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Graham Stringer: As far as I can see, the hon. Gentleman has not been in the Chamber for most of the debate. I ask him to listen carefully to this and the next part of my speech. There are reasons why some people are not on the electoral register, but I can assure him that I check whether people live in the constituency and/or are on the electoral register, and if they are not, I try to persuade them to get on to it.
I was coming to the reasons some people are off the electoral register. It is not just a result of how well the registration officer does his job. Among poorer people, the number of people on the electoral register in Manchester declined by about 15% when the poll tax was brought in, because it was the single easiest way of avoiding tax. It has been 20 years since the poll tax was introduced, but the position has never recovered. I could take hon. Members to an estate in my constituency where nearly 60% of people on the electoral register are women. That is not because the estate is not roughly 50:50, but because the men living there do not register so as to get 25% off their council tax. It will take time to address that situation of people avoiding both tax and being on the electoral register. It is not an easy problem, but it should be dealt with.
Mrs Laing: If somebody lives in a house and is partaking of the services provided by the local authority, and it is known that they live in that house, and they do not register in order not to pay tax, they are not avoiding tax-they are evading tax. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is up to someone else to register them to vote?
Graham Stringer: I agree. The accurate word is "evading" not "avoiding". I stand corrected. If people are evading tax, and therefore breaking the law, one cannot expect them to change. It is up to those bodies that enforce the law to enforce it. I am happy to clarify that position. Getting the electoral register to represent everyone who is entitled to vote is not a simple process. However, I am sure that hon. Members believe, as I do, that people should be registered and should comply with the law on being registered.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way with his customary generosity, but he fails to recognise that there has to be a definitive basis for registering those qualified to vote in an election and for distinguishing between them and others who live in the area and are served by a Member of Parliament. He might inadvertently be leading the House in that direction. In my constituency, there are 70,000 electors, but nearly 78,000 residents-the rest are mainly EU migrants. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I will serve those people, but there is a distinction between them and those who are duly, properly and legally entitled to vote for me at an election. He is not making that distinction clear to the Committee.
Graham Stringer: I have not come to that point yet, but there is an overlap. Some recent immigrants are Commonwealth citizens and entitled to vote in general elections. It is a complicated matter. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but there is some overlap between people who are entitled to vote and people who are part of the recent immigrant community.
Another large area where there is under-representation and, probably, unlawful activity associated with it relates to houses in multiple occupation and private landlords. For different reasons-sometimes voting abuse, sometimes to conceal the number of people living in houses of multiple occupation-landlords prevent their tenants from voting or hinder their attempts to do so.
The hon. Gentleman previously mentioned recent immigrants. Registration is low among those in black and ethnic minority groups for a number of reasons. Sometimes it is because they do not understand the system or are frightened of it, and sometimes, as was mentioned previously in the case of poorer sections of the community, it is because the levels of functional illiteracy are higher than one would want. That means that many of the forms end up in the bin, because they cannot be understood. There are different estimates, but generally in this House-and not just on the issue of electoral registration-we ignore the fact that probably about 22.5% of the adult population in this country are functionally illiterate and find it difficult to deal with forms.
Those are the main reasons there are real practical difficulties-there are probably more difficulties than I have mentioned, as well as those to do with the efficiency of the electoral registration officers-and why 3.5 million people are currently not on the electoral register. I do not think that we can move to a more balanced system between the different constituencies-one based on the number of electors-until we ensure that registration is much more accurate than it currently is.
Gavin Barwell: The group of amendments that the Committee is being asked to consider poses the Government three questions: what is the rush, why have a review every five years, and do we not need to address the issue of under-registration? I want briefly to address those three questions.
Before I do so, however, I want to make a point about partisanship. It is important to reflect the fact that any discussion about the boundaries of our constituencies is bound to have partisan considerations, and it is much better that we should acknowledge that up front, rather than trying to pretend otherwise. I believe that the current boundaries are unfair, for reasons that I will come to. They are unfair to the Conservative party, but I also believe that they are unfair to my constituents-the people of Croydon, who are under-represented in this House. However, to make the point that this issue is about political balance, I should make the related point that the local authority ward boundaries in my borough are also unfair, but they are unfair the other way round.
The Temporary Chair (Hugh Bayley): Order. I must encourage the hon. Gentleman to get on to the question of registration and under-registration. He has made his opening remarks, and he should now address the questions raised by the amendment.
I take your point, Mr Bayley, but some of the amendments in the group are also about the need for speed and whether the proposals in the Bill should take effect by October 2013. The point that I was trying to make in an earlier intervention is that the
average size of Labour seats is significantly smaller than those of Conservative Members. That is an unfairness and it is important to correct it, but I shall take your advice and come on to the issue of registration.
Chris Ruane: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the information I have received from research by the Library shows that of the top 100 seats with the most number of unregistered people, 96 are Labour seats? Should it not be borne in mind, when he is pointing out unfairness this way and that way, that those unregistered people are in Labour seats?
Chris Ruane: I think that that is a question about registration, so I can certainly address it. It has always been the case historically that, in deciding on constituency boundaries, we have looked at the number of people who are eligible to vote; that is, we have looked at electorates as the basis on which to draw the boundaries. Opposition Members have raised the issue of registration in this debate, with some amendments asking for a report on the issue and others going further, making the radical proposition that we should look at the number of adults who are eligible to register in a constituency when drawing up the boundaries.
That may well be a debate of principle that we need to have at some point, but it seems to me that the arguments of Opposition Members have varied and have been based on a number of different potential categories. We could look at electors, the number of people over 18 who are eligible to vote, or the total adult population over 18, but when the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) was quoting his figures earlier, I think he was actually quoting the figures for the adult population over 18. I do not know any data sets that can give an accurate figure for the number of people over 18 who are eligible to vote, which is an entirely different thing, because there will be many people who are not UK citizens-and who are therefore not eligible to vote-but who will appear on the census. Or we could go even further and look at the total population in each part of the country when drawing up boundaries.
My real concern is that the amendments before us suggest that we should draw up constituency boundaries based on a guess. They suggest that we look at the census data, but many Members-particularly those who represent urban constituencies-will be aware of the real problems relating to the accuracy of those data. The census is carried out only every 10 years, and there are often gross inaccuracies in the published figures, certainly for London.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, because he is making a coherent and cogent case. I must point out, however, that there are empirical data out there, and that we do not have to rely on guesswork. As any Member of Parliament will tell him, his or her constituency roll will show EU and Commonwealth citizens who can register but cannot
vote for their Member of Parliament. Bizarrely, even though those people will surely come to their Member of Parliament for advice and assistance, they will not count when it comes to classifying the size of a parliamentary constituency. Surely that cannot be right.
Gavin Barwell: Well, there we go. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting, with his customary eloquence, that we go even further than the hon. Member for Swansea West did. I think he is arguing that we should use the whole over-18 adult population as the basis for deciding the boundaries. Indeed, in an earlier intervention, he said that he had a significant number of asylum seekers in his constituency who, although they were ineligible to vote, still gave rise to casework.
There are many different proposals for ways in which we can develop these figures. My point about the hon. Member for Swansea West's amendment is that we cannot come up with a definitive figure. We can start with the census and take into account the electorate, and we can then use other data sets to refine that information, but we cannot come up with an accurate figure.
My own view is that we should stick with the current basis, which looks at the published electorate, but that we should also take action to deal with under-representation, which affects certain parts of the country more than others. The hon. Member for Swansea West talked about poverty, and the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who has now left the Chamber, referred to work carried out by the Electoral Commission that showed that the transience of the population-the churn-was the key factor. There are certain groups within the population, including the black and minority ethnic community, young people and people who live in the private rented sector, that are much more likely to move frequently, and that is the main causal driver of this problem.
Mr Stewart Jackson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulty in the past 15 or 20 years has been that the Boundary Commission has not been guided by Government regulations specifically to look at future population changes? That has been an important factor in making many, if not most, of the constituencies in this country out of date almost as soon as they are created.
Gavin Barwell: That cuts to the point of one of the amendments, which deals with the frequency with which we carry out the reviews. That is an important point, because if we had more regular reviews, they would be based on more recent data, and we would not see such dramatic changes. If we had a review every five years, we would not see significant changes in many of our constituencies.
The point I was trying to make, which I think has been misrepresented by the new hon. Member for Croydon Central, is that we should use the best data available on those people who are 18 and over and eligible to vote. I have accepted that we will not get
a perfect number, but I propose that we should do the best we can with the data sets available to get as accurate a picture as possible, and that that is the best basis for a fair democracy. That would be much fairer than simply relying on registration figures.
Gavin Barwell: I take that point, but my response would be that, rather than using figures that are guesstimates, we should use the actual electorate figures. We should also, however, take action across the country to replicate the work of the best local authorities to drive up representation.
We have just had a boundary review, for which many Opposition Members will have voted, that was based on electorate figures. None of these points about tackling under-representation were made when the orders were put through in the last Parliament to implement those boundary changes. Although the point is a good one, it was not applied previously.
In conclusion, the people of Croydon are significantly under-represented in this House, and I think we need urgent action to address that unfairness. We certainly need to take action to deal with under-registration, but the current boundaries are not fair, which is why it is important to take action quickly to put that right.
Austin Mitchell: I rise to speak-briefly, I hope-in support of amendment 127. I gather from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that we are going to press it to the vote. I also support amendment 341, which I hope the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) is going to put to the vote-he must. I support amendment 38, too, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), which he is going to press to the vote.
All three amendments are an attempt to soften the rigours of the brutal redistribution proposed in clause 8. Indeed, it is a redistribution so brutal that it amounts to a gerrymander. The pretext is that the unequal seats work against the Tory party. We have heard that argument put at length by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell). It is true that the inequality in seats helps the Labour party and works against the Tory party, to which I would reply, in the classic words of Demosthenes, "Ah, diddums. What a great shame"! Various factors are relevant, including turnout, people taken off the register, which happens all the time- [Interruption.] Ah diddums, rural seats and so forth. Another factor, which has not been dealt with in the debate so far, is that the population moves.
There was a similar bias in the 1950s, but then it favoured the Tory party because of rural seats and the rurality factor. I hope Members will remember-I certainly do; I am old enough to remember-that the Conservative party won power in 1951 and had a working majority,
but Labour had secured over 500,000 votes more than the Conservatives. The system then worked in favour of the Conservatives, who at that time were not so adamant about the need for a redistribution and a massive upsetting of the whole system to make it fairer. Now they are adamant. That unfairness towards the Conservatives persisted until the 1960s. Now it has worked the other way because of the subsequent drift of large Labour majorities out to the suburbs, where the vote is more evenly distributed.
These amendments all provide an opportunity to modify the brutality of the redistribution that the Government propose, with Liberal support, to remedy this deficiency. Clause 8 is effectively creating what I would call a doomsday machine. It is rather like the monsters my grandchildren watch on television. They are called transformers-they are huge metal monsters that go out clumping all around the country. It is a kind of redistribution by Blitzkrieg! It is just like that when this has to be done so suddenly and in defiance of any community centre or local government boundaries.
Austin Mitchell: Well, it is quite simple. The alliance wants its redistribution completed before the election in 2015-it is going to determine the date in another piece of legislation-because it will favour the Conservative party. It hopes to reduce the number of Labour Members. We shall come later to the reduction in the size of the House, but it is another attempt in the same direction-intended to reduce the number of Labour Members and increase the number of Conservative Members. The alliance simply wants to give itself a doughty majority. AV is supposed to work for the Liberals and the redistribution is supposed to work for the Conservatives. That is the calculation behind it, which is why it has to be completed before the next election, so that it can hang on to power by gerrymandering the system in its favour.
This is going to be a redistribution by steamroller-not a reasonable redistribution in which we will have the power to put opposing points of view, to argue for a sense of community or a sense of locality or to put forward views about the crossing of county boundaries. We will not have a chance to put democratic and fair arguments to the redistribution committee in the way we have been accustomed to, and the way that has been institutionalised. The committee will simply plough on with its Blitzkrieg.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what we have here is a formula according to which one imperative, and one imperative alone, will drive what boundary commissions do, and that what they do will not be subject to serious appeal or challenge for the purposes of those of us in the real world who must live with the outcome or
consequences? It will ignore the realities and demands of constituency service. It completely dismisses real-world considerations. We will be stuck with whatever the outcome is, and it will go from Parliament to Parliament as the Boundary Commission sees fit. Will this not constitute the IPSAfication of boundaries?
Austin Mitchell: Absolutely. My hon. Friend has put the case much more articulately and better than I could have, so I shall delete the next part of my speech, take it for granted and move on. This is not a redistribution; it is a Blitzkrieg-an unfair Blitzkrieg that is designed to work in the electoral interests of the Conservative party.
Interestingly, the amendments show that the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition is beginning to wake up to that fact. I understand that the hon. Member for Leeds North West intends to put his amendment to the vote. Perhaps he will nod to confirm that, because it will slow down the whole process and stop the Blitzkrieg.
Chris Bryant: The position is actually slightly worse than it was portrayed by our friend from the SDLP, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). In addition, the Minister will be able to lay the Order in Council on the basis of the Boundary Commission's report "with or without modifications". [Interruption.] I can hear the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), saying that that is the present legislation, but the present legislation allows for proper public inquiries, and he is getting rid of public inquiries.
Austin Mitchell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The present system of redistribution was devised by the Conservatives. Now, finding themselves in electoral danger, they want to scrap it to protect themselves and remain in power in this tenuous coalition.
Mr Stewart Jackson: As ever, the hon. Gentleman is a comic turn. Does he agree, however, that he was not so voluble when in 1970-as he is old enough to remember-a Labour Government were the only Government in history to shelve significant boundary changes for party political reasons? He was probably also not as voluble at the time of the 2005 election, when the Conservative party out-polled the Labour party in England and Labour had many dozens more seats than the Conservatives. Was that fair, or was it gerrymandering?
I am voluble now because of the threat to democracy that is implicit in this whole process. As one of my hon. Friends said earlier, that is what is waking up the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition. It is easy enough to organise a redistribution for 650 Members, but if there are only 600 pieces in the jigsaw, the implication is that every boundary in the country must be changed. That is what is waking up the Liberal Democrats, because they tend to win seats through intense community work and community politics involving cracked paving stones and late buses, and they must have a community to work to. That settled community will be disturbed by
the redistribution, and the Liberal Democrats will lose seats. Their amendments suggest that they are now waking up to that fact.
It is a bit late in the day, but I can tell the Liberal Democrats that they will lose out. The AV part of the deal, which was supposed to benefit the Liberal Democrats while the redistribution was supposed to benefit the Conservatives, will not be carried, because it will be defeated in the referendum. Then the Liberal Democrats will ask themselves, "What have we got out of this coalition? We have abandoned all our faiths, we have sacrificed everything we believe in, we have allowed massive cuts to the detriment of British society-and what have we got out of it?" The answer will be "Peanuts. Nothing." Their only resort, if they are to prevent themselves from being thrown out in the election following the redistribution, will be to throw out the Government and stop the redistribution.
I estimate that the Liberal Democrats will belatedly begin to wake up to that fact in about 2013 or 2014, and then they will become a disruptive factor within the coalition. I am trying to prevent them from ending up in that situation- [Interruption.] No, my heart bleeds for them. I am very sympathetic because it is tragic watching them betray their principles one by one in order to cling on to power and to get bums into ministerial cars and on to ministerial Benches-but if that is what they want to do, let them. I am trying to help them by persuading them to vote for amendments 127, 341 and 38. [Interruption.] No, I am a decent man. I would have voted Liberal in 1951, except that I did not have a vote because I was too young, but I wore a Liberal rosette on my meat round. That is the full history of my association with the Liberals-it ended in 1956 with the invasion of Suez-and now I am trying to protect them.
In conclusion, we should support these amendments in order to prevent the brutality of a process that would be damaging to British democracy and the community and that would create an unsettled situation for Members of Parliament. I spent many years in New Zealand, and we had much more regular redistributions when I was there-every five years, I think. That was before proportional representation came in. The seats could be made much more equal, but as a result of the changes no Member of Parliament knew five years ahead whether he would be representing the same area, or whether some bits would be shipped out and others would be shipped in because of boundary changes, and therefore the seat he would be representing would be totally changed. I want to prevent that situation from happening here. We represent settled communities that have clear boundaries, and we should not disrupt them in this fashion just for the electoral purposes of the Conservative party.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) has just given the game away. He has at last revealed what this part of the debate is really about: the convenience of Members of Parliament, and the desire to make sure that they are not unsettled. This House should not be making laws for the convenience of Members of Parliament, however; we should be making laws for the good of the people of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman has made many good points during the debate, and he has just made an excellent speech, albeit from his point of view-I disagree
with him of course, but he always makes excellent speeches-but I am glad that he gave the game away at the end of his contribution.
While sitting through this lengthy debate, I have been wondering why so many Members have made illogical and inconsequential speeches. That is unusual for Members of this House- [Interruption]-especially those such as the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is laughing, and who has engaged in many debates on these subjects over many years. Why is nobody talking about individual voter registration, even though it is an integral part of improving the registration process?
Chris Ruane: I have just mentioned individual registration. We all know what it is about: it is about driving a further 4.5 million people off the register to join the other 3.5 million, in order to keep the Conservatives in office for another generation.
Mrs Laing: It is not; on the contrary, in fact. The last Government, with the support of the then Conservative Opposition, introduced individual voter registration and this Government have speeded up the process.
I am not going to take up much of the Committee's time as we have heard many speeches on these subjects tonight and I have had the good fortune of being able to make many interventions in other Members' contributions. In counting the number of people who are represented by each Member of Parliament we should count on the basis of democracy and the workings of democracy, not on the basis of social work. [Interruption.] Well, we all have several roles as Members of Parliament, and one of our roles is the pastoral one of looking after the people who live in our constituencies regardless of whether they are registered to vote, of their nationality, and of where they live. We are all decent Members of Parliament, and if someone comes to us with a problem, it will be dealt with-or it certainly would be in my constituency surgeries. I am sure that that is the case for almost everybody here. I see assent from Labour Members. However, we must separate those two roles, and that is integral to the point that we are discussing.
The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) may have thousands of people in his constituency who are not voters-who are either not eligible or not registered to vote. He therefore possibly has more casework, but that can be dealt with by giving him greater resources to deal with it. The issue should not be dealt with by distorting the democratic process and the way in which the Chamber works.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Lady knows that I respect her views in many regards, but I would find it phenomenally difficult to differentiate the two elements of our role-on the one hand, the representative function of a Member of Parliament in representing all the voters in their constituency, and, on the other hand, their casework. Many, if not all, of the issues that I have taken up in this House have come to me from my casework-apart, perhaps, from the issue of the Bill that we are discussing tonight. I urge her not to stray too far down the route of trying to separate out the two concepts.
Mrs Laing: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has brought before the House many matters that have arisen from people who come to his constituency surgeries, but he also has a role in raising points of principle on the subject of politics, the constitution and so on-I have seen him do so over many years-that are nothing to do with the casework that comes to him. I therefore do not accept his point.
Stephen Pound: I thank the hon. Lady for nobly offering, in a way that is typical of her, to support my special pleading to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for additional staff. Together, we will be unbeatable. May I also apologise for perhaps inadvertently misleading the Committee earlier when I referred to Commonwealth citizens not having the right to vote? They do, of course, have that right. I am sure that the hon. Lady will have immediately spotted that I was referring to European economic area citizens, in the context of increased casework with no chance of a vote at the end of it.
Mrs Laing: Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. First, I do support his special pleading to IPSA. Secondly, I am glad to have given him the opportunity to put the record straight on the EEA; we are all better educated for that.
Our duty is not to try to amend the Bill to make life easier for Members of Parliament. What matters is not our certainty about where the boundaries of our constituencies will be drawn, but how the democratic process works. I have thought to myself, "Why have there been so many illogical arguments this evening?" I realise, of course, that it is because of special pleading.
Tristram Hunt: Does the hon. Lady recall, as I do, the evidence that we received on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which suggested that where there were arbitrary and dramatic changes in boundaries, an absence of democracy often followed, as local party activists and local electors began to lose influence and interest in the local democratic process?
No. The hon. Gentleman has not been in Committee all evening, and it is time that we got on; this debate has taken too long. I would simply say that the reason why Opposition Members are arguing as they are is that they cannot in all honesty stand up in this House and say that the principle of equalising the size of constituencies is wrong. They are therefore manufacturing arguments against this Bill to try to stop this part of it. They are quite simply trying to avoid being turkeys voting for Christmas. They know that, and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby gave this away when he said that this is about certainty and uncertainty for Members of Parliament. The fact is that the only principle that should matter in considering this part of the Bill is the working of democracy. If Opposition Members do not have the courage to put their constituents and the people of the United Kingdom first and themselves
second, they do not deserve to be Members of Parliament. It is the principle of equality that matters and that is what we must vote for.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): If this Bill passes, we will make the most significant reduction in parliamentary representation since 1922. If we are to make such a fundamental change, we need carefully to examine the basis on which we do it. There needs to be a proper assessment of constituency size, which the electoral register will not provide. In particular, any electoral register from December of any one year will not provide it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said earlier that we know that there are particular groups of voters who are under-represented-young people, students, those living in houses in multiple occupation, those in black and minority ethnic communities and those in social housing. In a constituency such as mine, all those groups combine and are linked to a very high level of turnover to create significant under-representation and under-registration. In just one of my wards, 23% of households have no one registered. In another, the figure is 19% and in another it is 16%. Across the constituency, the average is 15.5%. Many of those who are not registered to vote are those who face the problems that translate into higher levels of casework for me and for my office.
Registration in the constituency contrasts sharply with the neighbouring constituency, Sheffield Hallam, which is represented by the Deputy Prime Minister. It was a traditional Conservative seat until 1997 and some might say it is again. With the demographic profile of Sheffield Hallam and the stability of the population in that constituency, there are very high levels of registration. The number of unregistered households averages just 4%.
Pete Wishart: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Given the depressing statistics that he has related to the Committee this evening- [ Interruption. ] Sorry for the confusion, Mr Hoyle. Given the depressing outlook of the figures that he has given about voter registration, can he explain what the previous Labour Government did to try to improve the situation?
Paul Blomfield: The previous Labour Government did a great deal. Much of the responsibility for execution, of course, lies with the city council, which is run by the Liberal Democrats and it characterised itself by turning voters away from the polling station.
Chris Ruane: Talking of Liberal Democrat councils, is my hon. Friend aware of the previous Liberal leader of Islington council, who, when the Labour group asked for a registration drive before the election, said, "No, we're not having that. That's how we win elections"?
Paul Blomfield: I was not aware of that. I am grateful to have been informed and I am not at all surprised. As I said, in Sheffield Hallam, where there is only 4% under-registration, we begin to see the real nature of what lies behind the Bill.
I must disagree with the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing)-this is not just about those who are eligible to vote. Significant numbers of people who
are not eligible to vote still need the support of their Member of Parliament. That should be taken account of when determining constituency size because we are there to provide a voice for all those in our constituency.
Mark Tami: Does my hon. Friend agree that even when one or two people in a household are on the register, one often finds during elections that there are four, five or six people in the house who are eligible to vote but not on the register?
Paul Blomfield: I accept that point entirely. On the calculation of unregistered households in my constituency, I estimate that there are about 25,000 people who are eligible to vote but who would not be counted into the constituency on the basis of a strict redefinition of boundaries by the electoral register. I think that we should-
Paul Blomfield: I apologise for any offence that I have caused the hon. Gentleman, but I think it would be more useful to focus on the issues under debate. In that context, I want to support amendment 125, which provides for the Boundary Commission to develop a much more accurate assessment of numbers, drawing on information from the Office for National Statistics. I would have preferred it if amendment 229 was also being considered, as that specifically covered census information and would have provided another excellent way of redrawing boundaries.
Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): We all accept that the information that comes from local authorities about the electoral roll is not always totally perfect, but people would not accuse others of gerrymandering as a result. If we started using information from many sources, there might be accusations of gerrymandering because of the use of that information.
Paul Blomfield: Amendment 125 takes the census as one source of information, but there are and have been fairly well-justified suggestions of gerrymandering based on the way in which the electoral register would be used were it applied in the December of any year.
Chris Ruane: On that point, electoral registration officers can calculate the eligible population in each ward in each of our constituencies. They have that information on databases such as the housing benefit and council tax databases, so it is available and could be produced to a high degree of accuracy.
Paul Blomfield: I accept that point and add that taking the electoral register in the December of any year in a constituency such as mine, with its turnover, would ensure that the numbers would be depressed. In the four months leading up to the general election, we added about 4,000 voters to the register in Sheffield Central. They were caught up in the excitement of the campaign that we were running, but those additions reflect the difficulty of using the December figure.
Henry Smith: Is not the answer to the problem better individual electoral registration rather than playing around with the size of constituency boundaries so that some constituencies have larger populations while others have smaller populations?
Paul Blomfield: Obviously, we would all like to see better electoral registration. The point is that we know there are significant groups within all our communities for whom it is difficult to achieve the levels of registration that we wish to see.
Mr Betts: My hon. Friend is making a good point; the information that he has given the Committee about the great disparity in registration levels between his constituency and Sheffield, Hallam is very stark. But if he looks at information that was given to a Select Committee hearing in the Parliament before last in the House, about initial returns to the registration officer from different parts of Sheffield, he will find that registrations from Manor, an inner-city part of his constituency, were only just over 50% at first instance, while in the Dore ward in Hallam they were over 95%. And if we use a December figure before the canvassing has really got going to get additional people on the register, those initial returns and the disparity between them will be even greater than the disparity between the registers as they now stand.
Paul Blomfield: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, because it highlights the particular difficulty of using the December register. There can be only two reasons to use December as the point at which to measure registered electors: either because there is undue haste in trying to push through this process, or because there is a recognition that at that point those voters who some would wish to see disregarded will not be reflected within the register.
The Government would claim that the Bill is about new politics, but a failure to address these concerns will send a message to the public that this represents the very worst of old politics, putting party advantage before democracy and, as one Government Member said on Second Reading, putting decisions behind closed doors before transparency. If the Bill proceeds unamended, it will not only damage the Government but damage confidence in our democracy.
Simon Hughes: I wanted to make a couple of brief comments, even before I was provoked by the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). As it happens, I was inaccurately provoked, because he misread the table produced by the Library. I am one of the Members of Parliament whose constituency is in the top 10 of those where the proportion of the population registered to vote is smaller and the population is larger. The official figures in a House of Commons table show that Bermondsey and Old Southwark has a population of 122,510-we are No. 10 in the list-and an electorate of 77,628: almost the quota that is suggested across the country. The electorate make up 63.4% of the population according to the latest figures.
There are two explanations. One is that a lot of the differential is accounted for by people under 18; that applies across all our seats. The second is that there is a mixture of people-inner London has this in common with many places-who live there perfectly lawfully but are not entitled to vote. They are not UK citizens, they are not Irish citizens, they are not EU citizens and they are not Commonwealth citizens. We have a lot in my constituency; we are very proud to do so, and I serve them without discrimination, just as I would serve anyone on the electoral roll.
However, there is a problem of under-registration of those who should be on the electoral register, and I am never going to take any lessons from the Labour party because throughout the period of Labour Government the problem was exactly the same, and the legacy is that the Labour party left us with an under-registration of 3.5 million people.
Emily Thornberry: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Islington we had the second-worst voter registration rate in the country when the Liberals were in charge of my local council, and when we, the Labour group, tried to pass a resolution to increase voter registration, the deputy leader of the council shouted across the council chamber, "Bu that's how we win elections"? The voter registration went up by 9,000 from 2005 to 2010, and my vote went up by 6,000.
Simon Hughes: If the hon. Lady had been present a few minutes ago, she would have heard that point made by one of her colleagues. I have heard it made before. [Hon. Members: "It is still true."] I am making the point that for Labour to be critical of the fact that 3.5 million people are not registered but should be registered is entirely unjustified, because for 13 years Labour were in government. They could and should have done much more.
Simon Hughes: No, I am not going to get into a big debate. I address my comments to my ministerial friends, and they know what I am going to say next. There is a duty on Government to do much more to ensure that people who should be registered are registered. In my constituency there is a turnover of about a quarter of the electorate every year, so registration is difficult.
I want to make publicly the point that I have made privately to Ministers and to the Deputy Prime Minister. My first proposition is that one of the things that I want us to do-the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), made this point when she was in government-is to work across parties and to put our heads together to think of all the ways in which we can increase registration. I hope the new Labour leader, his Front-Bench colleagues and the deputy leader will work with the Government and all other parties to make sure we-
We need to work across parties, with all parties, to ensure that in every constituency in Britain, whatever the number of constituencies, everybody who can possibly be registered is on the electoral register.
I have a second proposition. The deputy leader of the Labour party argued-I put the argument to her and she made it publicly-that we should have a regular democracy day, democracy week or democracy month. Using Government resources, the Central Office of Information, and the publicity of Government and local councils, we should have a campaign that goes out to find people to register and does not do the traditional, routine, perfectly proper thing-knocking on doors, finding that people are not in and not tracking them down.
My suggestion is that this November we have a big effort led by the Deputy Prime Minister's Department and my right hon. and hon. Friends who are Ministers, using the radio and television and getting people out on the streets, outside the tube stations in London, outside the railway stations and the bus stations, outside the further education colleges throughout the country, and outside the supermarkets and at the shopping centres, so that rather than relying on people being found to be at home, there is a way in which people are encouraged to vote.
We need collectively to own a failure of a generation to ensure that people are registered to vote in the numbers that they should be. It is not a party political matter. It should not be regarded as a case for party banter and provocation. We all have a duty, because it is unacceptable that so many people are not on the voting list when they should be. I hope that the Government will come forward with positive proposals on a cross-party basis that will engage us this autumn-next month-to do something about that so that we on the Government Benches, at least, can be seen to be trying to remedy a problem which for 13 and a half years was not remedied by the Labour party.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) spoke passionately and ended with words to the effect that this was all about equalising constituencies. There is no equalisation of constituencies. All our constituencies are different. The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) would agree with me, I think, that his constituents who identify with Bermondsey do not identify with Deptford, and vice versa.
Even in London, we have distinct communities. We have people who hang together as a community and as a society. That is extraordinarily valuable. I want to examine for a moment who the people are whom the hon. Lady seemed to set aside as though they had no worth because, she said, they are not part of our democracy. Those are real people living in our communities, contributing to our communities. This is not a one-way street. It is not that we are here and they come as supplicants to us, to ask for favours. They are people in their own right, who contribute to our communities even when they do not vote and may not be registered. They are human beings living as part of our communities. We have to think very seriously about being dismissive of a significant proportion of our population.
"under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56% not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)."
"The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas"
"high levels of social deprivation."
Let me look at those different categories and how they have come to be under-registered. There has been much talk of functional illiteracy being a factor in the lack of registration, but I remind the Committee that many people in my community are entirely literate in their own language. They contribute and work, but often they are not able to function very well in English, which is not their first language. None the less, our local authority, a Labour local authority, has made enormous efforts to register people, but I shall refer again to those categories of people and to why efforts fail.
Many of my constituents are poor people. Members have spoken a lot about poverty tonight, but if someone is poor in my constituency and has the chance to work, they work. People do not lie around and take benefits when they have the option to work; they work. They do two, three and, occasionally, four little jobs on low wages, and by doing all those jobs they pile up enough to live on. However, they are never at home, including when I call to canvass them or to see whether they have any needs that I can represent, and they are not there even when a proactive council such as mine sends people out at all times of the day in order to try to find people at home. There are people who never, ever come into contact with those who would try to help them to register.
Joan Ruddock: My hon. Friend makes a very good point and there have been attempts to undertake such work. My local authority has recruited well-known people in the community and efforts have been made at community events. We have many young people's events and an elected young mayor in Lewisham, and all of that contributes to helping people understand that they should be registered and should take the opportunity to vote.
Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady describe for the Committee the barriers to her local authority having been able to do more over the past 13 years to encourage greater electoral registration?
Joan Ruddock: There have been very good results in my local authority area. It removed from the register many names that were there inaccurately, because it wanted to be honest and direct and not keep names on the roll. It would have been in a better position, given the Government's attitude, if it had left all those names on, but its process was thorough, and through its efforts it has added many thousands of names to the register.
My own electorate was registered at 59,000 in 2005 and at 67,000 in 2010. Real efforts have been made, and I certainly applaud that. However, notwithstanding all
the efforts, which do have results, there will always be people we cannot reach, and we must have regard to them.
Stephen Twigg: One barrier that many local authorities think they face is using other available data sets. Last month, the Government made a welcome announcement about data-sharing pilots. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those pilots should be carried out prior to the fundamental changes in the Bill?
Joan Ruddock: Absolutely. It is utterly hypocritical of Government Members to accuse the Labour Government of doing nothing, because local authorities put things into practice, and many have chosen not to. It is also completely unethical to propose a Bill of this nature knowing that millions are not registered and utterly refuse to do anything about registration prior to the Bill possibly becoming law.
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Would the right hon. Lady care to tell us when it would be possible to carry out a boundary review, or are we to have Labour seats being smaller than other seats for ever, given that we will never have a perfect electoral roll?
We challenge the Government to work with all of us-the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark suggested how we might all work together-to increase levels of registration. If we did that, the Government would be in a much better position having made an honest effort to argue the case with us. In my view, even if we do the best that we can, there is still an issue that cannot be ignored.
Stephen Twigg: I think that there is a desire in all parts of the Committee to ensure maximum registration. Is my right hon. Friend aware that contrary to the point made by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), some of the largest registered electorates are in Labour-held constituencies?
I was talking about people who are not able to be at home, people whose first language is not English, and people who live in houses in multiple occupation. Every one of us who has a constituency where there are houses in multiple occupation will have seen properties in which there is a sea of mailed documents and leaflets on the floor and nobody picks them up. There are
major problems in reaching people in such places, particularly those who are living in bad housing conditions. In my constituency, regrettably, we have many thousands waiting for social housing.
Chris Ruane: In my constituency, the ward of Rhyl West is the poorest ward in the whole of Wales, which has 1,900 wards, and it has 900 houses in multiple occupation. Yet Gareth Evans, the electoral registration officer in Denbighshire, was able to take that ward's registration rate up from 2,400 to 3,600 electors by cross-referencing databases and door-knocking. Does my right hon. Friend think that that should be replicated across the country?
Joan Ruddock: Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a most valuable point. I have already paid tribute to my local authority. That job can be done, but because of all the factors that I have mentioned, we will not succeed in registering 100% of people in constituencies such as mine that are affected by the problems identified by the Electoral Commission. That is partly because the population of such areas is so mobile, with perhaps 10% of people moving every year. It will never be possible to equalise constituencies such as Lewisham, Deptford and Epping Forest.
Emily Thornberry: Is not the most important point, and the one to which coalition Members are not listening, that constituencies may well be much more equal than local registration figures show? In constituencies such as my right hon. Friend's and mine where there is very high churn, there are a large number of Europeans, and people who want to be on the register but cannot. A large number of people simply do not count, but they do exist and are a valuable part of our constituencies.
Joan Ruddock: I agree absolutely. I repeat that those are real people contributing to our communities and living among us, and we ought to value them. They may not be on the electoral register, but they certainly exist. The hon. Member for Epping Forest agreed that as Members of Parliament, we have to treat unregistered people equally with those who are registered if they come through our doors. That is a most important principle. We need to recognise their existence, value them and be willing to count them in as people who could be registered, even if they are not.
Roger Williams: Nobody would disagree with the right hon. Lady that we must make every effort to register everybody who is eligible, but does she not agree that there are two different issues to consider? One is that every Member of Parliament should be elected by an equal number of electors, and the other is that if one Member has to represent more people than others do, perhaps more resources should be made available to them. She is confusing two issues.
I am not at all. I am talking about the equal worth of people who are eligible to be registered but are not, and those who are registered. That is the difference between our position and the Government's. They simply wish to take a number and say that every constituency must reach that number of electors, otherwise
it cannot exist. That is illogical and ludicrous, and worse still, they plan to do nothing to attempt to equalise the numbers, even on their own terms.
I conclude by repeating that as Members of Parliament we serve all our constituents and all our constituencies. I am sure that we all often say, "Well, frankly, if you're not voting, don't come complaining to me." But we are not suggesting that only voters count, are we? On the technical issue of registration, that is not good enough for me, and it should not be good enough for the majority of hon. Members.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I am sure the whole Committee is delighted that we have now reached part 2 of the Bill, which is based on the very simple concept that votes across the country should have equal value, wherever someone is. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) can provide a simple example of why that is important. His constituency, according to the records, has 51,706 electors. My constituency of Somerton and Frome has 81,566 electors. I have 30,000 more electors than him. Why should my electors' votes have less value than those of his electors? That is the question he needs to answer.
Chris Bryant: I have already made it absolutely clear in the debate that I believe that there should be greater equalisation of the constituencies. The Deputy Leader of the House says that there is one sole principle, so why, by his own analysis, is he creating two rotten boroughs in Scotland?
Mr Heath: If the hon. Gentleman accepts the principle that votes should be equalised, he disguised it well in his very long contribution. We had a wide debate on this group of amendments. At one point it looked like a clause stand part debate, and at another like a Bill stand part debate, given the amount of material we considered. Most Members were relatively continent, but then we had the hon. Gentleman. When I suggested that we have an extra hour for this debate this evening because of the earlier statement, I did not appreciate that it would be taken up almost entirely by him.
On previous groups of amendments, it seemed that the hon. Gentleman had not properly read the Bill, but on this group of amendments, it seemed that he had not read his own proposals. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was deliberately trying to avoid speaking to his amendments. Members listening to the debate might have assumed that his proposal was to slow down the process set out in the Bill. They might have thought that in amendment 127, to which he never referred, he was proposing to extend the period for the Boundary Commission to do its job, but no, that was not his proposition. If anyone cares to look at the amendment paper, they will see that amendment 127 suggests that far from the Boundary Commission doing its job in three years, as proposed in the Bill, it should do it in one year, which is entirely contrary to everything that he said in his contribution. He persuaded the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who is not in the Chamber, that he had a sensible suggestion, but he did not persuade me.
If hon. Members listened to the hon. Member for Rhondda, they might have assumed that it would be difficult for boundary commissions to do their job
within the resources and time available, but they might not realise that each boundary commission gave evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform and rebutted that suggestion in terms, saying that they had the resources and the capability, and that there was no problem whatever.
Owen Smith: I listened to the Boundary Commission's evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. The Deputy Leader of the House is right that the commission said that it would be able to do its work within the time frame. Clearly, it felt able to say that only because it needs to pay attention only to the politics by numbers-the arithmetic formula this Government are imposing to gerrymander and rig the next election. The commission has no need to consider the geographical, historical or cultural identities and ties that have created our constituencies. That is why it can do its work in the time given.
Mr Heath: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because he has completely demolished whatever case the hon. Member for Rhondda had for saying that the Boundary Commission's resources were inadequate for its job.
Hon. Members who listened to the debate might also have felt that the hon. Member for Rhondda had tabled a second amendment of which they knew little. They certainly would not have heard that he wished to make the implementation of equal votes across the constituencies of the UK dependent on the referendum on the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. But his amendment would provide that nothing could change until after that referendum. Our difficulty with that is that these provisions have nothing to do with the devolved powers of the National Assembly for Wales: they are about putting the electors of Wales on the same basis as the electors of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is a question of fairness.
Ian Lucas: Does the Parliamentary Secretary recognise that there are four different constitutional settlements within the United Kingdom and that those issues are central to the question of the constitutional arrangements relating to this House? Why is he presenting a Bill that is constitutionally illiterate?
Mr Heath: I know of no constitutional principle that says that voters in Wales should have twice the value of voters in Somerset. I do not understand that as a constitutional concept, and it is not one that I support. Why should Wales continue to be over-represented? Why should it be placed in that constitutional setting in eternity? Perhaps he can tell us.
Ian Lucas: The Parliamentary Secretary should recognise that the relationship between Wales and England is an historic one that depends closely on the managed constitutional relations between the two countries. The reality is that Wales is a small country that has a long and strong relationship with England, a much larger country. Wales has a distinct identity, and when he was on the Opposition Benches he recognised that through devolution. Why is he now jettisoning the distinct identity of Wales and treating the people of Wales in this way?
Mr Heath: There we have the paucity of the argument for the defence. This is not about the historic and cultural value of the principality of Wales. I am a great fan of Wales and I always have been. It has a very important part to play in the United Kingdom, but I return to my point that I see no reason why electors in Wales should have more of a say in this, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, than electors in any other part of the country. That is the principle before us today.
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I think that we are going wide of the mark and the Deputy Leader of the House is being dragged into areas where I would not expect him to be led. I know that he knows better and I will let him continue with his speech.
Mr Heath: I will of course be led by you, Mr Hoyle, on what it is appropriate to deal with on this group of amendments, although I will take great pleasure in coming back to that argument tomorrow when we debate the proposed constituencies.
Many hon. Members have concentrated on registration, and it is an extraordinarily important issue. I yield to no one in my wish to see registration dealt with much more effectively. Indeed, it was one of my persistent criticisms of the 13 years of the Labour Government that they did so little to ensure that the registration of electors was much improved. That is one of the many failures of the previous Government. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who said that this issue should transcend party politics and our views on the outcome of elections. It surely should be a principle that every single eligible elector should be on the register and that those who are not eligible should not be on the register.
Those are the two sides of the coin, as far as electoral registration is concerned. That is why I am so pleased to have heard what the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) said the other day about the extra measures that the Government are taking to ensure that registration is carried out more effectively across the country. We can do more. I am taken by the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, which I have heard expressed before, that we should have a democracy day. That is something we can build on. Perhaps hon. Members could work with the local authorities in their area and make better registration a reality.
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 8910/10 and Addenda 1 to 5, A Twelve-Point Action Plan in Support of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); and supports the efforts the Government is making through the EU to improve the MDGs, secure Official Development Assistance (ODA) levels and improve aid effectiveness and accountability. -(Mr O'Brien.)
That Eric Ollerenshaw be discharged from the Committee on Standards and Privileges and Matthew Hancock be added. -(Sir George Young.)
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I rise to present a petition on behalf of Wakefield college, the residents of the Wakefield constituency and others, and in the name of Sue Griffiths, the principal of the college on Margaret street in my constituency. The petition is signed by 271 young people from across the Wakefield district.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to consider the value of the EMA as a vital support to students from low income backgrounds; to recognise the importance of the EMA as a tool for raising attainment levels for 16-19 year olds and to increase social mobility; to recognise the devastating impact any cuts to the EMA would have on students at Wakefield College; and to therefore pledge that the EMA will not be subject to government cuts but protected and maintained in the future.
Declares that the previous Labour government's introduction of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), to students from households where the combined family income is less than £30,810, has increased the recruitment and retention of 16 year olds in full-time education; further declares that 58% of students at Wakefield College receive an EMA; further declares that for many families the EMA has become an essential part of their income; further declares that the EMA is a vital tool for raising attainment levels for 16-19 year olds and increasing social mobility; and further declares that this financial support to young people continuing their education and training is a valuable investment in young people across the country.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to consider the value of the EMA as a vital support to students from low income backgrounds; to recognise the importance of the EMA as
a tool for raising attainment levels for 16-19 year olds and to increase social mobility; to recognise the devastating impact any cuts to the EMA would have on students at Wakefield College; and to therefore pledge that the EMA will not be subject to government cuts but protected and maintained in the future.
First, I would like to declare an interest as an unpaid patron of two charities in Wrexham-The Venture and Dynamic. Many Members will be involved in charities in their own constituencies. There are, in fact, 177 charities registered in my constituency, although, of course, many more provide services there. All MPs see the positive work that charities do. In Wrexham, I have seen the development of services provided by charities since I was elected in 2001, often co-ordinated by the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham. Many services are provided in partnership with the NHS, such as the Nightingale House hospice in the town, and some work with the local authority.
There has been an expansion of the work of charities in recent years often to cover work that previously was carried out by the Government-at local or, indeed, national level. It is this concept that, I believe, the present Government wish to accelerate through the development of the Prime Minister's concept of what he calls the big society. This process has created an anomaly. Services previously provided by local government benefited from an exemption, under section 33 of the Value Added Tax Act 1994, allowing local authorities to reclaim irrecoverable VAT incurred for non-business purposes. The rationale was that the VAT burden should not fall on local taxpayers. In a world where services are increasingly provided by charities, it seems unfair to require charities to bear that burden. Although the problem has existed for some years, it will necessarily be made bigger as more services are provided by charities, rather than by central or local government.
What undoubtedly makes the problem more acute is the Government's decision to increase VAT from 17.5 to 20%. That was a choice made by the Government. At the same time as deciding to increase VAT, the Government chose to announce a decrease in corporation tax, which benefits Barclays bank, for example, but does not benefit charities, which do not pay it. The Charity Tax Group has calculated that the increase will cost charities £143 million-money that will go directly into the pockets of the Government. I would like to place on record my thanks to the Charity Tax Group for the considerable work it has done in raising the issue. As a first step towards addressing the problem of irrecoverable VAT, will the Minister agree with me that the Government should not benefit from charities having to pay more VAT? If the big society is to mean anything, how can charities be expected to bear an additional financial burden while being required to provide additional services?
I contacted local charities in the Wrexham area to try to assess the impact of the VAT rise on them, and a number came back to me with figures. Earlier I mentioned Nightingale House hospice-probably Wrexham's best known local charity-which provides excellent care to local individuals suffering from cancer, many of whom end up dying. We all have hospices in our areas that provide excellent care, and the Nightingale House hospice told me that the increase in VAT would cost it around £10,000 a year-money going directly to the Government.
Hardest hit, however, will be those charities that provide goods and services for sale to vulnerable people. Vision Support is a charity that helps those across north Wales with a visual impairment. It has a large trading arm and supplies specialist equipment to the blind and partially sighted, such as phones and computer aids. Its VAT liability was £155,371 for the year ending 31 March 2010. The Government's action means that the charity would have to pay an extra £22,195.86 in VAT-money that it cannot use to provide services to some of the most vulnerable in the community that I represent. Again, the money goes directly into the pockets of the Government. Can that approach really be justified?
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman has clearly outlined the issue for charities, but along with charities, there are probably literally hundreds of thousands of volunteers who do great work in constituencies across the United Kingdom. Does he agree that the change will affect not only charities, but volunteers and the good work that they do, and that this underlines the need for a VAT exemption for charities?
Ian Lucas: Certainly. We want to encourage volunteers in our society. They contribute hugely to community spirit, but it must be demoralising for them to have the hard-earned funds that they have raised taken away from them.
The issue is one that the Government should try to confront and deal with. It has been dealt with in particular circumstances in the past; for example, it was recognised by the last Labour Government, in their listed places of worship grant scheme. This paid the equivalent of the VAT expended on repair projects for listed places of worship back to those organisations. I have received representations from the Church in Wales asking the Government to extend that scheme beyond its end date of March 2011. Will the Government commit to pay charities generally the extra VAT that they obtain from those charities as a consequence of their own decision to increase the level of VAT? If the Government do not do so, that will diminish the capacity of charities to carry out their work.
Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this Adjournment debate. I wrote to the Minister recently about the Yorkshire air ambulance service, which receives no direct Government funding but needs £7,200 a day to keep both its air ambulances in the air. It currently has no exemption from paying VAT on the aviation fuel that it uses, but another charity, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, is exempt from such charges on the fuel it buys for its lifeboats. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is yet another example of the inequality surrounding the payment of VAT by charities?
Ian Lucas: Indeed. I am sure that all Members of Parliament are aware of charities in our constituencies that work extremely hard to provide services that we all value. The hon. Gentleman has just ably demonstrated yet another contradiction that I cannot understand. The Government really need to address this issue as broadly as possible. If they do not do so, it will diminish the capacity of charities to carry out that valuable work in our communities.
I assume that this situation is directly contrary to the Prime Minister's intentions. If the big society is to be anything more than a vacuous soundbite, its proponents should be extending the capacity of charities rather than reducing it. We need to discuss this complex issue. Irrecoverable VAT has existed for many years, but charities are now carrying out more work and local authorities are asking them to do more work on their behalf, and the time has come for the Government to assess their role and the tax that they pay, and particularly to examine the burdens that will be imposed by the increase in VAT. They must then take steps to address this anomaly.
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on securing this debate? I am pleased to have this opportunity to explain and discuss the Government's policy on VAT and charities. Charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises do so much for our country, and the Government are grateful for the significant contributions that these organisations make to our communities. The Government continue to support charities in a number of ways, and I will talk about our direct support for the sector a little later, although Members will appreciate that there is a limit to what I can say about that, ahead of tomorrow's spending review.
It might help if I first put on record something about the VAT system and charities. A basic feature of the VAT system is that if VAT is not charged on outputs, it cannot be recovered on inputs. The implication of this for charities is that when no charge is made, as is generally the case, any VAT that has been incurred will not be recoverable. Of course, when a charity is registered for VAT and engaged in taxable business activities, this will enable that charity to recover its VAT costs in the normal way. We are not in a position to change the structure of VAT to protect charities fully from its impact, but we provide support for charities through the tax system, including some VAT reliefs.
Existing VAT zero rates for charities, which were introduced at the start of VAT, and which successive Governments have maintained, provide a benefit of more than £150 million to the sector. They include VAT zero rating on sales of donated goods, on medical and scientific equipment and on goods for use by disabled people for qualifying charities. Charities are not charged VAT on the costs of advertising in public media. In addition, they qualify for zero rating on the construction of certain buildings to be used for charitable purposes. All those zero rates are derogations from the normal EU VAT rules and represent benefits not enjoyed by charities elsewhere in Europe.
Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Will the Minister comment on the issues faced by charities when they charge one another for back-office functions, when we are trying to encourage them to become more efficient and deliver services in the most entrepreneurial and efficient way possible?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that specific point. I can assure her and other hon. Members that the Government will continue to look at options for cost sharing within the VAT system where
these are available to us and where they represent an effective and efficient means of delivering support to the sector. We are currently looking at the implementation of the EU VAT exemption for cost sharing. The Government recognise efficiencies that can be achieved by organisations such as charities working together efficiently, but we also recognise the potential VAT barriers such organisations face when they share services in exactly the way the hon. Lady mentioned. We said in the Budget that we would work closely with charities and other affected sectors to consider options for implementing the exemption, which would help to remove some of the barriers ahead of a formal consultation that we will launch later in the autumn. I hope that that provides some reassurance to the hon. Lady.
Returning to the issue of zero rates, as the hon. Member for Wrexham will be aware it is not open to us under our European agreements to extend or amend the zero rates, but we recognise how valuable they are to charities, so we are committed to retaining the zero rates that we already have. Charities also benefit from certain specific VAT exemptions that apply to goods and services used in connection with fundraising events, providing further support for all charities.
VAT reliefs are just one element of the support that the Government provide through tax. Within the wider tax system, existing reliefs for charities are worth something like £3 billion a year, of which gift aid is the largest single relief. Gift aid is now worth nearly £1 billion a year to charities, and such payments to charities are increasing. Gross donations made under gift aid amounted to almost £4.6 billion in 2009-10-an increase of 6.5% over the previous year. We fully recognise the importance of improving gift aid. Charity representatives have been exploring proposals for reform with Treasury and HMRC officials on the gift aid forum. We will be exploring the forum's recommendations before deciding on the best way forward.
The hon. Member for Wrexham wants us to go further and provide support for all charities to relieve them in respect of their irrecoverable VAT. As I have already explained, there is realistically very little that can be done within the VAT system itself. It is possible in principle to introduce a measure that would deliver refunds of VAT to charities in respect of their non-business activities. However, such refunds, which are a matter of Government expenditure rather than taxation, would represent a very significant cost to the Exchequer, especially given the current fiscal position.
We also have to consider that many charities are engaged in activities where they are in direct competition with private sector organisations, such as in the provision of care and welfare services, and it would be difficult to refund VAT that charities incurred in respect of those activities, as that would represent an unfair distortion of competition. Any scheme that could be devised might well be complex and administratively burdensome for charities to operate. In our view, it is far better for the Government, instead of introducing further complexities for charities, to focus on improving charities' capabilities to improve their own affairs, and I will turn to this in more detail shortly.
Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab):
The charities that are engaged in competition with the private sector tend to be the larger ones, which go for contracts and are registered for VAT on their services It is the smaller
charities which cannot get the VAT exemption that need the VAT to be paid back, because they are the ones that are suffering.
Mr Gauke: The hon. Lady is right to suggest that the problem is most acute for the smaller charities, but I do not think that that entirely detracts from the fact that in some circumstances those charities may well be in competition with the private sector in the delivery of welfare and care services. There may be a distortion of competition, and we ought to examine that very closely.
We fully recognise that the increase in the rate of VAT is unwelcome, but it is necessary to sustain public finances and ensure long-term fiscal stability. The burden of deficit reduction must be shared. It simply would not be right to single out one sector over another for special treatment, especially in view of the generous tax reliefs that have already been provided.
The hon. Gentleman and his party oppose the increase in VAT to 20%-which will raise £13.5 billion-but want to do more to reduce the deficit by raising taxes, which leads to the question of how those taxes should be raised. The last Government's proposed solution in the form of a tax rise-which has been reversed-was the increases in national insurance contributions, which would also have affected charities.
Ian Lucas: The last Government also raised £3.5 billion from a tax on bankers' bonuses. That is an alternative way of raising tax. Let me, however, return to the issue of the additional burden of VAT that the Government have chosen to impose on charities. The Minister has listed a number of the tax exemptions that already apply to charities. Why are the Government refusing simply to pass back to charities the additional revenue that they are receiving from the tax hike that was imposed on them?
Mr Gauke: I return to the central point. A refund system, whether for the recently announced increase in VAT or the irrecoverable VAT across the board-which, as the hon. Gentleman fairly pointed out, is a long-standing issue-would involve a considerable cost to the Exchequer. We must consider both the public finances and the most effective way in which we can help charities.
I want to say something about the Government's support for the voluntary and charitable sector in addition to the generous tax relief provided, especially through gift aid. However, Members will appreciate that much of the detail is a matter for tomorrow's spending review statement. The Government are proceeding with a new programme of activity to build the big society. The big society agenda requires the state not only to pull back when services can be provided more cost-effectively and successfully by charities, mutual organisations and co-operatives, but to help social entrepreneurs and voluntary groups to work in partnership with the state and gain access to the support and finance they need in order to provide innovative, bottom-up solutions where expensive state provision has failed.
I wholeheartedly support the notion of the big society and encouraging charities to provide services. Among the key sources of income for those charities are philanthropic donations. Does the Minister not agree that people wishing to make donations are
sometimes put off by the thought that some of the money they are giving is not being spent on the charitable objectives of the organisation concerned, but is finding its way back to the Treasury?
Ahead of tomorrow's spending review statement, it is not possible for me to say how much of the overall Government budget will go to the sector, but we are providing structural support designed to make it more efficient and resilient, and reforming commissioning and procurement, which currently hamper its involvement in public service delivery.
During the spending review 2010 period, we want there to be more opportunities for the sector to be
involved. We want to help the sector to access a wider range of funding to increase its strength and independence. We are establishing a big society bank to lever additional social investment into the sector, and we are reviewing ways to incentivise further philanthropy and charitable giving. The Government are keen to progress this project as quickly as possible. Any progress will, however, be subject to the availability of dormant account funds.
In conclusion, the Government are committed to making it easier for the sector to work with the state and to strengthening relations between the two. That will not happen overnight, but a stable, strong and independent voluntary sector is needed if we are to deliver on the big society and give power back to citizens and communities.