House of Lords
Thursday, 13 March 2008.
The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.
Introduction: The Lord Bishop of Chichester
—John William, Lord Bishop of Chichester, was introduced between the Lord Bishop of Rochester and the Lord Bishop of Exeter.
Lord Barnett asked Her Majesty’s Government:
Further to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Budget proposals, whether they will expand on their proposals to help to prevent early home repossession orders.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Government have introduced statutory regulation to help to ensure that lenders lend responsibly and borrowers are able to make informed choices. The Government provide targeted support for those experiencing difficulties through the provision of debt advice and support for mortgage interest. The Government welcome the industry's recent statement setting out the steps that it is taking to help to support borrowers. The Civil Justice Council’s Housing and Land Committee is currently consulting on a draft mortgage protocol.
My Lords, I really do thank my noble friend for that Answer. It looks like something may be being done. As he knows, there is growing evidence of a big increase in early foreclosures. Has the Treasury considered the Ministry of Justice’s recent proposal to help borrowers who are in trouble with temporary financial difficulties by arranging a court order to prevent early foreclosure? Will my noble friend have a word with the Treasury about that?
Certainly, my Lords, we are eager to ensure that people holding mortgages are able to avoid court proceedings and repossession and we are giving advice on how they can so organise their affairs. The important thing is that the mortgage lenders also have a real interest in using repossession only as a last resort. Therefore, they are eager to co-operate with strategies that ensure that, as far as possible, people are helped when they get into difficulties with their mortgages.
My Lords, the Budget headlines yesterday were for more taxes for ordinary families. The small print of the Budget shows that the Treasury forecasts that house prices will fall in real terms. Did the Budget have anything at all to reduce the increasing likelihood of a rising rate of mortgage default and therefore repossession?
My Lords, the House will recognise that the rate of repossession is considerably below that of the 1980s and early 1990s. That is a reflection of the fact that interest rates are considerably lower than in those rather drastic times. The noble Baroness will appreciate that the Chancellor, in defending a robust economy, is able to emphasise that the rate of repossessions, although it may increase to a degree, will be nothing like what was experienced in the past. Both the Financial Services Authority and the Office of Fair Trading are involved in improving regulation and advice in order to help people holding mortgages when they get into difficulties.
My Lords, even with my imagination I did not realise that this Question was about yesterday's Budget, but if it is, is my noble friend aware that, from a macroeconomic standpoint, the Chancellor got the budgetary position pretty well exactly right? One can hope only that the Monetary Policy Committee does not do something stupid to offset that, but that is by the way.
On the Question itself, should we assume that, on the whole, banks and building societies are rational, and therefore, with the housing market as it is, they would not rush into premature housing repossessions? Would I be right in understanding that the Treasury will act in a minimalist fashion on this and again rely on the free market—in this case the banks and building societies—to behave sensibly?
My Lords, the Treasury will act in a supportive role with regard to the free market. There are areas in which government agencies are able to improve the position—the quality of financial advice and the understanding that individuals have with regard to their mortgage commitments. All this can and should be improved. The Government can provide some pump priming in this area. But broadly my noble friend is absolutely right that we can rely on the mortgage lenders to act responsibly. More than 50 per cent have already given a lead by cutting their interest rates in line with the most recent Bank of England cut.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the normal advice given by mortgage lenders to borrowers facing temporary difficulties is to request to pay interest only?
My Lords, that is certainly so. Mortgage lenders have an interest in the ongoing relationship with the mortgagee and the point of last resort is repossession. They do adopt such strategies to help borrowers and, on the whole, have good relationships with them. That does not alter the fact that we all recognise that we are going through bumpy economic times and there will be difficulties for some individuals. That is why the Government are concerned that the Financial Services Authority should do additional work on its support in this field.
My Lords, it is well known that Northern Rock has been particularly active in the repossession field in recent months, which is, no doubt, a reflection on the quality of its lending. What guidance has the Treasury given to Mr Sandler about this?
My Lords, I think I should convey to the House that the Government are not going to monitor every single act of the chief executive of Northern Rock. The arm’s-length relationship guarantees that that should not be so; the Treasury is not running Northern Rock. What we will do in due course, as has been promised to both Houses of Parliament, is publish the framework agreement between the Treasury and Northern Rock. The noble Lord will see from that—I have no doubt that it will condition future questions—that it would not be appropriate at the Dispatch Box for a Minister to comment on every single action by the chief executive.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that every effort should be made before any repossession takes place to keep families in their homes? Will he therefore support proposals that in every case before court proceedings are taken informal arbitration takes place to try to find a method to keep people in their homes?
My Lords, that generally does take place, for the reasons I identified earlier. The mortgage company or bank has no interest in repossessing, except as a last resort. We are seeking to strengthen that. The whole point of the increased work of the Financial Services Authority and the Office of Fair Trading is to give greater support to families in difficulty in terms of information and knowledge on how to handle their negotiations with the building society or bank when the issue arises.
Railways: West Coast Main Line
asked Her Majesty’s Government:
How long they estimate that the current levels of overcrowding on peak-hour trains on the west coast main line will continue.
My Lords, a significant increase in west coast route capacity will be achieved in the new timetable to be introduced in December this year. This will use the existing fleet of Pendolino trains and extra tilting Voyager trains to give a 50 per cent increase in long-distance trains to and from Euston.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but it does not build on the Written Answer that I received, in which he said that there would be a 30 per cent increase in capacity from December. On inquiry to the train operator, I am told that 29 per cent of that is off peak and 1 per cent is during the peak. These trains are very overcrowded but I know of no plans as yet agreed to increase their capacity. What are the Government and their negotiators going to do to secure a better deal for the taxpayer, the passenger and the train operating company?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that most of the increase in capacity is concentrated in the off-peak period, but we have been talking to the operators and have put in place significant plans to improve the quality of passenger experience on that route. As I made plain, there will be new Pendolino carriages—something like 106 new ones—and a further 92 additional carriages on the London Midland route. We are undertaking a whole programme of capacity enhancement, including platform lengthening on significant parts of the west coast main line. Also, of course, we have already invested something like £8.125 billion extra in improving the west coast route.
My Lords, has my noble friend seen the Atkins consulting group report that came out earlier this week? It indicated that capacity on the classic railway network will be fully saturated within 10 years and that the only solution to problems of overcrowding on routes such as the west coast line is the construction of a new high-speed line that would bring down journey times to Birmingham to one hour and to Glasgow to three hours. The report indicates that the economic benefits for the nation as a whole would be in the region of £60 billion over a lengthy lifespan, so is this not the way forward and should not the Government be planning for it now?
My Lords, we continue to refine our plans for the future development of the rail network. The network is doing a brilliant job in this country. It is expanding at a faster rate than at any time since 1947, when the father of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was Prime Minister. There are now more rail passengers. We have invested significantly and we continue to do so. We keep under review the need for high-speed operational lines and, in the past few years, we have made significant improvements in the speed of journeys between London and Manchester and London and Birmingham.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Attlee is a good deal younger than the noble Lord gives him credit for; the noble Lord was referring to his grandfather. On the Question, may I give the Minister another opportunity to satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, by asking what proportion of all the goodies that he promised would be forthcoming on the west coast line will be available during peak hours?
My Lords, I always try to make the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, happy and satisfy him with my responses, although I know that I do not always reach that point of perfection. I accept that most of the capacity increases will be off peak. Nevertheless, we have made significant improvements to peak services over the past few years. I accept the point made by the noble Lord that there will be some difficulties in the future, but we think that adequate capacity is in place and there will be continued provision of that capacity.
My Lords, one of the best ways of reducing overcrowding on the railways is to add more coaches to trains. When I asked my noble friend recently in a Written Question how many spare carriages or trains were sitting doing nothing in depots, he could not answer me. Perhaps I can help him. Nine or 10 Adelante five-car trains are going into storage quite soon, but they would be ideal for dealing with the serious overcrowding around the Bristol area and in Wales. What action is he taking to make sure that they go to work rather than fester in a depot somewhere?
My Lords, I suppose that I should always be grateful for the help that the noble Lord gives. We work closely with train operators, particularly South West Trains—concern is frequently expressed in your Lordships’ House about the operation of that company and its routes—to ensure that carriages are released. I am sure that the noble Lord will be delighted to learn that a refurbishment of class 455 units on South West Trains is currently being undertaken. I am told that over time that should begin to ease some of the difficulties.
My Lords, the United Kingdom currently has 110 kilometres of high-speed line. How many will we have in 10 years’ time?
My Lords, I am not going to make a prediction like that. I would be foolish to do so. The most important thing for us to tackle is ensuring that we have capacity in place. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is right to point his finger at that being the key issue. The majority of our investment is going to ensure that we can match the capacity needs that passengers are rightly demanding from us.
My Lords, what does the Minister believe to be the longest train journey for which it is reasonable to stand if we are to get travellers out of their private cars?
My Lords, we set a standard that no one should have to stand for more than 20 minutes.
My Lords, I am struck by the number of long-distance commuters from Wigan, Warrington and Preston. Their trains are already overcrowded in standard class during peak hours. Must they stand until 2014? Why do not the Government negotiate with Virgin so that two standard-class carriages per train can be ordered now and be in service by 2010?
My Lords, they will not have to stand until 2014. It is true that we had an unsolicited offer from Virgin last November, but we concluded that significant service improvements could not be delivered in the way that Virgin suggested. We did not think that it was a good offer in terms of value for money. We have had further discussions with Virgin on this, because it is clearly an important issue. The White Paper deals with the whole period from 2009 to 2014. Many of the improvements will come on stream rather earlier than the noble Earl suggests—from the time of the introduction of the new timetable at the end of this year, as I said at the outset.
My Lords, what business is it of the Government to second-guess the train operators?
My Lords, we are into the 17th minute.
Portable Antiquities Scheme
asked Her Majesty’s Government:
What plans they have for the future funding and management of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
My Lords, the Portable Antiquities Scheme is funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and administered on its behalf by the British Museum. The MLA has committed itself to funding the Portable Antiquities Scheme at £1.3 million for 2008-09. Beyond that period, the funding and management arrangements for the PAS will be subject to an upcoming review of the scheme, jointly commissioned by the MLA and the British Museum.
My Lords, I am grateful for that reply, but I imagine the Minister is aware that the future of the scheme has been much discussed in recent months. Does he recall that his noble friend Lord Bach said from that very Bench some six weeks ago that,
“the DCMS, the MLA and the British Museum are in discussions about the issue, as we speak”?—[Official Report, 7/02/08; col. 1263.]
I was hoping for a clearer statement about the future of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It is widely felt on all sides to be one of the best things that this Government have done in the field of archaeology and heritage. Can the Minister be a little more explicit about the future arrangements for the scheme?
My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great authority on these issues, and I pay tribute to his work in this area. We are looking forward to the conclusion of the discussions on the future of the scheme. The scheme is greatly valued, as he indicated. It brings various artefacts into museums in a way that otherwise would not occur. What is more, it engages a wide-ranging section of the public who otherwise would not visit museums. They do so because of the scheme, so we value it highly. However, it is necessary for us to think about the future of the scheme constructively, which is what the two bodies are doing. I regret that the noble Lord can point out to me that we have not made enormous progress in the past six weeks, but I assure him that we expect these discussions to conclude favourably in the near future.
My Lords, as the Minister has just suggested, if the remaining problems are to be resolved satisfactorily, will it not be necessary for the DCMS to intervene more actively and more constructively, and specifically to provide a more generous dowry for the Portable Antiquities Scheme as it enters the full embrace of the British Museum? Is this not incumbent on the department, which in the Comprehensive Spending Review chose to allocate an additional £50 million to the Arts Council, which was welcome, and even found £50 million for a new building at Tate Modern, but imagined wrongly that it would be acceptable to cut funding by 25 per cent for a range of important but less glamorous programmes, including the Portable Antiquities Scheme, housed at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council?
My Lords, the cut for the Portable Antiquities Scheme is merely that the annual sum granted to it for the coming year is the same as it was last year. Of course that is a cut because of inflation, but it is nothing like 25 per cent; we are talking about a marginal cut. However, I accept what my noble friend says. We want a resolution of these issues so that the future of the scheme is identified effectively. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, we expect progress to be made on these matters. If the department needs to intervene more proactively, we will certainly do so.
My Lords, will the national nature of the scheme be preserved? As all sides of the House have mentioned in previous debates, the great value of the Portable Antiquities Scheme is its national nature, so that every part of the country is covered. If it is cut even marginally, that national nature might be threatened. Would that not have damaging effects on the archaeological heritage of different regions?
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for his work in this area—and, indeed, to my noble friend Lord Howarth. In fact, all three noble Lords who have questioned me about this matter today know a great deal more about it than I do myself. I want to emphasise that there is no intention of changing the structure of the Portable Antiquities Scheme—quite the opposite. We highly value the scheme. It has great virtues and we intend to safeguard its future. However, there is discussion on where authority for the scheme should lie, and those discussions have not quite concluded yet.
My Lords, I declare a sort of interest as the person who took the treasure trove Bill through this House—legislation which has been a great success, as I think your Lordships will agree. I am not absolutely certain that all these wonderful words of support include finances. Are the Government actually giving money towards this scheme? I say that as a portable antiquity myself.
My Lords, I cannot guarantee than the noble Baroness will be a direct beneficiary of the £1.3 million allocated to the scheme. However, as I indicated to the House, that figure obtains over the next year. Protests and anxieties have been expressed because that does mean a reduction of 2 or 3 per cent in the resources available to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. I think that will be recognised as on the margins. Certainly the Government’s intent is that the scheme should continue to develop and flourish. The issue of management, however, is still to be resolved.
My Lords, does my honourable friend know—
My Lords, does my noble friend intend that some part of this scheme will give those whose portable valuables have been stolen and exhibited anywhere in the country the means to recover them?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. The question is not directly related to the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but it an issue that the Government take seriously. It is not the function of the scheme itself to address itself to those issues.
asked Her Majesty’s Government:
What will be the effect on benefit claimants of the strike in job centres and benefit offices planned for 17 and 18 March.
My Lords, our contingency plans, which are flexible and proven, include prioritising our resources to ensure that our top priority—to make payments to our customers—is maintained throughout any strike action by staff. We will also maintain access to our services by telephone and, wherever possible, face to face.
My Lords, many of the people to whom this Question refers will be financially challenged. Will the noble Lord give an assurance that his Answer covers access across the country to the social fund?
My Lords, 100 per cent of existing customers will not have their payments affected by the strike. BACS and posted giro payments will continue as usual and 98 per cent of our customers receive automated payments. On the social fund, Jobcentre Plus managers have planned extensively, using the experience from previous strike days, to put in place robust crisis loan arrangements for next week. Examples of these arrangements include the prioritisation of crisis loan payments above other benefit processing and the provision of special contact numbers in our benefit delivery centres, which job centre workers can use if they are approached by a vulnerable customer.
My Lords, will my noble friend tell the House something about the nature of the dispute? From the little I know about it, it seems strange that the excellent offices of ACAS could not be used to find an agreed settlement, rather than the action which is, understandably as I know it, proposed by the trade union.
My Lords, the department would be keen to engage with anyone to resolve this issue. We should recognise, of course, that the staff are the most important resource that the DWP has. This dispute is about pay. There were very protracted discussions—28 meetings, I think, since proposals were first advanced. It is within the context of needing to bear down on inflation generally, and public sector pay is clearly a component of that. But the way in which the offer has been structured and implemented seeks to address the issue of the lowest-paid people in the department. For those who are not on their scale maxima, the award will deliver a minimum pay increase of 3 per cent a year over a three-year period. Around one-third, those at the bottom end of the scale, will get more than 5 per cent a year. But we remain open to continuing discussion and dialogue with the trade unions and others on this.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that this unfortunate strike reinforces the view that staff morale in the Department for Work and Pensions is dangerously low? Given that, how does he see this affecting the drive for increased staff productivity and the delivery of government policy?
My Lords, the staff are a most important resource and there is no doubt that they are operating in challenging times. But they have already delivered in terms of staff productivity, which is up at least 8 per cent over the past three years. Again, because of significant investment of £2.8 billion over the past two spending rounds, the department has been able to restructure and re-engineer its business processes. The latest head count for January 2008 is 104,000 full-time equivalents, which is 30,000 fewer than three years ago, so the staff have engaged and co-operated. As the noble Lord said, this is against a backdrop where major changes are yet to happen; for example, the introduction of the employment and support allowance, the introduction of PADA and all the issues around the recasting of the CSA.
My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister further on access to emergency loans. I think he said that there were special contact numbers in job centres for staff if they are there to contact, but the people who need these emergency loans cannot get through to the job centre in the first place, so that will not help. Given that there is a very poor record anyway of answering the phone in job centres, how will the Minister protect people, particularly young families and mothers in desperate need, from what, if they cannot get through, will be a really dismal Easter?
My Lords, I think the noble Lord knows from when we discussed an order recently that telephony has increased significantly in recent times because of the changes that have been put in place. The approach to handling this strike is obviously to prioritise payment of benefits, as I have said, and to switch resources, including managerial resources, to answering telephones to make sure that the capacity is there to deal with people who are in real need and to make sure that we continue to service them. People have been working hard to clear outstanding work so that the decks are as clear as they can be for facing the issues over the next couple of days.
Business of the House: Debates Today
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the debates on the Motions in the names of Lord Tyler and Lord Wallace of Saltaire set down for today shall each be limited to two and a half hours.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Companies Act 2006 (Consequential Amendments etc.) Order 2008
Companies Act 2006 (Consequential Amendments) (Taxes and National Insurance) Order 2008
Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 (Prescribed Criteria) (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2008
Sex Discrimination (Amendment of Legislation) Regulations 2008
My Lords, I beg to move the four Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft orders and regulations be referred to a Grand Committee. 12th and 13th reports from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
My Lords, I apologise, but perhaps I may detain your Lordships for a moment about the first Companies Act order. It concerns its availability. I preface my brief remarks by saying that I have no criticism of our staff, who are and have been, as usual, most helpful, as all noble Lords know and would expect. I must say a word about this Companies Act order, which I had great difficulty in finding yesterday evening, and even this morning as I came into the Chamber. It is a document of some importance because it has 72 pages of schedules, which provide amendments not only on Companies Acts and so on, but on statutes as diverse as the regulation of pig production, horse racing and chiropractors, who seem to enter into the same category through their Act of 1994. It takes a little time to read those 72 pages. Before we pass orders it ought to be possible to have them in time to do so. Could my noble friend kindly mention the matter to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform? I am sure that more contact from the department would be very helpful in having greater notice of this very weighty document.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. My understanding is that all the documents are in the Printed Paper Office and we will be debating the order in Grand Committee on 18 March. My noble friend makes an important point and I will indeed raise it with the Secretary of State in the department.
On Question, Motions agreed to.
Elections: Voting Systems
rose to call attention to the Review of Voting Systems: The Experience of New Voting Systems in the United Kingdom since 1997; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have just been in a country where less than 2 per cent of those entitled to vote seem to decide which party forms a Government. As a result, this tiny elite has huge power, and special financial interests can exert disproportionate influence behind the scenes. Millions of voters, on the other hand, never have any impact at all on the outcome of parliamentary elections. Many of them, indeed, now recognise that and are frustrated by their lack of electoral influence. Naturally, the political parties, which are hardly national any more, concentrate all their campaign cash and effort on targeting this tiny group. As a result, fewer citizens, especially young ones, now bother to vote at any level of governance. The whole legitimacy of their democracy is called into question.
Members of your Lordships’ House will immediately recognise that I have not been in Russia or Kenya; I have been in the United Kingdom. That is now the situation. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that perhaps 8,000 people in a maximum of 80 marginal constituencies now decide which party wins most seats in the House of Commons and forms a Government. That is about 1.8 per cent of the registered electorate, or about 3 per cent of those who actually vote.
Worse still, this elite is totally unrepresentative of the country as a whole. It is likely that the Conservatives would have to gain 42 per cent of the total popular vote to obtain an overall majority in the other place, while Labour could probably do so on 35 per cent. Very few MPs can now claim to have the support of the majority of those voting in their constituencies. In 2005, only 34 per cent were elected with over half the vote, the lowest proportion in British history. And none, not a single Member of the other place, actually achieved a majority of the total electorate in their constituency. At both the national and local levels, therefore, the legitimacy of the outcome of a general election is bound to be challenged, and I believe it will be at the next election in particular.
The contrast between 1955, which was the first election I was interested in—as a schoolboy, of course—and that of 2005 is very instructive. Fifty years ago, the turnout even with what were then relatively difficult postal votes was 76.8 per cent, and just under a half, 49.6 per cent, supported the government that resulted. Fifty years later, in 2005, the turnout even with much easier postal voting had dropped to 61.4 per cent, while the Labour Government, with only a 35.2 per cent share of the poll—much less than a quarter of those registered to vote—gained a majority of 66 seats. There is an illusion, which may be shared by some noble Lords, that the Celts, the Scots, the Welsh or the Cornish caused the trouble, but that is not true. The distortion was most marked in England. In 2005, the Conservatives gained some 650,000 more English votes than Labour, but had 92 fewer English MPs. In short, first past the post worked in the bipolar situation of 1955, but was no longer fit for purpose in 2005 and is not now, as the well-researched government report we are debating today explains so well.
Why, then, did Ministers sit on its conclusions for a full month? Ministers here and in the other place told us that it would be completed and available before Christmas. It was ready on 17 December, but only published on 24 January. The only possible explanation is that the analysis was so uncomfortable for the Government that they had to spend a month spinning their way from that analysis. The report itself is remarkable for its freedom from partisan bias, but not so the ministerial spin. Mr Michael Wills, the Minister responsible, immediately rubbished reform by reinforcing the case for doing nothing. He then suggested that any attempt to make the Commons more democratic should await the parallel but very slow progress to reform your Lordships’ House. It is as though turkeys at either end of the building are curiously anxious to force those at the other end to face an early Christmas first.
Clearly, Lords and Commons reform should not be allowed to delay each other. I know that my noble friend Lord Goodhart, who is in his place, will examine more specifically appropriate electoral systems for a reformed second Chamber, but perhaps I may concentrate on the democratic legitimacy of MPs and Governments. Others, I hope, will look at the democratic deficit in relation to other levels of governance in the United Kingdom.
First, I shall give a little background history to the argument. In 1996, Mr Tony Blair published a book called, New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country, in which he said:
“The party I lead will carry out in government the programme we provide in our manifesto beforehand. Nothing more, nothing less, that is my word”.
In the same publication he committed any Government he led to,
“an end to hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords, as a first step to a proper directly elected second chamber, and the chance for the people to decide after the election the system by which they elect the Government of the future”.
That was followed by the Cook-Maclennan agreement, led by Mr Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart, who unfortunately cannot be with us today. Again, a firm statement was made in an agreement between the two parties in preparation for the 1997 election as follows:
“A commission on voting systems for the Westminster Parliament should be appointed early in the next Parliament to recommend the appropriate proportional alternative to the first past the post system … legislation to hold the referendum would then be proposed and the choice placed before the people”.
The manifesto commitment Labour then gave in that year was as follows:
“We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons”.
Part of that commitment was fulfilled when Lord Jenkins produced his 1998 report, but 10 years on there is no legislation. A promise unfulfilled or a promise broken?
There was renewed emphasis and hope among reformers when on 3 July 2007, in his first major speech in the House of Commons on becoming Prime Minister, Mr Gordon Brown said:
“The right of all the British people to have their voice heard is fundamental to our democracy”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/7/07; col. 818.]
High hopes. Sadly, when we come to the report before us, many of the myths about PR have been dispelled but there is no sign of any government action to fulfil those promises.
The first major myth is that somehow all PR systems destroy the connection between the constituent and the representative. Not so. The report says, at paragraph 6.113, that first past the post,
“has the simplest direct relationship between representative and constituent. STV also allows for a direct relationship”.
I illustrate that point with the example of my own county, Cornwall, which is now a Tory-free and Labour-free zone. It is entirely represented in the other place by Liberal Democrats. If you are a Labour or Conservative supporter in Cornwall, you have no direct representative who fulfils your requirement of representing your political views, because the system of first past the post simply does not provide them. STV, of course, would.
The second myth is that somehow PR always leads to instability. As the report says at paragraph 6.168:
“We do not find a difference between PR systems and FPTP in terms of delivering stable and effective governments”.
Indeed, the report goes on to say at paragraph 6.50 that it,
“found no significant differences except on unemployment and, in this one respect, it is the PR countries that actually have the better records”.
Another myth is that PR does not give people any better choice. The report says, at paragraph 6.169:
“One of the main benefits of PR, and in particular STV, is that voters have a greater degree of choice in elections and a greater chance of their vote counting in terms of who gets elected”.
Then there is the allegation that somehow voters cannot cope with the system’s simplicity. At report 6.170, the report says:
“We do not find, on balance, any evidence to suggest that voters find one voting system easier or more confusing than another voting system”.
Contrary to media belief, Scottish voters last year—I am sure other noble Lords will refer to this—had no real difficulty with STV. The problem lay with an oversimplified combined ballot paper for the Holyrood election. I hope my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood will make reference to his unique experience in Scotland.
On diversity, the report says at paragraph 6.172 that,
“the newly introduced voting systems have improved the situation of women”.
While it is important for all parties to improve the balance, especially among ethnic minorities, it is true that lists may not help—but STV certainly would.
The report says, at paragraph 7.92, that internationally the turnout under proportional systems is on average about 5 per cent higher than for majoritarian systems. That is logical; whenever your vote can be seen to count, there will be more interest, but where there is a foregone conclusion it is more likely that people simply will not bother. Let me take my own personal experience. When I was first elected in Cornwall in 1974, the electors there were very shrewd and knew it was going to be close. Indeed, I had a majority of just nine. They turned out in force: 83 per cent. In 2001, however, in the last election I stood in—unfortunately for them, or perhaps for me—it was seen to be more of a foregone conclusion as I had a majority of nearly 10,000, and only 63 per cent turned out. If you see that your vote is going to count, it is worth turning out.
Few Labour Members in the other place have been looking seriously at this but fortunately one Member of the Cabinet has: John Denham. In a recent publication, he talked about,
“the problem of simply focusing on a few key voters in the main marginal constituencies because it would at least be a system where votes, first or second preferences, counted”.
He says that PR is the only system to break that unfortunate situation. Elsewhere in the same report, his co-author demands a change from what he describes as the postcode lottery that is the voting system. Therefore, we have to move from the present system, which is effectively a tiny minority sport, to national public engagement.
That, of course, was the purpose and value of the Power inquiry, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Others have been dismissive of its conclusions, but it was, I believe, a very successful attempt to get beyond the Westminster bubble and to listen to what people out there believe—the customers, if you like, of our democratic system. Not surprisingly, their response was that the current electoral swindle is explicit.
This week, we have been told that there might be oaths of loyalty to demonstrate how we take value from our citizens. The only way for our citizens to demonstrate that they have value is if all votes are equal. At the moment, all voters are equal, but some are more equal than others.
I do not subscribe to the magic-wand approach to electoral reform. All problems of effective governance are not soluble just like that—with one reform—certainly not. All public disenchantment and disillusion with our political institutions will not suddenly disappear when all votes count. However, ending the perpetual distortion of the public will is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for constitutional renewal.
Professor Anthony King told some of us on Tuesday that democracy is institutionalised disappointment. To misquote Churchill: lack of real democracy might be even more disappointing. One thing is for sure: we cannot go on like this. Our political system must let the people in, rather than shut them out. At the moment, they are shut out from public debate and we are devoid of public respect as a result. It is corroded by cynicism and we are damaged by our refusal to listen. The present electoral system badly serves our fellow citizens, as the report demonstrates so well. If the political class ignores the public, people can scarcely be blamed for turning their backs on the whole political system.
My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for introducing the debate. This is a very important subject, which the House should consider. However, he will not be that surprised to know that I am not going to follow him down the route of supporting PR systems. I use the word “systems” deliberately, because PR covers a multitude of sins, not just one particular system. I think that the Liberal Democrats agree, but it depends where they are on what exactly the system should be. It is always worth pointing out that when the Liberal Party was last in power—I accept that it was a long time ago, before the First World War—it opposed PR, whereas the small, struggling Labour Party was in favour. I think that it is quite clear why. Before moving on, let me say that I am looking forward to the speech of my noble friend Lord Grocott, as I believe that it will be his maiden speech from the Back Benches of this Chamber.
I support the first past the post system. It is not perfect by a long way but, as Churchill said about democracy, although it is a very poor system of government, it is better than any alternative. Of course, some PR systems may appear more democratic, but I do not believe that they always are. The first past the post system has served this country well and, although not perfect, it is better than anything else, as I said.
I make it clear that events in Scotland under the devolution settlement have not influenced my support for first past the post. As some noble Lords present may know, I opposed the introduction of PR during the constitutional convention from 1991 onwards; I have not been a convert to first past the post. My noble friend Lord Elder—if he were present—and the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, who served on the convention with me, will confirm that. At that time, we in the Labour Party reluctantly agreed to support PR because, to be honest, we thought that the 1997 election was going to be close and that we might require the support of the Liberal Democrats in order to achieve a Government. It is to the great honour of Donald Dewar and others in the party that, when we won a landslide victory, they stuck to that promise; it is to their honour but I think that it was not politically wise. It would have been much better simply to have said, “Sorry, we are going back to the first past the post system”.
Events in Scotland since 1997 have confirmed and reinforced my view that first past the post is better than any other system. We now have four electoral systems in Scotland—or five if you count two in the Scottish parliamentary elections. As a result, we now have a minority SNP Administration. We also have MEPs elected by the whole of Scotland—to be honest, even I, a political figure, have some difficulty naming them and they have some difficulty representing the people. In local government, increasing numbers of local authorities are run by some form of coalition of parties, which often have little in common except one major aim, which is to prevent some other party from having power—that is the whole purpose of it.
I turn to the reasons why I think that we should stick to first past the post. There are basically five reasons. First, the first past the post system is known, it is easy to understand and it is easy to use. That is not to underestimate the intelligence of the electorate, as some people might think. I believe that the electorate in the main are very intelligent in the way in which they use the electoral system. It just so happens that they understand the first past the post system and they know what it is about.
Secondly, there is the constituency link. I heard what the noble Lord said but I served 22 years as a Member of Parliament in the other place and I know how important that link between me and my constituency was. I was seen as someone who represented Cathcart in the House of Commons. It is interesting that the general public, who often condemn politicians—they use the word as a generic term for people whom they do not like—often give much respect to their own Member of Parliament. In Scotland, it is interesting how many Members who were elected to the Parliament on the list system are desperate to get a seat through the first past the post system. That includes the First Minister, who, although he put his name forward as a candidate for a constituency seat, made sure that he was on the list just in case somehow or other it all went wrong; he was determined that he would be in there.
Thirdly, the first past the post system gives us stable government. In a democracy it is of course important that people are represented and that there is full scope for people to express their views, but let us remember that at the end of the day we are electing not just a Parliament, an Assembly, a local government or whatever it might be, but an Administration—someone to govern a country. Despite what the noble Lord said, first past the post gives us more stable government and a greater ability for a Government to say, “These are our policies, this is what we were elected on and this is what we will do. If we fail to do it, it is the right of the electorate to turn us down and throw us out at the next election”.
The last two points that I want to make are linked. Despite the claims of PR’s supporters, its various systems can be—they are not always—profoundly undemocratic in two ways. In a lot of cases it means, as it did until the last election in Scotland, that there has to be a coalition between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. That meant that the views of the vast majority of Labour members, to be honest, tended to be ignored because the views of the Lib Dem members had to be taken more seriously. What is democratic about that? In system after system where there is PR, the minority rules. The governing or largest party might have only 35 or 40 per cent, but it is surely more democratic that its say holds power rather than that of the 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10 per cent represented by the party on which it relies for power. We have seen that in local government in Scotland as well. There is nothing democratic about a system that says that small minorities will be more important than others in the Administration, but clearly that is often the case.
The other undemocratic thing about PR is that, if I was standing in Scottish elections, I could not go to the electorate saying, “These are my policies and this is what I am standing on. If elected, I will fulfil these promises or make every effort to do so”. I have to say, “These are the things that I am promising—but, of course, once the election has been decided, I will have to decide with which party I am going into coalition”. I would then have to go into what used to be smoke-filled rooms—of course, we can no longer have those—and say, “Let us now decide what we are going to do in government”. In that situation, the electorate have no say on what policies we will have.
Ultimately, a democracy is not about choices between parties, or even individuals; it is about choices between policies and differences of opinion on what should be done to rule and govern the country. Surely we ought to be looking for that. As I said, first past the post is not perfect—it is a long way from that—but, in my view, it is considerably better than anything else.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, and I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on introducing this timely debate. It may come as no surprise that I shall disagree with many points that have been made; indeed, it may appear that we have been reading completely different documents.
The Review of Voting Systems provides, on the face of it, a balanced assessment of the different voting systems employed in the United Kingdom. I say “on the face of it” because the more one reads it, the more one appreciates the problems associated with the voting systems offered as alternatives to the first past the post method employed in elections to the House of Commons.
The review is a valuable corrective on two levels. First, it moves the debate away from discussing proportional representation as if it were an electoral system in its own right, rather than a generic term for several electoral systems. All too often—the noble Lord touched on this—the debate on electoral reform has been based on a false dichotomy between PR and the first past the post system. First past the post is a specific electoral system; PR is not. Secondly, the review identifies the problems with the alternatives and does so by ensuring that none is seen to be problem-free.
This review is not the only one to recognise problems with the additional member system; that point is well made in paragraph 6.135. Not only has AMS not got rid of adversarial politics, but it has managed to inject a new level of conflict between different types of members. The problems with the list system of election are clear, not least when a closed list is utilised. It vests power in the hands of parties and denies electors the opportunity to make a choice between candidates.
The single transferable vote system perhaps comes out least badly from the review, but that is a consequence of the way in which other systems operate. According to the review, STV has tended to be the more proportional system in the UK, but that is because of the way in which AMS has been used. AMS can produce greatest proportionality, but the balance between constituency and top-up seats in Scotland and Wales has prevented it from achieving proportionality. STV can produce, and has produced, situations where one can gain a majority of seats on a minority of votes. What the review does not say in its coverage of Ireland is that it has tended to encourage excessive localism. The review does, however, draw attention to what happens in Australia, where more than 90 per cent of voters opt for a single party—known as voting “above the line”—rather than utilising the power to express a preference between candidates. This, as is noted in paragraph 7.66, constitutes an example whereby STV can be engineered to operate like a list system. The alternative vote system, or variations of it, is not a proportional system; indeed, as is clear from the review and earlier studies, it has the capacity to be even more disproportionate than the existing system.
The strength of the review, then, is in identifying the limitations of systems that are variously held up as preferable to the first past the post method of election. They are not the glorious saviours that they are made out to be. There is little evidence that they will address the perceived malaise of contemporary politics, increase turnout significantly—certainly not in the UK—or engender a new attitude on the part of voters. The review thus serves a valuable purpose. The limitations of the various voting methods that the review identifies are even more apparent when one considers that it addresses only in part a particular problem with PR systems and does not address at all what arguably constitutes the principal benefit of the existing system.
Supporters of the present electoral system tend to stress output legitimacy; that is, the consequences of the system. Opinion poll data suggest that the electorate sympathise with that view. Opponents of the system stress input legitimacy—that is, the means by which the body is selected—arguing the need for fairness in the relationship between votes and seats. Survey data, as shown in paragraphs 6.65 and 6.66, show that electors have sympathy with this approach as well. In other words, electors see the need for a fairer electoral system but wish to preserve the consequences of the existing system.
Supporters of a move to a PR system have tended to enjoy a virtual monopoly in making the claim of fairness. I challenge the basis of that claim. The review touches on the basis for this challenge but does not develop it. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, outlined, the argument that the present electoral system is unfair rests on the fact that there is not a precise proportional relationship between seats and votes: 10 per cent of the votes won by a party do not necessarily translate into 10 per cent of the seats. That, however, misses out the last, fundamental part of the equation. One needs votes in order to gain seats, but what is the purpose of having seats in Parliament? It is to achieve a change in public policy.
This brings us to the problem. The term “proportional representation” refers only to the relationship of votes to seats. Negotiating power in the House of Commons is excluded. Under a PR system, 10 per cent of the votes may translate more or less into 10 per cent of the seats in Parliament but produce far more than 10 per cent of the negotiating power in the House of Commons. A third party may become what is known as a veto player and, in effect, exercise far more political weight than its electoral support justifies. That is not necessarily a fair system; it is certainly no fairer than the existing system.
The most important argument for the present electoral system is not developed in the review. It mentions it in opening as one of the arguments for the present system, but at paragraph 6.168 makes it clear that it is outside the scope of the study. The case for the existing system is that it delivers core accountability. As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, mentioned, our system facilitates the return of a single party to government and, as a result, one body—the party in government—is answerable to electors at the next election. Election day, in Karl Popper’s words, is judgment day. As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said, electors can sweep a Government from office. Critics point out that the Government may be elected on a minority of the votes cast, but that applies also—and in many cases more so—to coalitions formed under a system of PR. Parties usually fight elections as free-standing bodies and, when no one party wins a majority of seats, they form coalitions. However, post-election coalitions enjoy no definitive electoral legitimacy, because not one voter has voted for that particular combination of parties.
The experience of other parts of the United Kingdom is instructive. In Wales, there is a coalition of Labour and Plaid Cymru. Not one voter had the opportunity to vote for that combination. If the parties stand as free-standing parties at the next election, there is no one body to hold to account. If there is a switch in coalition partners between now and the next election, that exacerbates the position. Furthermore, as the experience of Scotland demonstrates, when there is a minority Administration much depends on deals negotiated privately. There is no obvious transparency and no direct accountability.
In short, our current system is not as bad as critics make out and the alternatives are not as wonderful as they claim. No system is perfect, but putting the defects of the present system alongside those of the alternatives leads to the conclusion that the case for change is not made—indeed, the reverse is true. This review is extremely valuable in identifying many practical problems associated with the alternatives. It is most welcome.
I conclude with a few questions to the Minister. I suspect that on the broad question of electoral systems the noble Lord will be non-committal, emphasising the pros and cons of what we have. However, it will be valuable to have his response on three matters for which the Government are responsible and which are touched on in the review. First, as is clear from the review, there is little to justify the use, in any list system, of a closed as opposed to an open list, as that system denies voter choice. Given the problems associated with closed lists, could the Minister justify their continued employment?
Secondly, as was apparent in the debates at the time, there is little to justify the ban on dual candidacy. As the review explains, the Government introduced it in 2006 for Wales but the Arbuthnott commission recommended against it for Scotland. The Electoral Commission noted that only Ukraine had tried to ban dual candidacy, prior to the country’s 2002 elections. Other countries with AMS permit it. Could the Minister remind us why banning dual candidacy is correct for Wales but not correct for Scotland or the rest of the world?
Thirdly, paragraph 5.120 of the review records the Electoral Commission’s observation that individual registration in Northern Ireland has resulted in a much more accurate and robust electoral register. This again is something that we have discussed. Is it not time that we moved to individual registration in the rest of the United Kingdom? There are clear concerns surrounding the integrity of the electoral register and we need to address these as expeditiously as possible.
These are issues on which we should make progress. Let us focus on improving the systems that we now have and not on destroying the benefits of our existing system of electing the other place.
My Lords, it is my intention—at the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Tyler, to whom I am very grateful for introducing this debate—to speak mainly on the subject of what form of electoral system should be used if your Lordships’ House should become wholly or partly elected. However, before I do that, I would like to make a couple of brief comments on the previous two speeches.
First, I have to say that I was rather startled by the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, that having a Government elected by 35 per cent of the voters was somehow more democratic than a coalition Government elected jointly by something over 50 per cent of the voters. This point was taken up in a slightly different way by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He said that having a coalition Government was not democratic, because not one voter had voted for the particular combination of policies adopted by the coalition. In a sense, that is true, but it is illogical because that really is a serious argument only if one can assume that everyone who voted for one party was thereby consciously supporting its every proposal. Many people vote for a party whose policy they like on balance; hardly any of them would personally adopt every single proposal that is made. It may well be, therefore, that the policy of a coalition Government may more accurately represent the views of those who voted for one or other of those parties than the policy of the party for which they voted on its own.
Let me address the question of what would be the best system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House, if and when it becomes wholly or mainly elected. I am not going to talk about whether we should become an elected House; we have debated that issue ad nauseam and no doubt we will continue to debate it on other occasions. There is a clear possibility that legislation may be passed in the next Parliament—plainly not in this one—to make your Lordships’ House a wholly or mainly elected House. It does not follow in any way that the system that is appropriate for electing Members of the House of Commons should also be the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House. I am well aware, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out, that there is no such thing as an ideal electoral system.
I start from what seems to me a pretty obvious proposition—that the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House should at least be different from the present system for electing Members of the House of Commons. That is because one of the main duties of your Lordships’ House is to act as a check on the abuse of power by the Government, which may have been elected, as the present Government were, by as little as 35 per cent of those who voted and, of course, by a much smaller proportion of those eligible to vote. Your Lordships’ House would be quite unable to exercise that duty of providing a check on the abuse of power effectively if a majority of elected Peers were members of the government party, as could well be the result if first past the post was chosen as the system for electing Members of your Lordships’ House. That would obviously be the case if your Lordships’ House was wholly elected, and it would be the consequence even if only, for example, 80 per cent were elected and a number of Cross-Benchers remained.
Therefore, it follows that if your Lordships’ House is to carry out its functions, at least so long as the House of Commons is elected by first past the post we cannot have the same system for election to your Lordships’ House. That applies also if the House of Commons was elected by the alternative vote, which can occasionally produce even more distorted results than first past the post, as happened in the French elections some years ago and as might well have happened in the United Kingdom in 2005, according to the table on page 130 of the report. Only if STV was accepted for election to the House of Commons would it be appropriate to have both Houses elected by the same system. I do not think that a list system would be appropriate for election to the House of Commons, because it is clear that there is strong popular support for having a local MP or MPs. Therefore, while STV does that in normally producing constituencies with between four and seven or eight Members, there would be very limited numbers. Of course, ordinary electors would have the advantage of having an MP who, although possibly a little less local than at present, would have the same political views as them, so they might feel happier about approaching them. We are getting a little closer if we have the first past the post plus a top-up system, as used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, or a similar system recommended by the Jenkins commission, but if that were adopted for the House of Commons, it would not be appropriate for your Lordships' House.
What is left on the list for your Lordships' House is either the list system or STV, both of which would be acceptable. We have experience of both systems in the United Kingdom. The list system has been used for European elections since 1999. STV has been used in Northern Ireland since 1921 and was recently extended to local government elections in Scotland. STV has many advantages: it gives voters a chance to vote for individuals rather than parties if they wish to do so and to give successive preferences to people from different parties. Of course, it has drawbacks. Garret FitzGerald, the former Taoiseach of Ireland, once said in an article I read with interest that Members of the Dail tended to spend too little time in the Dail and too much in local pubs chatting up potential voters. With STV, to some extent, the real opponents of the candidates are not the other parties but the other candidates in their own party.
My Lords, if I am following the noble Lord’s argument and that of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, we would finish up with a House of Lords elected by STV, which is, in their terms, more representative than the House of Commons. Will the noble Lord address two subsequent points? What would that do in terms of the relative democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons and the House of Lords and what would be the implications for the supremacy of the House of Commons, which I understand the noble Lord supports?
My Lords, of course I support the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons. That is why I would welcome the House of Commons moving either to STV or to the Scottish and Welsh system of first past the post plus top-ups or alternative vote plus top-ups. That would wholly preserve or indeed improve the democratic legitimacy of the House of Commons.
STV is ultimately a good system. It is likely to produce a membership of your Lordships' House that is proportional to the votes cast. The alternative to STV for your Lordships' House, although not for the House of Commons, would be the list system. One change to that, which is accepted by everyone as being needed, would be to change from a closed list to an open one, so that people could vote for the individual if they chose to do so, rather than voting simply for the party list in the order in which it appears on the ballot paper. That was the position taken by my party when the system was introduced, and that change would not be difficult to make.
It is also true that an STV system would give greater diversity to the membership of your Lordships' House as shown by the fact that UKIP and the Greens have MEPs but no Members of either House of Parliament—apart from two Members of UKIP and one of the Green Party in your Lordships' House, all of whom arrived here originally as members of other parties.
To sum up, I am convinced that for an elected House of Lords to carry out its duties, in particular its scrutiny of the work of the Government, first, no one party should have a majority of the elected Members of your Lordships’ House; secondly, to minimise the risk of that occurring, the system of elections to this House must be different to that for elections to the House of Commons, unless that is STV; and, thirdly, on the assumption that elections to the House of Commons will continue to be by first past the post or broadly similar systems, elections to your Lordships’ House should be by either STV or an open list system.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, not only for introducing this debate on electoral systems but for making mention of the Power commission’s work. As many of your Lordships know, I chaired the Power commission for the Rowntree trusts in 2006. We undertook an extensive research programme in order to understand why people were feeling increasingly alienated and detached from formal politics—not all politics, but formal politics. Crucially, we also undertook to arrive at a series of recommendations to help renew British democracy.
I regret to say that few aspects of the political system we investigated received more hostile comment than the main political parties. The expert and practitioner evidence, the public submissions and all the research projects we undertook revealed a widespread sense that the main parties were at best failing in the basic function of connecting governed and governors, and were at worst a serious obstacle to democratic engagement. Such hostility towards the parties inevitably feeds into alienation from the election processes. It was shocking to find such strength of feeling on the subject among the general public.
The attraction of voting is bound to be severely reduced if the main parties vying for the vote are widely regarded as not offering much choice generally in terms of what they stand for, or if they are regarded as unappealing. But that is how the situation was described to us. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred to Popper saying that voting day is judgment day, but in the last general election more people abstained than voted for my party, the party that won. We should be alarmed about that, and concerned about what it means.
Immediately after the 2005 general election we conducted a survey among those who had not voted. We found that approximately 45 per cent of them had not voted because they did not like what the main parties had to offer. I listen with great care to someone with the experience of my noble friend Lord Maxton; I respect that experience. However, we have to be careful not to sound arrogant by saying that the first past the post system has served us well, therefore we should not change it. Perhaps it did serve us well in the past, but I think that we have to listen well to the public and their concerns. I know that my noble friend Lord Maxton would be anxious to hear what the public feel about this. Of course it is absolutely right that opposition or small parties are always the ones that ask for an examination of the voting system; our party, the Labour Party, did so back in the days when it still was a small party. However, the fact that the issue is raised by small parties does not invalidate the argument about the need to create spaces where voices can be heard. It is important that we do that.
This alienation is compounded by the electoral system. In submissions we received from the public, the most common reason cited for their low turn-out was a belief that they had no chance of having an impact on the final outcome. They felt their votes did not count. They described the situation as follows: “I live in a constituency where the Conservatives always win, so what’s the point in my voting when I’m not going to vote for them?”; or “Why should I vote if the Liberals always win in my constituency?”; or “Labour always wins”.
People who vote for a party that has no chance of winning feel there is no point in going to the polls. Our survey of non-voters in the 2005 general election upheld that view. Nearly half of those not voting said they would be more likely to vote if they felt that their candidate had at least a chance of winning power or finding a place in governance. So not only are the main parties unappealing to many voters; the electoral system itself ensures that casting a vote for a preferred alternative is widely seen as a waste of energy. That should matter to us. The simple calculation made by millions of citizens is that the choice at election time is to vote either for a party that one dislikes or for one that stands no chance of parliamentary representation let alone a place in government.
We as a nation have changed. The public have changed. The old allegiances and bonds are changing, and have been for many years. We are a citizenry in transition. The old political allegiances are changing; they are less tribal. The public’s aspirations are changing, too. As active Labour Party members in the 1950s, my parents’ hope was that they would have decent housing, with bathrooms and hot water, a good education system for their children, and security in work. My parents had been through the depression and knew what it was like to be workless. In many ways, some of that has been secured. But the aspirations of our varied population are changing and shifting.
We have also seen a real decline in the old social and economic conditions, but a new political formulation has yet to be developed to effectively represent and shape the new interests and values emerging in our post-industrial society. Our political parties are of course seeking to reform, but they tend to do so by huddling round a central ground, seeking votes only in the marginal constituencies that we hear so much about. As a result, many people—even in the parties, and even in the Labour Party—feel very disillusioned about the party which they thought was theirs. The same is happening now in the Conservative Party, and I am sure it will happen also in the Liberal Democrat Party. Once people huddle round the same set of issues, they start feeling that the things that they have cared about are no longer of importance to their leadership.
It is very important that spaces are made for people’s voices to be heard, not only within parties but within the system. We have to deal with this disengagement, and the electoral system is one of the things that we have to look at. That is why I welcome this debate. The main parties are still the only serious contenders for power on offer to the electorate. However, we also have to give space for other possibilities to emerge. That is how we can draw the young back into our formal politics. That is how we can create new passions about how our world and society can be changed.
Let us consider this House, which, I regret to say, is increasingly more respected than the other place. One of the reasons is that, although it is unelected, none of the parties here has a majority; we have to struggle to assemble one. That is healthy for democracy. We should recognise the things that are necessary to re-energise our democratic system.
The electorate occasionally attempt to break the monopoly, when the rare opportunity presents itself. We have seen that in the sudden and often unexpected burst of support for an independent candidate, or for small parties that effectively engage sections of the public. It can be seen also in the rise of tactical voting, as sections of the electorate realise that, in some constituencies, they can at least vote meaningfully against something they do not like even if they cannot vote meaningfully for something they do like. But those are exceptional moments and they do little to bolster the health of electoral democracy. People will feel, “I’m voting tactically but I’d like to be voting for something and someone I believe in”. That is where the health of democracy lies.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is developing an interesting argument, but can she explain what in the review before us bears out her claims? Is there any evidence that citizens would be revitalised, or that the alternative electoral systems would deliver what she is detailing?
My Lords, I know that the noble Lord is familiar with the work of other academics. Many academics across the board, including Professor Patrick Dunleavy at the LSE and Professor Pippa Norris at Harvard, have found that fewer votes are wasted and turnout has declined less in countries that have proportional systems with a wider array of parties. This is not an answer to a maiden’s prayer, let me assure you. The Power inquiry did not recommend a particular system. Like others, I have deep reservations about any kind of list system because of power being vested too much in political parties rather than in people. The single transferable vote may be the one to look at. The decision on what should be done was left open for this sort of debate. Fairer voting and making votes count is but one way of re-energising people so that they feel that if they vote for someone, their vote will count in some way within the whole system.
The Power commission concluded that one way of reconnecting people with their political parties and hence with elections is to introduce greater flexibility into the monopoly of the present party system. An electoral arrangement is needed that is sufficiently responsive to the much more fluid and diverse identities and values of our contemporary electorate. Such a change is necessary to ensure that large numbers of citizens feel that there is something on offer to them at election time. It is time that we offered voters the same choice in politics that the main parties constantly tell those same voters they desire in public service provision. If choice is the mantra of the day, then choice should be more available in this area, too. The need to change our electoral system is critical and should be regarded as urgent. We have now reached a point in our political history where democracy is at risk because people are voting less and less. The argument for change is now as much about what is expedient for the future of democracy in Britain as it is a matter of principle.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness in that thoughtful and constructive speech. I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Tyler on introducing this debate. I hope it does not become too obvious in the next few minutes that I have been dragooned into speaking very much at the last minute, unlike other noble Lords with their carefully researched speeches. But I am the only one on these Benches who has had the actual experience of voting in all four of the different systems and who has been elected on two of them. That is my claim for participating in this event.
Many colleagues are constitutional and electoral system anoraks, which I have never claimed to be. During the 12 years that I was leader of the Liberal Party I was regularly chastised, with considerable justification, by the late Enid Lakeman for never making a speech on electoral reform and only making glancing references to it. I have to admit that that is true. I have only once in my life made a speech on electoral reform and that was in the safety of British Columbia during the referendum campaign, which was narrowly lost. It did not reach the 60 per cent threshold. One reason for hesitating was that when I was elected to the other place, I was the only Member in the House of Commons to represent three counties. I had a very large constituency and I always had doubts about the effect of multi-Member seats in creating even larger areas to be represented by the electorate.
The other reason for my hesitation was that during the by-election which I won in 1965, we had 53 public meetings, three a night, again because of the very large area. That meant finding other people to hold the first two meetings while the candidate was getting to the third one. I distinctly remember that out of all the meetings that I held, most of which were extremely successful, the one disaster was in Melrose. Two of my local stalwarts were holding the meeting and I was detained by the enthusiasm of the two previous meetings so I was an hour late. When I got there I could tell there was something quite wrong in the atmosphere. The two stalwarts had each delivered a half-hour lecture on the virtues of the single transferable vote. They were assisted in this by one of these roller blackboards in the schoolroom covered with hieroglyphics of the d’Hondt formula. The audience were stupefied by the time I arrived and I was never quite able to recover them. I was reminded of that when I read this quite mind-numbing document. I cannot honestly see the great British public rushing to the bookshops to spend £33.45 to read the review of electoral systems, but I admire the enthusiasm of everybody else for this subject.
I should like to pick up something the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said when he talked about the constitutional convention in Scotland. It is quite true that the additional member system which we arrived at was a compromise between the two parties. But, with respect, I do not agree that the motivation for the compromise on the Labour side was out of deference to, or fear of, the Liberal Democrats. It was quite simply that we looked back to the failure of the referendum in the 1970s. This is an illustration of the fact that electoral systems can matter to the public. In 1970, one of the great fears that the electorate in Scotland had, which meant that the referendum did not carry, was that we were adding another tier of government. We had two tiers of local government at that point but by the 1990s it was reduced to one. Secondly, there was the anxiety that the first past the post system proposed in the 1970s would result in virtually permanent Labour majority rule in Scotland. That was a major factor, and when it was changed to offer the people of Scotland a proportional election system, there is no doubt in my mind that that was a significant factor in the enthusiasm with which the whole package was greeted in the referendum in 1997. It demonstrates that political systems can have an impact. Even if the public are not interested in the details which we are arguing here today, the principle of proportionality was, in my view, a major factor in the enthusiasm for the Scottish settlement.
The system that was agreed as a compromise between the two parties was the additional member system. I know that confession is good for the soul but I must admit that I very much welcomed that, for the reasons I have explained. I had doubts about the single transferable vote. Whereas most of my party regarded this as a slightly unhappy compromise, I was delighted. I have now to admit that I think I was wrong. I do not believe that the additional member system has proved a success in Scotland. Both this report and the Arbuthnott commission referred to the tensions between list members and constituency members. As Presiding Officer in the Parliament, I became very aware of the fact that we had two classes of Member. That is why I say to my noble friend Lord Goodhart that if the day ever comes that we have a vote on an elected system for the House of Lords—which I doubt—I will be in the Lobby voting for a wholly elected system and not one which has two classes of Members.
It is more than just the atmosphere within the Chamber I am talking about. At a constituency level, the present system is extremely destructive. Let me give the example of the constituency where I live. The Member elected to the Scottish Parliament is a former assistant of mine—as one would expect, a very talented, young man, well trained—and he is elected as a Liberal Democrat Member. At the previous election, two of his opponents—the Scottish Nationalist and the Conservative—failed to get elected, of course, but were elected on the list system. So they sit in the same Chamber and take great delight in criticising the Member who has been duly elected and interfere in his constituency. Why? Because they intend to stand again at the next election. Indeed, the Scottish Nationalist, has stood four or five times, with a distinct lack of success. Although she is written off by journalists in Scotland as being part of the batty tendency of the SNP, batty or not, she can be a real nuisance in the democratic system where there is an elected Member in the constituency and a regional list member meddling in constituency affairs with a view to increasing their vote at the next election. So it is not a happy system and I believe that the single transferable vote would have been a better choice for the Scottish Parliament.
Indeed, although my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno will tell us that the Welsh Assembly has to some extent overcome this problem by stopping people standing for both the list and in the constituency, that is a temporary compromise. The system itself is defective. I am more and more convinced of that by the experience of the introduction of the single transferable vote for local elections. Again, I am now represented in my area by several councillors of different political persuasions. The system has worked well and has been well received, and the atmosphere and co-operation between the councillors are good. There is a strong contrast on the ground between that and the additional member system as practised in Scotland. This will astonish my colleagues, but my support has come around to the single transferable vote. Even if—God rest Enid Lakeman’s soul—I never again speak on the subject, I am in favour of it.
My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for initiating the debate. I should say at the outset that my remarks are likely to be minority remarks on these Benches, with the noble and notable exception of my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. I was slightly disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said that he felt that the first past the post system may have been appropriate in what he called the bipolar political atmosphere of the 1950s but that it is no longer appropriate. I agree with his conclusion but not with the means by which he gets there, because his argument seems to a great extent to pander to the accusations that the Liberal Democrats have self-interest at the heart of their arguments and that the fact that they are doing rather better than the Liberal Party in the mid-1950s is the reason for changing the electoral system. That in no way advances the noble Lord’s case.
None the less, I, like the noble Lord, Lord Steel, have had experience of two elected Parliaments as well as your Lordships’ House, and I have come around to the view, particularly after experiencing the Scottish Parliament, that a proportional system—or, rather, a more proportional system; there is no ideally proportional system, although the STV is probably the most proportional—has, despite the Government of Scotland at the moment, served the people of Scotland well. I say that without any question of party advantage in mind. The Government of Scotland have served the people of Scotland well because they have enabled them to say, “We want a change”. This is what happened in May 2007.
Other noble Lords have argued that first past the post is the only means of calling a government to account on election day, and if people do not like them collectively, they can force them out and bring in a government of another hue. The question is whether it should be a government of just one hue or two, or perhaps even a rainbow coalition of parties, but that is the will of the people and if the people say, “You’re all minorities. We are not willing to give power to any one of you. You get together in any way that you see fit and come to a majority position where you can find a means of running the country”, that is in the interests of the people and will not necessarily be, or be perceived to be, in the interests of one particular party.
Proportionality is not a new idea. The Jenkins commission in 1998 recommended changing from first past the post, although disappointingly only to AV+, which is a little like the French system, which is not proportional. The Power commission of my noble friend Lady Kennedy in 2004 said simply that we needed a more responsive electoral system. That was difficult, because it was not within the commission’s remit to go further than that, but the message was fairly clear.
I disagree fundamentally with my noble friend Lord Maxton—and he is a friend—who said that first past the post is better than any alternative. I do not agree—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred to this—that, following the Scottish Constitutional Convention, of which I was also a member, Donald Dewar, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, should have gone back on a commitment in the 1997 election manifesto for the Labour Party and resorted to a first past the post system for the Scottish Parliament. That would have been disastrous, and I must say to my noble friend that I do not think that that is something that Donald Dewar would have ever seriously considered, given the way in which he conducted politics. I understand why my noble friend said that, possibly in the light of events since then.
We are now in the third Session of the Scottish Parliament. The first two were Labour/Liberal Democrat coalitions, and the third is an SNP minority. The situation has been similar in Wales, with coalitions and minority Administrations. Neither Scotland nor Wales has ground to a halt in the past eight and a half years, despite the fact that no one party has been in power for that time. I know very little of Wales, but it seems that there has been a feeling that this is different from Westminster in that it is a different way of having a level of government. The question then is: if you accept that a more proportional system is appropriate at the local government level or the “regional” government level, is it appropriate at the national level as well? I would say that it is.
The noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred to the not unimportant issue in proportional systems, particularly those that use the additional member system, of the friction between the constituency Members and the list members. I encountered that as well. The noble Lord may recall from his days as Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament that he established a committee, of which I was a member, to look at how best we could finesse the emerging problems in the early days of the Scottish Parliament, whereby, as he suggested, unsuccessful candidates could appear across the Chamber from directly elected Members who had seen them off at the ballot box.
My view is clear; the Welsh have gone down the right road—you should not be able to stand in two categories. You make your choice wherever you think you have the best chance of being elected and you are stuck with it one way or the other. That gets over that problem. However, I did not encounter list members trying to take over the duties of the elected Member to any great extent. Nor did I find list members falling over themselves to take up constituency cases or campaigning particularly actively. One of the recommendations of the committee to which I referred and which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, chaired was that list members must demonstrate that they were active in more than one of the constituencies that formed the region which they represented. If that were to be followed through and firmed up, that would ensure that they represented a larger part than just one constituency, although that is very much for the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly to tackle. How those issues are approached is very much a question of practice. They are certainly not insuperable problems. There is no evidence in countries such as Germany or Spain that those issues have sustained for a number of years.
That leads to me a comment made by, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that first past the post was uniquely effective in changing a government. If you were a voter in recent years in Spain, Germany or Sweden, you would feel that you had pretty effectively changed your government fairly dramatically in general elections under proportional systems. I understand the noble Lord’s comments, but it is perfectly possible under proportional systems to have a fairly dramatic change of government, particularly in Sweden where the Social Democrats lost power after many years.
I shall say a little about proportional representation and the way in which it impacts on voters. I notice that the review found no voting system to be inherently more confusing than another for the voter in terms of casting votes correctly. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who said in his opening remarks that, despite a lot of reports in UK newspapers that the electoral system in Scotland confused voters to such an extent that there were many spoilt papers in Scotland in the May 2007 elections, that has been shown to be completely untrue. It was not the new system of the STV that confused people, as one might have thought it would the first time it ever applied in Scotland, but the system that Scotland had also used in 1999 and 2003. The problem was that the system had moved from two separate ballot papers to one ballot paper.
The independent Gould report, which looked into those issues, reported that there were two major ways in which confusion could be avoided. One was to have a much longer lead-in time to explain the changes to people. The second was not to combine local elections with the Scottish Parliament election on the same day. It is interesting that the Scottish Parliament has since legislated for that, and there will be no recurrence of it. That is an important aspect.
The link between a member and the constituency is important but can be overstated. Noble Lords have referred to the fact that often under first past the post a small number of voters decide the outcome for the whole UK election. Not only do a large number of people not have a say in the ultimate outcome of a general election in the UK under first past the post but also the three major political parties tailor their election manifestos to a small, narrow number of people—a clearly unrepresentative part of the electorate. Parts of the electorate get a disproportionate amount of attention when it comes to drawing up those manifestos. These key people—perhaps as few as 10,000, about 3 per cent of the electorate—have to be catered for because they are believed to hold the outcome of an election in their hands.
That is not particularly healthy for democracy. Better to be able to make a broader approach to different parts of the electorate in a more positive manner and hope that they will in turn vote positively because they can see that there is something in it for them. There is nothing wrong with the way the electorate votes being influenced to some extent by what will benefit them personally. They will also vote because it will actually influence the outcome of the election.
It is clear that we are some way yet from a change to the method by which the other place is elected. As far as this House is concerned, I would not like to say how long it will be—if at all—before change comes about. I echo the position of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, in that I voted a year ago for a fully elected House of Lords. That is the way forward. Yet what is to be decided in the other place is of greater urgency. It should hold primacy but, if you have two elected Houses, ultimately there has to be some means found of reconciling them. That will have to be done before we move towards thinking about what method of election is utilised.
It is often said that nothing stands still, which is not always true at all. Yet it is true much of the time in politics and political parties are constantly renewing themselves, their approach and polices. It seems illogical then that the way they are elected at UK level should not be capable of being renewed. It is instructive to note that while the other place has firmly maintained first past the post as the means of its election, electoral systems elsewhere in the world and other parts of the UK have moved on. They have done so significantly in the various parliaments and assemblies that noble Lords have referred to. It is hard to maintain why the two Houses here should not move on, too.
The question of renewing and reenergising democracy that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, raised with my noble friend Lady Kennedy is important. If people feel more involved they are more likely to think that voting is important. That is particularly true in young people. We know the way in which the level of voting in young people is going at the moment. Though it is not my own view, it is clear that first past the post will continue for the foreseeable future. Yet the sands will shift sooner rather than later and when they do they will shift decisively.
My Lords, many of us will remember the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, when folk had their first opportunity of casting a vote. I remember a television clip of a polling station in Soweto. The polling lasted at least three days because there were so many people waiting to vote. There was one old lady who had been there for two days. On the second evening, when she was just about to enter the polling station, it closed—it was the end of polling for the day. A television reporter asked her whether she did not feel sad that she had lost a chance to vote after two days in the queue. She said, “No, I’ve waited 60 years for the opportunity to vote. What is one more night? This lady represented so many people who had been disenfranchised over so many years. To her, having a vote was something to be treasured, something precious. Every vote deserves its recognition, to be given a value and the best opportunity possible to exercise some influence.
We speak sometimes of “strong government”. I have spoken to the Minister about this before. That lady in Soweto had experienced strong government. She had experienced the government of apartheid. The people of Germany experienced Adolf Hitler’s strong government. Mussolini, Franco, too, had strong governments. Is government just to be strong or is it to be representative? I suggest, particularly to those who have doubts about changing systems, that government must be representative of every person. That lady in Soweto and the people who were disenfranchised for so many years in Russia and other places now have the opportunity of making their views known.
When governments are elected on the present voting system, we know that 38 per cent of those who vote can return a government. Some 62 per cent of votes are then not of the same value. Those votes are largely dismissed. Strong government is said to be more important than representative government. I strongly argue that that must not be the case. When we speak of coalitions and so on, we must learn that we are living in a different generation where people must live, work and discuss together. That is a mature approach. Any voting system must be fair and give fair representation. There, first past the post is a failure.
When there were only two parties you could say that first past the post largely worked, though electorates in different constituencies meant that some people elected somebody with a larger number of votes than in another constituency. In the election of 1906, only two constituencies in Wales—Gower and Monmouth—had more than two candidates. It was a straight fight everywhere else. In the election of January 1910, there was only one three-cornered fight in Wales, in Swansea Town. In December 1910, there were only two three-cornered fights. Straight fights or unopposed returns were the norm.
Since then, of course, there has been the emergence of third and fourth parties. In 1910 there was one three-cornered fight. In 1918, with the emergence of the Labour Party in Wales, there were 11 three-cornered fights. Now you get elections in Wales with four candidates—Plaid, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. Under first past the post, a Member can be elected with less than 30 per cent of the vote. That happened in Scotland, in Inverness about 30 years ago, with a Member elected with just 26 per cent of the vote.
First past the post is the system of the dinosaur. It worked yesterday but does not work today. It is not representative today. This is true not only of individual consistencies but also of Wales as a whole. In 1997, Labour polled 43.2 per cent of the vote but elected 34 of the 40 Members of Parliament. That has been the same story since 1970—less than 40 per cent of the vote gave a majority of the Members. First past the post does not produce a representative result.
We have the top-up system for Wales, Scotland and the London Assembly. In Scotland, with 32 per cent of votes Labour won 37 constituency seats. The SNP, with one per cent more, 33 per cent, won 21 constituency seats. Is 37 to 21 a fair result? It was the introduction of the top-up system that changed that situation and the result was 47 seats for SNP and 46 for Labour. Otherwise the Government of Scotland under first past the post would have been very different from what we see today. At the most recent elections for the Welsh Assembly, the Labour Party had 32.2 per cent of the vote and won 24 out of the 40 seats. The system changed with top-up and now there is a different sort of government. The type of electoral system changes governments. In Scotland and Wales, it will be different.
Until now, we know that the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have supported the first past the post system. They merely say, “Over my dead body”. But the internal elections of those parties use a proportional system. If some sort of proportional system is not acceptable in the country at large, why is it used by the Labour Party and the Conservative Party for their internal elections? About two years ago, the Conservatives elected a new leader. The MPs had the first say on voting for a new leader. In the first round, David Davis got 62 votes and David Cameron got 56 votes. Under the first past the post system, David Davis would have been elected as leader of the Conservative Party. A few months ago, the Labour Party elected a deputy leader. In the first ballot, Jon Cruddas won 19.39 per cent of the vote and Harriet Harman got 18.9 per cent. So Jon Cruddas is the deputy leader: but, no, he is not, because what is right for the country is not accepted by the Labour Party itself. That is rank hypocrisy. Will the Minister explain why? I could go on, but I must not because I can get very passionate when I see injustices of this nature.
Referenda will become things of the past if you have a fair representation of the views of people. They must because, under a representative system, you will have the voices and opinions of people. Why do the Government not move after this substantial, in-depth review of a very unjust system?
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for giving us the opportunity to discuss electoral systems or, more specifically, to discuss this report. We also should congratulate the Government on setting up the report and for it being available as a textbook. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that people will not flock to the bookstalls to buy a copy. In fact, I dare say that noble Lords taking part in this debate probably represent quite a significant proportion of those who have read the volume. None the less, it is of great advantage to have this document before us.
I speak as someone who has always supported the system of first past the post, and my support has grown. That perhaps is in denial of my own experience, because few people in this House have lost as many elections under the first past the post system as I have managed to do. I think that I could have been forgiven for embracing any other electoral system that might have put my name at the top of the results. But, no, I am a passionate supporter of the first past the post system and I shall spell out some of the reasons later.
I am keen on this document because, despite supporting the first past the post system, I have always historically felt at a disadvantage in this kind of discussion. It has always taken the form of one group of people saying that proportional representation is wonderful for all sorts of reasons. People like me have had the job of saying, “Well, the first past the post system—with which everyone is very familiar and therefore familiar, as I certainly am, with its disadvantages—is an aspiration against a reality”. That is the form of the debate.
The great joy of this document is that it gives us a wealth of evidence on the strengths and weaknesses of practical systems that have been adopted in this country for the past 11 years. We need no longer talk about the wonders of proportional representation; we can talk about the precise experience of how it is operated in a number of different systems. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, was frank, as usual, in acknowledging that other systems have their disadvantages as they have performed in practice in this country. As I expected, it is a joy to have this discussion now and not have to be on the defensive all the time; to be able to point out from this document, which I am sure we have all read, the failings as have been exhibited in a number of systems that have been tried. They were tried for good reasons, and I supported their introduction, as a supporter of the Government, but they now have serious weaknesses.
What are my conclusions about the practical experience, as evidenced by this report? Obviously, it demonstrates beyond any argument that all systems have clear weaknesses. That is unarguable. It is logically inevitable that the only person who can represent me or anyone else is me or anyone else. Any system which tries to reduce an electorate of 60 million, as in Britain, to—let us say for the sake of argument—600, is bound to have distortions between the one and the other. At least we can start with the clear agreement that all systems have faults.
We can also agree that far from solving or concluding the debate about the merits of different systems, the series of proportional systems that we have had in the past nine or 10 years has, if anything, extended the debate and created a greater uncertainty, assuming that there was an uncertainty before. The electoral systems I hear criticised most frequently—indeed, in this debate—are the system for electing the European Parliament—people have a lot of criticisms of that proportional system—and, as two or three noble Lords have mentioned, the dual system in Scotland and Wales. We hear endlessly about the discussions and debates between the people on the list and those who are elected directly. But I make a lateral comment about it: in Scotland and Wales you have the two sides of the argument within one electoral system. There are those like me, who favour individual Members representing individual constituencies, and those like many other speakers in this debate who prefer lists.
I put this question and I leave it in the air: is anyone suggesting that the people on the list in those systems are more legitimately representative than the people directly elected in the individual constituencies? I would say that the evidence is overwhelmingly the reverse. If we are talking about the legitimacy of elections and the legitimacy of people speaking on behalf of others, there is no doubt, in my view, that the people directly elected in an individual constituency are seen as the most legitimate and, I would guess, even by supporters of proportional representation. Obviously, there are better experts on Scotland and Wales than me here today, but, as I understand it, if there is any movement from an elected representative being chosen by one mechanism rather than the other, there is no movement whatever from people representing constituencies saying, “No, I want to abandon the constituency. I want to be on a list because that is more legitimate”. I have not heard that argument.
The other thing that we can learn from this document goes to the heart of a lot of the discussion. There is no evidence here that will encourage people to think that there is a magic solution on turnout and on engaging the electorate as a result of the methods of proportional representation used in this country. On the contrary: the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, quoted from the same paragraph that I am about to quote from, although he inadvertently did not complete the sentence. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, quoted from paragraph 23, on page 12. He quoted:
“International evidence suggests that proportional systems have around five percent higher turn-out”.
I shall complete the sentence which continues,
“but this has not been the experience of the new systems introduced in the UK”.
That is the evidence of the document.
In past debates, I have had a kind of inferiority complex about how to handle the argument—and it has been deployed in this debate—that there are lots of people itching to vote in safe seats for the other party who will be liberated if there is a proportional system so that all votes count. I seem to remember from the past that there is a phrase in there somewhere. There is no evidence whatever that that has happened in the European, the Scottish or the Welsh elections.
My Lords, I take the point that my noble friend is making, but would he accept that he is not comparing like with like? People vote for the Chamber—if I can use that term—that they feel is most important. Therefore local government is less so than a Parliament or Assembly, which in turn is less important than national Government. The comparison, if my noble friend wants to make it, should be with national Governments here and in other countries which perhaps use a proportional system.
My Lords, I disagree with my noble friend on that. I am pretty wary of making comparisons internationally. Similar systems operate differently in different countries. The best comparisons are those that exist in our own country. To complete one or two statistics on this, in the first European elections—and the first experiment under proportional representation—24 per cent turned out to vote. For the London Assembly elections, 32 per cent and 36 per cent turned out. The figure was a bit higher in Wales and Scotland, but there is no evidence to support the contention that a proportional system will make more people come to the polls.
These papers also demonstrate that it does not improve the involvement of the electorate with their Member of Parliament, elected by whatever mechanism. We knew that—or should have—from the earlier report on electoral systems, published in 2003. It said about the European elections:
“Few MEPs felt that their constituency workload had increased, despite the move to larger multi-member regions. The vast bulk of MEPs admitted that their constituency workload had not increased (a mere 8% claimed that it had); if anything, the amount of constituency work has declined”.
That is only one measure of the link between the elected representative and the electorate, but it is a pretty important one. It seems that first past the post is reflecting the truth accurately when it says that it provides a link with the electorate that other mechanisms do not.
Finally, I move to my own thoughts on the first past the post system, though I could have said that it is all in the report: there is no great public support for a change in the electoral system. The link between the Member and his or her constituents is at the heart of our democracy. I find it slightly paradoxical when I look at the Liberal Benches because they are always, quite rightly, very proud of their constituencies. Although I disagree with them on many things, I acknowledge freely that the majority work assiduously on behalf of their constituents. They get their sustenance from that. When I was doing constituency work, it was for my benefit as much as for the constituents. It is where you recharge your batteries and have your values reinforced. Breaking that link by having bigger constituencies, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, has said, would remove something precious. We should be extremely careful about that.
In conclusion, far from this report giving us evidence that might help us to make a decision to change the electoral system in the House of Commons, which was part of its remit, it has given an awful lot of evidence why we should not change the electoral system in the House of Commons. Although I would not recommend vast changes quickly, it raises serious questions about the claims made in the abstract for proportional representation in the various systems that have been tested and how they worked out in practice. They have almost completely, it seems to me, failed to live up to the dream. I hope that my noble friend can reassure me that no drastic changes down the other end will be proposed imminently.
My Lords, nearly 12 years ago, I was the joint secretary for the talks between the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, looking at cross-party co-operation in the very likely event of the Conservatives losing the 1997 general election. The talks, which my noble friend Lord Tyler referred to, were jointly chaired by my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart and the late Robin Cook. Participants included my noble friend Lord McNally and, on the Labour side, significant figures such as Jack Straw, now the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. The joint secretary for those talks on the Labour side was Pat McFadden, then the constitutional affairs adviser to the then leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair. In that period, late 1996 to early 1997, we met with high hopes that there could soon be major progress in this country on a number of constitutional issues.
We felt, collectively, that progress had been blocked during a long period of Conservative Government that had little interest in constitutional reform. Much in those talks was agreed between the two parties and published prior to that general election. Many of the measures in our joint agreement were enacted fairly quickly after the 1997 election. These included the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, using systems of proportional representation. They also included the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and the establishment of freedom of information legislation; and the creation of a London Assembly on the basis of proportional representation, and the election of a London mayor using a system of supplementary vote that, again, showed movement away from first past the post.
The system for electing Members of the European Parliament was changed to one of proportional representation, albeit one about which those on these Benches were exceedingly unhappy. Problems with that system have been referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Grocott. On the whole, in this period we felt that much was achieved to devolve power, enhance the rights of citizens and make many levels of government more representative of those people voting for them. Throughout this period, the concept of first past the post was abandoned in these cases. Subsequently, things have gone further as the Scottish Parliament has legislated to abolish first past the post in Scottish local elections and to hold these elections in future by the single transferable vote.
However, some important business that was agreed in this period remains unfinished, most notably the reform of this place and of the voting system in the other place. It has been suggested that consideration of reform of the voting system for MPs should await consideration of a voting system for reform of this place. There is no logical reason for this whatever. Reform of the Lords and reform of the electoral system were both under consideration at the time of the First World War. Surely 100 years should be long enough for consideration of all these issues.
The debates in this House on the first Speaker’s Conference, held in 1916, resulted in amendments being agreed in this House that would have resulted in general elections being conducted by a system of proportional representation, but the moment was lost at that point. We have continued since with a system fit for purpose only in a two-party system. We have now reached a point where over 30 per cent of the votes in a general election are not for the two biggest parties, and less than half of those eligible to vote are voting for those two parties.
Problems with the unfairness, the unrepresentative nature and the ineffectiveness of first past the post have been recognised by the Government since they were elected in 1997. New voting systems have been introduced at other levels in the UK. It must be appropriate now, in this report and our debate, to consider what we have learnt from these changes. We also know that there will not be a general election for more than a year and, in my view, probably not for more than two years. There is time now to consider what appropriate changes could be made in electing Members of the House of Commons. The Government review, published in January, could perhaps be the start of considering again the process of constitutional reform that was begun in 1997. It could, if the Government so wished, be a significant step towards improving the reputation of politics, giving more power to voters and making our political system more responsive to their desires.
Let us look again at some the problems of the present system for election to the House of Commons. For the past 25 years or so, I have been employed to organise election campaigns. Most of them have been under the first past the post system, and I think that I can claim some credit for helping my party to learn how better to cope with it than perhaps was the case previously. But other parties have now copied the targeting and campaigning skills of the Liberal Democrats and the result is that almost all attention is now paid by political parties to perhaps no more than a quarter of the seats that are deemed to be potentially marginal. No wonder that turnout, membership and interest in party politics declines when the system encourages parties to ignore three-quarters of the constituencies.
The situation is even worse than that. Increasingly, parties are simply targeting the swing voters in their target seats, at most a quarter of the voters within them. So much of the parties’ efforts are directed at a quarter of the voters in a quarter of the seats. The fact that parties are increasingly engaging with only 5 to 10 per cent of the electorate cannot be healthy for any democratic system. Moreover, as my noble friend Lord Tyler highlighted, the political parties are now becoming even more sophisticated, targeting perhaps no more than 80 constituencies and focusing on 8,000 voters within them—a mere 2 per cent of the electorate. This is not healthy.
A further unhealthy aspect of the system is that many voters are forced to vote tactically. Much of the effort aimed at the targeted voters is not about encouraging them to vote for what they believe in, but about persuading them to vote for their second choice party to keep out the party which they most dislike. So-called tactical voting has been one of my specialities in many elections. It is, for example, about persuading Labour voters in Eastbourne, Romsey or Winchester that they have to vote Liberal Democrat to make their vote count. I make no apology for advocating that they do this; it is simply a recognition that we have a voting system for Westminster elections that often discourages sensible people from voting for what they really believe in.
This problem could be addressed on its own relatively easily. We could simply change the system on existing boundaries and single-member constituencies so that electors could vote 1, 2, 3. The Labour Party, as my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno said, uses this system of alternative voting in its own elections. If first past the post had been used in the election for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, Jon Cruddas would now be deputy leader. But the alternative vote system meant that transfers between other candidates resulted in Harriet Harman’s narrow victory over Alan Johnson. The transferred votes suggested that this was more representative of the wishes of Labour Members than the candidate who initially had the most votes. If that system is good enough for internal Labour Party elections, the question must be put as to why it might not be better to think about it for Westminster elections. It is the system used in Australia and its introduction was advocated two days ago by Kevin Maguire in the Daily Mirror.
My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord is not suggesting that the alternative vote system is somehow a proportional system. It is another system of first past the post, albeit slightly more sophisticated than the existing one. But that is all it is.
My Lords, I am not suggesting for a moment that it is a system of proportional representation, and that is why it is not advocated by my party. I am simply saying that introducing it would at least eliminate tactical voting problems and perhaps engage more people in the system. My view is that an election using the alternative vote might have fewer flaws than first past the post, but would still fall a long way short of the desired outcome, which should be to make the House of Commons properly representative of all voters.
We now have PR systems in many of the devolved assemblies, and I think that they are more representative of the people who vote for them as a result of not having the elections under first past the post. The instability which many people predicted with systems of PR has simply not occurred in those elections. The noble Lord, Lord Maxton, was referring to the situation that arose at the end of the First World War and suggested that the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties turned around at the time. That may be true, but what changed fundamentally was the fact that we moved eventually beyond a two-party system and thus made the system of first past the post completely inappropriate. He asked how a coalition of two parties could be democratic by working together, but a coalition of two parties with more than 50 per cent of the vote must be more democratic than one party governing on its own with only 35 per cent of the vote.
My Lords, the fact that 30 per cent of the voters vote for party A and 20 per cent for party B, and after the election parties A and B get together, does not mean that they have 50 per cent of popular support. They have zero per cent because not one person voted for the arrangement. Let us look at Wales in the previous National Assembly elections. There was a 43.5 per cent turnout and not one voter had the chance to vote for a Labour plus Plaid Cymru coalition.
My Lords, I think we should look at what happened in Scotland after 1999. The Labour Party had 33 per cent of the vote, while the Liberal Democrats secured 17 per cent, making 50 per cent. The people of Scotland wanted something different from what was done in Westminster, such as scrapping student tuition fees. The people of Scotland got more of what they wanted because of proportional representation. I believe that that was representative and fair. It was right that powers were devolved in a way that the voters could decide that. It is an illustration of the system delivering for the people in a more democratic way than is the case under first past the post.
So I hope that there will be further reform, although it could be in stages. I accept that the Government may want to see further progress before going all the way towards more proportional systems. If we had something like the alternative vote, it would address many of the concerns on the Labour Benches in the first place, but it would still be inadequate, and were we to have a general election under that system, the case would be made in the future that we need to move either to a top-up or, ideally, to the single transferable vote, which I think would be the best of all systems.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for bringing this subject to our attention. I come at this question as one who thinks that we have messed around with our voting system too much already. I see nothing wrong with the well-tried and trusted system of going to a polling station, taking up that stubby pencil on a string and marking my cross. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, said, it makes voting tangible, physical and deeply meaningful. Voting should mean something. It should be special and it should be different.
I am horrified when people are apathetic, and I am horrified when I hear suggestions that voting should be reduced to some kind of electronic game like picking out the name in “Celebrity Big Brother”. I find it difficult to accept that we should make contrived gestures to those who cannot be bothered to go and vote at most once a year. In the past such gestures have done little to raise participation or increase respect for the democratic process. They have often spread confusion. Many of us found it deeply depressing that the systems of voting have become so complex and contradictory that in London in 2004, one vote in every 14 was spoiled and lost—that amounted to hundreds of thousands of votes. How shameful. Will the Minister say how the Government plan to tackle that problem?
I was profoundly disturbed to see that, having again ignored repeated warnings in your Lordships’ House, the Government went ahead with poorly devised and poorly administered systems of “make it easy” postal voting that brought to this country the spectre of large-scale electoral fraud. Whatever else may be said of this Government, their undermining of the old instinctive trust in the integrity of the ballot has been one of their bleakest legacies. It is shameful that it is now being seriously suggested that international observers should come to the United Kingdom to examine our elections. The creation of an Electoral Commission has been a mixed blessing. It bears the blame for some of the ill-considered events of recent years, and I wonder how satisfied Ministers really are with its performance.
What we need now is simplification and a return to some of the clearly understood, harder-to-defraud methods we had in the past. So my answer to the question, “Should we change the Westminster voting system?” is simple and familiar: no. And my answer to, “Do we want general election voting by text message and the internet?” is the same: no.
Since 1997, Her Majesty’s Government have piloted too many voting systems at European, regional, local and devolved level government. The results have not caused the ecstatic electoral wave that Her Majesty’s Government might have hoped for. Instead, the pilot schemes have highlighted the problems of different voting systems when applied to the British system, rather than any perceived benefits.
As the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, explained much better than I could, Scotland encapsulates the problem. The hotch-potch of new voting systems there has something bizarre about it: the additional member system for MSPs, first past the post for MPs, a party list for MEPs and a single transferable vote for the council—a different system for each level of government. Let us not kid ourselves that legitimacy enters into all this. Why have Her Majesty’s Government created all this confusion? If the answer was to stop the SNP, then a nice mess they made of that, and they still got stuck with the Liberal Democrats as well.
The purpose of this debate is to call attention to the Ministry of Justice review of voting systems that was published in January. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth well explained the ways in which different PR systems operate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, he helped us to understand the problems of each and drew our attention to the undue influence such systems bring to political parties that have not earned the votes that justify that influence. My noble friend rightly pointed out that the great advantage of first past the post is accountability to voters. First past the post realises three major objectives: direct accountability of representatives to voters, stable government and ease of use by all—most importantly, the voter. Like the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, I say stick with it. Indeed, let us bring it back in some places where it has been lost. What really threatens our voting system is not the system itself but, as my noble friend Lord Norton said, those who abuse it. Again, that requires a bit of courage from the Government to stamp it out. I quote the words of the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham:
“We cannot continue to base our electoral process on trust alone when it appears that this trust is plainly abused and risks loss of public confidence in our democratic system”.
Why have Her Majesty’s Government done so little to combat that threat?
The Government objected to my party’s proposal to implement individual voter registration by national insurance number on the grounds that it would be too costly. But I wonder how many times the cost of testing and reviewing the many new voting systems, and of running farces such as the referendum in the north-east on a regional assembly that was wanted by no one except a single Minister, exceeded the cost of individual voter registration?
We all want to see a better turnout, and I am confident that we will see plenty of action at the polling stations when the day comes to turn out this Government. What matters in raising turnout is not the internet but meaningful, accountable, truthful politics. You can have a thousand Electoral Commission reports but, if parties like Labour and the Liberal Democrats make solemn promises to give the people of this country a referendum on something that profoundly affects their future and then break that promise, it is no wonder that cynicism about politics grows. I say to the Minister: stand up and tell us that the Government and their Liberal Democrat fellow backsliders will give us a referendum. Then he will have plenty of political enthusiasm. He might lose his job, mind you, but he would win more respect than the Prime Minister and Mr Clegg.
We all know the obsession that the Liberal Democrats have with PR. For me—I hope the Minister agrees with this—the letters PR stand not for “proportional representation” but for “permanent representation”—that is, permanent representation in office for the least popular major party. I understand why the least popular party wants that but, bitter though opposition is, I, like the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Maxton, and my noble friend Lord Norton, vastly prefer a good old first past the post system that delivers stable government, as here or in the United States, to the kind of PR that leaves politicians horsetrading behind closed doors, as in Italy.
My Lords, why did the Conservative Party, in choosing its own leader, not go for the first past the post system but go instead for a system of PR?
My Lords, the situation surrounding the election by members of a party of a leader of their party, where a single person is being selected rather than a party, is completely different from that for electing a party to government, where there is a need for accountability, stability and ease of use for voters.
If there is little else in the Government’s handling of voting that I welcome, it is what I take to be their conclusion on PR for Westminster: they will have no truck with it. I hope that the Minister and I at least can agree on that.
My Lords, we have heard some truly remarkable speeches in the debate, not least the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, in his winding up. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for allowing us to debate some fundamental questions about our democratic system.
I particularly welcome my noble friend Lord Grocott. Remarkably, as has been said, we believe that that was his maiden speech from the Back Benches. Having served with him, I can say that he was a truly magnificent friend and a wonderful Chief Whip. It is good to have him with us today. He managed to make one brief reference to the reform of your Lordships’ House. I suspect, alas, that that will be the first of many comments that he comes to make on that issue. He will find that there is never much distance between us and another debate on Lords reform; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who is in his place, knows that we are due to have yet another Second Reading tomorrow, this time of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, on that subject, when perhaps we can continue to have this really rather marvellous conversation.
While I welcome this debate—I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, made some interesting comments—I disagree fundamentally with his comments about the health of our democratic system as is. In doing so, I make it clear that I am not at all complacent. I take what my noble friend Lady Kennedy said about some of the challenges we face in a society that has changed so much from the old certainties over the past 50 years when, as we know, voter turnout has dropped steadily over those years. I do not underestimate the challenges that face all the established parties in terms of enthusiasm and engagement with members and the public, but nor do I think it is just a matter of voting systems. In fact I am doubtful whether voting systems in themselves have much of a part to play in developing the re-engagement of the public that we all wish to see.
The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, was critical of the Government’s approach to constitutional change and to the development of new voting systems in different parts of the country. I am very proud of what we have achieved in the programme of major constitutional change. It was right to devolve power from Westminster to Scotland and Wales, with the introduction of new voting systems, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was right to enshrine fundamental rights in the Human Rights Act. These are all significant advances.
Our constitutional arrangements have never been fixed; nor should they be. Surely a strength of the British approach to these matters is that we evolve to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of our democracy. That is why the first substantive paper issued by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister last summer was about the governance of Britain and about how we can renew and revitalise our democracy. These are critical matters. That is the context in which we ought to see the review of our voting systems.
I very much did not recognise the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, about political spinning. The review is a dispassionate piece of work and in their approach to its publication Ministers brought with them that same dispassionate approach. Those on all sides of the argument have welcomed the report. I pay tribute to officials in my department, who did such a good piece of work. The Electoral Reform Society described the review as a detailed and balanced piece of work. It is such a wonderful piece of work that, whatever view you take, ammunition and evidence can be found to support your case. That shows its value. While I cannot claim that it is well known among the residents of Kings Heath, it will influence political and academic thinking in the years ahead.
What is the outcome of the review? I do not want to repeat what other noble Lords have said in their interesting contributions to the debate. Equally, I do not take the rather, if I may say, complacent view of the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley that everything is right and nothing should be changed. However, we have to look seriously at the advantages of first past the post before making such a fundamental change to our voting system. We should not ignore the critical importance of Members of Parliament representing a smallish defined geographical area. We cannot underestimate the importance of that relationship, which my noble friend Lord Grocott described so well.
I am thinking about my own city of Birmingham. There is a difference between being part of a constituency of 70,000 voters and living in a city that might have 10 representatives—we have 10 MPs—but no direct relationship between my part of Birmingham and the person who represents me. One would have to think very carefully before moving towards that kind of system. Although there is a great deal of criticism about seats where the outcome is always the same, one should not ignore the advantage of a winner-takes-all system, which encourages major parties to maintain a broad appeal, or ignore the fact that the electorate can be decisive about who should be the party of Government.
It is remarkable how often the pundits say that at the next election there is likely to be a balance of power—everyone looks to the Liberal Democrats, as it may be their hour of glory—and how few times over the past 50 years that has turned out to be the case. I submit that the British public know what to do. The system allows them to make a very clear choice and Governments to have a working majority in Parliament. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said about core accountability. Whatever the defects of first past the post—I acknowledge that there are defects—one should not underestimate the importance of that core accountability.
Of course, there are advantages to proportional systems. As we know, there are many different proportional systems, but as a general principle the outcomes are more proportionate at national level. Voters have more choice, as more parties inevitably have the chance of being elected. Government tends to be by coalition, which can mean that a wider range of interests are brought into and represented in the Government. My noble friend Lord Watson felt that the experience in Scotland had a proved the positive virtue of that.
The disadvantages seem to be pretty fundamental as well. The prevalence of party list systems, in whole or in part, makes the candidate and representative remote from the voter, particularly with the abomination, if I may say so, of the closed list system. My experience in Birmingham when the European elections were first brought in was that having a representative in Birmingham South was an altogether more rigorous system than having five MEPs representing the whole of the West Midlands region. I believe—it is a personal view—that we lost something in terms of lacking the direct connection.
We have heard about the problem of conflict between two types of representative in the UK in similar Parliaments—Scotland comes to mind. I know that my noble friend Lord Watson felt that it was not a particular problem, but the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and many others I have talked to, reflect on the real problem that can happen between the two different types of elected people within a Parliament. The tendency towards coalition or minority governance can have a negative effect. It can take a long time to form a Government. Governments may be indecisive, they may have weaker policy agendas, and they may be more subject to pressure-group influence because of a lowest-common-denominator approach to decision-making.
We should not ignore the problem of coalition being a weaker form of government. My noble friend Lord Maxton had good points to make about that. I pray in aid of Birmingham, where we are enjoying—if that is the word—nearly four years of coalition of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. My goodness, I could not describe a more visible sign of lowest-common-denominator decision-making. Frankly, over those four years I have seen Birmingham lose out time and time again to other major cities because of the indecisive leadership being given.
I recognise that proportionate systems have their merits. I am not going to ignore that at all. In putting forward the reasons for PR and for having a more proportionate system, noble Lords tend to ignore some of the outcomes for quality of governance and for direct accountability of a Government to the electorate.
I understand the strength of feeling that my noble friend Lady Kennedy spoke about. The main parties may not always be providing the choice that individuals want and the emergence of single issue or smaller parties can enhance the democratic process. However, it is not always one way and the emergence of smaller parties can also have a very negative influence on the quality of decision making in Government. As I said earlier, Government can become more susceptible to pressure group politics. We all engage with pressure groups, and they are a part of the country’s democratic health, but their influence needs to be kept in proportion and be balanced.
To be fair to noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches who have spoken about the need for proportional systems, there are different systems. Some would clearly not be suitable for the House of Commons. There seems to be general agreement about the iniquities of the closed list system and it is encouraging that there is such widespread political agreement across this Chamber and, I suspect, in the other place about its problems. These matters will be considered in any review of any voting system.
On where the Government are going with the review, we made it clear that it was a contribution to the ongoing debate, that the Government are not minded to propose any change to the voting system for the House of Commons and that we believe that the current first past the post voting system works well. We also recognise that there is a range of views on the issue of voting systems. We published the paper as a contribution to that debate.
My Lords, the Minister has not touched on one point that I raised. Does he agree that, given that the role of your Lordships’ House is to scrutinise what the Government do rather than to support them, the first past the post system would not be an appropriate method for electing Members of your Lordships’ House, should elections occur?
My Lords, I was going to come on to the House of Lords. I thought that if we started with it, we would never move on to any other issue. As noble Lords are aware, we need to look at voting systems for a reformed House of Lords. The noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Rennard, feel that the process has been slow but I am impressed by the spirit of co-operation within the cross-party working group on Lords reform—I say that tentatively, knowing that this excites great passion in your Lordships’ House. I hope that it will lead to as much consensus as possible among the political parties, to manifesto commitments and to legislation in the next Session of Parliament. I will not affirm in relation to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, because it is very likely that there will be options on voting systems in the White Paper. It would be wrong for me to give a definitive view for the Government. I agree with him on the need for a different system from that of the House of Commons.
I was interested by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. He asked whether having a much more proportionate electoral base for this place would make this place feel more legitimate than the other place. My noble friend Lord Grocott answered that very clearly by referring to the power of first past the post and the direct relationship between the Member of Parliament and constituents. I also point out, in relation to that very important question, that primacy rests on the Parliament Acts, that the Government need to have the confidence of the Commons, that the Commons need to deal with supply and that the Prime Minister and other senior Ministers will sit in the Commons. It is perfectly possible for a mostly or wholly elected second Chamber to sit comfortably with a House of Commons whose primacy is, and will continue to be, established.
The noble Lords, Lord Norton and Lord De Mauley, raised a number of questions about what is probably best described as election administration and individual registration. We discussed that in an Oral Question a few weeks ago. We introduced a range of new integrity measures in the May 2007 elections and all the indications are that they are working well. We are looking at individual voter registration. We must understand that some of the changes made in relation to postal voting, for example, were designed to encourage more people to vote. The signs are that that has paid off. We must be very careful not then to introduce measures that dissuade people from voting—that is the very concern that most noble Lords have for debating this matter.
This has been an excellent debate. I do not think any noble Lord who has spoken has ignored the challenges that our democracy faces at the moment, such as lower turnout, alienation and—perhaps—detachment of the public from formal parties. The review makes it clear that these matters cannot be solved overnight or by the wave of a magic wand to bring in a new voting system. The review makes it clear that this is not so much about one system being better than another; it depends what you want from a system. Some systems deliver some objectives better than others. The key is the legitimacy of the voting system, which must be believed widely by the public to produce a legitimate outcome.
I am satisfied that the first past the post system, whatever its faults, is believed to produce a legitimate outcome. But we—the parties—have to do very much more between us to encourage public engagement, confidence and involvement and to bring young people into the democratic process. These are all critical matters for us. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, deserves great credit for allowing us to debate these important matters. There is no complacency. I hope that we will be able to return to these matters over the next few months.
My Lords, before the Minister concludes, I want to ask one question. He said that the first past the post system produces a legitimate result. Why does the Labour Party—as well as the Conservative Party—avoid the system in its internal elections?
My Lords, that is very simple. Different situations call for different voting systems. So far as my beloved party is concerned, you vote for a particular office and a particular person. The advantage of first past the post is that you are producing a Government who rest on confidence in the Commons. That is where the first past the post system has its advantage.
My Lords, in the course of one or two minutes, I clearly cannot do justice to a very wide-ranging debate. I agreed very much with the Minister on one point: this has been a fascinating discussion. I hope that the other place will in due course also discuss these issues.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. I hope that I will be forgiven for especially thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, who broke from the otherwise rather conservative attitudes on the Labour Benches. At one point, I was wondering who would be more reactionary, but the Conservative Party’s Front Bench came back very well at the end. I am also extremely grateful to my noble friends Lord Goodhart, Lord Steel, Lord Roberts and Lord Rennard. I hope that we have been able to present a geographical spread of evidence to the House.
I was very impressed by the extent to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, in his inimitable fashion, was able to give us yet another tutorial but I was depressed by the extent to which other people seemed to follow him. There are quite different academic interpretations of the so-called disproportionate power theory. It is significant that we had the issue of disproportionate power under first past the post; it is not only under proportional representation systems that minorities can exert more influence than they perhaps should have. I am a relic of the 1974 Parliament, which was elected under first past the post and in which there was no majority. Do not let us fool ourselves about the only circumstances in which you might have a problem of minorities being powerful—it can happen under first past the post. As Professor Vernon Bogdanor of Oxford pointed out, the Ulster Unionists were thought to have disproportionate power between 1992 and 1997, when they had a fulcrum role in the House of Commons. However, because the Liberal Democrats were supporting the then Government over Europe—irony of all ironies—they could survive. Our Parliament is clearly not as incapable of dealing with those problems as we should imagine.
I want to make it absolutely clear that I and my colleagues believe that the best system for the House of Commons—and it may well also be for your Lordships’ House—is the single transferable vote in multimember constituencies, because that gives power back to the citizen. That is what I have found slightly depressing about this debate; all too often, people address these issues as if the only thing that matters is the view of the parties in the Westminster bubble. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said so clearly, people look at these issues quite differently outwith that bubble. We are all small parties now; that is the big change since the 1950s, as all parties have fewer members and less natural, automatic support. We must recognise that point of view.
This issue will not go away. All parties and all politicians have to address the disenchantment of the electorate and the extent to which that is due to distortion from our system, which is not working. For those who do not believe that this will be on the agenda in the next few months, I warmly recommend reading No Overall Control?, published by the Hansard Society just a couple of days ago. It points out, for example, that the betting odds—and sometimes the bookmakers are more accurate than the opinion pollsters—are showing that it is much more likely that there will be no overall control in the next Parliament than an overall Labour majority, and much more likely again than an overall Conservative majority. I suggest, then, that we all have to address these issues, as we are going to have a different Parliament in future.
This has been a very interesting and timely debate. I welcome the extent to which the Government are, clearly, going to take advantage of the useful work done by the report; I, too, give credit to its Civil Service authors for being reasonably dispassionate and balanced. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
rose to call attention to changes in the budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the levels of staffing in embassies and their effect on British foreign policy and on European co-operation on foreign policy; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, policy changes often emerge from financial decisions. The immediate context for this debate, then, is to draw attention to the continuing squeeze on the FCO budget, which will fall in real terms over the next three years under the Comprehensive Spending Review—while that of the Department for International Development, in contrast, is set to double between now and 2013. UK subscriptions to international organisations, which fall on the FCO budget and which are beyond the control of the British Government alone, operate to squeeze this already small budget—one of the smallest in Whitehall—further. There comes a point at which a succession of cutbacks becomes a step change: in the character of an organisation, in its ability to deliver the tasks demanded of it and in the objectives it is able to serve. I want to pose the question of whether we are now facing such a step change in the position and capabilities of the FCO, both at home and abroad, and to ask how we should adjust aspirations and objectives to match the more modest resources that the Government have provided.
I raise this not from a sharply partisan perspective, but as someone who has worked with British diplomats over nearly 40 years, and observed their struggle to deliver the objectives that their political leaders have set—very often without anything like the resources needed to achieve them. Sir Hilary Synnott, in his just-published book on post-invasion Iraq, remarks that,
“there seemed to be a great mismatch between what Tony Blair was saying and how Whitehall was operating”.
That was not for the first time, and probably not for the last.
The history of Britain’s long retreat from empire, since Suez, has been of Governments struggling to maintain their aspirations to be a global power without being willing or able to pay for the means to do so, with the press insisting that we absolutely must maintain our pretensions and not admit our limitations. Harold Macmillan thus famously stressed our role in global summitry; Harold Wilson attempted to maintain our bases east of Suez. There was an outcry from the Daily Mail when in 1968 the Duncan report on the future of the Diplomatic Service suggested that the UK was then a
“major power of the second rank”.
There was a further outcry, again led by the Daily Mail, when under Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government the Berrill report proposed the closer integration of the Diplomatic Service with the rest of Whitehall.
There has, of course, been a revolution in communications among Governments in the 30 years since then. Secure e-mail is now being introduced, enabling people in posts abroad to comment on and contribute to policy discussions within Whitehall. The number of member states of the UN has continued to rise inexorably: there are now more than 190, with resident British missions in some 145 of those—leaving large numbers of African states, and several in Latin America, without a British presence. That includes one state, Burkina Faso, which is currently a member of the UN Security Council. International travel has become both easier and cheaper, making it often far more cost-effective to send officials out to foreign capitals for successive short visits than to post them and their families abroad. The British Diplomatic Service now has 40 per cent fewer home-based staff serving abroad than it had 30 years ago—a substantial reduction as the number of posts and countries has sharply increased.
The work of government as a whole has become more international, and much more multilateral. One official recently offered me the estimate that 60 to 70 per cent of the work of Defra and of BERR—the Department of Business, Enterprise and something on regulation, I forget its exact title—is internationally driven, either by the European Union or by other multilateral conferences and organisations. Expert officials deal with expert officials from other Governments within these multilateral organisations, and often also deal there with the transnational lobbies that work to shape policies both here and abroad. It is, therefore, much less clear where bilateral missions fit into this world, or where the FCO stands in the making of overall policy in London. I have been told that different ministries now find it useful to second their own staff, not to UK missions abroad, but directly to the ministries of other important Governments—in Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo and Brasilia—as well as to the European Commission and to the secretariats of UN agencies.
The Foreign Office, under its new Secretary of State, has done its best to try to fit resources to objectives; “Strategy Refresh” has agreed a reduction of some 25 per cent in home-based staff in European embassies to enable posts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and across the Middle East and Asia to be reinforced. The number of staff working within the FCO in London is also being cut back, as direct communications enable posts abroad to deal directly with other departments across Whitehall. There is a delicate question as to whether these cutbacks have undermined the future of the Diplomatic Service as such, since the FCO may now no longer be able to provide sufficient home-based posts at different levels for people serving abroad to spend sufficient time during their careers at home.
I therefore want to raise several questions about the future of the FCO and the management of British foreign policy. The first is about the co-ordination of British foreign policy and the relationship between the FCO and the other departments involved in international diplomacy, which now means most departments in Whitehall. The FCO, rightly, now defines itself as one of the three international departments with DfID and the Ministry of Defence. Since our new Foreign Secretary has defined tackling climate change as one of the FCO’s four strategic priorities, and combating transnational terrorist movements and political and religious extremisms is also a major theme of his, the need for closer and closer co-operation with other ministries—the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, Defra, BERR and so forth—is evident.
I am no longer confident that the slimmer and slimmer FCO, with its tiny budget, can manage to provide the political overview that our Foreign Secretary rightly sees as its special role, to give us the joined-up government that is needed across particular negotiations. The Cabinet Office already holds the ring on European policy and is shouldering an expanding role in national security policy—not always in easy partnership with the FCO. However, people tell me that the Cabinet Office is currently in chaos, with far too high a turnover of staff and poor co-ordination between its different units; last year’s Civil Service capabilities review was sharply critical of its capabilities and performance.
I am very glad that our new Foreign Secretary has reinstituted the FCO planning staff to try to give a strategic role in foreign policy, but I am no longer sure that the Foreign Office can plan the strategy of foreign policy on its own. Furthermore, I suggest that the task has been made more difficult by our new Prime Minister. Gordon Brown was famously unenthusiastic about the Foreign Office and its posts abroad which, as Chancellor, he did his best to avoid when travelling to foreign capitals. Successive reductions in the FCO budget may partly reflect his lack of enthusiasm. He seems impatient with the complexities of multilateral diplomacy, particularly with the interventions of smaller countries, and is in danger of underestimating the importance of political relations with difficult Governments beyond the UN Security Council’s permanent members and the G8.
That raises difficult questions for some of us about the cutback in bilateral missions across the EU, and about the future of those missions. It is evident that we no longer need extensive staff writing reports on technical subjects. That material is easily available on the internet and officials can come out from London when needed. However, we still need to cultivate good relations with the other 26 EU member states, smaller as well as larger, which means that we need politically skilled representatives well briefed in British domestic political constraints as well as in the politics of the countries to which they are accredited, to build and maintain relations of mutual confidence. As a succession of officials have told me over the years, departments across Whitehall still need good briefing on the domestic political context within which other EU Governments operate, not only in Berlin and Paris but also in Bucharest and Bratislava.
I suggest that we need further reflection, perhaps even on a cross-party basis, about what sort of missions we now need across Europe after the present cutbacks, and what their priorities should be. It is unfortunate that so many bilateral British ambassadors in other EU countries are appointed to these posts as their second or even third successive posting abroad. We need representatives who are seen to represent London, and are up-to-date and closely in touch with thinking in London and across the UK. I am not sure that it is sensible to cut back military attachés in our European embassies when the UK is pressing other Governments so hard to increase their contributions to NATO and to European and UN missions outside Europe. I note that many of these posts now house liaison officers from our police and law enforcement services, and wonder whether departments across Whitehall have dispassionately considered the trade-offs between resident liaison and the stream of visitors that air travel allows.
Might I suggest that we should consider renaming our embassies across the EU—or even across the OECD world—as “British Government Representations”, to reflect the job that they now do and to underline how closely they relate, or should relate, to the whole of Whitehall? That would suggest less pomp and more encouragement of professional Government-to-Government interaction, parliament-to-parliament interaction, and wider than that. Further, I suggest that the heads of these representations should be drawn from a wider group within Whitehall than the FCO alone. I note, with approval, that our new ambassador in Ankara had previously served as head of the immigration and nationality service in the Home Office. That was, after all, what the Berrill committee recommended 30 years ago—a closer integration of the home and diplomatic services, to fit the changing career patterns and expectations of the women and men in our Civil Service and to reduce the proportion of years served that are spent abroad. That, of course, necessarily implies that more attention needs to be paid in the domestic departments to the acquisition of language skills, including “hard” language skills, and to ensuring that service abroad is seen as a path to promotion; but these are, of course, desirable objectives in themselves.
Outside the OECD world, British missions have more sensitive political roles to fulfil but also a growing mixture of officials to fulfil them. I note, for example, that now some 150 liaison officers from our law enforcement services are attached to overseas missions. Redefinition of Britain's national security and its management therefore also needs to address what sort of teams of officials, civilian and military, are needed to promote our interests in states of concern.
There is a particular issue about the partnership between DfID and the FCO in the non-OECD world, which others in this debate may well wish to address. DfID has become a major department in foreign policy, with both our previous Prime Minister and our new one giving its goals their blessing. But, as we have seen in Kenya in the past two to three years, development goals and good governance can easily cut across each other, and relations between the understaffed but more generously paid—so I am told—DfID missions and British diplomats are not always easy. I note that last year's capabilities review of DfID in effect raised doubts as to whether that department will be able successfully to manage the continuing increases in funding it is due to receive over the next two to five years. There is room for much more careful integration of strategic planning and policy making between these two departments to make sure that political and development objectives are successfully reconciled.
The width of the gap between aspirations and resources should encourage the Government to take a much more open and positive attitude to the proposed EU External Action Service than they have so far displayed. Since we cannot afford resident representation in some 50 UN member states, we have an interest in making the best of shared representation and common reporting where we can. I know that Her Majesty’s Government have gone some way in sharing resources with friendly Governments in some foreign capitals—with the Germans in Reykjavik and Dar es Salaam, for example—and even with the European Commission in one case. We should embrace the chance now offered to do more and face down the predictable cries of horror from the Daily Mail.
Above all, we need to be comfortable with our role within the European Union. I was extremely happy to read in David Miliband’s speech of 4 March to the FCO forum for leadership his careful distinction between our most important bilateral relationship with the United States and our work within the multilateral framework of the European Union—an institution, he said, of which we are a party. That is a very important distinction as regards the way in which we should now operate in different countries. We recognise that the Government are reluctant to state this obvious transformation of the context of British foreign policy too openly before the Lisbon amending treaty has been ratified. I am not even sure that the Prime Minister, as opposed to the Foreign Secretary, yet fully understands how much our 35-year membership of the European Union has transformed the management of British international policy alongside all the implications of globalisation which we have witnessed.
These Benches hope that in the wake of the ratification of the amending treaty Britain will at last become a settled and positive actor within the developing frameworks of EU internal and external policies and will wish to make sure that we play a major role in the formation, development and staffing of the EU External Action Service. Perhaps even the Conservatives will come to recognise the evident advantages of embedding British diplomacy further within that framework. I hope that is not too partisan a note on which to introduce the debate. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, we have heard a masterly survey of our present resources measured against our aspirations. Many questions were posed, most of which remain unanswered by the Government. The noble Lord spoke of a step change in our relationships overseas. Certainly, the old distinction between domestic and foreign has fundamentally changed. The nature and role of our missions overseas have also changed. But I wonder whether, at one level, this is a debate not about resources but about ourselves and how we see our role in the world, and therefore about the resources which we are prepared to commit to that. Indeed, our national self-confidence is also in question.
It may be helpful if I try to put in perspective through a historical survey whether the adaptation which the Foreign Office has endured over recent years is justified. When I entered the foreign service almost 50 years ago, in 1960, it was a very different world. The challenges and priorities were different. The Cold War still existed. We had passed the shock of Suez but we were before the main EU debate. We were seeking a diversion through the formation of EFTA. There was not even a Foreign and Commonwealth Office but a separate Commonwealth Relations Office. It was before the east of Suez withdrawal, which was one of the milestones on our way to reassessing what we could do and the conflict between our aspirations, our view of ourselves then and the resources we were prepared to devote to this issue.
It was also a very different Foreign Office. It had hardly changed from the pre-war period. I remember with great affection the internal communication system. It was a shuttle, whistling around the Foreign Office like something in a Victorian department store. It was before the e-mail and before the intranet. On the personnel front, most of those in the senior levels of the Foreign Office had fought in the war, or had served either in the colonial service or abroad in other ways. Some had spent their war years in the US and were attached to the special relationship. The gifted amateur was very much the theme of the day. The only specialists that I recall were the legal department and—some years afterwards, I think—the first economic adviser. One book denoted it “the apotheosis of the dilettante”. The assumption was that the amateur could glide through any post—personnel, communications, defence or whatever. Indeed they were, and remain, very gifted people.
The public context was also very different. The public had looked at the red marks on the map, denoting our old empire. Many of the public had served in the war or the colonies and assumed that it was our responsibility to be involved overseas. There seemed to be a clear distinction at that time between domestic and foreign policy, and the great challenges now—terrorism, climate change, migration and weapons of mass destruction, save the nuclear—were not on the scene.
There have been profound changes over 50 years. Communism is dead and there are new powers, which the noble Lord mentioned. Personnel are being transferred from European posts to India and China. I make one comment in passing—that India is a member of the Commonwealth and we perhaps too readily forget the importance of the Commonwealth as an instrument. It is clear that the current Indian Prime Minister, and indeed Sonia Gandhi, place great weight on the Commonwealth. The incoming Commonwealth Secretary-General, who takes up his post on 1 April, is Indian. India is ready to devote more resources to the Commonwealth Secretariat and is giving more both to the CFTC and to the Commonwealth of Learning. Also, in passing, I should mention the diversion, or illusion, on Conservative Benches that the Commonwealth can in some ways be deemed an alternative to the European Union. In my judgment, this is an illusion, a diversion which was wholly undermined by Don McKinnon, the outgoing Secretary-General, in a recent speech.
What has been our response, financially and institutionally, in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Has it been sufficient to meet the profound changes in areas such as migration—with its implications not only for terrorism, but for the strain it places on our consular services—or the other well known challenges of energy, food, security and so on? Historically, we have tended to muddle through—a little cut here, a little cut there—and hardly looked at our broader strategic objectives. The new Foreign Secretary has endeavoured to grapple with those issues, beginning with his speech to Chatham House in July last year. There seems to be at least an intellectual awareness of the problems, although it has not yet resulted in many changes.
It is useful to look at the continuing dialogue between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place, which in my judgment has been extremely helpful and to the benefit of both. Has the process of change led to an FCO that is fit for today’s purposes? Is there recognition of the need for a new professionalism, not just for the gifted amateur, in estate management, finance, project management, personnel and communications? The FCO’s reply to the last Foreign Affairs Committee report, dated January of this year, showed some awareness of that.
One question posed was whether the need for traditional diplomacy has declined, and the noble Lord mentioned Kenya. In my judgment, there is a continuing need for sustained personal contact at all levels with key countries. Can the budget restraints be justified? There were financial constraints in the previous CSRs of 2000, 2002 and 2004, often masked by asset sales, but now we have real reductions. At the same time we now have not only new security demands but new posts made necessary by the dissolution of the Soviet and Yugoslav empires.
One question posed was whether the balance is right between the FCO and DfID. It is true that the FCO leads in Whitehall on conflict prevention, but there is a certain jealousy at the comparative finances available, as if everything is now predicated on the move to the 0.7 target. There is a perception that DfID has more cash than it can spend.
The final question posed by the noble Lord was whether we are taking the new Europe sufficiently seriously. Has the Foreign Office, and indeed have the Government as a whole, clearly recognised that our future lies in an ever closer relationship with our EU partners, where our interests largely coincide? The evidence hardly suggests that we have. We think of the 25 per cent reduction in posts in the European Union. There is also the UK problem of recruitment at all levels to the EU institutions. I refer in passing to the exchanges in this House on 20 February relating to Commission recruitment, where the Government accepted that we are falling far short. Why was that not tackled earlier? There is also the question of co-location of embassies. Looking at the response to these questions, one is bound to ask: have we the vision and drive to make a difference? There are some positive signs from the new Foreign Secretary but there must be a very qualified “yes” when we examine the evidence before us.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords that we have nine minutes for Back-Bench speeches. When the clock says eight, we are in the ninth minute.
My Lords, following that doom-laden piece of advice from the Front Bench, I begin by extending my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for having introduced this debate. I agree with every word that he said—indeed, I agree with every word spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, as well. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has been applying himself to this topic with tenacity, with speeches in Chatham House and articles in various publications. I played a modest part in a debate just over two years ago, on 8 December, and stand by everything I said then.
One encouraging thing is the continuity of the campaign that the noble Lord has been running. It is getting increasing support and is increasingly important. One other moderately encouraging thing is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can be described as one of the great offices of state. We are living in a world where great offices of state are being knocked down like skittles in a bowling alley. The Treasury would just about acknowledge that the Foreign Office is a great office alongside it. The Treasury has an undue sense of its own importance. But look at what has happened to the other departments, such as the Lord Chancellor’s Department, the Home Office, the short-lived Department for Constitutional Affairs—all knocked around. We have a Lord Chancellor who turns up in all sorts of stray places, in stray uniforms, no longer representing a great department of state. The Department of Trade and Industry now has an abbreviation that the noble Lord cannot remember, and nor can I. The Department of Education is now Children, Schools and—not nannies, but Families. I dread to think what is coming. We have stopped short of the time when Edward Heath was described as “SOSFITARDAPOTBOT”—Secretary of State for Industry, Trade and Regional Development, President of the Board of Trade. That is a serious point. The Foreign Office is a crucially important department and needs to be recognised as such.
There has been one other change, which is not so important but is really rather curious. It is the scale of the huge document that is now produced as the annual report of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is matched by an even larger volume from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the other place. In my day, no such documents existed. That does not mean that it was necessarily right, but they must take up a huge amount of energy and intellect. We got by with the occasional compact White Paper, with considerable help from the Foreign Affairs Committee, with the noble Lord playing his part in that in those days. That aspect at least is still there. The relationship between the Foreign Office and the Foreign Affairs Committee of the other place, as demonstrated from the reports that I have looked at this year, is of enormous importance. They understand each other, just as they did in my time, on strange issues ranging from diplomatic immunity to Grenada. It is of great importance that that recognition is there.
In paragraph 63 of its latest report, the Foreign Affairs Committee states:
“We welcome the fact that it was the FCO, rather than DfID or the MoD, that led on developing the new PSA on conflict. This sent an important signal that the Government was committed to diplomacy as the best form of conflict prevention”.
It went on to say that Sir Ivor Roberts, in giving evidence, pointed out that,
“we need to have a clear understanding of who runs foreign policy, and at the moment the lines are so blurred that it is very difficult to know”.
He went on to say,
“whether it is run by a Department called DFID or a Department called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is not the point. The point is that there can only be one British Government foreign policy, and in every capital there can only be one voice that holds sway ... We cannot have—and this happens too often—two voices in the same capital”.
The committee concluded quite clearly:
“While we welcome greater joined-up working between the FCO and other Government Departments, we recommend that there should be a clear recognition across Whitehall, including from the Prime Minister’s office, of the FCO's responsibilities for foreign policy”.
There is a clear affirmation of a crucial understanding that must be achieved across Whitehall, and not least in the Prime Minister’s office. It is reflected by the arithmetic pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and by what he had to say. It is good to be able to say that there appear in the report of the Foreign Office other major improvements in the management style of the office, on which Sir Peter Ricketts and the new Foreign Secretary are both entitled to be complimented.
There is one other point that I thought the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, was going to touch on. He stressed the importance of the Commonwealth. The striking thing is that, in the three or four-page document summary of the Foreign Office book, there is no reference at all to the Commonwealth. If one looks through the large glossy magazine, there are three or four minimal references to the Commonwealth—footnote references—and yet it is still an important part of the title of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It may be a regrettable oversight. Still, even in my day as Chancellor, the Commonwealth was a very important organisation. It briefed me fully on the economic affairs of the world before I went to IMF meetings. It is an enormous asset to us, and to its members, to belong to that organisation. I also endorse absolutely what the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said about the importance of India.
As for the relationship between the FCO and DfID, as I have said before in this House, the growing disparity in resources allotted to those departments represents a huge error of judgment. It is an error of judgment that does not benefit from the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was in a position, even as Chancellor, to take a much more liberal attitude towards the 0.7 per cent target than I ever did when I was in the Treasury. The trouble is that a 0.7 per cent target—a spending target that has to be achieved—is like a licence to print money. That is the sole framework within which DfID, and the old ODA, has functioned. The DfID allocation in the current year is three and a half times that of the Foreign Office, by contrast with two and a quarter times that figure 10 years ago. It is possible, though I would not go as far as advocating this, for DfID to prosper as the ODA did under the wing of the Foreign Office. Without arguing that case, I am quite certain that the resources have to be reallocated.
The Foreign Office is so important because of the growing importance of diplomacy in today’s world. It is not becoming less important, but more so. I know that some colleagues are aware of the initiative that was presented in this House only a week or two ago by George Schultz, the former Secretary of State for the United States, on the nuclear threat initiative, on which all the leading statesmen, ex-Secretaries of State and Secretaries of Defence and chairmen of the foreign affairs committee of the United States are agreed. Against that background, George Schultz gave a speech entitled “The Age of Diplomacy” in Oslo last week, in which he said:
“We must consider the immense diplomacy needed to take the steps that have been identified”—
in tackling the nuclear threat—
“Diplomatic leadership from the very top is essential. No doubt foreign ministries will be expected to organise the effort. Quite obviously, that effort must be taken side by side with ministries of defence. I would like to highlight another ingredient … Almost all of the steps involved have a major scientific and technical component … That is a diplomatic undertaking of immense difficulty and importance that can only be accomplished by teams that include scientific capability, private as well as public”.
I have one further quotation from George Schultz, from a book which I had the privilege to write the foreword to. It was published here last week and is entitled The World Crisis: The Way Forward After Iraq. He said that,
“we in the United States, and in other countries as well, face a radically changed world with rising powers, ungoverned territories, radical Islamists and immensely powerful weapons spreading around. This situation requires a much larger and invigorated commitment to the tasks of diplomacy, conducted on a global scale. We in the United States could be worse off. Colin Powell, in his time as Secretary, saved the Department of State from a downward slide. He reinvigorated the recruitment process, improved the resource base and technological capability, and raised the spirits of the foreign service. But much more needs to be done. The size of the foreign service needs to match global needs”.
Ours need not be that large, but the case for restoring its primacy in the conduct of foreign policy, as spelled out by everyone who has spoken so far, cannot be overstated or repeated too often.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for introducing the debate, which is of great importance at present. If I may, I shall take a different approach to the argument, although we have already had a remarkable level of consensus in the first four speeches.
The issue that I want to address is what appears to be the ambition of this Government and of the new Foreign Secretary to make some very radical changes, perhaps summed up in the phrase used by Mr Miliband in his first speech after becoming Foreign Secretary, when he referred to the crucial new distribution of power in the world. That speech was followed more recently by a remarkable speech by the Prime Minister in New Delhi, India, when he spoke about the need for a radical shift of power to the major developing countries from those that have traditionally been the major power brokers in the world. At that point, he referred to the possibility of India becoming a member of the United Nations Security Council. He has referred more generally to other major developing countries becoming crucial governing members of international institutions such as the World Bank.
If one has a major and radical shift in the structures of governance among international institutions in the world, including the United Nations, one first needs to understand those new and more powerful nations even better than one does today. One cannot possibly reduce the level of knowledge of them: one has to increase it and have greater understanding of internal, political and economic forces than is necessary for countries that are still on the margins of power in the world.
Secondly, one can no longer make assumptions about what one might describe as the ruling bloc in those same international institutions. If, for example, one introduced India, Brazil, South Africa and one or two other nations to the United Nations Security Council, it is most unlikely that it would be easier to reach agreement in that council than in the days when it was largely dominated by the power of the United States and her allies. In short, one needs a more complex and nuanced diplomacy than is necessary in the world from which we have emerged. That was reflected in Mr Miliband’s speech, but not in the resources that Mr Miliband has available to him. That is my first point about the need for much greater diplomacy than we have had in the past.
My second point, as I have tried to indicate, is that the likelihood of reaching agreement easily becomes more difficult in an increasingly multilateral world than in one dominated by, first, two great powers and then one. That, too, means that there has to be a higher, more patient and knowledgeable level of diplomacy.
Thirdly, there is the example that was usefully brought to the attention of the House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, in the point that he made just now about the remarkable changes that are occurring in the attitude in the United States towards such things as nuclear proliferation, for example. That also requires a steady and active level of diplomacy. Anyone who has studied the history of the United States under the two Bush Administrations would have seen very clearly the extent to which the first of those Administrations dismissed diplomacy as synonymous with appeasement: that was frequently advanced by the Administration in their first term. But diplomacy is not synonymous with appeasement: diplomacy is synonymous with trying to deal with conflicts and with building peace. One thing that we badly need to do—and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, along with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, made this absolutely clear—is to recognise the paramountcy of diplomacy in a multilateral peace-seeking world. One simply cannot do without it.
Although I strongly support the goals of DfID, having travelled quite a lot as many Members of this House have done, it is hard to believe that money is always as effectively used at the margins of DfID as it is today at the margins of the Foreign Office. DfID probably has rather more money to make difficult choices about because that money has so readily flowed to it over recent years.
I turn now to the last half of what I have to say—I hope that I can persuade the Whip that she need not worry about my nine minutes because I promise to keep my eye on the time. I want to look at the objectives that were set out by the Foreign Secretary in his speech last weekend to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office leadership conference—an internal setting of priorities that he then made public. I will mention the four that he mentioned as his greatest single priorities.
The first is tackling nuclear proliferation and dealing with the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world—things that are certainly close to my heart. They imply to an extraordinary extent co-operation between civilian and overseas departments. In our own country, with the emergence of more and more civil nuclear power, the responsibility of BERR—I will not attempt to call it by its full name—is closely interrelated with the responsibilities of the Foreign Office in the international sphere. You simply cannot make advances in this field unless you recognise the crucial nature of this interlinking. We in Britain are still a long way away from what used to be called joined-up government, particularly where it is joined up between domestic and overseas departments.
The Foreign Secretary’s second priority was preventing and resolving conflicts. If you make the same assumption as I do that the previous Prime Minister's liberal intervention will make it more difficult in the next decade or so to get support for and seek legitimacy for action, the crucial fact about trying to prevent conflicts is to move as quickly as possible. You need to get in early, as in the end happened in Kenya, thank God. In other countries such as Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, late intervention allowed conflicts to seed and spread and become devastating in their consequences for the retention of the rule of law and of order in the world. His third priority was for a high-growth, low-carbon economy and his final one was to improve multilateralism.
I return to what has already been said so effectively by my noble friend and by other noble Lords in this debate: we have hardly begun to explore the areas where we should work within the structures of the European Union, not outside them—and the low-carbon economy is as good an example as one can find. I still find it quite extraordinary that we spent days in the House debating climate change and are about to spend days discussing the European Union's involvement in climate change, and actually the two could quite readily be incompatible in some areas. That seems a rather foolish form of management.
I conclude by asking the Minister to tell us more about the extent to which Foreign Office plans have subsumed the idea of working more closely in Europe, precisely on issues such as a low-carbon economy, climate change and on joint representation where that is the appropriate way to go. On the whole, the Foreign Office does a remarkable job, but we need to look again at whether it has been squeezed to the point where, with the best will in the world, it can no longer be as effective as we need it to be.
My Lords, this debate could not be more timely. The Comprehensive Spending Review announced last year and the current and prospective year’s budgetary provisions have left the Foreign and Commonwealth Office squeezed and starved of resources. The consequences in the form of post closures and the slow haemorrhage of downgrading and thinning out the remaining posts are already visible. The premature departure at a time when they could have given more years of valuable service of many talented and highly professional diplomats is taking place daily. Important scholarship programmes, prominent among them the Marshall scholarships, have been top-sliced and, as a result, fewer such scholarships are now available than in recent years.
I asked a Question about these false and damaging economies in the scholarship schemes last October and was then given a vaguely reassuring reply. I gather that the right honourable gentleman the Foreign Secretary today made a Written Ministerial Statement in another place which does not in fact take matters much further. Meanwhile, the facts belie the reassurance. There are fewer Marshall scholarships. We are waiting to hear whether the Government plan to restore these cuts in future.
All these signs of stress and damage to what our rivals and adversaries have always acknowledged to be one of Britain's outstanding national assets—its world-class Diplomatic Service—are ones that we cannot afford to ignore. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, should be congratulated on bringing this matter to the Floor of the House. As a former member of the Diplomatic Service, I will try to avoid any special pleading and look rather at a number of general issues relating to the national interest.
First, does Britain of the 21st century need a world-class Diplomatic Service or should we accept a process of relative decline and settle for something skimpier and less effective? The answer that we do need a world-class Diplomatic Service and that settling for second best would be damaging to our national interest is not just a response of knee-jerk jingoism; it is surely a matter of rational analysis. Everyone beats a path to the door of a superpower. Just look at the way that countries staff their embassies in Washington or Beijing. But when you are a middle-ranking power with world-wide interests to further and defend, as Britain does, you need sharp eyes and sharp elbows. Some 30 years ago, the Callaghan Government commissioned a report that concluded that Britain could no longer afford a Rolls Royce of a Diplomatic Service. The Government rejected that advice. It is sobering to think of where we might be if they had accepted it. I hope that the Minister will reject it again at the conclusion of this debate and will ensure that his rejection is not just a verbal reflex, but a reality in terms of resources and manpower.
It really is important to look at Britain’s external policies in the round and to consider what is needed to manage them effectively, and not to look at them as a collection of disconnected stovepipes—some development aid here, some diplomacy there, and some military action when all else fails. This Government can take great credit for the massive and sustained increases in Britain’s overseas aid budget. We are at last in sight of the UN target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income to which successive Governments committed us and then did little or nothing to honour. But development aid cannot be a stand-alone policy. In many countries where civil strife or bad governance prevails, it is hard to deliver it at all; just look at Kenya today. In other countries which are successfully transiting towards developed status, aid will be of steadily diminishing significance. Look at India, for example. But we need active diplomacy in failed or failing states and we need it in rising powers. We should not be robbing diplomatic Peter while favouring development-aid Paul. We should be resourcing both as an integrated whole in our overseas policies.
The same is even truer for our Armed Forces. If all that requires a bit more of the taxpayers’ money, government and opposition parties should be prepared to say so and defend that as being in the national interest. We will certainly not defend those overseas interests successfully by pretending that more and more can be done with less and less.
It is sometimes suggested that in this era of rapid communication, of summit meetings and of increasingly specialised forms of multilateral diplomacy, we do not need diplomatic missions in the way we used to and that everything can be handled by experts from capitals and by political leaders themselves. In the real world, that is not the way things work. Ill-prepared meetings at political level seldom produce good results and often produce the opposite. Complex multilateral negotiations require a careful meshing of expertise from capitals, professional skills on the ground where the negotiation is taking place—in New York, Geneva, Brussels or wherever—and a world-wide diplomatic network lobbying for our objectives and warning where the obstacles to achieving them lie, and how best to get round them. Getting a good result from the post-Bali negotiations on climate change will require just that sort of multifaceted diplomacy; but we will not achieve it if we simply do not have diplomatic posts in some of the key places or if our posts are inadequately staffed. I remember a feeling of powerlessness and inadequate knowledge when successive crises occurred in three countries that were high on the Security Council’s agenda—Somalia, Rwanda and Haiti—in which Britain had no diplomatic representation at all.
Later this year, assuming that the Lisbon treaty is ratified by all 27 member states, the European Union will establish its external action service, drawing on, among other resources, the serving diplomats of its member states. Personally, I regard that as a great opportunity for Britain, not as a threat or as an issue of low priority. As one of the member states with a Diplomatic Service of the highest reputation, we have an opportunity to ensure the professionalism of the new service and thus further our interests along with those of the European Union as a whole. Are we ensuring that we make a serious contribution in ideas, structures and human resources to the work that is getting under way in Brussels? Are we going to provide some of the best and brightest of our diplomats to work in the new service and not just unload those whom we value least—an old trick of any bureaucracy in circumstances such as these? Are we going to ensure that the development of that European Union dimension to our diplomacy is valued and rewarded, so that British diplomats regard a spell at a European Union mission as a step up the professional ladder, not a diversion or a distraction? I would welcome a response from the Minister on those points.
My contribution to this welcome debate may have sounded a little bit critical. It is intended to be constructively so. We are dealing with an important national asset which will not retain its value if it is not properly resourced and led. The Diplomatic Service that I joined in 1959 has changed out of all recognition in the intervening half century. A series of rapid and fundamental transitions have taken place and the overall quality of the service has not declined. If anything, it has improved. That is surely a major national achievement of which we can be proud. But that process of unending transition and change will be successfully sustained only if we provide the necessary resources and political support. Let us just hope that today’s debate will have made some modest contribution to that.
My Lords, we live in a changing world and the importance of foreign policy becomes greater as time progresses. Britain is a key player in the European context, but our interests are wider and the Government owe a duty to ensure that our national voice is heard across the global community. It is for this reason that this debate is so crucial, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on securing this opportunity.
Inevitably, in a changing world, it will be necessary to make changes to the structure and representation that we wish to have in different countries; but there needs to be an open and honest debate about whether the changes being made are the correct ones—and, if not, what the appropriate level of representation should be. Further, there are economic considerations that need to be borne in mind, particularly considering the costs of maintaining posts in different countries. That is not an easy area of policy.
We currently enjoy 261 posts overseas, of which 43 are staffed exclusively by locally recruited people; 218 are staffed by UK-based civil servants and locally recruited people. In response to a parliamentary Question in another place, the Secretary of State listed those countries which no longer have a resident British ambassador, consul general or high commissioner. There were 52 such countries, of which two were temporarily closed for security reasons.
Since the Government came to power in 1997, we have seen more than 35 embassies, high commissions and sovereign posts closed. Of the 53 African countries, some 23 do not have any British diplomatic representation at all. Considering the increasing strength of the Chinese in that continent, we need to give very careful consideration to the strategic disadvantage in having such a minimal presence there. One approach to improve this situation might be to accredit civil servants from the Department for International Development where no Foreign Office staff are present in the country concerned, particularly in countries such as Lesotho and Swaziland. I hope that the Minister can give the House a commitment to consider such an alternative.
There is continued suspicion in many quarters that the closures we have witnessed around the globe are rather more to do with financial constraints within the Foreign Office than with the reason provided by the Government that it is a consequence of a changing world. Is it reasonable that the closure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language school and the withdrawal of the Foreign Office's contribution to the cost of maintaining defence attachés are connected with shifts in global circumstances? I doubt it. The Foreign Affairs Committee in another place has warned that the Foreign Office budget is likely to be cut by 5 per cent each year, which could jeopardise this important work. Presumably on that basis we shall see a further reduction in British representation around the world. I hope that the Minister can provide clear assurances about that risk.
We need to strengthen our traditional relationships and try to freshen and deepen other multilateral alliances. The extraordinarily rapid changes in the distribution of economic and political power in the world means that we will need to shift more of our weight to the relationships with the Asia Pacific region and other countries. We have a long way to go before we can claim to have been sufficiently successful at promoting trade with China and India, and we have lost out to other European nations as a consequence. The Government need to put that right. It can be argued that Britain has been slow, given its concentration on affairs in Washington and Brussels, to adapt to the rapid changes taking place in newly industrialised countries. As I alluded to earlier, we have seen the end of Chinese passivity in international affairs. Deepening our relationships with countries in Asia, the leading countries in Latin America, the Middle East—including the Gulf States—and Africa will be important to us. This cannot be achieved with a diminishing international presence for our country.
I agree with David Cameron when he speaks of a new emphasis on multilateralism. It is vital to widen the circle of British influence, making more of the underutilised Commonwealth to enhance our co-operation with countries with which we have a historical, cultural, political and economic tie. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has included the question of European co-operation in this debate and this is important. I welcome the role that the United Kingdom plays in Europe, in particular the expansion that we have seen of the European Union towards the countries of eastern Europe. I would like to see that widening continue with potential growth into the Balkans, Turkey, and even perhaps Ukraine. European co-operation on that scale would prove to be a very powerful influence in the world. European countries working together, speaking with one voice should be an aspiration for us all to work towards but the recent experience of the European Union suggests that a single foreign policy is not easy to achieve. A Europe constructed on flexibility and concentrating on practical solutions to the challenges confronting the global community is likely to be more effective than internal squabbling about the creation of institutional structures.
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer this important debate by reassuring the House that the financial pressures being confronted by his office will not result in a diminishing presence for our nation on the global stage; that the Government recognise the possible difficulties that may emerge from reliance upon the development of a common European policy; and that we need to be more proactive in using our unique position in the world to our national advantage through the establishment of stronger partnerships for the benefit of our citizens and the wider world community.
My Lords, I am very grateful, as other noble Lords have been, to my noble friend Lord Wallace for introducing the debate and particularly for his helpful and masterly introduction. I have found the debate particularly interesting because it obliged me to look at the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report on the Foreign Office’s annual report, which indicates the extent to which House of Commons scrutiny of departmental activities has developed. Thirty years ago, I served on the predecessor committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee—the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee. Our reports were about one-tenth the size of the reports of the Foreign Affairs Committee; they certainly did not go into anything like the depth that is gone into now. The committee’s report, and the reply from the Foreign Office to it, shows the very helpful dialogue that now goes on. The activities of another place are not always recognised in this House, but I have found them to be of particular importance. This is the first debate that I have taken part in for which the Library has produced a specific briefing document. This is an important development, and I find it extremely helpful.
We are devoting ourselves in this debate to a wide range of issues. We must start, presumably, with the public expenditure involved as a share of the gross national product. Although we cannot spend too much time on it, that is the ultimate constraint—the share of total resources available for external activities and, within that, the share for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and external policy. I share the view expressed most recently by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in that I am pleased to see the increases in DfID’s budget, although that should in no way be a reason for restricting or even leaving at a flat level the expenditure of the Foreign Office. Indeed, the more DfID does, the more there is a need for the political development to be maintained.
We then come to the way in which the Foreign Office uses its resources. In the discussions so far, the allocation and size of posts and the level of the heads of posts have been important. I can see the case for increasing staffing in south Asia and the Middle East. That is important, but on the whole the increase should have been found from additional resources rather than from the removal of posts from western Europe. There may be some case—not much, but some—for some reduction in countries that are members of the European Union, although my noble friend suggested that the case might not be so clear. However, I am not at all convinced that that applies to other European countries. I was recently in south-eastern Europe and was very concerned to discover that every post there, with the exception of one, will lose some of its staff as a result of these moves. The countries of south-eastern Europe are not stable. We need to have substantial staff in those posts until their problems have been resolved. I hope that can be re-examined.
Another example is Madagascar, which I visited on an Inter-Parliamentary Union visit and whose president is keen to reintroduce the relationship which the country had in the 19th century with Britain. It has introduced English as its third official language. Just over two years ago, the post was closed, and if the people of Madagascar want British visas they must either go to or communicate with Mauritius. We should look very carefully at this sort of post in Africa.
We have discussed the relationship between DfID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The remarks made by the Foreign Secretary in his speech to the FCO leadership conference on 4 March were rather important. He said that there was a need for,
“better integration, particularly between MoD, DfID and FCO. I can set the lead, with regular trilaterals with Des Browne and Douglas Alexander. But we need to think more radically about joining up at all levels: from co-located staff at post to single cross-departmental country plans”.
That is absolutely right. I hope not merely that the Foreign Secretary does that in speeches but that we will see it happening on the ground. Too often, one finds situations in which it at least appears as though there are two different levels of activity in a country: one operated by the Foreign Office, and the other by DfID.
On our relationship with Europe, I want to say something about the External Action Service and the way in which we and the Foreign Office have been able to provide significant and important contributors in the activities of the European Commission during our 35 years of membership. Many Members of this House have contributed at various levels within the Commission to making it effective. It is not insignificant that apparently every one of the current 27 Commissioners has a British member of his cabinet. It suggests the extent to which British officials are respected and found useful right across the European Union.
I am, however, concerned about the reduction in the number of those applying for the concours—the Commission entrance examinations. Although something like 28 scholarships are awarded each year for the College of Europe nears Bruges, which is one form of preparation for entry to the concours, only 22 were taken up this year. There are considerable difficulties in encouraging people to go for them. It is partly a problem of language knowledge, a subject which is not infrequently discussed in this House. People do not have sufficient language knowledge and we must address it. It is a serious loss if we do not have people taking part. I should say that I come from a political party where both the leader and the president are alumni of the College of Europe.
Finally, on the External Action Service, the European Union Committee has today produced our report on the treaty of Lisbon. I shall quote the paragraph that takes up the words used by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. It states:
“We would welcome assurances from the Government that, where it is in line with UK policy, they will contribute to providing the Service with high quality personnel with the necessary language skills, including secondees, and adequate financial resources”.
I would be glad to hear the Minister’s initial response to that. We will undoubtedly return to the issue in our debates on the treaty.
We have seen a great deal of cross-party co-operation and almost unanimity today, and from the Cross Benches as well. I hope that we can take this forward, working together to maintain the effectiveness of our Foreign Office.
My Lords, as a military man I stress and reinforce this important point: when considering the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s needs and resources, diplomacy and the activities of our diplomats should ever be playing a major part in our country’s overall strategy and national defence effort. The work of our high commissioners, ambassadors and defence and service attachés overseas has a major part to play in informing the Government, through the FCO or Ministry of Defence, of exactly what of significance and potential threat is happening or could happen in their respective areas. They thus contribute to the advice given to the Government and chiefs of staff as to what can, and perhaps should, be done to contain or counter it, if that is what is required.
Diplomatic effort unaided—except, undoubtedly, for economic aid—will sometimes produce by far the best results. Sometimes it may need military support and muscle to increase its effectiveness. But whatever military force it is decided to deploy and use, the use of that force—even if it has temporarily become the major partner—will be of much less value, and even become counterproductive, unless there is also diplomatic effort in the wings to get allies and other interested parties on side to produce a more benign stability, healing the wounds after the military action is over.
It is of the utmost importance that our foreign policy and defence policy are properly joined up as one entity, sometimes with the latter, defence, in the lead and supported by the former. We hope more often than not that it will be vice versa, with diplomacy in the driving seat. I hope that is appreciated when settling the FCO’s priorities and resources, particularly in vulnerable areas where conflict is never far distant. If our representatives abroad are starved of resources, reduced to a skeleton or sometimes removed altogether because of financial stringency, diplomacy cannot make the contribution which I have mentioned and which is so important to the national effort.
It is with that in mind that I am most distressed to hear that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has reduced, if not removed, its participation in the work and instruction at the Royal College of Defence Studies. That seems absolutely crazy if we are serious about bringing our foreign and defence policy ever closer together, able to work in harmony one with the other. Perhaps the Minister can reassure your Lordships' House on the general principle I mentioned and on this particular, rather negative, manifestation of what happens in practice, albeit I hope only temporarily.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on securing this debate and I thank him for introducing it with the commitment and erudition that we have come to expect of him. Many noble Lords have talked about the mechanism of interdepartmental co-operation and staffing within the FCO. I had hoped to do the same, but in light of the fact that many noble Lords have already covered these issues with far greater experience than I have, I shall concentrate on issues that have got neglected, one or two of which were referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, in her elegant speech.
It is important to bear in mind that resources are designed to achieve certain objectives. Therefore, we should ask ourselves: what are the major goals that our foreign policy should aim to achieve? The Foreign Secretary, whom I greatly admire, has set out those goals with great clarity, and in some respects they are new. They are new in that after the Second World War—certainly, during the past 20 years—our foreign policy has come to be haunted and influenced by three images. First, we want to be a bridge between Europe and the United States; secondly, we want to give leadership to Europe; and, thirdly, we are told that we must become a beacon to the world. Mercifully, the new Foreign Secretary’s thinking is free from these hubristic ambitions.
We cannot be a bridge because there is no chance that the United States will outsource its diplomacy to us. We cannot be a bridge between two institutions if we are already an integral part of one; namely, the European Union. We are not a semi-detached member of the EU. We are very much at its heart. We share its values and interests. Therefore, the first important lesson to bear in mind is that we must make the European Union a vital pillar of our foreign policy. This could take a number of forms, some of which would involve a reduction in expenditure. We should think, as we are rightly doing now, in terms of a common foreign and security policy in many areas. We cannot have embassies in all 191 countries. Therefore, a collective European Union representation in certain matters could be explored. Likewise, we could pool our consular services and ensure that there is greater co-operation between the European embassies in different parts of the world so that each one does not duplicate the efforts of others. As I say, that should release quite a large number of resources for other purposes.
My second point is that happily, so far, we are a minor major power and have not yet become a major minor power. As a minor major power we cannot rely on hardware. We can rely only on our soft power. Soft power always results, as Robert Nye and others have pointed out in the American context, from the trust that we are able to secure in other parts of the world in the judgment and wisdom of the policies that we follow. If others begin to feel that our understanding of world problems is intellectually more coherent and morally more persuasive, it is very likely that in the battle for ideas we might be able to influence the way in which they think about the world, which is the greatest impact that any foreign country can hope to make, and therefore join us in pursuing certain common causes. The question is: how can we make sure that our foreign policy is wise and inspires trust and confidence in different parts of the world? I am afraid that this has not been the case in relation to either Iraq or Afghanistan.
We need to make sure that culture is at the centre of the formulation of foreign policy in an increasingly volatile and culturally diverse world. For example, in the context of Afghanistan, we need to understand its society and culture. We need to understand the economy of the drug market. We also need to understand how, in a society like this, institutions graft, and which ones have a hope of success and which ones do not. This means that our FCO would need to rely on anthropologists, historians, economists and a number of other specialists. It also means that our foreign policy has a greater chance of being wise if it is not merely left to the experts but also involves NGOs with considerable experience at grass-roots level. In the context of Afghanistan and Iraq, if NGOs with experience in those areas had been consulted, some of the mistakes that have been made would not have been made.
The third point I want to make is this: the Foreign Secretary has talked about four priorities, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, rightly referred. In those four priorities I do not see any reference to two things which are absolutely crucial. The Foreign Secretary rightly talks about terrorism and preventing conflicts. At the root of all conflicts and terrorism lie poverty and a sense of humiliation in certain parts of the world. Therefore, global justice, understood both in economic and political terms, should be at the centre of our foreign policy. Economically, global justice would involve fighting poverty, and offering better terms of trade and well directed foreign aid. A just foreign policy would be an even-handed foreign policy, so that we do not end up doing things in other parts of the world that lead to disaster, or have a blowback domestically, so that we end up spending a lot of money dealing with the consequences.
The other important thing for a minor major power to bear in mind is that the world will listen to us and take us seriously if they think that we offer sensible advice. In this context, I am rather surprised that, in a multi-ethnic society like ours, very few of our diplomatic representatives seem to come from ethnic minorities. I do not have the figures and hope the Minister will provide them for high commissioners, ambassadors and senior officers in our foreign diplomatic missions, and, for that matter, the FCO itself. What kind of input is made by people from different backgrounds with, therefore, different kinds of expertise? This is where the United States scores a very important point. Although lots of countries find it hegemonic, they know that there would be no American delegation going abroad without black Americans and lots of other nationalities. That inspires confidence in the country. We ought to think about that.
Briefly, my last point is that our foreign policy naturally operates in collaboration with, and is articulated through, the British Council and the BBC. I want quickly to say three things about the British Council, on the basis of my considerable experience of what it has done and is doing in India. There are three ways in which it might need to reconsider some things that it is doing. First, it should not confine its offices merely to major centres where they have been traditionally based but should try to identify and reach out to new areas that are becoming important in a particular country. For example, in India it would not be just Ahmedabad, Delhi, Calcutta or Chennai, while there are other places, such as Baroda and many others, which are becoming extremely important in terms of foreign policy and economic interests. We should be concentrating on them as well.
It is also important that the British Council should be thinking not merely in terms of educational and cultural exchanges, but also of shaping the thinking of people within the country in the limits of neutrality. This can be done by organising workshops, conferences, debates, and bringing the intellectuals of the nation together so that they are able to arrive at a form of consensus. That will be seen as a contribution made by the British Council to the thinking in the country.
At the international level, it would do us no harm at all if we were to take the initiative in encouraging a global dialogue between different parts of the world, especially with Muslims, by organising some kind of international conference. The United Kingdom could certainly take the lead in organising a conference to which leading Muslims and others could be invited. We could then start thinking about new principles of global order.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, has done a great job in bringing this matter to our attention, and he should be pleased that he has received such unanimity of support for what he said. The fact is that the constant erosion of the Foreign Office budget is nothing short of a national catastrophe, and I hope that the Minister is not only listening, but able to do something about it.
I am going to move the debate towards Latin America, mainly because it is the area in which I spent most of my working life. While I am in complete agreement that China and India are vital and fast-growing economies, that does not mean that Latin America, with its considerable economic potential, should be neglected or excluded. When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, was Foreign Secretary—I am sorry he is not in his place—he made a famous speech about Latin America in which he said:
“The age of neglect is over”.
Unfortunately it has returned with a vengeance and has even been extended. An examination of recent GDP figures shows that total Latin American GDP is slightly larger than China with less than half the population. However, Brazil, which is the lead country in Latin America, and Mexico, which is the second, are only a few GDP points behind India with much smaller populations. This shows that Latin American purchasing power is valuable and we should be doing something about it.
Of course, Latin America is a very diverse region, but the potential is there. In spite of that potential, we have chosen to cut four posts, downgrade others, cut staff and give the impression of a lack of interest in commercial relationships. Doing business in Latin America, like elsewhere, requires good contacts. During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, I was responsible for building local Latin American subsidiaries of British companies. Embassy staff on the ground provided both political and economic advice, but above all vital personal contacts. In those days, embassies had both UK and locally engaged commercial officers, but these have now gone. They should be reinstated instead of relying on UKTI information from London. EU embassies have been mentioned, and indeed they exist in all Latin American countries, but they are concerned with trade and can do nothing in response to British business interests.
Moreover, British companies are often in direct competition with our major European partners—Spain, France, Germany and Italy—so despite the fact that they may be useful in other ways, EU embassies are no help to us in that respect. I have made the case before that we should reinstate UKTI inside the Foreign Office, and indeed on the last occasion I said this, I received considerable support from the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, who is to follow me. I hope that she is still of a like mind. There is another organisation outside which used to be called the Committee of Invisible Exports and now has a new name. It is about to be headed up by a recently retired British ambassador, and I believe that it is of a like mind on this issue as well.
The fact is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is the smallest and was always by far the most efficient department in Whitehall. It should be re-empowered to do the job for which it was originally conceived and which it did so brilliantly. I like to think that this will happen, but I am not very optimistic about what is happening at the moment in budgetary terms. I hope that the Minister will have something useful to say on this matter.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for introducing the debate today with a customarily thoughtful and well argued speech. He has posed a real question for us: do the successive cuts in Foreign Office funding now mean a step change backwards in the effective pursuit of our foreign policy objectives?
Speakers on all sides of the House have talked about the scale of change in recent years; indeed, going back over the past 50 years. Some of your Lordships have concentrated on the importance of international diplomacy in forestalling international conflict, some on maintaining the importance of our great multilateral forums like the UN and the EU, and others on the relative perceived inequities in the funding of DfID.
Your Lordships have also defined the purpose of our foreign policy in a variety of ways. For my part, I believe in the straightforward position that British foreign policy should be focused on the security and prosperity of the United Kingdom. That includes active engagement in multilateral forums such as the United Nations, NATO, the EU and the Commonwealth, and supporting the rule of law and human rights as essential prerequisites to the stable and constructive pursuit of international relationships.
In all the 12 years that I have participated in these debates in the House of Lords, and indeed before that during my time as a trade union general secretary responsible for diplomats, there have been constant rows about FCO funding. There has never been a senior diplomat or an FCO Minister, including me, who would not have made a pretty compelling case for more funding, more diplomats and more capacity throughout the Foreign Office. All Secretaries of State have fought hard to secure and sustain their budgets while secretly believing that those budgets simply were not enough. They have pleaded damage to our foreign policy if their bids were undercut, while the Treasury has pleaded damage to the taxpayer’s interest if the bids were met.
The rules of that game have not changed, but the context has. I shall highlight four ways in which that has happened. When I first became an FCO Minister in 1997, consular work was a very poor relation. It stood apart from the serious business of foreign policy formulation, was dealt with as a second-order issue in a completely different part of the Foreign Office and, frankly, was staffed by those who the Foreign Office hierarchy thought could deal with soft diplomacy and sympathy rather than hard argument and intellectual rigour. That has changed out of all recognition in the past 11 years; the fate of Britons in trouble abroad has become one of the most time-consuming and intensive areas of FCO activity. People in trouble, injured, killed or kidnapped, the victims of forced marriage, of natural disaster or of terrorist attack—they all have the right to expect support from their Government at home. Public opinion has demanded that and newspapers have focused upon it. That has been a deliberate and dramatic change in Foreign Office priorities.
Secondly, there is the question of visas. Again, when I first went to the FCO this was another backwater of activity, a sidelined, difficult area of work that most of the FCO considered dull, routine and not what clever chaps did. However, it became an issue of huge priority for the tens of thousands of British Pakistanis and British Indians whose families wanted greater access, and for the increasing number of people who want to come to this country on business or for tourism. It became, in effect, a domestic issue and resources had to be put into it—rightly so. Of course those services are paid for by those who benefit directly, but they absorb staff time and human resources. I came back from Saudi Arabia this morning—I declare an interest as chair of the Saudi-British Business Council—where my Saudi counterparts told me that our visa service is now second to none. That is of direct benefit to us in this country when we depend so heavily on trade and investment.
The third area in which I see a marked change is trade, as the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, mentioned a moment ago. In 1977, ambassadors regarded involvement in trade issues as somewhat below their sightline, except perhaps when the serious business of defence equipment was involved. However, trade has become another area that requires our ambassadors to be fully engaged and to which they are required to commit time, intellectual application and staff resources. The FCO is our delivery mechanism for trade, not BERR or the UKTI exclusively—as I remember it at the time of the DTI—or indeed the Treasury. It is Foreign Office diplomats who do that on the ground throughout the world. I was the first Minister between the two departments, the DTI and FCO, and co-operation at working level was not always as wholehearted as it might have been in terms of Whitehall activity. Let us see what happens when those activities are added to by the addition of the Defence Export Services Organisation. I am interested to know what the Minister has to say on that when he responds.
The fourth area, which has assumed increasing importance, is human rights. That is characterised in different ways; our friends over the Atlantic think of it as democracy and for others of us, with perhaps less simplistic views, it is about establishing the rule of law, human rights and the growth of civil society, without which a vote for a Government becomes the licensed tyranny of the majority over the minority. The Foreign Office’s commitment to capacity building in civil society overseas is real and important, and it costs time, money and human resources. It is emphatically not a DfID issue; it is a Foreign Office issue and area of expertise. It needs real knowledge of the individual countries concerned. It is not a one-size-fits-all exercise.
I have characterised those four areas, not because they are exclusively important but because they are the day-to-day bread-and-butter issues, which so often get shoved to one side. They are not headline issues about the huge and enormous importance of our diplomatic presence in countries such as Iraq or our recently strengthened presence in Afghanistan. They do not deal with the burgeoning economic influence of China or India, the flexing of Russian energy muscles or the Gulf’s sovereign wealth funds. However, they are of huge importance to the security and the prosperity of this country.
Those areas are matched by increasing commitment in other areas, such as in the United Nations, where we field a superb team of highly motivated and intellectually able individuals; in NATO, where our strategic positioning with the US, Europe and Turkey is arguably more crucial than ever; and in the EU, where the United Kingdom’s down-to-earth attitude—which is without the doctrinaire fervour of some of our close neighbours—or the instinctive opposition to the winds of change of others usually put us in the right position.
The truth is that we all know that foreign policy now has to comprehend overseas development, defence and trade, and that it increasingly involves transport, health, education and justice and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, emphasised, environmental issues. However, it still has to cover foreign policy—hard, tough and intellectually rigorous foreign policy. I fear that that hard-nosed foreign policy often becomes the victim of that panoply of issues, which I have described. If we are not able to pursue that sort of tough foreign policy, we will not be able to deliver on the security and prosperity that people in this country have a right to expect from their Foreign Office.
My Lords, I rise briefly to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for the elegance of his introduction to the debate and to pay particular tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, who has made most of the points that I would have wished to make. I strongly support what the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, said about the consular work of the Foreign Office and its posts abroad. We tend to forget how the exponential take-off in travel has meant that more and more people need the help of posts abroad, and therefore that it is desirable to retain posts.
I want to concentrate on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, about networks. There may be a systemic problem concerning the allocation of the slices of the FCO resource cake. Most people who have taken part in this debate would like a bigger cake. That is hardly going to be settled by what we say, but how the cake is sliced is an important issue. I strongly support the clearer prioritisation that has been introduced. The drafting of clear, short objectives for foreign policy is a good idea. The clear, short lists that have been produced, particularly by this Foreign Secretary, are very good; I strongly support that. However, there is a risk that they result in the favouring of programme expenditure as against network expenditure.
For example, the FCO’s work on climate change is of a very high calibre and is done by very good people. However, if you are the priority holder—if you hold the climate change objective—you will tend to have a bias in favour of initiatives, conferences and publications rather than conversation and contact-building in posts. You will not see an immediate interest for you in maintaining an embassy in Ruritania. Yet if we do not have embassies in the Ruritanias, the overall objective of trying to get the world to move the right way on climate change will be harder to achieve. If, as I believe, we are approaching a Bretton Woods moment, when we need to devise the new institutions to deal with climate change, there is no point in having just a British prescription; there needs to be an EU prescription, and a prescription that is pre-sold to a willing world that has heard about it previously, discussed it and seen its angles on it reflected in the final product. That is the risk if you go down the route of priorities: no one is directly responsible for maintaining the embassy in Ruritania, for the network: at least, I would like to hear from the Minister if someone is—I cannot see, in the charts in Foreign Office publications these days, who is. That worries me.
A number of points made in this debate were very relevant, such as that made by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, about language training. You have to have people on the ground; you have to have people talking to the Government in office in the country in question; you have to have people knowing the opposition—the people who might be the next Government—and correctly predicting who they will be. The Gorbachev prediction was very important at the time. It is no good saying that all of this can be done directly on the telephone from London. Yes, a lot of it can be done with the Government in office, if the approach is properly targeted and people have been briefed by the post on the ground—if you have the right people on the line. But the Government in London cannot ring up the opposition—the next Government—out there because, first, they do not know who they are and, secondly, it is politically dangerous for a Government to talk to another country’s opposition. You need someone on the ground; you need to have a network of people who speak the right languages in the right quarters.
Inside the European Union, we have not yet reflected in our deployments—in our network—the fact that the new member states have votes and vote on what become our laws. We still have posts of a size that were quite good for keeping in touch with the countries of eastern Europe before they joined the European Union. We do not have posts, in my judgment, that are fully equipped for the lobbying that should go on before there is a great debate in council, a great decision and a great vote. So I strongly support the point about Bucharest and Bratislava, which was elegantly made at the start of this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire.
My Lords, the House would have been pleased to learn that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, was going to make some remarks—inevitably brief but also illuminating—in the gap. If I may misuse the famous London slogan, I could say, “Mind the gap and stand clear of the floors”, using the verb “mind” in the old Anglo-Saxon sense of “pay attention to” and the phrase “stand clear of the floors” to refer to the Government’s policy, which involves far too tight a budget for the Foreign Office, with all its future duties. That has been a consensus outcome of this debate from all parts of the House, although it was couched in very polite language. I hope that the Minister will not misunderstand the politeness, which is a traditional House of Lords phenomenon for concealing, as it were, the anxiety that many noble Lords have expressed today about the new budget plans.
I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire for his initiative in launching this debate. It has been a very great occasion. He spoke with his traditional authority and knowledge, blending the best elements of Chatham House and the international relations department of the London School of Economics, as well as his knowledge of these matters as a politician in the House of Lords. How right he was to refer to the Cabinet Office role having been built up in recent times by slightly jealous Prime Ministers, so that it becomes a miniature Foreign Office of a kind on its own. Its difficulties at present partly reflect that, and partly the need to recast some of its roles.
I also agreed with my noble friend Lord Wallace when he said that the now Prime Minister—the then Chancellor—did not appear at all keen on the Foreign Office and probably wanted it to be a small and more modest department in future—modest for the wrong reasons. I also agree very much with the suggestion of my noble friend that we call our embassies in the EU countries British Government Offices, British Government Representation Offices, or some such more modern title. That would convey that we are not too nervous about being reasonably integrated with our colleagues in the European Union.
It was also a great pleasure to hear the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, refer to DfID. I think that he used a phrase along the lines of “it has much more cash than it actually uses”. It is manifestly unfair on the Foreign Office, as both departments ultimately need more resources. DfID, as has been said in this debate, is getting going in a really striking way now, and no one would want to detract from that. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, also referred to that unfair disparity between the two departments, which I hope will be dealt with in future years.
I am so glad that my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby showed the strong support for the EU that we have come to expect from her. How right she was to say that that also means, by implication, an even more active role for our own embassies or missions in other EU countries, particularly the east European ones, where their modern nation-building needs help and advice from outside—but not of an overweening kind, I hasten to add. I rather agree with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, when he said that it sounded as if the Treasury wanted a reduction and the Foreign Office Ministers then decided to build the modern strategy in that reality.
While one would like to have time to refer to other speeches, time is inevitably short on these occasions, but it was also a pleasure to listen to the wise advice of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, who spoke from her knowledge of the modern problems of the Foreign Office. To declare an interest, the noble Baroness recently became the appointed chairman of the European Atlantic Group, of which I am president. She will contribute much knowledge and authority to that group in future. The diplomats in that group, whether as guests, visitors or members—for many foreign diplomats come to each of our occasions, whether we have dinners or other gatherings—frequently pay tribute to the quality of the British Foreign Office and its work.
The modernisation of the Foreign Office in recent years has been very considerable, with agreeable developments such as more women diplomats and more couples being located in missions, which are important for the modern development of the sociology of the Foreign Office. They are not just from Oxbridge, by the way; although that process is pretty slow, it is getting better—and the sooner it gets rapidly better, the greater that achievement will be. Links to trade and economics also reinforce the modern role of the Foreign Office, rather than reducing it. A number of your Lordships referred to more effort within the European Union.
The conclusions of the report from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, however, were pretty radical, although couched in polite language. Conclusion 2 states:
“We conclude that the Comprehensive Spending Review … settlement for the FCO, one of the tightest in Whitehall, risks jeopardising the FCO’s important work”.
That is a strong conclusion, and the Government must now answer some of the points made in this debate about those anxieties. However, I will quickly pay tribute to David Miliband’s leadership as Secretary of State, which has been quite remarkable—not least in the recent European reform treaty proceedings—as has that of Jim Murphy, his Europe Minister in the House of Commons. In future, under that treaty, the external action service of the EU will also be extremely important for British diplomats and their careers. I hope that that new mechanism will be successful in future.
However, £1.7 billion is really not enough to deal with the priorities that the Foreign Office will now face in this much larger and more demanding world, where there are more and more countries in total in the UN. The presence in African missions is totally inadequate, as has been said, and that applies to other parts of the world as well. My noble friend Lord Roper mentioned the helpful and beautifully laid out report from the House of Lords Library. The relevant figure in real terms is 5 per cent per annum. The £1.7 billion for 2010-11 will be inadequate for the Foreign Office’s tasks.
The new targets come after five to seven years of demoralising cuts in services and activities here, there and everywhere in the Foreign Office, as you rapidly find out if you talk to younger diplomatic members of the Foreign Office when they are entitled to be indiscreet in the corner of a pub or restaurant. The reduction of posts in EU countries at a time when enlargement and the Lisbon treaty increase the need for Foreign Office activities is difficult for the Government to justify. The military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan was mentioned several times. It needs to be finite so that we do not get into the morass of an inexorable rise in hugely extravagant and expensive defence spending without achieving our necessary targets. Although some people in the Middle East may be incorrect in their analysis, a lot of people in that area do not share our support for NATO’s role and regard it as a pretend assignment for an organisation that should have been disbanded shortly after the signing of the Warsaw Pact. Many Arabs and Afghans say that this is a pretend mechanism to keep NATO going and that it is not really an appropriate role. I do not agree with that but none the less one cannot go on saying that NATO’s role in Afghanistan will last for years and years with all the huge expenditure that that will involve for Britain and other countries.
The important matter of the arms trade treaty was referred to in the report. I very much endorse the need for that in the modern world. My noble friend Lady Williams also accepts that that is an important priority, and has campaigned for it recently. I do not have time to refer to the FCO services and executive agencies’ work mentioned at page 53 of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s report. Therefore, I conclude by asking the Minister to respond seriously—as I am sure he will and as he normally does—to the points made. The figures are not adequate. At least £2 billion is needed for the immediate target of 2010-11. That constitutes a very modest increase. In future the Foreign Office needs to expand rather than being crunched into a relatively low-morale institution given the pressures from the Treasury and other parts of the Government.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating but distressing debate. I am, however, most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for introducing it this afternoon. It is always a great privilege to respond on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches.
As my noble and learned friend Lord Howe and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, clearly stated, this debate is about the importance of democracy. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, in her forceful speech referred to the importance of security and prosperity. Yet the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget is due to rise by just £0.1 billion over the next three years. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget is supposed to,
“effectively rise through efficiency savings by restructuring, cutting administrative costs and changing the emphasis of resources, by streamlining towards the Middle East”.
Many of your Lordships mentioned that since May 1997 the Government have closed eight British embassies, eight British high commissions and 18 British consulates, making a total of 34 closures in 10 years. The “diplomatic surge” announced in January this year is supposed to account for the reassignment of these roles, with the number of staff in posts in the Middle East and south Asia to be increased by 30 per cent. However, over the past 10 years the closing of diplomatic posts has resulted in rock-bottom morale and a stampede for the exit door by disenchanted embassy staff. By 2005, diplomats on gardening leave were costing the taxpayer more than £500,000 per month. An issue noted not only in this debate by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, but also in other debates, is that of the diplomatic black hole in central America, where just three out of the seven countries have any diplomatic—or even any DfID—staff posted there. This reflects a wider change in the geographical utilisation of FCO resources—part of the so-entitled “diplomatic surge”.
President Bush’s global war on terror—GWOT—has further strained the limited resources of the FCO by increasing security costs for diplomatic property and staff and by channelling money to the front line. Yet in 2004, the Kuwaiti embassy, undeniably a location of colossal strategic importance in the Middle East, was driven nearly to the brink of bankruptcy and was forced to close until urgent financial aid could be found. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, rightly bemoaned the Foreign Secretary’s Written Statement today, cutting the FCO scholarship and fellowship funding, and also the lack of languages being taught.
I turn to the European part of the debate, touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, where I have direct personal experience of the FCO budget cuts. I declare an interest—I have been a member of the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe’s council since 1994. Since 1991, more than 5,000 politicians, civil servants, judges, journalists and businessmen from countries in central Europe have participated in courses, seminars and conferences organised by BACEE. This association has contributed to improvements in civil society in countries that have revived democratic systems after years of authoritarian one-party rule. Through the transfer of expertise and know-how, it has helped Governments, the media and key institutions of states in transition, and thus the lives of people in central Europe. The popularity of BACEE’s programmes in central European states is linked to its longstanding approach of responding to requests from states, rather than trying to impose something on them. BACEE closed, sadly, on 29 January, after 40 years. It had been run brilliantly in the past few years by the former ambassador, Nicholas Jarrold. Its closure is the direct result of the FCO’s decision to withdraw its grant in aid. Does the Minister not think that the FCO has made a dreadful mistake? This is not a casual question. To close BACEE now, when developments in Serbia and Kosovo are of such concern, compounds the error, especially as the sum of money concerned is so relatively minor—about £260,000. It gives a lamentable impression of reduced British interest in the new member states of the EU, and particularly in the countries that aspire to join the EU.
I return to where I started and quote again. The FCO’s budget is supposed to,
“effectively rise through efficiency savings by restructuring, cutting administrative costs and changing the emphasis of resources, by streamlining towards the Middle East”.
This is exactly what happened this Tuesday with the BBC World Service. Ten language services were closed so that it was able to launch the new Arabic television service. The three-year grant in aid of 3 per cent was only released provided the BBC World Service met its efficiency targets. It had to find savings to meet the rising costs of wages and pensions.
On a personal point, it is ironic that the issue of cuts to the BBC World Service was the subject of my first forays in politics. I lobbied furiously against the then proposed cuts in 1979 of £4 million on a £40 million budget. We were at that time due to attend the World Administrative Radio Conference—WARC—in Geneva, where all radio frequencies were being renewed and reallocated and would be binding into the next century. For this reason, it was vital then not to make these cuts. It was a unique opportunity, too, at the height of the Cold War, for the Russians to obtain at our cost what they felt was their fair share of the frequency pie. Luckily, the then Mrs Thatcher and her team listened and recognised the problem. They abandoned the cuts and allocated more money, thus saving the BBC World Service. Will the Minister consider augmenting rather than cutting funds both for the BBC World Service and for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
My Lords, warm congratulations are due to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on having picked this subject for debate this afternoon. Thanks are also due to all other speakers in what has been an extraordinarily good debate. One of the pleasures in preparing for this debate was reading the lecture of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, which he made at Chatham House last December, and even more so perhaps the article that he wrote in International Affairs a few years ago—I think it was April 1978—when the younger noble Lord wrote a very compelling piece about the response to the Berrill report, whose reverberations we perhaps still feel to some extent today. I know that the noble Lord, having discussed it with him, feels so too.
There has been a great deal of wisdom and experience among the speakers in today’s debate. I am afraid that my credentials, since I am speaking in my first large Foreign and Commonwealth Office debate, are feebly pale in comparison. I have a half-brother who had a distinguished career first in the Commonwealth Relations Office and later in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I am proud to have a nephew who is a serving diplomat abroad as a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and my father was a senior officer in the British Council, which was his career. More personally, as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence some years ago, I received invaluable support and assistance from embassies and high commissions around the world without exception. Perhaps noble Lords can see that I have some background in being a supporter of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over a number of years.
The issue that was raised is the promotion of Britain’s global interests and the resources that are provided to the Foreign Office to pursue them. I argue that those questions should be viewed through the prism of the ever-closer link between domestic and international affairs that many noble Lords have referred to today. The days when the Foreign Office provided the sole channel of communication for British statesmen with their counterparts elsewhere in the world are long gone. Indeed, they were already a distant memory 30 years ago, when the article that I referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, was written. The role of foreign ministries has moved on as the world has changed, and frankly that will only continue in what is an increasingly interconnected world.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, made the comment that this is a changing world, and everyone has said that implicitly. I am very grateful for the genuine compliments that have been paid to my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary during the debate from around the House. As he said in his speech on 4 March:
“Globalisation and interdependence already define our age”.
For that reason, if for no other, all Governments have a duty to keep the role and objectives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under regular review. The conclusions of the latest such review were announced by the Foreign Secretary in another place on 23 January. They identified the three main roles that the FCO plays: providing a flexible global network serving the Government as a whole; delivering essential services to the British public and business; and shaping and delivering Her Majesty’s Government’s foreign policy.
The new framework identifies four new policy goals; areas of the greatest importance to the UK where the FCO can make the most difference. We heard about them this afternoon. They are countering terrorism and proliferation; preventing and resolving conflict; promoting a low carbon/high growth global economy; and developing effective international institutions, especially the UN and EU. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, made some very pertinent points about that list.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who spoke in the gap, is concerned about the programme against our network. The strategy takes on an integrated approach to both, so that the climate change policy will raise the programme from £4 million to £21 million and create, critically, 35 new diplomatic staff posts, backed by 70 locally engaged staff to build the relationship and have what we hope will be a real influence on the climate change debate throughout the world.
This new strategic framework is now being implemented with FCO resources being reallocated to these new priorities. I am certainly not going to get into a numbers game on resources—that would be a mistake and would diminish this particular debate. However, I absolutely take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, that the politeness and good humour with which this debate was conducted do not mean that what was said on all sides of the House was not meant with the greatest seriousness. I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, and her sharp criticism of the lack of spending that she says the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has had over the years. I was listening for a clue—I ask this very gently—about whether any future Conservative Government would promise to increase Foreign and Commonwealth Office spending. I do not expect her to answer that now because I think the answer is probably no. That adds to the problem rather than offering an easy solution to it.
I will say no more about spending: the figures have been given. However, I will say what we will focus the resources on our four new policy goals. It means substantial increases in resources for counterterrorism, climate change and our work in Afghanistan. In addition, funding for counterproliferation, conflict prevention and international institutions is also set to increase, but by more modest amounts. The BBC World Service will launch a new Persian television channel and extend broadcasting, as we heard, of its Arabic language TV service to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The British Council will extend its efforts to build mutual understanding with Muslim societies, particularly among alienated younger populations. I hope that my noble friend Lord Parekh will take particular notice of that.
To achieve these changes, all three bodies will benefit not just from new funding provided by the Treasury, but from money recycled internally through ambitious efficiency programmes. These increases will in part be financed through reducing funding for other policy issues, including three areas where other Whitehall departments will be taking on more of the burden: sustainable development, science and innovation and the field of crime and drugs. At the same time, the Foreign Office, the BBC World Service and the British Council are jointly committed to delivering £144 million in efficiency savings during the next three years, through a wide range of projects.
Funding the essential public services that we provide to the British people will be sustained and our dedicated staff will continue to provide consular assistance around the world to Britons living, working and travelling abroad. My noble friend Lady Symons made particular reference to how this issue has gone up the agenda in a huge way in the past years and will continue to become more important. We will continue to help British business and the UK economy through UK Trade and Investment, and we will continue to support Britain’s migration objectives through the FCO’s work, as well as in co-operation with the new UK Border and Immigration Agency.
In 2003, the FCO reviewed its global network to ensure that resources were deployed in line with priorities and that they were providing the best possible value for money. This resulted in the closure of a number of posts in Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific. It goes without saying—and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, will remember this from his days as Foreign Secretary—that a decision to close a post in any country is never taken lightly. Our global network is an important asset for the country and one which we intend to maintain and enhance. But priorities change and we have to deploy our resources in a manner which best reflects this. The FCO’s respect and reputation around the world remain second to none, but we cannot be everywhere, engaged on every problem. Choices have to be made and we have to look for new ways of working.
As we have heard, the overall number of FCO posts around the world has actually increased, from 242 to a total of 261 today. There have been 32 closures and two temporary closures—that was the figure of 34 that the noble Baroness mentioned—but there have been 18 openings, which were not mentioned, and 35 others that were not principal offices but trade offices and offices with other important diplomatic functions. Posts have been closed and opened, but I would argue that it is not so much the pure numbers that make the difference as to whether such decisions are good or bad; what really matters is whether they fit in with what should be the priorities for the United Kingdom. Do they take care of United Kingdom interests?
A range of matters were raised around this issue. As far as DfID and the point about heads of offices perhaps representing the whole of government are concerned, the only countries where that is a live issue are Swaziland and Nicaragua. The position of principle, for which I would think that there is a degree of support around the House, is that double-hatting DfID officers would require them to take on a whole range of diplomatic functions—consular, visas, trade and representational. That would contradict the statutory requirement to give primacy to reducing international poverty, which is DfID’s prime role.
Another issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roper, on which I answered a Question a few weeks ago, was entry into the EU civil service. It is not just a question of languages; it is a question of the relatively low entry grade into the EU civil service under its rules, which means that UK civil servants with a few years’ experience would sometimes have to take a retrograde step in seniority and pay. Our job is to try to make joining that civil service appear a more positive career move for young diplomats. The noble Lord will know about the internal review that is taking place.
My noble friend Lord Parekh was concerned about ethnic minority numbers in the FCO. I will write to him with a full answer. I have figures that suggest that there are 507 “minority”—perhaps that is an unfortunate description—members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or 8.4 per cent. That was the number of UK-based staff from ethnic minorities in 2007; but I will give him more details.
I always have a lot of sympathy with the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery. I have a special affection for Latin America, as I think he knows. We now maintain 21 sovereign posts in the Caribbean and Latin American area. The remaining countries are covered by these posts and our staff make regular visits to them. Of course this is not a complete substitute for maintaining embassies in all countries, but it enables us to discuss important issues and protect British interests. I take a little exception to his comments on UK Trade and Investment. The UK Trade and Investment organisation is very much part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and my noble friend Lord Jones of Birmingham is a Minister both in the FCO and in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It is not that difficult. The Chief Executive of UKTI, Andrew Cahn, is a member of the FCO board. As my noble friend Lady Symons said, ambassadors and UKTI staff in embassies, high commissions and consulates are part of a joint effort to promote Britain’s trading interests across the globe.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, in his robust way, posed some very important questions. I am sympathetic to the link between defence and foreign policy. As far as the Royal College of Defence Studies is concerned, he is correct. The FCO no longer funds the nominated overseas candidates as it used to but it still provides a lot of support to the RCDS. I have a list of things that it does—it has a seat on the contact group, it helps to identify overseas tours, it supports the tours, it fills secondee posts, it attends the training courses and it identifies high-calibre candidates overseas to attend the RCDS courses in London. I know this answer will not satisfy him, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is still very involved with the Royal College of Defence Studies.
I am running out of time so let me move on to the EU external action service that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned in his opening remarks. Of course the new structures for EU external action established in the Lisbon treaty included the creation of this service, representing one potential driver of future change. The new structures offer a real opportunity to deliver more coherent and effective EU action on our globalisation agenda without weakening the intergovernmental nature of CFSP or the successful Commission-led policies on trade and enlargement. This is an example of working through the European Union mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, also made special mention of the future external action service. The new high representative for the common foreign and security policy will need support, so the proposal is—and I hope it will be supported around the House—that we bring together in one body the machinery and staff that already exist in the Council Secretariat and Commission while increasing the influence of member states through secondments. This is not about creating some new institution; it is about increasing the effectiveness of what is already there, including the Commission’s overseas delegations, at the same time making it more responsive—and this should be popular with all sides of the House—to the requirements of the member states themselves.
We have no plans for any future post closures in Europe or in the rest of our network beyond those that have already been announced. However, as the demand for FCO services—political, commercial, consular or visa—changes, the FCO must be able to deploy its resources in response to that, opening and closing posts and relocating resources where they are most needed. Unless the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does that, it is not doing its job properly.
My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary attaches a great deal of weight to broadening the skills and experience of staff. I am pleased to say that the Foreign Office today is very different from the institution that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, joined in 1960 or that my half brother joined even earlier than that and which has been caricatured endlessly. It benefits from the skills and perspectives of significant numbers of staff from other parts of the public and private sectors. At the most recent count, the FCO was acting as host to 211 staff on inward secondment or interchange. Many of the staff have also previously worked in business, in other parts of the Civil Service, or in the third sector, which contributes to a good mix of skills and experience that increasingly reflects the makeup of British society as a whole.
These new faces range from board members, such as: the FCO’s director general of finance, who moved from the Metropolitan Police; its chief information officer, who was previously with the BOC Group; ambassadors and high commissioners, notably the high commissioner in Dhaka, Anwar Choudhury from the Ministry of Defence; and the ambassador designate to Cuba, Dianna Melrose, formerly of DfID and Oxfam. The traffic is far from one way, with 100 FCO staff on outward secondments—a 60 per cent increase in the past year alone. Importantly, the FCO is showing the way to the rest of Whitehall by opening all appointments to senior Civil Service positions in London and overseas to interchange. Every vacancy is now advertised across the public service through the Civil Service recruitment gateway. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, made the important point about women and particularly couples being able to work in embassies abroad. That is a step change of huge importance. Anyone who remembers the Foreign Office from years ago knew that such a thing was a complete impossibility then.
I have overrun my time. I am sorry that I have not dealt with all the points that have been made. This has been a significant and important debate. The FCO has demonstrated the flexibility, leadership and determination required to deliver on its international priorities, both now and in the years to come. We have had to take difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions, but I am confident that these have been the right ones. I am of the firm belief that the changes resulting from these decisions will ensure that the job of Foreign Secretary will still be considered that of a great officer of state in the future, and that the reputation of our Diplomatic Service as one of the best in the world will be maintained and enhanced, along with that of the UK as a whole. Once more, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for raising this subject.
My Lords, I thank all those who have taken part in the debate. We have stressed how much the context of diplomacy has changed. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, remarked on registry trolleys. The first embassy I ever went into was in a small town in Germany. I remember being disappointed that the registry trolley there did not still squeak, as John Le Carré said in his book that it did. We have changed, and we on these Benches accept that we must continue the process of change. We do not think that we should spend more, but we do think that we must prioritise. I was interested, after saying in a Radio 4 discussion programme in December that we should cut consular services in Europe because people getting drunk in Tallinn and Prague and losing their wallets did not necessarily deserve the full weight of the British Government behind them, to be told that there were cheers in relevant departments in the Foreign Office as they listened.
We do need to redirect our priorities. We know that the Government no longer like to have the sort of inquiries that they had in the 1960s and 1970s. I suggest, however, that we need to continue this discussion, that the Government should try actively to carry with them those outside and those in the other parties, and that the Foreign Office cannot do this on its own. Other departments are now enormously engaged in international business. The figures on exchanges that the noble Lord has just quoted are welcome. This needs to be a Whitehall approach as a whole.
On the point of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, I have been impressed in embassies I have visited in the last three or four years that one of the economic staff always seemed to be an extremely bright young Asian economics graduate. The FCO is changing, although one should also say that our last permanent representative at the UN was someone for whom English was only his second language—Welsh being his first. We are beginning to cope with all these necessary social changes.
I have just one last doubt. I read about headcount reductions in the Gershon review. In all the capability reviews of departments I have looked at, I wonder whether, in pursing the goal of cutting back on staff, “efficiency” reductions do not sometimes risk cutting those who need to carry through the responsibilities we give them. Having said that, and hoping we will all continue to follow this discussion, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Medical Careers: Tooke Report
asked Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the Tooke report on modernising medical careers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I start by thanking all the noble Lords taking part in today’s debate. I also congratulate Sir John Tooke and his colleagues on a well thought-out report that will become the template for postgraduate medical training in years to come.
Today, we debate one of the most damaging episodes for British medicine. It has left thousands of young doctors with their aspirations and ambitions dashed. Many have been left without career or job and with an uncertain future as a result of the implementation of Modernising Medical Careers and MTAS, the online Medical Training and Application Service. Young doctors have been badly let down and are demoralised and disillusioned, their careers and lives wrecked. In many instances, families have been split up for many years to come. Two out of three trainees are still without training posts. In some surgical specialities, one in 10 trained, experienced trainees are not successful in getting on the career ladder. Some are choosing to emigrate; some are leaving medicine—often our best—because they have lost confidence in the system in England and in medical training. Many will not get on the training ladder again in the current round of applications. I have a letter from several oncology trainees who, after five years in training, have been unsuccessful and are asking for help. The letter is supported by 23 of the consultants they work for. The cry from trainees is,
“For God’s sake, someone sort it out”.
I guess that the cry is addressed to this Minister, for the rest have failed them.
The Tooke inquiry identified major flaws in the system of postgraduate medical training and a series of errors and fundamental problems in important areas such as the role of doctors at various stages of their career and faults in the delivery of training, the plethora of organisations involved being more concerned with protecting their self-interest, influence and in territorial battles than in young doctors, their training and the effect ultimately on patient care. MMC, the inquiry found, was an aspiration to mediocrity and not excellence. British medicine and training, once considered the best, is now damaged by a service that seeks doctors who are just competent and not excellent. We now need to work hard for a decade or more to reverse the damage.
The Tooke report rightly found that no one involved in the process should feel exonerated. In an editorial, Richard Smith wrote:
“British medicine lacks coherent, high level, strategic leadership … Instead we have a plethora of self-interested, ineffective, squabbling bodies”.
That is exactly what the Tooke inquiry has also found. Any new structure responsible for postgraduate medical education and training must guard against that. As the report states,
“Whatever else this Inquiry achieves, the distress caused [so far] to the next generation of specialists and senior doctors must never be repeated”.
The Tooke report has identified deficiencies in current training at virtually every stage. Concerns are expressed about training objectives for foundation years 1 and 2. Not only was the process of selection deficient; the number of doctors applying was grossly miscalculated. The selection process failed to get experienced doctors on training courses. In the opinion of many, specialist training has failed to deliver competent doctors who are able to function independently.
The report’s findings suggest a need for root and branch reform, and Tooke suggests a way forward. The fact that the report found deficiencies and a need to find resolution to problems in eight key areas—policy objectives; the doctor’s role; policy development, implementation and governance; workforce planning; medical professional engagement; management of postgraduate medical education and training; regulation; and the structure of postgraduate medical education and training—says it all and reinforces the need for wider, durable reform.
The Tooke report makes 47 recommendations. Time does not allow me to comment on them all, so I shall concentrate on a few. Recommendation 6 relates to policy development, implementation and governance for the key areas of medical education, training and workforce issues. The recommendation that the Chief Medical Officer should be the senior responsible officer for medical education seems logical, but it is important that the SRO should have a clear understanding of the role of doctors—the key area that was missing—and the authority, responsibility and time commitment to do the task effectively. We must not underestimate the scale of the task and the responsibility, which is for the whole of England. Understanding of and interest in medical education is also essential. The Government’s response requires greater clarity. It is not surprising that the profession would have greater confidence if the SRO had an understanding of medical education and the role of doctors.
Recommendations 24, 25 and 26 refer to the functions of postgraduate deans; that is, their relationship with strategic health authorities, and the postgraduate deans and the strategic health authorities’ relationship with universities. The recommendation relating to a review of postgraduate deaneries is key to the future of medical education in England. The need for greater involvement of universities in postgraduate medical training is crucial and long overdue. Universities already have responsibility for and experience of undergraduate and foundation year 1 training. Universities also work well with regulators.
The performance of postgraduate deaneries in managing postgraduate education and training is variable. Their close link with SHAs is not only an anomaly but a possible hindrance. As evidenced, SHAs have neither been closely involved in nor demonstrated a responsibility for medical education and training. There is some evidence that some SHAs raided education budgets to meet financial problems in service delivery to the detriment of the training of all professions.
Postgraduate deans should be a part of the university structure and be responsible on behalf of the universities for the delivery of postgraduate medical training. Universities would then have responsibility for the training of doctors from undergraduate level to the completion of specialist training. That would in no way diminish the role of professional organisations; it would enhance it. The proposal sits well with the recommendation in the Tooke report related to core and specialist training.
The GMC and the education committee would, as now, be responsible for curricular development, for the monitoring of undergraduate training and for foundation year 1. PMETB, as part of the GMC, would be responsible for the curricular development of core training, working with colleges and specialist societies, which would also, as now, have a strong role in developing the curriculum and assessment of specialist training. The colleges would be rather like specialist boards in the USA and, with PMETB, would monitor delivery of training by universities. That would help to strengthen academic departments and help with academic recruitment. Importantly, it would reduce the plethora of bodies vying for roles in postgraduate training. It would also strengthen the relationship between strategic health authorities and universities. The initial responses of some of the organisations and individuals that I have spoken to have been positive. I hope that the Minister finds it so too.
Assessment could also be made more uniform and structured. Why do we not have a national exam at, let us say, some stage in foundation year 1? The model of the PLAB exam for the GMC may well be developed to satisfy this and will replace the exam at the end of medical school. At the end of core training, all trainees, prior to entering specialist training, should undergo assessment at national assessment centres, as suggested by Tooke, and these will be monitored by the colleges.
The last and new recommendation is about establishing a new body, NHS MEE, with a co-ordinating role and wide-ranging responsibilities. As proposed, it will only be for medical education and not for other health professionals. That might be a drawback. The Government, in their response, have reservations. For such a body to be effective, it has to be relatively small. It did not surprise me that, when I had this discussion, everyone who had supported the recommendation also expected to be on it, which would mean a body of between 25 and 30 people. In the past, we have had such large bodies that became ineffective. Some noble Lords may well remember that. The proposal in the Tooke report of an effective body with a co-ordinating role should not be lost, but we should have further discussions about it.
It is clear that we should start sorting out the mess that MMC and MTAS have created, to regain the confidence of young doctors so that patient care does not suffer for years to come. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on introducing this very timely debate. It is always a pleasure to listen to him although, as usual, he has pre-empted much of what I was going to say. I too welcome the Tooke report, which is a very brave attempt to start again and put behind us much of the chaos which surrounded last year’s arrangements for doctor training. I do not want to go back to see where the blame for the problems lay; let us say that no one comes up smelling of roses. As someone who has spent much of his life in medical education, as a dean of a medical school and as president of a medical Royal College, I spent many happy hours on education and manpower planning committees. I know how difficult it is to get it right.
The Government’s response to the report is very positive and helpful. Inevitably, there are a number of problems on which I would like to focus. First, there are the immediate and urgent difficulties facing young doctors this year. I will not go on about this, because the noble Lord, Lord Patel, dealt with much of it. The fact is that many young trainees feel very insecure and uncertain about their job prospects now. The Government are leaning over backwards to offer solutions, with increased numbers of posts. Do the Government have any idea of the numbers that will be needed and where? Will they ensure that the application process, which caused so much resentment last year, will be revised? There is much that needs to be not only done but widely publicised if we are to regain the confidence of trainees.
There is much in the Tooke report about the need to define the role of doctors in a modern health service, and much emphasis on the need to strive for excellence. It is suggested that we should wait until we have defined the roles of all other healthcare workers before we suggest what doctors should contribute. Noble Lords may not be surprised if I say that I do not see it that way at all. I see the doctor’s role as central, because I believe that patients and the public expect nothing less. I am not trying to deny the role of nurses and other healthcare workers, pace the noble Baroness, Lady Emerton. Far from it—they make enormous contributions. I am saying that we should already know what we want from doctors. Ask any patient.
Medical students know, or are soon made aware of, what is required of them to be a good doctor. It is a combination of attributes, which include a full knowledge of the scientific and biological basis of health and disease; an ability to communicate, empathise and deal sympathetically with patients and relatives; and practising in the safest and most effective way. They are taught how to deal with uncertainty in an open and flexible way, and of the need to keep up with the latest developments as they occur. For all that, they need five or six years of undergraduate education and a further five years for general practice, or seven to eight for specialist practice, so it is not surprising that we need to continue to attract students who are bright and can stay the course so that at the end of all this they can meet everything that patients ask of them.
I hope that the Government, in talking about defining the role of doctors, do not spend a lot of time thinking about the many important contributions that other health workers make before they do so. I believe that we now know what doctors should be doing and we should be putting all our efforts into ensuring that our training programmes are designed in the best way possible to achieve those aims.
One other matter which causes me a little concern is the Government’s response to the proposal that a “senior responsible officer” should be appointed to oversee medical training. In England, unlike in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where this responsibility will reside with the chief medical officer, it rests with the workforce planning division of the Department of Health in the form of the director-general of manpower planning. That does not give me a great deal of confidence that educational objectives will be paramount here, and the needs of the workforce might take precedence. Can my noble friend comment on this?
I turn now to the proposal that the Postgraduate Medical Education Training Board should merge with the General Medical Council. This sounds a reasonable idea as it would bring together undergraduate and postgraduate education and training under one body. But it may not be widely recognised that the educational role of the GMC is fulfilled by a separate education committee which has its own statutory responsibilities distinct from the GMC itself. A good case can be made for merging PMETB, which has had a rather unhappy few years of existence, with the education committee, which has a very good record of overseeing medical schools. It checks their curricula, makes sure they are fit for educating future doctors, conducts inspection visits and generally keeps a close eye on the medical schools. But the Government’s intention seems to be to take away the statutory responsibility of the education committee and merge it into the GMC, which itself is not immune from criticism. It seems quite perverse to get rid of the one body that is working well and merge it with two bodies that have not yet commanded everyone’s confidence. Furthermore, education is sufficiently different from regulation and judgments about failing doctors, the proper province of the GMC, to warrant their separation. I hope that in the ongoing consultation exercise the Government will think very carefully before going down that route.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the relationships between the NHS and the academic community. Much is made in the report and the Government’s response of the need to have good and robust interactions between universities and trusts, and between the Department of Health and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. After all, clinical academic departments are not only responsible for undergraduate and much of postgraduate education, they also deliver much of the NHS service in their disciplines. For example, my own department provided most of the gastrointestinal services for my hospital, with my academic colleagues in surgery. And of course academics provide a high proportion of the expertise at national level for the NHS, to say nothing of their research contributions.
Yet the history of relationships between the Department of Health and DIUS or its predecessors is littered with desultory efforts at collaboration. Bodies rejoicing under such acronyms as SGUMDER and STLA seemed to achieve little or nothing and faded into oblivion. Joint planning and funding arrangements between NHS trusts and medical schools has worked in far too few places. I wanted to bring this up because while the Government recognise the importance of academic medicine and have put considerable funds into medical research, their response to the Tooke report fails to set out clearly how trusts and universities might work more closely together in, for example, the training of clinical academics as well as in designing patterns of service. I know that this topic is close to the heart of my noble friend on the Front Bench, and I hope he can say whether a few more teeth can be put into the Government’s rather vague response.
I may have sounded somewhat critical, but I would hate to give the impression that I do not applaud the vast majority of the report and the response. I reiterate what I said at the beginning: this is a brave effort and should be welcomed.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Patel for securing this debate on Sir John Tooke’s forensic and timely report, which analyses all the points of failure in Modernising Medical Careers and makes many sensible and important recommendations for how to bring the profession out of its current crisis. The report is unique in its analysis of the evidence of what did and did not happen last year, and for its far-reaching conclusions. It is also unique in that it has taken the whole profession with it. Never before have the juniors, the consultants, the deans of medical schools, the Royal Colleges and the BMA all stood firm in support of such recommendations on their own future.
Why has Sir John’s report commanded so much respect? I suggest that it is for several reasons. In so doing, I declare all my interests as a doctor, an attendee at the Medical Schools Council, a postgraduate trainer, president of the Royal Society of Medicine and parent of doctors in training. The Tooke report does what it espouses: it makes recommendations based on evidence and is not ashamed to recognise that doctors have a unique training that is complex and demanding and which ensures they are fit for purpose in managing the most complex of conditions that threaten life daily.
Before turning to individual recommendations from the report, I want to stress why it must be acted on. There are two issues at stake here, both of which are important. The first is the future of the country’s health service and the safety of patients. Patients expect to be treated by a doctor of the highest competence and they expect the doctor to carry the overall responsibility for their care, particularly when very ill, and they are right to expect that. The second issue we face is the large number of highly skilled individuals who will not be able to progress in their careers. These are doctors who have done everything that they have been asked to do; they have made it through their initial training with all its rigorous assessments and incurred huge debts in the process, only to be let down by the system—by a chronic failure in adequate and appropriate workforce planning.
I turn to the recommendations on the role of doctors and workforce planning, on the training programme and on NHS Medical Education England, or NHS:MEE, as it is known. First, the role of the doctor must be clearly understood in the modern healthcare team. The current Department of Health policy seems to envisage a blurring of boundaries between the professions but without defining safe boundaries and without defining the separate, complementary roles, as good governance requires.
Doctors are trained in scientific deduction. They have learnt skills from their seniors. Knowledge from structured teaching and appropriate positive compassionate attitudes to modern multiprofessional team-working are required of every UK graduate. Medical training teaches deduction with good communication skills to be able to elicit a diagnosis based on solid scientific foundations, and to sort out the multiple problems that so many patients present with. The undifferentiated patient presents increasingly with multiple pathology. Each individual patient is unique; their needs are beyond any diagnostic protocol or algorithm. Good diagnosis is the foundation to ensuring that the appropriate tests are done to confirm what is suspected and to set the patient on the correct care plan journey. In that process, the other team members come into play to manage the patient on that journey to recovery or improvement within the boundaries of ongoing disease.
The evidence from the latest national confidential inquiry into peri-operative deaths found that being seen initially by a consultant in trauma care improves survival and outcomes for trauma patients. When there is a major accident, it is the consultant who leads the triage because the complexity of the decisions needs that level of diagnostic skill to determine the optimal use of scarce resources. Evidence on the outcomes of head injury shows that being seen initially by a consultant improves outcomes—but at night that often does not happen.
Problems out of hours are not unique to the UK or to trauma care. Increased mortality out of hours has also been identified in patients with heart attacks and cardiac arrests, and those being discharged from intensive care, to name but some. It is vital, therefore, that there are sufficient consultants to ensure that all patients can achieve the best outcome. The answer is to get fully trained specialist doctors to the front line at all times. As the Tooke report recommends, the medical profession must be engaged in NHS management of trusts because that is how changes will be brought about at local level
In the Health Service Journal last week, Sir John Tooke stated that,
“in the Inquiry’s view, medical education and training need to be closely integrated with workforce considerations, but absolutely critically, they need to be medically led”.
The Government seem to have accepted recommendation 6, which means that the CMO in each country is indeed the senior responsible officer for medical education. However, while I, in Wales, look to the CMO as the leader for medical education, my colleagues in England will have instead to turn to the director-general of workforce. That seems contradictory and illogical. Indeed, many colleagues have expressed extreme disquiet that a person with no direct experience of medical education could even contemplate taking the lead in this area, which is fundamental to the future of the health service. I would welcome an explanation from the Minister.
In Wales, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the CMO works closely with the postgraduate dean and the universities, providing significant benefits. The proposed graduate schools will cement the interface between the service, the profession, academia and workforce planning.
What about the structural changes proposed by the inquiry? Will those be taken up? There is much concern that deferring issues to the Minister’s NHS Next Stage Review—the Darzi review, as it is know—will impede rather than facilitate change.
All 30 medical schools in the UK supported uncoupling F1 and F2, with the proposal to incorporate F2 into core specialty training. Yet, those are on the “wait and see” list. Whether F1 and F2 are pre-registration or uncoupled probably matters little in the long run, but there must be guaranteed foundation posts for those who have qualified for them to stand a chance of being registered; if they are not potentially registrable they would have failed their final exams. Post-registration, the core broad-base training welcomed in the e-consultation, ensures that doctors enter different specialties with a solid foundation of consolidated skills assessed under supervision before they focus on specific training, whether for general practice or for a hospital specialty. No training in medicine is ever wasted.
The failure to commit expeditiously to the five-year training programme for general practice is another missed opportunity. It has been strongly supported as vital to address the increasing co-morbidities experienced in ageing populations and the pressures of chronic disease management in the community. It could ensure that every doctor has training in end-of-life care to ensure that every patient has good symptom control and compassionate psycho-social care to enhance the quality of the days or hours until death comes.
We are told that the recommendation that NHS Medical Education England be created will be considered in the NHS Next Stage Review. NHS:MEE is fundamental for success. That includes ring-fencing training budgets to help to ensure that training is not compromised. If training is compromised, the end product is also compromised—in this case patient care. Training budgets must be used for precisely that: training. It is not a pot to raid to cover inefficient management and financial deficits from high staff sickness rates and so on. Oversight and scrutiny by NHS:MEE will prevent future raids.
I hope that the Minister will not lose his nerve under pressure and will have the courage to do the right thing; listen to the whole profession and adopt the Tooke report recommendations in full as they stand.
My Lords, it was very sad that we were jumped on by Northern Rock. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on his perseverance in getting this debate and on his clear and compelling introduction.
Sir John Tooke and his panel have been likened to a team who arrive at the scene of a terrible air crash. There are bodies, blood and wreckage everywhere and the air is filled with rumour, speculation and blame. How did this awful thing happen and who is at fault? So wrote Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ in November last year. It is tempting to launch a blistering attack on the Government and to lay the blame, especially from these opposition Benches; but, like the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, I resist. We have a different ministerial team and I take heart from the fact that in this House prior to becoming a Minister—and a politician—the noble Lord, Lord Darzi, in his professorial role has been living through the consequences of MTAS.
Through my company, Cumberlege Connections—I declare that interest and that with the medical school at Sussex University—I am in close contact with at least 80 specialist registrars once a month. I am so impressed by them—their commitment, their intelligence and their dedication to the careers that they have chosen. In the first round of MTAS, they had to choose between geography and specialty. If they wanted to stay close to their partner and family, they had to sacrifice their chosen specialty. If they wanted to train in their chosen specialty they had to accept a post as potentially as far away as Scotland from Cornwall. In addition, when they applied for a job they were not allowed to submit a CV. Professors, when interviewing those who had been shortlisted, had no means of knowing who were the brilliant and who were the also-rans.
In the London Deanery alone, 18,500 candidates were interviewed over four months. It was a Herculean task. In Birmingham, the professors gave up and walked out. In round two, applicants encountered new, unforeseen rules. Having declined a job offer in round one, they were not allowed to apply in round two. An undertaking was given that those doctors who had completed their first year of specialist training—ST1s and ST2s—would qualify automatically for a “run through” training position. This meant that they were guaranteed training posts until they applied for a consultant position, known as the golden ticket. Those who had been forced into locum posts or who missed the earlier round and decided to improve their chances by changing their specialty were refused interviews. Is it any wonder that so many of these young doctors left the country to go to Australia and New Zealand?
The next round is just beginning. Jobs unfilled in February are being advertised nationally. Anyone can apply but what these young doctors want to know is whether preference is being given to the ST2s again. An application form is online but has not yet been released. When will it be available? How will the next round of applications be structured? What rules will apply? Will it all be changed again next year?
At the present time there is a two-tier system of injustice. The ST1s and ST2s are virtually guaranteed a job in their chosen field whereas those who, through no fault of their own, have missed out in earlier rounds are now unemployed. Others have taken temporary posts or have found themselves working in the wrong speciality for fear of being unemployed last year. There is another large group of doctors who are working miles away from their families because they chose specialty over geography. There are a total of around 23,000 junior doctors chasing 8,900 training posts. What does the future hold for the unsuccessful but highly and expensively trained young men and women? Perhaps the Minister could tell us. In the words of Dr Bryony Eccles, who wrote to me this week:
“We are highly trained professionals. To manipulate our and our families' lives by endless changes and rules to our training does nothing but demoralise a vital workforce and drive the best out of the NHS. Ultimately this must impact on patient care”.
How right she is. What a shambles.
I now want to address the Tooke report's 47th recommendation and the Government's response to the setting up of Medical Education England. I have long believed in devolving decisions to the lowest sensible level. My report on community nursing was not called Neighbourhood Nursing for nothing. When I chaired social services, my county pioneered patch-based social work. I strongly believe that if services are to make sense to local people, local decision-making is an imperative. Many of the Government’s mistakes have been made because they do not trust local people, and it has taken them 10 years to see the light. Devolving workforce education and training to SHAs has been a glimmer of their recent conversion.
Some strategic health authorities are taking their responsibilities really seriously. In London, they are thinking ahead: what skills will doctors working in a polyclinic need? They are, I understand, colloquially called “Darzi docs”, and while that is a relevant initiative for London it is perhaps not so relevant to the Lake District, where polyclinics and Darzi docs may not be much in evidence. Others may say, “But medicine is a national resource and doctors may work in any part of the country. Who knows whether a Darzi doc will be needed one day in Cumbria or Westmoreland?”. They will also say, “Of course, SHAs will want to keep their major budget, which they have found so useful to bail out trusts in financial deficit in the past”, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has just said. A central body will have ring-fenced money—but I have a word of caution for your Lordships. It is a little naive to think that money held centrally would not be top-sliced. In central hands, it can be not so much top-sliced as available.
For SHAs that are now in charge of planning the total workforce, it makes sense to see how the service can be provided using all the skills within the different professions. That, of course, raises another fear among doctors; of dumbing down. Are we to see nurses as mini-doctors, and what is the role of the doctor anyhow? Sir John is right: that needs to be clearly defined. Incidentally, I hope to help by chairing a Royal College of Physicians’ working party to look at the future of society and the doctor’s role within it.
In my mind, there is no question either that a central body for medical education is necessary to oversee, scrutinize and review, or that the SHAs and their deaneries have a part to play. The clever trick will be to ensure coherence between local demand, the characteristics of the local area and the national body. I have been impressed by the model of NHS Education South Central, or NESC, which was established as an integrated organisation. It manages and delivers both postgraduate medical education and non-medical education and training, and it holds budgets amounting to £264 million. Its mission is to provide high-quality and relevant education and training, where and when it is needed. It must meet the changing needs of the NHS and the workforce, which in turn must lead to measurable improvements in patient care. It has the advantage of being an arm’s length organisation, while at the same time being sensitive to local priorities.
The Minister, in his report, Our NHS, our future, set out his emerging vision to develop a world-class NHS, focused on improving the quality of care based on patients having control and choice, and on there being local accountability. A regional body such as NESC is strategically placed to enable such a vision to happen. It is similar in size to NHS Education for Scotland; the arrangement works well in Scotland, and the development of NESC shows how such an organisation can be effective in England. I hope that the Minister will study that structure and use it as a pilot. It appears to me to provide the missing link between local and national. It is well led, it works and it has already made a difference. It is impressive—and necessary.
My Lords, the medical profession at large owes a substantial debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Patel for initiating this debate, just as it owes a great debt of gratitude to Sir John Tooke and his colleagues for producing such a comprehensive, compelling and persuasive report. It is good to know that more than half of the recommendations in the Tooke report have already been accepted by the Government. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about how those recommendations are to be implemented and, above all, the speed with which they will be achieved.
Many speakers mentioned the appalling situation that arose in 2007 when a mechanism which was designed with the best of intentions turned out to be totally unfit for purpose and resulted in grave injustices. I refer to the well publicised case of a highly qualified young lady doctor looking for training who applied for 79 posts and was unsuccessful in obtaining any. There were many other examples of the best qualified young doctors failing to obtain an interview. Are there mechanisms in place to improve the process this year because, as a result of last year’s disaster, some of the doctors most needed by the National Health Service to maintain a high standard of practice in the future emigrated due to their failure to obtain an appropriate post?
I have four questions for the Minister with regard to the situation this year. First, does he have clear figures on the number of specialist registrar posts that will be available for those emerging from foundation years one and two? I say in passing that the one recommendation of the Tooke report of which I am not totally in favour is for these two years to be disaggregated. It is sensible to treat years one and two as a cohesive whole, and that has worked well on the whole.
Has the Minister any evidence about the number of individuals who will emerge from those foundation years and apply for specialist registrar appointments in all branches of medicine? Can he indicate the number of specialist training posts that will be available for such specialist registrars? Recent press reports suggest that the Government have funded an additional 300 posts. That may be a useful contribution but, according to the evidence of the profession, it will certainly come nowhere near meeting the need.
Secondly, there is a proud history in this country of collaboration between the universities on the one hand and the National Health Service on the other. For many years the training offered in the National Health Service has been funded by SIFT—the Service Increment for Teaching. Funds have been specifically allocated under that heading to support education and training in NHS hospitals and, to a degree, in the community. Can the Minister confirm that, contrary to recent reports, the education and training funds that were raided when SIFT was no longer ring-fenced by certain cash-strapped health authorities to provide services as opposed to training will again be ring-fenced, because that is essential if education is to continue to be provided?
My third question concerns the future of academic medicine. For many years there was a proud tradition that individuals holding clinical lectureships, clinical training posts and even clinical research posts were given honorary registrar or senior registrar status in the NHS. In order to maintain and enhance the future of clinical academic medicine, will the Minister assure us that individuals holding these appointments, including those who take time out to undertake research leading to a PhD or who undertake a period of training overseas, whether in an academic appointment or in a third-world country, will not be disadvantaged by that experience when they return and will continue as specialist registrars or honorary specialist registrars before applying for a senior post either in the universities or as consultants in the NHS?
Fourthly, as regards overseas doctors, it is absolutely right that we should give priority to UK-trained doctors when they apply for specialist training posts. Of course, one has to recognise that doctors from the European Union have the absolute right to compete for all those posts on an equal footing with UK-trained doctors. But in my former department of neurology in Newcastle upon Tyne, I regularly accepted for training young doctors from India, Australia, Canada, the USA and other parts of the old Commonwealth. They got a useful training experience and many subsequently became leaders of the profession on returning to the countries from which they came. Some were self-funding on travelling fellowships. Others, particularly from the Indian subcontinent and recommended by colleagues in whose ability I had total faith, had to compete for the appointments as senior house officers and registrars. Is there a mechanism for that kind of sponsorship arrangement, whereby highly trained immigrants to this country, sponsored by host departments in the country from which they came, may still have the opportunity to train in the NHS? I believe that is crucial to the future.
I turn finally to the governance of medical education. As chairman of the education committee of the GMC, and subsequently as president of the GMC, I was much involved in that process. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, has made clear, the Medical Act 1983, following the report of the Merrison committee, imposed upon the education committee of the GMC—not upon the General Medical Council itself—the authority to oversee standards of medical education, to promote high standards of medical education and to co-ordinate all stages of medical education. There was some conflict with the royal colleges and specialist training societies, who took the view that they were responsible for postgraduate education and training, but in the end that was satisfactorily resolved. The education committee of the GMC contained within its membership, elected from the very large council at that time, many people who had academic posts in the universities and many people who were consultants in the NHS with wide experience in training young doctors in all specialties.
Admittedly, the mechanism so established of the joint committee on general professional training and the joint committee on higher medical training became, for a time, complex and somewhat cumbersome. The Government replaced it with the Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board which, despite the best efforts of its members, has turned out to be ineffective. Many complaints have arisen about the way in which it has operated and about delays in accepting specialist registration. May I take it that, if Medical Education England is to be created, as the Tooke report suggests—and that is a mechanism that I think is greatly to be commended—the resulting mechanism will be with the education committee of the General Medical Council and not with the council itself? To my knowledge, that particular provision of the Medical Act 1983 has never been revoked.
For that reason, it is crucial that this education body should contain within its membership not only substantial numbers of medical educators, but also lay people who have an experience of education in the broad and also non-doctors who are interested in the education of other healthcare professionals. It must not be a small body limited by GMC membership, but must have a much wider remit. I would welcome that greatly because, provided that the committee has the appropriate range of expertise within its membership, we could be sure that the future control and governance of medical education would be satisfactory. I hope that the Government will support that recommendation.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Patel for raising this debate on the recommendations made in the final report on modernising medical careers. I congratulate Professor Tooke, not only on the recommendations, but on the speed with which he completed the work, against the background of so much unhappiness in the medical professions, so ably described by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, in his opening remarks, and by many others who followed.
Such a debate is also timely given the current review of the NHS under the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Darzi. The title of the report, Aspiring to Excellence, indicates a desire to deliver a service of excellence with high quality care. The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, will not be surprised that I do not agree with him on the definition of the doctor being first and others later. The report’s recommendation 5 states:
“There needs to be a common shared understanding of the roles of all doctors … Given the interdependency of professional constituents of the contemporary multiprofessional healthcare team we suggest a similar analysis extends to other healthcare professional groupings”.
One hopes that that will be taken into account in the final report of the current review of the National Health Service, for if there is clarity of each healthcare professional’s role with the parameters of that role identified, together with the authority and accountability, the multi-professional teams can truly work towards the aspiration of excellence in order that the highest quality of care to patients can be delivered.
The Chief Nursing Officer has produced a report on modernising careers for nursing, and the proposals for flexible career frameworks have been welcomed, but they will, like medicine, require post-registration education and training to support the frameworks. However, the all-important question will be the same as that of Professor Tooke; will there be sufficient funding and how will the funding be protected? This is an opportunity to tackle this vexing question in the context of the NHS review. Currently, there is no evidence of equality. There are 120,000 registered nurses undertaking part-time post-registration training, the budget for which is £120 million, which equates to £1,000 per student. The medical postgraduate budget is £1.6 billion for 40,000 students, which equates to £40,000 per student. Obviously, one would expect there to be a difference; but is a ratio of 1:40 fair?
The organisation and mechanisms for allotting postgraduate and post-registration funding and study leave will, I hope, be addressed in the context of the review. Professor Tooke also raised the problems of clinical placements for doctors, and the same problems arise for the nursing profession and other allied care professions. There is no doubt that the correlation of theory to practice is vital for all the professions, and there needs to be an agreed system of allocation of clinical placements fairly between them, with adequate supervision from clinical tutors.
I declare an interest, in that for some years I led an experimental course funded by the Wolfson Foundation, where the training for state registration was two years, with a tutor teaching the curriculum correlating theory to practice throughout, with the third year being spent as an intern staff nurse. Many went on to take senior positions in the profession. The research demonstrated that it was an excellent way of teaching, but the cost for the numbers involved was too much. When I was chairman of the nurses regulating body, the UKCC, Project 2000 was developed, and it was always envisaged that a preceptor year would be introduced; that is an intern year. Again, because of cost, this was dropped. It is being discussed again, and I hope that the Minister will consider the inclusion of a preceptor year for all nurses, midwives, health visitors and professions allied to medicine.
Research evidence points to the delivery of high quality nursing care being dependent on the right number of qualified competent nurses being available at the right time. However, as mentioned in the debate introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, currently not all graduate nurses are emerging from their programme of education with even the basic competence required to deliver safe and high quality care. In that debate, I quoted that, in a recent visit, I found that 250 applicants had applied for a staff nurse post, who were all recently trained at postgraduate level, and only two out of 250 gained 100 per cent in a simple numeracy test, demonstrating that only two were safe to do a drug round. All healthcare professional education at pregraduate and postgraduate levels requires clear lines of accountability and authority for commissioning with the universities, to include the costs of supervision for clinical placements.
The delivery of safe and high quality care to patients by doctors, nurses, midwives and other allied healthcare professionals is dependent on a correlation of theory and practice. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, spelt out, there is a need for much stonger links between the service requirements and the education providers, at clearly defined levels, with clear, protected, funding arrangements, and built-in monitoring programmes through accountability reviews.
My closing comments relate to Recommendation 47. If the intent of multiprofessional teams is to succeed—the need recognised by Professor Tooke—there will be a requirement for the Department of Health to take a holistic multiprofessional approach to modernising careers rather than considering individual professions in isolation. Problems and issues in nursing and allied healthcare professional careers are every bit as serious as medicine. I therefore feel that this recommendation needs careful consideration, especially relating to the first function the committee suggests—to ring-fence budgets. Surely, all education budgets should be ring-fenced.
The recommendations of Sir John's report, together with the Minister’s review, pave the way to meet the aspiration of excellence for the public, for patients and all healthcare professions.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on securing this debate; somewhat belatedly due to the Northern Rock disaster. Anyway, we have it now. I am delighted to be speaking from these Benches in this debate, as I have taken a keen interest in these issues since the disasters of last year. I declare an interest as a former lay member of the GMC, including briefly of its education committee. I am also vice president of the RCN, an honorary fellow of several medical royal colleges and a former member of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee. I also declare an interest as not being the parent of any doctors in training. I tried my best to persuade them to become doctors, but they have become a social worker and a teacher. I do not know what one does about that. I am also extremely grateful to the Council of Medical Schools, the Council of Deans of Health, the GMC, the BMA, Universities UK and NHS Employers for their briefings, as I am to the many people who wrote to me individually about these issues.
On 28 February, the Department of Health in England published its official response to Sir John Tooke’s inquiry. It agreed to implement many of the recommendations, but has, worryingly, delayed making a decision on several others. The MTAS debacle last year was, in my view, the lightning rod that brought to earth the simmering concerns of the medical profession about what it saw as attempts to deprofessionalise it. Sir John Tooke’s report, as we have heard many times this afternoon, struck a dramatic chord with the profession. Indeed, I understand that one doctor was moved to write to the panel members, congratulating them and telling them that one night, as he read it from cover to cover, he was moved to shout out all the time, “Yes, yes!” like that scene in “When Harry Met Sally”.
So when 10,000 doctors took to the streets a year ago next week, we might have expected the Government to reverse their policy of “constructive discomfort” for the medical profession so well described in Simon Stevens's 2002 article on Reform Strategies for the English NHS and done all that they could to re-engage the profession. After all, the medical establishment was in favour, as was the GMC, now overwhelmingly a lay members’ organisation. The GMC congratulated Sir John Tooke and his colleagues on the quality and insight of their report and welcomed the proposals on streamlining the regulation of medical education and training set out in Recommendation 30 of the report.
The Tooke report argued for better co-ordination by bringing all stages—undergraduate, postgraduate and continuing practice—under one roof. That was also identified in the 2007 White Paper Trust, Assurance and Safety, where the Government recognised the gains to be secured from single oversight of education and training. The Tooke report recommended that the PMETB should be assimilated in a regulatory structure within the GMC that would oversee the continuum of undergraduate and postgraduate medical education and training, continuing professional development, quality assurance and enhancement and that this assimilation should occur as quickly as possible. More than 80 per cent of respondents to the consultation on the Tooke report were in favour of the assimilation of the PMETB into the GMC. The recommendation is supported also by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson. In his recent evidence to the House of Commons Health Select Committee he indicated that he had changed his mind from his previous position, which was for the GMC’s role in education to be taken over by PMETB. It is to be hoped that the Government might find time to bring forward the necessary legislation to merge the two organisations before 2010, which is what the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, has said thus far, lest the excellent staff in PMETB be lost. Could that not be an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill, which is about to reach this House the week after next, so that the statutory changes could be made that would allow handover when the terms of office of PMETB members come to an end? Would that not be a tangible demonstration that the Government do indeed intend to take action urgently?
The GMC believes that the assimilation of PMETB into the GMC should take place as soon as is practicable. It is beginning work with UK health departments, PMETB and other parties to achieve this smoothly and efficiently. I would very much like to hear the Minister comment on the pace of this particular change, particularly given the concern about employers’ involvement expressed by the NHS Employers.
Regulation is a key issue in postgraduate medical education and training. Regulation is a dynamic process; it should not stand still. It has to be scrutinised, challenged and improved to ensure that it takes account of our changing society and the changing healthcare environment. To be effective, regulation has to command the confidence and support of all those with an interest in ensuring the safety and quality of healthcare—patients and the public, doctors, the NHS and other healthcare providers, and the medical schools and medical royal colleges.
The Government had the ideal opportunity to do that in their response to the inquiry's recommendations, but, worryingly, instead of following the advice of the medical profession and accepting all the recommendations that were made—which were widely welcomed outside the medical profession, as well—it seems that much that was welcomed by the profession and others has been sidelined by the department. This raises profound concerns that the key structural changes that were recommended may have been placed into the “too difficult” box in perpetuity.
There are no timelines on the proposed reforms to Foundation to integrate the first year more closely with the undergraduate programme. Nor is there any mention of the creation of core programmes which would provide the necessary broad-based beginnings, as well as providing the NHS with the flexibility for retraining it will require as technological advances, which emerge at amazing rapidity, change medical practice. Until the initial stages of reform to the structure are sorted out and implemented, it will not be possible to build on them to create the later stages of higher specialist training. Instead, some recommendations, the easiest, seem to have been accepted unconditionally, while the others appear to have been swept into the long grass. I hope that the Minister will be able to give this House some reassurance on this.
The Government’s response was that,
“very careful consideration was required to ensure that decisions are informed by evidence and evaluation”.
Yet it might be worth asking how often consultations achieve a total of as many as 1,440 responses, of which only 4 per cent express any measure of disagreement with the recommendations. Universities UK emphasised that extraordinary measure of consensus in its briefing note. I know that the Minister was not involved at the time, but I would like to ask him now what further evidence it is reasonable to demand. Sir John Tooke has pointed out that decisiveness is often necessary in medicine. We have seen the Minister being extremely decisive and swift on the Floor of this House just a couple of months ago. It would be lovely to hear something about some speed in the implementation of the recommendations of the Tooke review.
I do not have much time left and I very much want to hear what the Minister can tell us. But it seems me that the Tooke report’s proposal for the creation, in the first instance, of NHS Medical Education England, to oversee training, accepting that this would be extended to other professions in the near future, would effectively take oversight away from the workforce planning area of the Department of Health and put it back into the hands of the medical profession. We know that such a move would regain the faith of doctors and that doctors are very pleased with the recommendation to ring-fence the budget for medical education and training.
Of course doctors can be precious as a professional group—as can all professions, rabbis included. But the situation with MTAS has been serious and we heard the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, make that very clear in one of her examples. Reassurance is what is needed now. All medical bodies believe that both of those changes are essential if we are to ensure high quality medical training in the future. For several years now trusts have been raiding funding set aside for professional education and training to meet the deficits, and others have made that point.
It is important that funding for training is ring-fenced at Trust level to ensure that doctors are trained to their full potential. The Government have indicated that a decision on this will be taken alongside the Minister’s Next Stage Review, due to report in June this year. But like the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, I believe that there is no good reason why that decision could not be taken now. It is not something that fits particularly with the review the noble Lord is conducting, and indeed, it would be good to get one major issue off the agenda for that review at this time. This new body needs independence from the Department of Health's direct influence, although with accountability to the Chief Medical Officer, as is the case in the other three home countries. We support this suggestion as a means of ensuring equity of provision for patients across the UK, giving, as it does, a coherent, co-ordinated approach to medical education. Recent history has demonstrated that such oversight and scrutiny is vital. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that he has listened to his professional colleagues and others and that it is his intention to set up in the very near future a national body charged with the oversight and scrutiny of medical education, to be extended to the other healthcare professions as soon as possible.
My Lords, it is to the credit of the Government that they should have responded so quickly to Sir John Tooke's excellent report on postgraduate medical training and indicated their agreement to a large number of the recommendations contained in it. However, if there has been one message above all others, it is surely the exhortation to Ministers to adopt an equal measure of speed in putting the recommendations into practice and in forming a settled view on those matters where they have thus far reserved judgement. I am the first to recognise that the difficulties engendered by Modernising Medical Careers stemmed in part from rushed implementation, so I fully accept that this time we need to get everything right. But I would like to hear from the Minister that he and his colleagues are treating Sir John's recommendations with an appropriate degree of urgency.
For example, it is a great pity that the Government do not regard it as possible to begin the process of merging PMETB with the GMC until 2010. Perhaps the Minister could tell us why this should be. I understand that the change could be effected by statutory instrument. Similarly, it is not clear why we should have to wait until 2011 before the recommendations for longer training times for GPs should be taken forward. That recommendation arose in large measure from the concerns relating to the impact of the European working time directive, about which I shall say more in a moment. But on a general level, without “urgent action” to reform postgraduate medical training, as Sir John himself has said, we cannot plan effectively for the future.
Nowhere is the need for action more pressing than on the one recommendation of Sir John's mentioned by all noble Lords—the creation of NHS Medical Education England. Of course proper consultation on this is essential. I completely take the Government's point that we need to agree on precisely what the remit of this new body should be and to whom it should be accountable. Moving responsibility for a large amount of public money away from central government and into a quango is never something that should be done lightly. At the same time it is quite clear why the profession has spoken with a united voice on the matter. It wants to regain ownership of the principles underpinning postgraduate medical training; it wants the funding to be safeguarded; and it wants to make sure that this area of policy is properly co-ordinated—something that the department has shown itself signally unable to do. Yet the Government have equivocated.
We are asked to be patient so that the noble Lord's Next Stage Review of the NHS can add its own slant to the debate, supposedly so that Sir John's ideas can be considered in the context of the future needs of the service. That argument seems to me exceedingly weak. The proposed functions of MEE are not affected by future patterns of service delivery. Accountability for those functions does not need to lie with government. What Ministers need to remember is that the confidence of the profession has taken a terrible knock. If the Government were to come out and say that they agree in principle with the idea of NHS Medical Education England and will work with the profession urgently to put together a working plan for it, that would do more than anything else to restore confidence in the training system on the part of doctors. I am talking, of course, about long-term confidence.
This year, we are likely to experience if anything even more serious problems in postgraduate training than we did last year. It is therefore extraordinary that, even after the publication of Sir John’s report, accountability in the department for this area of policy should still be blurred. The very serious failings on the part of the department, which were exposed by Sir John, revolved around weak governance and ambiguous accountability structures. Yet we know from recent answers that responsibility for this area of policy is still currently shared between two people: the CMO and the head of human resources. That divided accountability does not, on the face of it, sound sensible.
I return to the subject of the European working time directive. In his report, Sir John says:
“The effect of the current interpretation in UK legislation impedes the acquisition of experience, of confidence and the ability to shoulder responsibility … few other professions in the UK, nor medical career structures in Europe embrace the Directive in the same way that it has been embraced in the UK”.
Sir John was concerned here with the need to see whether, in his words,
“a more flexible approach to EWTD could be legitimately embraced”.
It would be helpful to hear from the Minister whether he believes this is feasible.
In 2004, Ministers gave a commitment that they would seek to amend the working time directive in the wake of the SiMAP and Jaeger judgments. Attempts were made in 2005-06 to do this, but nothing tangible appears to have happened since. The matter is of considerable importance, as an amendment could make a huge difference to the timing of rest breaks, and could mean that inactive times spent on call in the workplace would not be counted as working time. We know too that it is open to Ministers to negotiate to postpone the effect of the directive until 2012; yet apparently they do not now propose to do so. Why is that?
The Minister will know of the grave and widely held anxieties about the adequacy of medical training hours, particularly in surgery. I hesitate to refer to surgery in his presence, but if he reads the Royal College of Surgeons’ bulletin, he will be aware of the catastrophic effect that the directive is already having on both the quantity and the quality of surgical training and the clear perception among the profession that patient care is suffering. Almost all surgeons believe that the old on-call system provided vastly superior training, and that the new shift system damages both the continuity of care and doctors’ quality of life, which ironically is the very opposite of what the directive was supposed to achieve. To gain skill in a craft specialty requires practice, practice and more practice. Surgeons of the Minister’s generation could expect to have about 35,000 hours of career training. Surgeons currently have about 8,000. When the new regulations come in, they will have about 6,000. Does the Minister think that that sort of level is adequate?
This year, trainees in some disciplines are facing competition ratios in excess of 10:1. The lives and the aspirations of many of our finest and most altruistic graduates look set to be devastated—a huge loss to the NHS. Ministers say that we cannot simply turn on the tap to create more specialist training posts because there will not be enough jobs at the end of the process, but what confidence can we have in those arguments, given the department’s abysmal record in predicting the correct workforce numbers in the past? After all, the Minister himself has said that in London alone we will need a 30 per cent increase in the number of GPs. What are the Government prepared to do? On this immediate issue, Sir John provided no recommendations, but it is a question of such magnitude that the Minister really cannot leave it unanswered.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Patel, on his success in securing this important debate on the recommendations of the Tooke report on modernising medical careers. It has been a lively and informative debate, as I expected, and I thank all noble Lords for their very valuable contributions. I will not have time to answer most of the questions that have been asked but I will try my best, and I ask noble Lords to forgive me if I do not cover all of them. I will certainly deal with them in writing.
As Sir John’s report makes clear, trainee doctors pre-MMC faced considerable uncertainties in a system that was neither particularly transparent nor fair. For doctors in senior house officer posts there was a variation in training content and standards. There were no clear career pathways and ill-defined educational goals. There was also no time limit to the SHO grade and a poor distinction between training and service posts. SHOs had in many ways become the lost tribe. Let us be clear about the effects of this old system referred to today: it was not good for patients or for the NHS and it was certainly not good for the junior doctors themselves.
Modernising medical careers was introduced to address those problems. For the first time, we introduced national standards for training—consistent national standards. There is now a structured and approved curriculum to allow standardised, rigorous and competency-based assessments. Selections are now transparent and standardised. Certainly the principles of MMC were right and enjoyed wide-ranging professional support. Unfortunately, as I have alluded to in this House before, the translation of those principles was too rapid through a flawed national IT system. That caused a great deal of trauma for trainees, for their families, and, speaking from experience, for their trainers as well. The then Secretary of State apologised for this and we have been working over the past year to rectify the problems. This is absolutely a case where we should concentrate on getting it right rather than doing it quickly.
Postgraduate medical education and training must reflect the needs of a service that aims to deliver the world-class care to which we aspire. It is crucial that training post numbers meet predicted future workforce requirements, but workforce planning has become a difficult science in an age of a flexible and responsive health service. The medical workforce is now a global phenomenon and this brings challenges which we did not face 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We might be good at forecasting workforce based on the supply end, but we need to move on into the more sophisticated demand end in an age when medicine changes with demography, disease prevalence and medical technological innovations.
Last year, around half of all applications for specialty training came from the international medical graduates—a point alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Walton. The department has recently launched a consultation on the guidance that would give preference to UK and European Economic Area applicants when recruiting to speciality training. I reassure the noble Lord that we are not talking about the NHS service posts for which international medical graduates are still free to apply. As the noble Lord said, doctors from abroad have made, and will continue to make, a valuable contribution to the NHS in this way.
The Government have now given their formal response to Sir John’s final report and recommendations. I am pleased that our response has been broadly welcomed. Sir John’s report marks a significant step forward in ensuring that excellence and high achievement remain at the heart of medical education and training in this country. While not all Sir John’s recommendations are the direct responsibility of the department, we have accepted the overwhelming majority. Of 47 recommendations, there were perhaps three areas which gave rise to particular comment and discussion, as some noble Lords have alluded to today.
The first is the merger of the Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board with the General Medical Council. The issue raised by Sir John was not about PMETB’s contribution—he acknowledges that it has brought about many key improvements—but about the merger in the context of the continuity of training between undergraduate and postgraduate training. We agree with Sir John that the merger should take place as soon as possible. This requires a good deal of legal work, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will agree. We will give it our best to get it through as quickly as we can.
Secondly, there was also a proposal to change the structure of the foundation programme. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred to the separation of F1 and F2. We have consensus advice on that. Sir John hinged his recommendation on legal advice which suggests that F1 and F2 need to be separated to provide a legal guarantee of employment to UK graduates, a noble cause that I agree with. However, our advice is that Sir John’s legal advice is flawed. Separating F1 and F2 will not achieve Sir John’s aims. Therefore, it is sensible that we revisit this recommendation and we hope to have a debate about this and the foundation programme in early summer.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, raised an interesting point about why universities do not play a larger role in postgraduate medical education and training. Of course, it is crucial that universities and postgraduate deaneries continue to work together within medical education. It is interesting to note that in some countries outside the UK, universities have a greater role in postgraduate education. The UK has a clear distinction between undergraduate education and postgraduate training. As has already been touched on, a greater role for universities is certainly something that I will consider as part of the next stage review. Some work that I led in London certainly highlighted the importance of converging the service and university activity. Some noble Lords will be aware of the creation of the first academic health science centre, which brings the mission of excellence in service delivery and an excellence in training and development under one roof.
The third area of great interest and discussion is the creation of a single body to oversee doctors’ training; namely, the NHS Medical Education England. While this suggestion has been welcomed by some within the medical profession—I can understand why, and noble Lords have referred to it today—Sir John has pointed to the need for clear governance and accountability structures. Perhaps I may remind the House that this was not in Sir John’s original discussion document published in October. It was in his final recommendation received in January. Given the importance of securing stability and the best possible solutions for future doctors, representatives have also reminded us of the need to proceed in a careful and evidence-based fashion, engaging with key stakeholders. That is particularly relevant when the budget under consideration for control of NHS Medical Education England would amount to about £1.6 billion of public money.
The proposals for the future of post-graduate medical education cannot be seen in isolation from the future of the health service more widely. The overarching aim of postgraduate medical education must be to train doctors to deliver excellent quality care. This chimes exactly with the goals of the NHS Next Stage Review, which I am leading. I can reassure the House that within the next three months, every attempt will be made to engage the profession through the NHS review, with Sir John in the final recommendations in relation to this area. It is to be published in July as the enabling report for the NHS Next Stage Review.
On other issues raised in this debate, first, I turn to the European working time directive and some of the challenges of training—certainly in areas of craft specialty, such as surgery. I agree that the number of hours have been reduced significantly. But what we did in the past may not necessarily be the best training. I certainly remember the days when I happened to be on call on a one-in-two basis and the nights when I slept in the operating theatre between cases. That is not the future of surgical training. We need to innovate the way in which we design our curriculum and the ways in which we can improve the quality of training. Yesterday, I attended a London deanery event where there was a significant discussion on the role of simulations, for example, in acquiring some of those skills. But the European working time directive is a law, which has been challenged in the past. However, I shall seek legal advice within the context of the NHS Next Stage Review.
The noble Lord, Lord Walton, raised the issue of clinical academics not being disadvantaged—again, an area close to my heart. I am sure the noble Lord will acknowledge the Government’s investment in academic medicine in this country, with the creation of academic clinical fellowships and lectureships. I reassure the noble Lord that the existing arrangements already take account of the fact that doctors take time out to do research and to do fellowships abroad. We are conscious that every opportunity is made available for them to return into a training post. The clinical academics on the MMC programme board are robust in ensuring that this is the case.
We have also heard a tremendous amount about the funding budgets of medical education and training. Let me make it clear that the Government’s view is that we should be as transparent as possible in ensuring that all money allocated for medical education and training is serving its purposes. Whether ring-fencing or other arrangements are the best way to ensure clarity and robustness in spending and funding is an issue that I will look into. Currently, we have service-level agreements with the strategic health authorities that ensure funding is available for training. I add that there has been an increase of at least 139 per cent in funding for medical education between 1997 and 2008.
The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, raised the role of the doctor. It is absolutely crucial that we have a clear understanding of the part that healthcare professionals play if we are to meet the needs of the NHS in the future. This is why we have accepted Sir John’s recommendations on this principle, and why consideration of how the roles of clinicians need to develop will be a key part of the workforce in education and training board that is being set up in the NHS Next Stage Review, where Sir John himself is an adviser.
The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, raised the issue of the number and location of posts, and information for applicants. We have published, at a national level, much more detailed information about the number of different posts, their location and, crucially, the relevant competition ratios, which we hope will allow trainees to make a decision. The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, and the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, also raised the issue of the CRO and the CMO’s role as the accountable officer. We have acknowledged the importance of the role of the CRO by ensuring that it is filled by a clinician who is dedicated wholly to the role. As a former dean, who has had direct experience of medical education, the noble Baroness will know that the CRO reports to the departmental board through the director-general of workforce and the CMO. The subgroup also reports to the departmental board, which comprises the CMO, the director-general of workforce and the recently appointed medical director.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, referred to the creation of an exam at the end of medical education. This is an interesting idea and I know that the medical school committees have previously considered this. However, we also believe that it is a good thing that the curriculum varies across medical schools, and that variation should not have an impact on the exam or test that is being referred to. The noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, referred to nurse preceptorship. I understand the point of the noble Baroness about introducing preceptorship here. It is a debate that I have heard a great deal about and it is certainly part of the Next Stage Review debate.
I have heard a very interesting debate about this. I have captured a lot in relation to the Next Stage Review and I reassure the House that we will see a lot of the recommendations currently in the Tooke report, and, more importantly, further creative recommendations to address some of the challenges we have faced in the past and set the scene for the future.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very considered response, and I am bound to say—
My Lords, I regret that the noble Lord has no right of reply in a Question for Short Debate.
My Lords, I am sorry.
House adjourned at 6.05 pm