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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 22 October 2014

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Voter Registration

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Sam Gyimah.)

9.30 am

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams.

Securing a debate on voter registration is timely with the general election now in the near future. It gives us the opportunity to discuss the enormous changes in the electoral register, a process that started in England and Wales on 10 June this year and in Scotland after the referendum on 19 September. For a democracy to work well, the system needs to be as easy as possible to enable as many eligible people as possible to vote. The first step in the process is to have an accurate, up-to-date and as complete a register as possible.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend absolutely about the importance of having as accurate an electoral register as possible. She began by indicating that the time scale is tight. Would it not be sensible for the Government to allow more time, so that we can be certain that we have as many people on the electoral register as is humanly possible?

Julie Elliott: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. In the main debate when the measure passed through the House, I said that I agreed in principle with individual voter registration, but that it had to be implemented in a way that works. The new system, however, is simply being rushed through. My fear is that because the changes are being done at speed, and because of the lack of funding available to implement them, they will disfranchise millions of people. That does not improve our democracy at all.

The groups being disfranchised that I am most concerned about are: students and young people; people who live in the private rented sector; and adults with no dependent children who are not yet claiming pensions or not on benefits. I will start with students and young people.

My city, Sunderland, is a university city, so in term time we have an influx of many thousands of young people. They do not always live at home—historically, their parents would have put them on the register at home—they move more frequently and they have a transient lifestyle, whether because they are students away in term time and back home in holidays or simply because they are young people leaving home for the first time, living with friends. Their national insurance number is often registered to the address of their parents’ home, so if they tried to go on the electoral register where they are students the data would not match.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Sheffield, like Sunderland, is a student city, and I represent more students than any other Member of Parliament—36,000. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the university of Sheffield on its work—which we hope to roll out to Sheffield Hallam university next year—in

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seamlessly integrating electoral registration with student enrolment to encourage maximum registration? The Government have given some support. Will she encourage them to take up such a process much more vigorously, working with Universities UK and the National Union of Students, and to look at the opportunities beyond universities in colleges, schools and other institutions?

Julie Elliott: I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend says. I have been in discussions with the university of Sunderland in recent weeks to look at that very issue and how it can maximise the number of students on the register. If the Government are prepared to get involved in such a process, that would be a help.

A final point about students and their NI number is that they might have the wrong number allocated, although they would be unaware of that. MPs do not deal with this problem every week, but it is not an uncommon situation for people to come to us because they have the wrong NI number, which they only become aware of when they try to claim a benefit.

For example, not so long ago I had a case of a young woman who had left school and become a hairdresser. She had always worked since leaving school and paid her taxes and her NI. It was only when she applied for maternity pay, when expecting her first child, that she suddenly got a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions saying that she had made no NI contributions. Clearly, that was not the case, and she could prove easily through payslips and her employee records that she had a full NI record. She was not aware of the problem, however, until she got to the point of needing to use the record.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): My hon. Friend gives a graphic example of the issue with national insurance numbers. Is she aware that 35% of Muslim women do not have NI numbers? Where does that leave them when getting registered under the new system?

Julie Elliott: That is a pertinent point. The NI system is a good one in general, but it has flaws and is not perfect, and many issues arise from that. As I explained, many people will not be aware that there is a problem with their NI number until they do not data-match.

Given the housing shortage, the private rented sector has grown exponentially over the past 10 years. Even in my city, where house prices are relatively low, there is a shortage of social housing and people have difficulty getting mortgages, because of low wages, zero-hours contracts and so on. Even in Sunderland, therefore, we have a housing crisis and more people than ever, from all walks of life and all age groups, living in the private rented sector. It is a transient population, because of how our tenancies work, with short-term tenancies and people often moving home every six months, and they are difficult to reach.

The final group I want to mention are adults with no dependent children. They are not claiming benefits, their children are grown and they do not receive child benefit any more, and they are not yet at pensionable age. Often, that group of people are at a time in their life when they are downsizing and moving home. Does everyone remember to change the address in their NI records? Most people do not have that on their list of things to change. They are not doing anything wrong;

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they are still paying their contributions through their employer and so forth, but again their NI records are not as accurate as they should be. Again, only when those people seek a benefit from the NI system does that fact come to light. It is easily sorted out, but in the meantime they will not data-match. Furthermore, working people are busy people and they are often not at home when canvassers call, when the local authority is trying to improve their records. Again, through no fault of their own, they will be disfranchised.

Those are all genuine examples of people who do not actively want to be unable to vote, but have lifestyles that, under the new system and the speed of its introduction, make them difficult to reach. They will therefore fall off the register and be unable to vote.

I want to talk a little about my constituency. Sunderland Central falls within the electoral and local authority district of Sunderland. Our electoral services are famous. They do things well, they are efficient and quick, and they take enormous pride in what they do. It is a well resourced department, which does things well, to the extent that, historically, people from the department have gone around the world to help improve other countries’ electoral administration. That is how good they are. They have put Sunderland on the map. They are very quick at counts, to the point that at the past few general elections there has been no competition for us—nobody even tries any more. The votes for the three Sunderland MPs are counted, and the results are known, on the day that the votes have been cast, which is unique in this place. At the previous general election my seat was third to be declared in Sunderland, but my result was still in at 20 minutes to midnight, so I could relax a long time before many of my colleagues.

The electoral services staff in Sunderland have taken the changes incredibly seriously. They were part of the pilot and have been involved in working groups with the Government and the Electoral Commission to look at how to implement the system. Yet even in Sunderland there are massive problems. I want to read out a few things that the head of electoral services told me yesterday. She said:

“Following the Confirmation Live Run…Sunderland had a match rate of 84%. This was improved with Local Data Matching which brought the match up to 92%. This meant that in real terms Sunderland then delivered 15,753 Household Enquiry Forms…which were comprised of empty properties, student accommodation and non-responders to last year’s canvass. After reminders”—

that is, two things through the post—

“and a visit from personal canvassers, Sunderland has an outstanding total of 6,128 which is about 39% of the original total.”

Even after two letters and a personal call, Sunderland is still more than 6,000 people short under the new system.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I very much agree with the points my hon. Friend is making. The Government funding for following up on non-responders and new electors is based on getting a 50% response to the first reminder and a 50% response to the second, but I believe that in some places the response to the first reminder has been as low as 10%. Does she agree that the Minister needs to put more money into the process if we are to get the response rates up?

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Julie Elliott: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. More money and more time are needed to get the system right. As I said at the beginning, in principle we agree with individual voter registration, but the implementation has not been right.

Chris Ruane: On the dry run and the number of local government departments that then conducted their own local data-matching, there are 380 electoral registration officers in the country, but only 137 wrote to the Electoral Commission to say that they had done their dry run. My county was one—I pay tribute to our ERO, Gareth Evans, for doing so—and my hon. Friend’s county got an extra 10% registered. But two thirds could not be bothered. Was the Electoral Commission too lax in its monitoring and policing of the dry run?

Julie Elliott: The point is well made. Not enough information, time or thought has gone into how registration is happening. My hon. Friend’s electoral registration unit and my own are among the best in our countries, but quite frankly not all EROs are of the same standard. They vary enormously. They do not always use the same computer systems. Some are better than others, and some are better resourced than others. There is massive variation. We have one of the best electoral services departments in the country, but we are still having problems. The figures for some of the worst in the country will be dreadful.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Does she agree that it is also important to recognise the really hard work done by canvassers, who go out there and chase the information? I have talked to the canvassers in my constituency working on behalf of the ERO, and the reality is that they have not had proper pay increases for some time. There is even more pressure on them now. There is a real issue with capacity for that resource at this crucial time.

Julie Elliott: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, in Sunderland we have put a lot of effort and resources into the matter, but we are constrained by a massively reduced local authority budget. That is the backdrop to some of what is going on.

As I was saying, 92% of households matched after the live run but there may now be residents in those houses that we do not know about. They are deemed to have been matched, and have not been canvassed, so if new people have moved into the properties in addition to those who have been matched, we will not know about them. The figure is misleading.

We could have another mini-canvass in January or February. I understand that the Minister is currently considering whether to fund that. A mini-canvass is absolutely essential and should be mandatory for local authorities. As I have said, my local authority is doing everything it can to make its register as accurate and workable as possible, but so far many authorities have not done as we have. The Government need to look carefully at funding a mini-canvass and making it mandatory that electoral registration officers carry it out.

Sunderland sent out more than 13,000 invitations to register—they are for the red and amber mismatches from the confirmation live run—and have just started

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door-knocking for those. As yet, there has been no response for almost 11,000 of them. That is how hard to reach some people and places are.

Another issue is that the system of postal vote registration has changed; so has the information that could be used to match people and keep them on the postal vote register. In Sunderland we were part of a national pilot in 2004 of all-out postal vote elections, as a result of local authority boundary and ward changes. Since then, on average around 40% of the electorate in Sunderland has used postal votes. People like voting by post in Sunderland. It is effective and efficient, with a very high turnout. There are probably many reasons for that: although we are a university city our indigenous population is quite aged, and older people tend to like to vote by post. We also have quite inclement weather a lot of the time, so people often do not like going out to vote—the north-east coast is beautiful but it can be very cold.

Wayne David: I will not question for one moment the beauty of Sunderland or its weather. My point is connected to my first intervention on the speed of the introduction of the changes. One reason the Government are so keen to press ahead as quickly as humanly possible is the perception of fraud, particularly with regard to postal votes. Does my hon. Friend agree that the perception is not necessarily the reality, and we should go on the reality? The truth is that very little electoral fraud takes place.

Julie Elliott: I absolutely agree—that is my next point. There has been only one serious electoral fraud issue in the past 10 years or so. Electoral fraud is a serious issue. If is it happening anywhere it absolutely needs to be tackled, but it is not happening on a mass scale; in my experience it certainly is not happening with postal votes.

As I was saying, a lot of people in Sunderland vote by post. They are used to it and do it every time, so it is their normal voting pattern nowadays. According to the records in Sunderland, difficulties with matching, sign-up and other issues mean that some 1,740 people currently on the postal vote register are going to drop off it, and will not know that. It will get to the day when postal votes need to be cast and they will not have their postal vote. I am quite sure they will ring up to say that they have not received it, and will be told, “You are not on the postal vote register any more.” That simply is not good enough. Those people may not be able to get out to a polling station. If they can, they may go and vote in person on the day, but as I said a lot of them are older and are not in the best of health, so are not able to do that.

Does it really help our democracy to disfranchise people because of the situation with the postal vote register? Historically, other data that a council holds—perhaps council tax records—have been used to data-match, to make sure that people kept their postal vote. That is no longer going to be allowed to happen, and the Government need to look at that.

Will the Minister fund a mini-canvass? Will he make that decision urgently, because we are now into October? A mini-canvass needs to take place early in the new year, and I have outlined the reasons for that. Is he comfortable with the problems that are arising? Estimates are that 7.5 million people are not usually registered,

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and the latest estimates I have seen are that 5.5 million more will drop off the register under the new system. That means 13 million people will be disfranchised at the next general election. Is the Minister comfortable with that? What other plans does he have to put right the implementation and roll-out of the system?

9.50 am

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and to be the second speaker after the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), who made an extensive speech. I would invite her to Norfolk, where the climate tends to be a little drier and, occasionally, warmer, although I cannot speak for that in a week where we have all been battered by somewhat higher winds than normal.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on calling this important debate. This is an urgent and important matter for us all, and particularly for me, because, until 1 pm today, I am the secretary of the all-party group on voter registration—we have our annual general meeting at 1 pm, and I fully hope to continue being the secretary or to become another officer of the group. At our meeting, we will also have a briefing from Cabinet Office officials on individual electoral registration. I can therefore reassure hon. Members that there is great interest in this important reform programme and that it is being properly scrutinised, not only in this room, but by the all-party group. It is, indeed, also being scrutinised by many others outside this place, and I could name, among many others, Bite the Ballot or the group I met last night, who are behind the Twitter handle “It’s A Power Thing”—I am sure that you tweet every day, Mr Williams, and that when you find examples of what politics really consists of, you, too, use the hashtag ThisIsPolitics. I am confident that every one of us in the Chamber shares with such groups a passion not only for getting young people to register to vote, but for making sure that anybody and everybody can use their rightful place in the franchise.

I am sure the Minister will explain everything he is doing to ensure the greatest possible accuracy and completeness in voter registration. He will not need me to reiterate the many arguments I have made on this issue, because I have been on record many times in this Parliament as a former Minister with responsibility for the registration programme.

I am pleased to see that we have colleagues from Northern Ireland with us, and I am sure they will be able to explain further some of the lessons that have rightly been learned from a similar roll-out there.

Chris Ruane: I pay tribute to the non-partisan work the hon. Lady does on the all-party group—she is an excellent politician. On the lessons from Northern Ireland, the registration rate there in 2011 was 71%, which was way down. There was then a complete canvass, with door knocking, and the rate went up to 88%. Door knocking is the single most important way to improve registration, but, in 2013, 23 authorities did not door-knock. What does the hon. Lady think of that?

Chloe Smith: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He and I have tussled over this many times—again, in a non-partisan way. There is no call for this to be a party political question, but there is every call for us to ensure

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that local authorities have the tools to do what works, and I am sure the Minister will respond fully and properly to the suggestions that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central made.

On the subject of errant local authorities, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) will remember that I wrote to colleagues in this place when I was a Minister, and I have done so again during my time with the all-party group, to encourage Members to hold their local authorities to account for what they and their EROs do to properly engage with those who should be registered. Members of the House have a real chance to take a proper interest in this subject—again, in a non-partisan, non-party political way—because we have every interest in ensuring that we have an accurate and complete register and, indeed, that all the tools of the trade are being used to back up the state of our politics. It will not be a matter of debate among us that politics has a bad name and continues to be the subject of declining interest among voters. That is not acceptable to any of us, and all of us, in our different ways, take a passionate interest in the issue.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing this timely debate. When she talks about people who vote, she means those who are on the register, but there is a disconnect even there. After we get those people on the register, it is difficult to get them to exercise their voting rights. However, how do we get those who are totally uninterested on the register? There certainly is a problem there. In Northern Ireland, 88% of people are on the register, but there is still a long way to go to get the proper franchise.

Chloe Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, but I am certainly not going to be able to solve the problem he raises in my comments—and nor, I suspect, will the Minister be able to. In the scenario the hon. Gentleman described, there is an element of somebody not wishing to do something, and, in the final analysis, I do not think there is a way to compel somebody to do something they do not wish to do. Before we got to that point, I would put every argument to show that their place in democracy is a hard-won right and, at times, very sensitive; and I am sure the hon. Gentleman would be able to give us many more localised reasons why that is so in Northern Ireland. I would argue that, in the grand scheme of things, it is not hard to get on the electoral register in our country. We should compare that with what happens in countries around the world, where it is still hard for people in this day and age to have their democratic voice heard. The best example, which we have seen in the newspapers only in the last month, is probably Hong Kong, where people wish to play a part in democracy. We could all take a few lessons from that back to the people we represent to further the discussion of what democracy really is about.

That allows me to move to the point I wanted to make. I want to go back to principles. I disagree with the hon. Member for Sunderland Central that we are facing disfranchisement—we are not. The people we are talking about are enfranchised and legally able to vote. We are talking not about some descent into North

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Korean-style practices, but about the method of getting as many people as possible, in the most accurate and complete way possible, to change from one system to another. I am no fan of large bureaucratic systems, and I would—like the Minister, I am sure—place a high value on making the programme as simple and as fast as possible for the voters concerned.

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s point—which unfortunately she made only in passing—that the IER programme has cross-party agreement. We do not need to go back to a hyperbolic disagreement; we are looking at the best means of achieving a shared goal. It was the right thing to do in the early days of this Parliament to remove potentially wasteful and expensive duplication in the programme by bringing it forward, and I am sure the Minister will be able to give us a full update on why he continues to think that that was the right thing to do at the time.

Let me also lay out a crucial factor in the implementation programme. There is not going to be—I say it again—some forced North Korean-style loss of participation in our democracy at this crucial time, because no elector will be removed until after the general election. Again, I shall leave it to the Minister to explain fully how he envisages that working, but it is important not to blow things out of proportion. The programme has cross-party agreement and that should continue. We should all pull together to find the best ways to get the result we want.

As to the principle behind IER, it is one of the most important final pieces in the democratic journey, made over centuries, towards a right and proper adult franchise. Among those three letters the “I” has always, for me, been important; it is right and proper for individuals to be able to exercise the right to register, and that is why I believe in the programme. Neither I nor, I am sure, the hon. Member for Sunderland Central would think it acceptable for the right of a woman to register her hard-won place in democracy to be exercised by someone else in her household; so why do we seem to be quibbling over the ability of young people, renters or single adults to take care of their affairs? We need to keep in mind the basic principle that it is right for individuals to take responsibility for their own place in democracy. We have a good democracy, in which there is a place for those people, with their names on it. It is, in the end, for them to take that up, and for us to persuade them why doing so is worth their while. It takes two to tango, of course.

There are a few short months until the general election. There is much for us all to do—in this place, together and individually—to put politics across in the best light. Parliament week will shortly be upon us, so that we will collectively be able to do that little bit more. I could name many groups where people are already encouraging their peers to vote. As I have said, I am particularly interested in encouraging young people to take their place in democracy.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady agree that the problem is double barrelled? It certainly is in Northern Ireland and, I am sure, in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Young people, who tend to be more mobile than older people, are less likely to register and less likely to come out and vote even when they are registered. We have a twin approach to deepening the franchise.

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Chloe Smith: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He is right. We are all familiar with the statistics from the previous general election: turnout in the 18-to-24 age group was about 44%, while three quarters of those at the other end of the age scale turned out. That is the difference we are talking about; but we are also talking about an evolution that has happened in politics. The situation is not one in which young people will snap into the habit of voting when they get married and get a mortgage. If we wait for that, we will be waiting a long time, for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Sunderland Central touched on when she spoke about housing.

However, this generation has changed the way it does politics, and actually does fantastic things through non-traditional political means—through informal politics and community politics. It is our job to make sure that formal politics meets them halfway. That is something that I will continue to speak on passionately in this place and act on outside it, and I will endeavour to open up this place to those people. I hope that today’s debate allows us to contribute a little to that process. We should all be in agreement about the value of the programme and the need to ensure that individuals’ rights to register and vote are upheld and encouraged. We should be talking merely about the best way to get people in our local authorities, and the citizens we represent, to the ballot box.

10.4 am

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I have taken a passionate interest in individual electoral registration for the past 13 or 14 years, since my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) alerted me to the drop in numbers between 1997 and 2001. I pay tribute to him for switching me on to that important issue—and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), who secured this important debate.

Democracy is an important issue today. Two key statistics are that at the last general election 11 million people did not vote, although they were on the register, and that 7.5 million people were not even on the register. That means that 18.5 million people did not participate in the democratic process. To put that in perspective, I should say that 10 million people voted Conservative and 8 million people voted Labour—more people did not get involved in the electoral process than voted for the two main political parties. Democracy today in Britain is in crisis, and the way the coalition Government have introduced IER will threaten it further.

The hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) is right: there was cross-party support for the changes in 2009. I opposed them for nine years and then supported them when we decided, with cross-party support, to introduce them after the 2015 general election. It was crucial to do that, because it would allow us to find the missing 7.5 million people who were off the register and get them back on for the 2015 election—because we knew there would be a drop-off.

When Labour introduced IER in Northern Ireland in 2001, there was a massive drop-off—something like 30% of people on the register disappeared from it. My colleagues from Northern Ireland will say that there was a degree of fraud there, which had not been addressed, and that is right, but even in 2011 the registration rate

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was still 71%. We need to learn the lessons of Northern Ireland, which are that when IER is introduced, registration will immediately drop.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I had a meeting with the Electoral Commission a couple of weeks ago and the latest figures are now 88% for Northern Ireland. That is only after a household door-to-door canvass was done. That had been dropped in Northern Ireland. The lesson is that there is a need to get people signed up by regularly going door to door; that cannot be left to town halls or electoral officers, as happened in Northern Ireland.

Chris Ruane: I agree. I shall bring part of my speech forward, to address the point. In 2008 the Labour Government said that every ERO must carry out door-knocking for non-responders. In 2008 16 EROs out of 383 did not do that. They broke the law. In 2009 there were 17 such EROs and in 2008 the number was down to eight. But what happened in the year of the new Government? The number of EROs who broke the law went from eight to 55. In 2012 it was 30 and in 2013 it was 23. That includes Gwynedd in 2012 and 2013.

It is appalling that Ministers and the Electoral Commission tolerated law-breaking with respect to the most important basic building block of democracy. That has not been addressed, although the coalition proudly boasts that it will introduce the biggest changes to UK democracy since universal suffrage—and there are still 7.5 million people missing from the register.

The cross-party support for IER was shattered in 2010 when the coalition Government decided that, ahead of the economy and all the changes that they said were needed in health, education and benefits, the No. 1 issue on which they wanted to focus forensically was bringing forward the date for IER by a year. Why was that? I have asked Ministers in oral questions, in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I asked the Minister, and he did not know. I had to tell him and previous Ministers in Committee the reason, which according to a parliamentary answer was mass concern among the public about fraud in the electoral system; apparently, the time scale had to be brought forward by one year to assuage that concern.

I will give the statistics for electoral fraud, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central has already given. There has been one proven and successful case in the courts over the past 10 years. The Electoral Commission and Ministers say that there is 37% concern. One of the surveys said that there was 37% concern, but others say that there is 10% concern—so for 10% concern, and one case in 10 years, the legislation had to be brought forward by one year. The real reason is party political advantage.

The equalisation of seats, with 7.5 million people missing from the register, was supposed to deliver the next election. Bringing IER forward by one year and knocking off perhaps 18 million people was supposed to deliver every election after that. That is not quite North Korea, but it is not far away. The issue has been handled in a party political way.

I pay tribute to the Liberal Democrats because they co-operated in the House of Lords, having realised what a train crash was happening. The Government proposed making an individual’s decision to go on to

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the register a lifestyle choice. For 350 years, this had been a civic duty for those who qualified to be on the register and to take part in democracy, but the Government wanted to change that to a lifestyle choice—“buy it if you want to; don’t buy it if you don’t”. That is the wrong approach, and so much so that the Liberal Democrats realised what was happening. I pay tribute to Lord Rennard for alerting his party to it.

Civic society was appalled. Magistrates were appalled because people are called for jury service from the electoral register. The police were appalled because they use the electoral register to find out where people who commit crimes live. Operation Black Vote was appalled because the biggest losers out there were the black and Asian communities. Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society and Bite the Ballot were concerned about the proposal, so the Government had to back-pedal from a lifestyle choice to a civic duty.

I pay tribute to the Electoral Commission for one of the few good things it has done. It formally warned the Government that if they carried on, of the people who do not bother to vote—65% at the last election, although it has been as low as 59%—41% will not register. It is like a banana republic: 40% of people in the country are not on the register. That is what the Conservative wing of the coalition Government proposed. That is what it thought it could get away with, but it was beaten by an alliance of civic societies and some Liberal Democrats.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for his work in bringing civic societies together. We had public hearings in the House of Commons when people were allowed to express their fears. We took that message to the Electoral Commission and the Government, and the Government had to listen.

Dr McCrea: If the Liberal Democrats are so concerned, why do I not see many of them here this morning?

Chris Ruane: I could not possibly comment.

I have explained the Government’s position. I now turn to the Electoral Commission’s position, and I have paid tribute to it for what it has done. In 2009, I met people from Experian, the credit reference data agency. We sat in my office in Portcullis House and I said that 3.5 million people were missing from the register. They said, “No there aren’t. The number is 6.5 million.” I immediately relayed that to the Electoral Commission, which said that that was nonsense and that it would conduct its own research. The day before that was released—I think it was released on a Friday, so it was on the Thursday—it told me that I was right and that the figure was 6.5 million, but a different 6.5 million. Perhaps it was 13 million. Who knows?

Labour does not have clean hands. Some 3.9 million people were not on the register in 2001 and that rose to 7.5 million on Labour’s watch. That was not for party political advantage because of the profile of the people missing from the register: the unemployed, those on low wages, those living on council estates, those living in houses of multiple occupation, young people and black and ethnic minority voters. It was not for party political advantage, although we should have done a better job—but party political advantage has kept those 7.5 million

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people off the register for the past four years. The Electoral Commission has not played its full role in getting them back on the register.

It would cost only £340,000 to do a proper survey of the missing millions, but in the past 14 years the commission has carried out only three. That is despite electoral administration legislation in 2005, 2009 and 2010. The commission has been remiss in its research. It should not be left to a Back Bencher and a credit reference agency to prompt it into doing its job.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I am listening carefully to his logic and the build-up to the 7.5 million people who seem to be missing from the register. According to his own logic, that occurred under the previous Government, but the fact that we have not fixed it is apparently due to our pursuing partisan values. That logic is odd. Why did the previous Government fail so completely on that?

Chris Ruane: We did not do our job and I admit that. However, we had a plan from 2010 to 2015 to remedy that and to put the missing millions on the register in time for IER to be introduced in 2015. That plan was wrecked for party political advantage by the Conservative wing of the coalition Government.

The Electoral Commission has let us down in other ways. In the dry run for IER, the Department for Work and Pensions cross-referenced national databases with the electoral register. There was a match rate of about 82%, which it then sent to 383 local EROs. It asked them or said that if they wanted they could do local government data matching to get them from 82% to 92%. Of the 383, only 137 informed the Electoral Commission that it had done that. There may have been others, but they could not be bothered to tell the commission. It should have been firm and told those authorities that they had to take part in the dry run to iron out any difficulties ready for the live run. It did not do that.

The Electoral Commission’s plan for 2014 to 2019 covers what it hopes to achieve over the next five years. It recognised in 2014 that 7.5 million people were missing from the register in 2010. What is its aim for putting those people on the register over the next five years? The answer is zero. It has said that its aim for April 2011 was for the register to be 85.5% complete; for April 2019, the aim is that that completeness does not deteriorate. So 7.5 million names are missing now and there will be 7.5 million missing in 2019. That reminds me of a report once sent to my mum stating, “Christopher has set himself very low standards and failed to achieve them.” The Electoral Commission has failed. It set itself low standards and will fail to achieve them. It has been remiss.

When the Electoral Commission found out that the number of people missing from the register in 2010 was not 6 million but 7.5 million—that has flatlined; it is the same now—it welcomed that. It welcomed the fact that there had been no improvement in the registration rate. It had flatlined and had not increased, and the commission thought that was an achievement. It has set itself low standards. It is not only happy that 7.5 million people will be kept off the register for the next five years, but it has introduced restrictions on the handling of postal votes. It says that political parties cannot be trusted to go out and ask people whether they want a postal vote

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and to send it off when it has been filled in. It refers to electoral postal vote fraud, but there has been only one case of that in 10 years.

The Electoral Commission is not happy with just doing that. It is proposing that when people go to the polling station in 2019, they will have to show photo ID. That has been done in America, in right-wing Republican states—there is a perfect mirroring between Republican and Democrat states in America in terms of those that have and have not introduced photo ID. The independent Electoral Commission in this country is proposing that we copy those Republican states. It is an outrage. There has been one successful prosecution for electoral registration fraud in 10 years.

There are big issues out there. The prediction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central outlined, is that there will be an additional 5.5 million people missing off the register as a result of IER. The hon. Member for Norwich North is right that they will be protected for the general election. There will be a carry-over from household registration to individual registration, and we thank the Government for that—I think they were forced into it by the Lib Dems and others—but the next big date is the freeze date for the Boundary Commission, for the next boundary review, which is December 1 2015. If there is no carry-over for those 5.5 million people and for the 7 million people already off the register, 13 million or perhaps 14 million people will drop off it before the boundary review freeze date of 1 December 2015.

Chloe Smith: I want to draw the hon. Gentleman back a little. He is correct about the December 2015 date, but does he think that those voters then go to a Siberia of democracy? Does he not think that they still have the right to register if they wish to?

Chris Ruane: Absolutely, and those black voters in the southern states of America had the right to go and register but they did not. We know that people have not registered and that more will fall off, and we know that we can take steps to encourage more to fall off or to stop people from falling off. I think the coalition Government are quite happy with the situation. I think it is deliberate, given the time scale, the bringing things forward by one year and the lifestyle choice that they considered. It all points in the same direction: that they wanted maximum political benefit from the constitutional changes that they were introducing.

I shall finish my speech as I started it. If we have 11 million people not voting and 7.5 million people—perhaps 14 million people—not on the register, we will not be serving democracy in the mother of Parliaments.

Several hon. Members rose

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. I remind the two remaining Back-Bench Members who wish to speak that we will start the wind-ups at 10.30 am. It would be a kindness if the time could be shared evenly. I call Jim Shannon.

10.22 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): With that in mind, Mr Williams, I shall be brief—by my calculations, we have four minutes each.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate. I wish to speak about Northern Ireland, which hon. Members have referred to. In last May’s council elections in Northern Ireland, out of 1,243,649 eligible people, only 51.3% voted. We had an issue with spoiled ballot papers and those who were unable to vote in European elections. The figures are extremely disappointing. Much has changed, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) referred to the registration in Northern Ireland of some 88%, but even with that, the electoral turnout was only 51.3% at the last election, which is of some concern.

We also have the problems in Northern Ireland of the two electoral systems, with the straight X vote and the single transferable vote. Having two elections with two different votes, sometimes on the one day, can cause confusion, and we have been trying to address that issue.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who spoke very passionately, referred to fraud. In Northern Ireland, we have had many examples of fraud. There have been blocked-up houses in west Belfast that apparently housed 10 people—well, they must have had four legs and a tail, because otherwise there is no way in the world they would be able physically to get out and vote. Such electoral fraud took place across parts of Northern Ireland and has been addressed. When we go to vote, we have to take photo ID with us, but that is something that we just need to accept in Northern Ireland.

There is the issue of how we interact with people and encourage the voters to be more involved in what takes place, and we can look at the referendum in Scotland and what happens when an issue generates interest. It had a 75% turnout and 90% of people were registered, with some 18% voting through a postal vote. I believe that more can be done with the postal vote system. Its only disadvantage is that people do not have to produce ID to show that they are who they say are, so an element of fraud might come into it.

In her introduction, the hon. Member for Sunderland Central referred to the issue of how we engage with younger people, and that is a key issue. How do we ensure that younger people are involved? How can we encourage that involvement? In Northern Ireland, we have a system under which students in lower sixth—or year 12 as it is here on the mainland—are encouraged to have their photographs taken for electoral cards with their date of birth on, so that when they turn 18, it is all done for them. That is one approach to the problem, although of course the card can easily be lost—in someone’s pocket or purse or whatever—and with that goes people’s wish to be involved in the process. But education is an important element, and Northern Ireland does that through colleges of further education. Those are some of the good things that we would wish to see.

Finally, students who are interested may register to be involved in the party political process, and that is good. They may do their courses at school, and that is good as well, but sometimes they drop out. How do we engage those who drop out? We need to ensure that people grasp how they can change, influence and make things better, and the only way to do that is to vote in elections. Next year, it is Westminster—“elect the person you want to do what you want at Westminster.”

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Hywel Williams (in the Chair): I call Chris Evans.

10.26 am

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you for calling me, Mr Williams. I think I only have four minutes, so I will throw away the magnum opus speech that I was going to give and just make a few points that I think were covered by my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) in two outstanding, passionate speeches.

My key point is that the introduction of voter registration, as we have seen, is so important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd wrote in Progress magazine, we could return to electoral registration rates like those of Alabama in the 1950s. We saw the situation in Florida in 2000, with the famous Bush versus Gore presidential election, where there was widespread belief that people were missing out on a democratic duty.

Chloe Smith: On that point, I intervene extremely briefly to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is implying that he thinks I am racist, as I think his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd, was doing?

Chris Evans: No, I do not think I said that. If I implied that, I apologise. I do not think the hon. Lady is racist.

Chris Ruane: And neither do I.

Chris Evans: I do not think my hon. Friend believes that either, and if that was implied, I apologise.

Like many people in this debate, I believe that the new voter registration system is being introduced too fast. As it will be introduced just months before the general election in 2015, if it does not work, people will have no vote and therefore no voice in the election.

In July this year, the Electoral Commission found that the electoral register is only 86% complete. That equates to about 7.5 million people not being able to vote. Combine that with inaccuracies on the electoral register and one in seven voters have no voice in elections at all. What makes that worse is that 40% of those who are not registered believe that they are. I know so many people in my constituency and in other constituencies I have lived in who have turned up to vote and found that they are not on the electoral register at all, but they pay their bills and their council tax, so they cannot understand why they cannot vote. As has been said, that is a particular problem for young people who are less likely to register than older people who will see through their democratic mandate; for black and mixed-race people, who are less likely to be registered than white people; and for people who are living in the private rented sector who are less likely to be registered than homeowners.

That picture shows that the groups in society who are most transient are less likely to vote, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point. This is an area that I believe that the Government must get right. Although we accept that individual voter registration can help to rectify the situation, the methods proposed by the Government may just make it worse. Under their plans for data-matching, the electoral roll will be matched with DWP data, and the groups who are likely to be unregistered are also the least likely to have matching

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information on databases. The duty now lies with the Government to work with civic groups, electoral registration officers and others to ensure that every last step is taken to maximise registration. We cannot allow whole swathes of the country to lose their voice at the next general election. This is an area that the Government must get right or risk having millions disfranchised. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on that, and with that, Mr Williams, I conclude my remarks.

10.29 am

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): We have had a very good debate, with excellent contributions on both sides of the Chamber. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott). Many of us will be jealous of how quickly the counts are undertaken in Sunderland elections. I think that for the last election in Liverpool, I got my declaration at 6 o’clock in the morning. Something can certainly be learned from a system that enables people to be in bed in the early hours of the following morning. More seriously, I pay tribute to the work that Sunderland electoral services does. As she said, that is something from which we can all learn in this country, as well as people in other parts of the world.

May I mention two other contributions before making my own speech? The hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), the former Minister, spoke about the work of the all-party parliamentary group, and it is a very welcome innovation. It is supported by Bite the Ballot, which I will say something about later. Bite the Ballot is a fantastic, non-partisan organisation that basically exists to get more young people registered to vote. I pay tribute to it; it is playing a very important role in the changes.

I also have to mention, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who has been tireless in raising these issues. He was raising them before others were even talking about them. He is tenacious in challenging Ministers, shadow Ministers and, indeed, the Electoral Commission, and all power to his elbow for the brilliant work that he has done. He expressed the concern that Opposition Members have consistently expressed about the acceleration of the introduction of individual voter registration. I support individual voter registration because it is an archaic concept for the head of a household to determine who is registered to vote. There is undoubtedly cross-party support for changing that, but we have to balance getting to what is the right system that we all support with doing that in a way that does not have the unintended consequences that hon. Members have spoken about.

As has been said, the latest estimate from the Electoral Commission is that there are now 7.5 million people who could be registered but are not. We know that that is not a cross-section of the population as a whole. There are massive disparities between different sections of society. Let us look at 2011, which was the last time we could compare census data with the electoral register. About half of 18 to 24-year-olds were not on the register, compared with just 6% of those aged over 65. If we look at private renters—my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central spoke about private renters from the Sunderland experience—we see that barely half of people living as private tenants were on the electoral register, compared with more than 90% of

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home owners. Therefore it is a very big challenge, and that was under the old system of household registration. The big concern is that the situation could get worse.

We know that the data-matching pilots have given a figure of 79% for matching. That leaves 21% needing to be found in other ways, including local data-matching and data-mining.

Certain groups are particularly affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd drew attention to the latest annual report from the Electoral Commission. I share his concern—which he expressed so powerfully—that it says that its target is simply to avoid any further fall in the level of registration. Surely we must have greater ambition than that. We want the 7.5 million figure to go down. The risk, as has been said, is that it will get even worse.

Chris Ruane: It could go up.

Stephen Twigg: Exactly. We want the 7.5 million figure to fall. We want the numbers of those who are not on the register to fall. We want a register that is more accurate and complete. Seven and a half million is far too many voters unregistered. We want the figure for those who are not on the register to be lower.

The hon. Member for Norwich North rightly reminded us that those who are already on the register will be carried over for 2015, but of course that does not capture people who have turned 18 since the previous register, who would be new to the register, and crucially—this is where I want to focus my remarks—it does not cover those who have moved home since the previous register. They then have the responsibility of registering under individual voter registration. In this immediate period, those are the people whom I am most concerned about.

There are three groups. One is private renters. By the nature of private renting, people are more likely to move about, and I echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central in that regard. When the Minister responds to the debate, I ask him to say something about the position of private renters. What can be done, working with local authorities and organisations that represent landlords and that represent private tenants themselves? Generation Rent is a fairly new organisation that is playing that role. What can we do to try to ensure that the numbers of private renters who are registered goes up rather than falling even further?

However, let me focus in particular on the two groups that I think are most affected in the immediate term: students and young people. There is already an enormous gap in terms of young people’s registration, as I have said, but also the turnout of young people who are registered. There has always been that gap—it is not new—but it has widened over the last 40 years or so.

Students are a particularly important group in this regard. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central spoke about Sunderland as a university city. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), who is no longer in his place, spoke about the Sheffield experience. We can learn from the excellent practice that he has promoted in Sheffield and which Sheffield university has adopted. When its students register as students, they are then taken to the voter

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registration site of the Electoral Commission so that they remain registered to vote. I think that that is the ideal system and that all universities should adopt it, but there are worrying signs already that the levels of student registration are falling dramatically.

I spoke to a Manchester city councillor recently. She told me that the initial indications are that registration at the student halls of residence in Manchester is averaging around 10% under the new system, whereas under the old system, with block registration, it was of course 100%. In the city centre ward in Manchester at the moment, registration is down by 98%. Things can be done between now and next April to ensure that the levels are improved, but that reminds us of the scale of the challenge with regard to university students, and that is something that does apply for 2015; it does not await further changes in terms of the legislative framework. What measures will the Government take to work with universities, the National Union of Students and local authorities, so that we maximise the number of higher education students on the register at their place of study in time for the election next year?

Let me now say something about young people and, in particular, the role of schools and colleges in registering young people. I was very interested to listen to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talking about the experience in Northern Ireland. The model that exists in Northern Ireland—the schools initiative—is one from which we can learn a great deal.

I have done a number of visits with Bite the Ballot to sixth forms both in Scotland and in England and seen the fantastic work that it does in encouraging young people to register to vote. I think that it makes sense to have a duty on schools and colleges to work with local authorities on voter registration. I urge the Government, who I think have been resistant to that idea, to consider it as a serious option. I asked the Minister about it at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions last week and I shall do so again today. Bite the Ballot has suggested that we have an opportunity with the Wales Bill, currently going through Parliament, to make an amendment that would ensure that there was a responsibility on schools to undertake one voter registration session a year and to work with their electoral registration officer to get more young people signed up. It is a modest amendment that is before the House of Lords at the moment. It is, as I understand it, supported by all the party leaders in Wales, including the leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly. The head teachers’ trade union—the Association of School and College Leaders—is very supportive of the idea, and we support it. I urge the Government to give serious consideration to adopting it. Clearly, under the Wales Bill, it would apply only to Wales, but we would like it to be adopted in England and Scotland as well—one step at a time. We would be drawing on and learning from the positive experience of that practice in Northern Ireland.

We have concerns about the speed with which the Government are implementing individual voter registration. The principle is sound; it is the speed of implementation that concerns us. In relation to certain groups, there is real concern about a large number of people falling off the register. I ask the Minister to consider, either in his remarks today or perhaps beyond today, whether we need to amend the legislation to allow certain groups to be block registered. I am particularly concerned about

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two groups in that regard. One, which I have already spoken about, is university students. There is a case for saying that the legislation should be changed to allow students who live in halls of residence to be automatically registered, in view of those unique circumstances. The other group that I am concerned about is those who live in residential homes—often older people or people with learning difficulties or other disabilities—who may fall off the register. Is there a case for looking at the retention of block registration for those two groups?

The immediate priority is to address some of the points that have been raised in the debate. I support my colleagues who have spoken of the importance of the door-to-door canvass in getting the highest level of registration possible. There is a real concern that, even with some of the additional resources that I acknowledge the Government have provided for the introduction of IER, that basic building block is being eroded in many local authorities, and it must not be. If IER is not to result in the negative consequences that some of us fear, door-to-door canvassing—including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central said in her opening speech, a mini-canvass in January and February—is essential. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on that.

I reiterate the importance of looking at the Northern Ireland experience with schools and colleges. I urge the Minister to think again about extending to England, Wales and Scotland the duty on schools and colleges that exists in Northern Ireland. Above all, in the next period, the group that is most likely to find itself not on the register at election time next year is students in higher education. That is a real risk. Will the Minister give a commitment that he will work closely with the universities, the National Union of Students and local authorities to maximise student registration?

I finish by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central once again for securing such an important debate. A register that is as accurate and complete as possible is a crucial building block for our democracy. I am sure that the Minister will agree that to have 7.5 million people not on the register is unacceptable. If an unintended consequence of IER is that the situation gets even worse, surely all of us, whichever side of the House we are on, should be very concerned.

10.42 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Sam Gyimah): I thank the shadow spokesperson for his remarks, and I thank everyone who has spoken in the debate. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) on securing the debate, and I thank her for her interest in the important topic of voter registration.

Individual electoral registration is one of the biggest modernisations of electoral law in this country for 100 years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) mentioned, for the first time we are not relying on the head of a household to register everyone in that household; people can register themselves. In addition, we have online registration, so that people can register to vote in as little as three minutes. The introduction of online registration will allow the mobile

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populations that have been mentioned, such as students and private renters, to register from their smartphones. That is a big modernisation, which we should all recognise and celebrate.

Julie Elliott: Are there any statistics yet on how many people are registering online?

Mr Gyimah: Since the launch of IER on 10 June, the digital service has processed more than 2.5 million applications. Almost 70% of those were made online through the “Register to vote” website, which has a satisfaction rate of more than 90%.

I am conscious of the time, so I will try to address all the points that have been raised as fast as I can. A lot has been said about the transition to IER, and there has been some bombast, hyperbole and conspiracy theory. The transition was speeded out as part of the coalition Government’s programme to tackle electoral fraud and rebuild trust in our elections. The timetable is phased over two years to help to manage the risk that the transition will impact on the general election. I want to put on record that no one who registered to vote at the last canvass will lose their right to vote at the general election in 2015. It is for Parliament to decide in the summer of 2015 whether the transition will conclude in 2015 or at the end of 2016. The phase-in of the transition to IER with a carry-forward will allow those who are not individually registered by the time of the 2015 general election to vote in that election. I hope that will provide some reassurance that no one will be disfranchised, which is the word that has been used so far.

Of course, we must be mindful of the pitfalls of introducing a new method of registering to vote, and we should focus on the completeness and accuracy of the register. Much has been said about the need for the register to be complete, and the Government and I agree with everyone on the need for that, but we cannot ignore the importance of accuracy. Without an accurate register, we risk undermining the very elections on which the system is based, so we must not simply sweep away the importance of accuracy.

During the process, we have had to learn a lot of lessons from Northern Ireland, which is a point that was raised several times during the debate. We have introduced some safeguards, such as the confirmation process, the carrying forward of electors, online registration, the retention of the annual canvass and the maximisation of registration funding. So far, £4 million has been made available to help all local authorities and five national organisations to maximise the register and deal with the problems that have been identified.

Chris Ruane: One of the key lessons from Northern Ireland is the importance of door-to-door canvassers, especially for non-respondents. Some electoral registration officers have broken the law by not knocking on those doors for five years on the trot. What advice has the Minister got for those EROs who break the law?

Mr Gyimah: EROs, of course, must follow the law. I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point during the course of my speech. The need to ensure that students, who can be quite mobile, get on the register has been mentioned several times during the debate. I assure hon. Members that through the creation by the Cabinet

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Office of a student forum in early 2013, the Government have been working with key partners in the higher education sector, including Universities UK, the Academic Registrars Council and the National Union of Students, to agree on practical steps that EROs and universities can take to encourage students to register. Steps that have been agreed by all representatives of the student forum include the provision of data from universities to EROs to help them to contact students individually; promoting the use of online registration, particularly during university course enrolment; and publishing guidance for ARC to help registrars to implement those steps before the start of the 2014-15 academic year.

My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), wrote to university vice-chancellors asking them to support local authorities in their efforts to maximise the number of student registrations. A lot is being done to get students on the register. We recognise the importance of data sharing in the context of students, which was mentioned during the debate. Individual electoral registration officers must make it easier for students to register. More than 410,000 applications from 16 to 24-year-olds have already been submitted via the online registration process.

Stephen Twigg: I welcome the work of the student forum. Can the Minister assure us that he will take a close personal interest in the matter and look at the figures as they come in? If by January or February it is clear that there has been a substantial fall in the level of registration among students, will the student forum work with him to look at what can be done via online registration to get those figures up?

Mr Gyimah: I assure the hon. Gentleman that not only students but all under-registered groups are a priority for the Government. We want to maximise the register so that people can exercise their right to vote.

The Electoral Commission’s research found that 90% of people feel that it would be easy to provide their national insurance number when registering to vote—that is based on real evidence—and only 1% of applicants so far have been unable to provide their national insurance number or their date of birth. In February 2014, the local authority in Sunderland received £12,627 for maximising registration. That allocation was based on under-registration, especially due to the authority having a high student population. Of course, there are people without national insurance numbers, but that is a very small cohort. In such exceptional situations, people can provide other information, such as their passport.

A lot has been made of local data matching in this debate, and in other debates on individual electoral registration. All local authorities and valuation joint boards in Great Britain took part in the confirmation dry run in 2013, which involved matching their electoral registers against Government records. We believe that EROs are best placed to understand the relevance of locally held data and are likely to improve confirmation matches. That varies between local authorities, so we believe that EROs are best placed to make that judgment.

Chris Ruane: I thank the Minister for giving way once again. Should the Electoral Commission have told the 383 EROs that the cross-matching of local government data was mandatory, not just a choice?

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Mr Gyimah: As I have said, it is for EROs to judge how to go about local data matching in order to maximise the register. I have a couple of points to make about EROs, so if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to that in a second.

We have also talked a lot about people in homes who are missing from the register. Again, I assure Members that every unconfirmed elector will be written to twice, and those who do not respond will receive a doorstep visit. Eighty-seven per cent. have been confirmed and transferred to the new register automatically. Every household will also have two written reminders during the annual canvass. We are therefore undertaking a practical, step-by-step process to ensure that people get on the register.

Postal vote fraud is another issue of concern, and it is a valid concern. The Government are working to address any form of electoral fraud, and I assure Members that further measures are being taken to strengthen the integrity of the postal voting system. Measures introduced in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 provide that applicants for postal votes must submit identifying signatures and dates of birth, which are checked against corresponding records. Like the recent review by the statutorily independent Electoral Commission, we have found no reason to recommend changes to the postal voting system, which we will keep as it is.

Chris Ruane: The Electoral Commission is proposing changes to the postal vote system. If Conservative or Labour canvassers are out there on the knocker and a person wants a postal vote form, which we give to them and they fill in, the Electoral Commission proposes that we cannot take that form away and send it off. That is a big change, which I oppose, although I support the Electoral Commission’s proposal on handling postal votes at election time. Is the Minister correct that new proposals are not being made on postal voting?

Mr Gyimah: Sorry, but I am not very clear on that. Will the hon. Gentleman restate his point?

Chris Ruane: The Minister has just said that there are no proposed changes to postal votes, but the Electoral Commission proposes to stop members of political parties handling the registration of postal votes on the doorstep, and I do not think we should accept that proposal. The commission also proposes that political parties do not touch postal votes at election time—I can support that proposal, but I do not support the proposal on registering postal votes.

Mr Gyimah: The hon. Gentleman has a point. Of course, the integrity of the electoral system is important, and it is worth keeping postal vote fraud under review as we go through IER.

I know that the performance standards of EROs are a subject close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart. I am pleased that the report shows that the majority of EROs clearly met the performance standards in 2013, but the commission identified 22 EROs who failed to meet performance standards. That is obviously disappointing, even if it represents an improvement on 2012, when 30 EROs failed to meet the standards. In fact, performance has improved every year: 53 EROs were failing in 2011, 30 were failing in 2012 and now 22 are failing, which is

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still too many. My predecessor wrote to all EROs who failed to meet the standards, stressing that Parliament expects them to meet those obligations. The Cabinet Office provided additional funding in the current financial year for that important work. I assure the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that Ministers are fully prepared to issue a formal direction to EROs, if necessary, to ensure that they comply with their statutory obligations.

Chris Ruane: I do not like to pull the Minister up on what he is saying, but he just said that EROs had improved every year, but they have not. It was 16 EROs who did not perform their statutory duties in 2008, 17 in 2009 and then as low as eight in 2010, but in 2011 it shot up to 55. That is not an improvement; it is getting worse. Then the figure was 30 and then it was 23, so what the Minister has just said, from the Front Bench, is factually incorrect. There has not been an improvement over the years; there has been an improvement, then a worsening and then another improvement.

Mr Gyimah: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; yes, there has been a recent improvement: 58 EROs were failing the standard in 2011, 30 were failing in 2012 and 22 were failing in 2013. That is an improvement, but the important point is the one I made: that Ministers are fully prepared to issue a formal direction to EROs, if necessary, to ensure that they comply with their statutory obligations. Twenty-two is an improvement, but it is still too many.

I am conscious of the time, so let me bring my comments to a close. We have a registration system that is a huge advance on the previous system. We have modernised the system and introduced online registration; it is not a retrograde step. There are 7.5 million people who we need to ensure we get on the register, but those 7.5 million people were not on the register before 2010, so I reject the allegation that somehow there is a Government conspiracy at work. As politicians, we all have an interest in ensuring that we have a thriving democracy, which is why the Government are allocating funds to ensure that we maximise the register.

The shadow Minister made the point about the Wales Bill. My concern is that we would be introducing more onerous burdens by adopting those recommendations, but we will certainly keep under review the need to ensure further canvassing and doing everything we can to ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

10.59 am

Sitting suspended.

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Leaseholders’ Rights (Insurance)

11 am

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op): I want to start by thanking the Minister for coming here at short notice. This issue might seem like a curate’s egg. I do not know whether he saw the article I wrote outlining the issues in PoliticsHome.

We might think that the right of a person to know what they are paying for is a consumer issue, or it might seem like an insurance concern about whether it is fair to make residents pay for terrorism insurance if they live in my part of town. Indeed, the matter could be seen as a constituency concern—the besmirching of Walthamstow as a site of potential terrorism—or it could be seen as a leasehold issue about how leaseholders and freeholders can resolve disputes. I know that other Members here have an interest in that issue.

I shall outline the concern and then ask the Minister questions. I hope we can make progress on the issue, because it has been a long-running vexatious issue for nearly 4,500 of my constituents in Walthamstow, some of whom are here today because they are so frustrated by it. I should declare that I am a previous leaseholder of the Freehold Managers company in question, so I have known for a long time about the nature of the leases and the exorbitant insurance that the company required of those of us who had flats with it.

The application of a terrorism insurance surcharge is a relatively new experience for people in Walthamstow. As a diligent MP, I queried it with the company. Why did it feel the need to add such a surcharge to already expensive insurance? In response, it sent me a copy of a press cutting about how one of those involved in the plane bombing threat had lived in Walthamstow at one time. I was mortified by the suggestion that that therefore required people in Walthamstow to be insured against terrorism ad infinitum, so we started to look into the situation.

I will set out the concerns. Residents are paying on average £204 for their buildings insurance. On any reputable price comparison site for Walthamstow, we could find considerably lower premiums. On top of that, we are adding in another £70 for people who live in the E17 postcode in my part of town. I also have the E10 postcode, where there are flats whose residents are being charged a mere £37. Perhaps the company feels that terrorists will be more likely to want to live and bring about destruction near Walthamstow Central station rather than in Walthamstow as a whole, but I digress. That is a 40% increase on the cost of an insurance that is already not competitive, and the leaseholders who have managed to buy their freehold tell me that their premiums are on average £120 lower.

I am sure the Minister will say it is for the leasehold valuation tribunal to resolve issues about whether charges are fair. Indeed, I am extremely conscious that the leasehold valuation tribunal has recently issued a ruling that it is right for Freehold Managers to apply terrorism charges. After all, this is not part of the original lease. There has been confusion and discussion about whether it could be argued that insuring properties against explosions included terrorism. There has been concern that what was originally intended to apply to commercial property has been applied by Freehold Managers to residential

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properties. I am acutely conscious that the judgment held that although it was not explicit, it was good practice to insure against any sort of damage or destruction, which could arguably include terrorism.

Having researched terrorist examples in residential areas —the 4,500 flats are in residential areas in Walthamstow—I am surprised that there is a determination that terrorism is such a threat in Walthamstow that insurance should be increased by 40%. Let us consider some attacks: the sarin gas attack in Matsumoto in Japan, the Rajneeshee bioterror attacks on salad bars in the United States and the tragic murder of Lee Rigby. We have had IRA bombings in London, and the Litvinenko incident caused several million pounds worth of damage to properties because of contamination. So there might be a case that terrorism is something that people have to consider in a residential area.

However, even if one accepts that it is fair to ask people to pay for such damage, the concern for my residents is that they are simply not able to scrutinise the policy. Freehold Managers has steadfastly refused to reveal the details. When one looks at the IRA bombing or the Litvinenko attack, one must take into account the location. Location matters in insurance, so we want to know whether Walthamstow has been assessed as a high or a low-risk residential area for terrorism and what that means for the charge. In essence, why is there a 40% increase?

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case for her constituents. Is what she describes just another example of property management companies taking advantage of people who have signed into a contract?

Stella Creasy: I agree with my hon. Friend, whose constituency is to the south-east of mine. I am sure he knows Walthamstow and will be concerned that it is considered such a risk by Freehold Managers. We simply do not know how the company reached this figure of a 40% increase in insurance because Walthamstow might be a place of terrorism. We do not know, for example, whether a gas attack in which people needed to be decontaminated, as opposed to an explosion, would be covered by the policy. We simply have no details.

Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): The hon. Lady is making an incredibly important speech. The issue does not affect only her constituency, but constituencies throughout the country. The defence is that there is a right to manage and therefore, in theory, residents are protected and getting value for money, but because of the costs and the inability to get accurate information from decision makers, and the use of section 106 agreements as an excuse, it is almost impossible for people to exercise the right to manage. Residents are being ripped off by organisations such as Countrywide. It is not acceptable.

Stella Creasy: The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted my next point. In chasing the company for details for the past four years so that my residents might fairly exercise their rights at the leasehold valuation tribunal, we have been stonewalled at every opportunity and told that the information is commercially sensitive, even though the charges are not part of the original leases.

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Section 106 agreements were not around when the Warner flats were built in the Victorian era, but the leasehold agreements were. The company claims that the information is commercially sensitive, and when we have gone to the insurance company, which is directly billing my constituents, it too has said that its client is the freeholder. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare for my constituents, who are trying to resolve why they are being charged an extra 40% on their insurance. They cannot go to a leasehold valuation tribunal to ask whether it is a fair charge and what assessment has been made.

I am sure my colleagues could share similar horror stories about other charges. Freehold Managers is seeking to charge residents of mine up to £10,000 to consent to a loft conversion—not to do the loft conversion, but simply to give consent. It continues to push the boundaries about what is an acceptable service charge and an acceptable fee. It is resolute in the idea that it should not share any accountability. But that is not the view of others in the insurance industry, let alone in the freehold management industry.

Although the Association of British Insurers argues for a terrorism surcharge, it also argues that leaseholders should be given clear and timely information each year about their insurance contracts and that that should take place before the contract is agreed. It says that residents should have details about what shopping around the management company has done to make sure the premium is competitive, and whether there are any significant exclusions. As I said, are we protected in Walthamstow against explosions, but not decontamination fees? The ABI says that the insurance broker should be clear about whether there are any fees involved in the process. Those are all questions that Freehold Managers has simply refused to answer, so the ability of my constituents to seek redress at a leasehold valuation tribunal is hampered as a result. Given the fees involved in going to a leasehold valuation tribunal, it is not fair to expect people to seek such redress without the information to make their case.

I have come here today as a constituency MP but with my other hat on, as a shadow Minister, I have tried to make progress on this matter in the Consumer Rights Bill, to make it clear that a consumer has the right to the details of a policy, product or service that they have directly paid for. Let me stress again: residents are getting direct bills from the insurance company on behalf of a freehold management company. Sadly, the Minister’s colleagues in the Commons rejected the proposals, arguing that it was already explicit that people should be able to access such information. The fact that there are colleagues from other parts of the country—indeed, from other parties—who are saying, “No, we’re seeing the same sorts of problems”, shows that that is simply not the case.

I have a number of questions for the Minister and I want to give him time to answer them, and to answer any questions he may have, because it must seem such a surreal situation to be faced with. First and foremost, does he think it fair that residential properties are being charged a terrorism surcharge on their insurance? If so, what assessment has he made of the likelihood of terrorist incidents across residential areas in this country? My local police or other emergency services are certainly not aware of the likelihood of such an incident.

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Secondly, does the Minister think that my constituents have a right to exercise their consumer rights in this instance and know the details of the policy that they are being asked to pay for? If so, where would he see them being able to exercise those rights? Thirdly, will the Minister raise this issue with a leasehold valuation tribunal? Given the persistent failure of the freeholder I have mentioned to provide this information, which would enable my constituents to have their day at the tribunal to see whether the charge being imposed on them is fair and competitive, what action can he take to assist my constituents—and, I suspect, the thousands of other people across the country who are also dealing with recalcitrant freehold management companies?

Finally, can the Minister tell us what action the Government will take to reform leasehold law? I ask that because this issue is clearly not only about insurance charges but about these other charges, and about companies such as Freehold Managers, which see residents such as my constituents in Walthamstow as a cash point. It tries to squeeze them consistently, even threatening them with legal action when they so much as query these charges, challenging them about their right to buy the freehold and imposing excessive charges for simple things such as queries about loft conversions or indeed leasehold extensions. Surely it is time to stop the misery of what is mystery buying, as opposed to mystery selling.

11.11 am

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I congratulate the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on securing this debate. I know that this issue is one that she and others have campaigned on for some time and I also know that, as she outlined in her speech, she raised it during the debates on the Consumer Rights Bill back in March.

I will try to respond to the range of issues that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) have raised. I will start by saying that the Government recognise the importance of the issue that the hon. Lady has raised, namely the rights of leaseholders to obtain details about the insurance policy they contribute towards by way of service charges, and indeed the rights of leaseholders to gain information about other service charges that are imposed upon them.

It is important to note that for some years now leaseholders contributing towards the costs of buildings insurance and service charges more generally have had the right to access and obtain copies of documents relating to the insurance they contribute towards, as well as those relating to other service charges. This includes a right to request in writing a copy of the insurance policy or to ask the landlord or managing agent to provide reasonable facilities to enable them to inspect the policy and other supporting documents. Also, the Competition and Markets Authority is looking at this issue at the moment. In particular, it is looking at the ability of tenants or leaseholders to be involved in the decisions that are taken in this area, and therefore at the possibility that landlords will need to test the market transparently and consult on these matters. We are waiting for a response from the CMA on that, which is due later this year.

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Stella Creasy: One of the issues with the freehold management company that I have been discussing is that it has said it may give information to individual leaseholders but that, as the policy in this instance is a collective policy, it will not release information about it. That means that my constituents cannot assess whether or not they are being fairly charged across the piece. After all, terrorism is something that is likely to affect not just one property—if such a God-awful incident were to happen. Can the Minister therefore clarify whether the Government’s view is that companies such as this one, and insurance companies such as Zurich, should provide access to the whole detail of the policy, including the collective provision, and not just to detail about an individual property?

Brandon Lewis: I will have to look at this issue in more detail. However, if an individual wants to receive information about the detail of a policy and the costs attributed to them, there needs to be transparency from the company about how it apportions those costs. I would imagine that that is something the CMA will look at, but I am happy to have a look at it myself and I will come back to the hon. Lady about it.

The Government are generally aware of a number of concerns in the leaseholder sector and we welcome suggestions about how residential leaseholder protections can be improved. However, at this stage we are not persuaded of the need for wholesale reform, although that does not mean—particularly with the input later this year of the CMA itself—that we should not examine some individual issues, depending on what comes out in the CMA report.

That ability for a leaseholder is in addition to their ability to request a summary of service charges in general, which would include the costs of insurance, as the hon. Lady rightly says. Leaseholders have the right to ask to inspect invoices, receipts and any other supporting documents that relate to those costs, which comes back to the point about the overall policy position.

If a landlord, or a managing agent acting on their behalf, fails to comply with a request for information without providing reasonable justification, they are committing a summary offence that, on conviction, is subject to a fine of up to £2,500. Landlords and agents have to show the policy documents to leaseholders; not doing so, and withholding information about service charges, comes within sections 20 to 22 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985.

In addition, legislation requires that service charges, including the cost of insurance, must be reasonably incurred. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon and the hon. Lady will be aware—indeed, she referred to it herself—leaseholders can apply to the property chamber of the first-tier tribunal for a determination about the reasonableness of the costs of insurance they contribute towards, as well as the reasonableness of other service charge payments. The grounds for making such a case could include, for example, that the type or level of insurance is not appropriate, in addition to the reasonableness of the premium.

Of course, it is in everybody’s interests to try and resolve concerns or disputes, either through discussion or alternative dispute resolution where possible, before resorting to the tribunal system. I am pleased to say that

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the situation for leaseholders has improved since the hon. Lady first raised this issue. There is now a requirement for letting and managing agents to belong to one of the three redress schemes that have been approved by the Government. That measure came into force on 1 October and it will enable leaseholders to follow up complaints. It will also be an effective way of driving up standards, while creating the lightest regulatory burden possible.

The existing protections for service charges are also supported by what are now two codes of practice that have been approved by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Association of Retirement Housing Managers. These codes of practice are also in the process of being reviewed, to ensure that they are sufficiently robust and reflect good practice.

Although I have highlighted the fact that a number of statutory rights are already available to leaseholders to give them access to information about payments required by the freeholder and that mechanisms are in place to ensure that charges are reasonable, we always welcome any contributions about how we can further improve the situation for leaseholders.

We are aware that concern has been raised by some leaseholders about the appropriateness of certain elements of the insurance that they pay towards through a service charge. If leaseholders believe that the cost of such insurance or the type of cover provided is unreasonable, and can otherwise resolve the matter with their landlord, then—as the hon. Lady said—they have the right to apply for determination through the property chamber of the first-tier tribunal.

As for the collective policy being released, details have to be released that relate to a tenant’s dwelling. As I said earlier, if a tenant wants to have details about a policy that affects them, that means they must have some understanding of how things are broken down from the bigger picture.

It is, of course, important that leaseholders make the best use of a wide range of existing rights. We are making efforts to raise awareness. For example, we continue to fund the Leasehold Advisory Service, which provides free initial legal advice to leaseholders and others in the residential leasehold sector, and we will certainly ensure that it is also aware of the situation.

Stella Creasy: I pay tribute to the work of the Warner Action Group in Walthamstow, which has been trying to bring residents together. From what the Minister has said, it appears they have a course of redress through the leasehold valuation tribunal; but as I have said, because they cannot get the information, asking them to pay potentially thousands of pounds for legal representation is a high bar to pass. The Minister mentioned a summary offence. Who would the Warner Action Group report freehold managers to for investigation of that offence if they continue to refuse to release this information?

Brandon Lewis: As I said, the Leasehold Advisory Service can also give that free initial legal advice, but I am very happy to come back to the hon. Lady and give her some further details about the specific issue she raises. As for the collective policy understanding, again, as there is a requirement for an individual to be able to

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understand what their policy charges are, they can only do that if they are part of a collective, by seeing that collective agreement. My view is that there should be a release of the details relating to the tenant’s dwelling, and if they are part of a collective, to understand that within a block, they need to understand what the block is. I would like to think we can help to facilitate that understanding for the leaseholders.

In conclusion, it is commendable that the hon. Lady has made such great efforts to raise awareness of this issue. As so often with these issues, quite a lot of the battle is about ensuring that the awareness is there: that people understand that there is a way to get redress and a way for them to take cases forward—as I say, there are statutory requirements in place. I am happy to raise those issues and take up anything further after this debate.

Stella Creasy: I thank the Minister for his generous response; I think that my constituents will be grateful for his help, as I am.

Can I just get him to clarify whether the Government have taken a view about whether residential properties should be insured for terrorism, and on what grounds, and whether there might be, for example, a paper on that in terms of the risk to residential property? After all, there are other residents in Walthamstow and, if Walthamstow has been designated as a place of likely terroristic opportunities, I think people would want to know. There is also the point I made about the central principle: that even if a third party has commissioned a product or service on someone’s behalf, they have the right in law to access the full information on that service or product. From what the Minister said, it is a summary offence under leasehold legislation not to provide that information. Will he clarify whether the Government believe that that is a central principle, so that they would in theory support making that explicit in the legislation? That would be a helpful guide for us on a number of issues to do with charges.

Brandon Lewis: I had finished, but I am happy to respond. There is a requirement for the information to be published, so if a tenant is paying a charge, whether for insurance or part of a service charge, they have the right to understand what that is made up of and, as I said, to see the documentation behind that. It does not seem to me that there should be a difference depending on where that information comes from or whether it is allocated by a third party; the landlord still has to present and publish it. That seems clear to me, but I am happy to look further at that and come back to the hon. Lady.

I do not think that I or the Government can directly comment on what is part of insurance, in the sense that it is for insurance companies, landlords and property owners to take a view on what the risk issues are for any property that they are insuring, whether in respect of flood protection, terrorism protection or any other type of risk protection. It is for them to make an assessment, take a market view and make a decision about what is right for them. That will be led by risk assessments, which will be made by underwriters and insurance companies giving advice and quotes.

Stella Creasy: If I can just clarify, there was a ruling on 11 June by the leasehold valuation tribunal that it was relevant—

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Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. Has the Minister concluded his remarks?

Brandon Lewis: I had concluded them the first time, Mr Williams.

Stella Creasy: Thank you, I—

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order.

11.21 am

Sitting suspended.

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Hong Kong

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): It is a pleasure to hold this debate on Hong Kong under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, in the year of the 30th anniversary of that unique international treaty, the “Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong with Annexes”, as well as to cover recent events. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group on China and as a director of the Great Britain-China Centre, which is a non-departmental public body. Both of them receive sponsorship. I also refer the Chamber to the all-party group’s entry in the all-party group register.

The joint declaration was the result of hard work and creative diplomacy by some still in this Parliament, such as their lordships, Lord Howe and Lord Luce. Above all, in its encompassing philosophy of “one country, two systems”, the joint declaration was a bold political innovation by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Recognising what was most special about Hong Kong in its future change of sovereignty—that its core freedoms must be preserved and that the

“socialist system and policies shall not be practised”—

Britain and China together found a formula, and later the trust, that maintained confidence within Hong Kong and by the world in Hong Kong. Thirty years on, the architects can congratulate themselves. Broadly, Hong Kong has thrived and remains special and successful. Political boldness paid off.

The freedoms that Britain and China pledged to maintain—freedom under the law, an independent judiciary, a free press, free speech and the freedom to demonstrate—are delicate, and they all contribute to the existence of a free market, capitalist economy. There is no major international financial centre in the world that does not have a free press, however inconvenient that may occasionally be to Governments and individuals. The British Government’s commitment on behalf of the people of the United Kingdom, when they signed the joint declaration and made it valid for 50 years after 1997—that is, to 2047—is vital to Hong Kong’s success. If we allow any of those freedoms to be curtailed and if we say nothing about any dilution of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, whether deliberate or inadvertent, we risk colluding in Hong Kong’s gradual—not immediate —decline, helping others in Asia who would swiftly take any opportunity at Hong Kong’s expense, and we would not be fulfilling the commitments that John Major, Robin Cook and, most recently, our Prime Minister have re-emphasised in the clearest terms.

That implies strong engagement with Hong Kong and China and frequent dialogue and discussions where, as joint signatories, we can and should exchange views freely, with the shared responsibility for doing what is in all our best interests: preserving the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. When I was a very young Member of Parliament, I was

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invited to go to Hong Kong under the chairmanship of Ian Mikardo, along with Jo Richardson and others, to evaluate the local response in Hong Kong to the agreement. I was very much involved in taking evidence and meeting people. We were part of ensuring that they understood the agreement, and I certainly have a real vested interest in what the hon. Gentleman is saying about guaranteeing those freedoms.

Richard Graham: The hon. Gentleman brings a degree of long experience on these issues to the debate today and to our Chamber in general, matching some of the experience visible in their lordships’ House when they debated recent events in Hong Kong. It is important that we understand the continuity of that commitment, which he saw for himself. I was living in Hong Kong in 1984 and in 1997, and I was present at the handover. These things are real to him and me, but for others, who are younger, it is important that that commitment is not forgotten or allowed to wither.

Let me turn to recent events, Britain and China’s reactions and the role of this Parliament in holding our Executive to account and raising questions of interest on behalf of our constituents. In the consultation in Hong Kong on the arrangements for the election of the next Chief Executive in 2017, which took place earlier this year, it was already clear that many had concerns about the detail of what the universal suffrage promised in China’s Basic Law would mean in practice. Those concerns increased sharply after the Chinese National People’s Congress standing committee announced its decisions on elections on 31 August.

It is worth noting that the British Government’s first reaction on 3 September was to welcome the Chinese commitment to universal suffrage, but also to

“recognise that the detailed terms…will disappoint those who are arguing for a more open nomination process.”

There are two relevant aspects to that. First, that was not the sort of comment that would be made if it was anticipated that 800,000 people would demonstrate and occupy the centre of the world’s third financial centre for weeks. Those who saw the dark hand of foreign forces behind the demonstrations were well wide of the mark, as the statement on 3 September demonstrates. Secondly, the reaction in Hong Kong was not anticipated here, and perhaps not in the offices of the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Government either. The reaction caught all three by surprise.

There is a question about why that is so, but it is my belief that most of those in Hong Kong who feel most strongly about the issues around the election of the next Chief Executive represent a new generation of Hong Kongers. They were mostly born after the joint declaration. They are not, as has sometimes been claimed, ancient colonial sentimentalists or those left by dark foreign forces to create disturbance after the colonialists had gone, but a new generation with a different take on life from their predecessors. They are more sure of their Hong Kong identity, less sure of their future prospects and less trustful of Government or leaders in whose appointment they still feel they do not have enough say.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on securing this debate. Would he care to reflect that some of the protesters’ motivation might be that they feel left behind by the current state of economic progress in Hong Kong?

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They are not participating in the economic miracle that has taken place there in the past two or three decades, which is strange when the latest economic plan in China envisages taking 10 million poor people on the mainland into the work force each year to increase prosperity.

Richard Graham: My hon. Friend and neighbour takes a close interest in these matters, not least as chairman of the Conservative Friends of the Chinese. He makes a good point. There is a dichotomy. In simple terms, it is that while the generation of Hong Kongers immediately after the second world war were focused on rebuilding the territory and restoring their lives after a disastrous period in Hong Kong’s history and their children in the ’80s and ’90s were focused on economic progress, self-advancement and taking Hong Kong to an international stage, today’s generation perhaps feel that their prospects for mobility, owning property and enjoying a satisfaction with life comparable with their parents are less certain.

They have more questions, as I mentioned, and are perhaps more sensitive to issues that did not really exist 30 years ago, such as increasing environmental concerns and air pollution, which is a major issue throughout China, including Hong Kong, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) knows. There is more uncertainty, but I sense a strong feeling of identity among the new generation. They are Hong Kongers and want to celebrate that by having more of a civic say in decisions made on their behalf.

Mr Sheerman: Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to uncertainty, those of us who care about China believe it to be a vital and energising influence in the world. Does he agree that there are serious signs of a positive change in the leadership in China, which I have certainly noticed in the delegations from mainland China who visit this country and come to Yorkshire and other places? This positive wind of change should give some reassurance to us and the inhabitants of Hong Kong.

Richard Graham: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the winds of change have been blowing vigorously in China since the opening up under Deng Xiaoping in the late ‘70s, but they blow at uneven speeds, in different ways and in different sectors. The main wind of change was a huge desire for economic progress, which has led to a better standard of living for the hundreds of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty. At the same time—the hon. Gentleman will have read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s latest human rights reports—it is not yet clear whether the new regime in China will prove so open to changes that allow for greater dialogue and debate of political questions. Significant differences of opinion on human rights also still exist. We in this country tend to see a new and young generation of mainland Chinese, often coming here to study, who are extremely able and well-educated, but the winds of change are uneven in China, which is a concern to some in Hong Kong.

Returning to this summer’s events, just before September’s developments erupted in Hong Kong, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs decided to do a wide and all-encompassing report on Hong Kong and our commitments, which we all look forward to reading in due course. It was unfortunate that some in China chose to represent

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that as interference in internal affairs. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), said that

“investigating the FCO’s ongoing assessment of the implementation of the…Joint Declaration…is part of our role in oversight of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and it is an entirely legitimate interest of the Committee.”

That is absolutely right. It is an entirely legitimate interest of this Parliament that we should debate our commitment to the joint declaration to ensure that we fulfil the international treaty that we signed up to with China and that we work together for it is in all our interests to do so.

During September’s demonstrations, the Government’s position came under question and it took some six weeks before a ministerial written statement was published on 13 October, which restated much more clearly what this Parliament stands for—specifically, that the election arrangements should meet the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, should offer a genuine choice and should form a significant step forward for democracy. We encouraged the Hong Kong Government to resume consultation with both the people of Hong Kong and the Chinese Government on plans to implement universal suffrage. That statement was welcome, but the Minister may want to say something about why it took so long for the Government to produce it. Had the events not happened largely during the recess, the Foreign Secretary should have made himself available in the House to give a verbal statement on our position and on how the situation affected our commitments under the joint declaration.

Moving on to the issues that are hotly under debate in Hong Kong, I want first to focus on stability, which is different from continuity. Any territory’s stability is much stronger when its leader has the credibility of being chosen by a large number of voters, which gives the leader the ability to exercise a real mandate and carry through what will not always be popular decisions in the difficult circumstances that spring up. Business, too, has a vital need for political stability, but that also sometimes comes, like business success, from calculated risks according to the needs of new generations and new consumers. Yesterday’s investment strategies will not always work tomorrow, and it is the same in politics.

The Chief Executive of Hong Kong says that the 2017 election will

“empower the chief executive with a mandate not enjoyed by any leader in Hong Kong’s history”,

and it will if the election is real and not predetermined to produce a particular result. The value of any election is in the number of people who decide to vote. In that election, the people of Hong Kong will demonstrate their enthusiasm both for the election and for a new leader by turning out in high numbers. To implement universal suffrage in a way that does not offer real choice to the people of Hong Kong would risk a low turnout and would be a hollow achievement that gave the future Chief Executive a fragile mandate.

What is at stake in terms of this House’s interest in the 2017 Hong Kong election is not ultimately in the precise detail of what sectors are represented in the nomination committee, how they are defined and how

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many members the committee has, but in the result that is offered to the people of Hong Kong at the end of the deliberations, which should give them a real choice in who becomes Hong Kong’s future leader. That is the best guarantee of stability in this territory, to which Britain and China are jointly pledged to support. Real choice, with a truly independent system of law and a high degree of autonomy, is what we are committed to—under Chinese sovereignty. It is a unique and special contribution to the evolution of China under that inspired phrase of Deng Xiaoping: “one country, two systems.” It was that that both our countries signed up to, and not to swap ideas or discuss regularly what progress is being made would be a breach of both our obligations and responsibilities. Let us think boldly and outside the box, in the same way that our predecessors did in the run-up to the joint declaration of 1984.

For example, Hong Kong’s constitutional arrangements mean that the system at the moment involves a Government—in effect, a Cabinet—but without a political party in the Legislative Council to back them up and to pursue their legislative agenda. That cannot be satisfactory. Is it not time for the next newly and successfully elected Chief Executive to create a political party that offers candidates in the next Legislative Council elections, so that his or her party may aspire to a majority and legislate for what it has campaigned on? That would surely provide longer-term stability to the governance of Hong Kong and give its people a larger say in what decisions are being made and by whom on their behalf.

As for Government’s responsibilities and commitments to fulfilling their obligations, I believe it is time for them to do more to debate what is happening in Hong Kong. I ask the Minister whether it is time for an oral statement to accompany the next biannual report on Hong Kong that the Foreign Office produces, rather than simply a written statement that is filed away. Is it not time for the Foreign Office to understand better the needs of the younger generation in Hong Kong, so that, as Ambassador Liu put it, we are working together to maintain the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong through understanding the younger generation’s needs? We might well disagree on some elements of what that involves and what “prosperity” and “stability” mean, but let us be honest: neither the Hong Kong, Chinese nor British Government anticipated exactly what has happened in Hong Kong over the last few months. Therefore, we need an imaginative response that captures the aspirations of most of the territory and enables its remarkable success to continue.

There are other aspects that should be touched on. Perhaps the Minister can let us know what the situation with the BBC is. I understand that the BBC is blocked in China, but I am not yet clear whether it is blocked in Hong Kong as well. That is part of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, which are so vital to Hong Kong’s success. I would like confirmation today that whenever the BBC is blocked, we raise the issue as a matter of principle.

Will the Minister also confirm when he is next travelling to Hong Kong and whether he will have the chance to engage with different groups there in order to understand better some of the questions about Hong Kong’s future stability? Will he also confirm that he has reminded our partner in the joint declaration of our absolute right in this Parliament to hold our Government to account on their commitments under the joint declaration and to

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hold debates of this nature? That is part of our constitutional arrangements, and it is important that the Chinese Government understand that.

In particular, will the Minister confirm today that stability for nations is not, in our eyes, about maintaining the status quo regardless, but about reaching out for greater involvement with the people—in this case, of Hong Kong—allowing them a greater say in choosing their leaders and, above all, trusting in the people? For the people of Hong Kong and we have no interest, no advantage or no conceivable selfish purpose in any form of car crash with Hong Kong’s sovereign master, China. Rather, it is in all our interests, but particularly those of Britain and China in fulfilling the joint declaration, that Hong Kong continues to thrive and prosper, in a different world from that of 1984 or even 1997.

2.54 pm

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Thank you, Mr Weir, for allowing me to catch your eye in this debate. I should declare an interest: I am chairman of the Conservative Friends of the Chinese and a regular visitor to Hong Kong and mainland China, and I have always taken a close interest in Chinese and Hong Kong matters.

I congratulate my good neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), on securing the debate. He was absolutely right in his opening remarks to say that there might have been some misunderstanding among some of the Chinese authorities and that some might think that we should not be debating the subject. Under the terms of the joint declaration, however, we should be debating it. As I will come on to say, there are huge British roots in Hong Kong and a huge love of Hong Kong in this country. We want Hong Kong to prosper. What I have to say might be controversial to a small degree, but I hope that it will be seen positively as only wishing the best for Hong Kong and its people.

The debate is important, as my hon. Friend said, largely because of how vital an asset Hong Kong is to both the United Kingdom and mainland China. The United Kingdom and Hong Kong share economic, social and historic links. Those strong links are natural considering that only 17 years ago sovereignty over all parts of Hong Kong was transferred to China as a result of the joint declaration. That joint declaration between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher was visionary and envisaged “one country, two systems”. The statement still endures today.

Hong Kong has continued to grow as an international powerhouse with strong links not only to the UK, but around the world. It serves as China’s financial centre and as a major part of the Chinese economy. The links between the economies of Hong Kong and the UK are huge: 40% of British investment in Asia goes directly into Hong Kong, which amounted to almost £36 billion at the end of 2012, including goods and services. We export £7 billion-worth of trade to Hong Kong.

British companies are always extremely welcome in Hong Kong and it is a fantastic place to do business, thanks to a system with low levels of bureaucracy, simple taxation and contracts based on English law. About 130 British companies have regional bases in Hong Kong, and many countries around the world see it in a similar light. Indeed, Hong Kong comes second in the world’s rankings for ease of business, while the UK’s

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place is 10th. The success of Hong Kong must be protected from any instability that could threaten further progress.

Hong Kong has prospered while maintaining its rights and protections under the joint declaration, of which we and mainland China are joint signatories, such as the rule of law, the high level of autonomy, the free press, freedom of speech and, importantly in the current situation, the right to demonstrate. That has all been achieved under the “one country, two systems” principle, which has clearly worked well, although perhaps not as imagined at the time of the handover in 1997. We must ensure that the principle continues.

Economic success, however, has created a divide between the business elite and the ordinary people of Hong Kong. That is what the protests are all about. Student protesters feel that the business elite have too much control. The rest are not participating fully in the rise of Hong Kong’s economic prosperity.

The suggested Selection Committee to choose suitable candidates for election as Chief Executive seems to be business-dominated: pro-Beijing and not representative of poorer citizens outside the business elite. As I said in my intervention, it is surprising that the PRC does not want poorer people to participate given the latest economic plan, the figures of which are worth repeating because they are so staggering. The latest economic plan produced by the new leader, Xi Jinping, envisages that GDP in China will grow from $6,600 a head to more than $9,000 a head, across its 1.25 billion people. That would be a staggering achievement within the plan period: the country will have to achieve a growth rate of 6.7% every year of the plan. Staggeringly, as I said to my hon. Friend, China will need to bring 10 million people—poor people—into the work force each year to achieve that.

It seems odd that the Government of the PRC want more and more poor people on the mainland to participate in the economic growth there, but are not yet permitting that to happen in Hong Kong. Our Government need to consider that carefully.

Although on the face of it the protests are about the progression of electoral reform, it is evident that they go deeper: they are about the desire of people outside businesses to be considered more. For example, there are only two dairy producers and two supermarkets in Hong Kong, which means high food prices for Hong Kong residents. As we know, high food prices affect poorer people the most—young poor people in particular.

The important message of this debate is that we want to see gradual change in the situation. As I have said to the Chinese press, ultimately this is an issue for the People’s Republic of China, the Government of Hong Kong and the people of Hong Kong to resolve. Electoral reform has progressed within the framework of the Basic Law, and universal suffrage is the ultimate aim. That process has been developing since the 1997 handover. Every election since then—I must stress this point—has been more open and democratic than the previous one. The Election Committee for the Chief Executive began with 400 representatives, was expanded to 800 and now has 1,200 from 38 subsectors. We want that progress to continue.

Richard Graham: On that specific point, does my hon. Friend agree that we want to see things change not because we have an obsession with a particular democratic

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model but because a situation in which the current Chief Executive is known as 689, referring to the number of people who voted for him in the previous election, is unsatisfactory when there is a population of around 7 million? The better the arrangements and the more people who can have a say in the election, the stronger the mandate and, therefore, the greater the stability that there will be for the leadership of the territory of Hong Kong.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend raised one of those issues in his speech. I agree that if the Chief Executive is elected on as open a mandate as possible, with suffrage that is as universal as possible, there will be a better perception of the process among the people of Hong Kong. I will come to what I think will happen if that does not occur. I agree that we need to move towards a situation in which the candidate elected as Chief Executive is perceived to be representative of all people and all sections in Hong Kong society, including the young and poorer people.

So far, the authorities have given little indication that they are willing to provide consensus in their current offer. The UK Government need to urge them to consider genuinely and listen to the protesters’ concerns. An open consultation is needed, as the problem will not go away. The Chinese Government must allow change and gradual reform to continue. If they do not provide for that, feelings of resentment will fester and when the issue comes up again in 2022—as it surely will—the feelings and protests could be much more serious, deep-seated and profound than they are at present. It is surely in everybody’s interests that we see gradual reform.

Electoral reform was always going to be gradual under the Basic Law. Everyone agrees that that is the best approach, including many pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong. It is also likely to be supported by the Chinese Government, who have their own concerns given the large number of Chinese visitors to Hong Kong. Step-by-step progress would avoid instability for wider China.

However, we need reassurances from the Chinese Government about the principles in the White Paper they recently produced for Hong Kong, which included an obligation for judges to swear an oath of allegiance to the state on election; those proposals need to be examined carefully. Judicial independence was one principle enshrined in the joint agreement and is of utmost importance to Hong Kong in maintaining its current success in the world. We must be clear that nothing should prevent the continuation of that independence, particularly in any case where an individual is challenging the state’s actions in the courts. Such cases must be allowed to continue, and judges must be able to judge them impartially.

It is encouraging that we have not seen large-scale attempts by either the Chinese or Hong Kong Governments to silence the protesters, although, as my hon. Friend said, the BBC website has been blocked in mainland China. That is regrettable. As he and I have both stated, one article in the joint declaration is a commitment to a free press. It is in everybody’s interests that nothing is hushed up by either side, so that we can have a full and fair picture. In this day and age, people will find ways around the jamming of electronic media, so we should

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encourage full openness. I am greatly encouraged that the current Chief Executive has extended offers to talk to the protesters, although those talks need real substance and should not be merely a smokescreen.

In conclusion, I reaffirm that Hong Kong is the economic jewel in China’s crown.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Before my hon. Friend concludes, will he be absolutely clear that he and the Conservative Friends of the Chinese support the aspiration of the protesters that candidates for Chief Executive should not be vetted by a nominating committee that could exclude candidates it disapproves of?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: That would be the ultimate aim, but I have been quite cautious in my speech. We want gradual change. I am not sure whether we will get to the point my hon. Friend sets out in time for the elections in 2017, but I would hope that we would do so by the elections in 2022.

Richard Graham: My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who is also a constituency neighbour, raises an interesting question. After the earlier consultations in Hong Kong, there was a recommendation by 18 academics that the authorities should look into a method for public recommendation of candidates. I believe that nothing in that idea runs counter to what has been announced by the National People’s Congress standing committee, so it could be an opportunity for the Hong Kong Government to tackle part of that issue. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend raises a very interesting point. I urge our Government to examine that plan and possibly hold discussions with the Chinese Government to see whether there might not be a way through on that issue, along the lines suggested by those academics.

As I said, Hong Kong is the economic jewel in China’s crown.It is surely in China’s interests to ensure that Hong Kong continues to prosper. Large business and capital are very portable in the 21st century. If financial and commercial communities conclude that the governance of Hong Kong is not going in the right direction, Hong Kong’s importance will surely diminish and competitors such as Singapore will overtake it.

It is in everybody’s interests to maintain Hong Kong as a strong financial and commercial hub. But I will say this: if the mainland Government of the PRC do not listen to the protesters’ concerns and work to bring about gradual, step-by-step change and peaceful electoral reform under the Basic Law, along with a situation in which all sections of society share in the prosperity currently enjoyed by the elites, Hong Kong will gradually diminish in importance. We need to ensure that all its millions of people share in its continuing and, I hope, increasing economic prosperity.

3.8 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), my constituency neighbour, on securing this debate and on his measured, balanced and well-informed speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—another

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neighbour—on his similarly well-informed speech. I also congratulate the Minister on meeting Martin Lee and Anson Chan over the summer. It was important that a British Minister did that. The Deputy Prime Minister met them, as well, something that was appreciated and recognised.

Some of the statements Martin Lee made in The New York Times earlier this month have been pretty shocking. For instance, he wrote:

“At 76 years old, I never expected to be tear-gassed in Hong Kong, my once peaceful home. Like many of the other tens of thousands of calm and nonviolent protesters in the Hong Kong streets last Sunday, I was shocked when the pro-democracy crowd was met by throngs of police officers in full riot gear, carrying weapons and wantonly firing canisters of tear gas. After urging the crowd to remain calm under provocation, I got hit by a cloud of the burning fumes.”

When such accounts reach the world’s media, it is important that we say unambiguously that we support the peaceful process being pursued by the Hong Kong people, as well as their aspirations for freedom and democracy and, quite specifically, their right to elect a leader without a vetting process that would fundamentally undermine the democratic process.

The news today is actually more promising. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester remarked, there is some suggestion that Mr Leung has started to make statements implying the possibility of negotiations and that, while the Hong Kong Government will try to save face by not unbundling the Beijing Government’s whole proposal, there may be some room for discussion about the democratic process behind the nominating committee. That is a positive first step, and we should recognise that.

However, Martin Lee was quite clear in his article in TheNew York Times that, if the negotiations are to succeed, we in this country and across the western world have a role to play. He said:

“In order for us”—

the Hong Kongers—

“to attain the rights that Beijing has promised, the rest of the world has to stand with Hong Kong. That includes the many multinational companies whose prosperity depends upon our free markets and open-and-honest society, but more important, it includes the world’s free democracies. Hong Kongers deserve more vigorous backing from Washington and London, which pledged to stand by us before the handover in 1997, when Beijing made the promises it is now so blatantly breaking.”

The crisis obviously has implications for Hong Kong, China and UK-China relations, but it also has implications for the international rule of law and the role of international treaties, which is what the joint declaration was—it was registered at the United Nations as such. To take a much more distressing example, the Budapest memorandum, under which Britain and the United States were joint guarantors of the independence of Ukraine, has turned out in practice to be hardly worth the paper it was written on. It is important that China treats the joint declaration much more seriously and that we reinforce respect for it as an international treaty.

Richard Graham: On that point, I am sure my hon. Friend, like the rest of us, is absolutely clear that there is nothing specifically in the joint declaration about the arrangements for these, or indeed any other, elections; it simply states that there shall be elections. The methodology is in the Basic Law, and it is entirely an issue for the

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Chinese and Hong Kong Governments. However, the Basic Law has been amended; like any law, it is not cast in stone for ever. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that the real issue is the level of dialogue and trust between the Hong Kong Government and their people, and between the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Government in turn, as they try to find the necessary compromises?

Martin Horwood: Yes, I would agree, and my hon. Friend put the point very well. However, this is also about understanding what universal suffrage really means and ensuring that the democratic process of choosing a leader for Hong Kong is free in a way that is understood by the Hong Kong people and by people in democracies around the world—and that does not include prior vetting by a one-party Government in another part of China.

We must be realistic and honest about the limits of our ability as a former colonial power—we did not actually deliver democracy when we were running Hong Kong—to influence this process. We must be persuasive, but we cannot be confrontational with the Government in Beijing. We certainly must be true to our values, but we must recognise that there are limits. We must try to persuade China that it is in its interests to have a stable and free Hong Kong; that is the basis on which Hong Kong’s prosperity has been built.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester rightly said, stability is not just about maintaining the status quo. It is in China’s interests that the process that emerges from whatever negotiations take place delivers a Chief Executive who is in tune with the Hong Kong people, not just through the formal process of democracy, but, for instance, in the sense of recognising issues of economic equality in the territory, as the hon. Member for The Cotswolds mentioned. The Chief Executive should not, for instance, make remarks such as those Mr Leung made about the Occupy Central movement when he dismissed it as being manipulated by external forces. That is dismissive of the aspirations of the community-based movement that has emerged in Hong Kong and would not be acceptable in most democratic leaders.

It is important that we try to persuade the Beijing Government not just to save face, but to move in a direction that recognises the aspirations of the Hong Kong people and to do better than we did as the colonial power—to outdo us—in its administration of Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s future stability certainly depends on that.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: It is not a question of outdoing the United Kingdom as the colonial power. The point my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester made is important: the whole way of governing countries has changed in the period since the handover. People’s expectations are much greater than they were then, particularly where they can see that part of society has benefited from economic development. For example, house prices are horrendously high in Hong Kong. People complain about them here in London, but they are much higher there, which means it is difficult even for children of fairly wealthy parents to get on the property ladder. Young people and poorer people in Hong Kong see that they cannot aspire to such things, and that is why there needs to be change.