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Lords Chamber

Volume 691: debated on Monday 23 April 2007

House of Lords

Monday, 23 April 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of St Albans.

Tax Credits

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What proportion of (a) eligible working families, (b) single parents and (c) old age pensioners claim tax credits.

My Lords, latest estimates show that, in 2004-05, 90 per cent of eligible low-income working families with children and 93 per cent of eligible working single parents took up the child and working tax credits. Estimates of tax credit take-up rates for those above state pension age are not available.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. First, would it be difficult to obtain the latter figures on pensions, which are very important? Secondly, are there substantial differences, not only between but within regions? My understanding is that in some cities fewer than half of those entitled to tax credits are claiming.

My Lords, we could not possibly have the figures for cities, given the low return rates, as the noble Baroness has indicated. I have no briefing on city break-downs. I should emphasise that we do not have figures on pensioners because a very small number of them are entitled to claim tax credits—not pension credits but tax credits. That is why we do not have figures with which to draw comparisons.

My Lords, why does one-third of the money spent on tax credits—one-third of £16 billion—go to the richest half of society, and is paid to those with incomes of up to £61,500? Why does the system appear to pay more to couples who split up than to couples with children who remain together?

My Lords, on the latter point, there might be difficulties catching up with the new arrangements when couples have recently split up. There is no difficulty over permanent relationships; but overpayments can occur during the year following a split-up. On the more general point, I would have thought that the situation was clear. The concept behind tax credits is to give benefit across the board. It helps in our strategy of relieving child poverty, it helps the low-paid among whom the take-up rate is high, and those who pay higher tax and who qualify get higher returns; that is the logic of the situation.

My Lords, I do not have the precise figures but the answer is too many. We were, and are, concerned about the administration of the scheme, which certainly led to far too many overpayments being made. There will always be a difficulty because people’s tax position and liabilities can change significantly during the year, the most dramatic change being when families split up. It is obligatory for citizens to respond when their circumstances change but they do not always do so with alacrity. That is why overpayment occurs, why we are concerned about the level of overpayment and why we introduced procedures to reduce it.

My Lords, perhaps I may help the Minister. In 2004-05, £1.8 billion was overpaid in tax credits. It was then clawed back the following year, often causing great difficulty to the recipient. By now, the noble Lord should have the figures for 2005-06. What are they? Furthermore, the pensions Minister in another place has claimed that the Pensions Bill will prevent the number of pensioners being means-tested reaching 80 per cent by 2050. How many pensioners will be means-tested if the Pensions Bill, which is currently in this House, goes through as expected?

My Lords, the noble Lord anticipated that I would have the 2005-06 figures but I am sorry to say that I do not; they are not ready. I regret that but it is a fact and I am not armed with the figures. On the more general issue, the noble Lord will recognise that in all these areas the Government have set objectives for high targets to be reached by their legislation, although that does not mean that we are fully on course to meet them in every case. However, I hope that the other side will recognise the significant improvement that we have made in reducing child poverty, whereas under the previous Administration child poverty was doubling.

My Lords, if no one else is going to put in a word in favour of tax credits, perhaps I may do so. Is it not the case that tax credits have enabled large numbers of people to work at levels of pay that employers can afford and enjoy a relatively decent standard of living?

My Lords, as my noble friend indicated, the whole point about tax credits is that they are meant to reduce the disincentive to work, which obtained significantly before they were introduced, and they guarantee a proper income for people in work.

My Lords, I do not think that I heard the Minister answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and perhaps I may add to it. What proportion of pensioners are now subject to mean-testing and what proportion will be subject in 30 or 40 years’ time, or whatever figure he may like to take, under Mr Brown’s new policies?

My Lords, the noble Lord should recognise that this is a question about tax credits and not about welfare benefits relating to pensions. Therefore, it is not surprising that I am not in a position to hazard a guess about the situation in 2050 in the way that he asked. As I have clearly indicated, the Government’s intention is to reduce poverty among older people and children, where the greatest incidence of poverty occurs, and we are making powerful strides in that direction.

My Lords, given that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, is concerned that certain areas may be suffering from a postcode lottery, will the Minister consider encouraging CABs and other such organisations to offer people help in filling in what are often difficult tax forms?

My Lords, we certainly want to ensure that the system is uniform across the country, and the information given by and understanding of the taxpayer are crucial in arriving at a correct assessment.

Schools: Language Teaching

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they are taking or planning to take in response to the recent Languages Review by Lord Dearing and Dr Lid King.

My Lords, the Secretary of State has welcomed the Languages Review and announced that languages would become a statutory part of the primary school curriculum when it is next reviewed. He has also announced a budget of £50 million for languages in 2007-08. We are considering how to take forward each recommendation of the review, and are confident that the package as a whole will have a significant impact on language teaching and learning in both primary and secondary schools.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for the detail of that reply. He will doubtless agree that it is in secondary schools that the matter of reversing the downward trend will be most challenging. It may well be that instilling some strong motivation for language learning in respect of future careers may be a key factor. Will the Minister therefore be urging big employers, such as the Civil Service, to state in job ads that the knowledge of a second or third language would be an advantage? Does he agree with the British Academy that the universities have a role in that motivational aspect as well? I note that University College, London, has decided to start requiring an additional language, be it German, Urdu, French or Farsi, for entry to all faculties in future.

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that both employers, including the Civil Service, and higher education have a role to play in ensuring that languages are taken seriously in secondary schools. However, as he will be aware, one of the major thrusts of the report by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, was the importance of systematically introducing languages into primary schools, where they simply have not been present in the past, so that pupils arrive at secondary school with the motivation to learn a language, which we believe will make a big difference to the likelihood of their continuing to learn it beyond the age of 14.

My Lords, how confident are the Government that they will have enough teachers capable of teaching at the primary school level? In particular, will some native speakers be used to act as assistants in primary schools, perhaps by doing short-course training? We send people overseas with just six weeks’ training from courses on Teaching English as a Foreign Language.

My Lords, yes, we are using an increasing number of assistants in primary schools. As the noble Baroness is aware, historically we did not train language teachers specifically for primary school; that happened only in the private sector. We have started doing so, and now have 2,000 specifically trained language teachers in the primary sector. We are training at the rate of 1,000 a year, and believe that that will help us to systematically introduce language learning into primary schools.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the Government are planning to increase the number of specialist colleges from 300 to 400?

Yes, my Lords, we are. As the noble Baroness will be aware, that was also a recommendation of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. So concerned are we to see that it is met that we have increased the incentive for secondary schools to apply to take on either a first specialism or second specialism in languages, so that we can work towards the figure of 400.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that English being the second language of, I believe, 27 per cent of youngsters who now attend school presents a considerable problem?

My Lords, it clearly does present a problem, particularly in the teaching of English in those schools. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, stressed in his report, it also presents an opportunity. By definition, these students become much more versatile in learning languages; they have two to start with—their native language and English. If properly used by schools, that could be an additional motivating factor in encouraging them to learn another language as well.

My Lords, the Government are fully behind the proposal to have a ladder up which people can ascend when they are ready at each stage of language learning. That will involve pupils of different ages taking the same examinations at the same time. Is that part of the policy?

My Lords, that is an absolutely key part of the policy so that we start introducing inter-language learning, the concept that has been present in music education for decades, where pupils take music grades when they are ready rather than in a regimented way according to their age or, too often, not at all. The languages ladder was introduced last year, when we had 25,000 entries. The number of centres offering the ladder has increased from 131 to 1,500. We expect 160,000 entries this year and we are expanding the range of languages available. The noble Lord, Lord Dearing, had a great deal to say about how we should integrate the languages ladder into assessments in primary and secondary schools and we intend to take forward his recommendations in that regard.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the news that the Government are to introduce language teaching as a statutory requirement in primary schools is extremely welcome? There are probably many people in this House and elsewhere who wish that they had had the benefit of that early in their careers. Has he considered the possibility that, as with music teaching, many people in the community who are not trained teachers and do not wish to be may have skills in languages that they could bring into the classroom, subject to quality standards being applied of course, on an outsourced basis and not as permanent members of staff? Does he agree that the voluntary and private sectors may have a part to play in providing those services?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely valuable point. Many members of the community and those employed by voluntary and private organisations can make a big contribution here. Their contribution can be particularly great because most primary schools may need not a full-time languages teacher, but an assistant, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, or support staff to help existing primary school teachers. We need to explore all these avenues.

My Lords, will the Government respond positively to the four strong recommendations for improving the qualifications of teachers in secondary schools, which have been put forward on page 17 in the Languages Review? They include national teacher research scholarships and the more systematic provision of online distance training resources. There are a lot of proposals for improving language teaching in secondary schools.

My Lords, we will respond positively to those recommendations. I cannot give chapter and verse on each of them now, but I will write to the noble Baroness. Each of them involves resource. We have a budget of £50 million this year for language learning and we need to see how we can prioritise those recommendations among others, with the resources available.

Olympic Games 2012: Hackney Marshes

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they still intend to use Hackney Marshes as a VIP car park during the 2012 London Olympic Games; and, if so, what proportion of the football pitches will be affected and what alternative facilities will be provided for the youth of Hackney.

My Lords, East Marsh, part of Hackney Marshes, will provide disabled parking and a coach drop-off facility during the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. The 13 football pitches on that site will be required for two football seasons from May 2011 to August 2013. During that period, the London Development Agency plans to provide an equivalent facility elsewhere on the main part of Hackney Marshes through upgrading currently disused pitches.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Can he assure me that the Government at the time will cover the cost of relocating the pitches and properly equipping them in replacement?

My Lords, is it right that the London Borough of Hackney is unconcerned about the point raised by the noble Lord? Is it also right that the borough is only too anxious to protect the rights of Hackney citizens wherever they may be adversely affected?

My Lords, the London Borough of Hackney has long experience of running the pitches in Hackney Marshes but it is unconcerned because it stands to benefit significantly from the legacy of the Olympic Games.

My Lords, would it not be rather strange to attack Hackney, one of the few places to have a direct and guaranteed benefit through facilities as a result of the Olympic Games? Is it also not a fact that the Hackney Marshes football pitches have long been in need of tremendous renovation?

My Lords, they certainly have, and I speak from bitter experience 45 years ago. If ever a group of football pitches needed improvement, it is certainly those on Hackney Marshes, of which there are very many. Some of them will benefit significantly from the Olympic legacy.

My Lords, is it true that part of the arena facilities at Hackney Marshes, taking in not only pitches but also important dressing room facilities, is earmarked by the Olympic planners for a big media centre that, it is thought, will be a permanent fixture? Is there a prospect of getting compensatory land so that the pitches and dressing room facilities can be replaced?

My Lords, as ever, the noble Baroness is well informed. One of the main media centres will be located in this area, and its legacy will be that afterwards it will be a prime business site of high rentable value. Resources from that can be put into—I nearly said “ploughed into”—football pitches that need vast improvement.

My Lords, bearing in mind the Government’s policy on global warming, instead of providing car parks for VIPs would it not be preferable to encourage them to travel by public transport and set an example to everyone else?

My Lords, this facility will be of significant use for disabled visitors to the Games. We expect a high percentage of those attending the Games to use the excellent public transport infrastructure that will be in place by then.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on reports that natural gas has been discovered under Hackney Marshes and the whole of the Lea Valley? Will he give noble Lords an estimate of the cost properly to remedy the problem?

My Lords, I thought that even more noisome substances than natural gas had been found under Hackney Marshes. Part of the work on preparing the sites is proving costly and laborious because of certain inert gases found under the surface and the problem of site clearance. However, those problems are being overcome.

My Lords, does my noble friend know whether the Olympic design in Stratford includes a car park with a second deck? When I met the people involved in that a couple of years ago, they said that they would have to flatten the site, which had been used by Tarmac and concreting batching plants, for a VIP car park through which Her Majesty the Queen would drive. I suggested that a second deck could halve the area required, but they looked at me as though it was an idea from Mars. Have they moved on and is not a second deck on the car park a good idea to reduce the land take?

My Lords, I have not been briefed on the car parks for the Olympic Games, save that the facility referred to is for the disabled. My noble friend finds many opportunities to present excellent ideas and I can hope only that many people take them up with the same alacrity as do Her Majesty's Government.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned ploughing up. Is he aware of the plight of the allotment owners who are being asked to give up their long-tended allotments and who are not certain that they will be replaced with allotments of equal quality, if any?

My Lords, allotment owners have important interests that are being looked into and they will receive compensation or other land on which to develop allotments. As the noble Baroness indicated, as far as possible all users of the site on which the Olympic Games are to take place should have facilities restored to them or replaced once the Games are completed. That may not be possible in every case, but it is the intention.

Autism: Blue Badge Scheme

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether new guidance for local authorities on the administration of the blue badge scheme will include provision to allow for the blue badge to be extended to people with autism.

My Lords, the new draft guidance, which is out to consultation, provides advice on the existing eligibility criteria and therefore does not include advice on autism. The Department for Transport is due to conduct a strategic review of the blue badge scheme, which will report this September. The review will consider whether the scheme should be extended to other disability groups.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but the wheels at the Department for Transport are grinding extremely slow. The review carried out by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee reported in 2002. That means that five years have now elapsed, and the department is conducting a strategic review over the next few months. What consideration has already been given to the needs of autistic people in these circumstances? Why have the Government been so slow to consider additional forms of eligibility for the blue badge scheme?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord for his work on behalf of the educational needs of people with autism, in particular his work for TreeHouse, and I acknowledge his expertise in this field. There have been delays in the implementation of that first review, in light of which it is the department’s view that a further strategic review should be conducted. Its work should be completed this September so that we can more fully reflect on the needs of those who suffer from autism. We have been consulting charities that relate to autism as a disability. We have also recently received a final research project report on the needs of people with autism, which it is hoped we can feed into the strategic review so that a final policy on the matter can be determined by the beginning of next year.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to a review of the operation of the blue badge scheme. When that takes place, can it also encompass the differences between one local authority and another, even those in central London? They are confusing, to say the least, because there is not proper signage about the arrangements in each local authority, so if a disabled person in a car moves out of his or her own local authority, he or she can get into difficulties through not knowing what the regulations are.

My Lords, I accept that those difficulties can arise and it is useful that the noble Lord has raised this matter. I am aware that this issue has been raised before and, no doubt, it is one of the things that the strategic review will take on board.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that, when the review takes place, it will have some built-in mechanism by which it can be expanded to cover any group that would seem to benefit from the scheme and who should benefit from it, because we do not want to go through this again with the next group?

My Lords, my understanding is that we will be casting the net wide in the process of consultation so that those who believe that they have a direct interest and an input into the strategic review can make their views well known to the department. The department works very closely with DPTAC, the disabled transport policy advisory group.

My Lords, can the Minister say why the department cannot apply basic common sense? Anybody who sees a mother struggling with an autistic child or a carer struggling with an autistic adult will know just how difficult it is to get an autistic person to the shops. They cannot travel on public transport and their carers cannot control them in order to walk long distances to the shops. Why can they not be given a blue badge?

My Lords, I entirely accept the views expressed by the noble Countess on this issue and I fully understand where she is coming from. It seems common sense if you approach it in that way. However, we have to understand where the blue badge scheme originated; it specifically and directly related to those with a profound physical disability. Time has moved on and that is why we need to review its operation so that we can have consistent and sensible application and recognition of newly discovered or newly understood and appreciated disabilities.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the growing problem of the theft of blue badges? Is he also aware that there is a thriving black market? Badges can be sold for money, which is sometimes subsequently used to fund the use of illegal drugs. I hope that that is being taken in as part of the review. Can he tell the House what steps the Government are taking to stop this theft and to work in partnership with the local authorities and the police to avoid it continuing?

My Lords, that was one of the issues raised and understood as part of the original review. The plan is to introduce holograms to both individual and organisational badges for security purposes so that they are not subject to the fraud to which the noble Lord makes reference.

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind the fact that people with autism can behave irrationally? They can run amok or they can sit in the middle of a busy road as they are unaware of the dangerous activity. On any reasonable criterion, that kind of behaviour qualifies them for a blue badge. Will the Government bear that in mind in this review?

My Lords, as I have said several times, the strategic review will take place in the summer. It is hoped that firm recommendations can be developed towards the end of the year, with a new policy and strategy to adapt the blue badge scheme at the beginning of next year.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that—as I was surprised to find in the forms and documents for my blue badge—the fundamental conditions for blue badges are now controlled by the commissioners in Brussels? Many of us with blue badges do not want to find that we have rights not merely to park in London and elsewhere but also in Dubrovnik and Vienna.

My Lords, the noble Lord approaches the issue from an interesting angle. We are trying to ensure some commonality in blue badge schemes across Europe. That informs part of our thinking.

My Lords, could not the autistic be given the blue badges now and the Government have their review afterwards?

My Lords, that sounds nice and tempting, but it is right that we should conduct a proper strategic review so that we can go through the various difficulties and exercise our minds on them. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s comment. I have great sympathy with him, but this considered approach with proper processes of consultation is the right way forward.

Life Peerages (Residency for Taxation Purposes) Bill [HL]

My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to amend the Life Peerages Act 1958 to provide a tax residency requirement for the conferral of life peerages under that Act. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Bill read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Vehicle Registration Marks Bill

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and ordered to be printed.

Communications Committee

My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider communications and that, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the Committee:

B Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury,

L Corbett of Castle Vale,

B Eccles of Moulton,

L Fowler (Chairman),

L Hastings of Scarisbrick,

B Howe of Idlicote,

L Inglewood,

L King of Bridgwater,

Bp Manchester,

L Maxton,

B McIntosh of Hudnall,

B Scott of Needham Market,

B Thornton.

That the committee have power to adjourn from place to place;

That the committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;

That the committee have leave to report from time to time;

That the evidence taken by the committee shall, if the committee so wishes, be published;

And that the committee meet on Tuesday 1 May at 3.30 pm in Committee Room 2A.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Climate Change Bill: Joint Committee

My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the Commons message of Wednesday 18 April be now considered, and that a committee of 12 Lords be appointed to join with the committee appointed by the Commons to consider and report on the draft Climate Change Bill presented to both Houses on 13 March 2007 (Cm 7040);

That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed to the committee:

B Billingham,

E Caithness,

L Crickhowell,

L Jay of Ewelme,

L May of Oxford,

B Miller of Chilthorne Domer,

L Puttnam,

E Selborne,

L Teverson,

L Vinson,

L Whitty,

L Woolmer of Leeds;

That the committee have power to agree with the committee appointed by the Commons in the appointment of a chairman;

That the committee have power to send for persons, papers and records;

That the committee have power to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House;

That the committee have leave to report from time to time;

That the evidence taken by the committee shall, if the committee so wishes, be published;

That the committee have power to appoint specialist advisers;

That the committee have power to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom;

That the committee meet with the committee appointed by the Commons on Wednesday 25 April 2007 at 9.00 am in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House;

And that, notwithstanding the Resolution of this House of 27 March, the date by which the Joint Committee is required to report should be 25 July 2007 rather than 13 July 2007.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

On Question, Motion agreed to; and a message was sent to the Commons.

Offender Management Bill

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in the name of my noble friend Lady Scotland of Asthal on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to which the Offender Management Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clauses 1 to 5,

Schedule 1,

Clauses 6 to 8,

Schedule 2,

Clauses 9 to 36,

Schedules 3 to 5,

Clauses 37 to 39.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill

Report received.

Clause 1 [Issue of certificate]:

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 8, leave out “suspects” and insert “is satisfied”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we had quite a lengthy debate in Committee about who should issue a certificate for a non-jury trial. There was some desire to see judicial involvement in the process, but there was also discussion about whether the Attorney-General might be a more appropriate person than the Director of Public Prosecutions to take such a decision. We decided not to revisit that issue, but we do want to revisit the criteria that the DPP could use for issuing a certificate to conduct a trial without jury. Although we very much welcome the later government amendments on the length of time for which those provisions will be in place, we want to be satisfied that the power of the DPP is not too wide in the mean time.

During Committee, concern was expressed that the threshold that the DPP must meet is too low in judging whether to issue a certificate for a non-jury trial. He need merely “suspect” that any of the stipulated conditions is met and be “satisfied” that there is therefore “a risk” that the administration of justice might be impaired. That is a much lower test than that set out in Section 44 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which applies to England and Wales as well as Northern Ireland. The 2003 Act states that there must be evidence of a real and present danger that jury tampering would take place and that the likelihood of such tampering is so substantial as to make it necessary in the interests of justice for the trial to be conducted without a jury. The requirement in the Bill is therefore considerably lower than that in the 2003 Act.

We have enormous sympathy with the Government's position. Of course, we do not want to set the bar so high that trials are put at risk. However, as there was concern in Committee, we felt bound to return to the issue to ask the Government one last time whether they are confident that they have set the threshold at the right level.

Amendment No. 1 changes the threshold for the first part of the test from “suspects” to “is satisfied”. Concern was expressed in Committee that “suspects” was too low a threshold. Amendment No. 2 changes the threshold for the second part of the test from a “risk” to the administration of justice to “that it is reasonable to believe” that the administration of justice would be impaired by a trial by jury.

In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, used the phrase “reasonable forseeability” as the standard that the DPP should reach before issuing a certificate—that is, that it is reasonably foreseeable that the administration of justice would be impaired. We have tried to build on that suggestion in Amendment No. 2.

As I said, we do not want to put trials in Northern Ireland at risk. However, we want clear assurance that the DPP needs to believe that there is a particular degree of certainty in his decisions when issuing certificates for non-jury trials. I beg to move.

My Lords, I shall be very brief and perhaps a little general. We supported this amendment in Committee but, before I go any further, I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General for the private consultation that we have had and for the time that he has put in to try to get, to put it simply, the right answer and the right balance in the Bill.

This Report stage is short, neat and succinct. It reflects the Committee stage and the work of the Attorney-General and his team. I have spoken to a number of people outside the House, including Lord Carswell, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Anthony Campbell, a High Court judge, Sir Hugh Orde, the chief of police and so have taken a lot of temperatures and soundings in the Province. With a few exceptions, we probably have a balance that is as near right as it can get, particularly bearing in mind the sunset clause being introduced by the Government later today. Hopefully my own proposal for a sunset provision on something different will be accepted as well.

Where we are at the moment is extremely difficult. The scene and social set-up in Northern Ireland is not the same as in England. It is smaller and more inward-looking with a history that has left many communities in fear and feeling uncertain about what is happening. They have been threatened and bullied by various gangs for many years. What we have to do is make sure that, if necessary, the PSNI can bring charges and get convictions without a jury because the Government must, above all things, be able to defend jurors and not put their lives or families at risk.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. I am also grateful to all those—I see in their places the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—who participated in what I thought was a very constructive discussion in Grand Committee. I also thank all those with whom I have had conversations since and for the great care taken by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, in investigating from his own point of view how to get this right in Northern Ireland. He and the noble Baroness are absolutely correct to say that we have to try to get the right balance in these matters. I have never suggested that it is straightforward, but we are of the view that, unfortunate though it may be, it is a fact that the position in Northern Ireland remains, and may remain for some time, one where there needs to be a different test for avoiding jury intimidation and things of that sort from the one that would apply in England and Wales. That is why the noble Baroness was right to point out that the test for England and Wales is tougher to satisfy than the test in this Bill, but that is deliberately so for the reasons which have been explained.

The fundamental question put by the noble Baroness is whether the Government are of the view that they have set the balance at the right level. I committed to reflect on a number of suggestions helpfully made in Grand Committee. That has been done and the conclusions were set out in a letter from my noble friend Lord Rooker, copied to all Members who participated in the earlier debates. The short answer essentially is yes, we do believe that we have the balance right, and I shall explain why, but it is correct also to make the point highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that if the House accepts the proposed sunset or time-limiting clause shortly to be moved by my noble friend Lord Rooker, it will provide an opportunity to see how the test has operated when the House considers a report that no doubt it will want to see on the operation of the Act.

Although we debated them in Committee, I want to make one or two points. First, I think it is now the view of the House, and I appreciate it, that we can have confidence in the scrupulous way in which the current Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland has discharged his duties. His tenure in office has required him to consider some of the most difficult cases, and in Grand Committee the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, was good enough to make that point based on his own experience. Many of the cases dealt with by the DPP are complex, and confidence in the prosecution service is in no small measure due to the way in which he has scrupulously fulfilled those responsibilities. I have no doubt that he will take exactly the same rigorous and conscientious approach to the new duties that the Bill will impose on him.

The concern has been whether by setting the barrier too high one would put too high a burden before these provisions can be operated. As I explained in Grand Committee, one has to look at the effect of striking the balance in the wrong place. If we put the barrier too high, the risk is that cases which ought to be dealt with under the special provisions in the Bill will not be dealt with in that way. The risk is that there will not be a fair trial because there may be jury or witness intimidation—jury intimidation, particularly. Worse than that, there is a risk that juries might be subjected to violence, which we want to avoid.

Setting the test a little too low could mean that a case is dealt with under the special system under the Bill rather than by a jury; I believe that everyone is agreed that that would be a fair trial, albeit a trial by judge alone. No one has challenged that proposition; everyone has agreed. The history of the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland shows that the judges have conducted themselves with conspicuous fairness in the trials which they have conducted without a jury.

We are concerned that the amendments would risk setting the test too high. We believe that we have struck the right balance and that we ought to keep it, very much for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, gave. However, we will have an opportunity to see how the legislation has operated if the House accepts the proposal for a sunset clause. On that basis, I invite the noble Baroness to accept the Government’s assurance and withdraw the amendment.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. We would never criticise what the DPP has done in the past; indeed, quite the reverse, as the noble and learned Lord said. The DPP has been excellent in dealing with very difficult cases. We recognise how difficult it must be for the Government to get the balance right and understand how the test must be just right. We recognise all the difficult work all the judges in Northern Ireland have had to do, especially the Diplock court judges. With the assurances that the noble and learned Lord has given and with the knowledge that there will be a sunset clause, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Clause 7 [Limitation on challenge of issue of certificate]:

3: Clause 7, page 5, line 27, leave out “exceptional circumstances” and insert “lack of jurisdiction”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is in the name of my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, with whose permission I move it. We have already dealt with the issues arising on Clause 7 in Grand Committee, so I need summarise them only very briefly.

The clause prevents the ordinary courts entertaining challenges to the DPP’s decision under Clause 1 to certify that a trial is to be conducted without a jury. As the Bill stands, the certificate can be questioned only on grounds of dishonesty, bad faith or other exceptional circumstances, and we relied on the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Bill to argue that the Government had misread the Shuker judgment on which the clause was said to be based and that Parliament had consistently set its face against statutory ouster clauses. We had the powerful support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who cited the observation by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Brian Kerr, in the Shuker case that,

“further grounds of judicial review challenge may be deemed appropriate”.

However, he added that it would not be,

“helpful, or even possible, to predict what those grounds might be”.—[Official Report, 19/3/07; col. GC 128.]

The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General explained that the main reason for the clause was that, in issuing the certificate, the DPP would almost always have relied on sensitive human intelligence which he could not reveal but which would certainly be demanded by the defence if a challenge to the DPP’s decision was allowed.

The noble and learned Lord also disputed the JCHR’s reading of the Shuker judgment and drew attention to the quotation, in paragraph 17, by the Lord Chief Justice of a sentence from the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, in the case of Kebilene, where the words “exceptional circumstance” were used. That, he told the Grand Committee, was the language that had been picked up for the purpose of this clause.

The first of these arguments was already known to the JCHR; it dealt with it explicitly in paragraph 1.34 of the report. The gist of it was recited in Grand Committee, so I do not need to go over it again. The JCHR welcomed the amendments tabled by the Government following the debates in another place, but it pointed out that the High Court of Northern Ireland had taken on board the sensitivity of the information on which the DPP's decision was based and had still rejected it as an argument for ousting the jurisdiction of the court.

The Kebilene case was not germane to this debate, because the decision of the DPP there was not to deny a jury trial but to consent to criminal proceedings before a jury. Incidentally, the words attributed by the Lord Chief Justice to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, were in fact those ofMr Pannick of counsel. The Lord Chief Justice, followed by the JCHR and the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, left out seven crucial words at the beginning of the quotation. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, said that Mr Pannick had contended that,

“there is a common law principle that”—

I emphasise those words—

“absent dishonesty or mala fides or some other wholly exceptional circumstance, the High Court will as a matter of discretion not entertain judicial review proceedings of a decision to prosecute”.

I therefore suggest to the noble and learned Lord that it is inappropriate to use those words as a model in this context, reading across from a common law principle applying to a decision to prosecute to a statutory rule applying to a decision to deny jury trial. In any case, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, specifically disclaimed the application of this principle to the Kebilene case. The paragraph in that judgment, following the one just quoted, begins:

“For my part, I would not wish to base my decision on these observations”.

Whether the analogical force of Section 29(3) of the Supreme Court Act 1981, which prohibits an application for judicial review of the decision of the Crown Court judge to refuse to hold a prosecution to be an abuse of process by reason of an alleged breach of the convention, extends to the matter under review, as it did in Kebilene, I would not have the temerity to say, but I would like to hear it argued.

No doubt these matters have been covered in the discussions since Grand Committee between my noble friend Lord Lester and the Attorney-General. As I understand it, they were moving towards a compromise under which the clause would be retained but the grounds on which judicial review could be sought would be widened. My noble friend has suggested “other lack of jurisdiction” instead of “other exceptional circumstances”, and we believe that this amendment would bring the clause more into line with accepted judicial principles. It takes full account of the Attorney-General's concerns, which are shared by my noble friends, about the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, where non-jury trials may still be needed for some time to come and it is undesirable to open the reasons for certifying a case to examination because it would compromise the security of human intelligence.

I fully understand that the Attorney-General may not have had sufficient time to consider this proposal since it appeared on the Marshalled List, but I hope that he will indicate this afternoon that discussions with my noble friend are still in progress and that he is hopeful that a mutually acceptable form of words can be agreed. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for his reference to me and our discussions in Grand Committee. However, I remain of the opinion that I expressed then: the clause is unnecessary and the Government would be well advised to leave it out. I am sorry to say that I do not see the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, as particularly helpful. I suspect that it would narrow the scope for challenge rather than extend it as the noble Lord wishes. From a drafting point of view, it would be much better to insert “lack of jurisdiction” as an additional ground rather than take out “exceptional circumstances”. The one good thing that can be said about the clause is the reference to exceptional circumstances, which gives the judges a door through which they can walk if they think that it is appropriate to do so.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords and to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I knew that the noble Lord would not be able to be here today, and I entirely understand.

I should like to get one technical point out of the way. I listened with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said about the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland quoting from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn. I beg to differ with him, however. I have the report with me; on page 371, between letters f and g, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, says:

“My Lords, I would rule that absent dishonesty or mala fides or an exceptional circumstance, the decision of the Director to consent to the prosecution of the applicants is not amenable to judicial review”.

That is the passage quoted by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland in the Shuker judgment, not an earlier passage that recites what counsel had submitted. Just to be technical about that, I think that what has been said about the Shuker judgment is correct.

Fundamentally, the issue has been how to produce a situation in which, as I explained in Grand Committee, there would not be an undesirable risk that sensitive intelligence information, on which these decisions are generally based, would have to be revealed. The conversations that I have had outside the House have been very helpful in getting a common view as to the significance of that point and how to deal with it. But the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right in saying that I am not in a position today, given the time at which the amendment was tabled, to express a concluded view on it. Therefore, if your Lordships are agreeable, I propose that we accept the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that I should continue to discuss the matter with the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Then the matter can be brought back at Third Reading to be decided one way or the other. It is a slightly unusual approach, but I hope that your Lordships will agree.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, for his intervention. I was advised, technically, that the words “lack of jurisdiction” included exceptional circumstances and were wider. I specifically questioned that point with those who assisted us in drafting the amendment and was assured that it was so.

I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General for his assurance that the matter is not closed and can still be the subject of further discussions between my noble friend and himself.

The words that I quoted from the Kebilene judgment were taken from the text available in the public domain on the British and Irish Legal Information Institute website. I am afraid that the paragraph number is not given, so I cannot argue with the noble and learned Lord about which paragraph I am referring to. However, the material point is in the words that I cited:

“there is a common law principle that”,

which precede the sentence quoted in the Shuker judgment. My argument was the substantive one that you could not read across from the common-law principle to a rule of statute as the drafters of this legislation have attempted to do. However, it may be best to leave that matter for the discussions between my noble friend and the noble and learned Lord. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4: After Clause 8, insert the following new Clause—

“Duration of non-jury trial provisions

(1) Sections 1 to 8 (and Schedule 1) (“the non-jury trial provisions”) shall expire at the end of the period of two years beginning with the day on which section 1 comes into force (“the effective period”).

(2) But the Secretary of State may by order extend, or (on one or more occasions) further extend, the effective period.

(3) An order under subsection (2)—

(a) must be made before the time when the effective period would end but for the making of the order, and(b) shall have the effect of extending, or further extending, that period for the period of two years beginning with that time.(4) The expiry of the non-jury trial provisions shall not affect their application to a trial on indictment in relation to which—

(a) a certificate under section 1 has been issued, and(b) the indictment has been presented,before their expiry.(5) The expiry of section 4 shall not affect the committal of a person for trial in accordance with subsection (3) of that section, or by virtue of subsection (4) or (6) of that section, to the Crown Court sitting in Belfast or elsewhere in a case where the indictment has not been presented before its expiry.

(6) The Secretary of State may by order make any amendments of enactments (including provisions of Northern Ireland legislation) that appear to him to be necessary or expedient in consequence of the expiry of the non-jury trial provisions.

(7) An order under this section—

(a) shall be made by statutory instrument, and(b) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 13, 14 and 15.

This group of amendments provides that the system of non-jury trial in the Bill will expire after two years unless the Secretary of State makes an affirmative resolution order to extend it for a subsequent two-year period. I hesitate to use the shorthand term for what we are doing here but it is more rolling renewal than sunset because each two years is a separate period.

The system of non-jury trial contained in the Bill has always been intended to address the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, in particular the paramilitary and community-based pressures that jurors in Northern Ireland face. The Government have long made clear their commitment to return to jury trial in all cases in Northern Ireland as soon as the security situation permits. We believe that these amendments will help underline the exceptional nature of the system. The change will also give Parliament the opportunity regularly to debate these important issues. As I said, the system will lapse after two years unless an affirmative order is made. In order to do that a Minister must stand at the Dispatch Box and at least give some semblance of a review and assessment of what has happened in the previous two years.

For the avoidance of doubt and to assist in our deliberations I should mention the relevance of Amendment No. 13, which provides that parts of the new clause extend to England and Wales as well as Northern Ireland. It is necessary because some of the other legislation containing references to the system that will need to be repealed on expiry will be legislation that extends to England and Wales; for example, the non-jury trial system in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I add that for clarification of this little package of amendments. I beg to move.

My Lords, we welcome these amendments, especially the reassurance that the Government intend these to be simply temporary measures. We are very pleased that the Government have chosen the affirmative process for renewing the provisions, which means that Parliament as a whole will determine their future.

My Lords, the Minister said that a Minister would have to come to the Dispatch Box to offer some semblance of a review. I hope that it would be more than a semblance.

My Lords, I am grateful for the widespread support for the amendments, if not the way in which I spoke to them.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 14 [Investigations: evidence]:

5: Clause 14, page 13, line 6, at end insert—

“(7) This section shall also apply to any investigation by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.””

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we considered this amendment in Grand Committee. I shall briefly explain the reason for it. It relates to Clause 14, which provides for inquiries to be conducted by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and for procedures to regulate the way in which those inquiries have access to material that affects national security. A procedure is established that involves a tribunal established under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which was passed several years ago. I make no comment about the nature of that procedure but it seems to me a sensible and balanced one, which gives the Human Rights Commission the opportunity to seek to get the material and the tribunal the authority to judge whether it is in the national interest, or contrary to it, for it to be revealed. It seems a sensible provision to protect national security.

I am not quarrelling with that; but if that procedure is thought appropriate for investigations by the Human Rights Commission, why is it not considered appropriate for investigations by other bodies? I am thinking here particularly of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, but if there were other relevant bodies I would include them on the list as well. It seemed to me in reading this that we have a sensible procedure to protect national security with regard to these inquiries, and surely it ought to apply to other inquiries. If the Government consider it appropriate to protect national security in this context, why is it not considered appropriate to protect national security in an analogous area? That is the question that I put in Committee. The Minister very kindly undertook to bring the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so that I could have an answer to the question that I posed. I look forward to now getting that answer. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have one question: how do protocols work when the Secretary of State receives a report from the ombudsman? Will the Minister remind us what might happen if the Secretary of State believed that there was something in a report that seriously compromised national security?

My Lords, I asked earlier—I think it was in Committee—when Her Majesty’s Government were going to review the powers and role of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Her term ends in September. I think we all accept that she has done an excellent job, by and large, but there are clearly areas where we are very uncomfortable, and I suspect and hope that Her Majesty’s Government have been uncomfortable. We are now wiser, having seen the police ombudsman operating on the scene in Northern Ireland. I sincerely hope that the Government will see the wisdom in reviewing the whole role and set-up and will follow on some of the thinking of my noble friend Lord Trimble.

My Lords, I, too, support the amendment, for reasons that have been stated many times before but are worth saying again. The ombudsman’s report shows that she and her staff have absolutely no understanding of how either military intelligence or police intelligence operate in a time that is virtually war. We are exposed to a number of terrorist threats from various quarters. The IRA, in the past, has had very close connections with a number of the people who are now giving us trouble, and there will still be individuals who will do that. They will be watching with great care any information that is obligingly provided by such things as the ombudsman’s report.

It is extremely important that it should be absolutely certain that the ombudsman can in no way damage our relations with other security services or damage existing operations. I do not impugn her honour; it is just that she does not understand that some of the things that she says could do us great damage. I hope that the greatest care will be taken to limit her activities in this regard, in exactly the same way as everything else, in the interests of national security, which is not a local matter but a national matter.

My Lords, I am most grateful for the way in which the issues have been raised. As the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, they were raised in Committee in substantial detail in quite a wide-ranging debate. The amendment attempts to restrict the activities of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in the same way in which the Human Rights Commission is dealt with in the Bill.

We have listened on more than one occasion to the noble Lord’s concerns—they were rehearsed in Committee and we take them seriously. The issues raised were, as promised, drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State, his advisers and other Ministers. I know that other discussions have taken place on them.

The ombudsman has a clear statutory duty in relation to oversight of the police. That is what she is there for and she has no remit whatever to investigate the activities of the intelligence agencies, nor does she remotely have any connection with oversight of the activities of the security services. It is simple: the ombudsman’s role is, and will remain, properly focused on the police and only the police.

The ombudsman may have access to sensitive information by virtue of statutory powers to oversee the activities of police officers, but that is essential to the discharge of the ombudsman’s duties and role in ensuring an efficient and effective police complaints system that commands public confidence. It must maintain public confidence; any reports or comments that knock public confidence are in no one’s interests, least of all those of the ombudsman.

Where the ombudsman has reason, consistent with those powers, to investigate the activities of a police officer, any access by the ombudsman to sensitive information held by the Security Service in the course of that investigation will be permitted in accordance with arrangements agreed between the service and the ombudsman’s office.

The noble Lord has raised serious concerns, and any damage to national security or risk to lives is a matter of grave concern. I can assure him that, should the Secretary of State feel it necessary or appropriate to do so, he will not hesitate to deploy the statutory provisions allowing him to issue guidance to the ombudsman with respect to the disclosure of matters that may be prejudicial to the public interest. Those statutory powers exist, but never have been used, as I said in Committee.

I and the Secretary of State have read the reports and information that the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, also raised in Committee, and of which I was given copies afterwards. The Secretary of State and the Security Minister have met police officers and representatives of the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers’ Association. We are listening and will want to consider those issues carefully, particularly those that relate to the disclosure of sensitive information that puts lives at risk. If necessary, the Secretary of State can issue guidance on such matters to the ombudsman.

My Lords, I shall give way gladly, as there is plenty of time, but perhaps I may first answer the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, in relation to the receipt of the reports.

If the Secretary of State receives a report from the ombudsman and believes that an issue of national security arises, he will raise that with the ombudsman. If required, the Secretary of State can issue guidance to the ombudsman, who must have regard to that guidance. That is the current legal position. This matter is under active consideration by Ministers and advisers. I am not promising to come back at Third Reading, but these issues that were raised in Committee, and with the Secretary of State outside the House, are being taken extremely seriously.

My Lords, the Minister has just answered the question that I was going to ask as to the statutory effect of guidance from the Secretary of State. It does not sound as if it amounts to more than something that the ombudsman has to take into account. Sometimes it is part of ombudsmen’s jobs to get bits between their teeth. Is guidance sufficient in the important circumstances that we are talking about? That issue must be addressed.

My Lords, the last part of my last answer answered part of what the noble and learned Lord asked: the ombudsman cannot dismiss the Secretary of State’s guidance. He has a statutory duty to have regard to that and he must show that he has taken it into account. I fully accept the noble and learned Lord’s point about ombudsmen. The whole point is that they are independent. However, it is not necessarily the case that you have to prove your independence in order to go beyond the remit.

There is massive public confidence in the performance of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, as shown by the results of the survey released last December. I shall not go over all the figures but the vast majority of Catholics and Protestants have massive confidence in the police ombudsman. Indeed, 85 per cent of officers who responded to a separate survey believed that they had been treated fairly by the ombudsman’s office. That does not mean that the system is perfect, but no one would expect 100 per cent satisfaction.

However, issues have been raised during the present period, which is highly sensitive but also very positive, that have caused the Secretary of State to have regard to, and take advice on, this matter. The situation is ongoing. As everyone knows, a new ombudsman will be appointed later this year. I have been told that the advertisement has already appeared, although I have not yet seen it. As and when the appointment takes place, it is very important that the ombudsman knows clearly what job he is expected to do and what the limitations and boundaries are that, none the less, do not fetter his inquiries as a police ombudsman. However, the fact is that he is not the security services ombudsman. Everyone understands that; I cannot spell it out any more.

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister has said that the matter has been considered carefully, and I hope that regard is given to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. There may be a duty to have regard to guidance but that is not the same as saying that it must be followed, so the safeguard that the Minister is relying on is weak in that respect. It is also weak in respect of the point referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris. When does the Secretary of State find out what is in a report, and will he find out before the press hears it? The report that gave rise to the controversy was circulated among chosen journalists weeks before other people came to hear of it and probably weeks before the Secretary of State came to hear of it, so the safeguard is not particularly effective.

The Minister’s basic point—that the police ombudsman is concerned with inquiries into the police and not into the intelligence services—is a distinction that cannot be drawn in practice, as was revealed by the report that we went through in a little detail in Grand Committee. In dealing with the terrorist situation in Northern Ireland, there was very close co-operation between the police and the intelligence authorities, and I am sure that equally close co-operation is going on today in the United Kingdom in dealing with the current terrorist threat. No clear distinction can be drawn between inquiries into the police and inquiries into intelligence matters. In any event, the same techniques are used by the police in dealing with suspected terrorists as are used by the intelligence authorities.

As the report that we discussed in Grand Committee shows, there is a serious risk of national security matters relating to the intelligence authorities being published. Indeed, I think I am right in saying that the ombudsman has launched an inquiry into the handling of agents within the IRA. A large number of those agents were run not by the police but by other agencies. In announcing the inquiry, reference was made to the code-names of certain agents. I am speaking off the cuff and without checking, but I am sure that at least one of the names related to an informant who was being run not by the police but by another agency. The distinction that the Minister relies on is not being followed in practice.

Whatever may have been thought appropriate at the time, the legislation for the ombudsman has been put in place. The Government now consider that, with regard to inquiries by the Human Rights Commission, there should be this procedure for protecting information relating to national security. The amendment gives the Government the opportunity to be consistent and to apply their procedures for protecting national security in context A to context B, which are exactly analogous.

If the Government or the Northern Ireland Office do not want to take this opportunity of having the same protection for national security in that other field, and if in the coming days, weeks, months, or whenever, there are more reports that compromise national security as the existing one does, the Government and the Northern Ireland Office will be left with no excuse for their dereliction.

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I want to add something. The point he makes on the report is well made. I said that we have met the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers’ Association. We are listening and will want to consider the issues raised very carefully.

I shall also elaborate on the answer that I gave to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. Section 65 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 compels the ombudsman to have regard to the Secretary of State’s guidance. The ombudsman is also required to act within the requirements of the European Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, and to ensure that no lives are put at risk. Guidance could be used to amplify how the European Commission on Human Rights could be applied, which would cover some of the points raised in the report to which we have all been referring but have not named.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his intervention, which provides more grist to my mill. He repeated that the ombudsman is compelled to have regard, but just have regard, but we shall not argue too much about that.

On the second point on human rights, the report to which we are referring virtually names agents, or uses a letter system. The situation is described in such detail that the press in Northern Ireland had no hesitation in putting names in its report, and it got the right name. We all know that. The Human Rights Act was not observed in that respect.

Again, that shows the weakness of the existing safeguard. There is an alternative safeguard that the Government consider elsewhere—I shall not repeat the point I made. The Government have the opportunity to cover this gap, but if they do not want to take it, they will have to bear the consequences. As it is clearly the desire of the House to go through this matter as rapidly as we can, I shall not press the matter further, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 15 [Investigations: access to prisons, &c.]:

6: Clause 15, page 14, leave out lines 1 to 3

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment would ensure that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission does not need to give notice of a visit to a place of detention for the purposes of an investigation.

I want to clarify a matter with the Minister, which was referred to in Committee, when he stated, very helpfully, that once the 15-day period was up, the Bill allowed the commission to carry out unannounced and unimpeded multiple visits to the places of detention. However, subsections (1) and (2) of the new inserted Section 69C make it clear that the commission may enter a place of detention “during a specified period”. I take that to mean the period of the investigation. This is of course right and proper. We do not think that it would be appropriate for the commission to enter places of detention outwith the scope of an investigation. However, the notification period will allow a place of detention to be alerted to the fact that there is a particular, time-constrained investigation beginning, and could allow that place to be more prepared for a visit than it might otherwise be, which would not necessarily be to the benefit of the investigation. Will the Minister comment on that?

Will he also tell us why a 15-day period was chosen? As we mentioned in Committee, the Department of Finance and Personnel has to give only 24 hours’ notice before entering establishments under Article 26A of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. If the noble Lord is not prepared to give way in removing this subsection altogether, will he perhaps consider returning with an amendment at Third Reading, to shorten the notification period? I beg to move.

My Lords, I begin by reminding the noble Baroness of what I said several times in Committee; that is, that the commission is not an enforcement body. She speaks as though it is but it is not. I must make that clear. If it were an enforcement body, the point that she makes about notice and the timetable would be more valid.

As we are now on the Floor of the House, I should point out that, since 2004, some 17 separate bodies have inspected the Northern Ireland prison service. Those are: the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland; Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, which carried out a thematic inspection; Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, who carried out joint inspections; the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People; the Mental Health Commission; the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority; the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee; the Independent Monitoring Board; the Interception of Communications Commissioner; the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland; the Office of Surveillance Commissioners; the International Committee of the Red Cross; the United Nations Committee against Torture; the Adult Learning Inspectorate; the Health and Safety Executive; the Health Promotion Agency; and, of course, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Therefore, the idea that—and I am not saying that she was saying this—the prison service is not being inspected does not stand up. I want to reinforce the point that I made before: the Human Rights Commission is not an enforcement body, and the points that she raised about time would have greater validity if it were.

The clause that the noble Baroness seeks to remove allows the public authorities that initial 15-day period during which they can appeal against the terms of reference for an investigation, before the commission can use its new statutory power to access places of detention as part of an investigation. Importantly, as she indicates, the Bill allows the commission to have unimpeded access to places of detention without providing notice of each visit. It is right that such a significant power should be subject to an initial period of consultation with relevant authorities. The issuing of terms of reference and the requirement to allow 15 days to pass during which a public authority can appeal ensures that that consultation takes place. Importantly, as she said, once the 15-day period has passed, or after any appeal begun in that period has ended, access to a place of detention can be restricted only after a court has ruled in favour of a public authority. Therefore, this appeal process cannot be used as a mechanism to prevent investigations and the court can only restrict access if the commission has failed to meet its clear statutory duty as set out in the Bill. In other words, once the 15-day period is over and the consultation has taken place—let us say successfully—it can go in at any time it wants, at the minimum possible notice. Therefore, the issue of the timing of access does not arise.

As I have said, there are already many inspection and oversight bodies in place in Northern Ireland and those 17 separate bodies have looked at the prison service since 2004. We believe that it is right that the commission should be furnished with the power to carry out unannounced and unimpeded visits to places of detention as part of its investigations into human rights issues. That is absolutely clear. There is no qualification whatever on that. As we discussed in Committee, the Human Rights Commission will have the power to carry out unannounced and unimpeded visits to places where people are held in detention—and these are not just prisons—once the initial notice of the terms of reference has taken place. It will not have to give notice; that is there for the future. However, we think that there is a need for public authorities and other roles-of-accountability bodies to be taken into account, as these are public bodies that we are dealing with; it is not as though they are private bodies that nobody knows about.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I am aware that the commission is not an enforcement body. However, it has statutory duties and therefore the spirit of its work is recognised, enforceable or not. I am still disappointed that the Government will not move on this issue, but they have probably painted themselves into an obdurate corner in this respect. I would have been happy to reserve our position on this to Third Reading to see whether there was movement, but I do not think there is any likelihood of that. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 40 [Duration]:

[Amendments Nos. 7 to 9 not moved.]

10: Before Clause 42, insert the following new Clause—

“Community restorative justice schemes

(1) The Secretary of State shall maintain a public register of accredited community restorative justice schemes.

(2) Schemes registered under subsection (1) shall be inspected regularly by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate.

(3) Where the Criminal Justice Inspectorate considers that a scheme registered under subsection (1) is unsatisfactory or operating in an unsatisfactory manner it shall report that scheme to the Secretary of State who shall remove that scheme from the register.

(4) No scheme which involves the participation of persons with convictions for serious criminal offences shall be registered under subsection (1).”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I return to an important matter that I introduced into discussions in Grand Committee. It concerns community restorative justice schemes, of which there are some in Northern Ireland. I have no animus against the concept of community restorative justice—I think that it has a part to play in the legal system, but it should be integrated into that system. In the operation of restorative justice, care has to be taken to protect the human rights of those involved in it. That is a problem in Northern Ireland, particularly in areas where “community” is a euphemism used to describe not the people who live there but the warlords who control them. That is the danger in this situation.

When I raised the matter in Grand Committee on a proposed new clause somewhat different from that in today’s Marshalled List, my attention was drawn to guidelines issued by the Northern Ireland Office. I have looked at them and recast the clause with them in mind. The guidelines indicated that there would be a concept of an accredited community restorative justice scheme, so I am simply putting on the Secretary of State an obligation to maintain such a register and to do so publicly so that everyone knows what is an accredited scheme.

The guidelines deal with the Criminal Justice Inspectorate inspecting the schemes and I see no reason why that should not be put on a statutory basis. The key provision is in subsection (3) of the amendment, providing that where the inspectorate,

“considers that a scheme registered under subsection (1) is unsatisfactory or operating in an unsatisfactory manner it shall report that scheme to the Secretary of State who shall remove that scheme from the register”.

That is crucial because we have had long experience in Northern Ireland of Secretaries of State who have taken other considerations into account when they should simply have applied the law properly and strictly. We have had experience of Secretaries of State who were reluctant to do things that would annoy certain political groupings, or certain paramilitary groupings, and it is not appropriate that any such consideration should enter into this. I am confident of the integrity of the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, and, consequently, I think that if it can recommend that accreditation should be withdrawn, it should be withdrawn. That will give teeth to the inspectorate’s inspections and will provide it with real authority in dealing with such matters, which will do something to allay concerns across the board in Northern Ireland about how community restorative justice could be abused.

The final subsection in the amendment is simple but important. I have drawn the attention of the House to the fact that the republican community restorative justice schemes are presided over by a man who has two convictions for murder, both arising out of one incident. As far as I am aware, it was the only time he was convicted but I am sure that they were not the only offences he committed. However, this person is heading community restorative justice.

I said in Committee that if the republicans wanted people to be assured that the schemes they will be running will run on a civilised basis, they could easily have found within their community people of standing who could head them up. However, by choosing someone with such a record, they are making a statement that ought not to be allowed to stand. Regrettably, the Northern Ireland Office’s guidelines are deficient on this matter; they make it clear that persons with criminal records, no matter how heinous, can be involved in these schemes, provided that their offences took place before 10 April. That is making it clear that it is all right if you were involved in terrorism; you can be in these schemes. However, if you have not been involved in terrorism but have committed some minor offence, you cannot be in them. That is not right. I have tabled this amendment as a means of drawing the House’s attention to this matter. We discussed it in Committee and I hope that the Minister has been able to get further advice and can take a more positive view now than he did then. I beg to move.

My Lords, we support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, particularly subsection (2) of the new clause, which provides that community restorative justice schemes should work in partnership with the police and Public Prosecution Service.

The problems with the implementation of restorative justice lie in community-based schemes, as the noble Lord so eloquently outlined. Any consideration of the creation or formal recognition of community-based schemes in Northern Ireland must take into account the nature of society there and the continuing role and influence of paramilitaries. Indeed, many of the existing schemes seem to have indirect links to paramilitarism. They employ individuals with terrorist records, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, reminded us; they rationalise the role that paramilitaries have in society; and they take referrals from such organisations. The continued and wrongful rejection of the police and criminal justice system in many of those communities must further be noted.

It is important to take into account the comments made by the IMC on the value of properly approved CRJ schemes and the abuses that have been associated with current schemes that operate outside any formal state sanction. A recent IMC report highlighted the dangers of community restorative justice schemes operating without proper guidelines or with weak or ineffective guidelines.

Over the past few years, it is probably fair to say that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has become the most heavily scrutinised and accountable service in the world, so it would be bizarre for policing functions to be devolved to the community with much less rigorous procedures in place. We oppose the recognition by the state of any community-based restorative justice scheme that places or entrenches paramilitary organisations in a position of control in any part of Northern Ireland, thereby subverting the interrelated values of respect for human rights, democracy and the maintenance of the rule of law; allows or places legitimacy on any parallel policing structures to the Police Service of Northern Ireland; or subverts the concept of a single professional police service working for all the people of Northern Ireland. Community restorative justice schemes must be a complement, not an alternative, to the existing policing and criminal justice systems. They require a formal relationship and, as the IMC argued, there can be no place for an alternative or parallel justice system.

My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendment and what he and the noble Baroness have said. I remind the Minister that in responding to me in Committee on the previous amendment, which I have not moved this time, he said:

“I do not expect to see the remaining threat”—

he was referring to paramilitaries and criminal gangs—

“regress significantly any time soon, although I very much hope that I and the Government are wrong in that assessment”.—[Official Report, 21/3/07; col. GC 232.]

That is the world we live in and we want our citizens to have confidence in the community restorative justice systems. There is no chance that they will even believe that the schemes are realistic, except in certain limited areas, if the amendment is not accepted and they are run, as they are now, by ex-paramilitaries or paramilitaries.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, although the noble Lord has just accurately quoted me on the amendment that he did not move today, if that amendment had been moved, I would have said words to this effect: we have to remember that the environment in Northern Ireland includes an ongoing threat from public order incidents on a different scale from those in the rest of the UK, the specific residual Irish terrorist threat, and the threat posed by paramilitaries moving into organised crime. I do not expect to see the remaining threat regressing significantly any time soon, although we very much hope that we are wrong in that assessment.

I am happy to make that clear. That is the situation we are in. There is a natural suspicion about community restorative justice. There is a natural suspicion among people in parts of England where there are no such difficulties. It is a different concept and we have not understood it. Therefore, when certain bodies and organisations embraced it a bit quickly, you did not have to spend more than five minutes working out how it could be undermined if they said, “Hang on, this is our area and we’ll police this in our way”. That was the unspoken issue. The schemes have all been voluntary and unaccredited. The whole thing has been quite outwith any basis up until the present time.

I hope to be able to reinforce, as I tried to do in Committee, that some of the issues relating to the protocol very much meet the thrust of what is behind the noble Lord’s amendment. The ideas and the concerns behind it would be shared by anybody, hence the discussions that have gone on over the consultations on the protocol.

We believe that the aims of the amendment are largely met in the requirements of the protocol, which was published in February this year, with the role of the Criminal Justice Inspectorate and a panel to determine the suitability of participants clearly defined. It will be the Secretary of State’s responsibility to accredit schemes only after they have demonstrated that they can meet the stringent standards set out in the protocol. That will be maintained and published and kept up to date on the Northern Ireland Office website.

The protocol provides that the Criminal Justice Inspectorate shall conduct regular and random inspections of all accredited schemes and report to the Secretary of State on whether the schemes are maintaining the stringent operating standards set out in the protocol. Where a scheme is failing to meet the required standards, the Secretary of State will take action in relation to the accreditation of individual schemes. But I understand the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Trimble. That is why I emphasise that, where the scheme fails to meet the required standards, the Secretary of State will take action in relation to its accreditation. The protocol makes specific provision for the creation of a suitability panel, comprising representatives of the statutory and voluntary organisations, to determine the suitability of participants seeking to engage in the activities that it governs.

The criteria that the panel will use to determine suitability are set out in the protocol. These specifically provide that any convictions for serious criminal offences after 10 April 1998, or a term of imprisonment within three years prior to being considered by the panel, will render an applicant unsuitable. Convictions prior to 10 April 1998 for serious criminal offences will not in themselves constitute an automatic bar, but will be considered in the round by the suitability panel in making the determination.

I understand exactly the import of my words, but we believe that that is consistent with the Government’s position that those with previous criminal convictions should not be prevented from playing a full role in the community where they can clearly demonstrate that their criminal behaviour is firmly in the past. If they cannot, they will not get through the suitability panel. It is as simple as that. We do not think that they should be ruled out because of the criminal offence in itself; it must be looked at by the panel.

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I thank him for making that point. What has happened about recruitment to the police? Do not previous terrorist convictions debar people from becoming police officers? What is the difference between that and someone running a community restorative justice scheme, which will involve a certain amount of local policing and matters relating to it? Is there not an inconsistency here?

My Lords, to the best of my knowledge we are not talking about police officers or community support officers here. These people are not running a policing system. They may think and try to give the impression that they are, but that is the whole point about getting the schemes accredited. If a scheme is not accredited, people will say, “It is not accredited, therefore it is not bona fide”. That is the issue. At present, there is no accreditation system. It will not be possible for people to say, “We have been accredited to police the system”. I should be happy to take further advice on that, but the point is that these are not police officers; they are not running the system. Of course, there is very close involvement by the police anyway.

On the point about the panel looking at previous criminal records, in addition to the criminal records, the panel will consider any information from the police or other statutory sources that might suggest that an individual with either previous convictions or no convictions was unsuitable. That could be on the grounds of their current involvement in criminality or paramilitary activity; or in circumstances where public safety would be compromised; or where there would be significant adverse impact on public confidence in the process. That is important. It is not for me to spell it out, but if there is not public confidence, the system will collapse. It is as simple as that. No amount of threats, lies or intimidation will keep it going if public confidence is not there.

Schemes will be required to accept the determination of the panel as a condition of their accreditation. The protocol has been subject to two separate comprehensive public consultation exercises with all interested parties, including the political parties and organisations in the statutory, voluntary and community sectors. It was also the subject of a thorough investigation by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, whose report endorsed the arrangements in the protocol. The committee recognised that there could be constructive opportunities in the schemes for individuals with previous criminal convictions to serve—that is, put something back into—their communities.

The report specifically concluded that the framework for the normal checks, backed up by the suitability panel mechanism, was an appropriately rigorous means to determine suitability and build confidence in the scheme. If schemes are not accredited, that will be quite clear. Schemes that are accredited will want to boast of their accreditation. It will not necessarily bring funds, but the point is that it will give them access to other organisations and funds in other schemes. No one using any of the funding arrangements in Northern Ireland could put money into an unaccredited scheme once the accreditation system was up and running. The auditors would be straight on to them for that.

The panel will, as I said, consist of senior representatives of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland, the Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland and the Community Relations Council. The Police Service of Northern Ireland will participate in the panel meetings to present any relevant information relating to individuals under consideration. In other words, we are fairly confident that the general thrust of the noble Lord’s amendment is met by the protocol. It would be quite wrong in some ways to put this system on to a statutory basis when we are dealing with such schemes. There will be plenty of opportunity in this House, in the other place and in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—and, indeed, in the Assembly, although this is not a devolved matter—to keep an eye on the schemes that are accredited and on activities that promote community building and trust building in Northern Ireland. No one, we hope, will seek to operate an unaccredited scheme.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comments, although I am somewhat disappointed by them. The main thrust of my proposed new clause would be to give the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice more power in this matter and to remove any possible temptation in the Northern Ireland Office to go soft on certain persons and certain groups. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a history there. It is all very well for the Minister to talk about the guidelines, but the guidelines are made, implemented and policed by the Northern Ireland Office, which is not strong enough or sufficient.

I disagree with the Minister on the suitability issues and the panels to which he referred. Let me make the point even more clearly. When I referred to a person with a couple of convictions running one of these schemes, I was talking about the sort of person who led the lynch mob that killed two Army corporals in west Belfast. At the moment, I see no indication from what the Minister has said or from these procedures that such a person will be considered unsuitable, as that person clearly is. I invite the Minister to think about the matter again and I hope that he, and the Northern Ireland Office, will continue to think about it.

I do not intend to press the matter to a vote today. We will, I hope, get another bite of the cherry. I am very grateful for the support of Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I am sure that Members of this House will want to keep a clear eye on this, because it is an area in which the criminal justice system could be corrupted and community activity in certain areas could become vulnerable to the actions of the bully boys, and we do not want that to happen. We want things to be conducted properly, but I am afraid that I have no confidence in the way in which the Northern Ireland Office will handle this matter. As I have indicated, however, I do not want to press the matter to a vote. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 42 [Northern Ireland department with policing and justice functions]:

11: Clause 42, page 29, line 17, after “section” insert—

“(a) shall be made by statutory instrument; and(b) ”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 12. I can be brief. The Secretary of State is required to make an order abolishing the post of Deputy Justice Minister three years after the devolution of policing and justice functions, unless the Assembly is resolved that it be abolished earlier than that, or that it is to be retained beyond that date. As drafted, the Bill makes such an order subject to the negative resolution procedure. However, the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform considered the order-making power and observed that the circumstances specified in the Bill in which the Secretary of State shall act are matters of ascertainable fact, not of opinion, and that the timing, too, is preordained. In the consequent absence of any element of discretion for the Secretary of State, the committee argued that the negative procedure was unnecessary and, notwithstanding that this is a Henry VIII power, recommended no parliamentary procedure. We are content to accept the recommendation, and these amendments give effect to it. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

12: Clause 42, page 29, line 21, leave out subsection (9)

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 50 [Extent]:

13: Clause 50, page 32, line 28, at end insert—

“( ) Section (Duration of non-jury trial provisions) (6) and (7) extends to England and Wales and Northern Ireland only.”

14: Clause 50, page 32, line 29, after “Schedule 1” insert “(and sections 8 and (Duration of non-jury trial provisions) (1) to (4) so far as relating to those amendments)”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 51 [Commencement]:

15: Clause 51, page 32, line 38, at end insert—

“( ) section (Duration of non-jury trial provisions);”

On Question, amendment agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure. In doing so, I suggest that the Question for Short Debate in the name of my noble friend Lord Dubs begin not later than 4.45 pm.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 4.31 to 4.45 pm.]

Housing: Homeless and Overcrowded Families

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to help provide homes for homeless and overcrowded families.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, housing in this country has improved significantly over the past 10 years. Fewer people are homeless, fewer people are sleeping on the streets, and there is better co-operation between central Government, local authorities and housing associations. But there are still quite serious problems for some of our people.

The housing market today is a picture of quite significant contrasts. The market for owner-occupiers is on the boil—indeed, it is almost frenzied, especially in London and the south-east. Large sums of money have been earned as Christmas bonuses in the City; one firm is reputed to have given 1,000 of its staff bonuses of £1 million. The result is a scramble for housing by people who do not need mortgages and do not need to sell anything before buying. That is at one end of the scale. I am not saying that the Government can easily do anything about these large bonuses earned in the City, but I believe that they could do more for people at the other end of the social scale. That is the subject of this debate.

One group in particular difficulties is the essential workers in the public sector, whose earnings have not kept up with soaring house prices in London. I refer to teachers, nurses, NHS staff generally, and others in the public sector. Nurses have always had difficulties, but teachers have more recently had to face the same problem of being unable to get into the housing market.

I want to concentrate on families, especially those with young children—those who are homeless and those who are in overcrowded accommodation. I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate. I am speaking nationally, although I am aware that the problem is most acute in the south-east and especially in London.

Let me quote one or two key facts, which I am sure will be familiar to Members of the House. There are around 90,000 vulnerable homeless households in this country, including 130,000 children. Around 500,000 households, including nearly 1 million children, are living in overcrowded conditions. Bad as they are, these figures still mean that housing conditions have improved over the past 10 years. The problem can be solved.

At present, annual output of social housing is in the region of 30,000, and it is generally agreed that the figure needs to be increased by some 20,000 per annum. In its recent report on the supply and affordability of housing, the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government included a specific recommendation endorsing the need for an extra 20,000 social homes a year. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed that social housing will be a priority in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. We shall have to see how much extra funding will be made available for this purpose.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the impact of unfit, overcrowded and temporary homes on the life chances of young children. Shelter’s survey of homeless households shockingly revealed that more than half had seen their health suffer as a result of living in temporary accommodation. It also showed that on average, homeless children miss a quarter of their schooling each year—an extremely alarming figure.

The Government’s action to end the prolonged use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless families with children has made the experience less damaging, but B&B is only ever the tip of a very much bigger iceberg. Even good quality self-contained temporary accommodation does not solve the problem of homelessness. Temporary accommodation is meant to be just that—an emergency stopgap. The only lasting solution is clearly a permanent home.

The insecurity and isolation of living in temporary accommodation compounds the experience of homelessness—it is not suitable and it is not affordable. Some of it is the worst that private landlords have to offer; some comprises shared hostels and much of the rest is hard-to-let council stock.

Placements outside homeless families’ local area disrupt the support networks on which they depend, and regular enforced moves deepen their sense of insecurity because of their isolation from friends and those who can give them the day-to-day support that they need.

Most temporary accommodation is at sky-high rents, creating poverty traps that make it almost impossible to make work pay. The result is that the longer homeless people stay in temporary accommodation, the more socially excluded they become. That is a blight that this country has imposed on them.

Other research shows that overcrowding also is a massive problem. There is a clear link between overcrowding and ill health, particularly infectious diseases. When one family member becomes ill, more often than not, everyone becomes ill. The stress of sharing bedrooms and facilities is well documented also as being a cause of tension, leaving many mothers suffering from depression and families at risk of breakdown. The research also sheds light on evidence that living in cramped conditions undermines educational attainment. Overcrowding makes it hard for children to find a quiet space to study at home or to get the sleep that they need to concentrate during the following day at school. As the housing Minister, Yvette Cooper, has acknowledged, the Dickensian statutory definition of overcrowding helps play down the problems that these families face. Those standards must be modernised to reflect today’s understanding of the need for space and privacy.

The root cause of the problem has been obvious for years: we have to build more social homes. Almost everyone agrees on this. The Deputy Prime Minister has said so; the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly, has said so; and the Treasury-commissioned Barker review of housing supply has said so. Even the Campaign to Protect Rural England backs the call for more social housing.

Reforming the right to buy, the private rented sector and the planning system will all help to maximise the supply of housing for those in less need. Under the right-to-buy legislation, which has existed for many years, one third of council housing stock has been lost. In May 2003, the maximum right-to-buy discount in London and the south-east was reduced to £16,000. If this could be extended to other areas, it would enable more money to be earned by local authorities to invest in replacement stock.

However, whatever changes are made to right-to-buy, there is no getting away from the need to build more social homes. In his response to the Barker review, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed a big increase in the number of homes being built for sale on the open market. He also assured us that new social housing would be “a priority” in next summer’s Comprehensive Spending Review. I hope that Members of this House will join me and the 100,000 members of the public who have backed Shelter's petition calling for that commitment to be translated into the 20,000 extra social homes that we need. It is not a large figure; it is well within our capacity as a country, even when money is tight, to provide that extra social housing. It is surely urgent, and I urge the Government to move towards meeting that target.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for facilitating this debate and for the clarity with which he has mapped out the need for further government action on this important issue. I declare an interest as the chair of Circle 33 housing association and, perhaps more importantly in this debate, as a trustee of the housing charity, Shelter.

In contributing to this debate, it is important that I acknowledge the considerable range of measures already taken by government to tackle homelessness, to build more affordable homes and to deliver decent standards of social housing. The Government’s record was quite rightly praised in the pages of Inside Housing last week. It reported that a survey of housing professionals had concluded that the Government’s housing investment will be remembered as a lasting achievement, standing in contrast to the damage caused by the previous Government’s scorched earth policy towards addressing housing need. I echo this view and pay tribute to the investment policies that have delivered 180,000 new homes last year, doubled investment in affordable housing to £2 billion a year by 2008, cut rough sleeping by 73 per cent, ended the long-term use of bed and breakfasts for families and have reduced substandard social housing already by more than 1 million. The effect of this investment has been to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of families previously living in unacceptable, damp or overcrowded accommodation.

Unfortunately these improvements are taking place against the backdrop of escalating social and market trends in the housing market, which are creating new challenges for government. For example, there are the emerging demographic pressures from the million additional single households, combined with the increased migration to the south-east causing a shortage of family-sized homes. Then there are the economic pressures that have encouraged rampant housing speculation at the same time as house purchase becomes unobtainable to a generation of young people. Then there are the social pressures identified in the Hills report in which monolithic concentrations of social housing are creating ghettos of poverty, depravation and unemployment.

In this environment, with the continuing shortage of affordable homes to rent or buy, the most vulnerable families are being squeezed out. As my noble friend has identified, we still have 90,000 families in temporary accommodation, 0.5 million in overcrowded properties and up to 1 million children still living in substandard housing. As has been said, that frequently has a knock-on effect on their health and education and robs them of their life chances at an early age.

The key to effective measures to tackle homelessness is to understand why people become homeless in the first place. Sometimes the cause is all too obvious. For example, last year I visited a Shelter project in Armley jail and saw the ground-breaking work being done to assist young offenders in finding accommodation before they were released literally on to the streets. Sometimes education can make a difference. In Rotherham, Shelter runs a scheme in which ex-homeless young people go into schools to explain the dangers of leaving home unprepared and the stark reality of life on the streets.

The most important feature of homeless families is their complex interconnected problems, which often lead to them becoming homeless again and again. Many suffer domestic violence, relationship breakdowns, mental health or long-term debt problems, which contribute to a cycle of homelessness and temporary accommodation. The key to this is to intervene and provide support at an early stage. Shelter runs a number of “homeless to home” projects around the country to help families to make a successful transition from temporary accommodation to a permanent home with sustainable tenancies. Projects such as these, with a mission to prevent homelessness, have proved their effectiveness. There is a case now for rolling out “tenancy sustainment” schemes across the country. Of course, there is a cost to this, but there is an even greater cost in inaction, both in terms of the continuing pressure on temporary accommodation and the health and welfare of those forced to live there.

Preventive measures are crucial but we will not have resolved the shortage of affordable housing unless we increase the number of social houses to rent. Shelter has estimated that a minimum of 20,000 additional units of social housing need to be built each year beyond those already planned. Given the scale of the problem that we have identified, that seems a fairly modest estimation, but for each year that goes by without this extra capacity the target must increase. That is why I am hopeful that the Government will address the shortfall with some urgency, and will see fit to make an announcement to that effect in the Comprehensive Spending Review. That would reinforce the Government’s deserved reputation for tackling the acute problems in the housing sector as well as transforming the lives of thousands of families living in housing need.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a landlord. I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for securing this debate on the plight of families enduring homelessness and overcrowding.

I should like to concentrate on two matters: first, the impact of life in temporary accommodation and overcrowding on children; and, secondly, the need for more social housing, particularly given the very poor state of much privately rented accommodation, and the requirement that services supporting these families should be reinforced rather than allowed to decline.

I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on removing families from bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The previous situation was quite unacceptable and I shall give an example of it later. I am delighted that Her Majesty’s Government have reduced the number of families in temporary accommodation below the 100,000 threshold, to 90,000, as other speakers said. Her Majesty’s Government have set a target to reduce households in temporary accommodation by half by 2010. As has been said, their success in reducing rough sleeping by two-thirds over three years gives some hope that this may be achieved.

Sadly, too much of the alternative provision to bed and breakfast is of a similar unacceptable quality. Construction of social housing is currently barely a quarter of what was achieved between 1945 and 1975, and even were Her Majesty’s Government to be successful in halving the number of households in temporary accommodation by 2010, we would find ourselves only in the same situation as in 1997.

On the impact of overcrowding and homelessness on family relations, the experts on child development such as John Bowlby and DW Winnicott have always been unanimous on the importance of the security of the parent-child relationship, particularly that between the primary carer and child in its earliest months. The development of scanning technology to permit us to see the functioning of the brain enables us today to see the way the earliest relationship sculpts the mind and significantly determines character and the ability to learn. It is imperative that the early environment does not frustrate the normal parental drive to bond with the infant, and to place the child at the top of all priorities in the first months of life at least. That is how the mutual bond of love is established that makes all the later tribulations of development manageable, even the terrible twos and teens.

All this tends to be thrown in doubt in overcrowded or insecure housing. Some years ago I visited a family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation in Canning Town, east London, with their health visitor. The mother was unwell and walked with the aid of two sticks. Neither of the parents had a good command of English. They had three sons: a baby boy, a six year-old and a 12 year-old. The six year-old had difficulty sleeping, suffered from nightmares and wet his bed. There were no cooking facilities so the family was obliged to spend money on expensive takeaway food. The mother could not heat formula milk for her baby so was obliged to breast-feed him. As a consequence she could not take her medication lest it contaminate her milk. The mother’s fingernails were eaten quite to the quick. How can a mother in such a situation, experiencing such anxiety, give her baby the vital attention he needs?

A particularly striking feature of the research into homeless families, which has been alluded to, is that many of them are lone parents experiencing isolation from family and friends. It is deeply troubling that so often such families are bereft of the normal vital network of supportive relationships. Their physical circumstance is worsened by their loneliness.

As more and more low-income families are obliged to use insecure accommodation in the private sector, their need for advice and support becomes greater. Inevitably, often those families in temporary accommodation will find difficulty in accessing services. The charity Barnardo’s provides its Families in Temporary Accommodation service to these households. The FiTA project has been resourced solely by raising of voluntary funds by Barnardo’s for the past 10 years. The service assists families in obtaining their welfare rights. Over the past four years, that project, which receives no statutory funds, has had to be reduced. Two and a half full-time equivalent posts are unfilled, and the project is still £67,000 short of the expenditure budgeted for 2007-08. Are the Minister and her colleagues giving all possible assistance to Barnardo’s in finding funding for that service? She may prefer to write to me on that. No doubt she agrees that it is imperative that these families have the strongest support in gaining access to services. Can she advise on how a provision for free bus and Tube travel for families in temporary accommodation might be developed to encourage increased contact between those families, their relations, friends and home communities? What is being done in that area?

What steps have been taken by the Minister’s colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to make benefit offices family-friendly environments? On all those matters, she might prefer to write to me rather than respond during the debate. Should any of your Lordships wish to have an opportunity to hear from parents in temporary accommodation, I strongly urge them to ask Barnardo’s whether a visit might be arranged to one of the Family in Temporary Accommodation surgeries. I would be happy to assist with that if I could.

I have been shocked at the quality of some of the non-bed and breakfast, privately rented family accommodation that I have seen in Canning Town. One home had a basement that was flooded almost to ground floor level, and no action appeared to be being taken by the landlord. Another had a shower that was fitted directly above the lavatory, as an all-in-one unit. Another home for a mother and two young children had walls sodden with damp. I therefore join strongly the homelessness charity Shelter’s call—and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones—for the setting of social housing output targets to be raised to a level of 46,500 in 2008-09, 50,000 in 2009-10, and 53,500 in 2010-11. Self-interest determines, given our ageing population, that the welfare of our children is too precious for any less investment. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Dubs for securing this short debate, which is of great importance. Its importance will be recognised by many MPs, for whom housing and homelessness issues prompt the largest amount of post. It is a real issue in this country.

This Government have done a lot to improve the situation of housing in the UK. It must be recognised that they inherited a pretty awful legacy from the previous Government in 1997. That year, I was appointed chairman of the Housing Corporation. Housing Corporation funding had gone down year on year in the previous years and the percentage grant that it was able to give had also gone down considerably, which had an impact on house building. The Government have a commitment to halve the number of homeless people in temporary accommodation by 2010. That is a laudable commitment but it will not answer the enormous challenge faced by the Government and this country.

Many noble Lords taking part in this debate have enormous respect for and support Shelter. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Jones is a trustee of Shelter, whose good work is known by many of us. It is a very responsible organisation, and its call for an additional 20,000 homes per annum, an enormous amount that will be very difficult to deliver, is worth serious consideration. I am delighted that the Select Committee in another place supports it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that it is an important target to go for.

I know that Ministers normally answer in this kind of debate, but it will be interesting to hear—because of my knowledge and experience of what we inherited in 1997—whether the noble Baroness speaking for the Benches opposite is able to support this proposal and to back it up with support for planning permission. Opposition to planning permission has been one of our key problems when new housing is sought in almost any area of the country. It is not just a case of saying “Let’s build” but also of saying, “and we will have the political guts to follow that through”, as the Government have.

I was honoured to chair a taskforce—not my choice of word—on affordable home ownership. There is no doubt that people in Britain want to own their homes. There is now one city in the country where the average cost of a house is £100,000, when a few years ago it was £5,000. In every other city, the average cost of a house is well over that amount, very much out of the reach of low-income families. Our job was to find ways of increasing affordable home ownership. As in the report, we decided that that could not be at the cost of socially rented housing. The director of Shelter, Adam Sampson, was a member of the taskforce and supported that view.

We called for shared ownership because it was clear that the number of those who could afford a mortgage to buy their own home was diminishing considerably. Shared ownership is a help. The cost of housing has meant that the entry level for that has gone up, but it is nevertheless of considerable help. This is not easy to deal with. The Government have been trying to tackle three key issues. First, on the inheritance of the sale of council houses, the issue was not just the sale of council houses; many of us would welcome that, because people want to own their own homes. The problem was the refusal by the then Conservative Government to allow the revenue generated by the sale of those homes to be ploughed into building more social housing to be rented, to replace that stock. The other problem, particularly in the boiling pot of our housing problem in London and the south-east, was that the controls were so loose that if I was a council-house tenant with a certain degree of tenure, I could buy my house but within a short period I could—and many did—sell it on to a company that would then let it out for a commercial rent. That was wrong. Our work on the low-cost home ownership taskforce identified some serious problems with this in London. We called for it to be stopped. We did not call for an end to the sale of council houses or housing association houses, but we said that when those people moved on, the house should be offered back to the local authority or the housing association at the market price. It could then come back into the stock and go out for rent again.

The second problem for the Government, which any Government will have, is what constitutes homelessness. I have heard my noble friends talk about families, which are key. It is about family break-up, which will be a continuing problem. It is also about groups of women who, because of domestic violence, stay in a situation where they may be killed—many are—or where their children grow up accepting that domestic violence is a norm, a way of life. It is something that boys then take into their relationships. Getting out of that situation all too often makes women technically homeless. We must look at that, and ensure that a mother and her children remain in the home and that the perpetrator of the domestic violence loses the tenancy even though their name may be on the rent book. We must find a way around that.

The other issue, for which the MoD has some responsibility, is Armed Forces members who find a home when they leave but are unable to cope with society. If you go on the streets at night, as a number of us have, and talk to those living there, you will find that quite a number are ex-service people. Some work has been done—when I was at the Housing Corporation, our people met the MoD—but it is insufficient. You cannot just transfer responsibility for people leaving the Armed Forces to another department. That causes problems.

The third area is the cost of housing. Increased costs mean that one can build and buy less housing. That is a real challenge for this or any Government. I should declare that I am a non-executive director of George Wimpey private house builders. I have seen how building costs have gone up and know that the Government will have to face that issue. I hope that, when the Minister replies, she will not feel defensive about it in any way. This Government are being good in that area; we just want to make sure that they remain good and that the Comprehensive Spending Review delivers the extra investment in housing that we need, which they have continued to deliver since 1997.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Dubs on initiating this debate and I declare an interest as vice-president of Shelter. I am grateful to my noble friend for backing the charity’s call for Her Majesty’s Government to commit to building an extra 20,000 social homes each year.

I want to join those noble Lords who have concentrated on the effect of homelessness on children. My interest in this issue and my support for Shelter date back many years and I want to continue to play my part in ensuring that the Government’s commitment to halve the numbers of homeless households trapped in temporary accommodation is made good by 2010.

None of us who watched Ken Loach’s film “Cathy Come Home” when it was first transmitted or saw its recent revival can have been unmoved by Cathy’s child’s screams as the story drew to its tragic close. The film seems to have stirred the nation’s conscience and led to a legal safety net for vulnerable families, requiring that they be placed in emergency housing and on a council’s waiting list, but that has not since been followed by many further steps.

As we have heard from my noble friend Lord Dubs and others, there is now evidence that prolonged periods spent in unsuitable temporary accommodation undermine the lives of children. Physical and mental health suffers, and education suffers most of all. While the number of homeless households has more than doubled in the past 10 years, it must be acknowledged that this Government have taken decisive action to end the worst form of temporary accommodation, bed and breakfast. But I question whether homeless children are much better off in self-contained temporary accommodation than has been claimed.

The stories that I have heard about the standards of such accommodation seem to indicate that it is at the grubby end of the private market, including run-down flats leased by local authorities from private landlords. I remember such a place near where I live—a shabby decaying dump from which mothers with toddlers and babies emerged, downcast and degraded. I wonder how degraded and downcast we would be if obliged to live in such conditions. That building was subsequently sold to a developer who turned it into luxury apartments, the so-called penthouse of which sold for £1.3 million.

Take one story from Shelter’s case files: Sarah and her two year-old son became homeless two years ago when her landlord raised her rent and she fell deeper and deeper into arrears. Eventually, he terminated her tenancy and, as it was only a six-month assured shorthold let, she had no grounds on which to defend it in court. Because she was pregnant with Joe at the time, her council accepted a duty to rehouse her and temporarily placed her in a one-bedroom flat with a leaking ceiling, broken furniture and no heating. When her baby Steven was born there was no room for his cot and he was frequently ill, so she was constantly travelling back and forwards to the doctor and to see her mother. Two years later, Sarah and her children still live in that flat.

I understand that the Government in 2006 introduced a code of guidance for local authorities dealing with homelessness, which included directions about the quality of housing used as temporary accommodation. Yet horror stories of poor conditions persist. Can my noble friend tell the House how this code of guidance is being enforced?

A homeless child living in the kind of temporary accommodation that I have described is likely to be among those who spend all their formative years below the poverty line. Shelter estimates that 1.6 million children in today’s Britain live in bad housing. They are the ones who are less likely to enjoy and succeed at school than other children and are more likely to plan on leaving school at 16. Shelter’s investigation has found that they are nearly twice as likely as other children not to get any GCSEs, and that children living in bad housing who get at least one GCSE are twice as likely not to attain an A to C grade. They take more time off school, given that children in bad housing are almost twice as likely as other children to suffer from poor health. Nearly 310,000 children in Britain are suffering from a long-term illness or disability, and many have problems with homework. One 13 year-old told Shelter:

“I need space to learn. Sometimes I have exams to study for and if there’s noise I can't think”.

Homeless children can end up having to change schools several times in a school year—a stressful experience, considering that they also have to deal with the problems attendant on moving home.

Children were asked what they liked about their home. Most said spending time with their family. The response of one seven year-old was:

“We like being with the family ... and the kitchen as long as you don't open the drawer with the rats in”.

Such infestations are not uncommon in this kind of accommodation; and this is Britain in the 21st century.

Darran, aged 13, has to share a bedroom with his pregnant mother.

“That's what I have been planning for my whole life”,

he says:

“To have my own bedroom”.

Should not every child in this prosperous country have his or her own bedroom—a place to do one's homework in, a place to be private? Fifteen year-old Damon and his mother have one room for sleeping, eating, studying and relaxing. They share all other facilities with two other households. Shelter’s findings suggest that children living in acutely bad housing are more vulnerable to bullying than others. Teachers told Shelter that, in their experience, children in bad housing are bullied more than children in good or adequate accommodation. One 14 year-old explained what would make things better for his family:

“More places to play and hang out with friends, a place where we can go without being threatened by older kids”.

The percentage of parents in bad housing who had been contacted by the police about their children was twice that of parents of other children. Nearly half of male remand young offenders and 42 per cent of female sentenced young offenders have experienced homelessness.

Not long ago, I was invited to inaugurate the building of an estate of affordable housing at a village called Elmswell in Suffolk. “Affordable” is the key word here. I was shown architects’ plans and told how this housing would be sustainable and environmentally desirable. It was all highly desirable, and I promised to go back to see the place when the houses were completed. But, of these houses, about half were for rent and half for sale. They were far cheaper than anything on the market, even in this remote area of Suffolk, but they were far beyond the reach of the many families with whom Shelter is concerned. Also, there was no embargo on the sale of these properties to people from London who might buy them as second homes. There was very little restriction on selling them on and no requirement that those who bought them should be below a certain income level. No doubt it is impossible in law that that should be so. Each of these houses would have been a dream home for the families whom I and other noble Lords have spoken about.

Finally, it is clear that homeless children who have lived for a long time in the kind of accommodation that I have described are very likely to be among those who spend all their formative years living below the poverty line, and this increases the chances that they, in their turn, will also grow up to live in poverty.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Dubs for initiating this debate. I am participating in it because of the respect that I have for my noble friends and other noble Lords who have spoken today who have given a lifetime’s, or certainly part of a lifetime’s, service to campaigning on behalf of the homeless and for the need for adequate housing for all people. I wish to show my solidarity, from this position on these Benches, with them for the work that they do.

I grew up in a northern working-class community. When I became a young trade unionist, we basically had two words on our banners: “jobs” and “homes”. They were the two things that we never had an adequate supply of but always wanted. Even in middle age, I still campaigned for the same things, not in Parliament but on the streets. For me, it is a great comfort and almost a pleasure to see what this Government have done in economic terms with regard to work. We no longer see mass demonstrations against unemployment and we do not see the banners. Not everyone but most people who want to work have the opportunity to do so, but, sadly, most people who want a decent home do not have the opportunity to get one. The message to my Labour Government, and the Chancellor in particular—who, above all politicians, has done more to solve economic, work and other problems, as he charts his future political career—is to give the same kind of energy and commitment to providing homes that he gave to providing work. Comments have been made that it is pretty awful finding homes out there, not just for the homeless and poor people. Fairly affluent young people find it increasingly difficult to find a place on the housing ladder.

The Government have done well. It is not my job to criticise them; it is not even for me to say that it is all the Government’s responsibility because it is not. Many players and factors are involved in providing adequate housing, and it is not only the Government’s responsibility. It is the responsibility of architects, planners, professional people, builders and people with all kinds of occupations and skills to ensure that the housing supply is adequate and affordable.

It may not be the Government’s sole responsibility, but they need stronger political will. I am reading and thinking carefully about the commitment, energy and drive that are going into the Olympic Games, which I fully support. But I wish that homelessness and housing were on the agenda and the front pages in the same way that we see the passion and drive for the Olympic Games. That is my message to the Minister and the Government: get some passion, energy and drive into solving the problem of homes for people. That is what is required.

Secondly, as a social democrat, there is a morality issue. One of my children was recently keen to buy a house, or a small flat. He was told that the house had gone to an investment buyer, which means someone who wanted it to be a buy-to-let home. My generation was one of the first to have a disposable income, which has often been used to buy houses. What have we done with those houses? We have rented them to our own children or to our neighbours’ children, and have made more money than we could have done by putting the money in the bank or towards other kinds of investment. That might be okay, but it means that young people like my son are paying £10,000, £11,000 or £12,000 a year to rent such accommodation out of disposable incomes of—I don’t know—£15,000, £18,000, £20,000, £25,000, meaning that 50, 60 or 70 per cent of their income is going on rent. Is that good? Is that the kind of morality that we really want to support as politicians?

It is not the Government’s responsibility, and I am not saying that I want them to pass legislation eliminating buy-to-let opportunities, but we should talk about what we are doing and why, and is it really what we want to do to our own children? Is there a moral issue about using homes as investment opportunities when a home is for someone having somewhere to live? We should at least talk about this issue.

Finally, I want to talk about vision. As well as other noble Lords, I read a lot about housing and what is going on. The Government have introduced initiatives, the Housing Corporation has played an important role, and individual housing associations have done well. Private developers have tried many times to provide affordable, attractive homes, and I have no criticism about that. But, that has never been enough. I want the kind of vision about how and where we might live in the next 20, 30 or 40 years. I want someone to articulate that vision. That has been done in the past. Herbert Morrison was a politician who had the vision of council homes for people who were living in slums. We know that the right to buy council homes has created its own problems, but there was a vision that working-class people aspired to get out of the slums to live in a council house, with a garden and open space.

Private individuals had their vision. A Clerk in this House called Ebenezer Howard had a vision of a garden city. He built more than one garden city. They may be seen as slightly quaint and old-fashioned these days, but they were a vision. If one reads of the passion and commitment behind the garden city movement, one can see hope, light and possibilities for working people that we do not see today. It is not the job of the Minister, nor is it the job of any individual. I wish it was my job and that I had the ability to do it. I do not think that I have, otherwise I would not be here this afternoon. I would be out there doing something about it. What Ministers can do is to look for people with vision. Perhaps people such as the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, and others need more support, to let their ideas flow freely about how we might live. Clearly, we will have to live high and densely.

If my children and grandchildren are going to have affordable homes, they will not be detached houses in half an acre. It will be a case of building high, living small. That is okay, as long those homes are affordable, clean and tidy and healthy and the transport, which will probably have to travel high and densely, is there to enable them to do that. I do not think that they will have a problem with that.

We need a vision of what it could be like, how it could be done and of how people on low, middle and high incomes could live together in a unified and peaceful way. Beyond that, who knows? Perhaps the visionaries of the next generation will build in the sea. Why not? That is probably the kind of thing that people like HG Wells thought about. Everyone thought that such things would never happen and, of course, they are.

My message is fairly simple—it is simple to me, even if I was not able to make it simple for other Lords. It is: let us get some passion and morality into this from us and from the Government and let us support the Government in the good work that they are doing.

My Lords, the price of housing, its availability and its affordability has become something of a national obsession. It has become the new weather. Every day, when we pick up the newspapers, we read stories about this problem. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on reminding everyone that, for many people, this is not a question of whether they can afford a property, it is a question of whether their property is even fit to live in, whether too many people live in it or, in some cases, even now, whether they have a proper home or are dependent almost on the charity of friends and relatives.

I will focus my remarks this evening on the voluntary sector. I pay tribute to the many thousands of volunteers and professionals who work for voluntary organisations across the country and who do such valuable work in the housing field. Many of the Government’s achievements, about which we have heard a lot today, would not have happened had it not been for the work done by the voluntary sector.

I will focus also on three organisations that I happen to be involved with but I could focus on any number. I spoke to the three of them about this debate and asked them, perhaps slightly unfairly, to name one thing that was really high on their agenda at this time—one wish that they would like the Government to grant them.

I spoke to Shelter first. It is clear that Shelter needs no introduction in your Lordships’ House; almost every speaker has declared some sort of interest and been involved, in Shelter at a level of detail. Other than my fairly modest annual donation, I do not think that I need to declare any interest beyond my respect and admiration for its practical work and campaigning zeal. Its concern is increasingly for families who find themselves in temporary, overcrowded or otherwise unsuitable accommodation. We have heard, movingly, from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, about the impact that that has on individuals, particularly children, and the way in which disadvantage becomes almost an institutional part of their life and is passed down the generations. I am afraid that it is a fact that housing being built for organisations in the social rented sector, whether they are housing associations or local authorities, is lower now than it was when the Conservatives were in power.

I agree absolutely with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that while low-cost home purchase for key workers on low incomes is a laudable aim, it should not be at the expense of improving conditions for people who are currently poorly housed and who will always find house purchase beyond their means. The time has come for us to stop dismissing the socially rented option as somehow anti-aspirational, because it clearly has a place.

It will come as no surprise to noble Lords that the Shelter wish was for 20,000 additional houses to be built every year in the socially rented sector. Its aim has been supported by the Select Committee in another place, more than 200 Members of Parliament, the National Housing Federation, the Local Government Association and a number of other organisations.

The second organisation I want to mention is the Passage, a charity associated with Westminster Cathedral and based in Victoria. I first became associated with it about five years ago. Before my life was rather taken over by Front-Bench responsibilities in this place, I used to work once a week as a volunteer in its kitchen. It is the most amazing organisation, not only providing immediate help to rough sleepers but going much further by providing help with physical and mental health problems, improving literacy and numeracy, and helping to rebuild people to prepare them to move on to independent lives when they are ready.

The Passage is facing a serious and immediate challenge. It has always offered an open-door policy and provided help to anyone presenting themselves to it. Since the accession of new member states into the EU in 2004, followed by Bulgaria and Romania, there has been a significant increase in migrant workers arriving at the Passage. That is mostly because of its links with the Catholic Church. These workers are a different client group from the one that the Passage traditionally serves in that they need help for only a short time. As the issue is a tabloid newspaper’s paradise, I need to emphasise that these people are not in this country to receive hand-outs, they simply want to work. We have opened our borders and that is exactly what we want them to do. Quite often, however, they simply do not know what to do when they arrive here.

The Passage is associated with these people for a very short time, but there is a continuous stream of them. It is becoming increasingly stretched and is worried about its more traditional client group, which has much more complex needs. It has therefore very reluctantly decided that it cannot keep its door open to migrant workers. It will assess them and help them if they are vulnerable, but otherwise they will be given advice and sent on. So the plea from the Passage is that while it accepts that this is a difficult area for government—and while we on these Benches agree that it was right to open up our work markets to new EU residents—merely opening the market is not enough. For example, migrant workers are not allowed to use Jobcentre Plus, although it is difficult to imagine why not. We clearly need a joined-up approach that starts in the country of origin and helps people who genuinely want to come here to work and who have a great contribution to make. We need co-ordination between the key departments: the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Just a few hundred yards from the Passage is the third organisation that I want to mention, the Ex-Service Fellowship. Although it is a much smaller organisation, last year it provided 19,000 nights’ accommodation to ex-servicemen. I have a particular empathy with the organisation because I come from a forces background. The organisation estimates that around 10 per cent of the homeless population has served in the Armed Forces. Interestingly, however, it says that it has no evidence of a causal link between the two. In other words, there is no evidence to suggest that former servicepeople are more vulnerable. However, on any given day in London, around 1,100 former servicemen are homeless and 2,500 are in temporary accommodation. The organisation usually observes that although complex life difficulties have caused these people to present themselves in need of help, their single biggest problem is the absence of a support network among family and friends. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, that the Armed Forces ought to have a stab at identifying the individuals who might be at risk before they leave the forces and perhaps giving them a bit of extra help before they fall into difficulties.

The big issue that the Ex-Service Fellowship wanted to raise—I was rather surprised when it did—was that many local housing authorities give preference to people living in a given area and award extra points to those who have lived there over a long period. It clearly disadvantages servicepeople. I had regularly to deal with this problem in the early 1990s when I was a new councillor and had an air force base in my county council division. I am surprised that we are still addressing the same issue all this time later.

That is the shopping list from three organisations. I finish by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for obtaining a debate on this subject.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for obtaining this debate. I also thank speakers in the previous debate for not speaking for long because it has given us longer for this debate than we would otherwise have had. It has been good all round. All the speeches have made this an extremely worthwhile debate.

The international review of homelessness by Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick and Professor Mark Stephens of the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York set the problem of homelessness in an international context. They studied the policies and practices of other countries and came to the conclusion that the English approach is highly distinctive because it is set in a legal framework. It is apparently almost unique internationally. That framework encourages the provision of long-term settled housing as the ultimate response to homeless people in priority need.

Since the original legislation in 1977, the number of priority categories has been increased. There are now so many that, unless local authorities adopt their own policies, those on the housing waiting list, many of whom have extreme problems, and homeless people have little chance of obtaining a home. Families who have lived in an area all their lives have little hope of seeing their children able to continue to live there, so continuity and communities are consequently imperilled. That is another side of this discussion. In addition, homeless single people, some of whom have become homeless because of the problems we have been discussing today, have little prospect of fitting any of the priority categories, and limited move-on accommodation makes it increasingly difficult for vulnerable single people to gain access to social housing.

Despite the reduction in their number, many people are still sleeping rough. In 1998 a report by the Social Exclusion Unit showed that between one-quarter and one-fifth of rough sleepers were from the Armed Forces. This subject has been touched on by several speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. It is significant. Has the Minister any figures on it? The evidence produced by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, seemed to indicate that it is still a problem. Many people are coming out of the Armed Forces, and some will have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. One wonders why the Armed Forces’ welfare system is not picking them up before they become homeless. They are undoubtedly an element of the problem.

To have any hope of providing the settled housing envisaged in the report on the international situation, local authorities are using a plethora of measures to contain the situation. These include: using housing benefit for the private sector; tenancy deposit schemes to secure housing for people who need it; mediation in the face of family difficulties to prevent breakdowns, which increase the chance of homelessness; in the case of domestic violence, trying to secure that a member of the family—the perpetrator, one hopes—leaves; encouraging older people occupying properties that have become too large for them to downsize, with help, to smaller accommodation, thus freeing the bigger property for larger families; creating more shared ownership schemes; and encouraging better hostel provision for people sleeping rough. Much is happening.

To bring the situation into perspective—it brought it home to me—boroughs in west London, including my own, have recently put together a booklet and a very professional DVD on housing options, which refer, among more general housing advice, to homelessness prevention and support. Much of this will have to guide how we help the homeless rather than necessarily assuming that each time people become homeless they require different accommodation.

In an attempt to increase the amount of affordable housing and encourage housing associations to build family-sized accommodation, local authorities require Section 106 payments to provide affordable housing or contribute to it—the Minister will know that as well as I do. The Mayor of London now demands that 50 per cent of all developments create affordable housing, although not all local London boroughs will accept that amount. My borough has recently given permission for affordable housing to be attached to a major block of flats. Flats in the block will be sold but it will also contain affordable housing.

Section 106 therefore makes a significant contribution to the provision of social housing. However, the slump in affordable house building has been very noticeable, with fewer than 20,000 homes provided annually, against, I think, 100,000 built annually in the 1970s.

I am sure the Minister will say that there is plenty going on; however, it feels a little as though the duck is paddling very fast below the water but not going very far on top. The lack of housing, as others have said, remains a conundrum. As described by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and others, it leaves individuals and families in temporary accommodation waiting for a more permanent home. Many are living in unacceptably overcrowded accommodation, in the public and the private sector. Families with children of different sexes have to share rooms, with no accommodation for older children. We have heard graphic examples from the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, so I do not need to go into that any further. We all know of families in such situations and how unacceptable it is.

Shelter, Crisis and the Public Accounts Committee have expressed considerable concern about the Government’s statistics on homelessness, which appear to demonstrate a reduction since 2004 in the number of homeless people. Their concern arises partly because it is now assumed that there are estimated to be just under 400,000 “hidden homeless”; that is, homeless people who do not approach a local authority or who do not meet any of the priority criteria.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, touched on migration within the EU, particularly from the 10 accession countries, which undoubtedly adds to problems across the EU and certainly here. I know of some EU migrants who are working and sending the money home but sleeping rough on the streets; and they should not be.

We have had several debates recently drawing attention to the difficulties experienced in the countryside, where young people are priced out of their villages and towns and small-scale redevelopment is urgently required. That urgency is underlined in the Affordable Rural Housing Commission’s 2006 report. Having studied the situation, Kate Barker has determined that the number of additional dwellings already identified as being provided annually needs to be increased by at least 112,000 across the country.

Swathes of development sites have been identified, mainly in the south, where building is likely to take place; that includes areas on the Thames. There are acres of land down on the river, where there will have to be mixed communities. The legacy of the Olympics will have to involve building affordable housing, but it will not necessarily be located where people want to be.

My party recognises the need for well designed, environmentally sustainable and eco-friendly affordable homes. Many but not all of those can be built in cities, on brownfield sites. We believe that much of what is needed can be provided by working with local communities and local authorities, rather than central government or regional agencies dictating what should be provided and where. However, we all recognise that there is still a major problem that must be resolved and that people are still living in unacceptable conditions or do not have somewhere proper to live at all.

My Lords, I join every noble Lord who has spoken in congratulating my noble friend on raising this important issue. It has been a very thoughtful debate, which has revealed tremendous consensus between parties across the House over the importance of housing and the complexity and scale of the challenge. The focus that has rightly been placed on families and children shows that we all share extremely deep concern about how both homelessness and overcrowding impact on the most vulnerable. My noble friend Lord Dubs has done the House a great service and we could easily have had a longer debate today. I am sure that the powerful advocacy offered behind the Shelter report will be welcome and noted.

The point is that if we are intent on making homelessness history, we must tackle its root causes, as many noble Lords have said. We must also place it within a robust policy of housing and planning and tackle its economic and social causes. I was most interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said about the international context and how we in Britain have taken a slightly different route. However, across Europe, we meet the same challenging demographic and economic changes. I hope that I can persuade my noble friend Lord Sawyer that, just as every other Labour Government in history have made housing a priority—in very different circumstances—we, too, have made housing a priority. However, we have combined it with a vision of building not just houses but communities that can thrive because they are socially coherent and environmentally sustainable. It is becoming more difficult to do this, not least in the light of climate change.

Our approach to tackling homelessness with passion and energy has been to help those who are most vulnerable and at greatest risk while, at the same time, building up a more effective system to meet wider housing and social needs. I am grateful for the warmth of welcome that has been given from across the House to so many aspects of the Government’s housing policy. It is especially good, for example, to see the reference in Inside Housing, which is not always an uncritical friend of the Government.

We have tried to deliver stability in the housing market through lower long-term interest rates; to address the repairs backlog in affordable housing, so that homes meet decency standards; to address the decline and abandonment in our housing market renewal pathfinder areas in the north and west, where the economic tide has receded; to build and continue to build at increasing levels to meet the desperate need for housing in the wider south-east; and to open opportunities for affordable housing for people on low incomes. All that and more must be done in the context of planning and scarce land resources. That is why PPS 3 recently brought those two elements together most successfully.

Of course there are huge challenges. I was very pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, brought to our attention the role of the voluntary organisations, because none of those things would have been achieved without the active partnership of many voluntary organisations above and beyond the RSLs. Octavia Hill was as concerned with how people lived as she was with where they lived. I am particularly pleased that that tradition is so robust in this country, particularly in the three areas that the noble Baroness picked out. I visited the Passage recently and talked to Sister Ellen about the pressures that the A8 are causing. Although 97 per cent of our new A8 nationals who are registered are in work in the UK, we must recognise that there are pressures in central London in particular. We have tried to address those pressures. We have made more than £600,000 available to local authorities in central London to support their intervention work with A8s, and I am glad to say that some of it has been invested in targeting particular problems.

We had a huge challenge when we came to office in 1997. We had to determine the right set of priorities to meet urgent needs. As my noble friend Lady Dean said, the stoking up of the pressures in the system posed a considerable challenge, and we had to deal with the massive £19 billion backlog of social housing repairs that we inherited. More than 2 million homes failed basic decency standards, and 1,800 people were sleeping rough on the streets. We have done a great deal to address the many problems that noble Lords have already talked about. We have been able to achieve those changes because, uniquely, we have worked intensively and with an innovative eye on what actually works. Local authorities are required for the first time by legislation to have a strategy for homelessness and are supported by intensive and expert advice from my department on how to implement best practice. Practically every borough in need can call on that support, which is making a profound difference. Indeed, I am very glad to pay tribute to officials who are working in this field.

We have put significant investment into improving housing choices as well as conditions. As I said, we have also tried to meet urgent need, while at the same time laying a foundation so that we can prevent homelessness in the future. We have seen the results. We have seen the South Bank cardboard city melt away and have cut rough sleeping by 73 per cent. We have also ended the scandal of large numbers of families stuck in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for a long time. New cases of homelessness are at their lowest level since the early 1980s and the number of households in temporary accommodation is also falling. The figure of 90,000 has been quoted around the House this afternoon, but the figure is below 90,000 for the first time in nearly four years.

Many noble Lords, such as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lady Rendell, spoke passionately and movingly of some of the dreadful conditions in which some families in temporary accommodation are still living. It is a reproach to every one of us that they are, but local authorities are working proactively and positively to make that a thing of the past. Most temporary accommodation is of good quality and at street level, with its own front door. That is what we want for everyone. Although we are making progress, the number of people who are homeless and in temporary accommodation is still too high. That is why we have set a target to halve the number of households in temporary accommodation to 50,500 by 2010, and we are determined to meet that challenge.

Many noble Lords have focused on the impact of both homelessness and overcrowding on children. I am pleased to say that, since 1997, the number of children in non-decent homes has reduced by more than 1.4 million, as has the number of children in households in temporary accommodation. However, 130,000 children are still living in temporary accommodation, and we are in no mood to be complacent. How could we be, given that we know—as, I am sure, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, would have been able to tell us had the debate not been moved forward—that the impact on those children is profound and tremendous? Indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, began to explain this, although the department does not need to be reminded of it. Later in the year, we will publish research that we have commissioned on the experiences of children living in temporary accommodation.

We have worked with and enabled local authorities to design and deliver more effective front-line prevention services. We have invested £200 million over three years, and I am delighted to hear what boroughs such as those in west London and the noble Baroness’s own borough are doing. Many noble Lords are right that it is vital to know who the homeless are and why they are homeless. Homelessness may be due to violent and abusive families, the failure to manage rent and housing costs, the vulnerability that comes from a lifetime in care, being in prison or, as my noble friend Lady Dean and the noble Baronesses, Lady Scott and Lady Hanham, pointed out, when people leave the armed services. I can tell the House that my department is working closely with the MoD, but I will write to noble Lords because it is an aspect of the work that is worth exploring.

We have made major changes for some of those groups. Children leaving care now form a priority group for social housing, and we are working closely with 16 and 17 year-olds to meet a commitment that by 2010 they will not be placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation except in emergencies. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to mediation services. A whole range of new policies is being implemented in terms of working with families, especially young people, to prevent that critical step into homelessness. We are putting into place practical help such as supported lodgings. I wish I had more time to speak in more detail about what we are doing with offenders because a tremendous range of opportunities is opening up.

I want to talk briefly about social housing, since that was the message behind the Shelter report. We know that it is crucial to increase the supply of all forms of affordable housing, and that means new social housing. We are on course to deliver our target of 30,000 social rented homes a year by the end of 2007, the final year of the last spending round. That means the provision of an additional 10,000 social rented homes per year, which represents a 50 per cent increase over 2004-05. We recognise that that will not meet all the newly arising needs and the Chancellor is well aware that the provision of social rented homes must be a priority for the 2007 CSR. If he was not aware before he reads this debate, afterwards he will be in no doubt about the head of steam that is building up around the issue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, made the point that this is an aspirational choice. Discussions with tenants’ associations and organisations show that social homes are an aspirational choice. It is the preferred choice and that is why we have to work towards it. Indeed, the Hills report that we commissioned raised key issues about the future of social housing. The question I would put in response to my noble friend Lord Sawyer is: what is going to be our vision for social housing in the future? Certainly we want it to be an aspiration and to open up a pathway for social and economic mobility. We must square the vicious circle of social housing and worklessness, so in promoting social mobility through, for example, choice-based lettings, is a big challenge.

We have to be more innovative and to improve opportunities for moving from temporary to settled homes. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who offered me the opportunity to write to him about Barnardo’s. I shall certainly do that, but I can tell him now that we are meeting representatives of the charity next week. We are aware of the problems. My noble friend Lady Rendell asked me how the guidance is being enforced. That is being done in a number of ways. I shall write to her in detail because it is a complex area. Among the new approaches we are taking in the provision of settled homes is a £30 million pilot to help families move from temporary accommodation into long-term settled homes, and we are looking for innovative pilot proposals that focus on London.

I want to take one minute to talk about overcrowding because it is one of the most stubborn, persistent and unpleasant problems. As we have heard, the impact on children can be quite awful. That is precisely why we have made it a priority. We have issued a consultation document and we are working with the London boroughs and our new advisers to meet the targets. It is also why we are giving the mayor a greater role. We are the first Government in over 70 years to look at how to tackle the problem and raise existing standards. We will publish our response to the consultation paper later this year. However, in November we announced that we would be investing £19 million in a series of pilot schemes across the capital which we expect to provide innovative solutions. Perhaps I may write to noble Lords about the sort of things we are considering in the context of overcrowding, because it is not possible to do justice to the issue during such a rapid résumé of these complex matters.

In conclusion, we have to build more homes; I am not in the least defensive about that. They have to be environmentally sustainable and affordable, and we will build them with local authorities. Indeed, it is local authorities which are driving this forward in terms of their housing needs assessments and on their judgment of what is needed. We have to provide more choice; we have to provide more low-cost and social housing; and we have to make better use of existing stock.

Finally, our vision is of building decent homes but also decent communities. We may not have an Ebenezer Howard but we still have a vision of a garden city. It may have changed in shape and form and the densities may be higher, but that does not mean that we compromise on quality. These places should still be a delight to live in, not just now, and a housing policy ought to be more than simply relying on your parents—having chosen the right parents in the first place. We are looking for all those things to make the decent communities of tomorrow.

I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Dubs for the opportunity he has created to debate this.

House adjourned at 6.05 pm.