House of Lords
Thursday, 18 January 2007.
The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds.
Disability: Manual for Streets
asked Her Majesty’s Government:
What account they propose to take, in the forthcoming Manual for Streets, of (a) the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association’s research on shared surfaces; and (b) the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee’s research on home zones.
My Lords, we are aware of both research projects, neither of which has been completed, which are investigating “shared surface” schemes. The Manual for Streets project team took account of concerns of both organisations when formulating general guidance on shared surfaces and other design techniques for residential streets. It will emphasise the importance of ensuring that designs do not present barriers to disabled people. The manual will not advocate the widespread introduction of shared surfaces.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, in order to comply with the disability equality duty laid on public authorities by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 as well as their obligations under that Act in relation to highway functions, will he see to it that central and local government ensure that the design, development and monitoring of streetscape and public space schemes, including those that follow the “shared space” concept, take full account of the needs of disabled people? I notice the Minister said that central and local government will broadly take account of the needs of disabled people as far as possible, or words to that effect. I would like to hear a more fulsome assurance from him that they will take complete account of the needs of disabled people. Will he ensure that those responsible for such schemes consult with disability organisations at all stages in the process of developing our streets and public spaces?
My Lords, I can certainly give that last assurance. It would be a denial of the whole concept of the development of the Manual for Streets if we failed to take into account the needs of the disabled. The project is designed so that on certain streets in the centre of urban areas, predominantly, a hierarchy should be created in which pedestrians and the disabled are rated highly and that cyclists and motor traffic recognise the significant needs of those groups.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the council in Westminster, where I have a home in London, consults on any new street scheme? I am pleased to say that the street I live in has responded and is providing, in the improvements, disabled access at both ends, whereas previously access was only at one end. Will the Minister, for the benefit of those like myself—I declare an interest as I have a disabled family member—define “shared services” and “home zones”?
My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s assertion that a local authority is concerned to improve its street schemes for the benefits of disabled people. Shared services relate to those schemes which provide no hard delineation or segregation between services used by pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles. In some of our town centres, these services are now shared without a delineated pavement, but the presumption—indeed, the injunction—is that motorised traffic is aware of the priority over it given to pedestrians and others.
Home zones are an attempt within residential areas to increase the priority of pedestrians so that we make the environment more user-friendly for them, given that in recent decades massive priority has been given to motorised traffic.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my good friend Lord Low and share his appreciation of my noble friend the Minister’s reply. Can my noble friend say what consideration has been given to ensuring that professional bodies, such as architects and planners, take fully into account the needs of blind and other disabled people in innovative approaches to the design of streets and the urban environment? And since for them neglect in this policy area piles handicap on handicap, will Ministers be encouraging the adoption of good practice based on research findings?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who has a long history of concerns about these matters. A great deal of this is governed by the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 where it is enjoined on those who are constructing such environments to have due regard to the needs of the disabled. One would scarcely be a professional architect dealing with designs that in any way affect the disabled without being acutely aware of the statutory obligations. However, although it is important that professionals are aware of these requirements, at the end of the day, those who commission the professional work must take responsibility. In this case, it is overwhelmingly the responsibility of local authorities.
My Lords, monitoring in the way indicated by the noble Lord would suggest a very heavy hand indeed from the department; it does not work as stringently as that. However, the department is obliged to give advice on these matters—which is where its main power is in this regard. The Manual for Streets is an advisory note to local authorities on how they should guard the needs of pedestrians, particularly the disabled, in circumstances where there is no segregation between vehicle traffic and pedestrians. However, it is advisory and local authorities take responsibility. They do receive from the department clear guidance about the best way of approaching surfaces in these terms.
My Lords, the training of architects is a little beyond my department. Suffice it to say that any trained architect who was not aware of the demands of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and the necessity of taking into account the needs of the disabled could not erect a building in this country and could not be involved in any public or even private space.
My Lords, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has not yet issued its final guidance on the use of Velcade. Appeals have been lodged against NICE’s final appraisal determination and are due to be heard on 8 February.
My Lords, has my noble friend seen the press reports in relation to Mr George King, who suffers from myeloma but has been told that the next stage of his treatment will require the drug Velcade? In view of that, he has announced his intention to go to Scotland because the drug is not available in England due to the NICE decision. Does my noble friend agree that that is unacceptable and ludicrous? As Mr King has put his move on hold until his appeal has been heard, does he also join me in hoping that NICE will reverse the decision so that Mr King can stay in his home and with his family and friends?
My Lords, while of course I have every sympathy with any member of the public who suffers from this condition, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the NICE decision because it is still going through the appeal process. Up to the moment when NICE makes a final decision and it is issued to the health service, it is up to individual primary care trusts locally to make a decision. So at this stage it is very much a matter for a local decision in the NHS.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that NICE is faced with an incredibly difficult and daunting task in trying to assess the clinical effectiveness of new drugs and new interventions in the NHS? Did he notice the long interview given by the chairman of NICE in a weekend newspaper? One implication of his remarks is that as more and more highly effective and very expensive drugs come on stream the time may ultimately come when the NHS will not be able to afford them. What steps are the Government taking to deal with that eventuality?
My Lords, I certainly read with a great deal of interest Sir Michael’s interview with the Times on Saturday. I think that he was joining in the usual NHS process of encouraging generous settlements on behalf of the NHS. In general I would say two things. First, the impact of NICE has speeded up the introduction of new medicines and treatments. We reckon that the cost of the technology appraisal judgments to the NHS since NICE was introduced is more than £1 billion. Secondly, the funding that we have put into the NHS indicates that the NHS is in the best position that it has been in to take advantage of these new techniques.
My Lords, the Minister has just said that it is up to local primary care trusts to decide whether to allow Velcade to be prescribed. Does he not think that the Secretary of State should perhaps give the same clarification to PCTs about Velcade that she gave with Herceptin—that they should not necessarily use the NICE process as an excuse not to prescribe a drug and therefore end up with people going to Scotland, or whatever?
My Lords, we have made it absolutely clear to primary care trusts that in advance of any NICE judgment a PCT cannot simply say that it will not fund a treatment because it is waiting for a NICE decision. In the period before a NICE decision, the local PCT has to take a number of factors into account and reach its own judgment.
No, my Lords, I do not agree with that. NICE was introduced to deal with postcode prescribing. We now have much more consistency and a much more rigorous approach to introducing new treatments and drugs which have proven to be clinically and cost effective. Yes, a number of PCTs, but only a minority, are facing financial challenges to come out of deficit in the current financial year. But overall we are in the middle of the biggest expansion in finance that the health service has ever seen, which is why we can treat more patients more quickly and take advantage of many new treatments and drugs.
My Lords, while not wishing to undermine or overrule NICE, perhaps I may ask what steps the Government have taken to negotiate with the makers of Velcade, Johnson & Johnson, to explore all other possible means of making this promising drug more widely available for the benefit of NHS patients; for example, through a risk-sharing scheme. The Minister must understand the seriousness of the issue—the great frustration which NICE’s decision has caused for many cancer patients and the perceived injustice of the drug being available in Scotland.
My Lords, I do not underestimate the concern and anxiety that is caused to patients, but we have to ensure that the way the resources available to the NHS are used is clinically and cost effective. That is why we have established NICE as an independent body. That is why it would not be right for Ministers to intervene in that process.
My Lords, is the Minister concerned that the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group looked at the same data as NICE but came to a different conclusion? For the past 18 months, Velcade has been available in Wales, and patients have moved there. Does this not undermine public confidence in the way health economics data are presented and analysed?
My Lords, it is inevitable that, if health services are the responsibility of different Administrations in the UK, different approaches will be taken. The NICE methodology has been tested considerably. Many countries look to NICE for guidance and advice based on the thorough approach that it takes. The Government are not complacent. NICE is about to undertake a further review of its approach and methodology. We will want it to take account of all factors. If there are lessons to be learnt from other countries, we should take them on board. In the years of NICE’s existence, it has shown itself to be wholly independent and rigorous.
Armed Forces: Future Aircraft Carrier
My Lords, I have made clear to the Aircraft Carrier Alliance that time is now critical. I am looking to get a robust, affordable deal negotiated quickly to allow a main investment decision to be taken as soon as possible.
My Lords, will the Minister quash strong rumours coming out of the MoD that these continual delays in signing a full contract are just the first step towards cancelling the carriers? Despite the Prime Minister’s commitment to spend more on defence, we heard at Question Time yesterday that he is only one of a number of contributors to the debate on the Comprehensive Spending Review. As the Chancellor is no friend of the Armed Forces and we are fighting two wars on a peace-time budget, will the Minister give those serving in the Royal Navy some hope that the carriers will not be sacrificed to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan?
My Lords, it is now two years or more since the Royal Navy Sea Harrier force was withdrawn. The date of introduction of the new carriers looks like slipping even further to the right. Is the Minister satisfied that the Royal Navy will have air crew and engineers in sufficient numbers and of sufficient expertise to man aircraft for these new aircraft carriers?
Yes, my Lords; I am happy to give the noble and gallant Lord that assurance. I do not accept that the dates for the introduction of the new aircraft carriers have moved to the right. I am happy to reiterate the central importance of the carrier strike capability—the combination of the aircraft and the ships—to the country’s future defence posture. It is set out clearly in the Strategic Defence Review and it remains the case.
My Lords, can the Minister tell us roughly what proportion of the cost of the overall carrier programme he expects to be committed at the main gate? Might it be prudent—I choose my words carefully—perhaps to accept that we have had so much slippage already that he may want to wait until a new Prime Minister is in the chair?
My Lords, I think I can be absolutely clear to the House on this point. As I said, the aircraft carriers are central to the defence posture. In the defence budget as a whole there is a budget for the replacement of the aircraft carriers. The key issue now is reaching agreement with industry on the price and the delivery of the carriers. As I said in my Answer, I am pushing very hard to reach an agreement that will deliver the carriers to cost and to time. For that to happen there needs to be consolidation in the industry. I am very pleased to see that that is now starting to happen. I am pleased also to see the progress we have made in the collaboration with France. We now have a common design for both the French and the British aircraft carriers which has been agreed and has involved no delay to the British aircraft carrier project, and at no increase in cost. That is an important achievement.
My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is no friend of the Armed Forces is entirely untrue, not least because he has a substantial constituency interest at Rosyth?
My Lords, without in any way wishing to suggest that the specification for the new carriers should fall short of meeting the operational requirement, may I ask the Minister to bear in mind that, over the years, the biggest contributor to delay and cost overruns in major procurement projects has been the constant tweaking of the technical requirements?
My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. Industry made clear to me last year that unless the Navy could clearly close off the specification by the end of last March, it would not be able to meet the timescales we are looking for. I was very pleased and, in fact, impressed that the Royal Navy was able to meet that target.
My Lords, DML Plymouth Appledore has an enviable record of excellence in the design, construction and refitting of warships. There has been speculation on the ownership of that company. The Government have a golden share. It is very important that that speculation is put to an end as soon as possible. Will the Minister let the House know exactly when the ownership of that vital company will be resolved?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right: it is a very important issue. That base is important to the maintenance and refuelling of our nuclear submarines. It is very important for the strategic nuclear deterrent. We are not going to take any chances with that capability. We have been concerned about recent developments relating to the ownership of that yard. We are very focused on getting those resolved very quickly indeed.
My Lords, the advantage of the collaboration with France and of the important step forward in the French using the British aircraft carrier design—and we are working very closely together—is the economies of scale which can be achieved in procuring three aircraft carriers rather than two and the sharing of benefits in savings and efficiency between the two countries. So it has an implication in that sense.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Astor made an important point when he said that we are fighting two wars. Does the Minister recognise this huge expenditure and its consequences for the procurement programme? He recently explained to me that the first Gulf War cost us £2.5 billion, of which we got £2 billion back. The current activities are costing us about £4 billion, but there is very little sign of our getting anything back from anyone. Do the Government recognise fully that before they commit British forces to fighting operations, they must take into account the impact on procurement of crucial materiel for the effectiveness of the Armed Forces?
BAE Systems: Al Yamamah Contract
My Lords, yes. All relevant agencies were clear about the crucial importance of UK-Saudi co-operation in the fight against terrorism and the damage to UK interests—and, potentially, UK lives—if that co-operation were withdrawn. Having been advised of the risk to national security if the SFO investigation continued, the director of the SFO concluded that it was not a risk that could properly be taken in the public interest. I repeat that it was the director’s decision, not mine. I have written more fully to the noble Lord today about the reasons for the director’s decision and the Government’s continued commitment to tackling international corruption. If he agrees, I will place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General for his Answer and this morning’s correspondence. I would be delighted if it were placed in the Library. In that correspondence he includes the note to the OECD. Paragraph 9 explains how the head of the SFO made the decision because the views of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary were conveyed to him. How were they conveyed? By letter or in a face-to-face meeting? Will the noble and learned Lord publish either the correspondence or the minutes of those meetings?
My Lords, there were no face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister and the director of the SFO, although I had direct communications with the Prime Minister, which I passed on to the director of the SFO. The director of the SFO met, on more than one occasion, our ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who was in a position to brief him directly on the threats and consequences. So far as the documents are concerned, I will not commit to publishing them at the moment. That matter needs consideration.
My Lords, everybody knows that you cannot do business in these countries without bribery and corruption. The problem is not whether everybody knows that but that nobody seems to be able to prove it. What advice are Ministers prepared to give to British companies that want to export to the relevant countries, but cannot get through without bribing the relevant people? Are we to give up all these markets on the grounds of being holier than thou or do we just still keep our heads in the sand and pretend that nothing wrong is happening?
My Lords, I will not accept the premise of the noble Lord’s question for two reasons. As Members of the House may recall, when I made my Statement on this on 14 December I said something about my views about whether this was a particular case that could have been proved in any event. I do not accept the premise of the question. It is very important to make it clear that dropping this case—which was not an entirely comfortable decision, as I said in my letter to the noble Lord—does not mean that we are backing off in any way from our commitment to tackling international corruption. On the contrary, I am clear that we should redouble our efforts. I have told the director of the SFO that he should vigorously pursue current investigations, including a number of other cases against BAE. We need to do all that we can to make sure that he has the resources in order to do so.
My Lords, may I, with the greatest respect to the noble and learned Lord, question his last statement? When he gave his Statement to the House on 14 December he said quite clearly that the heads of the security and intelligence departments shared his assessment that there would be grave damage to the relationship between this country and Saudi Arabia in respect of security and intelligence operations. In his subsequent letter to the OECD, which had questioned that statement, the remarks were very much downplayed to refer only to the benefit of advice from the heads of the security and intelligence agencies, given to him and the Prime Minister. This is, of course, a somewhat different wording. Will he, first, explain the discrepancy between those two phrases and whether they were affected by the decision of Mr Scarlett not to sign any document—as we understand it—conceding that he had taken that position? Secondly, does he agree that security and intelligence assessments by highly trained and expert people should never be changed or exaggerated for political purposes?
My Lords, of course I agree with the last statement. Let me be clear about this: the reports earlier this week that there were no national security considerations behind the decision to hold the SFO inquiry were wholly wrong, as the SIS itself said. I said in my Statement—it was not my assessment—that it was the clear view of the Prime Minister and other Ministers that continuation of the SFO investigation would cause serious damage to UK-Saudi co-operation and that that was likely to have serious negative consequences for UK interests and, potentially, UK lives. Indeed, the Prime Minister subsequently talked about the consequences as being “devastating”.
The SIS has made it clear publicly that it shares the concerns of others within government over the possible consequences for the public interest of the SFO investigation. Naturally, it did not say that the Saudis would be bound to withdraw co-operation, but certainly no one disagreed with the overall assessment that the Saudi threats were real. Before the SFO decision was taken, I discussed the matter with the head of the SIS, whose view was that the Saudis might withdraw their co-operation if the SFO investigation continued and that they could decide to do so at any time.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that, especially in view of recent history, it is understandable that the heads of the intelligence services should be somewhat reticent in what they say publicly on issues of this kind? Does he agree that it is incumbent on us all to be realistic and to accept that, in the fight against terrorism, we need all the allies we can get, and that, in the Middle East in particular, we need to co-operate with people such as the Saudi Arabians? That has to be the first priority of any Government in protecting their citizens, and it is somewhat unrealistic to expect intelligence agency heads to make public statements on one side or the other.
My Lords, I agree with the substance of what my noble friend has said. As I said in the letter to the noble Lord, Lord Garden, the judgment was that UK co-operation with Saudi Arabia in the counterterrorism field was crucial. Saudi Arabia is a source of valuable streams of intelligence on al-Qaeda and, if Saudi Arabia were to withdraw that co-operation, the UK would be deprived of a key partner in our global counterterrorism strategy. Saudi also plays a key role in Middle East issues, and this Government have taken the view that those have a real effect on international tension and therefore a real effect on national security at home.
Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007
Sexual Offences Act 2003 (Amendment of Schedules 3 and 5) Order 2007
Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians Order 2007
Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [HL]
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend Lady Ashton.
Moved, that the amendments for the Report stage be marshalled and considered in the following order:
Clauses 1 and 2,
Clauses 3 and 4,
Clauses 6 and 7,
Clauses 8 to 22,
Clauses 23 to 35,
Clauses 36 to 42,
Clauses 43 to 45,
Schedules 8 and 9,
Clauses 46 and 47,
Clauses 48 to 50,
Clauses 51 to 54,
Schedules 12 and 13,
Clauses 55 to 78,
Clauses 79 to 83,
Clauses 84 to 98,
Clauses 99 and 100,
Schedules 17 to 20,
Clauses 101 to 105,
Clauses 106 to 130,
Clauses 131 to 137,
Clauses 138 to 140.—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
rose to call attention to issues relating to the social care workforce; and to move for Papers.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, it was an unexpected pleasure to see that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, would be replying to the debate on behalf of the Government. It is a pleasure to see him back in his old portfolio.
I tabled this debate on the social care workforce because of the important White Paper, Options for Excellence, published in October last year, which dealt with a strategy for the social care workforce. To my mind, that paper has the potential to make the greatest improvement in safeguards for children and vulnerable adults of any document that I have seen in your Lordships’ House over the past 10 years.
I hope that noble Lords will think that this is a timely debate, given that only on Monday a report was produced into the mistreatment of disabled people in a care home. The report emphasised that an important part of the problem was the inexperience, and the lack of training and support of the staff in that home.
This is also an important debate if we are to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively in this area. Now that we have a strategy rather than a piecemeal approach to improving the workforce, we can be far more confident that the outcomes we pursue will have a result. The Government have invested hugely in this area, tripling the amount spent on training the social care workforce. In recent meetings, the Minister of State for Children, Young People and Families, the right honourable Beverley Hughes—and, in a separate meeting, the right honourable Hilary Armstrong, the Minister with responsibility for social exclusion—highlighted the increase from £1.3 billion to £1.9 billion in the amount spent on the 60,000 children looked after in public care. Yet although there have been improvements, the improvements do not reflect the increased investment. Taxpayers must see a result for their money. If we are to achieve that difference, we need a more professional workforce.
Hilary Armstrong visited Denmark and Germany to look at the model of social pedagogy which is employed there in early-years care and residential care. She said the quality of care was better. In fact, 94 per cent of staff in children’s homes in Denmark are graduates. Far superior, they are paid a similar amount. As the ratio of staff to children in those countries is half that in the United Kingdom, it is cheaper to have better and more professional staff working in those settings.
Another motive for tabling this debate is that although much good-quality care is provided in foster care and in residential care for children, and many children speak positively of their experience of foster carers and of children’s homes, the turnover rate of staff in children’s homes is 27 per cent. I saw a 12 year-old girl in a children’s home over three days, on each of which she had a different agency staff member caring for her. That can only exacerbate her previous experience of broken relationships. I have also spoken to two managers of children’s homes. They told me that the difficulties which some of their staff have with reading and writing present serious problems to their endeavours.
I spoke to a member of staff working with 16 to 23 year-olds about one of the two tables in the dining room. It wobbled so severely that the young people were unable to eat off it. I came back three months later and the table was still there. Nothing had been done. When I raised the matter with her, she was somewhat upset to be challenged on it. It was not so much to do with her as with how overwhelmed the front-line staff who are working with these vulnerable young people are.
In 2005, 10 per cent of children leaving care had more than nine placements. The Commission for Social Care Inspection identified that 40 per cent of children in care are placed in inappropriate placements because there are not enough foster carers. In the Associate Parliamentary Group for Children and Young People in Care, I repeatedly hear of the turnover of social workers. In a recent meeting, one young man said, “I have had five different social workers in one and a half years”. Staff tell me that in looking after children in respite care and taking them into adulthood, they want to get the right services for the child but the turnover of social workers frustrates the transition process. I have spoken to colleagues about care for the elderly and it is apparent that there are many similar considerations. For instance, at a recent meeting with the Commission for Social Care Inspection, a user—an elderly woman—talked about her five or six different carers in two weeks. She described people she knew who had more than four carers in one day and highlighted the indignity of having a different person change one’s knickers every day. Such “personal care” and staff turnover are unacceptable.
Options for Excellence highlights the difference that social care makes to the 2 million adults and children whom social care workers provide for. Let us consider, for example, the number of adults and children in custody in this country. It is significantly higher than the numbers in our continental neighbours. There is currently a surge in the number of children being taken into custody. Professor Rod Morgan, the chair of the Youth Justice Board, recently told a meeting that because of the poor quality of staff development in some children’s homes, staff were not adequately managing behaviour, calling in the police, and children were ending up in custody. That is just one small example of how much it costs us not to invest in social care.
The Government have established a number of important institutions: the Commission for Social Care Inspection; the Social Care Institute for Excellence; the General Social Care Council, to register social workers as professionals; the Children’s Workforce Development Council; and Skills for Care. The Green Paper Care Matters appeared at the same time as Options for Excellence and seeks to transform the experience of children in care. I cannot express how laudable I think that work is. The ambition to introduce a pedagogical framework for foster carers and residential childcare workers and a tier of salaried foster carers at the upper level to generate a career progression attracting more foster carers is exactly right and much to be praised.
Options for Excellence speaks of a vision for the social care workforce: a professional workforce who are seen by the public as a positive element. Several means of achieving such a workforce are described, but chief among them is the need to develop learning organisations. I am glad that the report emphasises the importance of good-quality supervision, not only in looking at performance but in helping carers to manage the relationships and emotional baggage that come with this work. The paper talks about continual professional development, giving newly qualified practitioners the additional support they need and ensuring that new line managers get the support they need to settle into their posts. It looks at recruitment and retention issues, and I welcome the innovation of a degree for social work. That is now attracting more young people into social work.
Before we start trying to change the system, however, we must ask ourselves why we are here. Why have we performed so badly compared with our peers on the continent? It is due to some extent to our philosophical outlook. In a BBC interview in the 1970s, AJ Ayer, the late professor of logic at the University of Oxford and a leader of the logical positivists, said that, in the view of the logical positivists, any statement that was not a formal statement or empirically testable was nonsensical. He went on to say that,
“this tradition is so strong [because] it fitted into the English tradition, right back to the Middle Ages … This hard-headedness, this empiricism, goes right through English philosophy—through Occam, Hobbes, Locke, even Berkeley in his strange way, Hume, Mill, Russell. Whereas it was all consciously hostile to the German tradition of romantic metaphysics”.
I took a short course on philosophy and politics at the London School of Economics some years ago and our teacher had the same low view of continental philosophy. He said that this was universal across the English-speaking world. One can look at our education system for a manifestation of that. Sir Michael Tomlinson, a former Chief Inspector of Schools, recently said that we have the most assessed children in the world. Of course that has immense benefits, but there are dire consequences when it gets out of balance.
This distaste for that point of view makes us less able to recognise the importance of emotions, imagination, empathy and relationships. The area of the subjective is difficult for us to negotiate. That point lies behind some of the difficulties that we have had in our struggles, even in the past 10 years, to improve matters. Its significance is clear in the history of social care, of which I shall try to give a brief sketch. In children’s homes, social work and care for the elderly, it is important that staff have suffered from poor development. They have often been unsupported in their work, and the result has been failure after failure. I think particularly of the way in which Victoria Climbié was let down. The social worker in her case had a caseload of 19, I think, and the maximum was 14. She was not getting the supervision she needed. One of her colleagues said that they were just doing conveyor-belt-care social work. There was no attention to detail.
Each time these disasters happen, a heavier burden of procedure is introduced and the balance is lost. I spoke to the head of High Close School, an excellent school run by Barnardo’s for children with emotional behavioural difficulties. He gave one of his children a hug while we were speaking. He told me that he could do that because he has worked in that area for so long that he has the confidence to do it. But many staff would not have that confidence, not just because of the history of abuse, but because guidance and procedures militate so much against such relationships.
I shall turn to a few of my concerns about the White Paper. It refers to managing caseloads and workload management. It seems to imply that by reorganising and rebalancing the work within the authority, local authorities will manage to give manageable caseloads to those working at the front line. That is not my understanding. I spoke to a deputy director of children’s services who said that her local authority can afford a maximum caseload of only 14 for child and family social workers. Kensington and Chelsea can afford a maximum caseload of six. Do the Government recognise the need to better resource the most hard-pressed local authorities?
With more young graduates coming into social work, it is vital that they have the support they require. The paper moots a new status of newly qualified social worker, which would mean reduced caseloads and increased supervision for those entering. Ian Johnston, the director of the British Association of Social Workers, says that it would be criminal not to introduce such an arrangement. I say with regret that I too think it would be a betrayal of the incomers if the Government did not move as fast as they could to introduce this new status and to give them the support they need. Failure to do so would be bad for social workers and bad for users. If newly qualified workers made a mistake because of lack of support, it would set us all back again.
Finally, if there is another tragedy—and I am afraid that there may be because of the current state of affairs—I hope that the Government will not make a revolution but redouble their efforts to see through the important strategy they have introduced. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for securing this timely debate and look forward very much to hearing contributions from the knowledgeable and committed colleagues who have elected to speak. I must declare three major interests: I am a social worker and proud to call myself so—and in my time I have carried a caseload of 120; I was the first chair of the General Social Care Council and chaired the advisory group that led to its establishment; and I am the chair of CAFCASS, the biggest single employer of social workers in the country. Today, I particularly want to relate the experience of the CAFCASS workforce to the major challenges that we find in the social care workforce as a whole.
First, I want to acknowledge, as the noble Earl has done, what progress has been made in social care. The setting-up of the General Social Care Council, after 20 and more years of waiting, was a wonderful step forward. The council has further increased the professionalism of the social care workforce and the quality of social care services, keeping service users at their heart. It has also ensured public accountability for high standards of professional practice by a trained and trusted workforce. It has done a marvellous job in registering social workers and is anxious to go on now to register the rest of the social care workforce. I know that resources for this are not yet available and are being considered as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the Government are considering this need urgently.
The Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Every Child Matters agenda and the legislation connected with it, and the whole drive to reform public services have brought about a change in the view and status of social care which, frankly, when I was a young social worker or even 10 years ago, could never have been envisaged. Of course, there is a long way to go still, and we shall be focusing in this debate on some of the changes necessary, but let no one doubt that the recognition of the importance of social care, the ambitions for it and its significance in the policy agenda have never been higher. For this, we should be grateful to the Government and even more grateful to the many thousands of people who work in social care for their commitment and dedication to jobs which are difficult and demanding and for which rewards, both financial and emotional, are in short supply.
CAFCASS is, as I said, the biggest single employer of social workers in the country and carries out a complex function that requires experience, knowledge and good practice informed by evidence. Our vision is to deliver a world-class service to children and families in the court setting; that means our staff must be able to receive good-quality training, to access information and knowledge easily and each to have an individual programme of development to help them work to the highest possible standards. All staff in the social care workforce require that support, not just front-line staff.
For CAFCASS, that means our business support staff must similarly be able to support the functions of the organisation effectively and efficiently. I submit that this applies across the social care workforce and that it is essential to ensure all staff are trained and supported; otherwise, our users are not assured of high-quality services at all times. We have to remember that those we engage with are probably contacting us at the most difficult times in their lives, and therefore all staff must deliver to high standards. This places heavy responsibilities on those who manage and—although I know this is not always a popular thing to say—we should value good management skills as highly as we value the skills of engaging with our customers. Good, supportive management is what enables our workers to be effective, as well as to withstand the huge emotional pressures to which they are subject.
However, managers always have to help social care workers grapple with the endless problem of insufficient resources. This is not an arena in which to call for extra resources for CAFCASS—my colleagues and I do that all the time elsewhere—although if the Minister would like to promise me some, I will gladly accept them. The instinct of most social care workers is to provide the best possible service to every individual client, yet knowing always of the numbers of other clients waiting for a service that, by necessity, has to be rationed in some way. This is not a new dilemma for the social care workforce, but we must always be mindful of the extra pressure that the necessity of balancing budgets puts on that workforce and the role of the manager in trying to cope with the inevitable dilemmas that it poses.
A further problem faced by CAFCASS, and reflected elsewhere, is the make-up of the workforce itself. For us, the issue is of an ageing workforce; 60 per cent of our employees are over 50, and replenishing staff at the point of retirement is therefore a key concern. For some employers, the major issue is not about an older workforce but about one that lacks experience, or is largely recruited from other countries, or which is not sufficiently diverse. The dilemmas faced are different but no less serious and, of course, we all compete for good staff. We fish in the same pool, so to speak. This problem used to be largely confined to London and the south, but it is spreading. The high turnover in local authorities impacts on our work, competing as we are with them for staff, and our workers often find themselves doing work that should have been carried out by the local authority but has not been completed.
I know that the initiative chaired by my noble friend Lady Morris with the Children’s Workforce Development Council is looking at some of the issues and I stress the urgency of doing so. I would also like to hear from the Minister what plans are being made for the future work and status of the CWDC. It is, of course, concentrating on early years work but there will be major lessons learnt for the whole social care workforce. While government recruitment campaigns for teachers and nurses have been successful, I understand that similar success has not been delivered for social care. Perhaps the Minister will update the House about what plans the Government have to remedy this and whether they plan a national review of social work salaries.
I want to say a quick work about training and development. When financial times are hard, this is always the budget that takes the hit, and CAFCASS is no exception. Standstill budgets have not enabled us to expand our training and development as we would have wished, although I heartily commend my colleagues for the progress they have made with the development of a knowledge, learning and development strategy and the rollout of a post-qualification framework. As we cannot go on putting more and more pressures on workers without paying and supporting them properly, so we cannot go on expecting them to deal with more and more complex cases without adequate training and opportunities for obtaining further qualification. I hope the Minister will be able to assure us that the Government will address this issue. We would not countenance a worker in the NHS administering a procedure to a patient in which they had no adequate training, yet in social care we enable sometimes inadequately trained workers to operate above their competence level in situations which are no less life threatening to the client.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on introducing the debate. As always, he has displayed his great commitment to the cause of young people and children, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, from whose broad experience of these issues the whole House has benefited. I intend to concentrate on services for the elderly.
The purpose of the noble Earl’s debate is to question whether appropriate priority is given to investment in the social care workforce—in other words, is the cash allocated enough to meet the Government’s desired outcomes? Like the noble Earl and the noble Baroness, I pay tribute to the Government’s efforts in defining their desired outcomes. Both the noble Earl and the noble Baroness have mentioned Options for Excellence. There is also its companion document on implementation, Our Health, Our Care, Our Say, and the recent Green Paper on transforming the care system for looked after children, Care Matters. To these we should add the very considerable body of change and work engendered by Every Child Matters and what followed. So there has been no shortage of policy initiatives and frameworks, which are obviously important.
Nor, though, is there a shortage of urgency in the need for action. The Local Government Association paper, Without a care?, published last December, with which the Minister will certainly be familiar, makes clear the concern of local authorities—that is, those that have to deliver the services—about these issues. The paper points to the rising number of people aged 65 and over and aged 85 and over that we can expect in the next decade. It states that it is not simply the increasing number of people that pose a significant challenge but the increasing number of people with complex needs, with rising levels of learning and physical disability and dementia in the older population. These demographic points obviously cannot be denied, hence the timeliness of today’s debate. But the Local Government Association’s paper also points out a disparity between the increase in the government grant for social care services—14 per cent since 1997-98—and spending, which has increased by 65 per cent. So the question is: who is taking the strain?
I declare an interest in that I am patron of two carers’ organisations in the county of Norfolk. In the past I have been a chairman of social services and also the chairman of two health authorities. So I have been in and around the interface of health and social services for a very long time. I absolutely accept the difficulty of the dilemmas, which remain the same, but I also accept—I hope the Minister does too—the significant increase in the challenges.
A very apposite assessment of how matters stand in social care has been given by the chairman of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, Dame Denise Platt. The Minister will be very aware of the contents of her second report, which I believe was published last week. The report paints what I can only describe as a discouraging picture of how present government policy is affecting individuals and their families, and more worryingly, of how the situation is likely to worsen in the future. The position, put simply, is that more and more old and disabled people are relying on care from family and friends. To answer the question I posed earlier about who is taking the strain, in many cases it is carers. Without the support of carers and without finance, such individuals have to carry on until crisis point, when the local council steps in and does what it can. As Dame Denise has said, there needs to be a real debate about how people can prepare for that kind of crisis in their lives, which they may well experience. She added,
“what we comment on in the report is … a change in the balance of responsibility between individuals and the state by default, without the infrastructure in place to help people who are trying to find their own care, and without adequate support for the friends and relatives who are filling in the gaps”.
I stress that I feel that the Government’s intentions are admirable. The White Paper, Our Health, Our Care, Our Say, sets out the Government’s vision for high-quality support. One point made is that there needs to be a fundamental change in the provision of services and the workforce that delivers them to ensure that the vision can become a reality in the future. It suggests that that change is better integration of those working in the NHS and those working in social care. I would not mind a pound for the number of times I have heard that, not least when I was trying to achieve change in those very areas. It is extraordinarily difficult. I have had long and sometimes bitter experience of its difficulty, involving, as it does, the marriage of organisations with different management structures and different accountabilities.
I make a slightly critical point to the Minister. Is such integration being made easier or more difficult at ground level for those in receipt of social care and those trying to organise its provision by the programme of closures and cuts presently affecting the NHS? It truly is not understood by people at a local level how the Government have made—as they have—really substantial increases in health spending when the local media is dominated by reports, as in Norfolk, of the possible closure of all nine of the county's community hospitals. They ask—they are right to do so—how care in the community can become a reality if community beds are to be axed. They ask whether Ministers and those who plan such things really believe that it is an inviting prospect for a vulnerable person, being discharged from hospital after surgery, say, to have to miss out the half-way house of community beds. Dame Denise Platt said:
“For people who meet the eligibility criteria and who are receiving services, many are only allocated a 15-minute ‘slot’, with a high turnover of care workers”.
That is not an inviting prospect.
However, the Government’s intentions in this policy area are admirable. They have shown remarkable energy. There have been real increases in spending on health. But the question posed by the debate is whether appropriate priority is being given to investment in the social care workforce. At this stage, that has to receive a very qualified answer, “Perhaps not”. As Dame Denise said:
“The ‘State of Social Care’ report shows the gap between what social services are saying and what the government wants to do, and what is actually happening in people's experience”.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for introducing this debate in a most interesting way. I do not intend to take him on philosophically, but I think he hit on something rather important. He talked about social care in Europe, but he did not mention that in mainland Europe a great deal of social care is provided by charitable, religious or sometimes trade union organisations. It is largely informal and it is subsidised. He mentioned Denmark, which is noted for the high quality of its social care services, but it has a very high tax base and a very high level of public expenditure. That is why I think he is absolutely right to set this debate now. The central question that we and the Government have to answer is: what kind of social care system do we want and how are we going to pay for it? Noble Lords this morning have talked about the raft of policy documents, including Options for Excellence, which set out a vision for social services that is on a par with Denmark. However, what was missing was the realisation that to achieve that there must be resourcing and the question is: where are those resources going to come from?
A central issue to the debate is that over the past few years the nature of social work and social care has changed. Years ago social care was a largely unregulated area of work and it relied on low-skilled and low-paid local workforces. During the past decade, it has become increasingly regulated and reliant on staff who are highly skilled. The problem for local authorities is that, unlike in the health service where there was the Agenda for Change analysis—a huge programme that looked at the skill sets needed to deliver care and an equation of that with remuneration—there has until the publication of Options for Excellence been no similar systematic analysis of what is needed in social care.
The fact that there is a need for greater skills is not in dispute. People are living longer with rising levels of physical disability and a growing incidence of dementia. People with disabilities are surviving into adulthood and they are expecting the intensive care packages which they had as children to continue throughout their lives. For several years, extensive, well researched reports from everybody from the Social Policy Ageing Information Network through to Sir Derek Wanless, who did an exercise for the Treasury, have set out quite clearly that social care is running anywhere between £1 billion and £2 billion in deficit. That is the point from which we start.
Local authorities can do one of two things. First, they can reduce the scale of the services they provide. The CSCI report published last week, very good though it was, was absolutely no surprise. It is no surprise to anybody who works in social care that only critical and substantial needs are being met. Indeed, many local authorities are only funding critical needs, nothing more. The CSCI report was right that unless local authorities have an injection of resources, they cannot do more. However, that does not match public expectations because we know from many research studies that only 10 per cent of the general public expect to fully fund their future care costs.
The other thing local authorities can do is cut costs, and in social care 80 per cent of costs are staffing costs. They can cut salaries, staff numbers and training budgets. The social care sector is already very diverse. Two thirds of social care staff do not work for local authorities; they work in the independent and voluntary sectors. Increasingly, services are being put out to contract through very commercial tendering processes. It is not unusual now for voluntary or private organisations not to meet social care commissioners. They meet procurement officers and procurement officers are only interested in one thing: that is, the cost.
It is also not unusual among private care providers to find practices such as staff having to pay for their own training, with the time that they take for training coming out of their annual leave. Such reductions in overhead costs enable those providers to win the contracts in the first place.
There is a hidden cost to all that, which the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, mentioned indirectly. The more that services are awarded under contract competitively, the more that you lose the public service ethos and the continuity of staff with clients that is part of the great value of our social care system. A huge loss of expertise and experience comes about through the churn of social care staff.
One policy initiative that has an effect on this is the expansion of direct payments and individual budgets. It is agreed that recipients of social care services should exercise greater choice and be able to commission services much more flexibly. That is to be welcomed. However, less widely recognised is the potential in the expansion of direct payments and individual budgets for the emergence of a second-tier workforce in social care. If people choose to rely on informal, unregulated family carers for whom they have been given a budget, those with the most severe needs may have an opportunity to see highly skilled, regulated social care staff, but the vast majority of people with low-level needs who want small interventions will be going back to a social care workforce much more reminiscent of that in years gone by.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is right in this debate to ask the Government what sort of social care workforce we need to meet their policy aspirations. If we are to have one that fits the aspirations in all the policy documents that we have seen, we will need to see a vast injection of resources in CSR07.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Earl for giving us the opportunity today to affirm the work of social carers and the need to provide them with better support as they serve many of the most vulnerable in our society.
I believe that there is still a temptation to regard the vulnerable elderly in particular as out of sight and out of mind. Although no one would acknowledge this, the attitude is there fairly deeply in some parts of our culture. It cuts across the Christian view that all human beings are made in the image of God and are always precious to God. It also cuts across the aims and thinking of a humane society, which I hope and believe have moved beyond the logical positivism of which the noble Earl spoke. The Church of England has sought to address this in attempting to put its own house in order in its recent publication, Promoting a Safe Church.
We hear much in these discussions, as noble Lords have said, of efficiency drives and the need to get the best value from our care force, but what would most help in achieving that is a change of culture and thinking. If we valued our elderly citizens and those, for example, with learning disabilities better, we would be prepared to pay those who care for them better. I believe that that would do much to ease the problem of carers who quickly move to other jobs and that it would give an incentive for an improved framework for training and long-term development of individuals. The Wanless report 2006 calls for a tripling of spending on older people’s care, a modest shift of 1 per cent of GNP that would transform the situation, but our culture of suspicion is such that we lack the political will, and I think the cultural will, actually to do that.
I, too, salute the work done by the voluntary sector, paid and unpaid, in providing support and in its employment of social carers. I do so particularly from the point of view of small local voluntary organisations, and of the work they contribute to overall social care. Think, for example, of the preventative work done in Leeds by a body such as Moor Allerton Elderly Care, which works to provide the support that helps to prevent older people from becoming depressed and helpless and looking to the statutory services for help. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, has already spoken of the way in which local authorities are only able to provide crisis support. There is therefore an increased importance in those who can and will provide preventative services.
At the other end of the scale, I think of Caring For Life, a small local Christian charity in Leeds that provides lifelong help for the vulnerable homeless, many of them with substantial emotional needs. The voluntary sector, however, particularly the local voluntary sector, cannot replace the statutory, and it is often not well supported by local authorities. I continue to regret that there is still some suspicion of faith-based voluntary organisations, another contrast with so much of the European scene.
The frustration of this situation is that there is so much good will and expertise. The aspirations of Options for Excellence demonstrate the good will. The commitment of individuals, of which there are many stories, and the acknowledgement of the care provided in many cases in both the statutory and voluntary sectors speak to those qualities. But we have not yet found the best way to harness all that good will, skill and commitment. It is only with a change of culture—and therefore, yes, of financial priorities—that that good will and skill will become a reality for some of the most vulnerable within our society.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for securing this important and timely debate. I shall contribute by focusing on the kind of workforce we need to ensure that children and young people get the quality of service they both need and deserve. The recruitment, retention and motivation of skilled staff is key to the provision of quality services for children and young people. Health and social service care work is labour intensive, and staffing costs invariably make up about two-thirds of the total spending, so it is vitally important get it right.
There are around 110,000 people employed in health and social care services in Northern Ireland, equivalent to around 6.4 per cent of the population, compared with 5 per cent in the United Kingdom as a whole. Yet recent reviews have indicated that there is still a deficit in the overall numbers of health and social care staff needed, and that we must look at pay and terms and conditions for recruiting more staff.
As Members of this House are aware, I am a council member of Barnardo’s here in the United Kingdom and a chair of Barnardo’s in Northern Ireland. I have seen at first hand both the children and young people who need our help and the staff who provide it. I take this opportunity to say how impressed I am by the dedication and commitment of the majority of staff who provide those services. These are qualified social work staff, dedicated to improving the lives of children, young people and their families. However, they are also a professional body of staff and it is crucial that in considering how we move forward in investing in a social care workforce, staff who work in this area of the voluntary and community sector are not forgotten.
When Government in Northern Ireland introduced new pay and grading arrangements for social work staff, trusts did not calculate for those staff who worked in the voluntary sector setting. These staff often worked for organisations such as Barnardo’s which contract with trusts to provide statutory child protection duties. The new pay and grading arrangements significantly increased salary costs and thus the overall costs of providing the service. It also meant that if Barnardo’s could not match the new level of pay, it would struggle to recruit and retain social work staff.
Barnardo’s and other voluntary sector organisations raised this issue with Government. Their response was that the purpose of the arrangements was to improve the retention of social work staff in the public sector. Government must realise that the voluntary and public sector recruit from the same pool of staff and often do the same kind of work. They also fail to understand that contracting with the voluntary sector requires that such staff have to be regulated, qualified practitioners. To retain current staff and to continue to compete in the recruitment market, Barnardo’s had to provide an exceptional additional allowance, which put an additional strain on the charity’s resources.
If the current Government’s commissioning policy, with its focus on engaging with the private and voluntary sectors and enabling them to provide services, is to succeed, it must create an equal playing field. In essence, this means that if the voluntary sector is to deliver effective, innovative and economical services, it must be funded equally and given sensible contracts.
Too often, voluntary organisations are given 12-month contracts, with renewal often not assured until a few days before expiry. Nothing could be more designed to thwart the success of the voluntary sector or to cause us to lose dedicated and effective staff. For Barnardo’s as a whole this new year, some staff will again not know whether they will have jobs in April because the organisation does not yet know whether the contracts will be renewed. That also means that there are parents and children who do not know whether the vital services they require will continue. This is unacceptable. Public authorities would not treat their own staff like this, and it is unacceptable that they should treat those who work for charities in this way.
The voluntary sector provides high-quality and often innovative public services. Those services often grow from a local base and are trusted. For those reasons, they must be given a chance to deliver. Commissioners need a choice in spending public money as one aspect of getting the services right. But to allow this to happen, the voluntary sector must be treated on an equal footing with the public sector in terms of cost, contracting and a transparent tendering process. Then perhaps children and young people will get the kind of service they deserve.
Over the past number of years, Government have gone a long way towards ensuring that the service must meet regulatory requirements and that it is as safe and of as high a standard as possible. I am sure that we all agree with that. The social care environment should have an increased focus on standards and regulatory requirements. However, we will undersell this if we do not invest in social care staff in a way that enables them to deliver those standards.
Government have clearly signalled the need for a social care workforce that is founded on high quality and regular supervision, where there is increased multi-disciplinary working and the salary levels and opportunity for training will attract highly skilled people. This will not happen without additional investment across all sectors involved in delivering social care services. Without this investment, the services will not be of the quality and kind that children and young people who are vulnerable and in difficulty need. That is why it is crucial that Government prioritise investment in the social care workforce as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review and why, in doing so, they must ensure that the voluntary sector is fully included.
My Lords, I echo the words of other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on securing this debate today. Social care and the importance of social work have begun to be something of a leitmotif in the debates of this House during this Session. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Earl himself both made powerful speeches in the debate on the Queen's Speech. Then we had a debate on adult social care introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, on 7 December and now we have the debate today. I hope that we will continue to have such debates until we as a society have decisively reversed the neglect over decades of social work and the social care workforce to which all noble Lords who have spoken in these debates have attested.
What has emerged from these debates is the low esteem into which the social work profession and the social care workforce have been allowed to fall, with poor reward and consequent demotivation and the attendant ills of rapid turnover, high vacancy rates, low skill levels and backbreaking case loads all reinforcing one another in a vicious downward spiral. The Government have done much to raise the status of teachers and nurses, but social work has remained the Cinderella among the care professions. This House can play its part in creating a climate in which this trend can be reversed.
Social workers fulfil one of the most difficult tasks for the community. They need to have detailed knowledge of the disciplines of psychology, sociology, social administration, human growth and development, research methods and the law, and to maintain a nice balance between compassion and realism, empowerment and control. They need to be aware of their own needs and prejudices and have the strength to ensure that these do not impact on their work. They deal with those who are rejected by society; often those who have put themselves beyond the reach of the agencies of mainstream society—the deprived, delinquent, delusional and the dysfunctional. It is hardly surprising that they do not always get it absolutely right. As the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, pointed out in her deeply impressive maiden speech:
“They are damned if they do … and they are damned if they don’t”.—[Official Report, 21/11/06; col. 277.]
Their mistakes are highlighted by the media: their successes go largely unremarked.
My wife was a social worker. She recalls a time when she and her colleagues in local authority children's departments were regarded as highly skilled professionals by the public and courts alike, rather than treated with disdain. Thirty years ago, she taught trainee social workers on what was then a highly respected four-year undergraduate course at the University of Bradford. The introduction of a three-year undergraduate social work degree leading to a recognised qualification is therefore very much to be welcomed as one of the best ways of restoring to the social work profession some of the status it once possessed but which it has so conspicuously lost in recent decades.
As we have heard, the Government have done a number of other things which are very welcome. Skills for Care and the Children's Workforce Development Council have been set up to lead on workforce training, qualifications, support and advice. The establishment of the General Social Care Council to regulate the social care workforce and what is now the Commission for Social Care Inspection to register and inspect providers of social care, coupled with the development of national minimum standards on which inspection is based, are all important developments. We have seen the registration of social workers for the first time, and, since April 2005, the title “social worker” has been restricted to registered practitioners holding a social work qualification recognised by the GSCC.
Enrolment on to the three-year social work degree rose by a third between 2000-01 and 2003-04. As the noble Earl reminded us, government spending on social care workforce development and training in 2005-06 was three times higher than in 2002-03. Those are impressive developments and have the potential to do much to transform the esprit de corps of the social work profession, but they are coming very late and only after a protracted period where the situation has been allowed to slide a very long way. We must also beware the tendency of which I spoke in the debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, for there to be a disconnect between the official picture and what is actually happening on the ground, of which the noble Earl also spoke so eloquently.
The Options for Excellence review on the social care workforce published last October provides a blueprint for sustaining the momentum in the short term, but the longer-term vision is dependent on available resources. As others have said in this debate, this should be seen as a priority in the forthcoming spending review if what has been achieved in the past few years is not to go for nothing. In 2004, there were still 53,000 social work and occupational therapy vacancies, so there is still a lot to do and the problem is not a small one. According to the report which Sir Derek Wanless produced for the King's Fund last year, in 2003-04, 559,000 people were employed in adult social care plus 120,000 in care-related posts in the NHS. If we are to retain people in the social care workforce, pay must rise. That is not an option which we have the luxury of choosing or not. With an ageing population, a social care workforce with the requisite skills and morale and in the requisite numbers will be a necessity if the system is not to collapse.
I want to say a further word about training. The one major weakness in Options for Excellence was that it did not have a lot to say about training going forward. There was a lot about continuous professional development, but not training, particularly the content of training. My impression is that social work training has been considerably degraded since the days when my wife was studying, practising and teaching. There has been a shift away from teaching the core social work knowledge of human growth and development and the case work skills that are indispensable for understanding the motivation and behaviour of highly vulnerable and emotionally damaged people and providing them with the sort of professional relationship that can help them to grow. What can happen when that kind of foundation is not there was all too plainly demonstrated yesterday, as the noble Earl reminded us, by the report on Orchard Hill, where we heard of institutional abuse by social workers who were said not to have meant harm particularly, but who were just inadequately trained. As a result, they were incapable of understanding and managing the behavioural dynamics of those in their care. If we are going to effectively address personal problems in a timely fashion before they become major social problems—another reason for investment in social care if ever there was one—we must give more attention to the content of training as well as to its amount and the number of those who give and receive it.
The move to generic social work in the 1970s, while designed to simplify the complexity of different social service provision and to supply a one-stop shop for customers, largely failed in its aim and served to destroy much of the specialist expertise previously used to benefit children, the mentally ill, the elderly and the disabled. That is nowhere more apparent than in the field of services for people with visual impairment. The principal professional providing support to people with visual impairment is the rehabilitation officer whose role is to provide mobility and other independent living skills training for visually impaired people. While the population of visually impaired people continues to grow, and is set to double over the next 20 years with the ageing of the population, the numbers of qualified rehabilitation workers is in decline.
Only the other day, I received a letter from a rehabilitation officer who said that he was writing on behalf of many of his colleagues who feared that their profession was disappearing. He maintained that the standard of training was dropping and that many courses loosely based around rehabilitation only paid lip-service to the fundamentals of the profession. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association is currently carrying out a major review of this area and there can be little doubt that it will throw up far-reaching proposals to reverse a long-term decline every bit as serious as that in the social work profession, which the Government will need to take just as seriously as they have the decline in social work.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on securing this debate. I shall focus first on those aspects of social work that concern children. I have for a long time been very worried about cases in which children have been removed from their parents on the excuse that they were being abused or were at risk of being abused when there was no real evidence that that was in fact the case and a lot of expert evidence, which local authorities chose to ignore, that the causes of the apparent injuries were quite different.
I gave details of two cases in the debate secured by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, on 22 June last year, reported in Hansard in Volume 683, col. 947. Now I have heard of another one, in which the children have been removed from the mother on the grounds that they were in danger of being abused, and are about to be adopted. Of course, in none of these cases can I, even as a Member of your Lordships’ House, obtain any details of the evidence or copies of the judgment of the judge who heard the case in the family court, so I cannot make any judgment myself as to the rights and wrongs of the cases. But these cases have raised questions in my mind as to whether the social workers involved were sufficiently highly trained to make the recommendations they did and whether they had enough time, due to pressure of work, to perhaps wait and keep an eye on the situation.
I have read or tried to read the White Paper, Options for Excellence, which is, I am sorry to say, as ill written in ghastly jargon and as ill set out as the report on the conventions of the House, on which I spoke on Tuesday, was well written, readable and well set out. Recruiting sufficient social workers seems to be difficult and the training is sometimes inadequate. When numbers are short, it is not going to be easy to spare people for ongoing training and, in any case, training in schools and colleges, while very necessary, is no substitute for training under an experienced practitioner on the ground. A huge variety of different career development projects is probably a very expensive way in which to promote recruiting. Nowhere in the report did I see any suggestion that the way forward might be to pay social workers, carers and so on better, which is the first thing I should consider if I were having difficulty in finding recruits. I am no economist but when I was young I learnt the basic law of supply and demand. When the demand exceeds the supply, the price goes up. In this case, the price is the salaries of the workers. I echo the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, on this, and the views of the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, on this matter and on training.
The same applies to shortages of carers, nursing assistants and auxiliaries. Again, the most important kind of training that they can have is out in the field. A short time ago, a friend of mine was in hospital having had a very serious operation after which she could not move without help. One evening she was attended by a new young nurse, who told her that she was absolutely terrified, that it was her first time on the ward and that although she had been through nursing college and passed all her exams with flying colours, she had never been at a bedside before or been taught any hands-on nursing. That is why I say that training in the field is absolutely vital.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this debate. I shall try to develop what he indicated as regards fostering and foster parents. That is where more than two-thirds of the 60,000 children in care are placed. The best estimates show that there is still a shortage of some 8,000 foster homes, which is roughly a 20 per cent shortfall that is most severely felt in London and the south-east. The background to that shortage is the need to be able to place children near their families, friends and existing schools and to be able to give some degree of choice of placement to the older children.
Before now I have described foster parents as being in the very front line of social care. Their role is one of the most personal forms of social service imaginable; they have to give sympathy, understanding and love equal to what they would provide for their own children. A foster parent is called on to be the consistent adult in the lives of children. That is surely the great need of children whose birth family has broken down. It appears that some 44 per cent of children taken into care who are not adopted remain there for a year and sometimes much longer. Stable placements are therefore essential. Few things can be worse for a child than being passed like a parcel between foster and residential homes with perhaps occasional returns to birth parents.
It is fairly obvious what should be provided to achieve stability in placements. There must first be fully adequate pay and allowances. Foster parents should not be expected to make a financial sacrifice when providing an essential public service. Housing, including housing benefit, and pension arrangements will be important, especially in high-cost areas. Economic provision of this kind must be complemented by good selection, training and support on the job. If all these factors are available, there is a good prospect of recruiting and, even more importantly, retaining, high-quality foster parents.
I hope that I have summed up the essential preconditions for stable placements for very vulnerable children. I therefore warmly welcome last year’s decision to lay down national minimum allowances for fostering. I recognise that some local authorities and private agencies already pay more than the minimum rate. Pay should always continue while foster parents are waiting for a new child; such gaps could well be used for training and for mutual support between parents. I welcome the Green Paper, Care Matters, of last October, and particularly the fostering proposals in chapter 4. However, I urge the Government to consider carefully the detailed comments on this chapter from the Fostering Network. These concern more than just one government department.
It is good news that the Children’s Commissioner is now fully active. I trust that he will be influential in raising the status of foster parents so that they are seen and rewarded as indispensable carers. The recording and supervision of private foster arrangements is another urgent issue. I wonder whether the Minister can give us any news of progress on that point. So, too, is the development of special fostering arrangements for children who have a history of being abused or trafficked into this country for gain. I invite the Government to consider whether the financial responsibility for children who are unaccompanied asylum seekers should move from the Home Office to the Department for Education and Skills. Such children certainly deserve to be treated according to best practice. That means that they should not be deported on reaching the age of 18 when their attachment to this country may have become very real and their links to the country of origin have attenuated to the point when they are almost minimal.
There is a further point on which the Children’s Commissioner and several departmental Ministers may be able to be helpful. Teachers and social workers who are the subject of allegations against them by children have defined processes of investigation. These are absolutely necessary because, as we all know, children can fantasise and often lie. Foster parents have, apparently, no such protection, and can be left in limbo with loss of pay and allowances.
I conclude by repeating that foster parents are in the front line of care. Therefore, we should ensure that they are properly recognised and cease to be a Cinderella service.
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Listowel for this debate and for the tenacity that he has shown in keeping the quality and effectiveness of social care high on your Lordships’ priority agenda. I agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said about fostering. Foster parents are an incredibly valuable and much underrated resource in this country, and I hope that the Minister will take into account what he said.
My noble friend Lord Listowel rightly reminded us that the subject of our discussion today is a crucial workforce—those involved in both statutory and voluntary roles in the basic social care services. We shall all be dependent on social care of one kind or another at different stages of our lives, most particularly at the beginning and the end. The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, gave an apt and important warning for us all to think carefully about.
One vital group of workers is those who have responsibility for helping those from deprived backgrounds. They help the most vulnerable and often the most difficult to help within our society. They face the task of making it possible for these children to grow into responsible citizens and achieve their full individual potential, for their own and the community's benefit. For a number of reasons, not least the relentless number of new initiatives under way, these social services, the people who work in them and the resources for the work they do, are under constant pressure, and never more so than now. Adequate finance for new schemes has always been in doubt, and training, as we have heard again and again today, is inadequate. Pressure, not least from the Treasury, grows for ever better outcomes from services for families and children at risk of becoming locked into what used to be called the cycle of deprivation and has now apparently been renamed the cycle of low achievement.
Like other noble Lords, I cannot help thinking what it must be like to be a social worker in these fields. They are hardly among the best paid in the economy and their work is hugely important for community cohesion, yet they are subject to constant criticism in the press and elsewhere about the results not being good enough, whether in education, health, social services or the Probation Service. Noble Lords should imagine the effect of that on staff morale. Social workers also need to absorb and adapt to continual change and increasing bureaucracy. One ends up with a profession which is highly unlikely to attract much needed new recruits. We have heard that emphasised already.
Those pressures and problems prompt me to ask a more fundamental question about our entire system of taking children into care. Have we got it right, or are there real alternatives that deserve to be considered? Given what is happening now with looked-after children, alternatives must be worth pursuing. Harriet Sergeant, in her revealing book, Handle with Care, published in September 2006, tells us that care is,
“failing on a scale that is catastrophic”.
We have heard examples of that in past debates, so I shall not go into too much detail. However, with something like 6,000 looked-after children leaving care every year—6,000 of the 60,000—more than half of them, she predicts, will have no educational qualifications at all. Within two years, 3,000 will be unemployed, 2,000 will either be mothers or pregnant and 1,200 will be homeless. Are we really doing the right thing by taking so many children into care, when the numbers and costs of so doing are growing considerably? Court hearings have apparently risen by 14 per cent during the past five years and their cost by an astonishing 62 per cent. Each case takes between 42 and 51 weeks to complete and costs, I understand, an average of £25,000 in legal aid. As we know, funds for legal aid are drying up fast.
These results are tragic not just for the individuals, almost all of whom are victims of their own abusive, violent backgrounds. Harriet Sergeant argues that a successful system of care would,
“empty a third of our prisons, and shift half of all prisoners under 25 out of the criminal justice system”—
which is much needed at a time when prisons are pretty well overflowing—
“halve the number of prostitutes and reduce the homeless between a half and a third”.
All this may be a little utopian, but these are real issues.
As my noble friend Lord Listowel has already said, Hilary Armstrong, who is the Minister for Social Exclusion and is contributing substantially to the government White Paper, has found that some countries spend less per looked-after child and get better outcomes. No doubt we shall see that White Paper soon.
Meanwhile, how should we assess what has been happening here? Perhaps I may look back on the Government’s agenda when they took office 10 years ago. Specifically, they prioritised education and pledged to end child poverty within 21 years. We should acknowledge what has been achieved. Their interim target of cutting the numbers of children in poverty by a quarter by 2005 may not have been reached, but an impressive 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, helped no doubt by a combination of family support and flexible opportunities for single parents to join or rejoin the workforce. But Britain still has one of the highest child poverty rates in developed countries. So a lot remains to be done.
How about the Government’s education target? That is an area where change has been continuous. There have been more than 10 Education Acts. The pattern of constant change must be even more bewildering for teachers and social workers than for the rest of us. However, I am glad to say that the picture looks a little brighter in some respects. At the nursery education level, for example, the increased nursery provision entitlement that has been granted for all children will certainly have helped towards the reduction in the number of children in poverty, not least by encouraging single parents to train to return to some kind of, albeit usually low paid, employment. The earlier help and support are available to needy families, the better the chance of reducing the number of children failed by the system who end up in prison. The 1,000 Sure Start Children's Centres we have now—the target, as we all know, is one for every community of 3,500 people by 2010—bringing together not just early education but also health, employment and family support services, will, we hope, play an increasingly important role.
I shall not say all that I intended to say, but I hope that we will hear answers to many of the questions that have been raised.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on securing this debate, and I congratulate the Government on the publication of the Green Paper entitled Care Matters. It is very much to be welcomed. I congratulate the Government also on addressing a whole range of problems that many of us have been worried about for some time. The closing date for the consultation on the Green Paper was on Sunday. I hope that the Minister will make an exception and allow the speeches in this debate to be considered when the consultation is taking place.
The Green Paper is about children in care, and it is about children in care that I shall speak. As a society we should have the utmost compassion for children who are in care, who are at risk, or who have been taken into care because their parents have failed them. They are victims through no fault of their own. Along with their parents, we as a society are largely responsible for a variety of reasons, one of which is that we as a society do not respect and support parents and families enough. These are the damaged children whom we ask our social services to look after, and then to deliver back to us as adults who are emotionally secure and well-educated citizens. We must constantly remember that this is an exceedingly difficult and often thankless task.
I should have liked to speak at length about all the good things in the Green Paper but I do not have time. I intend to talk about only three issues which the Green Paper has missed: the case for a larger proportion of any available resources to be devoted to prevention; the case for paying more attention to attachment theory; and where the resources, human and financial, will come from.
First, although the Green Paper addresses prevention, it does not look back far enough into the life of the child. The bulk of it is about administrative changes and earlier intervention. However, the time when real results could be achieved in reducing the care population would be much earlier, at the birth of the child and in the first two years afterwards. Recent research in the USA has shown that a very high proportion—above 85 per cent—of unmarried parents, both fathers and mothers, want, at the time when their first child is born, to be good parents. Why do they fail? Very often it is not their fault. They have left school without adequate preparation for adult relationships, let alone parenthood. We fail to ensure that they have access to the support and help that they need when they meet parenthood face to face. We deny them affordable housing and send them off to live in temporary accommodation or with their mother-in-law at a time in their lives when they most crucially need a home for their new family.
I should like to give two examples of action that can be taken because people often put up their hands and say, “What can we do about it?”. Two years ago I came across a project in Florida that arranges with ante-natal clinics to offer to every first-time mother, at about the sixth month of pregnancy, a free screening to see whether she might be entitled to free services after the birth. As one might imagine, there is a good take-up. Any mother who might have problems is offered free weekly visits by a trained visitor for the first year of the child’s life and longer if necessary. Visitors are supervised and follow a child-development-led programme. Because it is non-stigmatising, the programme is popular and successful.
My second example is that in this country young single mothers with a first baby have to wait many months, often years, to get a home of their own. For young couples the situation is even worse. If we genuinely want fewer children in care, we should make the investment necessary to ensure that every first-time family, whether a couple or a single parent, is offered appropriate and affordable housing within a matter of weeks of the birth of their first child. I have no time to give any more examples. If only we could reduce the number of children who need to be taken into care, we could do the job much better for those for whom care is the only alternative.
My second point relates to secure attachment, which ties in with what my noble friend Lord Hylton said. I should stress the fundamental importance of secure attachment and a warm supportive family life for every child, especially those who have experienced family breakdown. What can we do to increase the chances of more children in care settings getting the start in life that they need?
Ongoing research studying outcomes for Romanian and Bulgarian children who spent their early years in communist state-owned orphanages has confirmed Bowlby’s theories about the importance of early attachment—or, in those cases, the lack of it. Children who have been abused or abandoned by parents whom they trusted are emotionally wounded. Some recover and some do not. The research on Romanian children also showed that when they were subsequently placed in a secure and loving family environment through adoption, the time needed to recover from abuse or neglect tended to increase with the length of time the child was subject to abuse or neglect.
Surely a priority for children who have been taken into care should be to ensure that the period of abuse is shorter by placing them as quickly as possible in a new family that is secure, caring and, as far as is possible, permanent. Successful adoption should achieve that objective. However, if foster care is the only option or is to be the placement, then the Government’s yardstick for adequacy in foster care placement—that is, not more than three placements per year—is disastrously inadequate. We should be thinking much more in terms of years rather than months for a successful fostering placement if we really want these children to recover from the emotional traumas that they have suffered. The very least that we owe them is a chance to rebuild their self-esteem and ability to trust adults, and to learn or relearn the relationship skills which will be the building blocks they need as they go into adolescence and then into adult life.
I was, finally, going to talk about resources. Happily, however, I have run out of time, and many noble Lords have already discussed the subject at considerable length. I support them. I have just one question for the Government. When they come back with a White Paper on this subject, will they put some figures to it? That would only be fair. No one in business offers a proposal of this magnitude without giving the board of directors a chance to know what the figures are. I hope the Government will listen to what I have said.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on initiating this very important debate. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, I shall concentrate on the care of older people. I want to focus on paid care workers but not exclusively on those working in care homes, as many of them also work in the community.
The Minister knows very well the difficulty in differentiating clearly between health and social care in these circumstances. Many people in care homes are primarily cared for not by nurses or qualified care workers but by care assistants, many of whom are faced with hugely difficult tasks—for which training is essential, but from which they certainly have not benefited. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, pointed out, many workers in such care homes, perhaps most, work in the private and voluntary sector. But in all sectors it is often said that although old people, particularly the frail and vulnerable, are able to receive health and social care services, they rarely receive professional health and professional social care. Other groups are more likely to receive such qualified and trained care.
There is also some excellent news. We all know that people are living longer and healthier lives and that they are benefiting from policies, on which we congratulate the Government, to enhance independent living. The result has been that the care needs of those entering care homes and nursing homes have appeared much later in life than was formerly the case. Their needs are, however, much more complex and difficult to meet. The care director for BUPA has talked about an epidemic of dementia. As we know, those caring for people with dementia have a terribly difficult task. We have to balance the needs of that very vulnerable group of people with the tremendous needs of the staff trying to do their best in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. The costs of caring for some 75 per cent of those whom BUPA cares for are paid for in one way or another by the statutory sector, the Government.
Care needs—co-morbidity, really—are increasingly complex. People get all sorts of conditions together, including diabetes, cardiovascular conditions and dementia. We need a more skilled and better trained care workforce and a professional structure, which does not yet exist. That would deliver care which is far more appropriate and tailored to users and would help to address the acute problems of recruitment and retention of nursing staff and care assistants in all sectors. The Wanless report acknowledged that we need to formalise qualifications for care staff. Unless those deficiencies and gaps are tackled we will continue to place unwarranted pressure on families and informal carers such as friends. We know that. The fact that so many people leave care assistant jobs to work in Tesco is quite understandable; there is a better social life and better pay at Tesco. That is what is happening.
Taking people from abroad to do these jobs, stripping assets in the form of better-qualified people from many developing countries, is another problem. Those countries need these people. The people come here because of better—albeit still low—pay and easy access to jobs. We need to do something about that, otherwise we will also affect the family life of people in those workers’ home countries. We know that many who come to take up jobs as care workers and care assistants get on to adaptation courses that enable them to move from the independent sector into the NHS.
I would like to draw noble Lords’ attention to some studies being carried out by the University of Surrey Healthcare Workforce Research Centre. I was privileged to chair the first meeting of a group that is looking at these issues. Another meeting will be held shortly. We had representatives from the Department of Health, the voluntary sector and the care home sector. The meeting was initiated by an organisation called Friends of the Elderly. The idea is to enhance the role of those being trained to enable them to reach NVQ Level 2. These are the people who provide most of the hands-on care.
The enhancement would be achieved by creating the role of specialist care assistants, perhaps working under the supervision of qualified nursing staff. Training in vital clinical skills relevant to specific long-term conditions would be provided and serve as a bridge between the basic care function and nursing. Some functions currently carried out by nurses could be delegated to suitably trained assistants, who would benefit from having such qualifications. That would free up nursing staff for greater managerial tasks and greater responsibility and allow them to take on specialist gerontological nursing qualifications. It would pave the way to developing better domiciliary care, perhaps following the model of community matrons mooted by the Department of Health.
I hope the Minister will consider those developments and ask his officials to follow up that initiative. I doubt whether it is the only such initiative in the country. It is very important to raise the status of these care workers as they deserve better. More importantly from my point of view, those whom they care for deserve better.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on once again demonstrating his tireless care for people in care, particularly children, on whom I want to concentrate my remarks. There are advantages and disadvantages to having what one might call the sweeper’s position on the speakers’ list. With such an array of talent and experience speaking before you, most of the issues you might wish to raise have already been covered, leaving you in danger of merely replicating.
However, I want to do a little “so-whatting” and remind the House of the “so-what” of getting this wrong, which I have seen all too often in the prisons, the secure training centres and the local secure homes around this country. I looked at this White Paper with considerable interest, because I hoped that—bearing in mind all the people who had served on the board, many of whom I had spoken to and the experience they represented—the board would have listened to the experiences of the people who had been through the system, and were therefore the “so what” of it, in all that they did. I was very heartened by the first message from one of the board members, Mr Peter Beresford, chair of Shaping Our Lives, who said:
“For service users, the most important person in social care is the person who works face-to-face with them. Their influence for good or ill can be enormous”.
That needs to be shouted aloud and said in spades. I was therefore delighted to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, say that consistency in this person was absolutely essential if good was to be achieved. She gave us the disturbing number of people who did not come from the resident social services organisations, but from agencies and others. This is not to disparage their motivation or contribution in any way, but merely to comment on it.
I feel like this because I paid a visit to a local secure home called Orchard Lodge, the only place in the country to be detailed and originally staffed to look after children with mental health problems. This House has heard this week about the problems posed by the increasing number of children with various mental health problems. It is extremely disturbing that there is only one local secure home in the country capable of taking them. Orchard Lodge is near Crystal Palace, but when I went there, far from finding that people came from the south-east, I found children from Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle and other places. They were far away from their homes and the continuous support that is so essential in continuing whatever was begun there.
Another thing concerned me about this place. At the time it was being run, quite admirably, by Southwark council. The average tenure of staff members was 11 years. That told hugely in the relationship between staff and children, and their understanding of the sort of problems to be found there. I was disturbed to find the population being changed by increasing numbers of asylum seekers and immigrant children being brought to Orchard Lodge, bringing with them traumas as a result of their experiences in their home countries. This caused the staff intense difficulties, not least with languages. I was also disturbed to learn that Orchard Lodge was being taken out of Southwark council’s control and privatised.
That has since happened. The result was felt immediately in an increase in turnover of understanding staff. This is a very serious point, which needs to be taken into account. Therefore, I was extremely concerned to find such a strong focus on “commissioning” in Options for Excellence. Why do I say that? All too often throughout the criminal justice system—and we shall debate it further next week in the Offender Management Bill—this Government seem determined to commission services from the private and voluntary sector. This is not to say that that is a bad thing; I am all for getting the right services at the right time and in the right way, but they must be the right services at the right time and in the right way. However, when all the evidence from children and experienced people who work in these homes shows that it is important to maintain continuity and make use of such experience, it is dangerous to risk throwing that away in favour of the mantra of commissioning and contracting everything.
Why do I say that? One day, I inspected Stoke Heath young offender institution, where there was a juvenile element among whom there had been the most horrendous amount of bullying, leading to injuries incurred by youngsters. The bullying had been carried out not just by the youngsters but by members of the staff, and injuries had been caused during official procedures of control and restraint. The staff there appealed to me to inspect them and to comment that they had not been trained to do the job.
I am concerned that we have untrained staff in places where juveniles are looked after—and we are talking about training here. Why can we not pick up the remark of the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, about the need for joint working in all this training? She mentioned the National Health Service and the social services. I would mention the need for the Prison Service and others which look after juveniles to get involved in the training as well, because the “so what” of not getting this right is that more and more young people will enter our prisons. I was horrified to discover how many young prisoners have already experienced care, but I believe that that will be avoidable if we listen to what has been said and incorporate the need for continuity of staff as a major, rather than a minor, add-on to what is otherwise an admirable paper.
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for tabling this topic for debate today. As we have heard, the social care workforce consists of the people on whom many of the most vulnerable in society depend. They face a variety of challenges, so a debate on the subject is welcome.
In summing up, I shall concentrate my remarks on the situation faced by local authorities. I do so because, first, they are the major employers of social carers and, secondly, as a former leader, it is the area that I know best.
Local government has been facing a fairly tough financial outlook for some years now. The Government argue that it has had a 40 per cent increase in funding during the past 10 years. On the other hand, local government argues that much of that money has been ring-fenced for schools and that therefore the actual amount of money available to councils to spend on all services, excluding education, has been around 14 per cent. Where the balance of that lies is not for debate today, but the fact is that actual spending by local authorities has gone up by 50 per cent over the past decade. The balance has been met by the council tax payer, and the results of that are evident to everyone.
During the past decade, councils have faced growing demands for their services, particularly in social services. The number of people aged 85 and over has increased by 6 per cent per annum. As the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, pointed out, their needs become more complex and they require a very high level of care. As NHS budgets have been squeezed, almost half of local councils have reported a reduction in PCT support for joint projects. An LGA survey carried out last summer showed that 70 per cent of local councils had been adversely affected by actions such as bed reductions and community hospital closures. In fact, just this week the Local Government Chronicle carries a report which estimates that the cost to Brent council alone of what it describes as the “PCT cost shunt” is around £9 million, and that is threatening joint arrangements and partnerships at all levels of care.
The Government have rightly made education a priority and have protected education budgets through ring-fencing. However, this means that, when local authorities seek to rebalance their budgets, because social services take by far the largest share of what is left, social services’ budgets take the hit most of the time. Currently, councils are spending about £1.8 billion above the amount allocated to them, and the difference can be met only by increasing council tax or by cutting spending.
According to the Commission for Social Care Inspection, increased demand has already lead to,
“a gradual reduction in the numbers of older people receiving state-funded home care”,
“the tight targeting of statutory support towards those with critical levels of need”.
Wanless made similar comments. He said in his report:
“There is evidence of significant unmet need”.
One could argue that that is because local councils are inefficient and are failing in some way. However, all the evidence suggests otherwise. Local government now has a strong record on financial management and service improvement, as judged by the plethora of external inspecting bodies which the Government have created. The Audit Commission’s performance assessment shows that 68 per cent of councils achieve three or four stars and that they are far outperforming the NHS. In November, the Commission for Social Care Inspection reported that local authorities had improved for the fourth year running. There are now no zero-rated authorities, and 78 per cent are in the two or three-star categories.
It looks as though, on current trends, by 2009-10 local authorities will no longer be providing care and support to those with low and moderate needs. These are the people who need only a little help to be able to remain in their own homes, which is what most of us would wish for. In this country, we currently provide home care to 370,000 people—a low figure by international comparisons. Studies have shown that 45 per cent of carers are family members and that it is becoming increasingly unsustainable to keep transferring the burden on to them. Research also shows that relying on an unpaid workforce comprised mainly of women will not work in the future, because, for a variety of reasons, younger women are less willing or able to provide that level of care.
We need to maintain a committed and appropriately trained workforce in order to achieve quality care. The drive to manage costs cannot be entirely at the expense of a workforce which we know needs to be of high quality. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly referred to the huge strides that have been made in driving up the quality of the social care workforce. Social work is now a graduate-entry profession and registration with the General Social Care Council is mandatory. I pay tribute to the work carried out by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, and I join her in paying tribute also to the work of the council in driving up standards in social care. Certainly, its vision, set out in Options for Excellence, has the support of us all in general terms.
However, there are problems. Recruitment and retention are already major issues in social services authorities. Vacancy rates are high. Around 69 per cent of local authorities have reported recruitment difficulties in certain disciplines and 49 per cent have reported problems in retention. The occupations with the highest retention difficulties are children’s social workers and home care workers. Today, we have heard some of the reasons why those areas are the hardest hit. In 2005, 20 per cent of the social care workforce in London consisted of agency workers. That shows the particular problems faced by the capital.
Keeping pay settlements low may be a necessary objective in some circumstances, but councils, like businesses, need to be free to adapt to the situation in their area, and, as the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, pointed out, there is a market. But it is an area in which we need to exercise some care. Four-fifths of the social care workforce are women. Many of them are care workers on comparatively low wages, especially in the private sector. Driving down wage costs could not only adversely affect recruitment but damage women disproportionately.
As councils are forced to withdraw care from those with low and moderate needs, the social care workers end up making the assessments which they know will result in hardship for their clients. Dedicated professionals in social care who have entered the field motivated by a desire for public service are being forced to ration care packages or deal with a caseload which they know prevents them giving individuals the sort of attention they deserve. The whole thrust of the profession now is to empower service users, but that is becoming more and more difficult as the cuts bite. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, is right: this is not a new issue, but it is getting worse and morale is suffering.
Council cutbacks can have an indirect effect on social care—for example, where savings are made in administration, training or legal services. The most commonly used measures to tackle the shortage of social workers include training up social work assistants, improving IT and providing training to support staff in other areas, but these are the areas of spending which tend to be cut first because they are not seen as front-line. I know of areas where, for example, case papers have not been properly prepared by hard-pressed legal departments in local authorities due to time pressures. In an increasingly litigious world, it is highly dangerous if cases are not decided on their merits but are somehow lost by default due to administrative problems.
This is the time for the Government to make a serious choice about matching their genuine vision for social care with the means available to fund it. The current practice of pushing the burden on to council tax payers cannot go on. The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, is right to say that this is now urgent.
I recognise that the noble Lord can say very little today about local government finance and its complexities, but I hope that he might reassure us that perhaps through the mechanism of the Lyons review, the Government will look again not just at the way in which local authorities are funded but the relationship between health, local government and social care.
My noble friend Lady Barker got it absolutely right when she said that the heart of the matter was to consider the sort of social services we want and how they should be paid for. We all share a vision of improved public services offering a better quality of life, working along with the voluntary sector. We would all like to help to achieve that. We need a mature debate, shorn of the sort of ritual of buck-passing and blame, to find a way forward.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on initiating this very important debate. The noble Earl is obviously very passionate about the delivery of services to children and young people. His facts and statistics reveal the great difficulties facing local authorities and providers. All noble Lords, with their expertise and knowledge, have posed many questions to the Government. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
In another place, my colleague Tim Loughton has set up a commission to look into the role, status and future of social workers. The Conservative Party is very keen to see the sector examined and developed properly. We are delighted to note that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, have agreed to be patrons of that commission, and that my noble friend Lady Morris of Bolton is a member of it.
I declare an interest as a health provider. My remarks will be based on my experience in the sector. As a provider, I know the difficulties of an untrained workforce or one that has training that is sometimes inappropriate or does not meet the needs of service users and their families. We need to look at health and social care as two sides of the same coin. We cannot separate them off. While billions of pounds have been spent on the NHS, the social services sector has had insignificant responses to the pressures put on it. We know that the NHS can show tangible results, but in long-term care, such as care for children, we do not see tangible results. Support, care and long-term commitment must be given to people who are dependent on care staff and social workers.
As a provider I have had difficulties with the qualifications of care staff who have poor literacy skills or whose first language is not English. Care out in the community is changing and more and more nursing care is being imposed on care staff. Social workers are given a huge workload. Although I congratulate the Government on their White Paper Our Health, Our Care, Our Say and the Green Paper Every Child Matters, there has to be greater consultation on the sort of support that the Government can offer in developing the training programmes that are offered to social workers and care staff.
I was speaking to our local provider from Age Concern, who agreed that there are great deficiencies in NVQ provision for care staff. I know the difficulties that Age Concern in Leicester has had in trying to roll out the programme with consistency. The retention of people to train care staff to gain NVQs has been very poor. Unless we value the work that care staff and social workers do, the turnover in this sector will always be incredibly high. I am a great believer in training, but it has to be appropriate training. I am pleased to say that Leicester City Council and Age Concern will be piloting a scheme that will look at appropriate training for care staff. They will work more closely with social services and social workers to ensure that there is a match between care provision and what service users require.
I could give several examples of inadequacies in care provision today, but it would mean going round the same issues instead of having a forward look. I would rather work with noble Lords to see how we can improve training and the value put on care staff and social workers. In practices in Leicester we find that we lose staff because the local supermarkets offer more pay, less responsibility and much better flexibility in working times. Care is difficult. A service is expected 365 days a year. There is poor provision in respite help for service-user families, so informal carers end up needing care.
I had a deep conversation with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, about children in care and the fact that they want continuity. They want somebody who they know will be there when all else is lost. When nobody else is there for them, they want to know that that one person will see them through the system; who will be a friend and advise them when they have highs and lows; and who will give advice on education and future employment.
The subject is huge. We can top it up with lots of facts, figures and statistics, but it boils down to the fact that we are dealing with human beings who are vulnerable and less able to reach out. They are often the quietest, so they do not make a noise when they do not know how to access the services that they duly and rightly should have. It becomes a vicious circle. We have to be the voices, often not just for the service users but for their families to show them where to access help as they themselves are so poorly informed.
As my noble friend Lady Shephard said, there has to be greater joined-up thinking and management, and a greater exchange of training. Local social services have in-house training, but private providers have to find funding and search for training. If they do not find funding, it becomes another cost implication in a sector that is poorly paid. I do not believe that throwing extra money around is always the answer, but appropriate training and negotiations with partners in the health and social services sectors can resolve some of the problems.
Before the debate, I spoke to a number of children in the care sector and from families with needs due to drug or alcohol abuse in the home setting. We developed a sort of thinking, which may sum up some of the difficulties which cannot be topped up with statistics or numbers. A child said:
“I know I’m from a deprived and disadvantaged background. I do not need to be reminded of it. I know that I want to be valued. I want to be given opportunities. I want to make a positive contribution, but I want to be shown how to make that contribution. I want to be shown how to be proud of myself”.
The elderly sometimes feel embarrassed to seek extra help. Children do not know how to seek help. Care staff most often come into the profession because they care about people and want to do their best, but must be resourced to do so with the proper training and respect given to the service they provide. Care staff and social workers do a phenomenal amount for this country, and we do not offer them the status and respect they so rightly deserve. I hope that the Government will work towards ensuring that those groups are offered that status and respect.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on his initiative in securing the debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Low, I welcome debates on social care and hope that we will in future have opportunities to debate some of the many important issues discussed today. The debate has illustrated the inter-relationship between social care and many other desirable objectives of health and social policy. I am sure that we will return to this subject.
I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, when she says that we must ensure that people using services and their carers benefit from a highly skilled workforce. We want them to be valued. We know that people in this sector have all too often been pilloried in the media when things go wrong, but they do not get much praise. This House can praise the many thousands of staff who work hard and effectively, be it on a statutory, non-statutory or voluntary basis, or individual carers, including—I agree with the right reverend Prelate—faith-based services. I also noted the comments of my noble friend Lady Blood regarding the challenges for organisations such as Barnardo’s in dealing with statutory services. I understand what she said about stable funding and transparent tendering processes and assure her that the Government wish to see that. I understand the frustrations of voluntary organisations that cannot get secure funding over longer periods and would encourage statutory organisations to understand what it is like to run voluntary organisations if you do not have that secure funding.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly mentioned the events at Sutton and Merton primary care trust. As we praise, we must also acknowledge that the findings of that investigation were both shocking and saddening. What was happening there was completely unacceptable and action clearly needs to be taken. However, we must set that alongside the tremendous good work that occurs in the sector.
The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked whether taking children into care is always appropriate. Looking at the outcomes of looked-after children, it is an understandable question. We have debated this matter for a number of years. The outcome for many looked-after children is very poor indeed and the question is therefore valid. The noble Lady and the noble Baroness were right to pinpoint the need for better training and support. We must look at alternatives. I suspect that taking children into care must always be an option, and we should recognise that social workers’ decisions in doing so are difficult. They identify to us how much pressure social care staff come under, working in some of the most difficult circumstances with hard-pressed teams. As noble Lords have mentioned, the workforce experiences high levels of vacancies—persistently around 10 per cent in England—and staff turnover. The level of relevant qualifications is far too low, with around 30 per cent of the workforce having a social care qualification at NVQ level 2 or better.
I accept that noble Lords have been generous in identifying the improvements and some of the encouraging signs we can see. The rise in the number of those training to be social workers—by a quarter since 2000-01—has been notable. The first cohort of students on the new degree, qualifying in 2006, has great potential for the future. We must build on that. The General Social Care Council, Skills for Care, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and the Social Care Institute for Excellence are essential foundations on which to build much greater confidence in the social care workforce.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley for her outstanding work. She is right to suggest that continuing the recruitment campaigns is important. They have been successful and we will continue with them. My understanding is that there will be another burst of campaign activity starting in March this year; not just TV and media advertising, but a lot of work with local employers. I am glad that my old department, Jobcentre Plus, is strongly involved in that.
Noble Lords have mentioned that we have put more resources into training. The GSCC has opened the register for social workers, for protection of title and so on. I understand why my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley asks for the extension of registration to other workers in social care. We are giving that due consideration.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rightly drew attention to the particular vulnerability of young people and the fact that many of the care workers they deal with change, reflecting vacancy and turnover rates over the past few years. In the social care workforce employed by local councils, vacancies are around 10 per cent; that is uncomfortably high, although it is a reduction from 11.5 per cent in 2001. The rates are higher for social workers at 11 per cent, and higher still for some other staff, such as occupational therapists at 14 per cent. Residential child workers are a long-term problem with vacancies at 15 per cent. That is a major challenge, not just for statutory providers.
As the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker and Lady Greengross, suggested, however, government, whether national or local, does not employ the majority of social care staff. About a third are employed by local councils, but the majority are in the private and voluntary sector, from which councils commission services. Care homes are private businesses. Owners must take their own decisions about their business in the framework of standards applying to the sector. In considering the issues of vacancies, turnover and pay, one must bear in mind that we are now talking about a more diverse sector than has traditionally been the case.
I was interested in the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, on some of the challenges facing providers. I have some sympathy with what she said. I was also interested in her views about the changing requirements on care home staff and her desire to make sure that the training programme available is meeting their developing needs. The Leicester pilot sounds very interesting, and I would be interested in hearing further about it.
The issue of pay is clearly important. The noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, particularly drew attention to it. There is a perception that recruitment and retention issues are linked to pay and rewards. I am not going to stand here and say that pay is not a factor; of course, it is. It is not the only factor because there are many wonderful people who are extremely motivated to work in the social care sector. In addition to pay, many employers have been able to tackle recruitment and retention problems by offering good support and good training programmes so that people feel supported when they work in particular parts of the sector. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley mentioned the importance of good management in this area. I agree with her.
I was interested in the proposals of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, and I will arrange for officials in my department to have a further look at them. They sounded very interesting.
I cannot avoid talking about money. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Barker, Lady Shephard and Lady Scott, particularly focused on issues to do with resources. Resources are clearly a challenge. Noble Lords would expect me to remind them that there has been an increase in resources. I also acknowledge the improvements in efficiency that local authorities have made, which have increased resources for them to use and enabled them to increase the range of services they offer. However, it is a challenge for local authorities to balance priorities. I fully understand the inter-relationship between health and social care and that the actions taken in one sector can have a knock-on effect in another. All these matters have to be taken into account. I read with a great deal of interest the Local Government Association report Without a Care?. It identifies some of those issues from the point of view of local government. About as much as I can say about that is that we are working with the LGA and others, including Sir Derek Wanless and the Association of Directors of Social Services, to understand financial needs for the next spending review.
My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley and the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, also mentioned the report from the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which was also very interesting. It is not all doom and gloom. It clearly identified some areas of concern, but it stated that for the fourth successive year the number of providers meeting national minimum standards had increased and that there was a welcome improvement in performance. However, it also mentioned the pressures on the commissioners and providers of services. In view of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about commissioning, the report stated that too many local authorities are still commissioning the same traditional services and that local authorities need to move towards commissioning that supports the independence and choice of service providers. It stated that local authorities need to involve other stakeholders and focus on commissioning for good quality outcomes. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that while I do not think I can comment on Orchard Lodge, I think that diversity of provision is a good idea and can bring greater innovation into the provision of services, but it depends on effective commissioning. My experience with the health service is that effective commissioning is difficult. There is no doubt in my mind that to make it work we must do everything we can to help enhance the skills of commissioners so that we get the advantage of commissioning, and not some of the downsides mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
In a sense, that brings us to the core of today’s debate, which is about the workforce, how it can be supported and its training. I do not share the doubts of the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, about the quality of the writing of the report, but perhaps I have read too many government White Papers to be able to make an independent assessment of its quality. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was right to say that it represents an excellent opportunity to set out a strategy in the long term for the entire social care workforce. It has a clear vision, sets out priority areas for improvement and draws on experience of what works, so I believe that it is practically based, which is essential if we are to make the most of this opportunity. The Government are considering how to take it forward. It cannot be divorced from the overall funding available so it is part of the discussions in relation to the Comprehensive Spending Review process. I was interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Low, about the content of training. I shall certainly feed them into the consultation process and make sure that officials who are taking the work forward see a full copy of the debate.
It is clear that the role of government in relation to the social care sector and its workforce is different from its role in the health service. Although government can provide policy direction, legislate and set standards, because it is not the bulk employer of social care staff, it is necessary to make sure that what is being proposed is also owned by the many providers of social care services. I am very keen to make sure that that happens.
I was interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in relation to the children in care Green Paper. He was right to identify it as having a cross-government approach. In order to succeed, it clearly has to embrace many different government departments and local statutory and voluntary agencies. We see that as being at the heart of the Government’s programme to tackle poor outcomes and social exclusion for the most vulnerable groups in our society. I was interested in the noble Lord’s comments about the need for earlier action to help the parents of children. I very much agree with that. A lot of the Government’s programmes are designed to do that. I shall feed his views into the Green Paper process—it is a Green Paper, so we are ever open to ideas—and we would be very interested in further discussions with him on this area.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mentioned foster care. That is an important matter. The noble Lord will know that the Green Paper seeks to address recruitment and improve the capability of foster carers. We see national minimum allowances as important in getting rid of the inconsistency that has been apparent and which he mentioned. As the noble Lord knows, in care matters it introduces a tiered framework of qualifications for foster carers. He made a valid point on the question of allegations. I can assure him that we are working with fostering networks to improve support for carers who are subject to allegations. A key thing is to improve the support that carers get from local authorities. We fund an advice line for carers and we are producing materials for local recruitment campaigns. I can assure the noble Lord that we agree with him about the importance of foster carers.
I want to come back to an interesting comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Low, who referred to the experience of his wife and a possible changed perception of social care workers over the years. I was brought up in Oxford. My father was a social worker in Oxford at the time when Lucy Faithfull was the director of social services there; I think that she was children’s director before that. I do not pretend that there was then a golden age, when social workers were regarded as the most brilliant professionals around. Yet they were held in more respect then than they are today.
There is no question that, given the challenges that the whole social care sector faces, the one thing we can do to improve the condition of its workforce and services is to raise the image of the profession itself. The degree is a start and many other things need to be done. We are keen in Government to do what we can to support a programme and the Secretary of State, Patricia Hewitt, has asked Dame Denise Platt, chair of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, to report by the end of this month on a plan to improve the public image of social care.
To conclude, the people who work in the social care field are a hidden army in many ways; people who provide an essential backdrop to many other well-known services such as the NHS, the police, education and housing. They are well over a million people—a huge number, who provide essential support for some of the most vulnerable and needy people in our society. In concluding this debate, I echo the remarks of noble Lords in thanking those people for everything that they do. Our job is to make sure that the framework, conditions and foundation of how they work are as sound as possible. There is no question that the issues that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and other noble Lords have raised today on training and support are critical to that, so I very much hope that we can build on the progress that has already been made.
My Lords, I know I must be brief. I thank all of your Lordships who have taken part in this debate. I particularly thank my Cross-Bench colleagues for their strong support. The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, has been so helpful with her vast experience and responsibilities in this area.
Now that I know that the Minister’s father was a social worker, it helps to explain why he has made such a difference to children in care with the legislation he has taken through this House in the past, which has introduced a right to independent advocacy and raised from 21 to 24 the age of protection for looked-after children leaving care. I understand now why he was so passionate about those matters.
I also want to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, for emphasising the need for stable relationships for children in care. It is not easy to measure the value of those things, but they must not be overlooked because of that. My noble friend Lord Ramsbotham drew attention to commissioning. We have talked about diversity of provision. I respect and acknowledge the importance of diversity in terms of competition and innovation but it adds complexity. If we acknowledge that we have not got the basics right, then the Government—whose instinct will be to increase diversity—need to think carefully about adding another degree of complexity at this time. The Minister had no time to reply to my specific concern about the newly-qualified social work status, but I am sure that we can discuss that further.
Again, I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate and absolutely join in acknowledging the huge contribution that all of those working in social care make in this country to the welfare of vulnerable children and adults. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
BBC: Licence Fee
My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place on the future funding of the BBC. The Statement is as follows:
“Over the past three years, the public, industry and Parliament have all had many opportunities to put forward views about the BBC’s future shape and funding, as has the BBC itself. I am now in a position to announce what the funding settlement will be over the first part of the new charter period.
“The settlement will be for six years, with annual increases in the licence fee of 3 per cent for the first two years and 2 per cent in years three, four and five of the settlement. There will be an increase in the sixth year (2012-13) of up to 2 per cent, depending on a further review nearer the time. I have written to the BBC Trust today setting this out.
“These are cash increases, so licence fee payers can have certainty on the price of a colour TV licence, which will rise from its current level of £131.50 to £135.50 from 1 April this year, reaching £151.50 in 2012. Based on the Treasury forecast of the consumer price index—the Bank of England’s inflation measure—this will be either above or in line with inflation for each year of the settlement. It will enable the BBC to deliver its new public purposes set out in the new charter, and as digital technology transforms the media world, it will enable the BBC to take a leading role in making the most of it. Investment in high-quality content—the driver of creative industry and what audiences value most of all—will remain high. This settlement will enable the BBC to do all that.
“It will also allow the BBC to move key departments, including children’s, sport, new media and learning, to Salford, in the north-west of England. I welcome the trust’s confirmation, due later today, that this important project will happen. This is a vital opportunity for the BBC to widen its geographical spread, making better use of the creativity and talent that exists across the UK and bringing huge benefits for the regional economy, estimated at £1.5 billion and 15,500 jobs. This will allow the BBC to maintain all of its current services and, depending on the level of efficiency it achieves, will provide up to £1.2 billion for investment in new activities.
“The people of the United Kingdom spend more money on the BBC than any country in the world spends on public service broadcasting, except Germany. The new BBC Trust must ensure that licence-fee payers get the best possible value for that investment, so we will expect the trust to ensure the efficiency of the BBC.
“Based on independent evidence from our consultants PKF and others, we believe that the BBC can realise up to 3 per cent cash-releasing savings annually from 2008. A separate report by the National Audit Office, published today, confirms that our judgment is based on adequate evidence. It will be the trust’s responsibility to set specific targets and hold the BBC management responsible for meeting them.
“The BBC has been given a leading role in digital switchover for the delivery of this broadcasting revolution. In particular, the licence-fee settlement will fund the £600 million scheme we are putting in place to help the elderly and disabled people make the switch. The Government’s expectation is that the BBC will lead the delivery of the scheme. We respect the independent status of the trust and there are clearly details of the scheme still to be discussed.
“The BBC will also pay for the £200 million public communications campaign being run by Digital UK to ensure that people are properly prepared and informed about switchover. These sums will be ring-fenced within the settlement and will not impact on the BBC’s core budgets and services.
“We are giving the BBC a 12.5 per cent increase in its borrowing capacity to help deliver this commitment. We will ensure the BBC's services are protected from any cost increases in the help scheme, above our existing estimates.
“In last year's White Paper on the BBC, we also noted that Channel 4 was likely to face major financial challenges in the future. Ofcom is currently assessing the potential scale of this. We said we would consider potential forms of help, including asking the BBC to help towards meeting its capital switchover costs, and possible access for Channel 4 to some of the BBC's digital TV capacity. Ofcom's review of Channel 4 is looking in detail at its financial prospects and is expected to report towards the summer. I am therefore keeping open, within the licence fee settlement, the possibility that we may require the BBC to contribute to the first six years of Channel 4's switchover costs. This will be no more than £14 million in total.
“I also welcome the BBC's conclusion that, in principle, it can make available some spare digital terrestrial capacity—amounting to a TV slot in England and three radio slots—at switchover. Under the BBC agreement, I can direct the BBC to make capacity available to another public service broadcaster where it is in the interests of public service broadcasting in the UK. I shall decide whether and how to use that power in the light of Ofcom's review.
“The settlement I have set out for the BBC provides stability and certainty over the next crucial period of digital switchover. The sixth year will, in effect, also form the first year of the following settlement. This will allow us to undertake a further review of the licence fee level in the run-up to the mid-charter point, taking account of the wider review of public service broadcasting, consistent with our commitment in the White Paper.
“A strong, independent BBC, accountable to the licence payer, valued by the public and providing the highest public value, has been our fundamental goal throughout this long process. It is now complete and the BBC, along with all the other broadcasters, can now plan and prepare for digital switchover, the next great revolution in television, ensuring that the most vulnerable are protected and the fundamental principle of universal access to public service broadcasting is secured. I commend this settlement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier today by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It is regrettable that, yet again, an important announcement such as this has been so comprehensively leaked. It shows a disgraceful lack of respect for Parliament when business is conducted in this way.
The BBC is a national institution, but to be given a guaranteed income for so long a period is a luxury for which anyone else in the media industry would be extremely grateful. It would enable them to adjust their costs according to their income. Let us hope the BBC will do that. Let us also hope that, in the absence of the discipline of market forces, the National Audit Office will be allowed to give the BBC the thorough examination which spending more than £3 billion a year of public money merits and ensure that the 3 per cent annual savings identified by PKF are implemented.
Included in the Statement is a sum of £600 million to assist the elderly and disabled to switch to digital television. Has the BBC Trust agreed to take on the role of delivering this assistance? Will the £600 million be sufficient, or does the comment contained in the Statement—that,
“We will ensure the BBC’s services are protected from any cost increases in the help scheme, above our working estimates”—
mean that there is already concern that the costs will go far above the initial estimates, as with so many other projects undertaken by the Government? These costs would then be paid for by the increased BBC borrowings, which must ultimately be paid for by the public.
It is stated that the move to Salford will create 15,500 jobs. How many jobs will be lost at the same time?
Will the Minister ensure that it is made clear on TV licences how much of the cost relates to the cost of the digital switchover? When we receive our council tax bills it states how much is allocated to various bodies—parish councils, the police and so on. A similar statement on TV licences would enable the public to know when they have finished paying for the digital switchover.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I declare an interest in that I used to work for the BBC and am presently an associate at an independent production company.
For more than 80 years the BBC has been the envy of the world. It has a reputation for setting the gold standard for TV and radio. Does the Minister acknowledge that the extra burdens the Government have placed on the licence fee this time mean that this below-inflation increase will put at risk that reputation, and that it will be a huge disappointment to many people? Does he accept that a survey commissioned by the Government showed that the vast majority of licence fee payers are willing to pay more in real terms for improved quality? Last year, Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, said at the end of two years of public debate which was much heralded by the Government that the BBC must be given the finances to deliver the mission that emerged out of that consultation. He referred to,
“this piece of settled public policy”.
Why are the Government setting their face against the views of the majority in this country?
The BBC is being asked to run far more than its existing services and to shoulder costs that should be borne out of general taxation. Can the Minister explain why the licence fee is being used to pay for the Government’s policy of switching to digital and for the social costs of helping the vulnerable and elderly involved in the switch? How do the Government come to the view that a targeted assistance programme is a broadcasting cost? It is not a broadcasting cost but a social cost, and it is not appropriate for the licence fee to be used to pay for a social cost. In effect, this is a new tax collected in the disguise of the licence fee. As the noble Lord, Lord Howard, said, what happens if it costs more than the £600 million which the Government predict? Will the Government fund the extra, or will the BBC have to make further cuts in its programme budgets?
The disagreements which have marked the process of this licence fee settlement—apparently both within government and between government and corporation—and the damagingly late date on which the settlement has been reached underline the flawed nature of the system for agreeing the settlement. Why is the process not more transparent? Why do negotiations take place behind closed doors at White City and Whitehall? The BBC should publish its revised figures, and in future the setting of the licence fee should be open to proper scrutiny involving greater parliamentary oversight.
Bearing in mind the obvious conflict of interest, will the Minister assure the House that the Government have not been influenced in any way by lobbying from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in determining the settlement? The one person who we know will be cheering the Statement is Rupert Murdoch.
We on these Benches wholeheartedly support the move to Greater Manchester. However, it is another obligation that needs to be paid for and that the Government have placed on the BBC. Over the six-year period of the settlement, the BBC will have approximately £2 billion less than it said it needed to deliver the Government's White Paper vision. Is it not the case that under the settlement the bulk of the licence fee increases will not be spent on things that the viewers and listeners rightly want—fewer repeats, more landmark programmes and high-quality information, education and entertainment, which the BBC is mandated to supply and, given the opportunity, does so well—but be swallowed up by funding, in one way or another, the digital switchover and a move to Salford Quays. This is a black-and-white TV settlement for a digital TV age.
My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords who have spoken. I particularly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Howard, to his first significant contribution in the brief that he has taken on. I look forward to establishing a constructive relationship with him. He would do well to follow the fine example of his predecessor, the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, who graced these debates on many occasions.
The noble Lord, Lord Howard, asked me a number of specific questions. The final details on the switchover costs need to be worked through with the BBC and with the trust. That is one of the more challenging and difficult areas for the BBC. In speaking to that, perhaps I may also answer the allied question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, about why that is thought of as a broadcasting cost. The answer is that it is about broadcasting. It affects those who receive television signals. It does not affect and is not the responsibility of the general taxpayer. Not everyone in the country has a television licence. This is about enhancing the digital revolution and the extra provision that it will bring to all licence holders. It is therefore entirely appropriate that we define this as a broadcasting cost.
It is also appropriate to look to Britain's premier broadcasting organisation to give effect to a principle to which we all subscribe; namely that there should be universal access to the public sector broadcaster. That is why we are concerned that there is sufficient support for the elderly, the disabled and those who are less well off, so that they are able to engage in the digital switchover and benefit from it on the same basis as the rest of us in the United Kingdom.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, indicated that the move to Manchester is an additional cost, as indeed it is. She said that these things should be more open. The BBC made clear in its bid what it thought the cost of moving to Manchester would be. That has been taken into account in the settlement. The whole House will have derived enormous reassurance from the fact that the director-general of the BBC, on the one o'clock programme today, said that he had been in favour of the move to Manchester all along. It will bring all the benefits outlined in the Statement: broadening the regional remit of the BBC; encouraging the development of talent other than that close to the south-east and London; and generally bringing significant benefits to the north and north-west of England.
I understand that the Liberal spokespersons in this House and in the other place think that the Government should have rolled over and given the BBC everything that it asked for because, by definition, it is a wholly benign organisation. It is a highly respected organisation and the Government give way to no one in their admiration of the work of the BBC. We all recognise the premier role that it will continue to play in British broadcasting. However, licence fee increases have always been a bargaining process. The BBC has a right to identify what it would like to do in a world in which it has as many resources as it feels it can obtain from the Government’s decision on the licence fee. That is perfectly natural. How could creative journalists not think that they could use more money than the amount that they are likely to get?
By the same token, the Government have a responsibility to the rest of the community. They have a responsibility to other broadcasters. The noble Baroness summed up all other broadcasters as the Murdoch News Corporation, but there are other broadcasters besides the Murdoch concerns. They, too, have an interest in the costs of television, to which the BBC is bound to make a contribution on prices. They have an interest in the amount of resources available to the BBC because they are inevitably in a competitive position. The Government have to take that into account. Last but not least, the licence is a set fee for all licence fee payers. The Government certainly have an obligation to licence fee payers.
My Lords, in the Statement the Minister said that the United Kingdom spends more public money on public service broadcasting than any other country in the world except Germany. It is fair to add that the BBC also provides the best public service broadcasting in the world, including Germany. I agree with what the Minister said—that there should be no automatic link between the RPI and the licence fee. Surely that does not mean that the Treasury can simply load costs on to the licence fee which are entirely inappropriate.
I listened to what the Minister said, but I still do not understand how it can be right for licence fee payers to cover the £600 million cost of helping the elderly and the vulnerable with digital switchover when the cost of free licences for the elderly and the vulnerable come out of general taxation. The Minister has to defend that distinction somehow. Is there not an overwhelming case for allowing Parliament—he has already heard the criticisms—to challenge and to change a licence fee settlement such as this one, rather than being confined simply to accepting or rejecting the eventual order that will be placed before us? Is there not a very strong case for Parliament to become part of the bargaining process of which he has spoken?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, and I recognise the role that he plays in this House in chairing the broadcasting committee. He asked me why the costs of the enhancement of television through the digital revolution should be borne by licence fee payers. The answer is: because that is what it is—an enhancement of the opportunities which digital brings. It is a broadcasting concept. As for whether people should have access to television at all and why the television fee is dealt with for certain groups, it is a matter of being part of our citizenry and enjoying the same benefits as the rest of the nation. The noble Lord is not prepared to accept that distinction. On previous occasions I have heard him indicate that he does not accept that argument. That is the Government’s case and we will sustain it. The rest of the nation will recognise that taxpayers should sustain what is a broadcasting development. The Government will defend their position accordingly.
I also hear what the noble Lord says about the parliamentary contribution. In the course of these great debates on the licence fee, the development of the BBC, the governance of the BBC and all the aspects of that, I have not noticed that this House is particularly reticent about expressing its views on those matters. Nor has the noble Lord sat quietly in a corner while these debates have taken place. In fact, he has taken a lead in the exercise, to the great benefit of all who have to form a judgment on such matters. So of course Parliament has its role, both this House and also the Commons.
When it comes to the actual fixing of the licence fee, can we not conceive of a situation where locked into the room would be an eminently sensible member of the Government? There is the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, with his great interest in these matters and his very clear scrutiny of them; some of his colleagues, who are hostile to the concept of the licence fee altogether; and then the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, who thinks the BBC should get all it wants. The situation is far too complex to be resolved by public debate alone. The Government have to reach a decision.
My Lords, I wonder whether other Members of your Lordships’ House noticed the short phrase that the noble Lord seemed to add to the text which we were given outside the Chamber. Was the phrase stating that a strong, independent BBC should be,
“accountable to the licence payer”
the noble Lord’s own addition or was it the addition of the Secretary of State in the other place? I wonder whether he could spell out what exactly it means. To exactly whom is the BBC accountable, and through whom is the BBC accountable to the licence payer if it is not through Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has just said? Is it not right that if we are to accept that concept of accountability, then Parliament should have a wider role in the eventual settlement, rather than being faced by a fait accompli such as the one this afternoon?
I wonder whether the noble Lord would like to say something more about the representations made by Mr Rupert Murdoch and his media empire, particularly on the question of the criteria for capability transfers to other public service broadcasters. As my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter said, and it must be clear to all in your Lordships’ House, Mr Murdoch has every interest in anything that weakens the BBC. That is his commercial interest and surely the Government must recognise that.
Finally, is the Minister confident that this settlement will enable the BBC to deliver precisely the improved and enhanced service of the parliament channel called for by the commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on which I was very pleased and proud to serve? If this House and the other place are to communicate more effectively with the public, very important investment has to be made in those services. Can the Minister assure us that this settlement will secure that?
My Lords, on the latter point, that is a decision for the BBC. That is the whole point of the independence of the BBC; neither Parliament nor Government dictates to it on the question of programming content. But of course the BBC is mindful of these representations from parliamentarians and is well aware of its obligations. The noble Lord has added his voice to that.
I have nothing to add on the Murdoch position. Of course Murdoch’s enterprises are an important player in the media in this country and they enjoy a situation where they prove to be more competitive than the BBC. This has been shown in the great struggle over the broadcasting of major sporting events and a highly competitive bidding process in recent times. I return to the point I made earlier. Murdoch’s enterprises are only one dimension of this. There are other aspects of independent television and other broadcasters. The BBC has an obligation to look at the picture in the round.
The noble Lord asked me whether I had added to the Statement. No, I did not. What I did add was what the Secretary of State added when she was on her feet. I would not be so rash as to offer any interpretation of my own on that front.
My Lords, the Minister is answering questions in his usual courteous and comforting way but I am not sure I heard him answer the question put by my noble friend about the loss of jobs in London as a result of the move to Salford. Fifteen-thousand gained in the north-west—how many lost in London?
My Lords, the BBC is presently evaluating its position on the workforce in London. The noble Lord will recognise that under the existing funding arrangements it is having to make some tough choices. The expansion of opportunities represented in Manchester will not obtain in London if the jobs and the activities are to be located there. So it is a transfer of responsibilities. But as the noble Lord will also recognise, the commitment of many broadcasters to the aspects of BBC television that are going to Manchester mean that many will go to Manchester to carry out their functions there.
My Lords, many of us welcome the acceptance of the move to Manchester. There was some doubt about whether it would happen. I would like to be reassured that the finances for the World Service, both television and radio, will be continued, and that there is proper agreement on that. I would also like to stress that the cost of switchover for the elderly and disabled will not be accepted by this House because it quite obviously should come out of general taxation. But perhaps the Minister can help me by saying what will happen about the broadcasting black spots around the country. When switchover takes place, who will be responsible for that, and is there a realistic estimate of just how expensive it will be to deal with? I would be grateful for answers.
My Lords, as the £600 million costs involved in the switchover are about seeking to create universal access to the public broadcaster, the noble Lady is right to say that there are areas where transmission signals are currently not effective. We will look to provide the best universal service that we can. That will mean some enhancement, and the costs built in to switchover take that into account. On the World Service, both this House and the other place constantly attest to the very great value the World Service provides not only to British listeners, who greatly enjoy the programmes, but as an independent truth-teller on world events. So many people rely on the BBC for their understanding of what is happening in the world, often in very troubled circumstances. The BBC is all too well aware of the extent to which the informed public put a very high value on the World Service.
My Lords, the Minister quite rightly referred to the premium role in broadcasting enjoyed by the BBC. I am sure that he will agree with me that that applies no less to the BBC’s output in Scotland—although that has been questioned recently following the 15 per cent cuts instituted over the past two to three years, which has led to job losses and, some would say, a diminution in some programme content and quality. Given that the licence fee increase which the Government have announced today falls some way short of what the BBC were seeking, albeit that that was no doubt embellished for purposes of negotiation by the BBC, will the Minister undertake to speak with the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, the BBC director-general and the new BBC Trust to ensure that this settlement is spread in such a way as to ensure that programme content and quality in Scotland is maintained at a level that ensures public service broadcasting in Scotland is at the highest possible level?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that representation. He has confirmed the BBC’s very important role in the range of services it provides across the United Kingdom. I know that there were expressions of doubt about the move to Manchester, but could there be a stronger commitment to the BBC’s regional role and the universality of it position, which also affects Scotland, than its determination to effect this move?
Perhaps I may offer a correction on one point. Unfortunately I slipped in my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. I wanted to emphasise that it would be very remiss of the BBC Trust if it did not take into account the general opinion about the World Service, but the World Service gets its resources from a Foreign Office grant and not from this settlement.
My Lords, I welcome the licence fee settlement that the Minister has announced this afternoon. I believe that it gives the BBC the income that it will require to carry out its services in the way it has done in the past, but does not impose unnecessary burdens on the licence fee payer, as I think the BBC was suggesting. I do not believe that the £600 million will not cover the costs of digital switchover. Arguably, the costs will be considerably less than that. Given the speed with which digital take-up is already taking place, by 2012 there may be few people left to give the service to. That is to be welcomed. However, my concern is that, in the rapidly changing technological world in which we live, where broadcasting is increasingly becoming what I suppose could be called “narrowcasting”—in other words, we watch programmes when, where and how we want to—the Government and the BBC must constantly review services, in particular looking at digital switchover, to ensure that the right technology is being used, so that in 2012 those few people are not left using a technology that is so out of date that it will be almost useless to them.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, who always exists at the cutting edge of technology and therefore helps to inform our deliberations. He is right: 70 per cent of British households have already switched to digital, so the costs may decrease as people voluntarily move over before the switchover date. Nevertheless, I think that the £600 million is a realistic estimate. We have also indicated that, if there are additional costs, we will look at that further. But I think that my noble friend has confirmed that today’s settlement is appropriate.
My Lords, disabled people, perhaps especially blind people, have a particular interest in the issues with which the Statement is concerned and in broadcasting generally. Indeed, I think that the Minister touched on this when he referred to disabled people being particularly dependent on the BBC for their access to news and information. That is certainly very true of blind people. I therefore congratulate the Minister and the Government on the content of the targeted help scheme. I do not wish to get into the question whether the targeted help scheme for elderly and disabled people should be funded out of the licence fee or out of general taxation. I am more concerned with the content of the scheme and the range of people for whom it will provide assistance. The Government have been very responsive to the representations that have been made by disabled people’s organisations and certainly by blind people’s organisations. They have come up with a package of which we are very appreciative and which takes account of the various needs that we have put to them.
That said, does the Minister agree that the BBC is a priceless asset? In fact, it is one of the few priceless assets that this country has left. It underpins the country’s cultural life in its widest sense through its acceptance of responsibilities that the market will not sustain. I was in general sympathetic to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, but I do not hold that the BBC should be feather-bedded; indeed, I am not sure that it was correct to impute that belief to the noble Baroness.
I invite the Minister to accept that the settlement that he has announced is very tight. In the new charter, which was agreed in advance of the licence fee settlement, many new obligations and responsibilities were laid on the BBC. The BBC is performing at the top of its game; it is already very efficient and cost-effective. In view of the additional responsibilities that have been laid on the BBC, a settlement of this order, which barely matches inflation, is likely to lead to some degradation of the service and make it difficult to keep up with technological developments. The Minister will perhaps understand why I am not the world’s leading expert on television technology—
My Lords, I am none the less assured that there is new technology in the form of higher-resolution digital transmission, which it will be important for the BBC to be able to develop if it is to keep its place at the cutting edge of broadcasting. It seems to me that the settlement that the Minister has announced will make it difficult for the BBC to do that.
My Lords, I ask the Minister to think back to the replies that he gave to my noble friend Lord Fowler and to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. As my noble friend Lord Hurd said, he did so in a very comfortable and comforting way, but is not what he said, properly paraphrased, “Man from Whitehall knows best”?
rose to call attention to the present franchising system for the railway industry; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, some of your Lordships may remember that a while ago in another life I carried a record in the other place—one might say that I had form—as an opponent of the legislation that was to lead to the creation of Railtrack and the train operating companies. As the Member representing the railway town of Eastleigh at the time, I considered that to be a privilege as much as a duty.
Just for a moment, let me recall the flotation of Railtrack. The launch brochure described it as a one-off chance to buy into Britain’s largest development opportunity, with prime location property assets in every city centre in the country. Formerly, we knew those property assets only as railway stations, which served—incidentally, as it seemed in the Railtrack brochure—our national rail network. But time has moved on, and the arguments for and against rail privatisation now gather dust as a matter of record. Railtrack has sunk into the muddy waters from whence it came and, sadly, the Eastleigh railway works, which once employed thousands and around which the town was built, have closed for good.
Before privatisation, the Department of Transport, as it was then, published a booklet entitled Problems with Franchising. The reservations expressed then still hold good today. For example, it said that franchises are difficult to specify, that franchisee behaviour is difficult and expensive to monitor, and that franchises encourage a short-term approach to investment and a tendency to profit-maximise. It is difficult to prevent what I call “end of franchise behaviour syndrome”. As a result, there is little incentive to invest in training or equipment as the franchise draws towards its end.
Rail franchises are costly to re-let in terms of time, money and human resources. They are even more costly when government objectives are not clear. In circumstances where the performance of the franchise holder is so unsatisfactory that there is no option but to re-let the franchise, it is the passengers who bear the brunt; where a franchise is being re-let in those circumstances, passengers invariably have to suffer long periods of very poor service.
It should be said at the outset that the situation was not of the present Government’s choosing. They were not the authors of the privatisation model adopted for our railways. They were bequeathed a failed and broken system by the Conservative Goverment, which has cost a vast sum of money to attempt to put in some sort of order—sums of money so great that the former managers of British Rail would have been embarrassed by such largesse.
Neither are the current Government proposing another structural reorganisation where train operating companies would take over the management of the track and signalling from Network Rail. The long-term maintenance of long-life engineering assets, such as railway track signalling equipment and the infrastructure that provides the permanent way, is not well adapted to the shorter time horizons of franchising.
However, despite having been bequeathed an unsatisfactory organisation by the Conservatives in the past, it still behoves the present Government to ensure that a franchising system delivers for the public now and for the future. It should be a system that delivers a network of services that have adequate rolling stock; sets fares that do not rise faster than inflation; provides car parks that are readily accessible, adequate and reasonably priced; sets high and rising standards of train punctuality and reliability; and is managed and operated in a manner that ensures that passengers invariably feel safe and secure.
The detailed specification of services should be left to train operating companies, provided they are quite clear that the prices they charge and the quality of services that they achieve are non-negotiable. They must be non-negotiable, as those standards should be a sine qua non of the system. Unless they are achieved, not only will the franchisee lose the franchise, but such failings would ensure that they did not obtain another one.
Unlike the ubiquitous standard phrase in more or less every investment brochure we have ever seen about “past performance being no guide to the future”, in the case of the railways past performance is a very strong guide to future performance. In fact, it is probably the very best guide there is. The Government's previous attempts to specify train services in detail are now widely accepted to have led to some serious failures, the most obvious being the debacle of GNER relinquishing the east coast main line franchise as it is unable to meet the financial conditions.
Another example is Great Western trains, which launched a major shake-up of its timetable after winning the Greater Western franchise and having to combine its services with those previously run by Wessex Trains. According to Transport 2000, FGW then proceeded to cut its number of carriages from 133 to 104—a cut of nearly one-quarter, a massive short-changing of passengers.
The Government’s cull of train services in the south-west, taking away some 2,000 rail seats a day in the greater Bristol area alone, has caused chaos on the region’s trains: chaos for commuters heading for work, turned away because there is no room on their train; chaos for staff unable to move through carriages to collect revenue and carry out their on-train duties; chaos and indeed risk to health for less robust passengers, with reports of people fainting on overcrowded trains.
Julia Thomas of Transport 2000 said last month:
“People are being crammed onto trains like sardines—it’s completely unacceptable. The timetable for the region and length of trains has been set by DFT rail ‘experts’ in London but it is clearly unworkable. First Great Western has their hands tied on this”.
South West Trains has adopted a series of options for tackling capacity shortfall, including reducing the number of seats and increasing standing area on trains serving inner suburban routes, treating them as high-capacity “Tube-style” journeys. In addition, reconfigured carriages on commuter peak services are expected to provide some 4,000 extra seats, albeit smaller and less comfortable airline-style seats.
According to the Disability Rights Commission, one of the effects of the Government’s policy has been both to drive up prices and cut the quality of service. Disabled people needing assistance are the most vulnerable to cuts in staffing levels. They already face particular problems travelling on overcrowded trains by being unable to stand for anything other than short periods. Wheelchair users are at risk of being unable to even board their train, because wheelchair spaces are too often filled with standing passengers. Access to rail transport is part of the full and independent participation in society for disabled people, a generally accepted core policy objective.
The Government carry the responsibility for improving access, and they have a 10-year investment plan in their strategy, “Railways for All”. But the Disability Rights Commission believes that at the current rate of investment it will take some 34 years simply to make accessible those stations that do not currently have step-free access. Surely here is an opportunity to build a duty to make access improvements into the franchise system. Franchise bids should set out access investment plans, which could and should be part of the assessment of the tenders.
The challenge for train operators has been to find extra capacity within the existing network. Every bidder has been required to put forward plans to increase capacity. The one rule that has had to be followed was not to base plans on major infrastructure investment; increased capacity had to be found from within the existing network. In many cases, there are no more peak pathways to be had, and running more trains is not an option. Most peak trains are already running at the maximum length permitted by station platforms. Opening carriage sliding doors selectively can help, but that adds to journey times as passengers slowly move through the trains to find exits from those carriages adjacent to the platform.
There is no doubt that increasing capacity is the biggest issue facing the rail industry. The present franchise system requires train operators to bid according to a contract, with future investment in infrastructure an issue for Network Rail and the Department for Transport. It is both unacceptable to passengers now—and, frankly, short-sighted folly for the future—to place the onus on travellers to be less demanding for the availability of seating and a reduction of overcrowding. Most people will reject the view expressed by the Department for Transport official quoted in the Evening Standard on 17 January, that commuters travelling in peak periods should either accept having to stand or travel at different times. The comment from the Evening Standard was that that was absurd, unrealistic and arrogant, which many people it interviewed agreed with.
In the United Kingdom, passenger journeys by rail represent merely some 6 per cent of all travel by all modes, yet we are already experiencing severe restrictions on capacity in the network for lengthening periods of the day. There is a growing view that, as a response to road traffic congestion and gridlock, together with selective punitive transport taxation to offset global warming, the demand for passenger rail travel could increase as much as five to ten-fold within a decade. It would be, to paraphrase the Evening Standard, absurd, unrealistic and arrogant to think that demand could be met by anything other than a major overhaul of our rail network infrastructure and the design and configuration of rolling stock.
Having said that, it must fall to the Government to offer operating franchises that set a series of non-negotiable standards, backed by an easily understandable series of quality measures. Within those standards fares would not rise and trains would run on time, with very few exceptions accepted. And “on time” would mean what it said, not allowing trains to arrive 10 or 15 minutes late and still be counted as “on time”.
The present taste of the Government for short-termism in what is a long-term engineering-based industry has to change. Aligning long-term perspectives with short franchises is impossible. The only solution, if franchising is to stay, is long-term franchises with long initial periods. There can be break points at which the terms can be renegotiated, but franchisees should be aware that they are in a long-term business—as, for example, is Chiltern Railways.
There should also be a rollover mechanism where the franchise would continue to roll forward, provided all the performance targets are exceeded. It should be clear for franchisees that good performance equals continuity in their business. It should be clear, however, that poor performance not only means termination of a franchise but also exiting from the whole franchising process, because past performance will, and must, be a major factor in determining continued access to the process. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. I have done so in the other place, and I thought he was as fluent in this House as he was there. There was only one item in his speech I would disagree with, and I will come to it in a moment. It is to do with commuters in the southern area of the United Kingdom.
I fear that my noble friend on the Front Bench will not be embarrassed in this debate by an overabundance of praise about the franchising of British Rail and its impact on railway journeys and passengers throughout the United Kingdom.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, rightly said that the most outstanding and successful franchise was Chiltern Railways. Those of us who have worked in the railway industry can say, without being disparaging, that it is an easier railway to work than some. The noble Lord put his finger on the reason behind the success of Chiltern Railways when he spoke about the length of the franchise. With a 20-year franchise, Chiltern Railways has been able to spend a considerable amount of money on improving the infrastructure of the railway on which it operates. Shortening the franchises in the way the Government have done has not been helpful for the future of railway travel in the United Kingdom.
I should have started my speech by referring to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests; it is not 100 per cent correct, as I said yesterday. I have retired from my position with the National Express Group, although I still hold a declarable shareholding in that company.
There was one aspect of the noble Lord’s speech with which I take issue. I know the difficulties behind this, but it is about time that Governments of any political hue started telling commuters in the south of England that there is no alternative to standing for short journeys in the morning and evening rush hour. The days when it was possible to add a few carriages behind a steam locomotive are long gone. The trains that are used almost exclusively in the south of England, whether diesel or electric-powered, are multiple units. They carry their own power generation or they receive power from the overhead electric lines. They are far too expensive to be left in a railway siding for 20 out of 24 hours or to run with not many people on board for the bulk of the working day.
For that reason, we have to tell commuters in the south of England that season ticket holders in particular are subsidised, by and large, by travellers on the railway system in the rest of the United Kingdom. They might not agree with that—many of them might not accept it—but it is a fact and should occasionally be put on the record. Perhaps it will be easier to put it on the record in your Lordships' House than it is down the Corridor, where it might be necessary to seek the approval of those same commuters at a future election. However, it needs to be said.
Will my noble friend explain the situation regarding the east coast main line from King’s Cross vis-à-vis the west coast main line from Euston? I put the two together because, coincidentally, at around the same time, the east coast main line is to be refranchised while Virgin wins back control of the west coast franchise after a period of running the west coast as a management contract. What is the difference between the two lines and the way in which they have been treated? My reasoning behind that question is this: under the headline,
“As GNER enters management contract, rival VT emerges from one”,
Railway Magazine points out that Virgin won the original 15-year franchise in 1997, but what the magazine calls,
“appalling project management under Railtrack, cost over-runs and the fact that £350m was wasted in an abortive bid to develop the signalling”,
led to Virgin being unable to fulfil its franchise obligations, so it is permissible for the franchise to be temporarily suspended.
Over on the east coast main line, the argument that GNER put forward 18 months or so after winning the franchise was that following an unexpected drop in revenue as a result of the July 2005 terror attacks, a steep rise in fuel and electricity costs and financial problems with its parent company Sea Containers, as well as the open access row that is still rumbling through our courts, GNER was unable to fulfil the terms of the original franchise and wished it to be renegotiated. That was refused. Why should those extraneous factors weigh so heavily in favour of Virgin Trains and be swept aside for GNER? I am not a regular traveller on GNER but on the few occasions I have used it, I have had great admiration for the quality of the service, and I would hate to see that quality of service diluted under the present circumstances. I travel regularly on Virgin and I cannot sing its praises quite as often as I would GNER’s—I put it no higher or lower than that.
It is bizarre, to say the least, that the Government’s decision means in effect that those of us who wish to travel to Glasgow, for example, by Virgin Trains will, under its new franchise, receive between £6 and £7 each in subsidy because of the payments made to Virgin, whereas those of us who travel to Glasgow on the Great North Eastern Railway will pay about the same amount to the Department for Transport because of the contract that supersedes the original franchise for GNER. I am no accountant—this may all make perfect sense and my noble friend may explain it in simple terms for a simpleton like me. However, I am struck by what I can only describe as the late Enoch Powell thing—perhaps this is all to do with money supply and, to use that terrible cliché of modern life, “what goes around comes around”. It seems a bizarre way to run a system to subsidise a trip to Glasgow by one line and penalise a trip to the same city by another. No doubt there is a simple explanation and I will be delighted to hear from my noble friend what it is.
It is also bizarre that on a day like today, with high winds, we should be debating franchises when there is virtually a blanket 50 mph speed restriction on much of our railway system. Although this is not, strictly speaking, a matter for this debate, I hope that my noble friend could persuade those in Network Rail responsible for the maintenance, care and upkeep of our overhead lines to take a trip to Switzerland to see how the Swiss manage to string wires up the sides of mountains; their wires do not blow down in anything other than a gentle summer breeze. There seems to be some structural problem in the United Kingdom that leads to these heavy speed restrictions on a day like today.
I hate to bore noble Lords with stories of my railway career, but I should like to digress for a moment. Fifty years or so ago, when I started in a railway signal box, the wind blew then, the signals were lit by oil lamps and the trains were drawn by steam locomotives, but I do not ever remember a 50 mph speed restriction because the wind was blowing.
My noble friend and I clashed—very mildly—recently about the award of the franchise to First Great Western. I asked, not unreasonably, I thought, why the train operating company with the worst punctuality record should beat the train operating company with the best—it happened to be the one I worked for, but no matter—in the new franchise bidding. I had nothing to do with the bid and my salary was in no way dependent on its success or otherwise. I was slapped down by my noble friend as a bad loser. I might be a bad loser, but he chose a particularly bad winner. I do not know anybody who travels on First Great Western who is particularly happy about the standard of service that they receive.
There was a letter in yesterday’s Times from the managing director of First Great Western, a lady called Alison Forster. She said that the company is due to return carriages to the train-leasing companies. When people are standing on each other’s heads, as we have already heard, it seems bizarre, to say the least, even to think of returning carriages to the train-leasing companies, but no doubt there is a simple explanation for that as well, which we will hear this afternoon. The letter continues,
“but we will not do so until local performance and seating capacity issues have been resolved … We are currently investing more than £200 million to improve our trains and stations. The refresh programme for our high-speed train fleet is well under way and this will provide a dramatically improved interior for customers as well as many extra seats”.
If I decided to put new seats and a stereo system in my motor car even though the wheels had fallen off you would think that my financial priorities were distorted, yet that seems to be the financial view of First Great Western—put some leather seats in first class, pack a considerable number of extra passengers into standard class, paint the carriages in bright colours and everyone will be happy. The fact that the trains are doing only 50 miles an hour—when they go anywhere at all—apparently does not worry the current management of First Great Western, although one of its regular passengers told me that 50 miles an hour would be a slight improvement on its day-to-day performance. Perhaps my noble friend was right in the first place to give the franchise to First Great Western and I was wrong.
Looking round the country at the franchise procedure, it gets more and more odd. The franchise with the best punctuality record—this causes me embarrassment but I will say it anyway—is Midland Mainline, operated by the National Express Group, by coincidence. Instead of praise for the new franchising agreement, Midland Mainline is to be virtually abolished. Bits will be festooned upon it like some strangely growing Christmas tree and it will be called the East Midlands franchise. One of the cities that it serves, and serves rather well, which is why it is at the top of the punctuality table, is Nottingham, but under the Government's present franchising proposals, the number of trains between Nottingham and London St Pancras will be reduced. What is the thinking behind that decision? Perhaps I am missing something obvious about government transport policy.
Gatwick Express is a similar story. Again, I am reminded of National Express, but are we seriously going to take away a dedicated service to the second London airport to cater for extra commuters from along the Brighton line and similar areas? Sir Richard Branson has already made it quite plain that, if we do so, he will ensure that passengers on his airline flying in for the London Olympics will be bussed from Gatwick Airport to the Olympic site. We surely must be alone in the whole world in proposing to withdraw a dedicated airport service, particularly one such as Midland Mainline, which pays a premium to the Government. By and large, the Treasury watches money that is spent, particularly within the railway industry, like a hawk, but it is apparently dedicated to abolishing the franchises that pay money to the Treasury and draping extra trains and responsibilities on those franchises that do not.
Finally, in the context of this debate on franchising, why is there never any specification for electrification when franchise applications are sent out? We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, how expensive it is to complete franchise applications. Up and down the country, thousands of hours of valuable management time are spent completing these extremely complex applications, yet there is never any mention of further electrification. Indeed, Mr Tom Harris, the Minister responsible for railways in the other place, promised some suggestions later this year about further electrification in the United Kingdom, but was not speaking too optimistically about the prospect. However, in the current edition of Modern Railways I noticed a paragraph headed:
“Scottish Executive rail proposals include electrification”
Scotsmen in Scotland are in favour of electrification, but Scotsmen holding ministerial posts in England are not. Perhaps only the Scots deserve electrification and I have missed something else, but I hope that my noble friend can provide—
My Lords, I will indeed apologise; I thought that I had 16 minutes instead of 14.
We are drifting towards some sort of easyJet railway where you pay in advance if you want a seat. That is not the right way forward and I hope that my noble friend will come up with some suggestions this afternoon that will alleviate the obvious inconvenience being caused to thousands of railway passengers in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, having sat through the bus debate yesterday and the franchise debate today, I know more about the career of the noble Lord, Lord Snape, than that of any other Member of the House other than my own. That could be quite intimidating because I am merely a user of the rail system, although I was in the freight industry, more on the road side, for 20 years. I remember that we used to try even then to get freight on to the rail system. I was based in the south-west and we used to ring up the local Freightliner depot. I remember my operational staff pleading with the railway to take our freight to where we wanted it to go. I am pleased to say that that part of the industry is now, if anything, suffering from too much demand rather than not enough.
I shall be brief and raise only two points. One is the area of competition. As we know, in the economy more broadly, competition between businesses usually raises the quality of products and customer service, and ensures that those that fail eventually disappear from the marketplace because they are not able to provide the quality of service that their customers—in this case passengers—require. One of the big problems of the franchising system is that there is an intense point of competition during the long and expensive process of franchise bidding, but once that happens you move from that snapshot to a period of regulation and trying to make sure that the right standards and quality of service are produced. As we have seen, the results of the franchising system so far have been very patchy.
Being down in the south-west, I do not wish to bore the House, as the noble Lord said before, by talking about First Great Western. However, I was aware of how the First Group effectively improved its services in the run-up to the franchise bid. It met local business and consumer groups and listened to make sure that it understood what was required. It did that very effectively indeed. I know that that was not how the decision was made; it was probably made completely on price. But, maybe through bad management or through changing timetables, once that process has been gone through, it is in the bag. Certainly, to us as the travelling public, it looks as if when they have the franchise they go back to doing the minimum of what they can do. It is as if they think, “We need to make sure that we maintain our margins, and never mind the service because we have—in this case—some 10 years of the franchise”. How can we, in this area, ensure that there is a continuing pressure of competition on franchise operators or, at least, effective control by the rail regulator or the Department for Transport to ensure that the service quality and delivery for passengers continues over that franchise period?
Coming back to my own modest career in transport, I managed a national road freight distribution business for a number of years. One of the more interesting things that I had to do and quite enjoyed was to negotiate a budget with the managers from the 25 depots from around the United Kingdom each year to ensure that they provided the right level of profit and so on. The first time when they came forward with their forecast for the next five years, they would say, “It will be really tough for the first two years and we will make losses—but look at the figures in years 3, 4 and 5”. I knew that if I accepted that, by the time year 2 came around and I went through the same negotiation, the forecasts for the next year would have gone low or into the red and the ones for the future would be high. It is called hockey stick management; you forecast pain and grief in the short-term to buy yourself some time and say that everything will be great in future.
With a view to speaking in this debate, I looked up rail franchises on the web and came to the Department for Transport site. There I came across a table that related to the payments and subsidies that would be given to the three last franchises that were put out at the end of 2005 and awarded in 2006. I think they were Greater Western, Integrated Kent and Thameslink. Strangely enough, when I added up what those businesses asked for in the first four years of the franchise and looked at what would be the situation in the last four years—surprise, surprise! In the first four years, we the taxpayer would have to give those three franchises £350 million—but the good news was that in the last four years of those franchises they were going to give us £1.4 billion. If I had been given that sort of strategic plan in a business situation, I would have laughed my head off and said “Go away and think about it again and come back to me in two weeks with a proper financial plan”. I know that this is not as simple as that. I know that the Government are proud—and rightly perhaps—for not renegotiating the franchise for Sea Containers and the east coast main line. But what is the temptation for those franchises when it comes to year six, seven, eight or nine, to say, “I’m sorry Minister, we got the sums wrong, thank you for the £350 million but now we would like someone else to take over the job”? How does the Minister see the situation?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on securing this debate about an industry in which I spent my working life. I shall not be able to match my noble friend Lord Snape in either his wit or the length of his speech.
The railway industry has had major successes over the past decade. There have been significant increases in the number of passengers and levels of freight traffic, and major investment in new rolling stock and the infrastructure. The railway industry cannot be as customer-unfriendly as some seek to suggest. Ten years ago there were question marks over the future size of the network, future levels of capital investment and financial support. Now, following major investment, steady and sustained economic growth and increasing congestion on our roads in the light of that growth, we find few who argue that the network should be cut back and frequency of services reduced. However, success brings its own problems.
There are capacity issues on some heavily used parts of the network, when measures that can be taken to increase capacity further, without considerable additional increases in the level of capital investment, are limited. I appreciate that when franchises come up for tendering or retendering, part of the specification may include a requirement to increase capacity. However, the decisions on what capacity increases to specify must be conditioned to a considerable degree by the further investment that can be provided rather than based on an assessment of meeting the actual increase in passenger usage that could be anticipated on routes that are already at or near capacity.
It is of course true that, nationally, a low level of journeys is made by rail compared with those made by the private car. However, it is precisely on those rail routes where there are already capacity issues that the percentage of journeys being made by rail compared with those made by the car is not low. Therefore, an argument that rail is not a major player on these specific transport corridors is not valid
In particular, there are significant capacity issues on a number of commuter routes in London and the south-east, on parts of the east coast main line and probably, in the not too distant future, on parts of the west coast main line. There is widespread acceptance that London's position as the major international financial and business capital will be at risk if quality public transport links are not available. Instead, festering capacity problems in key parts of the rail network in London and the south-east put continued achievement of that goal in jeopardy. The anticipated house-building programme in London and the south-east is also likely to generate increased demand for rail travel, including on those specific routes that are already facing capacity issues.
At some stage, if the economy continues to grow as we hope, decisions will have to be made on whether considerable further capital investment will be made available to meet the continuing increase in demand for travel on heavily used parts of our rail network. If we find that we cannot give those key, heavily used and economically significant routes that further increased priority in the competing demands for finite capital investment, we will have to accept that some of that projected demand will be choked off by fares policies and the adverse effects of capacity problems on the quality of service provided. There will be an economic and an environmental price to pay for this, which the Eddington transport study appears to state is likely to be greater than the cost of the investment required.
One can see the role that the rail franchising process can play in encouraging and requiring some further investment and improvements in the quality of rail services, but there are limits to what it can achieve in this area. A recent issue relating to the east coast main line franchise is a case in point. The successful tenderer for the renewal of the franchise was not able to increase the frequency of services from London to Leeds as provided for in its successful bid because of subsequent decisions by the Office of Rail Regulation in favour of open access operators, which used up the limited spare track capacity available at the southern end of the east coast main line. What happened in this instance also suggests that some unfortunate conflicts between different bodies involved exist in the franchising process, particularly where there are shortages of capacity.
Costs are of course important in the franchising process, although it is not always clear when one assesses bids how the balance is drawn between costs and service quality, quality of management, and track record in successfully running rail services, and how the final judgment is made on which tender should be accepted. Perhaps there should at least be a review of whether we have got right the current balance between commercial confidentiality and transparency in the franchising process.
One of the key areas of costs is Network Rail and its charges. Now that we have moved on from Railtrack and its approach, and instead have Network Rail, which took maintenance of the track that it owns and for which it is responsible back in-house, we have seen reductions in, and greater control over, costs. However, apart from knowing that Network Rail can undertake track maintenance rather more efficiently when it does it itself than when working through contractors, we do not really have any proper benchmark against which to assess Network Rail's performance.
Merseytravel has been pressing unsuccessfully to take on overall responsibility for the maintenance of the infrastructure of Merseyrail in addition to the operation of the services. While there are arguments both for and against such a move in respect of this small and largely self-contained piece of the railway network, going down that road would have given some sort of comparative benchmark against which to assess Network Rail.
Since this is not the approach that was adopted in this instance, will the Minister say anything in his response about whether it is considered that the current franchising system provides an effective benchmark for Network Rail’s costs and performance in addition to the benchmark that it can provide for the costs and performance of train operating companies? I appreciate that the Office of Rail Regulation is involved, but it, too, sees the effective benchmarking of Network Rail's costs and performance as an issue. Bearing in mind that the amount of money available for future capital investment to meet increasing demand in certain heavily used and economically crucial parts of the system is finite, the need to be able to test that we are getting value for money from Network Rail is crucial.
One of the points made in the recent Eddington transport study was the fundamental importance of technological progress if the link between economic success, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions was to be broken. That comment of course applied across transport as a whole, and the study made the point that since travel plays,
“a fundamental role in supporting economic success and people's quality of life, and as extensive personal mobility extends to most of the population, simply stopping growth in transport demand is not a realistic scenario”.
I am not clear on the extent to which the present franchising process is being or can be used to further technological progress in the rail industry to meet the greenhouse gas challenge and to maximise the performance of the current network, both operationally and on cost. Is the franchising process, for example, being used to encourage the development and use of cleaner fuels and to reduce consumption per mile? The railway industry cannot afford to rest on its laurels as far as its environmental advantages are concerned, because other modes are making progress in this area.
British Rail had a widely acclaimed railway technical centre, but one senses that over the past decade, with the fragmentation of the industry, that clear focus may have diminished. I hope that my noble friend will provide some reassurance on the priority given to technological innovation and development and indicate whether the franchising process is seen as an important lever for significant action and progress.
I am aware that government and industry are working together to create a technical strategy and that a White Paper setting out the long-term needs that the railways will have to meet is pending. I hope that if detailed answers cannot be given today, the points that have been raised will be addressed in the work that is being undertaken. Success can create problems and the railway industry has flourished under this Government. However, that success can be maintained and continued only if the problems that have now arisen, particularly over capacity in certain parts of the network, are addressed in a way that seeks to meet further anticipated demand, rather than stifle it at a potentially major economic cost to the nation.
My Lords, I hope that the House will forgive me if I use this opportunity to talk less about the franchises themselves, of which I am fairly ignorant, but rather about the railways, for which I have a passion. I agree with many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, which reflect many of the things that I shall say.
I have long believed that transport should be given a much higher priority in government thinking. It should be right up there with inflation, education and the health service. Yet, I am unaware of any coherent national transport policy—nothing that looks very far into the future, anyway. Of course, a number of short-term measures are being implemented and considered—congestion charges, motorway charges, all sorts of motoring charges, green taxes on aircraft and so on. On the railways, the policy seems to be to modernise and improve the existing network—cleaner trains, more punctual trains, more modern rolling stock and, of course, safer railways. That is all necessary and admirable, but it is nothing like enough.
Our transport system is facing potential gridlock. Every year, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said, there are more reports of greater and greater congestion at some time or in some parts of the country—congestion on the roads, congestion at the airports and overcrowding on trains. Already, there are stories of passengers having to stand on trains for over an hour, because all seats have been taken. My noble friend Lord Chidgey pointed that out.
If we are going to take the threats of global warming seriously, and we need to make drastic cuts in our carbon emissions, we should not be planning to expand the road network or build more airports or runways. We must surely be planning the expansion of the railway network. It is the only means of transport that is relatively and proportionately eco-friendly. Besides, in normal circumstances, it is the most pleasant and least stressful form of travel. Already more people are choosing to travel by train. This is good news, but I suspect that it is the result of greater frustration caused by other forms of transport. Surely, for environmental reasons, we should be actively encouraging people to travel by train, rather than by air, car or bus. The train is by far the most energy efficient of our power transport.
It seems that we are already planning for more trains, longer trains and more frequent trains to cater for some of the extra people we hope to price off the roads, but do we have the necessary capacity to accommodate these extra numbers, particularly the increasing numbers we expect to attract in the future? The answer is almost certainly no. It is transparent that the only possible solution to future transport problems is a vast investment in the railways. When I say that, I do not just mean more carriages on trains, longer platforms, or quieter stations made safer for single women at night, although these are all important short-term measures. I mean more railways—and that means new lines.
If Crossrail gets government approval it will be a start. In particular, we need to plan a new line that will provide a high-speed rail service from the north to the south of the country. I am talking about a new line; something that would make internal travel by flight unnecessary—maybe a line that links up with all the major British airports. The journey from London to Glasgow would have to become quicker by rail and be made at a cost at least comparable to that of the airlines. At present, Glasgow to Stansted by air is much cheaper and faster than Glasgow to London by rail. So many of us—me included—decide to take the plane instead of the train, which we would much prefer in other circumstances. I sometimes wonder whether the Government take the dangers of carbon emissions and global warming seriously or whether they just pay lip service to this problem.
A hugely more efficient train service, capable of taking twice as many passengers as today, must be in place in 10 or 15 years’ time. The Government must start planning for that now. Their present position appears to remain a cautious one. Officially they say that, because they do not know what the future will bring, they are not yet prepared to commit themselves to any major irreversible investment in the railways of the future. Surely this Government must show more courage and vision.
On a slightly different issue, related to the franchises, I find the Government’s present attitude towards our semi-privatised railway service rather curious, almost schizophrenic. Not so long ago the Labour Party, with the full support of the Liberal Democrats, was fighting to keep the railways within the public sector. At one time it even promised to renationalise the railways if it came to power. This no longer seems to be the Labour Party’s view. The Department for Transport now seems to rejoice in the current semi-privatised, semi-government-controlled system, constantly praising the train operators for investing in new rolling stock, while still having them there to blame for imposing the damaging fare increases that threaten to price people off the railways.
All sorts of wheeling and dealing seem to go on between the Department for Transport and the train operators, in which the major concern now—apart, of course, from safety—seems to be the Government’s acceptance that the operators must make a decent profit for their shareholders. There is nothing wrong with that as such, but surely the overriding concern of the Government—particularly a Labour Government—should be to see that the national railway network provides an essential service to the public, a service that benefits business, tourism, freight and any citizen who wants to travel from one part of the country to another. If rail fares are allowed to become any more expensive, rail travel will no longer be accessible to everyone. That would be a terrible indictment of a Labour Government.
I have one hope, which is that, through wheeling and dealing with the franchise-holders, the Department for Transport might be able to source the sort of money needed for the major investments necessary for the future of the railways. When I say the future of the railways, I mean also the future of Britain’s whole transport system.
My Lords, this is the second occasion on which I have had the good fortune to follow the noble Earl in a debate on railway policy. I remember saying in the previous debate that I agreed with every word the noble Earl had said; I can almost say the same of his speech today. The sentiments he expressed on behalf of the railway industry are certainly shared by a number of Members of this House. I should like to join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on his success in securing this debate today and giving us the opportunity to discuss railway franchising.
It is precisely one year and two days since I asked an Unstarred Question in your Lordships’ House on what the Government were doing to provide capacity to meet the increased demand for rail travel. Noble Lords will be relieved to know that I do not intend to repeat the speech that I made then, although many of the arguments that I and others who spoke in that debate put forward apply with equal or even greater force today. Increasing capacity to cope with the demand for rail travel has become an even greater priority, as a number of speakers have already said.
What has moved on is the debate on climate change, particularly since the publication of the Stern report. The case we made a year ago for promoting the use of the railways to combat CO2 emissions has been greatly strengthened and enjoys wider support than it did. Most people accept that the best thing that the railways can do for climate change is to carry more people. On the basis of passenger kilometres, the rail system already generates about 50 per cent less CO2 than cars and 75 per cent less than domestic air transport. In the case of Eurostar—a very special case—a full train uses one-tenth of the carbon emissions of a flight from London to Paris or Brussels.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a greater reduction in carbon intensity from the railways than from cars, and that trend is likely to continue. It results from trains carrying more passengers, combined with the benefits of things such as regenerative braking on electric trains and low emissions from the newest diesel engines. This improvement has been achieved, even though trains are heavier than they used to be, first, because they are predominantly air-conditioned; secondly, because they are stronger to protect from collision damage; and, thirdly, because new trains are fitted with retention tanks for train lavatories. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is not in her place, because the latter is a subject that she has brought to the attention of your Lordships on a number of occasions.
At the same time, the rail industry continues to improve its environmental performance through the extension of regenerative braking and initiatives such as the use of biofuels. Virgin, for example, claims that its Pendolino trains on the west coast main line return 17 per cent of the electricity that it needs back to the National Grid, which, in a press release that came out this week, Virgin says is,
“enough to provide power for a year to all the houses in a town the size of Motherwell”.
The other significant development over the past year, referred to by the noble Earl, was the report from Rod Eddington. I think it would be fair to say that reaction to the Eddington report has been mixed. The Association of Train Operating Companies put on a brave face and welcomed it because it confirmed the link between transport infrastructure and economic growth. Transport 2000 liked its support for road pricing but, like me, was deeply disappointed with much of the rest. First, the Eddington report said virtually nothing about creating new rail capacity by building new lines, particularly a north-south route from Scotland to the south of England, referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow. Secondly, it did not put forward a coherent plan to reduce the growth in demand for air travel, which in my view is an absolutely essential prerequisite if we are to be serious about climate change control; instead, it supported continued airport expansion in the south-east.
“Carry on flying regardless” is not a credible transport policy, and I hope we hear no more of that from Ministers or, indeed, from anyone else with influence in this area. The one area where there is a growing measure of support and consensus is on the subject of road pricing. I certainly commend the Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, for what he said about that and for pinning his colours so firmly to this mast. This is one of those issues where the Government have to be prepared to stand up to the motoring lobby.
I should mention one other significant political development over the past year—the change of policy on the part of the Conservative Party towards the railway system and its structure. It published a paper snappily entitled, Getting Around—Britain's Great Frustration. It contains this sentence:
“We think that an important part of the problem lies in the structure of the industry that exists today. We think, with hindsight, that the complete separation of track and train into separate businesses at the time of privatisation was not right for our railways”.
Words fail me. Those of us who were working in the industry at the time of privatisation—I should declare an interest as a former adviser to the British Railways Board for about 20 years—will remember that the creation of Railtrack was not some casual by-product of a plan for the railways as a whole. It was absolutely central to the Conservative Government’s thinking that because railway managers were so useless at controlling costs, there were huge savings to be made in railway infrastructure, such as cutting down on maintenance, regarding railway stations as shopping arcades—the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, referred to the fraudulent prospectus on which Railtrack was floated—and so on. That legacy bedevilled the industry for years and only began to be got right by the abolition of Railtrack and the creation of Network Rail.
Before Mr Grayling and his colleagues go too far down this track, I urge him to read the book, written by the late Gerald Fiennes in 1964, I Tried to Run a Railway. It contained the sentence:
“When you reorganise, you bleed”.
It is not helpful for there to be endless press speculation about radical change in the railway structure. It is destabilising for the people working in the industry because they have seen endless reorganisations over the past 25 years, and it bedevils management thinking and investment decisions at a time when the focus should be on delivering a service to passengers rather than on what the next restructuring might be.
Vertical integration could possibly work if we went back to a wholly publicly owned railway, operated by Network Rail, if you like—you might in those circumstances call it British Rail. But I do not think that that is what the Conservative Party is proposing. Maybe the noble Baroness will share her party’s thoughts with us.
Some local train operators could perhaps take responsibility for the tracks they run over. My noble friend Lord Rosser referred to the case that Merseytravel has been putting forward for what it calls full local decision-making for rail services in Liverpool and the surrounding area. How on earth could that work on routes that have many operators, such as the west coast main line or much of the network served by Central Trains? Where would that leave the freight operators?
One thing is certain: you cannot expect train operators to invest in their track, signalling and stations if the length of their franchise is as short as six or seven years. One of the lessons we have learnt from the franchising arrangements so far is that if we are to expect a real improvement in passenger facilities, such as new trains, new ticketing technology, more stations, station refurbishment, experiments on re-opened lines, and so on, the franchises must be longer than we have been used to up to now.
A further advantage of granting longer franchises is that it would encourage the TOCs to own rather than lease their rolling stock. That would be a way of tackling the problem of the excess profits now being made by the rolling stock leasing companies.
I understand that the Department for Transport reckons that the ROSCOs are making excess profits of £100 million a year. The Office of Rail Regulation puts the figure at £175 million—equivalent to, according to a Department for Transport spokesman quoted by the estimable Roger Ford in January's Modern Railways,
“an annual eight per cent increase on all season tickets”,
“around £2 billion over the lifetime of the train leases in question”.
There is a strong possibility that the ORR will refer the leasing of rolling stock for franchised passenger services to the Competition Commission for an investigation under Section 131 of the Enterprise Act 2002. If that goes ahead it will produce some very interesting answers. Rather less comfortable for the Government is the way in which the ORR is questioning the entire franchising structure, as this will throw up some difficult issues for them.
At the heart of this debate is the question of whether it matters more for the franchisees to be able to keep up their premium payments to the Government rather than provide the best possible improvements in passenger service. Over the 10 years of franchise services, the government and PTE grants to the TOCs have fallen by 39 per cent to £1.3 billion. The number of franchises paying a premium has increased from four to seven, while the number receiving a subsidy has fallen from 21 to 14. For the Government and the Treasury that is presumably good news. They are conscious that, despite the move towards premium payments by train operators, the railways as a whole are costing four times as much as they did under British Rail, so anything to get that cost down is worth while. If they can recover money from the TOCs—which effectively means the fare-paying passengers—the policy is working in those terms.
However, it is not as simple as that. We have already heard that some TOCs are in difficulty. The problems at GNER have been widely publicised. Those running First Great Western will have found their ears burning with some of the criticisms they have heard today and in the exchanges on the Question of my noble friend Lord Berkeley in the House on Monday. To cancel services on branch lines through a shortage of rolling stock, as they did a couple of weeks ago, is certainly not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable to run trains so short that they are severely overcrowded.
On overcrowding, there is one point to be made in First Great Western’s defence. There is something crazy about a situation where hiring an extra coach for a local service cannot pay for itself, because even 100 passengers would not produce enough revenue to pay the leasing charges. I am told that even the most modest diesel railcar—the class 153—costs £105,000 a year to lease, and you need a lot of passengers a lot of the time to earn that amount. It makes no sense for First Great Western to send back all its Adelante express diesel trains, or for South West Trains to give up using its popular class 442 electric stock, on the grounds that the leasing charges are too high. This is a clear example of how the pursuit of premium payments by the TOCs is working against the interests of the travelling public.
These are legitimate concerns which the Office of Rail Regulation and the department must address. Against that gloomy picture, however, it is worth drawing attention to some positives about Britain’s railways. We run nearly 20,000 trains every day; 20 per cent more than 10 years ago, and more than any other European country except Germany. Last year, 1.1 billion passengers were carried, more than at any time since 1957 when the network was almost twice as large as it is today. That is also 37.5 per cent higher than 10 years ago.
I hear what noble Lords say about the recent increase in fares, but there is no reason to believe that demand is falling off. Increasing numbers of people prefer to travel by train, because the alternatives are congested roads and parking restrictions for car users, or security nightmares and flight delays at our airports. It was interesting that Virgin claimed that delays on the west coast main line are now significantly less than delays experienced by airline passengers to Edinburgh or Glasgow.
I conclude by paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Davies. A whisper has reached me that he may not be speaking on transport issues in this House for much longer, as he is moving on to—I hope—better things. It has been a privilege to have the opportunity of debating railways and other transport issues with him over the time he has been responsible for them. I certainly wish him well in what he is going to do next.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for providing us with the opportunity for a debate on a subject of great concern to many of us this afternoon. I declare an interest, not as an expert like the two previous speakers and others but simply as a user of the rail service.
In particular, I shall address the First Great Western Franchise, which I use regularly. Many concerns have been expressed about it, and some of them bear repeating. I shall start with the issue of punctuality. I note that, during Questions on Monday, the Minister, referring to First Great Western, said that,
“punctuality even in the south-west was at 85 per cent, which is the norm across the network”.—[Official Report, 15/1/07; col. 437.]
When was it at 85 per cent? The Office of Rail Regulation gave different figures, which show that First Great Western is the worst performing long-distance train operating company and that only 73 per cent of its trains arrived on time between July and September 2006. I can attest that, on the last five trips that I have made, four of the trains were cancelled or late.
We are seeing a much reduced service at the same time as fares are going up. That is a matter of concern, and it raises the question “Why?”. As a user, I do not understand all the intricacies, but it seems clear that higher prices should produce a better service. I am not alone; I understand that there will be a fares strike on Monday starting at Bath, which is on the route that I use. It will be interesting to see what happens because it takes something for people to feel so incensed that they are not prepared to pay the fare.
Going back to the issues that I am concerned with, in the Bristol area, we have seen a reduction in services, which has concerned me and other people in the area. The service that I use goes from Bristol on the Weston-super-Mare route. I usually use Yatton, which is en route. The timetable introduced in December has resulted in a number of through trains that picked up passengers at Weston and Yatton being abandoned, with the result that more people have to change at Bristol. It is dismaying to change and find that the train is made up of only one or, if you are lucky, two carriages. I say “if you are lucky” because I have even been on a two-carriage train where I was one of the lucky ones to get on at Bristol Temple Meads when other people were unable to do so and people were not able to get on at the next station and so missed the service. As my noble friend Lord Chidgey and other noble Lords said, the result of such services is that many people have to stand or cannot get on.
It is easy to say that people should expect to have to stand for so-called short trips, and that has been said recently, but that does not go beneath the surface. Many people who have to stand are elderly and infirm, and it is virtually impossible for them to cope. Why is the foolish use of one or two-carriage trains allowed? Who calculates how many people will travel at a particular time? In this day and age, with all the resources that we have, including computers and records, it is not rocket science to make a reasonably accurate estimate, based on previous figures, of how many people are going to travel at a particular time and to provide accordingly.
As a rail user and not a rail expert, I am confused about who is responsible. The Government say that it is the rail companies, and the rail companies say that it is the Government. Are they both right? Is it true that charges in this country are two to three times higher than those on the European mainland? I do not know, but it is often said. Is it true that subsidies are higher than ever in this country? No doubt, those who know about these matters can explain.
I am not alone in being surprised by the statement that people should be expected to stand. Just to re-emphasise that point, the Disability Rights Commission says that,
“Access to rail transport is fundamental to full and independent participation in society for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions”.
On the peripheral matter of catering, which is a point of some importance, I was very impressed a few months ago when First Great Western came out with a highly glossy, well produced leaflet praising their catering. They were slapping themselves on the back for the standards that they offered and so on in their catering services. Then, shortly before Christmas I read a report saying that the company was talking about doing away with buffet cars and substituting a trolley service only. A railway official said that that was, of course, in response to public demand. Whether that will happen or not, I am certainly concerned about it.
A short while ago, the noble Lord, Lord Snape, rightly spoke of picking a loser in choosing First Great Western; well, passengers are certainly losing. When First Great Western’s accounts come out, in due course, I will be interested to see whether they are losing on it or in fact making a profit at our expense. The noble Lord mentioned travelling at 50 miles per hour, and I can offer a further advantage in that, if you are trying to consume a cup of tea or coffee, it is much easier to do so at 50 miles per hour than at 120, when you are bumping around. Still, that is not the real issue. I am sorry to come down so strong on First Great Western, but it is our duty to highlight the issues on the Floor of the House. So, as my noble friend Lord Teverson said, it seems that once First Great Western had it in the bag, things have gone wrong.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, again for the debate and the noble Lords who have participated. I look forward to hearing good news when the Minister responds.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Chidgey has raised the issue of the conduct of rail franchising at what turns out to be an opportune time. Use of the railways is increasing and will increase, as many noble Lords have said, and, while it is true that only 6 per cent of all journeys are made by rail, a much greater and rising proportion of journeys over 25 miles is made by rail. In fact, in the central London area the figure—including the Underground—is something like 69 per cent. So, rail is hugely important.
There is general agreement among most people who know anything about the subject that rail travel will and must increase if we are to get to grips with the problems of global warming in our congested country. However, as my noble friend Lord Glasgow asked, where is the vision, the flair or the passion that guided the great rail pioneers of the past? I experienced that as a railway manager from working with Gerald Fiennes—to whom the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, referred—Peter Parker, Bob Reid and Chris Green. The present rail Minister at least enjoys his job, and we wish him well. Yet we need advocates who will lead the industry to where we ought to be and where it would have been but for the calamity—I use the word advisedly—of privatisation.
The notion that a new generation of high-speed trains can be designed by a committee led by consultants, rather than railway engineers, really promises us new equipment too late, unsuitable for purpose and over budget. Is it too late to put the rolling stock companies and the train operating companies in the driving seat—possibly two driving seats—to begin with, so that there is a competition in ideas? The high-speed train, which was acclaimed throughout the world as a leader, was designed at Derby by the people in the research centre to which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred. It was designed from start to delivery in five years because another team of engineers was working on the advanced passenger train and the high-speed train people said, “We can do it better, quicker and cheaper than the advanced passenger train people”. Such competition in ideas is important. That is why there may be advantage in getting two suppliers and two rolling stock companies, with engineers from the train operating companies, to bring forward these ideas. I do not believe that a Civil Service-led process, employing consultants at huge cost, is likely to deliver what we want.
The railway needs to be available at all times—“24/7” in common parlance—and I know that the transport Minister shares my ambition in that respect. Network Rail must make substantial further economies in the next control period. I acknowledge that this is the responsibility of the Rail Regulator in the next periodic review, but I suggest that its objectives and bonus incentives need to be adjusted to make the railway much more available, as it is on the continent. People want a railway all the time, and passenger use would grow by leaps and bounds if it were so available.
We accept that the franchises must deliver value for money, but value cannot be measured by a single measure of either the highest or the lowest bid, depending on whether it is intended to deliver a premium or be supported by subsidy. John Ruskin said:
“There is hardly anything in the world that some person cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper and people who consider price alone are this person’s lawful prey”.
I ask noble Lords to think on those words and to read them in Hansard. I am sorry, but the prey are up there in the Box and the people who employ them. A franchise bid should offer quality; it should recognise the need to expand and invest. It should recognise punctuality, reliability, safety, security, the ability to park a car, user-friendly stations and information services, and fares that do not rise faster than inflation. This does not happen.
The recent problems with the Greater Western franchise, which were touched on by my noble friends Lord Cotter and Lord Teverson and by noble Lords opposite, are nothing compared with the storm that is about to break around the head of the Department for Transport over the new cross-country franchise. Officials will think that the Greater Western problem is a picnic compared with having to tell people who want to travel from the south towards Glasgow that they must all get out and change at Birmingham New Street in the middle of the period when that station is being reconstructed. It is clear madness to go along that road. The cross-country franchise is already bulging at the seams with people, and yet the department has allowed for only a 30 per cent increase over what was carried last year for the 10 following years.
There are also the appalling prospects around Lincoln. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, mentioned the East Midlands franchise. One may look at the services from Nottingham to London, but the passenger service from Lincoln has been cut to shreds. I remind the Minister that another Minister with responsibility for transport, Gillian Merron, the MP for Lincoln, will no doubt fall under the flak that descends from the skies on her. That all arises because the department's policy is to specify the minimum service level. Unfortunately, the minimum service level, even at the beginning of a franchise, seems to be, from the evidence that we have heard recently, unacceptable to the users, and yet that franchise has years to run.
Franchises contain little opportunity to bid for growth or to show enterprise or imagination. It should be crystal clear to operators that all the quality features and past performance in the franchise area will be judged as well as the money in the bid. Growth in the market and ways of dealing with all aspects of that growth, such as growing passenger aspirations, all need to be evaluated.
I turn to my greatest challenge both to the Government and to franchisees: I would offer a further extension, up to 15 years, subject to the company exceeding all performance criteria at five-year break points in return for substantial extra investment. I do not believe that the Government have the money; I believe that the franchise companies have the money, and I would challenge them, saying, “We will give you extensions, but only if you come forward with real policies to invest in the railways, to invest in rolling stock and to make the system better”.
The Minister should use his powers under Section 54 of the Transport Act to give undertakings that additional rolling stock will continue in use at the end of the franchise period. That would encourage franchisees to get some more rolling stock because they would remain confident that it would continue to be used, even if they lost the franchise at the end. That works in the Netherlands, and, because it works there, I am confident that it would work here.
I, too, am unconvinced about the need for structural reorganisation, as has been put forward by Mr Grayling in another place and in the pamphlet to which the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, referred. However, I vigorously support the inclusion in a self-contained franchise—the Merseyrail franchise—of responsibility for the track. The reason why I agree with that is that I believe that Network Rail must have a comparator organisation. Merseyrail may appear to the Minister to be a very small undertaking, but it has behind it the whole technical expertise of Netherlands Railways, and it would provide good evidence to the department of what it really costs to maintain the railway on Merseyside. I am afraid that Network Rail is using average costs that probably greatly exceed what they spend in Merseyside. Of course, we do not know, because the figures are so opaque. The Minister should lean on Network Rail to set up that independent comparator.
Evaluating a franchise on other than financial criteria is difficult. I know that it gives great comfort to civil servants if everything can be reduced to a simple financial sum, but that does not enable you to evaluate quality, and quality is what the customer wants, what the passenger wants. I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of man to set down an evaluation procedure that brings in the other quality features as well as the money that comes out of a franchise. The Government are mesmerised by the question of how much money they are going to get.
The franchising process is extremely expensive and very bureaucratic. It takes up a huge amount of management time, as the noble Lord, Lord Snape, said, and I would ask that the Government look carefully at what Transport for London are doing in letting its franchises. It is apparently a much simpler, much cheaper process, and I am sure that there must be better examples to be had in the rest of the world.
Before I sit down, let me say that I have enjoyed over the years many debates with the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham. I am very sorry that he is moving. I wish him, as did the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, the very best of fortune wherever he is going, but I promise him that it will not be as interesting as transport.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for generating this debate. Sitting rather solitarily on these Benches, I have been conscious that we have been in the conspiracy of experts. Most of today’s speakers seem to have more than a touching relationship with the railways, either through life experiences or the life-enhancing experiences of travelling regularly on them.
Gordon Brown, in speaking to the 2002 spending review which supported the Government’s 2001 10-year plan for transport, affirmed that to correct the underinvestment in transport was vital to both the economic prosperity of our country and our quality of life. I think we would all agree with that and we would have been better off if all that had come about. We are now over halfway through the planned execution phase with the state of play a bit more shambolic, as has been demonstrated today. Targets appear to have been conspicuously dropped.
What has happened to the promised infrastructural improvements—Crossrail, Thameslink, longer trains with longer platforms? Instead, seats and lavatories are being removed from trains so as to squeeze passengers into the space and they can only stand up because there will not be room for anything else. They are paying a rapidly increasing price for the privilege of travelling on such an unappealing system.
As we have heard, it is clear that the current structure of the railway network and franchising system is under considerable pressure. It is predicted that there will be an increased demand for rail transport, and not solely because of climate change, though that is certainly going to be a very relevant aspect. People are going to require to travel by train more and more, so if we do not address the problem, it is going to be compounded over future years.
A number of reasons for the widespread problems across the railway network can be identified, ranging from the content of the franchises—and we have heard quite a lot about that this afternoon—to the manner of their allocation, the relationships within the sector, a reluctance to accept accountability and squabbles over apportionment of blame for delayed services. Together these are a major obstacle to successfully moving forward.
The squabbles influence companies to devote resources to deflecting blame, and therefore fines, at the expense of productive activity. That is a pretty pointless exercise, as it ultimately simply results in the flow of public money from one pot to another at greater expense to the taxpayer. I understand that in the new joint control centre in Swindon—a facility that has been heralded as the embodiment of future working, demonstrating a constructive relationship between Network Rail and the train operating companies—a significant part of the building has been allocated to the “delay attribution team”.
That point should not be considered in isolation. There are other examples of processes that are deeply, and indeed expensively, flawed. Take, for example, the bidding process for franchises. Of course we on these Benches support the notion of competition and enterprise in driving up standards; it was one of the fundamental reasons why the original rail reforms were introduced. But the current franchising system is clearly not able to deliver what it was intended to do, which was, in the words of Sir Alastair Morton, the first Rail Regulator, to provide “high-level performance for passengers”.
The current franchising system involves companies bidding on train reliability, defined timetables, commitments to improve train and crew reliability, and their operational viability, as well as past performance. But there has been widespread criticism of the Government’s policy of auctioning off franchises, as that encourages companies to overbid. Indeed, you have the bizarre situation where a train operating company—First Great Western, which has been referred to a lot today—is actually cutting services and capacity on already overcrowded lines in order to save money so that it can meet the terms of its new franchise.
Christopher Garnett, the former chief executive of GNER, is said to have commented that overbidding for a new franchise is preferable to underbidding and losing out. But his company has lost out; it had to surrender its £1.3 billion franchise on the main London to Edinburgh route, as it could not meet the terms of the 10-year franchise, which required revenue growth of 10 per cent last year.
The Government’s acceptance of these exaggerated bids is pointless when it is clear that they can and will not be met. This causes mistrust between companies, tarnishes the industry’s already poor reputation and drives the cost hikes in fares that we have all read about of late. Inevitably, it results in massive subsidies, such as the one of £1.4 billion that the Government have had to make to Virgin’s London to Glasgow service. An end to this ongoing charade appears to be out of the reach of the current Government. An obvious point to make is that contracts should be awarded not necessarily to the highest bidder but to the company that can demonstrate a feasible, robust plan for enhancing the service that it seeks to operate.
Recently re-awarded franchises have been stifled by tight specification and regulation from the Government, which impedes companies’ opportunities to innovate. The Government’s interference extends to government involvement in operations to the extent that officials are writing timetables—indeed, we have Douglas Alexander and his predecessor acting almost like modern-day Fat Controllers. In 2006, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee published conclusions supporting this contention. It said that,
“there is little innovation because franchise contracts are so tight that there has been no room for flexibility”.
The poorly defined and intrusive role of the Government is undoubtedly a root cause of the problems of the railways. What is required is a strategic framework of the railways, but it is the rail professionals who should run them. Misplaced micromanagement is directly responsible for the flaws and conflicts with the objective of allowing private enterprise to deliver the high-quality services that we all want.
Reference has been made to the vertical integration of the Mersey trains—a number of us must have had a briefing on it. The Minister may want to comment on why that policy did not come about. As I understand it, Network Rail did not produce the necessary information and was not willing to hand over responsibility to Merseyside, but perhaps the Government know a bit more about that.
The entire rail network excludes the needs and rights of disabled people, as has already been mentioned, due to the lack of accessibility at stations and on trains. Regulations do not obligate Network Rail to improve this situation at train stations. The investment in improving access for disabled people is woefully underfunded, and will take decades to restore even basic provision at many stations.
We might all be inclined to support the recommendation of the Disability Rights Commission, which suggests that such improvements should be incorporated into the franchising arrangements, as noble Lords have already said. That would in all likelihood reduce government revenues, but it would provide realistic, fundamentally important service improvements that would end the current discriminatory policy.
A great deal has been said about the capacity of the network—so what about it? As it stands, the current franchising system does not allow for capacity increases to cater for increased demand. That is already a major problem, but it is set to worsen, as passenger numbers are forecast to grow by 28 per cent during the next seven years, according to the Office of Rail Regulation. Meanwhile, capacity is set to grow by only 2 per cent. Already commuters are often unable to fit on trains, as the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, and the noble Lord, Lord Cotter, said, and have to wait for a later service. Furthermore, that overcrowding is another significant problem for disabled citizens, as many of them are unable to stand for long periods of time, and wheelchair users are often precluded from boarding trains that offer insufficient space for them.
Examples show that some franchisees make no serious attempt to increase capacity. First Capital Connect removed trains from its routes to meet government-imposed franchise specifications, again reducing capacity. South West Trains is ripping seats and lavatories out of its carriages to provide more room—standing room only. Most trains travelling into London suffer from excessive demand and overuse. Overcrowding on morning commuter trains into London has doubled since 1996. As the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said, if the house-building in the south-east increases, there will be even more demand because that is the only way those people will be able to access London. Meanwhile, fares continue to increase. How does this costly, uncomfortable and congested network offer a viable and attractive alternative to travelling by car? I fear it does not.
These problems are more than a matter of discomfort or inconvenience—they may prove to be fatally damaging to our economic competitiveness. It has been said that a buoyant economy requires free-flowing labour. Privatisation has achieved that goal, delivering 30 per cent growth in passenger numbers and consistently increasing distance of passenger journeys over the past decade. That was our party’s success. However, the structure of the railway as it currently stands cannot continue. It offers an unsustainable service that, in the current jargon, is really not fit for purpose. The aforementioned House of Commons Transport Select Committee concluded in a similar vein, suggesting that the structure of the franchising system was a “policy muddle”.
If we do not take immediate steps to overcome this problem, our workforce will become disillusioned and move elsewhere and our international competitiveness will be lost. That might solve the problem of overcapacity, but it is fair to say that it would be absurd to end years of economic growth and prosperity for the sake of such a futile and bureaucratic regime. Furthermore, a reliable and attractive rail network provides a credible alternative to travelling by car and taking short domestic flights. It can play a hugely significant role in tackling climate change. As it stands, travelling by rail is highly uncomfortable, obscenely congested and often vastly more expensive than alternative travel.
In conclusion, I shall say that I am also sorry to be concluding our debates with the noble Lord, Lord Davies. He has always managed in this portfolio—and will, I am sure, in his next—to be urbane, equable, knowledgeable and good-humoured. We wish him well in his next portfolio, and look forward to hearing him all over again on a different subject.
My Lords, I am grateful for the good wishes from various parts of the House, but this debate has been as painful for me as usual in the challenge it has laid down. I did not notice any kindly let-up just because this is the last time I will be speaking on rail, at least for a while, from this Dispatch Box.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for introducing this important debate. It is at the centre of the issue with regard to rail, which is a very important part of our transport provision. I appreciated the very fair way in which he introduced the topic, knowing, as I do, that he has a keen interest in the West Country and the lines that go from there. Of all the issues in the debate, First Great Western has loomed as problem number one, and I thought he was a little kinder than others in his approach. I will refer to it in due course; I am aware that it is a central point of the debate.
The exercise with regard to franchises is almost bound to create opportunities for members of the public, their representatives in the other place and noble Lords to focus on the worst performances and then to damn the whole system because of weaknesses in certain areas. That is not entirely fair. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, introduced the central point of the debate and that was followed by many other noble Lords. I refer to the length of the franchise. I have heard the representations; not for the first time has it been mooted that everything in the garden would be so much better if only train companies had much longer franchises and were therefore able to invest at the requisite level. We are not convinced of that. It would be a very odd perspective if one did not see that there may be an incentive to greater investment if one knows that one is holding a franchise for 15 to 20 years. I can see the attraction of that proposal.
It is also the case, as every noble Lord who has spoken has emphasised, that passengers have rather shorter-term demands than the state of the service in 15 to 20 years. Passengers, rightly, are concerned with what is going on in the here and now. The recurrent themes throughout the debate have been, “Why don’t you take the longer-term view and extend the franchise?” and, “Why don’t you hold these people to account today for what they failed to do yesterday?”. We cannot have it both ways.
The Government think it is important, through the duration of the franchise, that structures are in place to hold the operating companies to account. But I do not think that would be aided by the extension of the franchise to 15 or 20 years, as has been suggested. My noble friend Lord Snape pointed out that it is easy to say that one company does pretty well out of this: Chiltern Railways is a model railway which has a 15-year franchise—therefore, case proven. As my noble friend pointed out, there are particularly felicitous aspects with regard to Chiltern and its franchise which do not obtain across the far more difficult and complex franchises elsewhere in the United Kingdom to make that a particularly good illustration of how we solve the problems.
I maintain that the current franchise system is delivering. I shall come on to the weaknesses in the system and will erect a defence even for the less than defensible, in so far as it is within my power to do so. I will therefore talk about First Great Western in a moment.
The system is delivering. More than 1 billion passenger journeys were made last year, 40 per cent more than 10 years ago. That is a rail system which is responsive. Is it delivering all these passengers to their greatest satisfaction in terms of punctuality and comfort? Of course not. We fall short of that in many ways. Nevertheless, train punctuality is up in general terms from 75 per cent 10 years ago to 85 per cent now.
The noble Lord, Lord Cotter, gave us a diatribe on the ills of First Great Western—and I will be the first to recognise that First Great Western’s recent performance, as I said earlier this week, is far from satisfactory, to put it mildly. Therefore, I am not surprised that passengers are demonstrating their frustration at the quality of the service. But the noble Lord said that its punctuality over a month or two was as low as 75 per cent. He is absolutely right, but in all fairness to the rail company, one must take a slightly longer view. First Great Western's performance on punctuality for the past year is 85 per cent—only just at the bottom of the achievements of the rail industry, but it is there. First, that is a good deal better than 10 years ago; and, secondly, it would not be right to say that what is happening on that line and the surrounding area in Bristol is utterly and totally calamitous. I recognise the significant points about its weaknesses, but those problems are not resolvable by the broad point that has come through from noble Lords who are seeking to be constructive in this debate—namely, that the issue revolves around the length of the franchise.
The noble Lord, Lord Snape, entertained us all—on buses one day and rail the next. I am trying to wean him on to aircraft because none of us has recently found anything particularly entertaining about aircraft. He must make a contribution to that debate. The 50 mile an hour restrictions are not universal in the UK. They are applied on Met Office advice according to reports from the Met Office and apply only in those areas where very high winds are present, not across the network as a whole. The noble Lord may as well say that the Swiss are much better at clearing snow than we are. Of course they are, because they have weather systems where they have to provide for their rail system against such extremities. On the whole in Britain, we do not often get 50 mile an hour restrictions on our railway system as a result of winds. However, I hear what the noble Lord says and it will not hurt the railway authorities to hear his diatribe and to consider whether the gantries and structures that sustain our overhead lines are sufficiently robust for us to sustain our trains even in the worst of the weather, which we hope is a short-lived problem.
He also raised the question of the Brighton mainline route. I hear what he ways about not interfering with the Gatwick Express. However, if he brings to my attention the threat that Richard Branson will move his passengers by road via the M25 as his solution during the Olympic Games, all I can say is that his appreciation of our transport system is rather less than I think it is. It sounds an idle threat, but I respect the fact that the noble Lord is saying that we should cherish and recognise the value of a very good service from Gatwick to Victoria. It is a good service and we want to see it sustained. We are trying to see whether the Brighton mainline route can incorporate aspects of that service and provide a better service for commuters who travel from further down the line than Gatwick, but I respect his basic point that any changes must recognise the importance of sustaining an effective route to Gatwick.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also concentrated overwhelmingly on the franchise arrangements. Those arrangements, of which we have had experience over a considerable time, are sophisticated operations. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, emphasised the fact that franchises must include aspects such as punctuality, must look at the investment demands required and must put train operating companies on the spot when they sign up to the specifications. Well, they do—and they do not only put them on the spot when the companies win the franchise. My noble friend Lord Snape said how extraordinarily complex the submissions were; that is because the demands are so great. But there is not just that—there is regular monitoring, too. The train companies are subject to monitoring. As the Minister responsible for rail in the other place said the other day, he has regular meetings with train operating companies to ensure they recognise that we are keeping the closest possible eye on performance. So I do not think there is much more to be said about monitoring the franchises than what we are committed to doing and are doing at present.
My noble friend Lord Rosser always speaks with great authority from his long interest and work with the railways. He referred to the technological dimension, which needs to be taken on board. One worry must be that with the fragmentation of the industry, which is obviously a part of having separate train operating companies, fundamental research into trains could be lost. We have certainly put a great emphasis in our recent franchise competitions on innovative solutions from bidders. We have focused on aspects such as regenerative braking, for example, and made that a specification. We are therefore expecting to introduce necessary technological change into the remit that the rail companies should consider.
My noble friend Lord Faulkner, as always, got to the heart of the significant debate by emphasising the achievements of rail and where it is also necessary for improvements to be made. I would dispute one point, however: air policy is important in transport policy; we can see benefits in weaning people off internal air flights on to the railway, as the railway becomes more competitive and effective. It will not do to suggest that our air policy is formed on the basis that we build, construct and provide where people want to fly. Even under the expansion at Stansted and Heathrow that is contemplated, we will still be two runways short of the likely demand for people flying in 2015. That is not an automatic response to people’s demands but a measured response to meet people’s needs as best we can while recognising that there are other necessary constraints.
The constraint that my noble friend introduced into the debate is of great importance—namely, climate change and the role that air travel plays in that. As we have explained, aviation is a difficult issue to tackle with regard to climate change, because no one country can tackle it on its own. The Government are not only alert and committed to ensuring that aviation plays its full part with regard to pollution; there is not doubt that part of our transport policy will be, through our increased investment in rail, to ensure that the competition between rail and air internally in the country should greatly improve. And it is improving. If one looks at current journey times from Glasgow via Manchester to London, one sees the benefits of the finally successful, huge investment in the west coast main line, which is making that line competitive with aircraft.
My noble friend Lord Snape and other noble Lords said that there are absurdities about a policy whereby different solutions are produced in different parts of the country with regard to franchising. However, the solutions are different because the problems are different. The problem with Virgin and the west coast main line was not Virgin’s investment in trains; it was the fact that the track was not providing the framework in which it could offer the service. Therefore, the Government reasonably took upon themselves the recognition that costs had to be borne until the track was up to standard. The east coast main line is entirely different: there is nothing wrong with the track. There is nothing much wrong with GNER either; it just happens to be a subsidiary of a larger company, Sea Containers, which is in severe financial difficulties, and GNER has a real problem in being able to maintain its commitments. The Government’s response to that is straightforward: GNER must keep to its commitments until another franchise can be arrived at, because we owe a duty to the passengers to sustain the service. I reassure my noble friend Lord Snape that they are two very different lines, two different strategies and policies, because they are two very different problems.
I was asked why we could not have vertical integration between track and trains in the Merseyrail area. One can see the obvious attraction of the concept. I have no doubt that if one extrapolates it a long way, one will eventually arrive at British Rail as an integrated system. First, we are a long way from British Rail. Secondly, my noble friend Lord Faulkner was right—he was buttressed by several other noble Lords—in saying that another reorganisation is just what the rail industry does not want. What it needs is capacity to plan against proper objectives and certainties, and reorganisation would not do that job.
The Merseyrail issue is quite straightforward. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, indicated, it takes two to produce a virtual party and one of the players did not want to play. That may be regretted, but one cannot get virtual integration unless both parties see merit in it. Whereas Merseyrail saw great advantages in that position, that was not the case for Network Rail.
I have again been given the greatest sense of foreboding by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. He always makes me shiver to the bones when he describes what chaos will result from certain of the franchise arrangements that we are making. He said, “We haven’t seen anything yet. You wait until the new Cross Country franchise is established”. I hear what he says. His tales of foreboding may come to pass. I hope that they do not and I am sure that he hopes not, too, because, although of a pessimistic vein, he is a fair man and will acknowledge it when we overcome problems. He exaggerated the extent to which everything will fall on Birmingham New Street as an interchange. With the suspension of the direct routes from Glasgow and Manchester to the south-west, people will have to change trains, but there will be many more changing points than just New Street. Passengers heading to the West Country will be able to change at other places such as Wolverhampton, Banbury, Derby or Cheltenham. Not everyone will have to use New Street as an interchange, although I respect the point that the noble Lord makes. New Street is an important station; it is going through major redevelopment, which will cause problems, and he is right to send out a degree of warning on that.
I have reached the end of my final debate on rail. I have a very sad tale to tell the House: although I do, regrettably, have to yield on the transport brief for a time, I hope to see the concessionary fares Bill through the House. I cannot exactly call it my baby, but it is extremely attractive and I am reluctant to give it up. So, I intend to spend a couple of hours seeing that Bill on to the statute book. Otherwise, this is my last debate on rail. I thank everyone for their good wishes. I have enjoyed our debates enormously, even when I have lost them.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this debate for their generosity in giving their time and for their preparation. The debate has shown the House at its best. The wide range of knowledge and experience that has been brought to it is phenomenal. I have quickly counted that well over half of noble Lords who have contributed have done so on the basis of their knowledge, their professional expertise or their involvement in the transport industry. That is remarkable. Nevertheless, that does not mean to say that we all agree on everything. What would an industry be if we did?
I wish to make one point before I end, in that there is an issue of capacity, as every noble Lord has said. However, we should not confuse usage of the massive urban transport systems in our capital city with the wider needs and demands of our public transport system. It is one thing to be asked to stand in Tube-style travel in urban networks; it is another to be asked to stand on a service that used to be called InterCity—because that is what it is. Standing on those services for over an hour on crowded trains is, frankly, not acceptable in a modern economy such as ours in the 21st century. We should be able to do better than that—although the high increase in the cost of housing in London means that people are travelling further.
It remains for me to give my thanks also to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for his response to this debate and for the way that he has responded to all the transport debates in this House in his time. I begin to wonder whether he is like a contestant for “Mastermind” and ask what his next specialist subject will be. In the mean time, this debate will continue—clearly—and I close by saying that, perhaps as a mark of the importance of this debate, I have been told that during the course of it Euston station has been closed due to the weather conditions. That may be a metaphor for the future. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Energy: Nuclear Safety and Waste (EUC Report)
rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on Managing Nuclear Safety and Waste: The Role of the EU (37th Report, HL Paper 211, Session 2005-06).
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I can hope only that the trains from Victoria station later are not in the same condition as trains elsewhere. I start by stressing to your Lordships that the report that we are considering is not per se about going into detail about what we think in technical terms about managing nuclear safety and waste. It is about the role of the EU in this area and, particularly, whether we think that it is right that the European Council should have a stake in the subject.
I am opening the debate because I had the honour and good luck to be chairman of EU Sub-Committee D for four years when we undertook this study; and I am very pleased that my successor, the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, is also here to take part—as is the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, who is a wise, and was very much the best, scientist on our committee during the years that he and I served on it. I welcome both noble Lords to this debate.
This study of the EU and nuclear issues was one of the most interesting that we undertook. I thank Suzanne Todd, our Clerk throughout this inquiry. She was competent, perceptive and had an extraordinary ability to divine what we wanted to say even when we were not quite certain what that was. She really was a remarkable Clerk and one wishes her great success in her career in the House of Lords. I would also like to thank Professor Richard Clegg, our specialist adviser.
It was so interesting because many of us on the committee were, at the start, really quite uncertain about whether the EU should have a role in nuclear safety and waste disposal. I was certainly in that position. On the one hand, there is the argument that if something goes seriously wrong with a nuclear installation, or in the safe management or transport of high-level radioactive waste, it affects not only one country but the Continent: the Continent of Europe. The enlargement of the EU brought in new members, some of which have older, Russian-designed reactors. There were doubts about the safety of those reactors. The example of Chernobyl from 20 years ago is not forgotten, either in nearby Finland, or in Ireland, which is far more remote. On the other hand, the United Kingdom—and others who generate energy by nuclear means—argue very strongly that they have the ultimate responsibility for both the design and the safe operation of their plants. Therefore, in effect, the EU should not have any role.
It was, therefore, from the basis of contrary arguments that we approached this report. The draft directives that we looked at and are discussing this evening were brought in by the Commission in January 2003, as we say in paragraph 7 of our report. They were limited to nuclear safety and the safe management of high-level radioactive waste. This came to be known as the “nuclear package”. I was never quite certain why. “Package” is a friendly word; people tend to think that something nice will happen when they get a package. That is not a feeling that most people associate with “nuclear”. It has, however, always been called the nuclear package and that is the phrase we used.
A qualified majority was needed for the two draft directives to get through and become law. The first package was rejected by eight of the countries involved. It was then modified and in September 2004 the EU Commission presented new, modified directives. They were still rejected by seven countries and a qualified majority was not obtained. One of the most interesting things was that France was the country that changed its position between the first and second votes. Although we visited Paris and talked to the French, we never really got a clear view of the reason why they changed their mind. Without wishing to be too cynical, my own view was that, quite simply, the French now lead Europe in the knowledge of how to build new nuclear power plants, and they concluded that worldwide acceptance of their practice, with a European stamp on it, would help them to get orders throughout the world. Therefore, in a very practical manner, they decided that they would be able to increase their nuclear business if there was an EU stamp on it, and that is why they changed their mind.
We travelled to Finland, France and Belgium. In the end, we concluded—in paragraph 118 of our report—that the adoption of the safety directive would not improve nuclear safety standards within the EU. No case had been made for the need to improve safety standards. We were impressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines and the standards that they set on nuclear energy. These are enforced by peer review and we concluded that this was very effective. The IAEA is now reinforced by a new body, the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association, which is discussed in paragraph 131. It examines, at a technical level, the ability of the European Union to form common approaches to nuclear safety. Again, we were convinced that that was the right approach. We therefore recommended that the Commission and the Council should take full account of the West European Nuclear Regulators Association and that future EU action on nuclear safety should be based on the study work being carried out by WENRA.
We found reaching a decision on the long-term management of high-level radioactive waste a good deal more difficult. The fact is that there are now operations in place for dealing with low-level and intermediate waste, and France, Finland and Sweden are advancing plans on how to deal with their high-level waste. But a good many countries that are producers of nuclear energy in Europe have not yet managed to do that, including the United Kingdom. There is a legacy of 50 years of accumulated waste and, frankly, we in this country have not yet decided how to tackle the problem.
We felt that the Commission certainly deserved praise for putting forward its ideas and for saying that it was proposing to have a role in the matter, but some witnesses told us that they thought that its approach was too forceful, heavy-handed and prescriptive. That was the attitude of the witnesses from our Government, in particular. Perhaps at this point I may quote, from paragraph 53 of our report, the remarks of Elliot Morley MP, who was then a Minister of State at Defra. He described the Commission’s attitude as,
“a top-down approach which is basically stipulating solutions without taking into account the different circumstances in different Member States”.
It has to be said that that is not a wholly convincing argument, but, by and large, we were swayed by it. We concluded at paragraph 59:
“Although we do not advocate adoption of the waste Directive as drafted, we do see a role for the Community in providing the impetus for Member States to take action towards the management of high-level waste. This would begin to address the serious issues that affect public opinion”.
Those last two words—“public opinion”—are at the heart of the matter. We were increasingly impressed by the lack of knowledge in general terms throughout the European Union about the pros and cons of nuclear electric generation. I was struck by a Eurobarometer poll held last week, which said that 80 per cent of EU citizens who were questioned were in favour of renewable energy but only 20 per cent were in favour of nuclear power. That stresses the need for better and more information. There simply needs to be greater public acceptance if nuclear is to grow for power generation purposes.
In what I am about to say next, I may differ from the views of other members of the committee that I chaired, and I did not warn them that I was going to say this. Six months have passed since we produced our report and I suspect that it is now out of date. The Council of Ministers, faced with a shortage of oil and gas, worried about Russia and its use of gas supplies for political measures, and greatly concerned about climate change, has now agreed to the EU producing an energy policy. It is surprising that it has not been noticed more, but it will embrace a nuclear generation policy.
Just a week ago, the EU Commission issued as a press release 75 pages dedicated to a nuclear illustrative programme and memorandum. It all came under the general heading, “Energy for a Changing World”. The memorandum is headed “Brussels, 10 January” and I shall quote two sentences from it:
“It is for each member to decide whether to use nuclear power. That is the careful agnostic approach of the EU”.
It goes on:
“The European Commission has proposed the establishment of an EU high level group of national nuclear regulators in order to further develop a common understanding and European rules in the field of nuclear safety and security”.
I have not heard of that before. It was in none of the newspapers. But there it is. The EU Commission, whatever we said in our report, will not give up its interest in nuclear energy. It is surprising that little attention was paid to this aspect in the papers last week. When an integrated energy and climate change package to cut emissions was proposed, there was little talk of the fact that the EU was again banging the nuclear drum. It will continue to put on an agnostic face, but underneath there is a profound belief in both the economics of nuclear energy generation and its necessity to cut greenhouse gas emissions to reach the EU target of 20 per cent reduction in the next 13 years.
That is supported by the Commissioner for Energy Policy, Andris Piebalgs whom we met, and I would be surprised if it is not also supported by the Commissioner for the Environment, Stavros Dimas. I do not blame the EU Commission for being determined to remain this involved. After all it is a continental as well as a national issue. There are possibly great shortages of oil and gas ahead of us, and one can understand why the Commission is moving in the direction that it is doing.
I would be surprised if the EU Commission does not present us with a new version of a nuclear package within the next few years. Then, of course, it will be up to the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, and the EU Committee to decide whether to have yet another investigation into the subject. Perhaps if the Committee so decides, it will draw different conclusions to those reached in the report we are debating this afternoon. There is no doubt that we need open, understandable dialogue in which the European Union should promote transparency, best practice and more knowledge on nuclear energy issues. I beg to move.
Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Union Committee on Managing Nuclear Safety and Waste: The Role of the EU (37th Report, HL Paper 211, Session 2005-06).—(Lord Renton of Mount Harry.)
The last speech I made in your Lordships’ House was earlier this week on the conventions of the House. I gladly follow perhaps one of the lesser conventions and thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, not just for chairing our inquiry on nuclear waste and nuclear energy, but for the way in which he presided for four years over Sub-Committee D and left a distinctive and proper mark on the way in which that committee conducted its affairs. I also join the noble Lord in thanking Suzanne Todd, our Clerk, for the work she did. It is no reflection or criticism on the qualities or capabilities of her successor, Mr Preston, to say that I very much regret that she is no longer with us. I shall not go into the reasons.
Any inquiry into nuclear waste or nuclear energy would have been difficult. An inquiry which links both nuclear waste and nuclear energy—and if you then throw the role of the EU into the mix—is likely not just to double the difficulty but to square it. During our inquiry the noble Lord, Lord Renton, made sure that the whole drift on the inquiry was evidence-led. As a result, many of us—in fact, just about all of us—modified our views as the inquiry proceeded. We ought to say that we learnt something about the issues. We were able to produce a unanimous report due to the way in which the noble Lord led us. I hope it is not as out of date as the noble Lord indicates.
Any debate about nuclear safety and waste will inevitably be placed in the wider context of energy security. That is now, quite properly, a policy issue of the highest priority among the member states of the EU, some of which are facing real difficulties in guaranteeing their citizens security of energy supply as a result of earlier decisions on the sourcing mix. I had better put my cards on the table: individual member states have the responsibility and duty for coming up with policy solutions necessary for energy security for their citizens. That cannot be brushed off on the EU in any way. For the United Kingdom, I suspect that this means more of everything: more emphasis on energy saving, greater levels of recovery from our existing oil and gas fields, more clean coal, more renewables and more nuclear. We shall inevitably face, and are facing, the issues of nuclear waste and safety. I hope that some of those decisions will be made with greater speed in the future.
Nuclear is a contested area; contested within the member states and—more importantly for our inquiry, the terms of our report and this debate—between them. The Governments of the members take radically different views on the future of nuclear, from those who are likely to continue to be heavily dependent on nuclear well into the foreseeable future, to those who have effectively written nuclear out of their plans. Indeed, some find it difficult to make up their minds on a reasonable timescale. Opposing views are held passionately, and political careers have been built on the issue. That is worrying. The very strength and passion of those views makes me hesitant to see a significant interventionist role for EU legislation in either area. I cannot help but worry that opening the door to EU legislation over waste and safety would run the risk that the content of that legislation would be influenced as much by the attitudes of member states to the substantive issue of nuclear power itself as by the more limited considerations of nuclear waste and safety. That is potentially extremely dangerous.
Given my reservations on the role of EU legislation, I am happy with our conclusions on safety at paragraph 118:
“We do not believe adoption of the safety Directive would improve nuclear safety standards within the EU. Witnesses did not provide any evidence of a need to improve safety standards within the EU which currently operate satisfactorily within the IAEA reporting system. Hence the case for the safety Directive is not made”.
On waste, I am equally happy with our conclusion that:
“Although we do not advocate adoption of the waste Directive as drafted, we do see a role for the Community in providing the impetus for Member States to take action towards the management of high level waste. This would begin to address the serious issues that affect public opinion”.
As we look forward, I emphasise our major conclusion at paragraph 126:
“Furthermore, energy policy choices are a matter of national responsibility and it would not be appropriate for Community legislation to be used to influence this choice”—
in relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said about the emerging view of the EU, particularly the Commission, towards nuclear energy and the possibility of a European energy policy with a nuclear component. That is vital. It is a risk that we could not and should not take.
My Lords, I was not and am not a member of the sub-committee, but I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Renton, on a most interesting and informative document. As has been mentioned by both noble Lords who have spoken, if you bring together the subjects of the European Union, European competence and the nuclear issue you have a toxic conversation and debate on your hands.
Although it was not the case for members of the sub-committee, if I were reading the report as a member of the public, I would come away with the feeling that it was the Commission making its first big push, its land grab, on nuclear and atomic issues. As the House is well aware, one of the original areas of the European communities was the EURATOM treaty, which was signed 50 years ago this year. Perhaps for good or perhaps for worse, it is unlike the treaty of Rome in that it has not been modified on numerous occasions and stands very much as it is. The Commission is its secretariat. Even under the proposals for a European constitution that was supposed to rationalise the European Union in many ways, the EURATOM Treaty would intriguingly have still remained separate and remained there.
Under the treaty, the Commission, as secretariat, already has a number of powers. One of the major areas for the signing and creation of that treaty was atomic and nuclear safety. That is a legitimate area, and one that Britain signed up for in 1973. Under Articles 40 to 44 of the EURATOM Treaty, the Commission gets involved in a number of specific procedures. Under Article 41, as many members of the committee will be aware, there are areas of strict notification about nuclear facilities, not just about their establishment but about changes and decommissioning. For better or for worse, the Commission already has some 150 inspectors who are able to inspect nuclear facilities throughout the European Union and who do so within the United Kingdom.
As the report relates, the European Union and the Commission were very involved in negotiations with accession countries in eastern Europe, and we can probably say quite rightly so because the 15 member states of the European Union at that time had leverage over applicant nations during the negotiation and accession process. During that time, some six nuclear power stations in Lithuania, Bulgaria and Slovakia were closed down under that agreement because their safety standards were not felt to be sufficient. The track record of the European Union goes beyond that. In the Tacis programme, which came to a close at the end of 2006, the European Union spent some €1.3 billion on ensuring nuclear and atomic safety in the Russian Federation and the Russian near-abroad. In all those areas, the European Union is already heavily involved in atomic and nuclear issues by treaty.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, we had a major move forward on energy policy—which will, no doubt, be debated strongly at the Council of Ministers and in national parliaments—with the announcement last week of the strategy for energy. Few European citizens, or their member states and national parliaments, would say that the European Union should not be involved in the area of energy security and sustainability, or that of emissions and climate change. Those are two of the pillars; the third, of energy efficiency and competition, is one that some of us might argue is a member state issue, being one of those included in the single market. So, we already have a high level of European involvement in all those areas.
Now, is that valid? My own view is that it certainly is, in certain areas. As an individual and a private citizen, I would say, “Yes, I am very concerned to ensure that nuclear incidents do not happen on the European continent”, as clearly, that would affect trans-national boundaries, as nuclear pollution knows no such boundaries. I would say that it is right during the accession of states, when it is also the right time to ensure that security at nuclear plants is all right. The leverage is less once those negotiations have taken place. I also feel strongly that there should be a European energy policy.
What does that mean for this report and these two directives? Certainly, it does not mean that the European Union—or the European Commission in particular—should be able to delve down and get over-involved in nuclear safety or nuclear waste disposal. What do we look for in the criteria to see whether involvement is valid? A number of them have been mentioned in the report.
First, there is a clear issue of added value. If the European Union is to get involved here, there has to be some added value—but where? It could be in finding solutions in some areas. The waste disposal area could be one, since the report showed well that, Finland apart, no member states—the 26 others in the European Union—have found a way forward in practice or policy decisions to solve the issues of long-term nuclear waste disposal. It could be in enforceability; if we felt that we should be able to enforce standards more than at present, then directives or regulations from the European Commission could give us a legal base to do so.
Otherwise, value could be added in the areas of safety or trust. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, mentioned in his opening speech the widespread distrust of the nuclear industry and nuclear power, which particularly struck me in the report. It is possible that if the European Union had more enforceable powers, or a controlling purview of that area, then that public trust might increase. That is debatable, but added value could perhaps happen there.
The second principle needed, apart from added value, is one of member-state choice. It is very important that although an energy policy across the Union would be correct to have carbon emissions targets—and, perhaps, certain renewables targets—it should in no way be able to specify the individual mix within member states. The decisions, particularly on nuclear power, must be made only by individual member states. I cannot think of anything that would destroy any harmony within the Union more quickly than trying to impose nuclear energy on countries such as Ireland or Austria.
A third principle stressed in the report relates to bureaucracy. When a system is functioning reasonably, as at the moment, we certainly do not want an additional and completely parallel one of inspections and checking security. Those are three of the principles, but I think that there is also a fourth. We should not underestimate the distrust there is of the nuclear industry, nor should we belittle the fear of its secrecy or of major incidents that can affect us all. We all know about Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl. I remember that in the mid-1990s one of the main reasons for Ireland electing its first Green MEPs to the European Parliament was the fear of toxicity in the Irish Sea and the performance of the Sellafield plant. This has had a major effect and caused distrust among citizens of other member states, and we might have the same problem with other countries as well.
So how do we move forward from this situation? I believe strongly that the European Union should have an energy policy, particularly in the areas of sustainability and energy security, although we are in a slightly different position in the UK in relation to security because of our reliance on gas from eastern Europe.
There is a plus to be said for enforceability, although I might stand uniquely in the House in this regard. Let me explain why I think enforceability can be important. First, we have huge leverage in eastern Europe while we are negotiating with potential new accession states. That leverage disappears once they become members.
One of the outcomes of the strong emphasis on lower carbon emissions is that all member states are now looking for ways to generate non-fossil fuel power. As we know, the take-up of renewables is slow and takes some time, and so there is an emphasis, if not on new nuclear build, on extending the life of existing nuclear plants. Indeed, Sweden has already extended the life of its plants by some 10 years and is looking to see whether that could be extended further to 20 years. So, from that point of view, there will be an increasing question mark from the community and individuals over whether the decisions that member states have taken to get round other problems and other targets are safe. As the European Union moves further eastwards, as it is likely to do over the next 10 or 20 years, there will still be an issue around the nuclear power stations of the former Soviet Union. So, for all those reasons, we should consider enforceability; it could be important.
Where do we go from here? My view is that we should have an energy policy, which could be at a European level, and that enforceability is desirable, but only very much as a last stage.
There may be a particular issue over the potentially increased bureaucracy of an inspection regime but, again, parts of the EURATOM Treaty already ensure that civil nuclear material is not transferred to the military. There is a regime under which the International Atomic Energy Authority works with member states and the European Commission to ensure that standards are fulfilled. It is exactly the kind of model that we can apply to this situation.
I would be very concerned if the European Commission made a major move into this area but it does have a contribution to make. In the area of waste disposal, we are so far away from finding and implementing the right solution that the EU will have little influence over it. The security issues are important. Measures which give the public confidence in the industry are also important, and the European Union and the European Commission can play a role in that area. The irony is that I remain quite sceptical about European nuclear power, certainly until disposable mechanisms and security issues can be resolved. If the European Union had a role in increasing public confidence and providing some level of enforceability, then, ironically, nuclear power would probably become more acceptable to the citizens of Europe.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for the excellent way in which he chaired Sub-Committee D. It was a real joy to be present and to see the way in which he was able to guide us through what was often rather deep water. He did so with great efficiency. I also pay tribute to the Clerk, Suzanne Todd, who made a very effective summary and report of the very complex deliberations that were involved in the inquiry. Initially, we were fortunate to have the expert advice of Professor Richard Clegg of the Dalton Nuclear Institute, whose experience in nuclear energy matters was very extensive and significant to the study.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, this is a changing area. To me it is remarkable just how much has happened within the past six months and how much will happen in the next six months. To get the matter into reality, we are dealing with a problem that has been around for decades and the solutions will not be clear for decades to come.
The report is concerned with two aspects of nuclear policy: the safety and inspection of nuclear sites and the effective disposal of nuclear waste. Under the present system, nuclear safety and the management of nuclear waste is the responsibility of national Governments. The guidelines, the peer review of nuclear sites and the disposal procedures are organised through the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency. It was apparent that there has been very strong support from all the witnesses with whom we discussed the role and function of that organisation. It has a very high standing indeed.
Some of the underlying interests in the nuclear programme are, very naturally, the worries over the security of future energy supplies, particularly in light of the situation with Russia at the moment. The problems with greenhouse gases and climate change are related to the production of energy from fossil fuels, whereas nuclear is seen as a source of energy that does not involve the production of greenhouse gases. However, it is important to realise that there are significant environmental problems associated with the emissions produced in the initial construction of nuclear plants. That is very heavy indeed in carbon dioxide emissions, which may correspond to years of emissions from alternative sources. Any future programme of nuclear construction should include an assessment of the emissions involved in the construction of the plant and the timescale of operation of the plant to neutralise those emissions. I think one may come up with some rather surprising figures when one looks at that problem.
Most of the European reactors are considered to be old, the average lifetime being about 22 years. That is leading to a serious debate on the replacement of these reactors, as has been mentioned. That was a major contributory factor in the EU timing and formulation of the present directives. After the Chernobyl disaster there was a general recognition that nuclear safety was a trans-boundary problem and it is understandable that the EU has pressed for involvement with nuclear safety. The main users of nuclear power—eight of the 25 member states—rejected the first proposals from the EU and even a second proposal was rejected by seven of them. Those were the states primarily concerned with the production of nuclear energy. It would be very interesting to know how the other 17 states viewed the directive. Perhaps the Minister could inform us. As far as I know, we were not able to decide on that point. The states that opposed the directive made it clear that they did not wish their national responsibility for safety to be compromised; they felt that the directive was merely placing another layer of bureaucracy in the system. They expressed complete confidence with the present IAEA arrangements for safety inspection. I shall return to that point in a moment.
As the noble Lord, Lord Renton said, the Council of Europe has set up a working party on nuclear safety (WPNS) which seeks a solution to this problem. I believe it was scheduled to report by the end of 2006. Perhaps the Minister could inform us how this proposal is progressing. My feeling is that all indicators are against there being any change in the attitude of the dissenting members towards EU interaction.
The second aspect of the EU proposals is the position over the disposal of nuclear waste. Quite honestly this problem has been tasking the industry for many years. The initial suggestion by NIREX of deep burial in suitable geological sites was rejected a number of years ago, mainly from public reaction. A relook at this question by the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology came to a similar solution but made an added proviso that the sites would be available for constant monitoring and inspection.
Perhaps it is important to recognise the amount of nuclear waste for disposal, which is the accumulated waste over the past 50 years. This is a relatively small amount of material. The high-energy waste, for instance, could be confined within a room of about 11 cubic metres; in other words something about the size of the Moses Room would contain 50 years of very high-energy nuclear waste.
The committee found in its visit to Finland that the deep disposal method was the accepted procedure and in fact this is the projected method of disposal by the majority of the nuclear nations. In the EU Belgium, France, Germany and Sweden, and outside it Switzerland, Japan and the USA, have chosen this as their method of disposal.
Quite recently an excellent report by the government Committee on Radioactive Waste Management favoured an interim storage of the waste followed by deep geological disposal with the added possibility of future recovery of the waste if a more appropriate procedure for disposal or recovery became available.
Thus all three UK studies have favoured the deep geological burial of waste as the best solution for the problem. The government body CoRWM conducted extensive consultation with the public and emphasised in its recommendations—it made a number of recommendations, but turn to Recommendation 14—very strong interaction and involvement of the community in any decisions on the site of long-term waste facilities. The Government have welcomed the CoRWM report and accept,
“that geological disposal coupled with safe and secure interim storage is the way forward for the long-term management of the UK's higher activity wastes".
So there seems to be a general acceptance of this deep geological burial solution, but it is important to recognise that there is going to be a problem over storage before burial. This may be for many years for the most active waste. The more active wastes are mainly in the form of liquids. These cannot be vitrified, which seems to be the method that is being suggested for use in burial. This is because of the energy produced by the radiation, which can lead to the heating or boiling of the liquids. This waste, as we have said, constitutes a relatively small amount of the total, but it does provide a problem which involves storage rather than burial for quite a number of years.
It will be decades before the waste is buried and perhaps it is important to recognise with the amount of research being carried out in material science concerning the possible ways of containing these materials that present procedures will probably not be the ones that are used in the burial method.
One of the most important points is going to be selling the sites to the public. In addition to the geological limitations, there will be a sensitivity on the part of many if not all in the local community to the siting of such a deposit, and it is significant that the Government appear to be very sensitive to the suggestions by CoRWM for public involvement. In fact, the Government have agreed that they will take the,
“lead in identifying the process and criteria to be used”,
in deciding the storage facilities. However, the responsibility for the implementation of the geological disposal has been given to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, with a relatively short timescale, to my mind, in which to produce an outline proposal. Perhaps the Minister could comment on this programme.
I have sympathy with the suggestions of Friends of the Earth on the long-term management and packaging of wastes. Indeed, one of the recommendations in our report is that the EU should have some concern in the matter.
We should put this in perspective. The increasing demand for energy is not unique to Europe; it is a global problem. There will be impacts in countries such as China and India, as well as Brazil, South Africa and other Asian countries. Nuclear energy is at least a partial solution to these problems. This emphasises the point that both the disposal and safety of nuclear waste are an international, not just a European, problem.
The present inspection and control system is operated by the IAEA on a global scale and, as I said, appears to be satisfactory as far as the industry is concerned. However, as has been pointed out, the nuclear reactors in Lithuania, which were relatively new, have been rejected as a condition of accession to the Union. This decision was taken on the advice of the EU committee WENRA, to which I think the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred. WENRA declined to give evidence to our committee.
WENRA’s decision appears to impact on the effectiveness of the use of the IAEA as an inspection procedure. Here we have something that was agreed but then rejected on a second look by the European Union. This has severe implications for the reliability of future building programmes throughout the world, if they are to be viewed by the IAEA. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on the reasons for WENRA’s rejection of the Lithuanian reactors and on the long-term implications for the standing of the IAEA as the arbiter of nuclear construction and safety.
My Lords, as a speaker in this debate who is neither on the Front Bench nor a member of Sub-Committee D, I should start by explaining that the debate caught my eye because I had the good fortune to have been elected to represent the county of Cumbria, where I live, in the European Parliament for 10 years. As a result, I had perforce to take an interest in nuclear issues in that context and so became slightly more familiar than most with the EURATOM aspect of the European Union’s activities. I, too, join in the accolades that are being paid to my noble friend Lord Renton. Not having been a member of the committee, I can hardly claim first-hand experience of his great virtues, but I know that that is his reputation on these Benches.
The report has resonance with current proposals in this country to resolve the issues that relate to the long-term disposal of nuclear waste and to pick up where the ill-fated initiatives of the 1990s came to grief. Before making some more general points, I should like to make two specific points that relate to waste disposal in this country.
As the report points out, it is clearly a good idea to establish any possible repository for the long-term storage of nuclear waste in an area where it is accepted from choice. But in taking that approach we need to be clear that, whatever is done, the views of any host community today should not be the overriding consideration, even if the geological conditions are acceptable. Future generations cannot express a view now and it will be they who will experience the consequences of what we decide in our generation.
I think it important that the state should take an objective view about these matters before making a final decision. I do not believe it is good governance for the state to maintain, in coming to a conclusion, that certain volunteers have come forward and, despite knowing in their heart of hearts that what is proposed may not be the right thing, to simply stand by and watch people sell their heritage for a mess of potage.
Secondly, there is a slight asymmetry in this debate between England and Scotland. As I understand it, the disposal of nuclear waste is a devolved responsibility. It follows that Scotland can refuse to store what I might call English material, while it is not possible to do the same the other way around. It is important that we know what the UK Government feel about that and, in the event of it becoming an issue in the deliberations about the possible long-term storage of nuclear waste in repositories, what they are proposing to do about it. The Minister may say that this is a hypothetical question, and until it becomes a reality there is no need to deal with it directly. However, because it is a possibility, it seems by definition to be part of the rules of the game within which the decisions that will be taken are set. As such, it is no longer a hypothetical consideration but a real issue, in terms of the process for determining what is going to happen next. I would be interested, now or later, to hear from the Minister how the Government view that matter.
Having read parts of the report, I found it became apparent, as I think my noble friend Lord Renton said in his opening remarks, that while it is nominally about nuclear waste, it is at least as much about identifying circumstances in which European Union legislation is appropriate. It is that aspect on which I will concentrate the rest of my remarks, even though I regret that the report itself—no doubt this is because it was Sub-Committee D—did not drill down deeply into that aspect.
In the time when I was in the European Parliament, as well as representing Cumbria, I also sat for 10 years on the legal committee, which looked into the questions of legal base and the legality of European Union legislation. The facts this report discusses are an almost textbook example of where such an examination should be carried out.
In analysing it, there are three crucial questions—rather than two, as intimated in the report. The first is: is there a legal base in the treaty for possible European involvement? Secondly, would any legislation be compatible with the principles of subsidiarity? Thirdly, would any legislation be consistent with the principles of proportionality, which is different? The last point is not touched upon as such in the report. That is a pity. I shall explain: my own views on these matters are in line with those of a distinguished Spanish socialist former colleague in the Parliament, Manuel Medina Ortega, who consistently argues that proportionality is a primary principle in consideration of these things. It is far too frequently overlooked in analysis.
In the case of the nuclear package as a whole, therefore, are the three criteria met? With regard to the first question—is there a legal base?—I think there probably is. I suggest that the second question we need to consider is: would legislation meet the test of subsidiarity? I think the answer to that, again, is yes. After all, given the nature of the way we humans use land, the law of tort since the early days has always recognised the interests of neighbours in adjoining development. That underlying approach has been expanded over the years into the area of public law, with what I might describe as laws of land use or planning. In the case of nuclear projects, the extent of that interest goes quite wide, for perfectly obvious reasons. It follows that it is legitimate and proper in principle for the European Union to take an interest, with a view to legislating if appropriate.
Let me explain: I will use the example of Sellafield, although we could equally well use that of the French reprocessing establishment at Cap de la Hague and the United Kingdom. I think it is legitimate for the Irish to maintain that they have some kind of interest in what goes on at Sellafield. But via the EURATOM provisions and other international arrangements to which they are party, they have an input into the rules which form the regulatory framework which surrounds the operation of what goes on there.
While the Irish have no direct involvement in the operation of the plant or of the enforcement of the rules under which it functions, they have a legal and political status in ensuring that the rules that are in place are enforced. It seems to me that in the world as it now is, this strikes a balance between the demands of national sovereignty and the implications of interdependence.
In this case, proportionality—the criterion which I suggest is too frequently overlooked—is crucial. In layman’s terms, what actual value added will be introduced in this area by EU involvement? In short, I cannot see that there is all that much. After all, there seems to be no dispute that the International Atomic Energy Authority plays a significant and positive role in these matters. While its procedures are very different from those of the European Union, as far as I—an atomic layman—can tell, it performs an effective and responsible function in dealing with the regulatory framework surrounding the disposal of nuclear waste. That being so, it seems to render the kind of detailed activity that some bits of the EU nuclear package anticipate unnecessary. It would be highly possible that it might be legitimate for it to get involved if the IAEA did not exist, but it does.
Let me put it slightly differently. We all know that national Governments are frequently criticised for the so-called gold-plating of European Union regulations, but if the European Union introduces the nuclear package in the form debated, it is gold-plating the work of the IAEA, with equally undesirable results. That seems to be a mistake.
As I have already explained, I think it is a shame that the report shied away from a strict analysis of the political, legal and constitutional basis of the proposed legislation. However, I am extremely reassured that its conclusions and the argument it used to reach them are ones with which I concur.
In his opening remarks, my noble friend Lord Renton commented on the recent political change in the European Union’s approach to energy policy. That is undoubtedly an interesting development, but I am not all that convinced that it necessarily makes a great deal of difference to the position I would take on the possible disposal of long-term nuclear waste. That is because, as was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, whether or not any particular member state goes down the nuclear route will depend upon the decisions of the Government in that country. It occurred to me while I was listening to the noble Lord that we are in a slightly similar position to the countries of Europe at the end of the Thirty Years War, when they had to decide whether they were Catholic or Protestant. The doctrine of the Treaty of Westphalia was cujus regio, ejus religio. In the case of the nuclear industry, the decision that will be taken by each member state will determine whether this particular form of generation is part of that country’s response to whatever policy is introduced.
The background to this seems to be that as the world becomes ever more interdependent, and traditional ideas of sovereignty, circumscribed by concepts of jurisdiction, become ever less helpful in dealing with the real problems of the contemporary world, we parliamentarians have to be increasingly rigorous about understanding and scrutinising the systems that are put in place and the criteria that are used to determine legislation and regulation on a multinational basis. If we do not do that, we will all end up in a frightful bureaucratic muddle of bad, wrong, excessive and misconceived laws. Whatever else we may disagree about in this House, I am sure that we can all agree that we are against that.
My Lords, I join in the congratulations that have come from all sides of the House to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and his committee on an excellent report. One issue that should be raised is that the report talks about the need to educate everyone about the issues surrounding nuclear safety and nuclear waste. It is a very readable report. It can be read quickly and simply without reference to a dictionary. That is quite a feat to undertake. I read it from cover to cover without getting lost at any point and it is one of the first reports that I can say that about.
I found something troubling me when I was most of the way through the report. Although the report is about safety and waste, it signifies the fundamental problem about nuclear safety and waste—it is a political as well as a scientific issue. It highlights the divergence between many member states’ views of what is a national and what is the European issue. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, just said, the Irish submission that Sellafield could affect Ireland cannot be denied. Although we think of nuclear power supplying our national energy needs as a national issue, the safety aspects, especially the waste aspects, are transnational issues.
I trained originally at university as an archaeologist. I can finally say that European prehistoric archaeology has come to my aid. It has some use. There is finally a nugget of information that I can use. High-level waste is safe only after a minimum of 150,000 years. That is an interesting figure because it was about then that the first homo sapiens came to the British Isles. They had to leave the British Isles—there was a long period when no one was living here—because we had a number of ice ages. The British Isles would then have been called the north west highland region of Europe—not an island at all. The land bridge broke only 16,000 years ago. If you are looking at nuclear storage, 16,000 years is a very short time indeed. It shows how the face of Europe has fundamentally changed.
We can also look at the change being highlighted over the next 100 years. It is of great concern that many nuclear power stations are based on the coast. With rising sea levels that will be a problem. There could be real implications for decommissioning coastal power stations that then turn out to be underwater. Climate change is another problem. There might be desertification of certain parts of Europe, and it would be difficult to run a nuclear power station, with a large need for water as a coolant, inland.
We on these Benches are opposed to any new build nuclear power because of the safety and waste problems and because of the cost. One issue highlighted in the report and talked about at a great level is that, because of the inherent risk associated with nuclear power, it has a heavy regulatory burden for safety. Although I agree with the proposition in the report that peer review has been successful in keeping a high standard of safety, we should not underestimate the future cost of safety. It will not decrease. Because of the concerns of many member states about nuclear power, the cost of regulation of safety will increase. I read that modern nuclear power stations are incredibly low risk and that it is likely that only one would blow up every 1,000 years. I am not sure if this is correct, but does that mean that if there were 1,000 nuclear power stations one would blow up every year? Perhaps that is playing with statistics.
The importance of the issue cannot be underestimated. As the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, pointed out, the Moses Room could be used as a repository for high-level nuclear waste, although I believe that he would have issues with English Heritage if he suggested that again. The problem should be outlined that it takes only a trace element of that nuclear waste to be free in the environment and you have a major issue over human health and safety. A dirty bomb would be seen as the ultimate bad case scenario for homeland security because of the decontamination that would have to be undertaken.
The waste aspect of the report is handled very well. I find it quite depressing that it remains a problem, although it has been discussed for so many years. I think it was the Flowers report in the 1970s that stated that no nuclear power station should be built until a solution to the waste issue was achieved, which shows that it is a long-term problem. It was believed a few years ago that we were close to a solution, but I read an interesting article about the problems of vitrification of nuclear waste that shows that the energy being put out by nuclear waste breaks down the glass in a quite short period of time—in a few thousand years rather than the 150,000 years that would be needed. That is a real issue. The heat that would be generated by nuclear waste means that, if low-level waste was put into concrete, which as we have seen in many buildings breaks down over a relatively short period of time, we might be creating our own hazardous waste issues for the future. So we need to think about our policies towards deep-level geological storage. If it turns out that there is a major problem, should we build storage capacity that is retrievable or that is sealed? The Minister could give us some indication how the Government viewed last year’s report on waste management, whether they have reached final conclusions and when we are finally going to see the start of any excavations for deep-level storage and where it should take place.
Although I am opposed to nuclear power, I believe that the report is very balanced. Counting the light bulbs in the Chamber, we can see that of the 60 light bulbs shining down on us 12 of them are powered by nuclear power. Even if we got rid of nuclear power in this country, some of them would still be powered by French nuclear power, so to say that we are going to live without nuclear power would be irresponsible. The very fact that quite a lot of the French nuclear power is based on just the other side of the Channel means that, even if we took out nuclear power, the safety implications of nuclear power would still have to be carefully weighed up.
I thank whoever wrote the report for an absolute gem, which made me laugh quite heartily while I read it on the Tube yesterday. I refer to recommendation 126 in chapter five on page 44, which says:
“We are extremely concerned that the Commission's underlying intent in introducing the nuclear package was to improve public perception of nuclear energy within the EU. Legislation should not be used as a tool to affect public opinion”.
I would very much hope that the Minister can deliver that to the Home Office with any recommendations that he sees fit.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry on securing this debate. As he outlined, the report considers the ongoing controversy surrounding two directives known as the “nuclear package”, which has divided the opinions of the European Union member states.
I join other Members of this House in thanking him as chairman of the committee, other Members of your Lordships’ House who participated in the Committee, Suzanne Todd, who was the committee’s clerk, and Richard Clegg, who was its specialist adviser, for the hard work that they put into producing this report, which has had the tricky role of analysing the tension between pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear views and its impact on the development of thinking in the EU and internationally. I join the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, in remarking that the report was written in plain English, so we can commend it if for no other reason than that we could all read it.
There is no doubt that managing nuclear waste and safety is a very important ongoing issue. Indeed, this debate is timely in the light of Her Majesty's Government’s recent commitment to a new generation of nuclear power stations. That commitment sparked much commentary in media and political circles, which in some cases sadly supported the committee's concerns about the public’s perception and knowledge of nuclear power. I agree with many of your Lordships that we need to address this gap; we need to make certain that we educate our own citizens, press and politicians, as well as encourage other member states to do the same. Of course, people are sceptical if they are not fully aware of the safety measures in place in nuclear installations and the handling of waste. I hope that the Minister will outline what steps Her Majesty's Government plan to take in this regard.
Before I comment on the individual recommendations made by the committee, I refer to the memo produced by the EU at the start of the month, to which my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry has already referred. We all recognise that nuclear power generation could represent one option in reducing CO2 emissions and play a role in addressing climate change. This will be an important consideration when future emissions trading schemes are discussed. However, Her Majesty's Government must give green energy a chance, and I hope that they will undertake to do so.
It is interesting to note that the European Commission has proposed the establishment of a European Union High Level Group of national nuclear regulators to,
“further develop a common understanding and European Rules in the field of nuclear safety and security”.
I will be most interested to hear the Minister’s view on this new proposal. Indeed, I think that it moves the debate on from some of the committee's original conclusions. We can surely all agree that, as a general rule, energy provision should try to go hand in hand with programmes to reduce carbon emissions.
I am pleased to say that I support many of the committee's conclusions and recommendations. The report and, indeed, today's debate have highlighted some interesting questions to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond.
I welcome the committee's conclusions regarding the safety directive in chapter 3: we do not need it. As the noble Lord explained, the directive in its current form would require the implementation of extra rules on top of stringent national plans. It would be an extra burden, without increased resources being made available, and it would most likely have an adverse effect on safety rather than the effect that was originally intended.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been referred to, is already a respected player in the field of nuclear safety, and there are already clear rules and guidelines to ensure nuclear standards. I have seen no evidence that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Convention on Nuclear Safety is not working to improve and uphold safety standards for nuclear installations globally. It is my view—and I would like to hear the views of the Minister on the issue—that we should not regulate for the sake of regulation. Indeed, I thought Her Majesty's Government were all for cutting regulation. An effective international regime is far better then a European regime.
We on these Benches are not blind to the concerns which the committee encountered about the motives behind the Commission’s introduction of this nuclear package. I await with interest the Minister’s thoughts on the three issues raised in paragraphs 126 to 128 of the report.
These concerns feed into the committee’s strong arguments regarding the harmonising of nuclear safety; the report stated that member states should retain the ultimate responsibility for its delivery. However, we must not forget that nuclear safety cannot be contained by borders and geographical boundaries. The European Union and the UK should continue to press for continual improvement in the safety of nuclear operations in a global sense, as well as taking responsibility for their own.
I turn now to the issue of nuclear waste. I agree fully with paragraph 123 of the report that efforts must be made to ensure that suitable waste solutions are derived and implemented. Your Lordships’ House has already debated and welcomed the interim recommendations from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management earlier this year, and we look forward to its final report. Addressing the issue of nuclear waste is essential for public confidence.
I share, as do many Members of the House, the European Union Committee’s concerns that the adoption of the waste directive,
“may run the risk of undermining national confidence in national waste programmes rather than facilitating it”.
We on these Benches do not want to rule out cross-border co-operation on nuclear waste; we have a lot to learn about nuclear waste management from some of our European friends. The committee was impressed, as I am, by the success of Finland and Sweden, which have incorporated local consultation into every step of their decision-making processes regarding the disposal of high-level radioactive waste. That is clearly the right way to address public concerns. Will the Minister comment on whether this Government will take account of the Western European Nuclear Regulators’ Association’s recommendations on the issue?
The issue of nuclear waste is very sensitive, and we should consider public opinion before adopting the waste directive. Legacy waste is primarily an issue for the citizens of the United Kingdom, and we need to ensure that the public are confident with our waste management strategy. What evaluation of public opinion about nuclear waste have the Government made, not only with regard to the directive, but with regard to long-term management? I share the committee’s view that serious consideration needs to be given to ruling out any future waste legislation that could allow the possibility of member states being required to receive foreign radioactive waste. Any such proposal would be deeply unpopular in every European country.
This report and debate clearly demonstrate the important role that the European Union has to play in this sector; the issues of nuclear waste and safety will benefit from international co-operation and the sharing of best practice. However, the proposed directive is an over-blunt instrument, adding unnecessary legislation and muddying the waters with regard to accountability and transparency in the unhoped-for event of an accident.
Finally, although we welcome high-level discussions, we do not find the idea of a European Union regulator appealing in any way. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the questions asked by noble Lords on this vital subject.
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to close the debate, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed—none more than the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for his sterling work in chairing the sub-committee.
No one disputes the importance of nuclear safety. Her Majesty’s Government and the UK civil nuclear industry take their responsibilities for the safe management of nuclear installations and nuclear waste extremely seriously. In an early response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, I categorically affirm that this country has in place a strict regulatory regime. It ensures the highest standards of safety in minimising radiation exposure from normal operations and in preventing accidental releases of radioactivity from nuclear installations. The legislative framework not only requires the highest standards of safety but keeps the safety of nuclear sites under constant review. Nuclear operators must demonstrate to the Health and Safety Executive’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate that activities at nuclear sites are safe. They must also show that they are complying with the strict conditions of their nuclear site licence and other relevant safety legislation.
In addition to the UK’s own safety framework, the Government are a signatory to international conventions and treaties that put the nuclear industry under regular and intense scrutiny against internationally recognised good practice. That was mentioned by a number of noble Lords in the debate. The commitment of the industry and the Government, coupled with the strength of the UK’s independent regulators, ensures that our obligations under those arrangements are fully met. The result has been an excellent safety record.
It is because of that safety record that the Government welcomed the inquiry conducted by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and the EU Select Committee’s Environment and Agriculture Sub-Committee. This looked at the European Commission’s proposal to introduce new binding legislation on the safety of nuclear installations and the safe management of radioactive waste—the so-called nuclear package. Noble Lords can be assured that the Government remain grateful to the committee for the enthusiasm and dedication with which it approached this inquiry. The committee rigorously examined evidence from a vast range of national and international experts in nuclear safety and waste.
The report clearly validates the Government’s approach to the adoption of the nuclear package. We agree with the opinion expressed by my noble friend Lord Sewel and, I believe, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that the report stated that no case was made for the safety directive because there was no evidence that it would add value to current arrangements. Indeed, the report underlined Her Majesty’s Government’s concern that it could have an adverse effect on safety because of the additional burden that it would place on the regulator. The Government hold the independence of the regulator to be of the utmost importance in ensuring the integrity of the safety regime.
The committee’s comments on the long-term management of higher-level radioactive waste are particularly pertinent in light of the recent publication of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management’s final recommendations and the Government’s acceptance of those recommendations. That point was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Renton, Lord Lewis of Newnham, and Lord Inglewood, among others. I can inform noble Lords that the independent Committee on Radioactive Waste concluded in July 2006 that deep geological disposal in a repository was the best available approach to the long-term management of waste and that a programme of interim storage—already planned by the NDA—was also required. The position with regard to CoRWM was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Renton, Lord Lewis, Lord Inglewood and Lord Redesdale, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. As I said, the Government accepted these recommendations and are taking them forward in line with the principle of volunteerism of host communities. We will say more on this when the White Paper is published in March.
The noble Lord, Lord Lewis, mentioned the storage of waste prior to deep disposal. Waste from new or existing power stations will be packaged and stored for as long as necessary before placement in a final repository. Regulatory requirements will ensure short- and long-term safety, and environmental protection from both legacy and any new waste. It will, however, take several decades before a repository is operational. It will take time to identify a suitable location and gain approval.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, mentioned Scotland. The devolved Scottish Parliament continues to be involved in policy on the implementation of the CoRWM recommendations. I have probably said enough on those matters.
My Lords, my understanding is that it is not but, as noble Lords know, certain matters—for example, planning issues—are devolved to Scotland. However, the energy policy laid out in the White Paper is a policy for the UK, and obviously we are working closely with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Sewel. He is right: this is a very complicated and sensitive area, and I undertake to write to clarify the position further. I move on.
What does the future hold? Noble Lords will know that in Her Majesty’s Government’s energy review, published last year, we suggested that nuclear had a role to play in the future UK generating mix, alongside other low-carbon-generating options. We published that view as the basis for consultation. However, given the comprehensive analysis that we undertook before reaching that view, we expect to confirm it as agreed policy in the energy White Paper to be published this year. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that renewables and a commitment to a low-carbon economy will be central to it.
The prospect of putting new nuclear on the agenda makes public perceptions of safety even more important. In addition, we will continue to decommission the power plants that have reached the end of their useful lives and will deal with the nuclear legacy that remains from past UK involvement in nuclear generation.
Referring to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, Her Majesty’s Government have also given the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority responsibility for taking forward the development of a geological repository for higher-level wastes, coupled with its continuing programme of safe and secure interim storage. The Government will consult on an implementation framework as soon as practicable this year.
Under the German presidency, EU member states will be working to implement the outcomes of the report of the Working Party on Nuclear Safety. This work arose from the Council conclusions on nuclear safety and the safe management of spent fuel and radioactive waste, a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lewis of Newnham. The final report makes a number of recommendations that will enable member states to make greater use of the existing framework to ensure the highest level of safety across the European Union, a matter referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson.
The noble Lord, Lord Lewis, mentioned the WPNS, which is made up of representatives of member states. It did indeed report to the Council’s Atomic Questions Group. The report was accepted by AQG and work is now under way in that group to implement its recommendations.
I now move on to some of the other points raised by noble Lords. With regard to the point made by my noble friend Lord Sewel, the Prime Minister has said:
“A clean, secure and sufficient supply of energy is simply essential for the future of our country”.
There is no simple single solution to the challenges of climate change and energy security: we need action on all fronts.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, raised a question on the new version of the nuclear package and the likelihood of it being presented in the near future. The UK Government are working closely with like-minded countries to improve transparency and the exchange of best practice on nuclear safety without having to introduce statutory instruments to improve the level of safety across all member states.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of public perception. It was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who mentioned it in the context of European legislation. The basic question was whether the Government thought that European legislation with the involvement of Brussels would improve public confidence in the nuclear industry. Our feeling is that it would not. There is no evidence to suggest that the British public have concerns about issues relating to the regulator’s ability to discharge its responsibilities.
The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, also raised the issue of decisions on waste. Individual member states need to decide on the issue of waste disposal for themselves. Our view is that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. He mentioned the IAEA’s work. The agency has a joint convention which covers radioactive waste and spent fuel and to which the UK is a contracting party. That requires parties to submit reports for peer review. An EU waste directive is unlikely to add value to that process. The noble Lord also raised the issue of public distrust in nuclear power. The Government’s view is that it is possible to gain public trust only by ensuring high standards of safety. That issue was raised also by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. The regulator is working hard to ensure that standards of safety are pushed even higher both in the UK and across the EU through WENRA and the IAEA convention on nuclear safety.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised a number of points, and on some of them I shall have to write to her. The Government’s view is that safety is a matter for individual member states. National procedures are complemented by the international framework peer review process, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and several other noble Lords.
The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, also mentioned renewables. I have already referred to those once. The Government intend to strengthen the framework on the development and deployment of renewable technologies. We believe that we can achieve the 20 per cent target of our electricity coming from renewable sources by 2020.
That more or less sums up the debate from my point of view. I will, as I said, write to noble Lords on any issues that have not been covered. My summary has been brief on the excellent work which has been done nationally, in the European Union and internationally on nuclear safety and to which the Government assign a high priority. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and EU Sub-Committee D on Environment and Agriculture on its excellent report.
My Lords, it is a platitude to say that this has been an interesting debate; one always says that in this House. However, I have found the past two hours extremely interesting. There have been some very good speeches and, as always in the committee I was lucky enough to chair, a marvellously varied degree of knowledge coming out at moments when one does not, perhaps, wholly expect it. We saw a lot of that today.
The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, was right to remind us of the different attitudes of European countries towards nuclear energy, and thus whether these draft directives were suitable or not. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Teverson; I do not think that I have heard him speak before and was interested by some of his comments. He was right to remind us that the European Commission’s interest in nuclear matters stems from the EURATOM Treaty; indeed, the papers I quoted from, issued a week ago, are presented under Article 40 of that treaty. Both the noble Lord and, in particular, my noble friend Lord Inglewood raised the question of the legality of the EU Commission’s position on this. I say to the noble Lord that we looked into the issue and came to the conclusion, as he did, that the draft directives were legal; whether they were necessary or not is another matter. We concluded, however, that it was such a complex issue that we decided not to talk about it in our report. That could be said to be rather cowardly of us.
The noble Lord, Lord Lewis, gave us a glimpse of the scientific knowledge with which he sometimes used to astound us in our committee meetings. I have come to the conclusion that nothing would give the noble Lord greater pleasure than to build a nuclear reactor himself, but with hydrogen rather than uranium.
My noble friend Lord Inglewood talked about the three key questions of proportionality, subsidiarity and legality. It was good to be reminded of them, and his answers were absolutely right.
The Minister was a bit careful in his reply, with a little hedging and dodging. That is not surprising. After all, the Government’s attitude to the nuclear issue is not yet well enough known. We look forward to hearing more about it. The present position of the United Kingdom on the treatment of high-level radioactive waste is not one of which we can be at all proud, and needs changing. That said, I warmly thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House adjourned at 6.33 pm.