Q I am seeking a comment on what I am about to read to you. I apologise to the Committee that what I am about to read is exceptionally offensive and, frankly, quite evil. This relates to the Batley and Spen by-election. This is something that happened in June of this year. What I am about to read to you we were not able to trace, no matter how hard we tried, but I seek your comments on it. This relates to your comment on religious pressure:
“Brothers & Sisters of Batley & Heckmondwike I am publicly calling out members of our communities who we have supported in the past: Shabbir Pandor, Ghulam Maniyar, Dr Rajpura and others who have shamelessly brought the Labour Candidate (who is openly Lesbian) to the ‘Masjids’ (the house of Allah) for votes. Would Allah be happy with their actions considering he destroyed the people of Lut A.S which is clearly referenced in the Holy Quran as a lesson for mankind? We are already powerless in schools against forced LGBT education and the effect it is having on our children. Must people from our community promote this agenda too? Mr Maniyar who is part of the Muslim burial committee is trying to land his daughter Fazila the job she previously had under the late Jo Cox. I ask him ‘Would you like to be buried with this on your conscience? You are promoting an MP that could potentially harm the Imaan of our children.’ This is not an endorsement of another party or candidate. I want you all as a community to understand that the blind loyalty to the Labour Party of these people for selfish gains be it ‘peerages’ or ‘better job roles’ is being asked FROM US at a cost of the corruption of our future generations. (PLS SHARE THE TRUTH SO PPL MAY KNOW)”.
I apologise for how offensive that was, but I think it is important to the Committee. That was in June of this year, in the parliamentary by-election. I seek your comments on what I have just read.
Richard Mawrey: I quite agree with you that it is offensive, but there is an obvious line to be drawn regarding individuals expressing strong, perhaps bigoted, perhaps extreme religious or indeed ideological views, for example against LGBT people and so on. The key, I think, with religious influence is that, first of all, it has to be directed. Directed against a candidate is perfectly okay for what was, I think, section 115 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, because it is just as much an offence to try to get somebody unelected as to get a named person elected. Quite often if something false is spread about a candidate’s personal character, so as to engage, I think, section 113, it does not matter that that may not be directed to the election of any other person, but just in order to get a candidate unelected, as it were.
The point about religious influence is that it has to be a way of influencing people. The fact that somebody expresses a view such as that might just fall short. If that person were himself an imam, some other religious teacher, or somebody of standing within the community who is saying, “Don’t vote for this candidate because their views are against our religion,” then you probably might breach the threshold of undue influence, because people would be voting not on general principles but on strictly narrow sectarian principles. That would be true of any religion; it just happened in this case to be Muslim.
Lord Pickles: I have nothing to add to that. I agree with everything that Richard said.
Q I wanted to pick up on your point about policing, Mr Mawrey. You have been very critical, in both your judgments and your previous evidence to Parliament, of the police and their determination not to get involved. My question is twofold. What does that imply about how many cases have not been brought that perhaps ought to have been? Does the Bill empower the police, and would you expect them to be more willing to be involved in future?
Richard Mawrey: Those are two separate questions. One was whether the police are empowered. They have the necessary powers now. In the aftermath of my critical remarks in the Birmingham judgment, a number of forces had designated officers to deal with the issue, but for various reasons, there were never enough officers for some to be spared to deal with electoral matters only, so they tended to be somebody who added this issue to his or her other duties—say, with the fraud squad, or whatever it was. They did not have the time or resources, because obviously this was regarded—not unreasonably—by some police forces as being very low priority. They tend to think, “This is a squabble between politicians. Let them sort it out.”
In certain areas—Tower Hamlets is a good example—the police force was wary of the local politicians, who were, of course, only too anxious, particularly in the case of Lutfur Rahman, to meet any sort of criticism or investigation with cries of “Institutional racism!”, mentions of the Macpherson report, and all that. The police were wary of dealing with that. They have the powers; whether they have the resources and the will is an entirely different matter.
On whether lots of cases are going undetected, the answer is undoubtedly yes. It is very difficult to prove fraud, and when you have proved it, it is very difficult and time-consuming to prove who benefited from it. In some systems—in Australia, for example—you can prove fraud until you are blue in the face, but you no longer prove who benefited from it, so anyone elected with fraudulent votes stays elected. That is obviously not a good idea. What you see in the cases that I try is the tip of the iceberg, and those cases exist only because concerned citizens are prepared to put their money—their houses, sometimes—on the line in order to fight that fraud. You can end up, as the petitioners did in Tower Hamlets, with a large order for costs against someone who cheerfully declares themselves bankrupt, and you find yourself having spent a fortune doing what you think to be right, only to see none of that money back.
What the Bill does not deal with, although it might have done, is any reform of the process of electoral petitions, trying disputed elections, and all that—things on which Lord Pickles and I have given evidence on other occasions. I am sorry that it does not deal with that, but it is a big, long Bill; perhaps you will get round to it later. The idea that it should be made easier for elections to be challenged by citizens or candidates, and less expensive—
Q Thank you very much for your insight. Is there any more that you would like to say about the particular processes that will be required to support overseas electors in demonstrating their connection to the constituency they are registering in?
Louise Round: As with all these things, some of the detail will come out in secondary legislation. At the moment, it is really tricky because registers are not nationally open. If someone has to show that they have not been on a register apart from in the constituency in which the particular registration office is operating, there is no way really of registration officers checking that, so in a sense it is taken on trust. There is no way for them to check the register even of a neighbouring constituency, let alone one at the other end of the country.
The obligation to be satisfied that someone has a local connection is obviously really time consuming, and it depends how well prepared the person wishing to register is and what evidence they can adduce. At the end of the day, the registration officer has to be satisfied. There is wording in one of the clauses around whether, had they applied a long time ago, they would have at that point been able to demonstrate a local connection, which all begins to get a little existential, almost, and very theoretical. We are not trained detectives, so there is a balance, as in all registration activity, between not wanting to make the requirements so tight that no one can ever be registered and ensuring that we are not registering people who are not entitled to be registered and might be constituency hopping, as it were, to find the most convenient place to register for a particular election depending on what is going on there.
My hon. Friend makes points that I am sure those listening to that debate will be pondering. In a day and age when electronic mail, not postal mail, is the norm, they will be asking what the Government are doing to ensure that our electoral system is modernised. I applaud the Government for all they are doing on voter identification. It is such an important thing but it has been sadly lacking. This is a reforming Government in that area, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will do all she can to continue that reforming zeal in her work.
Let me pull together two other points that are allied to what we have been discussing. I think a great deal will be needed in returning to the status quo ante. The vast majority of Members do not remember the status quo ante—some of us do, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) and perhaps one or two others such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell, but there are not many of us left. Ensuring that the House and Members understand those conventions that are not formalised in law will be something of a challenge. I am sure the Minister is up to that challenge, but it is something we need to address. She has rightly made a number of comments on this issue—she has written a letter to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and there are pieces of correspondence and an opportunity for debate—but as we move forward we need a settled view of the conventions.
Finally, on the wash-up, the day that a Prime Minister announces a general election is not the start of the general election campaign, and hon. Members need to take a much closer look, perhaps through colleagues who sit on the relevant Committees, as to how we can get better control over what is considered in that wash-up session. There are often a few deals regarding what legislation will pass through Parliament before the election campaign, and perhaps that would be better done after the election, rather than before. We should be considering such matters, with a focus on shortening the election campaign to something that is not just best for one set of people, but best for our democracy.
I wanted to make this point to the Minister. Not only will the Prime Minister have full power, but some of the clauses and consequential amendments in the Bill will have a profound effect on other aspects of the constitution. It specifically amends the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020 as a consequential amendment. That Act states that a referendum in Scotland cannot be held on the same date as a UK general election, but it is not the referendum that takes precedence; it is the UK general election. So if the Scottish Government set a date for a referendum, say in May 2023, under this Bill, it would be entirely within the Prime Minister’s power to set that date for a UK general election and consequently shift the date of the referendum in Scotland. We are handing a gross power to the UK Government as a consequence of the Bill.
Was that the hon. Gentleman’s speech? Shall I cross him off the list?
I guess that, like me, my hon. Friend finds it a bit perplexing, when sitting in this debate and looking at Conservative Members, who advocated for Brexit in their constituencies and for Parliament to take back control, that they will walk through the Lobby tonight to neuter Parliament. Do he and his constituents who voted against Brexit see the irony in what the Brexiteers will do tonight?
It is a great pleasure to follow so erudite and intelligible a speech from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara).
I have an experience that is very rare in my political career—a sense of complete vindication. I voted against the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011, when it was brought in, and I seem to recall saying then what I hear the Minister saying from the Front Bench now: that it would not work and that it was an abominable intrusion and distortion of our constitution. I see this Bill as a welcome correction that brings our constitution back to the fundamental principle, which has existed for many years, that, with the important exception that the monarch has the right to speak his or her mind at the time the Prime Minister requests a Dissolution, and in the last resort even perhaps to decline it—although it would not be known for many years that he or she had—it should be the case that the Prime Minister can advise Her Majesty to dissolve the House. We are at last returning to sanity and, with the pardon of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to normality when it comes to the constitution.
However, I say to the Committee and the Minister that there is an issue that troubles me. It seems to me that, when we presented our manifesto to the country in 2019, we did not only promise that we would restore the balance of our constitution by repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. We presented the country then with a constitutional programme, or at least the willingness to look fundamentally at our constitution and to consider deeply whether we should restore to a more Conservative and a more traditional basis other aspects of our constitution, too.
In welcoming this Bill, therefore, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope that it is not the last measure that we will introduce in the portfolio that she occupies. At the moment, I look at our offering and I see this Bill, which I fully support, I see the Elections Bill, which I also support, and I see the Judicial Review and Courts Bill. I hope we are not going to be quite so timid as to present that as our sole offering to the country. In 1997, the Labour party was elected. One thing one can say about that Government is that they came in with a coherent, radical plan for the constitution, and they then enacted it with complete ruthlessness, and with complete disregard for Opposition voices. I was in the House some years later, and I recall vividly how the Labour party steamrollered its constitutional changes, including the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, through this House with very little by way of consideration and regard for alternative voices.
We now have a majority comparable to that, and I hope that we will not squander that opportunity. There are important things that we should now be doing. I have some sympathy with the plea this afternoon by the hon. Member for Rhondda that we should be considering Prorogation. So we should. We should be considering whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller No. 2 should stand. We should be considering whether other decisions of the Supreme Court should be allowed to stand. There comes to mind, for example, the Adams case, in which Mr Gerry Adams was effectively acquitted of his convictions in 1975 because the Supreme Court held that the Carltona principle in effect did not apply to the decision then taken. That, in my view, is a matter that this House ought to be reviewing.
I say to right hon. and hon. Members and to my friends on the Government Benches that we must not regard the constitution as an area that is too complicated for us to go into. We must not accept the liberal consensus, as it is no doubt called, upon which the new Labour Government in ’97 traded. We must not accept that these things are permanent features of our constitution. They were not introduced with our consent, and we have every right, with the mandate from the people that we now have, to reconsider them.
I say to the Minister that I applaud this Bill, and I applaud her particularly. I was impressed, if I may say so, throughout the course of her presentation by how deeply competent and how completely on top of her brief she was. Thank heavens for such a Minister.
I bid this Bill well as it passes to the other place. On behalf of other members of the Joint Committee, I particularly thank the Minister for her incredible hard work throughout the passage of the Bill, despite the other challenges she was facing at the time. I personally thank her for her words in response to new clause 1. I look forward to talking to her further about the research she has undertaken to do on the length of elections.
I will take another day to give lectures on points of order.
The simple truth is that there is a greater responsibility on the Government than on anyone else to do the right thing and to avoid errors working to their own advantage. That is what I am arguing here today. This voter ID scheme is an illiberal idea in pursuit of a non-existent problem, and that is what we need to address. We need to get rid of it, and that is what I will seek to do on Report.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about not taking the Bill in isolation and looking at the cumulative effect. Does he agree that it is definitive of a Government that have lost any confidence in their ability to outrun their outrageous false claims, their untruths and their broken promises that they have to bring this measure in to try to gerrymander the system?
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. On extending the Electoral Commission’s powers, it has previously said that it does not have enough powers to keep the major parties in check and that overspending and breaches of electoral law have become business as usual, because it cannot fine them enough. Is this not all about taking further control rather than accepting open elections?
Aneurin Bevan famously said that in the struggle between poverty and property, when poverty rises, property will attack democracy. Is this not what we are seeing in terms of voter suppression, getting rid of the right to peaceful protest, and attacking the judiciary and our fundamental democratic rights?
As ever, I will seek to calm the House, if I can, as I perambulate around a few of the issues that the Bill presents. I suggest to the Minister, as an early judgment, that it is perhaps a curate’s egg of a Bill. I will explain why I have come to that assessment, but we must understand at the outset why these matters are important. They are important to protect everybody—democracy itself in its entirety, clearly, but also candidates, agents and volunteers for all political parties who are actors in our great democratic process—and to give due regard to those who ultimately deserve consideration: the voters.
Having listened to the debate so far, I think we need to hit two issues on the head. I suggest gently that it is slightly anachronistic to compare democracy in this country with the events that we saw after the US presidential election. To those who would have us believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with our system, I suggest that they could be accused of suffering from Gerald Ratner syndrome, whereby they completely undermine what they wish to improve.
It is a shame that the Bill was not subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, which might have ironed out issues that have caused a degree of contention. Indeed, it could be suggested that the Bill would have benefited from consideration beforehand by a Speaker’s Commission, which is a cross-party entity—none of us has the monopoly on virtue when it comes to elections or matters pertaining to them.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said several interesting things about ID. I have a great deal of sympathy for what he said: notwithstanding the substantial list in schedule 1 of acceptable forms of ID, there is work to be done.
May I briefly mention the Speaker’s Committee? I am a member by virtue of chairing the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, and for no other reason. I agree that the Speaker’s Committee would benefit from having no majority from a particular party. I see colleagues who are members of it frowning at me, but I simply say that I would be willing to sacrifice myself if we needed to remove a Conservative member. I do not wish to take away from the importance of the Committee’s work, but if it were necessary for me to discharge that heavy burden on to somebody else, I might well do so. I do not want to cause even more offence to Members on the Treasury Bench, as I do occasionally, but I do ask whether it is appropriate to have two Ministers of the Crown as members of the Committee. I think that there is some work to be done; perhaps we will come back to the matter on Report.
On the vexed subject of the Electoral Commission, it is fair to say that opinion is mixed, but the commission is ultimately a regulator—perhaps the most sensitive regulator, because it regulates what we, and those at other levels of representation, do as candidates. o I simply say that we should tread carefully, perhaps recognise some of the work that has been done recently, welcome the new chair of the organisation, and judge it in the years to come.
I appreciate that many other Members wish to speak this afternoon, so with that, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will conclude my remarks.
I am certainly happy to offer that meeting. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution mentioned earlier that she has had a number of meetings with the RNIB already and has been working with it, but she will continue to meet it as the Bill progresses, because that is vital. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s illustration of the support for this measure in Northern Ireland.
I will address the point that the hon. Gentleman’s party raised. One survey, conducted by the Electoral Commission in 2009 under the last Labour Government, just a few years after the introduction of photographic ID in Northern Ireland, found that 100% of respondents in Northern Ireland experienced no difficulty with presenting photographic ID at polling stations. As part of its post-election questionnaire in 2019, the Electoral Commission reported that 83% of voters in Northern Ireland found it very easy to participate in elections, as opposed to 78% across Great Britain, including, of course, Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman should want us to learn from what works in one part of the UK for the whole of the United Kingdom. I am very pleased to see the United Kingdom aligning further, with Northern Ireland leading the way as Great Britain takes forward a measure to protect the integrity of elections, which has been tried and tested to great effect in Northern Ireland.
Some of the wider claims we have heard in today’s debate are simply not borne out by the experience of Northern Ireland. They echo some of the scaremongering when this Government successfully introduced individual electoral registration. Many Opposition Members cried that that would result in mass disenfranchisement, but we saw the effect in the last UK general election, when a record number of people were registered to vote. The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, one of the hardest working Ministers with whom I have had the pleasure to work and herself no stranger to Northern Ireland, excellently articulated the reasonable and considered approach we are taking across the Bill.
We heard a number of very powerful speeches in support of these measures from my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay), my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Southport (Damien Moore), for Leigh (James Grundy), for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher), for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) and for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), and my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling (Tom Randall), for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew).
I want to try to answer some of the points that have been raised and some of the questions that have been put to me in Members’ contributions. Before I do, however, I think it is worth reflecting on the work undertaken to get to this point and the long pedigree of some of the measures in the Bill. This is not just a product of the Government or the Cabinet Office; it has been inspired, informed and enhanced by the input of a wide variety of organisations and individuals. We are grateful to a number of parliamentary Committees, many of whose thoughtful contributions are reflected in the measures and some of whose Chairs we heard from in today’s debate. To highlight just a few individuals, the important contribution of Lord Pickles has been critical in understanding the very real risks and challenges our electoral system faces. Similarly, the reports by colleagues in this House, as well as by the House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, have highlighted key considerations, from the need for more transparency in areas of digital campaigning to political finance.
Along with the valued contribution of the electoral sector experts, I know the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution has been meeting a wide range of organisations in the voluntary and community sector, which have raised some important points and will play a vital role in ensuring that the detail that will be developed in secondary legislation will meet the needs of all those who manage and use our electoral services. In particular, she is committed to continue engagement with people with disabilities, other minority groups and some of the key groups of vulnerable people who have been all too often, as my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe and for Bolsover pointed out, the major victims of electoral fraud.
I want to turn to some of the specific questions that have been asked. The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and her colleague the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) asked about an impact assessment. I would direct them to the 21-page equality impact assessment and the 120-page impact assessment published alongside the Bill.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) asked about the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I welcome the report published by the Committee in July. As the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution said, the recommendations will be given full and proper consideration, and the Government will respond. In fact, I should point out that we are bringing forward measures in the Bill which are closely linked to recommendations made in that report, such as a new requirement on political parties to declare their assets and liabilities over £500 on registration, and a restriction of third-party campaigning to UK-based or otherwise eligible campaigners.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made a powerful speech, as he always does. Like many on the Government Benches, I happen to disagree with him on this particular one, but let me point out that the Government research he quoted also found out that 98% of people across the age groups have access to accepted forms of photographic ID already, 99% of people from ethnic minority groups have that level of access, and 99% of those aged between 18 and 29 already have an acceptable form of photographic identification.
The hon. Members for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) asked about important issues of engagement with the devolved Administrations. Devolution means that we already have different arrangements for devolved and reserved elections. We do engage regularly and I can offer him the reassurance he sought that the strategy document will not undermine the partnership between the Electoral Commission and the devolved Administrations.
There are many other points that I would like to address, but I will not have time. Let me conclude by thanking hon. Members for all their valuable contributions. The Bill will place British citizens’ participation at the heart of our democracy and will keep it modern, secure, transparent and fair, so that our democracy can continue to thrive. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution will do an excellent job of steering it through Committee, and I look forward to a lively debate in the next phase of its passage. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is important the House has the opportunity to reflect on this and consider what mechanisms we need to put in place to protect people in Afghanistan.
The harsh reality is that 3 million people have already been displaced, and 80% of those fleeing their homes are women and children. These people are now crying out for our help.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
I just reflected on the fact that 3 million people have already been displaced. We need to show a generosity of spirit that recognises the scale of the challenge we face, so that women do not face the loss of their human rights, so that women do not face persecution and, yes, so that women do not face even worse, including death.
It is important to say that, if we are to support the Afghan people, this crisis needs to mark a point of fundamental change in this Government’s approach to refugees. In the past few months alone, this Government have introduced a hateful anti-refugee Bill that would rip up international conventions and criminalise those coming from Afghanistan in need of our refuge. The UK Government have spent a sizeable part of their summer making political play of turning away migrants and refugees in small boats who are desperately making their way across the channel.
This is a vote about our soft power; a vote on the definition of global Britain; and a test of our political courage to see the bigger international picture and stay committed to our international obligations even when we face difficulties at home. I will not tire of telling the House just how dangerous and complex our world is becoming. A simple question that I put to the Prime Minister, the National Security Adviser, the Defence Secretary and all the respective heads of the armed forces was this: is global instability over the next five to 10 years going to increase or decrease? In every single case, the answer was increase.
We face an unpredictable, uncertain decade, with growing authoritarianism and extremism on the rise, an ever assertive China and Russia, and, of course, climate change increasingly wreaking havoc across the world. The Government acknowledge that in their own integrated review, but hard and soft power are two sides of the same coin, as we learnt to our peril in Afghanistan. Cutting our soft power will have operational, strategic and reputational consequences. The sheer scale of global challenges was acknowledged at the G7 summit, yet here we are debating the reduction in our soft power profile—the only G7 nation to do so. In contrast, China is using its aid programmes as part of a long-term strategy to advance its own global reach. Look at what is happening across Africa and Asia. A new global soft power war is taking place. This, to me, is the face of a cold war that is slowly emerging, but we in the west have yet to wake up to its reality. China is weaponising its immense soft power to significantly advance its influence and reach and to promote its own interpretation of the international rules-based order, and it ensnares dozens and dozens of countries into its sphere of influence. That is why we should not be diminishing our own soft power.
I suspect the Government may succeed in winning the argument today, but they will lose the moral high ground. We claim to be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective. It is simply not a good look to promote a global Britain agenda, emphasising leadership, responsibility and resolve, but then to cut our overseas aid budget.
I urge the Government to ask what Churchill might say to the House now, given the 1930s feel to the world. Why not articulate to the nation the wider geopolitical uncertainty that we face, the urgency for the west to regroup, and the influential role that Britain could play if we retain our soft power commitments so we can begin to address the progressively dangerous trajectory our world is now on? I have no doubt that, if the Government did that, the nation would be fully in support.
Of course, this is all my view. The House will have a chance to listen to the utterances of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) later on, and we look forward to that immensely. He will teach us a thing or two.
I support the Bill, but I fear that clause 3, the so-called ouster clause, may be superfluous. Its inclusion could be seen by those of a cynical bent as being a hangover from the intervention of the Supreme Court in 2019. We should hold more surely to the Bill of Rights of 1689. After all, the Queen in Parliament is not justiciable—at least that is my understanding.
In this House and indeed in this Administration, there is a distinction between the role of Director of Public Prosecutions and Attorney General. I understand that in the Scottish Government the Lord Advocate combines both roles. That is a centralisation of Executive power, is it not? Would the hon. Gentleman advise his colleagues in the Scottish Government to move away from that centralisation of powers, towards the higher constitutional principles that we have here in the UK?
This is more of a clarification point. If the Lascelles principles are in place and the Government were to call a general election but an alternative grouping could come together to be able to create a Government, would that not allow the Queen to appoint a new Prime Minister, under the principles that were referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg)?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because this is perhaps where we see the significance of clause 3. If there is to be nothing in this Bill or no decision that would be justiciable, then surely the implication is that, in fact, there is only one decision that can be made by the monarch, and that is to grant the application.
First, may I put on the record how much I welcome the Bill? Indeed, having served on the Joint Committee chaired so ably by the noble Lord McLoughlin, who has gone on from a distinguished career in this House to—I hope—even greater things in the other place, I can probably own up to knowing more about the constitutional convolution surrounding this subject than it is healthy for any person to know, with the possible exception of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).
I was slightly confused by the points made by the shadow Minister, as Labour has a manifesto commitment to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. I am not sure whether we will see some backtracking on that. I was also confused when she said that the Prime Minister of the day could take the opportunity of the Opposition being in disarray to call a general election. I have to say that I could probably pick any day in the past five years, and no doubt in the next four years, when that particular situation could be in force.
When we started out on this journey, I took the view that we should go as far as possible to restore the situation to as it existed before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. At the end of our deliberations, I remained of the same view, but we all came to understand better the historical and constitutional context. It is important that we restore the royal prerogative. Less important is the academic discussion about whether it was merely in abeyance and could be restored or had been abolished. The Lascelles principles were discussed: the reasons why the King or Queen could refuse the initiative from No. 10 and, of course, the discretion around a request—or is that advice?—to Her Majesty. Indeed the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) talked about whether the Lascelles principles would still be in place. We learned about the golden triangle—the communications between the Queen’s private secretary, the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister’s private secretary—who would head off an embarrassing situation for the monarch who might have to turn down an election because it was too soon after the previous election, because an alternative Government could be formed, or because other situations might mean that it was inappropriate to call that particular election.
Again, I say that the hon. Lady should be at Cabinet Office questions asking the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to answer for his Department. Again, I have spoken to the Cabinet Office about this. It does not engage in political polling, and it is very clear about that.
I am going to answer the question very clearly. The SNP voted against or abstained on all trade deals in the European Parliament and the one we have just done with the European Union. It is an isolationist party. The reality on the Australia trade deal is that it is upholding animal welfare standards. Under the World Organisation for Animal Health, Australia gets five out of five. We have safeguards in place to stop the market being flooded with beef or any collapse in price. We are very clear that we will protect our farmers, and this leads us into the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, worth £9 trillion. That will be a huge win for our farmers, and all the members of the farming community I have spoken to understand that. The SNP should see the big picture and understand that we are not going to reduce our animal welfare standards, that we are not going to flood the market, and that it will be seen very clearly in a few years’ time to have cried wolf.
I beg to move,
That the following Standing Order shall have effect until 31 December 2021:
Investigation into the Lobbying of Government Committee
(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Investigation into Lobbying of Government Committee, to consider:
(a) the effectiveness of existing legislation to prevent the inappropriate lobbying of Ministers and Government;
(b) the rules governing all public officials regarding conflicts of interest;
(c) the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Lex Greensill as an adviser in Government and the process by which Greensill Capital was approved for commercial arrangements with Government departments and other public sector bodies; and
(d) the role Government played in facilitating the commercial relationship between Greensill Capital and the Gupta Family Group Alliance.
(2) It shall be an instruction to the Committee that it:
(a) considers whether there are robust transparency and accountability procedures in place and whether existing rules are being adhered to;
(b) considers whether the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments’ regulatory framework and sanctioning powers are sufficient to enforce its advice;
(c) assesses the extent of undue influence that former politicians and advisers have on the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies; and
(d) that it makes a first Report to the House no later than 18th October 2021.
(3) The committee shall consist of 16 members of whom 15 shall nominated by the Committee of Selection in the same manner as those Select Committees appointed in accordance with Standing Order No. 121.
(4) The Chair of the committee shall be a backbench Member of a party represented in Her Majesty’s Government and shall be elected by the House under arrangements approved by Mr Speaker.
(5) Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it until the expiration of this Order.
(6) The committee shall have power—
(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time; and
(b) to appoint specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.
(7) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.
(8) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.
“The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”
That is how former Prime Minister David Cameron described the next big scandal to hit British politics, back in 2010. We might think that what David Cameron lacks in transparency he makes up for in fortune telling, except that he had inside information because the person exploiting the loopholes would be the very same David Cameron.
We had a Conservative Prime Minister giving Lex Greensill access to all areas of Government. He was brought in and given privileged access to the heart of Government with the title and the business card of a senior adviser in the Prime Minister’s office. Then—what a stroke of luck—when he was no longer Prime Minister, and just past the required period, when he no longer needed the approval of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, David Cameron joined Greensill to lobby the Conservative Government full of his friends.
Having refused to respond to any questions at all for 40 days, David Cameron chose a period of national grief, hoping that there would be less political criticism and less scrutiny. It is cynical and it is shabby, and the statement itself was toe-curling. He is not sorry for his conduct, for the texts and the drinks, but he is sorry he got caught and he is sorry that his shares are now worthless. This is not just a question of why he did not go through the correct channels; it is question of why he was doing this at all.
Let us be really clear: David Cameron was not working in the national interest; he was working in his own personal interest, with the hope of making millions of pounds for himself through the exercise of his share options. But questions cannot just be asked of David Cameron, when it is current Conservative Ministers who have paved the way for this scandal. When it comes to lobbying, it takes two to tango. For every former Minister lobbying, there is someone in power being lobbied. That is why this scandal is not just about the conduct of David Cameron during his time as Prime Minister and in the years afterwards. This is about who he lobbied in the current Government and how they responded.
Lex Greensill was awarded a CBE and was made a Crown representative by a Conservative Government, yet his company’s spectacular collapse now means that over 50,000 jobs are at risk around the world, including thousands in the UK’s steel communities, from Hartlepool to Stocksbridge, from Rotherham to Scunthorpe and to Newport. The steel industry is crucial and the Government must make it clear that our steel industry will not pay the price for the failures at Greensill and beyond.
This Government have set up an inquiry, but just about supply chain finance and Greensill. Such a review is wholly inadequate, and deliberately so. They do not want to explore what needs to change in lobbying or who currently gets access to power, or the wider issue of how to lift standards, which have fallen so far in the 10 years of Conservative Governments. They do not want public hearings. They do not want the disinfectant of sunlight, as David Cameron once urged. They just want this to go away, which is why they have chosen Nigel Boardman to chair the inquiry.
It is a fact that Nigel Boardman is a good friend—a very good friend—of the Conservative Government. Some may suspect that the son of a former Conservative Cabinet Minister might be unlikely to make waves, but let us look at his record. Mr Boardman has been paid over £20,000 per year as a non-executive director at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—a Department with a real interest in the British Business Bank, which lent to Greensill, and the British steel industry, where so many jobs are now at risk. Mr Boardman has already whitewashed the Government’s handling of public procurement during the pandemic and I fear that he will do the same again with this inquiry.
You will remember, Mr Speaker, that I jointly chaired the inquiry into the collapse of Carillion. The fact that Mr Boardman’s law firm made £8 million advising Carillion, including £1 million on the day before the outsourcers collapsed, leaves a terrible taste in my mouth as it should in the mouths of Members on the Government Benches. To cap it all, Mr Boardman was appointed to a prestigious role at the British Museum by—oh, by David Cameron! What is being proposed by the Government is not remotely fit for purpose. It is not an inquiry. It is not independent. It is an insult to us all.
The scope of this inquiry has to be bigger than supply chain financing. It has to be about lobbying, too, and bigger than what rules were broken. If the existing lobbying rules were not breached, that is a big part of the problem, surely. Had the Conservatives backed Labour’s amendments to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill back in 2014, there would have been much more transparency, but they did not. David Cameron and his Government voted them down, and boy are they exploiting them now! We need public service in the national interest, not people viewing the state like some get-rich-quick scheme, with taxpayers treated as collateral damage.
We now learn that the Conservatives are joined in all this by the SNP, whose Rural Economy Secretary in the Scottish Government dined with Lex Greensill in one of Glasgow’s finest restaurants with no officials, no notes, no emails, no texts and no phone records about the meeting. Here in Westminster, we have witnessed the degrading of the ministerial code.
Well, the Scottish people can be the judge of that. If the hon. Member thinks that a Scottish Minister dining with Lex Greensill is okay, his party should put that on its leaflets in the elections in May.
Sir Alex Allan resigned as independent adviser on ministerial interests following the Prime Minister’s failure to take action on the Home Secretary’s bullying behaviour. That was five months ago. The Government have not replaced him. They have not even advertised the job. What does that say about how seriously this Government take standards?
I welcome the chance to contribute to this Opposition day debate. I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that it is appropriate and possible to do so virtually.
First, may I add my own tribute to those made earlier this week to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, whose commitment to the service of this country and to the highest possible standards of conduct was exemplary?
During the extraordinary challenge of covid-19, the Government have worked with people and businesses of all sorts—from private citizens to key workers, from our brilliant small and medium-sized enterprises to multi- nationals. In that monumental effort to protect the public and save lives across the country, civil servants across Government, working under incredible pressure, have achieved extraordinary things.
Even away from times of crisis, this country can be proud of the standards that we uphold. In Transparency International’s 2020 index, which ranks countries, the United Kingdom was ranked above close European neighbours such as France and Ireland in 11th place. We are the first G20 country to establish a public register of domestic company beneficial ownership and the first G7 country to undergo an IMF fiscal transparency evaluation.
This Government value such reputation and will always uphold it. As hon. Members heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say just now, we are concerned about some of what has emerged in recent weeks. Most of what this complex motion proposes is already being done. Indeed, as the policy Minister responsible, it is perfectly sensible for me to respond today on behalf of my Department. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) has shadowed me before—10 years ago—and it is good to see her again today in her place.
The motion seeks to establish in Standing Orders a Select Committee with a remit so wide-ranging as to cut across Parliament’s existing Committees and independent bodies that have responsibilities in this area. Let us take the elements part by part. Looking at the effectiveness of existing legislation on lobbying, the Government are already doing this and I shall explain more in a second. On the Greensill affair, an independent review was announced this week, before this motion was laid, and will be effected. On transparency measures and the ACOBA framework, the Cabinet Office is already working to strengthen the former and supporting the reforms of my noble Friend Lord Pickles to bolster the latter. We are opposing the motion today because it seeks to duplicate the work that is already in the gift of Parliament and its Committees and, as I will set out now, work that is already being undertaken by the Government.
Starting with the effectiveness of existing lobbying legislation, we are currently conducting post-legislative scrutiny of part 1 of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, which we all know as the lobbying Act. It is looking precisely at the scope and effectiveness of that legislation. The hon. Lady did not mention that—not one whit. That legislation introduced a new statutory register of consultant lobbyists and a requirement that those undertaking paid lobbying on behalf of any third party must register and make clear who they are representing to Ministers and permanent secretaries.
The requirement for consultant lobbyists to declare that work complements the system of self-regulation that lobbyists also adhere to through professional codes of conduct. It makes transparent otherwise hidden lobbying. It remains an important part of the framework, filling an accountability and transparency gap that existed prior to that point. We think that it operates effectively but, as I have said, we are looking at whether further improvements can be made, as is best practice through post-legislative scrutiny. Once that work is complete, we intend to deliver a memorandum to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for further scrutiny. Would it really be constructive for these workstreams to be undertaken in parallel by separate Committees, potentially cutting across one another, sowing confusion? We think that it would not.
While the creation of Select Committees is of course a matter for the House, there are already relevant Committees in Parliament with the powers and capacity to do such work as is proposed. I note that the Chair, and indeed the prior Chair, of PACAC have already spoken today. That Committee is responsible for the examination of the quality and standards of administration across the Government. In this Parliament, it has already undertaken relevant inquiries. Indeed, it has also called the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life to give evidence. It has the powers to send for persons, papers and records, and to report to the House—the powers proposed for the new Committee—so I question the necessity of an additional Committee. Indeed, that additional proposed Committee would also cost a quarter of a million pounds.
Her Majesty’s Government has a full framework in place to ensure that public money is spent efficiently, and that those who serve as stewards of those public resources act in accordance with the highest standards and in the public interest. The use of public money is overseen by the Treasury and, of course, Parliament, and the use of public position and information is overseen by the Cabinet Office and rightly held to account by Parliament and the public. Furthermore, all those who work across the public sector are expected to maintain the ethical standards embodied in the seven principles of public life, which underpin the respective codes for Ministers, for the civil service and for special advisors, as well as the code of conduct for board members of public bodies. That requirement to act with integrity means that public office holders must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work, and all holders of public office must declare and resolve any interests.
We are not complacent, neither about the scale of this challenge nor about taking action where necessary to uphold the public’s faith in what we should all stand for. Since 2010, under the coalition and then under Conservative Governments, we have significantly increased transparency on the workings of Government—which the public should rightly be able to expect—from publishing contracts and details of spending, salaries, tenders and meetings to launching that statutory register of consultant lobbyists, far more than ever published under the last Labour Government. This Government have banned the once-endemic practice of Government quangos hiring lobbyists to lobby the Government. They have ensured that taxpayer-funded Government grants are not then used to lobby the Government themselves. They have introduced greater transparency of trade unions and campaign finance controls on third parties seeking to lobby in our elections, so when the Government are being held to account—as is right—it is because a tougher regime of transparency has been in place for over a decade, and is now the norm.
We are going further still to uphold the covenant of trust with the public. I have already touched on the Government’s review of lobbying legislation. In addition, we are reviewing and improving business appointment rules, which I will return to in a moment or two. However, as the hon. Member for Leeds West dwelt upon at some length, the Cabinet Office this week has announced a review on behalf of the Prime Minister into the role in Government of Greensill Capital, the finance company that went into administration last month. The review will look at the development and use of supply chain finance associated activities in Government, and specifically the role of Greensill, including how contracts were secured and business representatives engaged with Government.
The review will be wide-ranging, and will also consider the issues raised by my noble Friend Lord Pickles regarding Mr Bill Crothers’ role at Greensill Capital. The public can be assured that Mr Nigel Boardman, the senior lawyer leading the review, who will pause his activities as a non-executive director at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for the duration, will have full access to the people who were in government at the relevant time and who made the relevant decisions. I would add that the information that has already emerged in recent weeks about Greensill Capital has done so in some part because the system in place is doing its job, and ensuring support for transparency and accountability.
I will not go into great detail further about recent events, because that inquiry will do so, but two further things can be said now about lobbying policy. First, the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists conducted an investigation into Mr David Cameron’s activities, and has confirmed that those did not require registration under the current legislative framework. For good reason, these rules apply to consultant lobbyists, who may seek to influence policy making on behalf of a third party who would otherwise be hidden. Mr Cameron was working openly in-house as an employee. To complement this law, the meetings of Ministers and permanent secretaries with external organisations are published on a quarterly basis and are made available on gov.uk. That data describes both the purpose of the meeting and the names of the organisations or individuals who are met. That is very important. Regulation must of course balance the need for transparency by lobbyists while not preventing engagement by the voluntary and private sectors.
The second thing is to engage in the politics of today’s Opposition day, although it is a great shame to do so in a period of national mourning. The hon. Member for Leeds West failed to say that Labour now wants to repeal the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. This was in its manifesto, alongside repealing the Trade Union Act 2016. Who is not to say that the Labour party would simply give favours to the union barons who bankroll it? After the EU referendum, Labour MPs called for tighter controls on third-party campaigning, but their official policy is to rip up these lobbying laws. Indeed, in 2014, at the time of making that law, the Labour party supported amendments that would have placed significant barriers on engagement and required thousands of businesses, charities, non-governmental organisations and trade bodies to pay a registration fee of £1,000 a year to write or speak to Ministers. This could have been detrimental to the public interest during the covid pandemic, when groups across civil society rightly wanted to put their case to Government.
However, I agree with the hon. Lady that transparency and probity are fundamental. I would like to cover one more area on business appointment rules. As I have mentioned, the Cabinet Office is working with Lord Pickles, who is the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—ACOBA—to improve and extend the business appointment regime. That applies lobbying bans on former Ministers and civil servants, including special advisers. The business appointment rules seek to protect the integrity of the Government while allowing for people to move on to roles outside government. Although affording ACOBA statutory powers to enforce these rules would be out of line with the general principle of UK law that Ministers and officials are subject to the same legal system and statutory framework as everybody else, ACOBA is able to enforce a range of sanctions for non-compliance. That is very important. The Government support changes being introduced by ACOBA to improve the business appointment process. A framework with a risk-based consideration of cases aims to bring greater transparency and improve the reporting of any breach of the rules, increasing the moral and reputational pressure on those leaving public office. In addition, the Cabinet Office is leading work to improve the scope, clarity and enforcement of the rules, and how consistently and proportionately they are implemented across government. In short, we are taking action on a range of fronts to ensure that we maintain the highest standards in our politics and public life.
We should all condemn the kind of lobbying that gives politics and politicians a bad name in all parts of the House, but this motion does not achieve that. Instead, it sidetracks, proliferates and duplicates. I invite Labour to settle its own view, find its own position, and agree with us that transparency and probity are vitally important. I urge all hon. and right hon. Members to join us in this work to continue to scrutinise these critically important matters through the work of existing Select Committees, through the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and through the inquiry that we have now set up—among other ongoing, unstinting efforts that are of course accountable to this House—and to vote against this unnecessary and unconstructive motion that achieves so little extra. It is incumbent on all politicians to act with integrity as elected Members, as Ministers when we hold such positions, and in accordance with the principles of public life. It is incumbent on all of us in this House to ensure that important issues are carefully and effectively scrutinised. I have explained today how the Government are playing their part in this, and I urge all hon. Members to vote against the motion.
I asked a parliamentary question about the standards being applied to people and companies on this supposed fast-track list versus others, to check that the same due diligence standards were being applied to both sides and that there was a level playing field. The answer that I got was that they were and that in this respect the playing field was level, so would the hon. Gentleman care to reconsider his point that the same processes do not apply?
However we collectively as the body politic got into this situation, may I suggest that it is damaging public trust in elected representatives? The one good thing about this Committee, if it were seen to be put in place, would be that it could restore some of that trust and repair some of the damage to democracy in the UK.
Is there not another point here, which is that whatever inquiry needs to be done must have the proper powers? For instance, it needs to be able to guarantee that anybody who gives evidence can do so without fear of prosecution, so that if there is a whistle that needs to be blown, it can be blown. It also needs to have subpoena powers, so that people who do not want to give evidence could be forced to do so. So far as I can see, those powers could be provided only by a judge-led inquiry—maybe we should go down that route, but I think it is unnecessary—or by a parliamentary inquiry.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Committee should perhaps look at other activities that this Government get up to? There are things such as the Brexit contracts—I recall that they gave a contract to a ferry company that had no ferries—and all the appointments to external bodies and regulators, which are further examples of cronyism. We need to look at this in the bigger mix as well.
We have many speakers to get in in what is a fairly short debate, so I will impose a four-minute limit to start with—that will be on the clocks in the Chamber and on the screens of those participating virtually—but it will probably have to go down to three minutes fairly quickly.
I call the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Wragg.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. His Scottish nationalist party colleague, Fiona Hyslop, who is the Minister in the Scottish Government, is working with the UK Government to ensure that we do everything we can to support the seafood sector across Scotland and, indeed, across the United Kingdom. But I cannot help but observe that if the Scottish nationalist party had its way, we would be back in the common fisheries policy and we would not be able to take control of our waters in the way that we want to.
I do not think it is a matter to be done casually and without very great care, but, as many right hon. and hon. Members, even those objecting to this Bill, are now saying, if the worst comes to the worst, we may have to avail ourselves of these powers, because it is the obligation of this House, first and foremost, to stick up for our national interests.
The EU says it will act against the UK through the European Court, but there is something absurd about the EU attempting to impose its laws on a member state after it has left the bloc—when did the voters endorse that? There is something ironic, even bizarre, about MPs in this Parliament demanding that the EU should continue to impose its laws instead of themselves wanting to make the laws for their constituents—they still do not accept Brexit. One wonders whether the Government recognise better than many here how most voters will react to this. Most of those shouting the loudest now showed how little they understood the voters in the 2016 referendum. Voters will support a Government who are determined to resist the unreasonable enforcement of the withdrawal agreement by the EU. Today, the Government have a strong mandate and a secure Commons majority for taking back control of our laws—voters will expect no less than that and they will give little quarter to this Parliament if they are let down again.
We are in a process of constitutional transition, from being subordinated by the EU legal order towards the restoration of full independence. While we are in this penumbra period of mixed constitutional supremacies, it is unsurprising that this sound of controversy should arise. Our other allies and trading partners will have far more respect for the UK if we stand up for our interests in this way than they will if they watch us accepting that we are to remain indefinitely a non-member subsidiary of the EU. The Government must ensure that there will be a clear end to the jurisdiction of the EU Court; that is the test of whether we are taking back control of our own laws, and our democracy demands it.
My hon. Friend makes a fine point: it is not credible and there has been bluff after bluff. Is it not the case that when the warnings were pointed out, Ministers stood at that Dispatch Box and said, “Don’t worry, we have a magic solution There won’t be any cameras or infrastructure at the border; technology will solve it all.”? We have technology that can control the movement of people and goods and deal with different customs arrangements”? Yet another bluff from an incompetent Government.
Just like the overwhelming majority of Members, I was returned to this House on the promise of getting Brexit done. I am an ardent supporter of Brexit and look forward eagerly to the opportunity to bolster the United Kingdom’s position by becoming an independent, self-governing nation, possessed of the confidence that flows from our vision and principled values.
Although I stand four-square behind the Government’s policies and objectives, including those advanced by the Bill, I cannot vote for legislation that a Cabinet Minister stated from the Dispatch Box will break international law. Before I was returned to this House, I spent many years in distant, sometimes dangerous places on behalf of our country, our closest friend, the United States, NATO and the UN, where I was committed to upholding the international rules-based system, which is the only shield we have against the law of the jungle. The rules-based system is, of course, one that the United Kingdom was proud to play a central role in building.
I have every sympathy with Her Majesty’s Government and place the responsibility for the impending denouement firmly with the EU, as it haughtily refuses to deal with the UK as a sovereign equal, like our sibling Canada. The Northern Ireland protocol was agreed on the assumption that Brussels would provide an off-the-shelf trade deal with no bells and whistles, as Monsieur Barnier himself offered. That would have involved no more than a light-touch border between Britain and Ulster. The EU has moved the goalposts. The prospect of a no-deal rupture and intra-UK trade tariffs has constitutional implications for the United Kingdom, creating a much harder trade border in the Irish sea than Unionists supposed. It therefore intrudes ineluctably on the Belfast agreement.
This is an important point. As we have already discussed, there are ways to do that, and this Government are committed to them. We have mentioned some points of policy, and we have looked at the business rates point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison). To that, I add the way that this Government are making sure that they are available on social media, which, by its very nature, does not require to be inside any Westminster bubble. That is a way for people rightly to be able to hold this Government to account. It is that kind of principle that we hold very highly, and what I have been able to outline today are all the ways in which we are doing that.
Yes, indeed I will. I pay tribute, by the way, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb)—where is he?—who campaigned for so long for synthetic phonics, which has done such a huge amount to help kids to read in this country. This is the only country in the G7 where the reading performance of disadvantaged pupils has actually improved since 2009. We need to do more, and as my hon. Friend says, that is why we are investing more now—record sums—in education.