instead, it has been brought forward by the Government to December 2015. The effects could be disastrous. According to the latest projections from the Electoral Commission, 1.9 million people are at risk of being removed from the electoral register. That number will drop as canvassers go door to door this autumn. Nevertheless, reasonable estimates produced by the Labour party suggest that close to a million people will be dropped from the register. That is a million people whose voices will no longer be recognised and who will be ignored when the Government begin to redraw the political landscape with the new boundaries.

That move goes against the advice of the independent Electoral Commission. It will not be subject to a vote in Parliament nor, apart from now, will MPs be given a certain chance to debate the important issues at stake. That is why today’s debate is so important. We need a Parliament that represents all its constituents in all its constituencies, but instead my borough of Blaenau Gwent had lost 1,736 people from the register by the time of the general election. It is projected that Wales will lose 68,000 people from the register in December, and that is unacceptable.

When the Labour Government legislated for the move to IER we put in a transition period with strong safeguards, but we can see from the numbers squeezed off the register by the current rushed transition that the Conservative Government’s haste will soon leave many people repenting at their leisure. There might be a view that this was a safe time to finalise the transition, as we have just completed a general election.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an issue that is absolutely key to our democracy. Does he agree with me that if there is to be the change to IER, together with the forthcoming change to the constituency boundaries, the Government’s responsibility to increase the safeguards, rather than bring forward the date by a year—as has happened—will be reinforced?

Nick Smith: The MP for my neighbouring constituency makes an important point, which gets to the crux of our discussion. May 2016 will feature big elections for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Mayor of London. People’s votes, across the UK, will be vital in shaping the country once more, and the boundary review of 2016, on which my hon. Friend touched, will shape it on a much more fundamental level.

Those people who are removed from the register in December 2015 will not be counted for the purposes of determining their representation in Parliament. If the

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shape of a constituency is drawn based on its reduced number of voters, we will soon be faced with a distorted electoral map. Large urban areas with multiple-occupancy housing and regular home movers are the areas that are set to be hit and, on a party political level, the urban areas affected coincide with traditional Labour representation. I would like to think that the Government would not rush in the IER process to tip the scales in their favour for future elections. However, how can we have confidence in the boundaries, even in London, when Hackney faces a nearly 23% drop-off in the number of registered voters? The average loss in Britain is calculated at almost 4%. The 10 poorest areas in Britain face an average projected loss of 6.2%.

We are in danger of shrinking the voice of our poorer communities. For people in those communities, falling from the register has consequences beyond that of losing the vote. It means, for example, losing the chance of obtaining safe, affordable credit in areas where loan sharks may ply their trade. It means public service provision dipping even lower, affecting everything from school places to GPs. My major concern is that it is already too late to fix that problem before the December deadline.

The student population is a good example of my last point.

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should note the Association of Electoral Administrators’ recommendation that legislative changes should be implemented to allow electoral registration officers to block-register people in institutions such as sheltered accommodation and university halls of residence?

Nick Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point on behalf of those people who do the hard yards in our democracy—electoral registration officers. They do not have a fashionable local government job, but they do their very best to boost our democracy and, as my hon. Friend says, they have been undermined in this instance.

To be fair, before the 2015 general election coalition Cabinet Office Ministers, the Electoral Commission and the National Union of Students sent a letter to university vice-chancellors across the UK asking for their support to ensure that students were registered to vote. Consequently, there was a big drive in universities to boost registration—fair do’s. We are now in a new academic year, however, with thousands of admissions to and departures from the universities, so the HOPE not hate group rang 54 universities asking about their work this year. Every university that responded said it was scaling down its efforts as there was no general election this year, with just four of them referring to plans to inform the new intake about voter registration in their welcome packs. That is a microcosm of the larger problem in high turnover areas. Without a sustained programme of action, any voter drive will work for a short period only.

Labour is doing its bit with the “missing million” push this weekend, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero). It is one of our biggest registration drives ever. Labour students will be around campuses, colleagues will be touring community groups and local parties will be going door to door. That sort

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of work cannot, however, be sustained by volunteers alone, no matter how committed they are. A lot of the push has had to come from local authorities, who deserve credit for working hard despite the wider cuts and the new demands of the IER system.

Although information such as dates of birth and national insurance numbers is a good protection against fraud, it places further demands on electoral registration officers and that is why we need to support them by using all the available tools to find as many voters as possible. That means Departments and local authorities linking up their information and streamlining their processes. On this side of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) deserves credit for doing that with his local university, the University of Sheffield, where they have integrated voter registration into the student registration process, leading to 64% of students registering to vote. That is a success story—fair do’s.

The more innovative methods we can use to take advantage of what we already have, the better. In my work on the Public Accounts Committee, I have seen some of the new ways in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is working. Since 2012, it has been making use of credit reference agency data to good effect. It has checked addresses and other information to see if everything is up to date and correct. That helped HMRC to reduce tax credit losses by £280 million between 2011 and 2014. Further afield, in California, a Bill has recently been signed that allows residents to be registered to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s licence or a state identity card. The point is that we need to use more good and accurate databases to increase voter registration to protect and build our democracy.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to intervene in the debate. I compliment my hon. Friend; he was an excellent agent in Islington South in 2005 and has been an even better MP since for Wales.

Is it not right that we should all be democrats? We should all be trying to work to ensure that as many people as possible exercise their democratic right to vote. It is extraordinary, is it not, that the Government seem to be putting barriers in the way of people being on the register in order to exercise the power they should have simply because they are citizens?

Nick Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She does a brilliant job of boosting voter registration in Islington.

The Government are rushing the introduction of individual electoral registration. Next year’s elections are important and the boundaries for future constituencies will rely on an accurate register. The Government say that they want to boost our democracy, but their action undermines it. How many times have we, in this place, around this room, knocked on doors come election time, to be greeted by a person who has lost their opportunity to vote because of a registration problem? I see lots of nods. Why do we want to reject hundreds of thousands of students across the country by squeezing them off the register and telling them that their vote does not matter? Why do we want to undermine our voting system and threaten to exclude private renters, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, the unemployed and lower-paid workers?

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The Government must listen. They must hear the genuine concerns and allow more voters on to the register; otherwise, they do our democracy a great disservice.

Several hon. Members rose

Philip Davies (in the Chair): Order. It may help if I clarify for those who are new to 60-minute debates, an innovation in this Parliament, that the Chairman of Ways and Means has said that we should give the two main Opposition parties five minutes each and the Minister 10 minutes at the end. It is therefore my intention to get to the Front Benchers no later than 5.10 pm.

4.40 pm

Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on securing this debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on an issue that is of the utmost importance to many of my constituents.

The key question on individual electoral registration is why the Government appear set on ignoring the advice of the Electoral Commission, an independent body that has undertaken rigorous research in this field. It clearly stated:

“Taking into account the data and evidence which is available to us at this point, and the significant polls which are scheduled for May 2016, we recommend that Ministers should not make an order to bring forward the end of the transition to IER. We recommend that the end date for IER transition should remain, as currently provided for in law, December 2016.”

The reasons for the Electoral Commission’s concerns are twofold: concerns about the completeness of the register and about the lack of participation by eligible voters who will drop off the register, who total some 1.9 million. In one of the boroughs I represent, Lambeth, an estimated 7% of the current electorate will drop off the register in December 2015 according to the best estimate of the local authority.

What do we know about those most likely to be in that 7%? We know from experience in Northern Ireland that they will be young—students who have moved away but whose main home remains their parental home, who may be away at the time of the electoral register canvass visit and mailing, but who may be at home at the time of the next election. In the past, they have been able to rely on their parents completing the form on behalf of the whole household. We also know that the 7% will include people who move frequently, such as the 40% of residents of Lambeth who currently live in the private rented sector, which the Government refuse to regulate properly. As their tenancies come to an end, they are forced to move on. Registering to vote will often be the last thing on their mind in what is often a stressful situation.

We also know that the 7% will disproportionately include voters from black and minority ethnic communities. I commend the work that Operation Black Vote has been doing on individual electoral registration. I visited its well-equipped voter registration bus a few months ago. Despite that work, it will nevertheless remain the case that the 1.9 million voters who drop off the register will disproportionately be from minority communities. I am not clear that the Government have undertaken an

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equality impact assessment of the decision to bring forward IER. The decision will have significant equalities impacts and those should be properly measured and taken into account before it is implemented.

We also know that voters who will drop off the register will disproportionately be on low incomes. They are exactly those voters who by May 2016 will be suffering the impacts of the Government’s decision to cut tax credits, which is being debated elsewhere this afternoon. We know that for all those people the consequences of dropping off the register will extend beyond their disenfranchisement, affecting their credit rating and forcing them to borrow where they need to from more expensive and unscrupulous sources.

Voting is a universal right. It is not the preserve of residents whose housing has been settled for many years, who have higher incomes or who are older or white. The Government should be taking their responsibility to ensure universal voting rights seriously and follow the recommendations of the Electoral Commission to stick with December 2016 as the start date for IER. In the meantime, the Government should be resourcing local authorities to extend their canvassing work, particularly in areas with a high proportion of students or private rented accommodation and in areas of high deprivation.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): One of the problems we have with local authorities is the resourcing to be able to support the process. Does my hon. Friend recognise that authorities such as York will next week be sending out their first tranche of people to canvass constituents? That leaves only a two-week window to get people on to the register, because it is now taking three weeks to process the family inquiry form to put people on the register.

Helen Hayes: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I agree with her entirely. The resourcing for local authorities on this issue has been entirely inadequate.

The Electoral Commission report explicitly says that it does not consider the 1.9 million voters who would drop off the register to represent a high risk of fraudulent voting activity, so I do not think that a proportionate reason for bringing forward the introduction of IER when the risks of disenfranchisement remain so high. I remain completely baffled about why the Government are not taking the Electoral Commission’s recommendation seriously. I hope that they will look again at the risks and change their decision.

4.45 pm

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I thank the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) for securing this debate. There is a sad irony to this issue. Individual electoral registration is to be adopted as a replacement for household registration, where previously one member—the patriarch, if you like, Mr Davies—doled out the franchise to his dependents. By bringing forward the transfer to the new system a year early, the Government will effectively maintain the electoral advantage and status of long-established households at the expense of transient and, in particular, young voters.

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The measure could be interpreted as a cynical exercise in the further disenfranchisement of young voters, in urgent haste to influence the next round of elections in the Scottish Parliament, English local authorities and the Welsh Assembly. That approach to voter registration as a whole is bad news for democracy. More and more young people will either lose or never even have the opportunity to adopt the practice of voting. There is a real need for sufficient time and greater imagination and innovation to ensure that the new system works effectively.

I will make a few suggestions. A voter voucher could be sent to every 18-year-old—or even to 16-year-olds, when we come to that question—on their birthday to encourage them. We could have registration events in schools, colleges and universities. We have heard something about the activities that are already happening at some of them. Importantly, we could have citizenship on the curriculum. It is especially important to teach young people the nuts and bolts of how to vote and not to assume that people can do it automatically. People are shy of putting themselves in unfamiliar situations; they need to be helped to do that and supported along the way. There are wider questions about voting technologies and how to make the individual voter’s vote actually make a difference. There are also wider questions about young people’s engagement with democracy, voting for 16 and 17 year-olds, youth councils and youth parliaments.

I take this opportunity to decry how the Welsh national identity is ignored on election registration forms and to demand that the Minister makes good that archaism and commits to ensuring that people can record their nationality as Welsh, rather than British. Wales has a Welsh Government working on behalf of the Welsh people, and I am glad to say that we can record our nationality as Welsh on census forms. The Government do themselves no favours, however, with that lack of respect on registration forms. However inconvenient Wales may be, we cannot be defined out of existence.

4.48 pm

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): It is worth emphasising that being on the electoral register is absolutely fundamental to democracy in this country, but for obvious reasons unless someone is on the electoral register they cannot decide whether they want to vote. Whether they wish to exercise their franchise is up to them, but to deny people that choice undermines the concept of British democracy.

Individual electoral registration is a sound principle and makes good sense. When the Labour party was in government, we brought forward the concept of individual electoral registration, which was subsequently taken up by the coalition Government. Individuals within a household should have responsibility for their registration, rather than relying on the head of household to do it for them. It is a good means of empowerment and of bestowing responsibility on individuals.

As I cast my mind back to the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, however, I remember that we the Opposition expressed practical concerns about how the laudable principle of IER was going to be put into practice. Many of those concerns have been borne out by the passage of time. We had a concern that the Government were placing an undue emphasis on the suggestion that there was widespread

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fraud. As we all know, there are occasional instances of fraud, but, by and large, our system has been transparent, straightforward and honourable given how people have behaved under it. Instances of fraud are few and far between. We felt that that had been elevated into a principle to allow the Government to introduce measures that would make it very difficult for many people to register. That is worth bearing in mind in our discussion today.

Secondly, we were concerned about how the dovetailing of the present system would work with the introduction of a new system—the move from household registration to individual registration. We thought it important to have sufficient resources to ensure that that was done properly and also that there was a sufficient period of time for that to happen. My concern, therefore, is why the Government have decided, despite what was agreed by Parliament, that a full implementation date for IER would be December 2015. Why have they decided to bring it forward by a year? I will return to that point later.

Individual electoral registration is important for next year because we are concerned to make sure that we have as many people as possible on the register to participate in a whole raft of important elections. Also, it is possible that we will have the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. That is very important indeed. So there are good electoral reasons to make sure that as many people as possible are on the register.

My concern is about bringing forward the date for registration for the full implementation of IER from December 2016 to December 2015. Throughout the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, we had a lurking suspicion, which reared its head frequently, that the Government were really interested not in democracy and full participation, but in political advantage. We had that concern all the way through the passage of the Bill. Occasionally, the Government blew the gaff and it was pretty clear what they were trying to do. It has to be said. There is no clearer example than when the Government tried to introduce full IER without the necessary preparation and safeguards for December 2015 so that it would happen to coincide with the boundary review beginning on exactly the same date. We all know the Boundary Commission takes as essential and fundamental to its work the state of the electoral register at the point it starts its work.

Is it simply a coincidence that the two processes are coming together? I suggest not. If we look at the work done by the Electoral Commission, we see clearly that despite the rhetoric and the warm words of the Government, many people will not be on the electoral register by December this year. The Electoral Commission says that the number could be as high as 1.9 million, although we accept that that number will deplete as we move closer to December this year. Other people have suggested the number will be slightly less. Some have suggested it could be as low as 1 million people. Nevertheless, it is true that a heck of a lot of people will not be on the electoral register—not because they have been on it fraudulently, but because, for reasons well explained by others, they have not been able to register and will therefore not be included on the register. They will not be able to vote and will not be taken into account when the next boundaries for the parliamentary elections in 2020 take place.

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Why have the Government decided to ignore the objective and impartial advice of the Electoral Commission? There are plenty of instances where the commission says things that Labour does not like. It is not a Labour poodle, but an objective body. It has looked at all the information, analysed all the facts and figures, and come to the best conclusion. I will quote from its detailed report issued in June this year:

“If the transition ends in December 2015, there is a potential benefit to the accuracy of the register–with any retained entries which are redundant or inaccurate being removed”—

I accept that—

“but also a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation, with retained entries relating to eligible electors being removed...In contrast, if the transition continues to December 2016”,

as Parliament wanted,

“the main benefit relates to completeness–with entries for any eligible electors who are not registered individually retained on the registers”.

Surely we all believe in democracy and that there should be as many people as possible on the electoral register. We should not seek to manipulate this critical democratic process for party political reasons. I know the Government have decided to bring forward the date for full implementation, but even at this late stage I ask them to keep in mind the democratic principle that our election method should be above party political considerations. We are talking about the democracy of this country and, dare I say it, that is more important than the Labour party’s interests—or, indeed, the Conservative party’s. We are talking about democracy and that should be of concern to everyone.

4.56 pm

Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East) (SNP): It is a pleasure to make my first speech under your chairship, Mr Davies. There is no opposition from my party to the principle of IER. We can all agree it is high time to move away from the Victorian process of the patriarch registering the household and to individual registration. However, the process of transferring the responsibility from the state to the individual means that not all individuals are equal. We know that in many areas there have been problems with some groups being able to take advantage of their ability to join the electoral register: people who live in the private rented sector, students, and people who are recent migrants or who have no fixed abode in communities and are moving around. Also, there are people with various problems—poverty, addiction or other social problems—who are very much on the margins of society and, frankly, registering to vote in an election is not at the top of their list of priorities. Such factors do not affect all constituencies equally. I guess that is why we have an apparent imbalance of interest in the debate today. I guess there is a disproportionate interest the other way round in a debate on tax credits, but who knows?

In Scotland we have had an exercise in our recent history that I think has set the gold standard in electoral registration. During the Scottish referendum, we reached registration levels of 95% plus—previously unseen in these islands and lauded by everyone as a remarkable achievement. I recall asking the then First Minister Alex Salmond, now my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), what his most vivid memory

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of the entire referendum was, and he said the thing that stood out for him most was being in the city of Dundee in late August in the bright sunshine and having a queue of more than 200 people waiting in line around the block to sign up before the deadline for registration. Such was the enthusiasm of people wanting to participate.

We will wait and see what the effect will be in December in terms of the drop in the register as a result of moving to the new process, but the initial indications are not good. The interim register in April was 3.4% down on the register on which the referendum took place. That is in part because of the presence of 16 and 17-year-olds, but if we compare over-18s on the register, there is still a drop of 1.8%, which is a fairly significant drop. Hundreds of thousands of people could lose their right to vote.

It strikes me that we need to do two things. First, we need processes that are external to Government, but wherein the Government encourage people to take part in the electoral process to begin with. That should be done, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) says, through schools, through advocacy and through trying to educate people about the importance of their being on the register. We need state and local government-funded publicity campaigns to drive people towards that process.

Secondly, we need to look at the processes involved and how we can make them a lot simpler and easier. It is ridiculous that when a woman gets married and decides to change her name, she then has to provide two further pieces of identification in order to re-register to vote. Surely it is the state that is agreeing to the marriage and recording it in the first place; I would not think it beyond our wit, in the 21st century, to find a way to transfer that information to the electoral register.

Emily Thornberry: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. The problem that I have is that because of his fear of patriarchy, he is saying that individual people should grasp their right to vote. That is putting the whole thing on its head. It should be everyone’s right to vote. It seems obvious to me that the state should ensure that people have the right to vote; it is then for the individual to decide whether they want to.

Tommy Sheppard: I agree, of course, that without question everyone should have the right to vote. I am trying to suggest that it is the state’s duty to promote the availability of that right and to encourage people and advocate that they take it up.

I agree completely with the points that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd made about identity. I asked my electoral registration officer why people could not indicate in the relevant place that they felt themselves to be Scottish—I represent the capital of Scotland. The electoral registration officer said that they would happily change the form but could not do so because it would need to be changed on the Cabinet Office portal. I wrote to the Minister on that on 3 September and am still awaiting a reply. I am not trying to bounce him into replying today, but I shall be grateful if he will speed up the process.

I do not want to pre-empt what the Government are going to say, but I guess they would say that they have brought the date forward because they are extremely

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confident that everything will be all right on the night and okay in the end. Surely the question today is: what if it is not? What is plan B? We need to be prepared. When the registers are announced in December, if there is a dramatic drop-off in some areas, it is the Government’s responsibility to take emergency action to ensure that people are not disfranchised in the elections and referendums that are coming next year.

5.2 pm

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on bringing the extremely important matter of individual electoral registration to Westminster Hall at this crucial time for our democracy. As he says, this change represents a potential body blow to our democracy, as 1 million people might be ignored.

We should all reflect on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), who pointed out that the boundary review is intrinsically tied up with the process of individual electoral registration, which could distort the electoral map. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) mentioned the Association of Electoral Administrators, which points out that the block registration of those in sheltered or university accommodation is crucial—so why has it not happened? My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) pointed out that in her constituency they are trying to do all this work in just a two-week window.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) made the point that we must all be democrats and should not be putting barriers in the way of democracy, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) asked an extremely important question, which I hope the Minister will answer, about whether an equality impact assessment has been conducted. Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) pointed out that the issue is not the principle of IER but having a reasonable time to adjust to it.

In the short time remaining to me, I have some additional questions for the Minister. Will he tell us one good reason for the change of date, other than politicking to give the Tories an electoral advantage? The Opposition have suggested a number of common-sense solutions. Why have the Government refused measures such as the block registration of students this year? We also suggested that the Government work with letting agencies to take such simple measures as reminding new tenants to register and helping them to do so, but they have not carried out any of them. In my constituency 900 people are predicted to fall off the register, but look at Hammersmith and Fulham and we are looking at the loss of 8,000 people. Does the Minister agree that that would be unacceptable?

I will finish by coming back to the words of the Electoral Commission. It has said that the proposed change to the IER implementation date poses

“a risk to the completeness of the register and to participation”.

I remind the Minister that the Electoral Commission is an independent body set up by Parliament and has no partisan axe to grind. Why do the Government believe

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that their party political agenda should override the advice of a body that exists to increase trust and participation in our democracy? Will the Minister reconsider and stop this rush to implement a change that poses profound risks to participation and the completeness of the register? I urge him to heed the Electoral Commission’s sound advice.

5.6 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (John Penrose): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time as well, Mr Davies. Thank you for guiding us safely through the debate.

Perhaps I will surprise the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) by saying that there is a great deal on which we can agree. In fact, there is a great deal on which all the speakers can agree. For example, I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) that the existing processes for sorting out registration and chasing after people in the under-represented groups leaves a great deal to be desired. Often, those processes are set in stone in an analogue age, and we are now in a digital world. They are long overdue for some updating and modernising.

If the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, or anyone else present, would like to come along to Policy Exchange on Thursday, I will be giving a speech on how we need to update and modernise our approach to registration, because I agree with the underlying tone of many of the remarks made today: we have a major problem with not all but some groups in society that are under-represented. We have heard a list of some of them today. People in the private rental sector are difficult to keep track of, as are young black males in particular but many ethnic minorities—it is difficult to persuade them to register, even if we can find them. Students have also been mentioned.

The group that is probably worst represented of all and has not been mentioned so far is expatriate voters. Even of those who are legally allowed to vote and are enfranchised—those who have been abroad for less than 15 years—only between 3% and 5% are registered to vote. That is after the previous Government threw quite a lot of money at the problem in the run-up to the general election and raised the proportion from a paltry 1% to a relatively risible 3% or 5%—that is all. That is a good, if extreme, example of a fundamental problem. We need to update and modernise what we are doing on voter registration.

Nevertheless, it is important that if, when and as we do that—I completely agree with the sentiments expressed: we need to do so—in the vast majority of cases we are going to find people who are not registered at all. A large number of people are missing from the registers entirely, either pre or post-IER. What we do to end the transition to IER will not affect the people who are not currently on the register. We need to update and modernise because it is right and democratic, but let us not fool ourselves that it will have a great deal of impact on the decision about when we end the process of individual electoral registration, because these people are overwhelmingly not on the register as it stands.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): On that point, the Minister will know from previous exchanges on this subject that last year the University

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of Sheffield used flexibilities that his Department gave it significantly to improve the number of students registered. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) that that is not being repeated by other universities this year. If we had a further year—if the Minister had not brought this scheme forward by a year—we could have a much more complete register of students in a year’s time.

John Penrose: I invite the hon. Gentleman to come along and hear my speech on Thursday at Policy Exchange, where we will talk about not just that but other initiatives, which I will mention briefly in a minute. Even if we were able to extend what has been done successfully the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam to many other universities, given that the people we are talking about are not on the register, either before or after individual electoral registration, the date at which we end the transition to IER would make no difference to whether they are registered. This is something worth doing, regardless of whether we are doing IER and the transition. It is worth doing at all times, in all places, in any case. The transition date will make no difference to those people.

I completely agree that it is important that we roll out some of the exciting innovations that are being tried in places such as the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam for students. There are all sorts of other things we could do with the online registration process. It is now possible to register to vote online in less than three minutes—less time than it takes to boil an egg. It is an incredibly convenient and simple process.

However, we make it more difficult for people to renew their registration after they have been registered for a year. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, and I am sure we all agree, that there is a natural seasonality to electoral registration: registration rates tend to dip after a major electoral event, such as a general election or the Scottish referendum, because people are less interested and registration is less relevant to them if there is no poll in which they can vote in the next 12 months. Some of those people re-register nearer the time, but we should ask ourselves why we ask all those people to re-register every single year once they have made their individual decision to register to vote. We do not ask them to re-register for their tax credits, their TV licence or their benefit claims every single year.

Everybody in this room, except perhaps the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I am not sure whether she is in favour of this principle as a fundamental—accepts the noble cause of individual electoral registration and ensuring that people make an individual decision to register to vote. However, we need to ask ourselves whether it is necessary to ask people to renew that vow every year. Are we still being true to individual electoral registration if we relax it and make a decision on it every couple of years? That would allow us to deal with some of the natural electoral seasonality that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned.

There is a huge amount we can do, and there is a huge amount that I believe should be done. I hope, based on hon. Members’ comments today, that there can be some sort of cross-party agreement on some of these things, which could then be introduced. There may not be

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cross-party agreement on everything. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) gave a couple of examples, and we do not necessarily agree on all the detail.

Gloria De Piero: Can the Minister give me examples of any measures that will be introduced in the next six weeks?

John Penrose: I cannot, partly because I have not given the speech yet, and partly because, as I said to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), registering people who are not on the register needs to happen, regardless of when the transition from the old system to individual electoral registration ends, because the transition will not affect people who are not already on the register. It is a parallel process that needs to be done anyway.

Wayne David: That is missing the point entirely. We are asking the Minister to give us one good reason why it is better to introduce IER in December 2015, rather than December 2016. We are still waiting.

John Penrose: I was just coming on to that. I want to address the fundamental point about how we are going to deal with the problem of under-represented groups on our registers, which is crucial and underlies many of the concerns.

Let me move on to the timing of the transition to IER. As we have heard in many speeches today, there is a presumption that this process is going remove eligible voters from the electoral roll. I want fundamentally to question that presumption. During the course of a year a large number people on the electoral register—a very large number in some places, and in other places fewer people—move house. Some sadly die, and there are fraudulent entries in some parts of the country, although not in all—the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) rightly said that fraud is not an issue in all parts of the country. That is the natural state of any database. It is natural for any electoral register to contain such data errors.

We have to sort through the 1.9 million people whose entries are incomplete and who had not made the transition as of the general election date of May this year to find which are genuine voters with a pulse—people who are eligible to vote. We need to identify them, confirm their ID in the way that we have been discussing and ensure that they are confirmed on the electoral register. Then the only entries left will be the people who are no longer there—the people who have moved, died or were never there in the first place because they were fraudulent.

Nick Smith: Will the Minister give way?

John Penrose: I will in a second. Let me finish this point.

That crucial distinction is absolutely central. It is not my intention—I am a democrat, like everybody else here—to get rid of any valid elector from any electoral roll anywhere.

Christina Rees: Will the Minister give way?

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John Penrose: I will give way to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent first.

That is why we have made it so simple for people to register to vote and why by the end of the year, with the £3 million of extra funding we have introduced, the remaining 1.9 million entries on the electoral roll will have been contacted up to nine times over the past 18 months—in some cases, more. They will have had their doors knocked on and their phones rung, and they will have had letters and emails. At the end of that process, the chances of a genuine voter with a pulse who lives in a particular area being disfranchised are vanishingly small. Even if, by some terrible mischance, after all that effort they are genuinely disfranchised and should be able to vote, it takes less time than it takes to boil an egg to re-register.

Nick Smith: It is good that people can vote online now, and I know it is a very efficient process. Of the 1.9 million people we are all worried about, what is the Minister’s assessment of how many will be registered after the numerous interventions he is talking about? How many extra people does he believe will be on the register?

John Penrose: I do not have that number yet because, as a number of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues said, the autumn canvass is still going on. Because by definition those people were, without getting too Rumsfeldian about it, known unknowns, we were not sure how many were genuine people with a pulse and how many were data errors. Nobody will know the answer to that question until the autumn canvass process is complete.

Given that over 18 months those people will have been contacted nine times—in some cases more—in a variety of different ways, the chances of genuine voters being disfranchised is tiny. The fact is that the only entries left on the register, which will then be deleted, are the ones who are no longer there, not real voters. I hope we can all sign up to that crucial distinction. I am sure—we have heard this from a number of colleagues—that we would all sign up to the principle of keeping a clean register, which underpins the health of our democracy.

Christina Rees: If the transition is brought forward a year, that leaves less time to check out those 1.9 million people. That applies only to the people who were on the register in the first place. What about 18-year-olds and other people?

John Penrose: Look at the number of reminders we get about everything else in our lives. We do not remind people nine times about their TV licence or anything else, and we certainly do not take 18 months. With this process, we have gone not just the extra mile, but the extra 10 miles. Once the point has been reached at which the remaining register entries can only be people who have moved away or died or were fraudulently there—those who are not real voters—it seems pointless to wait.

Several comments were made about the Electoral Commission. Although that is an august body, I gently remind hon. Members that there is another body: the Association of Electoral Administrators. Its members are the people in charge of administering elections up and down the country and they are in favour of the

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change. This is not a one-way street. An awful lot of objective, independent non-politicians think that the idea is good because the transition is sensible and they are reminded of what happened in Northern Ireland, where the change was made in one day, not 18 months and let alone two and a half years. Northern Ireland has been using the system happily for several years.

Stephen Twigg: I am grateful to the Minister for his generosity in giving way. He referred to Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknowns, but are not the unknown unknowns the bigger problem? I refer to the students who were not living at a university address last year, but are this year. Due to the lack of the focus that universities had last year, as previously described, fewer such students will be on the register. The Northern Ireland example is particularly relevant here, because schools and colleges there have a duty to work with the electoral registration officer to get 17 and 18-year-olds registered. We argued for that in the previous Parliament, but the coalition Government sadly did not agree to it. Would the Minister agree to that, even at this late stage?

John Penrose: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the hon. Gentleman makes an entirely valid point about the importance of getting attainers and students on the register. We have already discussed some of the good examples going on in Sheffield that bear examination and could be copied.

As I mentioned before, because such people are not on the register at the moment, getting them on the register is something that we should do and is a challenge that will recur every single year forever as long as there are students, universities and colleges. It makes not a jot of difference, however, to the timing of the ending of the transition to IER if such people are not on the register already, because they cannot be crossed off and potentially disfranchised. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that fundamental piece of logic.

Stephen Twigg: I understand the logic of the Minister’s argument, but universities have not had a lot of time to learn from the Sheffield experience. I know from talking to universities in Liverpool that they have not adopted the Sheffield system this year. With more time and a concerted effort from Universities UK, the Government and ourselves, we could get all universities doing it next year.

John Penrose: That is an interesting and intriguing idea on which I would welcome cross-party discussions if the Labour party is interested. It is just one example of a whole series of things that could be done. The hon. Member for Ashfield, the Opposition spokeswoman, mentioned letting agencies. I am unsure whether I agree with block registration, because it strays perilously away from the turf of individual electoral registration. Again, I am open to being convinced on that, but it is a potential danger that I might not want us to go near. There are many other such opportunities.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East referred to data cross-matching. A large number of local authorities say, “Look, we have all this data from a range of other sources that we are itching to use.” We could effectively do nine tenths of the annual canvass automatically in a trice just by running some cross-matching between existing

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databases and the electoral register. We could prove that 90% of people have not moved and are in the same situation. We could then focus our annual canvass efforts on the 10% who do not match up and who are causing the problem, on under-represented groups or on places that seem to have empty houses when we know that people are living there.

With those points, I hope that the debate has begun to unpick the two important parallel but distinct issues. One is the question of how to get more under-represented groups to register. The other is how to deal with data errors in respect of the 1.9 million people, as of last May, and how we distinguish between real voters, ensuring that they are confirmed and not disfranchised, and the errors that need removing to guarantee the strength of our democracy.

5.24 pm

Nick Smith: It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. We have had a really good debate. I want to thank Opposition colleagues who have contributed and added value. Strong contributions included that from my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who made an important point about the equality impact assessment.

John Penrose: I have just remembered that I did not answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). There was indeed an equality impact assessment.

Nick Smith: My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) talked about the fundamental importance of registration for our democracy. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) had some good ideas about voter vouchers for 18-year-olds. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) talked about how exciting campaigns can boost registration, which is the gold standard for us all.

We want exciting campaigns that energise our voters and promote democracy. We had interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Christina Rees), for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell). My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) probed an important point about student registration.

In this important debate, I have tried to emphasise that bringing forward individual electoral registration at this time is a body blow to our democracy. Colleagues have highlighted under-registration in their constituencies, where key groups of people, such as those in rented accommodation and young people, are being squeezed off the register. The Minister made some constructive comments, and I look forward to reading his speech once he has given it in a few days. I would be grateful if he sent me a link.

Wayne David: He could send a copy to all of us.

John Penrose indicated assent.

Nick Smith: All here present are good democrats who want to see progress in this area. Nevertheless, the Minister has failed to provide the Government’s assessment

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of how many of the 1.9 million people will be on the register after the Government’s intervention. It is a shame and a great pity that he failed to answer that important point. The Government have failed to listen to independent organisations such as the Electoral Commission and have done our democracy a disservice as a result. I hope that the Minister will take on board the messages of today’s debate, rethink the Government’s strategy and decide to build our democracy, rather than undermine it.

Question put and agreed to.

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That this House has considered the matter of individual electoral registration.

5.27 pm

Sitting adjourned.