There have been 25 exchanges between Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and Cabinet Office
|Wed 1st July 2020||National Audit Office||3 interactions (253 words)|
|Wed 17th June 2020||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (99 words)|
|Wed 15th January 2020||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (65 words)|
|Wed 30th October 2019||Grenfell Tower Inquiry||7 interactions (83 words)|
|Tue 8th October 2019||Preparations for Leaving the EU||3 interactions (60 words)|
|Thu 3rd October 2019||Brexit Negotiations||3 interactions (58 words)|
|Thu 25th July 2019||Priorities for Government||3 interactions (47 words)|
|Thu 11th April 2019||European Council||3 interactions (63 words)|
|Wed 6th March 2019||Comptroller and Auditor General||3 interactions (747 words)|
|Wed 30th January 2019||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (66 words)|
|Tue 4th December 2018||European Union (Withdrawal) Act||3 interactions (42 words)|
|Thu 15th November 2018||EU Exit Negotiations||3 interactions (100 words)|
|Wed 14th November 2018||Overseas Electors Bill (Fourth sitting) (Public Bill Committees)||3 interactions (208 words)|
|Wed 31st October 2018||Overseas Electors Bill (Third sitting) (Public Bill Committees)||3 interactions (123 words)|
|Wed 24th October 2018||Overseas Electors Bill (Second sitting) (Public Bill Committees)||2 interactions (60 words)|
|Wed 17th October 2018||Overseas Electors Bill (First sitting) (Public Bill Committees)||11 interactions (484 words)|
|Mon 9th July 2018||Leaving the EU||3 interactions (66 words)|
|Wed 25th April 2018||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (61 words)|
|Mon 16th April 2018||Syria||3 interactions (54 words)|
|Mon 16th April 2018||Syria||11 interactions (856 words)|
|Wed 14th March 2018||Salisbury Incident||3 interactions (61 words)|
|Fri 23rd February 2018||Overseas Electors Bill||23 interactions (1,148 words)|
|Wed 20th December 2017||Oral Answers to Questions||3 interactions (60 words)|
|Mon 18th December 2017||European Council||3 interactions (64 words)|
|Thu 22nd June 2017||Grenfell Tower||3 interactions (152 words)|
It gives me great pleasure to support the motion proposed by the Prime Minister to appoint Dame Fiona Reynolds, who, as he has highlighted, has had a distinguished career, particularly as head of the National Trust and, more recently, as Master of Emmanuel College. She is the first woman to hold this important position, and I also put on record my thanks to Lord Bichard, who will have given six years of service when he hands over the reins to Dame Fiona in January.
The NAO is crucial in holding the Government to account, safeguarding taxpayers’ money, and, increasingly, under the new Comptroller and Auditor General, Gareth Davies, learning to do better. So it is heartening that the Prime Minister and I agree on the importance of the NAO and the suitability of Dame Fiona to take up this role. Her considerable experience will be well played in the NAO. Of course, the Comptroller and Auditor General determines all the audit procedures, but she will have a pivotal role on the board in making sure that the organisation becomes as modern and sophisticated as it needs to be to deal with the challenges of the modern world. So I fully and wholeheartedly endorse her. This was the first virtual appointment and I have not yet met Dame Fiona, so I look forward to doing so when lockdown restrictions lift still further.
The SNP too welcomes the appointment of Dame Fiona Reynolds to the role of chair of the National Audit Office. We appreciate the involvement of Caroline Gardner, as Auditor General for Scotland, in the appointment panel, which is good. We are sure that, given Dame Fiona’s previous role in the Council for National Parks, she will have a good ability to see the wood for the trees in holding the Government to account. I look forward to her doing so with her great skill and experience.
I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that there is another way of looking at it. The first point is that the people of this country are heartily sick of us going on about Brexit. They wanted to get it done. We got it done and we are going to move forward. The other point is that when we come to the end of the transition period, we will be able to do things differently. We will be able to respond to our economic needs in a creative and constructive way, looking at regulation and looking at ways in which we support industries in a way that we have not been able to do before. That will be very productive for this country. Let us not delay that moment; let us get on with it.
Yes, indeed; it is absolutely crucial that we do that. There is a big catch-up plan that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is going to be announcing very shortly. It is vital that kids catch up on the education that they have lost, but even more vital, as I think I may have mentioned to the House already this morning, that the kids who can go to school should go to school. Would it not be a fine thing, Mr Speaker, if we heard from all parts of the House that schools are safe to go to, rather than the wibble-wobble we have heard from the Opposition this morning?
I thank the hon. Lady, and I can assure her that the Government are indeed embarking on a plan to do everything we can to make sure steel made in this country has all the competitive advantages we need. She makes some excellent points. In the particular case of Liberty Steel, I understand that whatever happens —it is a commercial decision for that company—all those affected will be offered an opportunity to remain within the GFG Alliance by joining a new company.
If I may, I will continue, as it will be important for the House to hear the whole context in which these criticisms and points are being made.
The so-called “stay put” policy is the bedrock on which all plans for fighting fires in tall residential buildings are based. Building regulations are supposed to mean that fires cannot spread beyond individual flats, because they are compartmented. When that is the case, it is indeed safest for most residents to stay in their homes until the fire is extinguished, but at Grenfell that was not the case. The fire spread widely and rapidly, up, down and across the tower.
Break in Debate
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, as the whole House knows. As I said at the outset, that is among the issues that will be addressed in the second part of Sir Martin’s report, but I will say a little bit about it later on. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue.
While brave firefighters led many people to safety from inside the tower, Sir Martin concludes that the chaos and confusion meant that some calls for help were not responded to until it was too late.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am well aware that he has a centre for the training of firefighters at Moreton-in-Marsh in his constituency. Directly on his point, Sir Martin cautions all of us against making judgments at a distance, and I agree with him wholeheartedly on that.
It is very easy for us on these green Benches to have 20:20 hindsight. We are not about to run into the heart of a fire that is blazing more than 200 feet into the night sky.
In order to accommodate as many right hon. and hon. Members as possible, I am now looking for short questions without preamble and comparably pithy replies.
My hon. Friend is right. As I mentioned earlier, some member states have been more generous than others. We respect the political constraints under which some Governments operate, but we want to work with them to guarantee the position of UK nationals.
As the right hon. Lady knows, there is a unique situation in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement, and what we are proposing today gives this country the opportunity to develop and intensify that, but I am willing to listen to her pleas for the Senedd and I will consider them closely.
I will indeed commit to that approach, because I think that is the right way forward. If I may say so, Nissan in Sunderland is the most efficient plant in the world, and what a fantastic thing that is. Just in the past few weeks, as the hon. Lady will have noticed, BMW has announced a huge investment to build electric Minis at Cowley and Jaguar Land Rover has put £1 billion into electric vehicles in Birmingham. That, by the way, is how we will tackle the climate change issue—not with the hair shirt-ism of the Greens but with wonderful new technology made in this country.
That is of course what we are doing. That is the nature of the pledge and the undertaking that we are making with the £4.6 billion that we have announced. The objective, as I think Members will know by now, is to lift per capita per pupil funding to a minimum everywhere of £4,000 for primary school pupils and £5,000 for secondary school pupils.
We have already indicated our intention to ensure that Parliament has a greater role in relation to the future relationship by accepting, as we said on 29 March, the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell). Elements of this are about the political declaration, but there are also elements that are about what we do here in this House in UK legislation to ensure that we are entrenching objectives for that future relationship. Of course, the negotiation still has to take place with the EU on that future relationship, but there are many steps that we can take here in the United Kingdom to give confidence to Members of this House.
The position on the withdrawal agreement has been reiterated by the European Council, but of course the point of the Brady amendment was that alternative arrangements should be in place that could replace the backstop. One of the things that we have agreed with the European Union is a timetable for work on those alternative arrangements. As I indicated earlier, the Government have committed funding for the work that is necessary to ensure that we will be in a position such that, at the end of December 2020, the backstop would not need to be used and that, if interim arrangements were necessary, those alternative arrangements would be available.
I rise to offer the Opposition’s backing to the appointment of Mr Gareth Davies as Comptroller and Auditor General. The position was initiated by William Gladstone, a Liverpudlian a birth who lived at Seaforth in what is now my constituency of Bootle and actually went to school in Bootle at one point.
The importance of the position is reflected by the fact that the Prime Minister is in attendance and has formally moved this appointment. Similarly, its significance is demonstrated by the rigorous vetting process undertaken by the Chair and members of the Public Accounts Committee. This reflects the central role parliamentary Select Committees play in modernising Parliament, ensuring that the appointments made by Governments of whatever colour receive proper parliamentary scrutiny.
As the chief executive of the National Audit Office, the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot be overestimated. The NAO provides an indispensable role in independently auditing Government Departments, ensuring financial transparency and good value for money, as was mentioned by the Prime Minister.
I know that I speak for all Members when I say that the NAO’s work is vital in establishing an accurate picture of Government spending and in helping Members to properly hold Ministers to account. That work will be more important than ever as Ministers continue to spend increasing amounts of public money in preparation for no deal, with appropriate oversight from this House. I have no doubt that the new Comptroller and Auditor General will continue the forensic examination of accounts that we have all come to respect and that I hope the Government and their Departments—particularly those that have “Transport” in their name—will recognise, now and in the future. At this pressing time, the NAO’s workload will be made even heavier by the Government’s departmental spending review, which may put more strains upon services.
I echo the Prime Minister’s tribute to the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse. He has served with distinction under difficult circumstances, given that under his tenure the NAO has not found itself protected from cuts to resources and staffing.
Let me turn to the appointment of Mr Davies, who has more than 30 years of mixed experience as a public auditor, including work with local public services, central Government and the charity sector. The Opposition support the recommendation of the cross-party Public Accounts Committee and its satisfaction
“that Mr Davies has suitable audit and professional experience and demonstrates the necessary independence and resilience to make a success of the role.”
It goes without saying that Mr Davies is taking over the position at a difficult time and has an important task ahead. However, the Opposition are confident that he will perform his role with distinction and diligence. On behalf of the Opposition, I wish him well.
As other Members have done, I thank the Prime Minister for coming to the Chamber today to move the motion. It is a symbol of the importance of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s role that it is supported both by the Prime Minister and by myself, as a representative of the Opposition and as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. I am honoured to chair the Committee, but it is only 157 years old, whereas there has been a Comptroller and Auditor General in some form for considerably longer.
The position that we are approving today is a constitutionally significant one, because the Comptroller and Auditor General has to deal with whichever Government are in power. They need to be fearless and strong in their attention to how the Government spend the taxpayer’s money, manage projects that deliver for the citizen and ensure that they are being done as well as they can be. It is therefore important that we appoint someone with backbone, robustness and serious experience. Interestingly, this is the only time in the position’s history that we have required applicants to hold a financial qualification—although the incumbent, Sir Amyas Morse, does have such a qualification.
I am reminded today of Sir Amyas’s comment that it is not his job to be popular. It is important that the Comptroller and Auditor General be able to stand up for what they believe is right, based on the facts and the numbers, and ensure that the House is provided with the real numbers so that we can debate the issues.
I am delighted that the hon. Members for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) are present. They have both served as my deputy Chair, a role that I created for Members of the Government party. As parliamentarians committed to scrutiny, we recognise the importance of the Committee’s work, whichever party is in power. It is important that we have the decent information that the National Audit Office provides.
As my party’s Front-Bench spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), noted, the Comptroller and Auditor General is also the NAO’s chief executive, so it is important that they have the ability to lead an organisation of some 800 people. In that respect, Gareth Davies also has my confidence.
I put on record my thanks to the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, whose term of office is limited to 10 years and will come to an end on 31 May; Gareth Davies is due to take over on 1 June, if his letters patent are issued. Sir Amyas has been a fearless advocate for what is good in the public sector and for challenging Governments of whatever party—he has worked under different Governments of different hues—to ensure that Parliament is provided with the information that it needs to engage in scrutiny.
Scotland is part of the United Kingdom and voted in 2014 to stay part of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the impact on Scotland in the future, perhaps he should look at the figures for exports that came out just this morning. Over 60% of Scotland’s exports go to the rest of the UK. That is more than Scotland’s trade with the rest of the world and over three times more than with the rest of the European Union. However, he represents a party that wants to erect a border between Scotland and England. The biggest threat to the future of Scotland is sitting on the SNP Benches.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about what we are aiming to ensure that we get from leaving the EU, which is the ability to have that independent trade policy. That is so important for us as we leave the EU. Yes, I want to have a good trade relationship with the EU, but I also want to ensure that we are able to have an independent trade policy and have trade deals around the world. This country should be a champion for free trade around the world. That is the way not only to enhance our economy and prosperity and to bring jobs to this country, but to benefit countries around the world, including some of the countries whose economies need to be helped and improved. Some of the poorest people in the world would be helped by those trade arrangements. That is what we are going to deliver and that is our commitment to the British people and, as my hon. Friend says, it delivers on the result of the referendum.
That is absolutely what underpinned the proposal that we put forward in the summer, and it is what underpins the ambitious trade relationship identified in the political declaration, ensuring that people can invest in this country with confidence. Reference was made earlier to people voting for a brighter future for this country. We can deliver that brighter future for this country with a deal that delivers a good relationship with Europe but also enables us to have those other trade deals around the rest of the world.
First, absolute poverty is in fact at a low, and we have seen in the figures that came out earlier this week that real wages have been growing faster recently than at any time in the past decade, so the hon. Lady’s portrayal of this country is not fair. She asks what will ensure and improve the future of the British people; well, first of all, getting a good trade deal with the European Union is important, and that is what we are working towards—that is what the outline political declaration sets out—and we are also ensuring that we can have good trade deals around the rest of the world. I have to point out to the hon. Lady, given the Benches on which she sits, that what is necessary for all that is the good economic management that the Conservative Government have produced.
It is important that there is some further negotiation to fill out the details of the future relationship, and as my hon. Friend says, it will be important for Members of this House, when they have the meaningful vote, to consider those documents, alongside the analysis that the Government will provide, so that they have the full information to be able to take that vote and, as he says, in doing so recall the duty that I believe we have to deliver on the referendum vote.
This may be traditional but it is not just a tradition: I really do want to thank everybody who has played a part in the Committee stage. There has been a huge amount of detail. I have been resistant to a lot of the amendments tabled, but I have tried to listen carefully to everything that has been said about them. A lot of good points have been made. It has certainly expanded hugely my knowledge of the issue and of private Members’ Bills. When I put my name in the ballot, I had not anticipated the commitment required. It will be interesting to see whether I will be inspired to accept a Whip’s instruction to put my name in the ballot next year. I thank everybody involved in our long consideration of the Bill, including you, Mr Robertson, for chairing the Committee so ably and in such a friendly manner, and all the officials.
Mr Robertson, will you advise me on how to get on the record my tribute to my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire, who has been tireless in his efforts to achieve justice for those British citizens around the world who are disenfranchised?
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, I lived in both the United States and Asia—though I suspect not quite at the same time—and saw many people who had lived outside of the UK for more than 15 years but who had every intention of returning in their retirement and felt completely disenfranchised. That is why, just before my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds was involved with the international office of the Conservative party while we were in opposition, I had a role as the parliamentary chair for international voters and visited a number of our members around the world. It is a pleasure to see them so ably represented in the Public Gallery today. I met many people who expressed their frustration at this clear injustice.
I add my commendation to Opposition Members, who have taken such a constructive view in Committee to righting this wrong, for their own reasons, not least—as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds—those elderly Labour voters who are as disenfranchised as those elderly Conservative, Liberal Democrat and, I dare say, Green and Plaid Cymru voters in other countries who cannot vote at present. If the Bill passes Report and Third Reading and gets through the House of Lords, as I sincerely hope it will, we will all be able to take some credit for playing our part in restoring natural human rights to people around the world.
I fundamentally recognise the seriousness of the issues we are talking about today, and I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon for highlighting them in the new clause. This is a very important debate, and I am glad we have had it in Committee. I am glad, too, that she has, in her customary way, gone to the lengths of understanding the issue at hand and of making sure that it is drawn to the attention of the Committee.
I am also aware, of course, of the specific arguments that are advanced and the solution that is proposed by the Electoral Commission, but I note that, as the hon. Lady herself said, the new clause would not actually provide that solution. It would do a slightly different thing.
There are two points I want to make in response. The first is an argument specifically about the new clause and the Bill. As I said in response to other amendments, I am not convinced that an evaluation and a report are in themselves necessary. The Government do, of course, keep the processes and regulations that underpin political donations under review.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reminds us that when we seek to regulate we aim to have a combination of legislation—primary and secondary—backed up by guidance from regulators. It is absolutely right that we need that blend, which has already been referred to here and in other debates in Committee. It is also right that we keep looking at enforcement in practice as a matter of course. That is the end of the point that I want to make, which has been augmented by my hon. Friend.
When I first read my hon. Friend’s amendment 39, I confess I looked down the list of people of good standing in the community and got to
“local government officer; medical professional; member, associate or fellow of a professional body”,
but found no entry for Member of Parliament. I was obviously extremely concerned that my hon. Friend did not think that hon. Members were in good standing. Fortunately, further down the list, after “Post Office official”, comes
“publicly-elected representative (such as MP, Councillor or MEP)”.
It was a matter of some relief to find that, Mr Robertson.
I thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and the Minister for responding respectfully and fully to the amendments. The Minister started with the important point that overseas voters should be treated equally to domestic voters. In one crucial sense, that is absolutely true: their vote must be of equal value, wherever they are. That is the same across the United Kingdom. There are differences, however, in the current terms of registration. Within the framework of equality that the Minister talked about, the amendments seek to ensure that it is harder for malfeasance to take place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North made a point about putting up barriers that I want to address to the Minister. The problem is that the Government are putting up barriers to people at the moment with voter ID projects, which they intend to roll out further next year. We await an announcement soon on which local authorities will undertake those pilots. The fact is that the Government are putting up barriers to people who vote domestically. Therefore, with great respect to the Minister, the claim that they wish to remove barriers rings rather hollow in this Committee Room.
I have a concern about attestations being provided on behalf of an overseas voter’s registration, where that attestation is by somebody who perhaps was not in the constituency at the time that the overseas voter claimed they had a link with the constituency. There is the suggestion that under the Bill there is the possibility that we would simply have to take the word of the applicant that the attestor had some knowledge that the applicant was in the constituency to which they lay claim. The amendments are about ensuring greater clarity and, I hope, greater rigour in the battle against fraud.
Finally, the Minister talked about consistency in electoral registration across the UK. I am grateful that she addressed that and that it was a question of “may” rather than “must”. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said, there is the question of not being able to check an individual. We should go for the highest standard in order to maintain the integrity of our registration process and our democracy. With that in mind, I ask that we put the amendments to the vote.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee proceeded to a Division.
I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, after “citizen,” insert
“(iia) is aged 16 or over,”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I put on record my congratulations, and those of the Liberal Democrats more generally, to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire for presenting the Bill and steering it to Committee. The subject has been in our manifesto for a very long time, as I know it has been for most parties. I look forward to continuing to support the Bill.
Since this is my first Public Bill Committee—my party is quite small, so we do not feature on such Committees very often—I thought I had better make the most of it, so I decided to table some amendments. However, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have no intention of derailing anything, so I hope he will see my amendments in a spirit of improvement and nothing more.
Amendment 1 relates to a proposal that it is time to consider seriously: extending the franchise for overseas electors to 16 and 17-year-olds. That, of course, is in line with the policy of my party and many others. It is worth mentioning that, in the last general election, the majority of votes were cast for parties that support it. I am grateful to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for City of Chester, for adding his name to the amendment. I note that several other hon. Members present have also expressed support for extending the franchise for various reasons, and I hope I can count on their support today.
In the debate on the money resolution, the Minister said:
“Now is the time that we should reach out to our citizens—our people around the world—and say, ‘You are British, and we are proud that you are British and we welcome you into our democracy.’”—[Official Report, 16 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 572.]
I sincerely hope she agrees that that should extend to 16 and 17-year-olds. Rightly, they play a crucial part in the Welsh Assembly, which last week voted overwhelming to include them in Welsh Assembly elections. As we know well, in Scotland, 16 and 17-year-olds played a critical role in the referendum. The idea that 16 and 17-year-olds are not ready to vote has been roundly proven to be wrong. As education spokesperson, I go around schools a lot. Young people are desperate for a chance to grab hold of democracy.
I was one of those 16 and 17-year-olds who would not have been in this country at that age. My father was a diplomat and we travelled around the world. At that point, I was strong in my Britishness and I felt so tied to the country. Just because I was not here on terra firma does not mean that my heart was not here. That is the spirit that the whole of the Bill expresses: just because someone is abroad does not mean that they are not British—quite the opposite.
I fully recognise and anticipate that the Minister will argue that the amendment would lead to an anomaly, as only those 16 and 17-year-olds who are overseas would vote in elections but not everyone else. I would accept that anomaly. It would show that 16 and 17-year-olds would and can participate in those kinds of elections and it may open the door to that wider debate. That is why it is important to talk about it today.
Let me give myself as an example. I was born in this country—in Hammersmith—and we left when I was one. I would have been tied to an address, but we left and I did not come back until university. I came back for boarding school because I had to, but my brothers and sisters did not because I went to boarding school only because we were in a country that did not have adequate schooling—in fact, we started our own school, but that is a long story.
The amendment would have applied to me, because when I was 16, had there been a general election, I could have had the chance to vote: I lived here when I was one and I was on my parents’ passports at that point. I took my first flight to Nepal when I was six months old.
Break in Debate
There are already problems within the administration of electoral registration. We saw it at the 2017 election and we hear it now from electoral registration officers. Further cuts will put further pressure on those officers, and that will undermine their ability to manage the process efficiently. It is sadly a fact of life that, if local authorities are being asked to do more with less, they are more likely to spend it on areas other than electoral registration.
The Bill as it stands would demand a hugely complex administrative task of our electoral registration officers. They do not always have the necessary training or resources to be responsible for carrying out the in-depth, time-consuming research that is necessary to register overseas voters who are not present on any voter register. Local electoral officers would be expected to do extensive research into people’s past history and residency, for which they are not prepared. It would open electoral registration up to between 4.7 million and 5.5 million new overseas voters. Not all of them would choose to register, of course, but even if only a small proportion did, that would be fairly overwhelming for the already overstretched electoral registration officers.
Let us imagine, for a moment, the task of registering an overseas voter, who last resided in the UK 40 years ago. That is along the lines of the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South about long-term absentees from the UK. They would have to provide to the electoral registration officer their name, date of birth, age and the last address for the last day on which they were resident in the UK. The electoral registration officer must then research and find the last residence of the applicant, without using the electoral register, if they have been away for that long. They would have to research whether the house still existed, whether the address was still the same, and which polling district, ward and constituency the house used to be in, taking into account all the boundary reviews.
That detailed information about the historical residence is difficult to find. I seriously doubt if electoral registration offers will be able to carry out that sort of research, even if it was not on a mass scale and there were only a few tens of applications every year. Will the Minister tell us whether she has had any conversations with local electoral administrators or the Association of Electoral Administrators to prepare them for this massive change and to warn them what might be coming down the road?
I am keen to wrap up shortly so that the Minister and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire can respond. Amendment 33 seeks to extend and widen the franchise in the way the Minister spoke about in the debate on amendment 1. It does so by striking a balance between throwing the doors open completely to people who might not have lived here for many years and allowing those people who are perhaps in the service of the United Kingdom or one of its agencies.
The hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned members of the armed forces—one of the bodies included in the amendment. It puts me in mind of the 1945 general election, that landmark in British history and in the history of my party. The results of the election were delayed for several weeks for all the servicemen who were serving abroad and had to have their votes brought in. I had the privilege this year to visit our British forces in Estonia, Gibraltar and Cyprus. There clearly are British servicemen and women serving abroad.
Those service deployments are normally for only two or three years; some can be a little bit longer. There are, of course, also civilian deployed staff who may stay on deployment for far longer. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North’s amendments make practical proposals that will help to roll out the extension of the franchise to overseas voters in a more measured and controlled fashion. I commend him for bringing them to the Committee.
I very much associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds. He put that very well; I too know Harry Shindler.
The Bill will only enfranchise those who can prove a real and discernible connection to a UK address via a previous registration or residence. At its core is the need to scrap the 15-year rule for overseas voters and rightly ensure that this group can vote for life.
On amendment 33, I too recognise the valid contribution of individuals employed, for example, as Crown servants in the British Council or military personnel overseas. I am pleased that there are existing provisions in the Representation of the People Act 1983 to ensure that those categories of electors are not disenfranchised by the current 15-year rule. The Bill will mean that no other British citizen who was previously resident or registered in the UK will be blocked from voting in this country. That will apply equally to those who were employed overseas by a UK public authority or employed by a designated humanitarian agency. I hope, on that basis, that the hon. Member for Nottingham North will feel able to withdraw amendment 33.
Break in Debate
That is correct. The premise of the Bill is that the world has grown smaller in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes and that people are, or can if they wish to be, much more in touch with their home country. The point is that we are seeking to enfranchise those people who wish to be. We are throwing open that door, rather than opening it an inch at a time.
I will pick up on the reference to Mr Shindler, whom several hon. Members present know. I say this with the greatest respect, and I do not wish to be mawkish, but he is very elderly. Alas, if very elderly people were put in the position of being allowed in one year at a time, I do not think that would necessarily bode well for someone his age being able to get the justice that many of us feel that he and others deserve. I hope that that suffices as a thought towards amendments 34 and 35.
Let me come on to two other very important points that have been raised: the burdens that might be placed on registration officers, and how the Bill helps. Those points are absolutely relevant to this section of the debate. The point has been bandied about that registration officers should fear the Bill because it places new burdens on them, but that need not be the case. I want to send out a message to reassure members of the Committee and, of course, the registration community—the community of EROs, who work so incredibly hard to run our registration systems and then, with their colleagues, run our elections. New burdens that arise from this Bill will be funded by central Government. That is clear in the impact assessment; it has been made clear by my Department; and I make it clear again here today. The broader arguments made by the hon. Member for City of Chester about local government funding pressures are not relevant. New burdens from this Bill will be funded. I am very happy to reiterate that. It is there in the impact assessment and here in our discussion today.
There is a precursor to that—I can give a record of credit to it—which is that we did the same for the individual electoral registration reform. We have been fully funding electoral registration officers for the additional burdens brought by that reform. Indeed, we then went on to make further reforms to ease those pressures, because that is, of course, what we all want. We are not in the business of asking people to do more work for fun. We are in the business of asking people to do that work so that we have a flourishing democracy in which individuals’ voices count and British citizens are properly enfranchised and involved. Again, that is the fundamental point of this Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to add further clarity. Essentially, the answer remains simple: all new burdens that arise from this Bill will be funded. I can also reassure the Committee that I am in close touch with the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission, of course, and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. They are all part of the wider community of registration officers and their colleagues in the relevant parts of local government who do such hard and important work for our society and whom we as a Government seek to support every step of the way.
On future reform, the UK Government, in partnership with the Governments of Scotland and Wales, are seeking to alleviate some of the pressures that relate to the canvass process in our electoral systems. That is another good modernisation opportunity and it will also relieve the pressures that registration officers can find themselves under from some of the aged processes in our electoral law for registering people. I am absolutely in the business of supporting our registration officers, finding ways to help them in their work and, specifically in the case of this Bill, ensuring that any new burdens are met.
Let me turn to some of the smaller changes proposed in the Bill. They are smaller compared with the big point of principle, but of course they are not small at all to an administrator whose job it is to operate the system. I can confirm that we will reduce the amount of information that an elector needs to supply in a renewal of registration. We are going to give EROs a more streamlined system for processing those renewals and recommend email as a method of communication between the ERO and the elector. There are a number of other ways in which we can help streamline those processes so that the Bill can achieve its really important goal—that big principle—while also creating a system that EROs will find operable and easy to play their part in as we extend the franchise to where it should be extended.
The right hon. Gentleman is right in that we are looking to maintain those agreements. Of course, once we are out of the European Union, it will then be possible for us to enhance and improve those agreements in negotiation with those countries. Discussions have been held with a number of countries, and also with the European Commission, which itself has indicated its recognition that this is the right way forward.
We have always been clear that we will keep Parliament informed. One of the things I said at Lancaster House was that we would provide information generally as and when it was possible to do so. My hon. Friend said, I think, “if” we leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. Let me just confirm that we will be leaving on 29 March 2019.
The hon. Lady knows full well that those who work in the UK Visas and Immigration section of the Home Office look at every case very carefully. She has made her point in this House, and I am sure that the Home Office will look again at that case.
That is an important issue and I referred to it in my Mansion House speech. I said that we wanted to ensure that financial services were a part of the deep and comprehensive partnership that we wished to build with the EU27. Our goal should be to establish access to each other’s markets. That should be based on maintaining the same regulatory outcomes over time, with a mechanism that determines proportionate consequences where they are not maintained. That is part of my ambition for an economic partnership with the European Union that goes way beyond any existing free trade agreement, covering more sectors and co-operating more fully. My hon. Friend is right that if firms and financial services are looking to go elsewhere, they are more likely to look to go elsewhere in the world, rather than elsewhere in Europe.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Nobody should be in any doubt about the role that Russia has played. Russia could play a role to ensure we find a diplomatic and political solution to what is happening in Syria. It has been unwilling to do so and it has supported a regime that has illegally used chemical weapons to kill and injure its own civilians, including young children.
The fact is that without action the message would have been sent that it was okay for this regime, and any other regime that chose to do so, to use chemical weapons. It is very important that we re-establish the fact that chemical weapons use is illegal and that the international community will not stand by and see them used.
I do. My hon. Friend pre-empts me, and she is quite right. In my view, the sanctions we have currently levied against Syria and its backers are insufficient. She is no longer in her place, but the Chair of the Treasury Committee, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), spoke very well earlier about the need to look again at this situation and to consider secondary sanctions to reach those who trade with those trading with Syria and its backers. I am pleased that the Treasury Committee is going to investigate this matter in detail.
Fifthly and finally, we have to demonstrate our commitments to the victims of this war. We now have a large number of Syrians—people from Syria who were here before the conflict and those who have come in since—who form part of our UK society. I really think we ought to listen to and work with them and that we should build up another track of peace building. We know that the Geneva talks have stalled and that the Astana process is not going to produce what we would see as an answer, so why do we not learn the lessons of Northern Ireland and recognise that peace needs to involve not just the warring parties but all those with a stake in Syrian society? Why can we not reach out across Syrian civil society and have a British-led effort to consult those impacted by the war and who hold no power but may do so in the future? I really believe that in working with Syrian civil society, most especially women, we would find some of the answers to peace. That will not come immediately or straightaway, but by doing such early work, we could put in train a better Syria for the future.
I have a very firm view, which is that that is a question for Syrians to decide. In this country, the United Kingdom, we are a democracy, and we decide who we are led by. I believe that that should be the same for every country in the world, especially for Syria. It will be for Syrians to decide their leadership, not a British politician in the British Parliament.
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I want to focus on what I would like to call the Westminster paradox. While there are those who have taken the view that the something that must be done was the something done at the weekend, I cannot help but draw the conclusion that instead of reasserting the very best of the international rules-based system, we have set a precedent for an unfortunate and disturbing new normal that will be far more to the liking of those in the Kremlin than they would want.
It is important for all Members to recognise the difficulty that the Prime Minister faced last week. While I may not agree with the decision, I think every Member of the House should reflect on it. It was a difficult decision to make, as I think every Member recognises.
Nevertheless, I disagree with the answer the Prime Minister gave me earlier, which was that by asking that the United Nations is respected, we somehow give the Russian state—specifically the Russian regime—a veto on UK foreign policy. It seems that it is now United Kingdom Government policy that United Nations Security Council vetoes are no longer binding on the UK. That seems to be the precedent the UK Government are setting. Whether we like it or not, Vladimir Putin will be rubbing his hands at this small yet significant hypocrisy—magnified a thousandfold on Russia Today, in internet memes and in Stop the War coalition whataboutery—which contains just enough of a grain of truth to be accepted by the many who believe such things all too easily.
We know that the United Kingdom has not used its Security Council veto unilaterally since September 1972. It was, of all things, on a colonial legacy issue about the place formerly known as Rhodesia, and I am sure that the Government would not like to be reminded about that during this week of all weeks. Why does the United Kingdom have this veto? Many people have noticed the precedent that has been set. I do not doubt that the corrupt regime in Moscow will stop at nothing to prop up the wicked regime in Damascus. Equally, it will do so in relation to the various slivers of eastern Europe and the Caucasus that it has occupied, while China will supposedly do so in relation to North Korea or Burma.
So—this is a specific question that requires an answer—do the Government have any substantive policy suggestions for the structure and procedures of the United Nations Security Council now that it would seem that veto powers have ceased to work? To embark on a brave new world of UK foreign policy once since 2016 was foolish; to do so twice would be indescribable.
Let us get to the final point of the Westminster paradox. Over the course of the two referendums we have had on these islands in recent years, it would be fair to say we have been given the impression, particularly by Government Members, that the UK’s position on the Security Council was one of great responsibility and power that gave us immense privileges and, secondly, that it was derived in part from the status of this place as a cradle of liberal parliamentary democracy—something that should be restored to a supposed former glory. I fear that, in the same period in which they have diminished themselves by being about to leave the European Union, this Government have diminished the United Kingdom yet further by laying dynamite under the foundations of the international rules-based system that it did so much to create.
I have seen Syrian children being educated in the Lebanon, and I have seen Syrian children looking absolutely bewildered in camps in Jordan by what they have witnessed. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the international community should be stepping up to ensure that more money is made available to assist these Syrian refugees?
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. What would be the plight of the Christians in Syria if Bashar al-Assad were deposed?
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) has a done a typically valiant service for the Syrian people today by reminding us all that the focus of our efforts ought to be, ultimately, on them. I will spend a few moments on the action the Prime Minister rightly authorised at the weekend, but I want to use the majority of the few minutes I have to talk about what the future can be.
On the authorisation of strikes, as the Prime Minister knows, many of us have been pushing for this for months and, in some cases, years. It was the right decision. It was courageous. We should all welcome the fact that the RAF seems to have executed them in such a professional way, destroying the target while minimising civilian casualties and wider collateral damage. The action was necessary and worth supporting to reset the red line against chemical weapons use anywhere in the world, but I hope we also can use this opportunity to make a genuine difference for the Syrian people.
I understand and accept what the Government say about wanting to avoid escalation by not seeking to change the balance of the civil war in Syria, but let us be careful in understanding what we potentially mean by that. This is a regime that uses chemical weapons as part of a worked out panoply of violence and war crimes against civilian people. It is worth remembering that the chemical attack last weekend only came about as part of an effort to try to move rebels out of the enclave in Douma. When they refused to go, the next day a chemical weapon was dropped on them. It was therefore part of a grotesque siege strategy that breaks all international conventions.
The consensus was that Russia, Assad and Iran would have it all their own way in Syria and that nothing could be done. We have shown that that is not the case. When the right targeted action is taken, we can make a difference. While we should not seek to intervene in the outcome by taking sides in the civil war, there is more that we can do with military support to back up the Syrian people. The people of Idlib now face a final, terrible siege, just as many other towns and cities have across Syria. We could say with our allies that we will guarantee humanitarian access to those people. We would not intervene militarily on the side of opposition groups—I accept that is difficult —but we could say that we will guarantee vital aid supplies to stop the grotesque war crime of siege tactics being used against those people. I really hope that the Government will take heart from the way in which they have been successful over chemical weapons and consider taking that forward in the vital weeks ahead.
I spoke to President Trump yesterday and he has spoken out against this incident. We will be continuing to speak with the American Administration because they are among the allies we would encourage to work with us in a collective response to this issue.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and this question has been raised before. Of course the reinvestigation of any deaths is a matter for the police; it is for them to consider what action to take. At present, their focus is clearly on this investigation, but I am sure they will look at that matter in due course.
I am sure that the Minister will clarify that point because not only have I invited her to do so, but my hon. Friend has too.
May I make just one brief point?
I just want to emphasise how many people—people unknown to me—who have written to me from overseas just to thank me for this Bill. Their level of appreciation is huge, as is the importance they attach to being able to vote in a British election because they are British citizens; it really is overwhelming. I am sure that other hon. Members have had exactly the same communications.
I agree. In fact, I will later make reference to that very point.
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I will reach that point in my speech at some stage—I have got through only one paragraph so far. I wish to make a large number of points, and I cannot make them all instantaneously. I can address them in a random order depending on when Conservative Members want to raise them, or I can address them in the order in which I have written them down. It is entirely up to them which way they want me to take them.
I will be delighted to address the points about pensions and people who do not currently pay taxes later on in my speech. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He has mentioned some very sensible points that I assure him I will address.
I return to “no representation without taxation”. I do not know who said that taxes are how we pay for a civilised society, but it is certainly as true today as it was when it was said. None of us can imagine a society with no police force, no health service, no education, no courts, no transport systems, no mechanism for adjudication between those of different views—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) want me to give way, or is he just chuntering?
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I do not quite understand. If Ian wanted to affect his life in Canada, he would be able to find ways of doing so there. I also think he would very much be able to affect some decisions made at this level of politics. I do not think that this provision should necessarily be extended to local elections and issues, such as bin collections in Oxford West and Abingdon. However, the recent general elections have been about major issues such as the direction of this country and the flavour that this country puts out to the rest of the world. It is entirely right that people who feel British, are British and are born into a British family have the right to vote on such matters.
I am half Palestinian and I regret that I am not at all able to engage with the country in which my mother grew up—she was actually born in Tripoli, but grew up in Jerusalem. I very keenly feel that just because I have never lived in Palestine does not make me any less Palestinian. Equally, those who have spent a lot of their life abroad have a lot to say about being British. Being British is more than just being on this land. It is loving this land and feeling that we are from this land.
I will soon draw my remarks to a close because I am keen to hear the next Bill, of which I am a sponsor. I just want to ask why we have not really considered having a constituency of overseas electors in the way that France does. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether the Government will look into that. One reason that people do not register to vote from abroad is that it is incredibly bureaucratic and hard, and they might well live in countries where the postal system does not work very well. I therefore wholeheartedly agree with finding a way to make it much easier. As the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) mentioned, it would be an excellent idea to give people the ability to return their vote to the embassy or the consulate, rather than having to get it back to the local authority.
It is an extraordinary privilege to be British. As a new Member of Parliament, it strikes me how much Members across the House all love this country. This Bill demonstrates—as is also shown by the numerous constituents who I am sure have contacted us all from abroad—that people do not have to be on this land to love it. The Liberal Democrats and I wholeheartedly back this Bill. I sincerely hope that the House votes in favour of it today.
What makes a 16-year-old woman in this country any less valuable than a 70-year-old woman living in Spain who is a British national? That woman has a vote, but the 16-year-old woman does not.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I have a real interest in what happens in Scotland, India and Spain—I was watching the news from Barcelona very closely—but that does not give me the right to vote for people in those countries or for how they raise their taxes and deliver their services.
I will try to be brief, because I want this Bill to get through.
I believe that there is an injustice in the arbitrary 15-year rule, but there are also many other injustices in the way many British citizens living overseas are treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) was right to highlight some of them. What is not right, however, is whataboutery and the best being the enemy of the good. What is not right is using false hares and arguments in order to discredit this Bill and imply that all the people supporting it are against, for example, votes at 16. I voted for the private Member’s Bill that proposed that, and it will come. Within our parliamentary procedure, we cannot have an all-encompassing electoral reform Bill. Our only opportunity to deal with this injustice is to support the Second Reading of this Bill to allow it to make progress. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has done an excellent job in bringing it forward.
For some months, I have been pressing the Government, on behalf of Labour International and in response to communications I have had with Harry Shindler, who has already been mentioned, on why they were not bringing forward the commitment they made in their manifesto. When I asked questions about that last October, I was referred to answers given in September to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who had also been raising this issue from the Labour Benches. There is a bipartisan interest—in fact, a cross-Parliament, all-party interest—in these matters. All of us, even those who have only a few constituents who have gone to live in other countries, will have had communications about them from people in Spain, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada or wherever.
There are international organisations within the political parties that represent our party members living abroad. I have the honour of being the honorary president of Labour International, and I want to convey a few words from an email from Lorraine Hardy. She was not registered to vote in Oxford or Westminster, but was a Labour party activist in Leeds before she went to live in Alicante with her husband many years ago. She says:
“‘Votes for Life’ will be even more important post Brexit, as we will have no opportunity to vote for a national representative in the UK nor in our country of residence as there will no longer be an option to vote for an MEP.”
Frankly, it is an outrage that a large number of British people whose future in Europe was affected by the referendum were not able to vote in that referendum because they had been living abroad in a European Union country for more than 15 years. That democratic outrage was not manufactured; it was a fact. This is an opportunity to make sure that we remedy that outrage and take a small step towards allowing those people to express their views at the next general election on whether their parliamentary representatives were right to damage their position in Europe. I think that many of them might have some things to say about that. I will not get into that, but the view that this is one-sided is completely and utterly wrong. None of us knows what the views are of people living in other countries who have not expressed positions and are not registered to vote. That idea is just made up and manufactured.
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Given the overstretched nature of elections offices up and down the country, I suspect there would not be the capacity for such a check. Given that the Government are this May planning to trial requiring ID at polling stations, it seems that the requirements to prove the identity of an elector living in the UK are far greater than—
I will, unusually, delay for a moment to see whether the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who was in the Chamber until just a few minutes ago, is in the vicinity. I make it clear to the House that I am not creating a precedent in so doing, but I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was in a wheelchair and it might therefore take him a little longer to reach the Chamber.
I wish the hon. Gentleman a merry Christmas too, and a happy new year. In fact, the introduction of the Government’s proposed arrangements for free school meals under universal credit will lead to more children having access to them.
We value the important role that the City of London plays, not just as a financial centre for Europe but as a financial centre for the world, and we want to retain and maintain that. Mr Barnier has made a number of comments recently about the opening negotiating position of the European Union. Both the Bank of England and the Treasury have today set out reassurance about ensuring that banks will be able to continue to operate and the City of London will continue to retain its global position. That will, however, be part of the negotiations on phase 2 of Brexit, and we are very clear about how important it is.
I have answered a question on that in previous statements that I have made in relation to the matter. We would expect, yes, that the European Court of Justice jurisdiction would start very similarly at the beginning of that implementation period, but as I said in response to one of my hon. Friends earlier, we are also clear that, if it is possible to negotiate, for example, the dispute resolution mechanism at an earlier stage and introduce it at an earlier stage, we would do precisely that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The area of migration is a good example of how we will be continuing to work with our friends and allies in the European Union, even after we have left. This issue affects us all. We can have a greater impact if we all work together and we will continue to do that.
The building regulations set out the materials that are compliant and those that are non-compliant. As we go through this process of looking at the materials that have been used in various blocks, the question of whether they comply with building regulations will need to be looked at. That issue will need to be looked at in relation to the public inquiry.
Work on the guidance for the building regulations is ongoing and, I would expect, imminent—it is not just a question of producing something; various organisations need to be consulted. We need to ensure that when the fire services and police have done their investigation, any action that is necessary immediately as a result of the identification of the cause of the fire and the reason it took such hold—the issue of particular concern—should be taken, and will be taken.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work he has done and the feedback he has provided to Ministers following his conversations with residents and victims on the ground. He is absolutely right: the point has been made to key workers that they need to go out to see people, to ensure that they know what is available to them, rather than just expecting them to come into the centre. I can assure him that we are looking actively at what further resilience we can put into the system by establishing the sort of taskforce that he and I have both spoken about. None of us wants to see a circumstance like this happen again, but we must ensure that there is full resilience, where disasters take place.