|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
There is a simple test that we need to apply to this Bill, and to new clause 7 in particular, which is: does it strengthen the House of Commons? It was axiomatic before the election, and in the aftermath of the expenses scandal, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, that every
party leader should speak in grand terms about the need to strengthen the accountability of Government and to strengthen the House of Commons. Can the Bill do that? It cannot, unless we reduce the number of Ministers pro rata to the reduction in the number of MPs. I should point out that my remarks are not some manic attack on the power of Government. There are plenty of ways in which Governments can appoint people to jobs in order to get things done. Indeed, I should say to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), who spoke just before me, that it is possible to appoint more Members from the other place. It is also possible to appoint more special advisers-and let us face it-we have a rash of special advisers in Government these days compared with what we used to have. There are all kinds of ways both of ensuring that there are ambassadors for the Government in office and people to implement the Government's policy and political direction, and of ensuring that the Government remain accountable to the House.
Ministers do not need to be Members of the House in order to be accountable to it. It is worth reflecting on the fact that as we have grown the number of Ministers in this place, we have left Whips and even Parliamentary Private Secretaries to speak for the Government in the other place, because Governments are so interested in filling ministerial offices with Members of Parliament, to secure their influence in this place. However, if there were more Ministers in the other place, there is no reason why they should not be invited to the Bar of the House to answer questions. That reform is long overdue. There are plenty of alternatives.
I should like to reflect on the term "the new politics" that has crept into political parlance. I am not quite as old and wise as my noble Friend Lord Heseltine, who sat for many years in this place, and who I saw opining, at the very formation of the coalition, that there was no such thing as the new politics; there was only the old politics, and politics would always be the same. That is of course true, but if the new politics is going to mean an increase in the domination of the Executive in the House of Commons, that would seem to be the antithesis of what those who coined the phrase were seeking to convey.
In fact, politics is changing. When I was first elected in 1992 there was still quite a strong element of deference in the House of Commons towards authority and the Whips. Members who were first elected in the 1950s would have served in one or both of the world wars, and virtually every Member of Parliament at that time had done national service of one sort or another. That Edwardian deference has gone from today's politics, however, and Governments will have to accept that the House of Commons is becoming more assertive. An example can be seen in the whole expenses debacle. I refuse to call it a scandal, because what the newspapers uncovered was much less a scandal in respect of individuals and much more a scandal in terms of the system that had developed, in which the press itself had connived. The outcome of the expenses debacle sent a message to everyone that it was time for Parliament to reassert its role, and it seemed that the party leaders took that message up. What really came through in that episode was how useless Parliament had become.
What is Parliament's job? It is to ensure that the laws of this country are fit for purpose, to stand up for the liberty of the citizen and to control the supply of
money to the Government. Looking at those three tests, we can see that the House has performed miserably over the past decade. More and more legislation, particularly secondary legislation, is passed that is unfit for purpose and not scrutinised properly. The House has completely failed to control the massive growth in public expenditure that has led to the deficit crisis that we now face, and as for protecting the liberties of the individual, I am afraid I think that most of our constituents would feel that the House has been found wanting.
If we are to improve the way in which we do our job, will we be helped if we allow the Government, of whichever party, to have patronage over and to give hope to a wider and wider group of Members, and to instil into the principle of politics in this House that the be-all and end-all is ministerial office? Would that be conducive to a more accountable system? We do not have the separation of powers in our system, but we nevertheless rely on a degree of separation between the Executive and the legislature. I submit that the new clause is exactly the signal about our determination to hold the Executive to account that the House needs to send not only to the Government of the day but to the people at large. We must send this signal that we take our jobs seriously and that we are not going to be seduced, cajoled or flattered into accepting the Executive agenda more and more.
I end with this point. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, who moved his new clause so ably, is a member of the Public Administration Committee, which produced the report "Too Many Ministers?" in the last Parliament. I am afraid that I have to inform the Government that we have already launched a new inquiry, asking "What do Ministers do?". That might seem a cheeky question, but at this time when there are so many Ministers, we know from the revelations in various biographies that Parliamentary Under-Secretaries have jobs and activities created for them to keep them busy.
When it comes to the Foreign Office, I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Rhondda is right to say that we need ambassadors for Britain, representing both Parliament and Government, but I simply do not believe that to be true of all Departments. Do we need more Ministers to represent the Government in this House? It was suggested to our Committee that Whips speak for the Government in the other place, so why cannot Whips speak on behalf of the Government in this place? Why do they have to remain mute and silent here, as if they had no views of their own and no speaking purpose in a House of whose being speaking is the very essence?
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of the irony that his Committee is carrying out this inquiry, but the Government are using that fact as a reason why our hon. Friends should not vote against the Government position tonight-because it is all going to be sorted out in the future by my hon. Friend and his Committee? Can he put my hon. Friends right, and tell them that they need to be in the Aye Lobby for this new clause?
I can put them right. As Chairman of that Committee, although I do not act as Chairman in this capacity, I will be in the Aye Lobby myself on new
clause 7. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said, it represents a very modest maintenance of the status quo. That is what this is about-checking an advance or a further incursion of the Executive into the House of Commons. It is a holding position, while my Committee completes its work.
Mr Heath: I think this has been an interesting and illuminating debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) for tabling his new clause and for the way in which he spoke to it. I am also particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee, not only for contributing to this evening's debate but for his Committee's work-and that of its predecessor, which, as he rightly said, published the first report.
We have heard from a number of Members of all parties, including from the Father of the House. The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) often gets criticised-or, perhaps, slightly cheesed-for his lapidary style, but I know from my experience over many years that he is well worth listening to on many issues. Although I do not agree with everything he says-I do not think he would expect me to-I always find listening to him a useful exercise.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is not in his place at the moment, intervened earlier and sought to persuade the Committee that the Republic of Ireland is the epitome of prosperity, which I am not sure is an argument that holds great water. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), who is also not in her place, was moved to tell us why during the last Parliament she asked to be a Minister no longer.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said repeatedly that the Government of whom he was a part were too slow to take on these issues. Too right they were! They never took on these issues one single bit; there was never the slightest attempt to reduce the size of government or to relax the grip of the Executive on Parliament. It is only since the present Government have been elected that we have been able to deal with some of these issues. He also said, in passing, that he was suspicious that Parliamentary Private Secretaries were not acquainted with the ministerial code. He is quite wrong on that; of course they are-they are given the ministerial code to sign on taking up their positions. That is as it should be. The hon. Gentleman will have to look at the websites himself.
Chris Bryant: I am sorry, but no list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is currently available on a website or anywhere else. Unless the hon. Gentleman can provide the address of a website that features the information, it is not available.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): If my hon. Friend looks at not just individual websites for Members of Parliament but the parliamentary website, he will see that it includes the information that a Member of Parliament is a PPS. That information was added to my name within about four weeks of my appointment.
The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) supported the new clause. The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) made the important point that the oversupply of Ministers was not best addressed by their being put in the House of Lords. I entirely agree. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex expressed a contrary view, saying that he rather liked having Ministers in the House of Lords, but I am not sure that I agree with him.
Mr Charles Walker: I do not like the idea of lots of Ministers being in the House of Lords, but the fact is that there are currently eight unpaid Ministers there. If the hon. Gentleman does not want them to be there, why on earth are the Government putting them there?
Mr Heath: I will let the hon. Gentleman into a secret: I am not the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who makes appointments. I am simply saying that I do not think we would improve the present position by putting more Ministers in the House of Lords. In the last Parliament, members of the Cabinet-Secretaries of State in charge of Departments-were in the House of Lords, and we had no way of holding them to account. That was an affront to this elected House, and I am pleased that we have put it right.
Mr Heath: I said that it was undesirable, and I believe that it is undesirable. I said that in the last Parliament. I called for Secretaries of State in another place to be brought before this House for questioning, because I think it is wrong for Members of the House of Commons not to have access to those who lead Departments. That remains my position, and I am not going to change it.
Philip Davies: I do not quite follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. Is he saying that the new clause means that any Secretary of State could not be in the House of Commons, and would have to be in the House of Lords? I see nothing in the new clause that would force a Secretary of State to be in the House of Lords.
I am not suggesting that that would be the case. I am picking up on points made during the debate, which I think is part of the job of a Minister responding to a debate. The hon. Member for Foyle expressed the hope that a reduction in the number of Ministers in the House of Commons would not result in an increase in
the number of Ministers in the House of Lords. I suggested that I agreed with his view. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex does not agree with it. So be it. That is the nature of debate.
Mr Mark Field: The Deputy Leader of the House has made it clear that he wishes to respond to the contributions made in the debate. I think that one of the most important contributions, with which I entirely concur, came from the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). She considered it highly regrettable that a Bill of such constitutional importance was being rushed through so quickly and so early in the Parliament, in a way that gave the public-certainly those who are interested in these matters-the impression that it was being introduced simply to keep in place the current arrangements introduced by the current coalition. She suggested that it was solely a result of the electoral arithmetic that obtained in May 2010, rather than having been introduced in the long-term interests of Parliament for decades and, indeed, centuries ahead.
Mr Heath: That is a Second Reading point, but it is not a point that I agree with or accept in any way. We have already had extensive debate on the timing of the Bill; I believe we have given that subject a substantial amount of debating time. The most important point is that it is necessary to make rapid progress on the Bill if we are to have in good order both the referendum and the boundary changes suggested in the Bill.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead the House. He has suggested that Parliamentary Private Secretaries are listed on each of the websites- [Interruption.] Government Members, and in particular Ministers, groan, but that is perhaps because they want to see the extension of patronage rather than the extent of patronage to be known to the whole of the House. The truth of the matter is that I have looked at the websites of four Departments and there is absolutely no evidence in any of them of who the departmental PPSs are.
Mr Heath: But it was suggested in the speech moving the new clause. The hon. Member for Broxbourne seemed to give the clear impression that he personally would favour a separation of powers, meaning that there would not be this country's current parliamentary democratic system where we have Ministers drawn from this elected House. Rather, he would prefer Ministers to be drawn from the ranks of those outside the House, which is much more akin to a presidential democracy. [Interruption.] I may be misrepresenting the hon. Gentleman, and if so I apologise. However, if that is his view-and it is a perfectly respectable view-it is not one that I share. [Interruption.] I see other Members nodding because it is their view, and I understand that to be the case.
My second point is that this is not simply an issue about Ministers. It is an issue about patronage and the extent of the patronage of the Prime Minister and Government of the day. That is what we need to address, rather than the narrower issue of Ministers in this House.
My next point is that there is not a simple arithmetical relationship between the number of Members of the House and the number of Ministers: to suggest that there is is to reduce the argument and to take it beyond what is reasonable. Ministerial responsibilities must reflect what the Prime Minister and Government of the day feel they need in order to do their work effectively. There is a relationship between the number of Ministers in this House and the number of others in the House whose positions are created by patronage and both the perception and the reality of the independence of this legislature. That is a perfectly proper comment to make, but there is not, I suggest, a simple arithmetical relationship.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting, therefore, that the Prime Minister of a future Labour or Conservative Government, or indeed the Prime Minister of what we have at the moment, could extend the power of patronage to have as many Ministers as they wish in order to control the political process?
Mr Heath: As I shall go on to describe, what the previous Government did when they reached the buffers of the current restrictions was simply to create all sorts of fantastical posts that were not described as "Ministers" but were, nevertheless, an extension of patronage. We know what the Labour party did when in government and I think we can do better.
Philip Davies: The Minister seems to be saying that these things should be judged on the ministerial work load, as opposed to numbers. I do not know whether this is the case for him and his constituency, but the work load of MPs has increased rapidly in recent years. The Government are proposing to reduce the number of MPs by 50, so this Bill clearly has nothing to do with work load, yet he is giving the distinct impression that this is a simple case of turkeys not wanting to vote for Christmas.
Mr Heath: Without rehearsing arguments from other parts of the Bill-we must not do that-I can say that the interesting thing is that the proposal to reduce the number of Members and equalise constituencies seeks to make some Members who represent very many fewer constituents than others have the same work load as those of us who represent larger constituencies; we comprise about a third of the House.
Mr Charles Walker: The Deputy Leader of the House questioned whether it is wise to put an arithmetical limit on the number of Ministers, but an arithmetical limit of 95 is already in place. Is he suggesting that we remove that and just have a free-for-all in this place?
Mr Heath: No, I am not. I am suggesting that a slightly more complicated relationship is involved than perhaps the simple solution suggests; I have already mentioned one of the factors, which is that this solution does not take into account the position of the House of Lords and the reform of that House in which we are engaged.
Mark Durkan: May I take up the point that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) raised about the Deputy Leader of the House's comment that the House should not become concerned with setting an arithmetical limit and seeking an arithmetical formula? The Bill says that there should be 600 MPs and 600 only-not one more and not one less. No flexibility is to be left to the boundary commissions, to Parliament or to anyone else, and constituencies are to be formulated every five years, again on the basis of a tyranny of arithmetic, so how can the Deputy Leader of the House tell us that within this regime of the new arithmetic and the new politics there cannot be arithmetical guarantees on the fixed number of Ministers in this House?
Mr Heath: Again, the hon. Gentleman seeks to draw me back to debates that we have had on other parts of the Bill. However, I repeat that I do not think that there is a simple arithmetical relationship between the number of Ministers in the Government and the number of Members in this House, other than the view, which is my view and that of right hon. and hon. Friends, that we need to reduce the scope of Government patronage. That is something in which we are already engaged.
Daniel Kawczynski: My hon. Friend made a very important point a few moments ago about the staggering number of special advisers that the previous Labour Administration had. I believe that they even had one for timber products and for rain forests, as well as having special envoys for Cyprus and for Sri Lanka. It is slightly hypocritical of the Labour party to accuse us of patronage of this kind when there was so much in their Government.
Mr Heath: Well, the hon. Gentleman must not tempt me into spelling out in graphic detail the degree to which what the Labour party is now saying is the opposite of what it did in government, but of course it is the case.
Mr Chope: Before the Deputy Leader of the House gets carried away by what my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who is a PPS, said, will he correct the impression that he has given-that the previous Labour Government had the maximum number of Ministers, which is 95? In fact, they had only 90 at the most. It is only this Government who have gone up to the maximum number of Ministers. Will he explain why that is so?
Mr Heath: I think it very well might not be; it is likely that at some stage in the future we will reduce the number of Ministers. The hon. Gentleman is refusing to accept that I agree with a great deal of the thesis that has been put forward.
Let me go on to the next point, which is the timing of what is being suggested. This is not the hoary old chestnut that used to be described by the former Member for Cambridge, Mr David Howarth, as the doctrine of unripe time-everything was always for the best possible purposes, but the time was never ripe for it to happen. I am not saying that. I am simply saying that various elements of our proposals for reform of the constitutional arrangements and for the politics of this country are moving forward in various pieces of legislation and at various times. By the end of this Parliament, they will be in place, but this is not the right time for this measure.
Let me try to make some progress. The Government are committed-as the fairer Members who have contributed to the debate have already recognised-to passing power from the Executive to Parliament. The hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Backbench Business Committee created by this Government, will, I hope, recognise that that is the case-
I apologise; I thought that the hon. Gentleman was. I apologise to him and to the House. I hope that it will not prove to be a resigning matter that I mistook
him for a member of the Backbench Business Committee. Knowing him to be a fair-minded man I know that he will attest to the fact that this House has already moved the control of much more parliamentary time to Back-Bench Members through the Committee. We have also seen the election of Select Committee Members and Chairs, to which we have already drawn attention in this debate.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has also become the first Prime Minister in history to give up the power to call a general election at the time of his choosing. I think it is clear that the Government are not looking to extend their own influence, but believe on principle that power should be dispersed. Indeed, we will bring forward legislation very soon to disperse more power to local communities and local authorities, enabling them to do their job more effectively.
I have difficulty in accepting that there is a need to put this new clause into this Bill at this time. It is now October of 2010-[Hon. Members: "Well done!"] It is good to know that Opposition Members are engaged in serious constitutional debate. There are four and a half years until the provisions of this Bill will take effect-[Hon. Members: "No."] There are four and a half years until the provisions of the Bill on the boundary reviews and the reduction in the size of this House take effect. It does not result in an immediate change to the size of this House. We are legislating at speed to allow sufficient time for boundary reviews to be conducted nationally on the basis of a smaller House, but when we have time to reflect, we should use that time.
Mr Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West) (Con): Surely new clause 7 would also come into effect in four and a half years, at exactly the same time as the other aspects that the Minister has mentioned.
Mr Heath: Yes, it would, but my point is that new clause 7 does not perfectly encapsulate the purpose that the hon. Gentleman, the Government and I might share of making government fit for purpose in that new Parliament. Given that we do not have to pass this new clause as part of the Bill, it seems sensible to take our time, listen to representations and people's views, and see whether we can come up with something better.
We have heard very clearly that the issue at stake is the size of the Government's payroll vote. The proposition we have heard is that the Bill will give the Executive undue numerical dominance in the House and that we must therefore legislate now to reduce the number of Ministers here. It is a numerical fact that if the Bill becomes law, and unless we legislate to the contrary at some stage, the Government elected in 2015 will be entitled to make Ministers out of a higher proportion of the Members of the House. They will not be compelled to do so, but they will be entitled to, and recent Governments have tended to appoint as many Ministers as they can, or very close to that number. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I have acknowledged before that this issue deserves consideration, and it would not take a great detective to find the number of occasions on which I have said precisely that. On the face of it, it is not desirable that the payroll vote should be expanded as a proportion of the House's membership. We have said that we will consider how to address this issue and we will do so.
We are told that Governments legislate too much, and the new clause concerns an issue that might be better resolved without legislation. Governments are capable of reducing the number of Ministers without being compelled to do so through legislation. More importantly, perhaps, the payroll vote is often taken to include Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who are not covered by current legislation and who would not be covered by the new clause. It is only by self-denying ordinance that those numbers are limited. Governments have clearly been capable of self-restraint, and that self-restraint would still be necessary if the new clause were accepted. As I have said, under the previous Government we had not only Ministers and PPSs, but tsars, envoys, special representatives, Regional Ministers and assistants to Regional Ministers. A lot of them have been removed but they were all elements of patronage within the House. If it is patronage we are seeking to address, then we have to address all those appointments, not just the ministerial ranks.
Let me repeat a point that was made earlier. Legislation would not cover the number of Opposition Front Benchers, which is also relevant if the concern is that there are too few independent voices from the Back Benches. I accept the principle of legislation on ministerial numbers as a back-stop, but surely the number of Ministers must be a function of need, which is not necessarily related to the number of MPs. When previous statutes increased the number of Ministers in the House, they were unrelated to any changes in the number of MPs: there has never been a clear link or a set ratio. At the moment, there can be one Minister for every 6.842 Members of Parliament or thereabouts. The new clause would enshrine that ratio in law in perpetuity. If it were to become law, the Government could appoint as Ministers no more than 87.692307 Members of the Chamber. That would be the relationship. I merely make the point that I do not believe that a simple arithmetic relationship is necessarily the right one to address.
We should not forget the purpose of having a ministerial presence in the House: we need sufficient Ministers to attend to the business in the House, to make statements, to answer questions, to introduce Bills and to contribute to debates. The House rightly expects the highest standards of accountability from its Ministers and we strive to meet those standards. Indeed, it is often complained that Ministers are too rarely seen when the House discusses issues for which they do not have direct responsibility. That reflects the reality that we demand a lot of our Ministers in this country, both to govern and to legislate.
The question of how many Ministers should sit in the House of Commons is bound up with other questions-for example, considering the number of Ministers in the House of Lords. As the Committee is aware, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is chairing a Committee on reform of the House of Lords. The Committee comprises Members from all three major political parties, as well as from both Houses- [ Interruption. ] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Rhondda asks, "What's that got to do with it?" as though reform of the House of Lords-the thing for which we have been arguing for 100 years-has nothing to do with the constitutional arrangements of this country.
The cross-party Committee is discussing all issues pertinent to reform, including size and composition, and whether the second Chamber is wholly or mainly elected. It will also discuss the position of Ministers in the reformed Second Chamber. Currently, there are far fewer Ministers in the House of Lords than in the Commons, but we will need to think carefully about how the distribution of Ministers may be affected by any changes to the size of the second Chamber, or by the introduction of elected Members.
The Committee is charged with producing a draft Bill early next year, which will then be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government hope that will be carried out by a Joint Committee of both Houses. It is possible that arguments may then be made for either a greater or smaller ministerial presence in the second Chamber. We should wait to hear the views of the Committee.
There is also an argument that the limit on Ministers in the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 is arcane in other respects. For example, it makes no provision for Ministers who might fill the role on a part-time basis or a job share. It is expressed in terms of numbers of individuals rather than full-time equivalents. That should perhaps be part of any consideration.
For all those reasons, although I welcome the debate, the Government are not minded to accept the new clause. We shall reflect on the arguments made today and set out plans once we have achieved some consensus on the composition of the second Chamber, including the number of Ministers there. If it still appears- [ Interruption. ] I think it is important for the House to hear this. If it still appears necessary, there will be plenty of time at that stage to legislate before 2015. I urge the hon. Member for Broxbourne to withdraw the new clause, on the basis that we shall very carefully consider the arguments he has made.
Mr Walker: I say to new colleagues who were not here in 2009 that it was the most awful experience. We were led up the garden path by a powerful Executive and had our legs cut from underneath us. We vowed that we would never, ever let that happen again. We vowed that we would take control of this place back from the Executive.
I wish I was being braver in my new clause. All I am asking is that when the House of Commons reduces by a mere 50, we reduce the number of Ministers by a mere eight, yet in this age of new politics those on the Front Bench cannot even give us that. Colleagues, this is the night when the new politics will be born, or it will die. Please support new clause 7 tonight, to give new politics some meaning, because it will be driven by Back Benchers-it can never be driven from the Front Bench.
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I am very grateful to have this opportunity to raise the issue of the Home Office's proposed closure of Newport passport office. The campaign against the closure, led by the Public and Commercial Services Union and very well supported by the South Wales Argus on behalf of the workers, has united the whole community in Newport and is supported by MPs and AMs of all political parties, some of whom are here tonight. I am very grateful to those hon. Members who have stayed for tonight's debate, which has started a little earlier than we expected, but their presence shows the strength of feeling. Most notably, the campaign is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), in whose constituency the passport office resides.
Since the announcement that the passport office in Newport is in line to become the first major casualty of UK Government spending cuts, the city of Newport has united around the growing campaign against its closure. Three hundred workers attended the first meeting called by local union reps; more than 1,000 people attended a march and rally through Newport last week; and, in just two short weeks, more than 11,000 people have signed the South Wales Argus petition. If the Minister wants an indication of the strength of feeling in Newport, I am happy to present him with a subscription to the Argus, as I want him to be in absolutely no doubt about the fury in Newport over the decision.
The Identity and Passport Service announcement that the office could close has been badly handled, as well as being a disaster for staff and their families. Staff learned of the potential loss of their jobs from a civil servant who was sent as the bearer of bad news-not a Government politician in sight. The Secretary of State for Wales gave every impression at the time that she was not aware of the decision, although in a reply to a parliamentary question of mine she now claims that she was. That is all the more galling locally, as in her speech to the Tory party conference just a few short days before, she spoke of how the Ryder cup had put Newport on the map. We were hoping for an economic legacy from the Ryder cup, not an announcement a few days after the event that hundreds of people would lose their jobs.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Prime Minister has made big play of the respect agenda. Does my hon. Friend not agree that by not telling anybody, not least Welsh Assembly Ministers, such behaviour proves that that agenda has been dropped in favour of disrespect?
Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing time for this very important debate. She has my party's full support. The announcement is not only unjust and disrespectful, but unfair, because it came before last week's cuts, which are deeper and worse for Wales than for the rest of the UK.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): This cut is just one of a number that will affect Wales, including the cancellation of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, the cancellation of the electrification of the south Wales railway line and the cancellation of a prison for north Wales. Now, we have the cuts in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). Does that show a disrespect for Wales?
Jessica Morden: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen a disgraceful list of cancellations in Wales, and that does show a complete disrespect for Wales.
I hope that the Minister will agree that the most important people in all this are the staff at Newport passport office and their families. Two years ago, when there was a rumour about the future of the passport office, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West and I initiated a meeting with the then passport Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). She was adamant in all her dealings with us that there should be a regional application passport office in each devolved nation. She also recognised that the staff at the Newport office did a fantastic job. In fact, she constantly praised them for what she called their can-do attitude, and for the fact that they were the regional office that always volunteered to do any pilot going. What message is sent to civil servants who strive for excellence in their jobs when they are rewarded with a decision like this proposed closure?
The previous Minister knew how good the Newport passport office is, but so do its customers, as it receives much favourable feedback from them for its fast and efficient service. I genuinely know how good that service is from personal experience when I had to get three passports at short notice last year. The staff tell me that in the past week they have dealt with customers from as far afield as Truro in the south-west, Harlow in the south-east, Scotland and Belfast, all of whom tried to get to a more local office but failed to get an appointment without waiting for two to three weeks.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes the very valid point that it is not only the people of Wales who are serviced by the Newport office. People from Bristol and much further afield in the south-west also rely on it, and they would have to make very long journeys to make passport applications if it were not there.
Jessica Morden: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she makes a valid point. People from the south-west come to Newport for its passport service, and it is much used. For example, travellers who have a problem with their passport when they arrive at Heathrow airport might be directed by staff to Newport because it is faster and more efficient than using the London office.
Given the work that staff have to put in to get the service right, why choose to close the Newport office? My constituents are not arguing that another office in another part of the country should be closed, but they want to know from the Minister why there are not calls
for voluntary redundancies across the service to make this decision much fairer. I would be grateful if he could explain how his Department came to the decision to target the Newport office. Can he share with the House what case has been made internally, and make that information publicly available? If the closure were to go ahead, how much would it cost in short-term redundancy costs? Will he share with us the results of the economic impact study when it is available?
The feeling in Newport is that this decision has been taken at the stroke of a pen-that it is easier for the Department to close just one of the seven offices instead of looking at other options. Staff tell me that the IPS has a history of making short-term decisions which then have to be reversed. In Glasgow, the postal production service was removed, only for the IPS to have to reinstate it because demand was too great and it had reduced staffing to inadequate levels. Given the real hardship that this decision will cause, will the Minister re-examine this case for closing Newport, bearing in mind that history of the IPS running down capacity and then having to reverse decisions?
I am told that when staff were informed by the chief executive why they were about to lose their livelihoods, some of the reasons cited were that the windows were single-glazed and that the floor was of the wrong type. If part of this decision is to do with the office being old and unsuitable, what discussions has the Minister had with the local authority about doing a deal over more suitable premises and thereby cutting costs in that manner?
Chris Ruane: Does my hon. Friend think, like I do, that the real reason the Newport passport office is being closed is not that it has the wrong type of windows but that Newport has the wrong type of political party-that is, it is represented by Labour MPs, not Conservative MPs?
Putting people out of work is not something that should ever be done without absolutely every alternative having been examined. In this case, the evidence for that has not been supplied to me, to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West or to the unions, and that is not acceptable.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that in addition to the loss of service to the people of Wales, it makes absolutely no economic or environmental sense to be centralising offices rather than keeping them in a large number of geographical locations?
If the office were to close, as well as the effect on people's lives and families, it would have a devastating effect on Newport, where traders are already reeling from the loss of shops, with major high street retailers Marks and Spencer, Next and Monsoon leaving the city centre. The passport office employs more than 250 people right in the heart of the shopping centre. Their custom supports other local businesses, and people who travel
to Newport to get their passports often spend the four-hour wait shopping. The loss of this office would leave a gaping hole in the centre of the city. Why does the Minister believe that the private sector is going to step in and provide enough jobs to cover the job losses given that some of the private sector is leaving the city centre as well?
It is a bit ironic that the heads of both Marks and Spencer and Next signed the letter to the Chancellor last week urging cuts and suggesting they were up to the job of filling the gap. It does not bode well for the future that they do not practice what they preach, given that they are leaving our city centre. In fact, that is a case in point of the division between the private sector and the public sector being false. Private businesses have much to lose if the jobs in question are lost in the city centre, and that is precisely why people in shops and businesses are joining the marches and signing the South Wales Argus petition. They want to keep the city centre alive.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Although it is disappointing that very few Conservative MPs are supporting us in our campaign, it is encouraging that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on Newport council and in the Welsh Assembly are united in opposing this foolish move. Is it not encouraging that there are moves by Newport council to suggest alternative premises? The state of the premises seems to have been a factor in the decision, but now there is new information that there might well be alternative premises available that will destroy the case for the minute savings that the move would make.
Jessica Morden: I thank my hon. Friend. The cross-party support is very encouraging, and we very much welcome the Tory-Liberal Democrat council's moves to consider alternative premises, which might be the answer.
May I ask the Minister to comment on why the Welsh Assembly Government were not even told that they were going to lose the passport office? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) asked, how does it bode for the Government's culture of respect for the devolved nations if the Government in Cardiff bay are not consulted?
Much has been said about Wales being left as the only country in Europe without a passport office. I know the Minister will argue that there will be a small office in Newport employing 45 staff. Given the strength of feeling that exists, the Government have been forced to make that decision, but they cannot expect people in Newport to be hugely grateful for 45 jobs when 200-plus will still go.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on making such a passionate and constructive case on behalf of the facility in Newport. Does she agree that the previous Government's policy of taking jobs out of high-value areas and devolving them to areas where services could be delivered at better cost would be a good one to put forward in the consultation period that is about to take place?
I say respectfully to the Minister that the small office that is planned for Newport is not enough, and nobody in Newport is taken in by it. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, the former Minister, was adamant that Wales must have its fair share of jobs and that the passport service must be a truly UK service. Is the Minister 100% certain that 45 staff can service all the emergency passport demand in Wales, the west country and parts of the west midlands, not to mention the cases from further afield that I mentioned earlier?
Mr Williams: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is a real friend on this matter. She has got to the heart of it-it is about fairness, and an implicit part of a fairness agenda must be a meaningful dialogue with the National Assembly. I am afraid that has not happened.
Let us be clear: what is being offered is the loss of the regional passport application centre and its replacement with an interview office. That would be a downgrading of the service, which leads me to my final point. Staff and the PCS have real concerns that if the proposals were to go through, reduced staffing would make the passport a less secure document. British passports are regarded as the most secure in the world, and the basis of that confidence is the integrity and skills of the staff involved. The loss of staff will mean that the work will have to done by fewer people, and there will be an inevitable impact on customer service and security. Is the Minister really confident that the loss of jobs will not have an impact on security?
Only this weekend, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said that people from the valleys should get on a bus to find work. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what town he is expecting the people of Newport to get a bus to if he proceeds with this proposal.
Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that that remark about people getting a bus to work was outrageous, not least because in Blaenau Gwent, not very far from Newport, there are seven people chasing each job?
Jessica Morden: It was an outrageous remark. Hon. Members are here in numbers tonight precisely because their constituents do get on a bus to Newport, to work at the passport office. I hope that the Minister understands that this is not just a paper exercise; it is about people's lives. The workers at Newport passport office deserve to have the Government consider their plans in depth during the consultation period and change their mind.
The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green):
I understand why the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has chosen the debate, and she is to be
congratulated on securing it. Given her reputation, I would expect her to defend her constituents as passionately as she has done tonight.
What I can do most usefully is disentangle the emotion from the facts, because although some of what the hon. Lady said was undoubtedly valuable, some of it was misleading, and some of her colleagues' interventions frankly suggest that they do not understand the Identity and Passport Service proposals for Newport. It is important to hold the debate on a factual basis and, indeed, on the basis of the previous Government's actions towards other passport offices. The IPS has been contracting its network of regional offices for some years.
I met the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) last week. I was surprised when she said that she did not have any information because, as she and the hon. Gentleman know, I handed her the internal working document that the IPS used as the basis of its action. She asked for those details tonight but, as she knows, she was given them last week.
Paul Flynn: The Minister will recall from that meeting that we expressed some dissatisfaction with the idiot's guide to the decision that we were given, and we questioned many of its conclusions, although we had only a brief time to look at it. We asked whether we could see the full report on which it was based, but no assurance was given that we would have it. Indeed, I suggested that we might need a freedom of information request to get it. Will the full report on which the decision was based be made available and put in the Library?
Damian Green: I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets the available information, because I acknowledge his concern and that of the hon. Lady about the impact of job losses on the staff, their families and the local community. As the hon. Lady knows, I have met the leader of Newport council to hear his views. Of course, a proposal to lose 250 jobs has not been made lightly.
The Identity and Passport Service has long recognised that its greatest asset is its reputation, and IPS employees make a significant contribution to that, as reflected in the high levels of public satisfaction with the delivery of passports and civil registration. The Identity and Passport Service has a reputation for quality of delivery, which is achieved by those who work for the agency across the UK.
The service is paid for through the passport fee, which covers the cost of the domestic passport service and consular services overseas for British citizens. Passports have to be delivered within the fee structure and be available to the public at an economic rate. When efficiencies can be made through better working, they should be-indeed, they must be. That is why in 2008, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), to whom the hon. Lady referred, closed the application processing centre in Glasgow, with the loss of 124 staff. The Glasgow office currently retains a premium and fast-track service, but the processing centre work was absorbed by other regional centres. I cannot emphasise enough that that is exactly the same proposal that the Government are making for the Newport office. All the rhetoric about respect and the Government's somehow picking on the people of Newport or of Wales is wrong.
There is absolutely no disrespect to the people of Newport or of Wales. Hon. Members know about the country's economic position and the new Government's terrible inheritance. That is why we are having to make such decisions. It would be entirely inappropriate for the passport fee to subsidise the IPS if it were or would knowingly be over-staffed or operating with excess capacity. However, that is the situation that the IPS faces. In the case of the five remaining passport application processing centres in the UK, at Belfast, Durham, Liverpool, Peterborough and Newport, an operational review was carried out by the IPS in the light of the planned programme of efficiencies to be achieved within the next 18 months. The review identified that meeting those efficiencies by spring 2012 and beyond would result in excess capacity of around 350 staff and some 25% of the IPS estate. Therefore, cuts do have to be made.
Damian Green: That is simply not true. The IPS has already lost around 100 jobs at headquarters through efficiencies and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is making cuts across all regional offices. In addition, the IPS has already reduced some excess capacity across the network through voluntary redundancies. The announcement at Newport reflects the need for the passport fee to pay for the delivery of a service and not for surplus posts or excess office accommodation.
Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): The Minister says that cuts are being made right across the board in the IPS, but surely he sees that one fundamental difference is that Wales will be the only country left in the UK without a passport office. That is a fundamental difference, whatever the cuts made elsewhere.
Damian Green: That would be a fundamental difference if it were true, but it is fundamentally wrong. It is false, and the hon. Gentleman is misleading people if he is saying that Wales will be left without a passport office. There will still be a passport office for people to go to in Newport. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said that people travel from the south-west of England to go to the Newport passport office, and they will still be able to do so. I have read many recent editions of the South Wales Argus, with pictures of people holding placards saying, "Wales mustn't lose its only passport office". I am happy to assure not just the people of Newport, but the people of Wales that Wales is not losing its passport office, and it is simply misleading for hon. Members to keep repeating the falsehood that it is.
I recognise that this is a difficult time for many people, and I appreciate that many members of staff working in passport offices up and down the country have contributed to the success of the passport operation. That is why the IPS carried out an objective assessment of its UK operation, to establish how to respond to the excess capacity. A comparative assessment was made of the five centres to determine how best to achieve a better, more efficient service for all existing and future
passport holders. The assessment was based on the criteria of cost, affordability, estates, people, customers, partners, performance and operational feasibility.
The primary consideration lay in the ability of the agency to achieve the right level of efficiencies, while retaining sufficient operational capacity to maintain the current high level of service. The assessment had to consider whether an application processing centre could be closed without the need to recruit additional staff back into the remaining offices. Achieving the savings through efficiencies was a key criterion, but it had to be demonstrated in the assessment that savings would be sustainable and would not simply reappear as a future cost to the IPS during periods of peak demand. As I think the hon. Member for Newport East knows, I have undertaken to carry out a full impact assessment, in line with the requirements of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I note in passing that such an assessment was not published at the time of the Glasgow closure.
I appreciate that the hon. Lady will consider Newport to be a special case that should receive special consideration. I would expect hon. Members in constituencies across the UK to consider jobs in their constituencies similarly to merit special consideration. However, the IPS applied the same economic criteria to all areas, for two reasons: first, to ensure consistency and fairness; and secondly, because the IPS is a UK-wide service and requires an operational structure that ensures the highest standards of delivery and service for all its customers, in all parts of the United Kingdom. The IPS has identified the Newport passport application processing centre as the main potential candidate for closure by using an evidence-based approach. The closure would be achievable at the lowest cost, and would represent the most favourable net present value and enable the IPS to retain sufficient operational capacity after closure without the need to recruit staff to back-fill into other offices. The IPS is looking to achieve the necessary staff reductions while avoiding compulsory redundancy wherever possible. That is why, in the case of Newport, the IPS is working with the Wales Office and other Departments to help to identify opportunities elsewhere.
I repeat, in the hope that hon. Members will accept this salient fact, that the proposed restructuring of the regional application processing centres does not mean that Wales will be the only devolved nation without a regional office. The IPS will retain a customer service centre in Newport to service south Wales and the south-west, employing up to 45 people to provide a counter service and with the ability to deal with applicants in the Welsh language. That will cater for the 47,000 people a year who use the current Newport regional office and also provide capacity for 7,000 interviews. The service proposed for Newport after spring 2012 will be similar to the services currently in place at the IPS offices in Glasgow and London.
The point was made strongly to me by the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan)-as it was by the hon. Member for Newport East-that shops in the centre of Newport have been closing and that there is a threat to the town centre. The footfall of those 47,000 people who visit the passport office is therefore essential to give some hope to the shops that remain in the town centre and to the town centre's continuing
regeneration. I found that argument very persuasive from my right hon. Friend and from the hon. Lady, and that is why I have decided that that office should stay in Newport. It could be moved to somewhere else in Wales; that would fulfil the criteria desired by other Opposition Members that Wales retain a passport office, and I could obviously do that without retaining it in Newport. Given the particularly difficult circumstances that Newport has faced, however, I think that it is right to retain the customer service centre there, and that is what we intend to do.
Obviously, this will be of little comfort to the hon. Lady's constituents and those of the hon. Member for Newport West who might lose their jobs through the closure of the Newport passport application processing centre, but the decision reflects the importance that the IPS attaches to providing a service to passport applicants and holders across the UK. I am afraid that the IPS simply has excess staff capacity in its application processing and interview office networks of around 350 full-time equivalents. It has excess physical capacity of approximately 25% across the whole application processing estate, and excess staff capacity of about 150 full-time equivalent jobs and 39 local offices across the interview office network. That is why what is happening in Newport is not the only reduction that the IPS is having to go through. It is having to make cuts across all its regional offices and across the interview centres as well.
The IPS has begun a formal 90-day consultation period with the trade unions. It began on 19 October, and we will provide the unions with extensive background information on the decision to close the Newport processing centre. We are also looking into whether that information can be made public before the end of the consultation period. To answer another specific question, the IPS will be producing a full impact assessment, which will
include an assessment of the economic impact of the loss of approximately 250 jobs. Home Office economists will support the IPS with that analysis.
We will seek to include as part of the assessment the impact of job losses on a local area, but that might not be specific to the economic environment in Newport. The IPS has conducted its closure analysis as an operational task, and to include in the analysis the effect on a specific local area, we would need to conduct a local economic impact assessment on all five application processing centres. Clearly, that is not a function for the IPS.
Damian Green: As I say, we have started a consultation period, but, regrettably, as so often happens, for some reason somebody chose to announce this before all the consultations had properly taken place. The hon. Member for Newport West had asked for a meeting with me and I had agreed to meet him in the intervening period. As he knows, however, the BBC and various other journalists got hold of the date for the start of the consultation process. These things happen, and it is very unfortunate-