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Grand Committee

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

Grand Committee

Thursday, 15 May 2008.

The Committee met at two o'clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Ullswater) in the Chair.]

It has been agreed that should any of the Questions for Short Debate not run for its allotted hour, the Committee will adjourn during pleasure until the end of the hour. Therefore, each of the Questions for Short Debate will start on the hour.

Animal Welfare: Transport of Horses

asked Her Majesty’s Government what negotiations they are having with the European Commission and Governments of member states regarding the transporting over long distances of live horses intended for slaughter.

The noble Lord said: For some four or five years, I have sought by way of parliamentary Question, both Written and Oral, to urge the Government to do something to stop the appalling trade in the transport of animals over long distances prior to being slaughtered.

I very much welcome this relatively new procedure which enables one to go into rather more detail than was previously the case. It is timely to raise the matter at this stage because although the existing European Council Regulation 1/2005 has been in operation for only a comparatively short time, and is not expected to be reviewed by the European Commission until 2011, I understand that the Commission has decided to bring the review forward to 2009 and that preparation is being made for that in 2008. Therefore, it is timely to suggest to the Government that they should make strong representations in order to, if not stop this trade—which would be the ideal situation—at least regulate it far more effectively. I gather that it involves about 100,000 horses a year, of which about 84 per cent are shipped to Italy from Poland, Spain, eastern Europe and elsewhere. I hope that the Government will try to improve the regulation of the trade. My noble friend Lady Trumpington has rightly described it as disgusting and I think that the British electorate as a whole would agree with that.

Various charities are concerned about this, particularly the International League for the Protection of Horses, which was recently rebranded as World Horse Welfare, although it has retained its slogan seeking to promote a world where horses are used but never abused. That charity has made a large number of representations and is very active in this field. The RSPCA has also made representations to me, although on the more general question of transport of animals by road as opposed specifically to horses. Without being sentimental about this, there is a difference between animals generally and horses in this context. Whether a horse is used for work, recreation or to enter competitions, there is generally a relationship between it and the person involved with it. This is recognised in the regulation, which distinguishes between animals generally and equines. The Government have not been unsympathetic on this matter.

Given the confusion on previous Questions, I stress that I am not concerned about the export of these animals from the UK. I understand from the Government that that is not a problem; it is a question of the transport of these animals within the European Union. The enlargement of the Union has given us rather more facility to seek to do something about this trade. That is a considerable advantage and why I hope the Government will negotiate very strongly on this issue.

There are basically two points on which one hopes the Government will negotiate both with the Commission and the member states that are most involved. The first is enforcement. Although EC Regulation 1/2005, with one or two notable exceptions, is not too bad a document at all, the reality, which has come out very clearly from the investigations carried out by various charitable organisations, is that it is not being enforced and that the conditions remain very dangerous indeed.

In particular, the recent review by the campaign which I have just mentioned suggests that on its visit to the various eastern European countries and to Italy, none of the lorries that it witnessed during the trip was adhering to the European regulations. It consistently observed infringements, such as no partitions, which the document to which I have just referred requires, as well as mixed animals travelling together in conflict with the regulation, which says that small and large animals should not be herded together and that stallions and mares should not be placed together. Nor is the requirement that vets should check on part of the journey being met. The documentation is also faulty. Action clearly needs to be taken if we are to ameliorate this suffering, which, as I said, is on a considerable scale.

There is no limit on the journey time. Lorries can go all the way from Spain, France or Poland right the way down to the heel of Italy without a proper break. There is a requirement that they should take a break every 24 hours. Again, this is supposed to be checked at control points, but the evidence on how these control points are being operated shows that there is grave cause for concern. Something needs to be done, so I ask the Government whether one should rely on charitable organisations to carry out this kind of investigation. What are the Government doing to see whether it is possible to investigate this matter at an official level? In particular, will they urge the Governments concerned to carry out the investigations properly?

If I understand this document correctly, enforcement of the regulation is the responsibility of the local authorities. That is clearly inappropriate. This is clearly an international trade, so it is more appropriate that the whole thing should be done nationally with a degree of supervision and under international—in other words, European Union—inspection. That is not being done. There is no point having the regulation if the European Union, having produced it, is failing to enforce it. The end of the journey is of particular concern, given that so much of the trade is to Italy, and it is apparent that checks at some of the staging posts after the horse has been travelling for many, many hours are still not being carried out correctly.

The second main issue is the need to negotiate on the revised regulation. A series of issues needs attention. First, it is extraordinary that there is no limit on the absolute length of the journey. I understand that an attempt was made to impose such a limit but was rejected by those responsible for drafting the regulation. Will the Government give a clear undertaking that they will press for an absolute limit on the length of journeys? Secondly, although the requirement is that there should be a stop every 24 hours, given the conditions of heat, crowding and so on, that period is far too long before the horses are taken off the truck and rested. We should also insist that inspections should not operate just at a local level.

One may well ask: why is this trade happening at all? As far as one can establish, it is because, if the animal is slaughtered in Italy, it is said to have its origin in Italy. If nothing else, this is a fraud on the Italian consumer of horse meat. It is always difficult to negotiate something sensible on places of origin, but, none the less, if there were proper labelling, the incentive to ship the poor horses across Europe before they were killed would be significantly diminished and the pressure would be for a carcass trade, instead of the trade that we have at the present time.

One is grateful for being provided with an hour’s debate on this, but one is time-limited and I have come to the end of my limit. Finally, the penalties in the current regulation—a £5,000 fine or six months’ imprisonment—are totally inadequate. How many of these penalties have been imposed, or are they simply in the regulation as a face-saving device and not operated in practice? I look forward to the reply of the Minister, which I hope will do something to improve the present situation which, as I said earlier, is disgusting.

In the absence of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, perhaps I may say that I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Higgins for raising this issue, with which I have been concerned for some considerable time. As he has said, more than 100,000 horses are transported for slaughter into and within the European Union. The majority are destined for slaughterhouses for human food in Italy. A smaller number of horses from Spain go to Italy. As my noble friend said, the conditions of transport are quite appalling. The animals are often old and broken down. They are mixed together with other species; they are crowded together; some collapse, never to get up; and some die on the way. The situation is appalling.

European Union regulations on the welfare of animals in transport, including horses, ponies and donkeys, came into effect in January 2007. But they do not contain any journey times and the member states of the EU have been unable to agree on journey limits. This means that animals can be transported across the whole of the European Union in one journey—for example, from eastern Europe to Italy.

The regulations would, if they were enforced, require that after 24 hours on the road, horses must be unloaded and rested, with food and water provided during a 24-hour rest period. It is also a requirement that animals may not resume their journey until they have been inspected by a veterinary surgeon and have been found fit to travel. World Horse Welfare, formerly the International League for the Protection of Horses, has well documented and filmed evidence of regulations being ignored regarding horses transported from eastern Europe.

The European Commission has stated that EC Regulation 1/2005 will be reviewed in 2009 rather than 2011, and that issues such as stocking density, journey times and so on will be addressed. Studies of horse transport published last week in the Veterinary Record reported cortisone mediated stress and significant reductions in immunological parameters in horses undergoing the 24-hour journey by road. The inclusion of a 12-hour stopover for rest and feeding interrupted this immunological decline. Anyone who has seen video footage of horse transport from eastern Europe cannot but be appalled at the inhumane treatment of these animals. By far the most humane way of shipping horsemeat to Italy is on the hook and not on the hoof.

Other countries are responding to this issue, and I am grateful for information provided by the ILPH which shows that Poland, for example, is responding to this. In 2001, Poland exported 40,000 horses to Italy, but by 2005 the figure had reduced to 31,000. Clearly, Poland is interested in exporting on the hook rather than on the hoof. It may be that other countries could follow Poland, but obviously there is still a long way to go.

The two organisations that are principally concerned with this traffic have been mentioned by my noble friend. They are World Horse Welfare, previously the International League for the Protection of Horses, in which I must declare a past interest as a former member of the council and a trustee, and the Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, Devon. These organisations collaborate closely. World Horse Welfare is largely concerned with the traffic from eastern European states to Italy, while the Donkey Sanctuary is concerned with donkeys being exported not only from eastern European countries such as Romania to Italy for human consumption, but also, I am informed, the trade in donkeys from Bulgaria via Belgium to Northern Ireland. The port authorities in Northern Ireland have stated that in 2006 some 600 donkeys entered Northern Ireland, and that 400 entered in 2007. No data are yet available for the current year. Where they go on to from Northern Ireland is unclear. Some go to Scotland, while some are slaughtered and the meat re-exported to Europe. It is well known that in France and Switzerland, horsemeat is a delicacy. According to Donkey Sanctuary personnel, the conditions under which these animals are transported from Bulgaria to, eventually, Northern Ireland are very poor, so the same problems arise there as we see in horses being moved to Italy.

It is highly likely that much more needs to be uncovered about the transport of horses, donkeys and ponies for meat, including abuses and that there is much we do not know about. We should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Higgins for bringing this situation to the attention of the House, and for his request for action on the part of the Government.

I apologise to all Members of the Committee, for my name did not appear on the list, so technically I am speaking in the gap, but I crave the indulgence of the Committee and, as the right revered Prelate was unable to speak, perhaps I may be allowed to take a couple of minutes longer than the normal two. I hope that that will be in order.

I first declare an interest. I have been and still am a small donor to the ILPH, the charity about which my noble friend Lord Higgins spoke. As a child, I was brought up with horses; my mother was previously a riding instructor. I reflect the comments that my colleagues have made and add my abhorrence for this trade. I understand that we no longer export horses for human consumption on the Continent; I should like that clarified when the Minister responds.

On enforcement, we are talking about 100,000 horses each year. My noble friend suggested that there were not many prosecutions; I should like to know how many there were. I should also like to know how many inspectors there are across Europe to cover the trade. To follow up my noble friend's suggestion that it is a local authority responsibility, are the inspectors there at a national level or are they a local authority responsibility and therefore a local authority appointment? What is the highest penalty allowed to be imposed?

I have concerns about transporting these horses for miles. Clearly, transporting any animal and then having it killed affects the quality of the meat itself. The stress to the animal before it is killed is something that most of us who have worked with livestock are very well aware of. Nowadays, we have modern refrigeration units in virtually all countries. It seems illogical when reviewing the statutory instrument not to consider whether it is now time that we stopped the practice of transporting these animals miles before they are killed. Has that suggestion been put forward? If not, it should be.

I am delighted to see my noble friend Lady Trumpington in her place. We were talking yesterday about the fact that there used to be a practice of bringing horses across the sea from Argentina all the way to Italy. Does that practice still go on and, if so, what is being done about it? Do other horses get shipped across the continent before they then start on their long journeys?

Finally—I am sorry to be so brief, but I do not want to abuse the Committee's time—although I am sure that the lorry drivers are qualified as lorry drivers, I am concerned that they may not be good stockmen. If you are taking animals on and off, even if it is only at the end of 24 hours, surely there should be some requirement of stock ability in addition to being able to drive the animals. My understanding is that when Europe originally legislated for a 24-hour journey, it provided for eight hours of travelling, six hours on a vehicle stationary and a further eight hours of travel before a 24-hour lay over, but I understand that that was still on board. Can the Minister confirm that the animals are definitely off board—unloaded—and for how long they are unloaded before they begin that cycle again? What is the time lapse after they are unloaded before they can continue on their journey?

I am hugely grateful to my noble friend Lord Higgins for bringing this important short debate to us this afternoon. I think that all of us in this country find this trade abhorrent, but on the Continent it is quite a well-known practice. That does not mean that we should not try to influence colleagues abroad to ensure that, if it has to continue—I hope that it does not—the welfare of animals is the highest priority and legal enforcement is carried out correctly.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for initiating this debate. He and I have responded to the Minister on occasion about this subject on the Floor of the House. This subject goes back a very long way for me. At the age of eight, I used to sit on our garden wall and watch a horse sale every two weeks. Very often, unbroken ponies were brought straight off the Black Mountains in Talgarth, Wales, where I was brought up. There were teenagers blocking the roads at both ends, catching unbroken horses and demonstrating on them. It was a bit like the Wild West; in fact, it was the Wild West in those days. Horse dealers were there, deals were done on the spot, hands were knocked off to clinch deals, and transport was often by train. I graduated at the age of 10 to the official status of drover in the local market with sheep and cattle. It was part of the university of life as far as I was concerned; I learnt a lot.

The transportation of horses in particular for slaughter has occupied my mind. We have been very much enlightened by the description by other contributors to the debate of EC Regulation 1/2005 on the protection of animals during transport. As has been said, that has been updated and a review has been brought forward to 2009. I hope that we will see a great improvement in the way in which that regulation is policed. The United Kingdom has quite a good record in this respect. For example, we have regulations that enable longer journeys to take place across distances within the United Kingdom, such as from the Highlands to further south. We have the eight-hour maximum time for cattle and sheep.

As has been said, enforcement is important. The regulation is much more binding that a directive as far as the European Union is concerned, and the enforcement of regulations is clearly lacking in many EU states. That particularly applies to eastern Europe and Italy, and to some other countries such as Greece. The fact that it is subject to documentation and inspection of vehicles is very good, and that should be done by the European Commission Food and Veterinary Office. It is not clear that that is done very often, and that is a serious loophole as far as the welfare of the animals is concerned. Journey times and space allowance still remain huge problems. As far as I can ascertain from the only information that I can glean about the UK, horses are not exported for slaughter, but approximately 500 horses are exported annually from the UK for breeding purposes. No information on numbers for slaughter is available, and I sometimes wonder, when ponies are worth between £10 and £20, and the passport costs £22, what happens to some of those poor specimens that are sold every autumn.

In 1998, the Polish audit commission criticised irregularities in the transport of animals and insufficient veterinary controls on the export of horses for slaughter to Italy. Comments were made up to 2005. My statistics are not as recent, but apparently Polish exports went down from 80,000 to 40,000 by 2003. It was said earlier that the figure is now down to about 31,000. Of course, it is far more desirable that the meat is exported and not the live animals; that is a far better solution. There is still a problem of increasing live horse exports from Spain to Italy. One problem for the EU to sort out is that animals slaughtered there are recorded as not of Italian origin, but as of the origin of the country from which they come.

Finally, World Horse Welfare reports as of now that there are more than 100,000 horses transported for slaughter into and within the EU, but we should take note of the fact that 84 per cent of those go to Italy. That is a massive majority going there.

There is also the whole issue of EU regulations which state that after travelling for 24 hours, horses going for slaughter must be unloaded and rested. I can only agree with others who have said that 24 hours is far too long a period anyway. World Horse Welfare is of course lobbying for shorter journey limits and slaughtering as close as possible to the premises of origin, preferably in the same country. The RSPCA is conducting campaigns on the same lines. As has already been said, future enforcement should ensure that the regulations are adhered to, and in particular we hope that the amended regulations which should be in place by 2009 will be enforced properly. We hope also that record keeping and the condition of transporters will be regularly inspected to ensure that everything is in order, which clearly is not the case at the present time.

I am sure that all noble Lords are grateful to my noble friend Lord Higgins for tabling the Question and enabling this debate to take place on an interest in which he has a reputation for having been and continuing to be a passionate advocate. I agree with my noble friend that these Thursday afternoon debates in the Moses Room are a good idea because they allow noble Lords to discuss important issues such as this at greater length than would be the case in an ordinary Parliamentary Question.

This is a passionate issue. World Horse Welfare, as we must get used to saying, tells us that around 100,000 horses from countries such as Poland—I was interested in what my noble friend Lord Soulsby had to say about the situation in that country—Romania, Spain, Lithuania and Belarus are packed into lorries and trucked thousands of miles in appalling conditions to the abattoirs of Italy where they are slaughtered for meat. It appears that Italy is the principal destination of this trade, but overall some 140,000 horses are imported into the European Union each year. If we have any information, it would be useful to know where these animals come from. My noble friend Lady Byford mentioned Argentina. Are horses coming in from outside the EU, although obviously Belarus is a non-EU country?

Legislation is in place Europe-wide, but horses still suffer as it is not enforced, and in many cases it is clearly ignored. What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to Italy, which after all is the principal consumer and therefore may be in a position to do something about this trade? In the UK, we have a horses transport order and a licensing system in place. Sport, competition and breeding are all legitimate reasons for transporting live horses. But from the UK, horse movements are monitored and tabulated. In fact, contrary to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, I have before me statistics to show the number of horses that have been exported for breeding, riding or competition work over the past few years. In the UK, we can be assured that we have considerable control over this. Indeed, we also have a passport system. What is the Minister’s view on continuing with the horse passport laws now that we have further regulation in place? If he is confident that that is being enforced, is there still a need for horse passports? It may be that there is.

The problem is not a question of diet. Distasteful as the eating of horsemeat may be to many of us, we have to accept that different countries have different traditions in these matters. What we eat in this country is abhorrent in others, so that is not the issue. But the welfare of animals in transit is an issue that should concern us. Moreover, there is a difference between farm animals and the particular vulnerability of equines in transit. My noble friend Lord Higgins mentioned the mixing of stallions and mares, and small ponies and large draft horses, which can result in injuries during travel. Perhaps I can add edge to the argument if I quote from a report from Trieste on a research trip carried out by the international league last August. It stated:

“Three loads of horses were at this staging post; one from Poland and two from Romania (one of which arrived during our visit). The staging post was in poor repair. The horses were separated into mixed groups of up to eight—fights broke out regularly due to a generally stressed environment. The Romanian load comprised 26 horses that had travelled for around 18 hours. They were separated into groups of up to eight—some with halters, some without (the majority of those without halters had halters put on for unloading). The horses showed signs of extreme dehydration (concertinaed skin), exhaustion (heads low), fear (some reluctant to unload), bruising (kick and bite marks). There was also a suspected heavily pregnant mare. One particular mare (who was in a compartment with six large working type horses) had collapsed on the lorry due to exhaustion, which was evident when they tried to unload her—it took her 20 minutes to get her to her feet and when she did she was extremely unsteady.

Injuries were also obvious on the animals that were in situ when we arrived, including: bite and kick marks; severe dehydration … facial injuries. Stallions were showing severe signs of stress as they were tethered next to mares. Fights were breaking out regularly”.

This is not acceptable to us these days.

If the current legislative protection is not enough, we must seek fresh ways of tackling and enforcing action against this abuse on a European-wide basis. All noble Lords have said that modern refrigeration makes live transport unnecessary. The way that many horses are treated is unacceptable.

I am extremely grateful, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for introducing this debate. I agree with him that this is an excellent format for exploring an issue like this. This is the first time that I have spoken within this framework and I realise how much I appreciate the opportunities that this form of debate provides. When one or two of my colleagues asked whether I would need buttressing in this debate by supporting me with their presence, I said that this would be one of the occasions on which I was likely to be in almost complete concord with speeches from the Opposition—Conservative or Liberal Democrat. I am pleased to say that that is exactly how I feel, having heard the speeches.

There is no doubt that what has been expressed today is that great British affinity with and love of horses and the fact that we look upon them as animals to be cherished; but we are aware that different values obtain elsewhere. As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, indicated in his thoughtful contribution, it is not for us to dictate the mores of other countries and their patterns of consumption, but it is for us to be concerned about animal welfare. That is how all noble Lords have addressed this issue with regard to the problems that arise.

I have difficulty in responding to the mention by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, of trafficking to Northern Ireland, because I do not have a detailed note. That was the only reference to this issue in relation to the United Kingdom because, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, properly said, we have a rigorous system in this country regarding the transport of horses.

It is true that inspection is carried out by local authorities, but noble Lords will recognise that it is for each member state to abide by the regulation and to bring its practice into consort with the regulation. But inspection is for those members states. I can see the enormous anxiety about how effective local inspection might be in some countries. On the other hand, we must recognise that some countries have extensive land masses, and it may be better that there is some national supervision. Suffice it to say that we are not in a position to say much about that; we are in a position to make all our representations on the effectiveness of the regulation. We are not in much of a position to say how countries enforce them; save that our concern is how effectively they are enforced.

I am not in any way, shape or form seeking to detract from the pressure that is represented by all noble Lords who have spoken so eloquently in this debate about their views, which I entirely share. We are reflecting the fact that other countries approach horses and their transport differently. First, on the extent to which they go for slaughter, Italy is an important destination. It is also the case that such countries look on horse meat as being part of an attractive diet. I remember the first time I went to France, as a hitch-hiking student. We gaily ordered steak at what looked to be an extraordinary bargain price, and it was not until we chewed somewhat ineffectively for 20 minutes on a small slice of the steak that we realised that there was a difference between the definitions of meat in France and in the United Kingdom. One learns from those harsh experiences. I am going back rather a long time when I recall my student days. Horses go for slaughter to Italy because there is a great demand for them to be turned into horse meat.

What can we do about it? The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, is right. We want to see an improvement in the regulation. It is good that Europe has brought forward the review of the position to 2009, because it reflects the anxieties that are held not just by us but by many other states, which have the same perspective. I am not suggesting for a moment that we are without friends in these representations. I am indicating what every noble Lord recognises; that we are up against formidable perspectives in some countries about these issues and on the definition of cruelty to animals, particularly horses.

I have nothing to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford—who used the gap as we would expect, to speak with great effectiveness—about the Italy/Argentina link. I have no doubt that there is an important supply of horses to Italy. She will recognise that the regulation seems to have a marginal impact on the horses that come in by sea. Even my geography indicates to me that Argentina is some way outside the European Community, so it is not in the framework of the regulation. I bear in mind the point that she made, which is illustrative of the nature of the problem.

The Government’s position is straightforward. We do not think that horses should be transported for slaughter at all. We want to see that stopped. It is better that they are slaughtered relatively near to where they have come from than that they are transported in this iniquitous way. We must recognise that it is an extensive trade. There is no doubt that the enlargement of the Community has extended the trade. We take the view of the welfare organisations that we should, as best as possible, seek to make effective the regulation. Let us be fair to the member states; the regulation has only existed since 2005, so we have only three years of experience. As with any regulation, I do not need to talk too extensively to Members of this Committee about the differential implementation of European regulations across Europe. The British Government scrupulously observe the regulation, and I do not think that there has been any criticism in this debate about what happens in the UK. The task of influencing others is much more difficult. We agree with noble Lords about the weaknesses of the 2005 position, such as the length of time for which horses are in these vehicles without any relief or release from confinement during the journey.

There is an issue about the qualification of drivers—again, we license and therefore have strict controls over this—and the question of the crews who drive these great lorries over vast distances. Indeed, we will make representations to this effect. I emphasise the crews because on the whole in the UK we are used to lorries doing 400 or 500 miles at the very most. One recognises when talking about a trade such as this, however, that the trucks can go for well over a 1,000 miles quite comfortably—or rather very uncomfortably, given the length of time. The qualification, however, is about lorry-driver competence rather than animal welfare and concern. That is a difficult nut for us to crack.

Noble Lords—I am looking particularly at the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor—will recognise that when it comes to transport, we are all too well aware of the difficulties of transport regulation and driver competence. What is being sought here is additional competence in relation to the welfare of animals. We agree with that. We are looking at 2009 and the revision as an opportunity to answer exactly the points that have been emphasised so well here today. We do think that we should have maximum limits on the length of time that horses are kept in vehicles when they travel. We are concerned that the standards in Europe should improve and match our own, so we are concerned about the mix of animals to which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, referred. It is important that there is effective segregation. The space allowance in the vehicle is crucial to the animal’s comfort.

We are looking to make progress on those matters, but I confess to the Committee this obvious point; nothing has been expressed today about the intent of Her Majesty’s Government, who do nothing else but subscribe entirely. We recognise the representations on welfare, and we also know the obvious interest of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in this matter. He mentioned five years, but I have no doubt that his interest in this issue goes back further than that, and he has taken this excellent opportunity today to put the Government under pressure. We do not need pressure in terms of our intent. The challenge for us is building up effective alliances to get effective change to the regulation.

As I say, we make due allowance for the fact that the regulation has existed for only three years. Nevertheless, the levels of abuse that have been identified so accurately in all the speeches that have been made today are such that we can substantiate our case for the necessary improvement of the regulation. I give the Committee the obvious assurance that we will make all the representations that we can for change in 2009, but I return to the fundamental point that was generously recognised by such knowledgeable Members on all sides; in talking about the transport of horses, we are also up against a perspective on the value of horses, which in some parts of Europe is somewhat different from the United Kingdom. That is one of the great challenges that we must overcome.

Before the noble Lord sits down—I understand that one does not have a right of reply on these occasions— perhaps I may thank him for his response. Will he be kind enough to check whether the penalties are actually being imposed in any country, or whether they are totally ineffective? I realise that he will not have the answer now, but it would be really interesting in negotiations, if the penalties have not been imposed at all, to stop this charade.

I can give a categorical answer, and should have done so in my contribution. I apologise for that. The maximum figure is £5,000. I do not have information on the extent to which that is imposed, but I will look into the matter. The noble Lord is right that it is part of the Government’s case as regards speculation on enforcement. However, as I mentioned earlier, we are conscious of the limited time for scrutiny of the subject today, and I will take that point very much on board.

[The Sitting was adjourned from 2.50 to 3 pm.]

Antarctic: Tourist Ships

asked Her Majesty’s Government whether the passenger safety and environmental protection regulations covering tourist ships in Antarctic waters are satisfactory.

The noble Viscount said: As I have no right of reply, perhaps I may say that I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who are taking part in the debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for agreeing to answer the debate on behalf of the Department for Transport, which is what it is really all about.

On 15 January last year, in the short debate on the International Polar Year 2007-08, I drew attention to the increase of shipping during the Antarctic summer tourist season, and the risk of accidents. Sadly, this was all too prescient as within a month, the MS “Nordkapp” ran aground, sustaining a big gash in her bow. But worse was to come. In November last year, the Liberian registered ship “Explorer” hit an iceberg and sank. The crew and passengers were all evacuated to lifeboats, but they were open lifeboats. Very fortunately, the sea was calm and they were all picked up several hours later. If the weather conditions had been less favourable—high seas are quite frequent in that part of the world—they would have survived only a few minutes in the sub-zero water, thereby causing a major marine catastrophe.

So that is what this short debate is all about, and we need to know from the Government what measures are being taken to ensure that there are adequate controls on the number and quality of the tourist ships visiting Antarctica. Obviously, the British Government do not control this matter, but we are important members of the International Maritime Organisation, located in London, and great supporters of the British Antarctic Survey located in Cambridge. The issue was raised by the UK at the Antarctic treaty consultative meeting in Delhi last year, and I hope that it will be raised again at the Kiev meeting in June.

A free, specialised sat-nav service is currently available, which gives high-resolution sea ice and iceberg information. I do not know whether “Explorer” had this system—if it had, of course it would not have sunk. British input is via the British Antarctic Survey, but the funding comes from the European Space Agency. This means that we have to deal with the Brussels bureaucracy, which is complicated and lethargic. Clearly, it would be advantageous if this vital sat-nav service was made mandatory and provided free. Can the Minister press the European Space Agency for this to happen? Clearly, it would be a great advantage.

We also need to be concerned about the large number of British citizens cruising in ever-increasing numbers of ever-larger vessels in a fragile and often hostile area of great natural beauty. This has both environmental and safety implications. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators provides a self-regulating framework and manages the traffic, but I do not think that it has the power to limit the size or numbers of vessels. Is this really adequate in the light of what happened last season?

Other questions that need to be answered were raised at the last IMO marine environment protection meeting. They include: should ships burning heavy fuel oil be banned? Clearly, it would be very damaging if leaks occurred. Should ships without ice-strengthened hulls be banned? Are crew training standards adequate? Clearly, the UK cannot issue mandatory instructions to foreign-flagged vessels in international waters. The IMO is the only body that can impose international standards covering equipment and procedures. I understand that an IMO sub-committee has been appointed to consider design and equipment in ice-covered waters but that it is not expected to report until some time next year, by which time another Antarctic tourist season will have passed. Can anything be done to speed up these proceedings?

I appreciate that I have posed a great number of questions for the Minister with whom I discussed this issue in advance, but they are mainly to be followed up by his department, although anything he can say today will be very much appreciated and will help the cause forward.

I thank my noble friend Lord Montgomery for raising this important topic which has been focused by recent events in the Antarctic, as he said.

In some ways, this is not purely an Antarctic problem. There have been a number of instances up in the Arctic as well, especially in the Spitsbergen area. We do not need to go back to the 1930s when the Germans took an interest in cruising in those waters. Indeed, a large German company lost a ship in the 1930s. Therefore, we are not dealing with anything new here. However, as my noble friend said, the real change is the enormous increase in cruise tourism, certainly within the past 15 or 20 years. I did a cruise up in the Spitsbergen area and I am well aware of the difficulties that can arise for people who are not wary of what might happen. In fact, there was an incident only last year where a small Russian ship got too close to a calving glacier, a large portion came tumbling down and the resulting wave injured a number of passengers on board that vessel.

One of the tour guides on my cruise was a great expert on wildlife and ice and had spent many years down in Antarctica on the “Explorer” under her former name the “Lindblad Explorer”. As he was coming away from Antarctica on a small Russian ship, they came across a single pillar of ice standing up out of the ocean, which I think he said was 300 to 400 feet high. They stood off this ice, luckily not too close, because as they looked at it, the thing collapsed. He had some of the most amazing photographs I have ever seen showing this huge finger of ice crashing down to the sea, causing enormous waves. Even standing some way off, the ship was rolled severely backwards and forwards by the backwash, so all sorts of hazards can arise.

I wish to comment briefly on environmental issues. Huge concern was expressed in Antarctica in the early days when larger cruise ships started calling there, mainly expressing anxiety that too many people were going ashore. It was thought that they might damage the fragile environment. Measures have been taken to try to limit the number of passengers going ashore at any one time. However, it was pointed out at the time that the damage done by cruise ship passengers was not as great as that done by scientists and researchers who spend years down there, because things do not degrade in those low temperatures and the detritus—if one might call it that—from Captain Scott’s expeditions is still sitting there untouched. Things hang around for a very long time.

My noble friend Lord Montgomery mentioned the recent incidents. There is one other concern with regard to Antarctica, which was brought to light when the captain of the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship HMS “Endurance” gave a talk to the Parliamentary Maritime Group two or three years ago. He showed us some fascinating underwater pictures taken by the new side-scanning sonar. Developments such as that are making a big difference to what we know about the underwater profile down there. He still thinks that lack of good charting in that part of the world is one of the major risks. No doubt as more and more research ships go down there—I believe that the Norwegians have just ordered a very sophisticated new ship to look at Arctic and Antarctic waters—they will help us to have a lot more knowledge about the seabed configuration.

The cruise ships tend to go to the same anchorages all the time. They tend to get very familiar with them. When the ship is anchored there, they will put down crew in small boats and make their own soundings, so they produce what are termed mug shots, so they are pretty well aware of what goes on where they anchor; it is only when they are transiting towards the open sea that the real danger occurs.

My noble friend Lord Montgomery also mentioned that larger and larger ships are becoming involved. Princess Cruises has sent two 100,000-tonne ships down to Antarctica in the past two or three years. Those ships can carry up to 3,500 passengers and burn heavy fuel, as my noble friend rightly said, whereas smaller ships, such as the one that sank recently, run on diesel oil, which is much thinner. In the case of the “Nordkapp”, the Norwegian ship, where some fuel was spilt when they were shifting it from tank to tank, it evaporated very quickly and no adverse results were found when the area was looked at a little while later.

The other thing that I would say in support of large ships is that, as the Committee may imagine, they cost a huge amount of money, so it is in the cruise company’s interest to ensure that nothing adverse happens to them. Also, because of their size, they are much more compartmented than smaller ships, so hitting a small iceberg would not necessarily have the same effect as what happened to the “Explorer”. As far as I know, that has not really been explained. There was talk of a fist-sized hole, and I am still rather surprised that a fist-sized hole managed effectively to capsize a ship so quickly, but as she is lying quite a few thousand feet under the sea, I do not suppose that we will ever find out.

Finally, I come to the situation with the International Maritime Organisation, to which, again, my noble friend alluded. The IMO is responsible for international maritime safety regulations, as I am sure that the Minister is only too well aware. I understand that it has undertaken to rewrite, not just amend, the guidelines for operation in the Arctic and Antarctic waters; I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that. Also, a correspondence group has been set up, with Canada acting as co-ordinator. That group will report in time for the IMO working group discussion early next year. It is hoped that life-saving equipment, search and rescue planning and response and other issues will be fully addressed.

In their own best interests, cruise companies operate within well established safety management systems as required by the IMO. In addition, as we heard, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators has set up emergency contingency plans and recommendations that include participation in a database that details the position of ships and includes a list of emergency equipment available on board, agreement to assist any other vessel in the event of an emergency and is looking into carrying ice pilots. Another development that cruise companies are actively instigating concerns their planning for going down Antarctic waters. They look at pairing ships so that there is a buddy ship in the area capable of taking off the crew of another craft if there is a major incident. That is a useful step forward.

These developments are usually brought upon us by disasters, but unfortunately one cannot always act as quickly as one would like. Although the machinations of the International Maritime Organisation may seem to be a little slow, I think that that is the correct way of dealing with these matters, and I can only say that I hope that we will not suffer another, and possibly worse, incident in the mean time.

I, too, congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, on introducing this debate. I will keep away from the environmental issues, which are quite serious. Although it is unclear whether the science all points in one direction, we should be very cautious about causing further depredations in the Antarctic area. The need for safety and training has been emphasised. Oddly enough, when I was putting my contribution together, the person who helps me in the Whips’ Office said that a friend of theirs was actually on the ship that rescued the people who were cast into the sea when the “Explorer” sank. That incident resulted in a considerable interruption to their cruise as well, in that they were kept in their cabins for three days and all their food was brought to them—presumably so that the two groups of people could be kept apart, I do not know. It is important that people who go into these somewhat uncertain waters are properly trained and that a sufficient number can speak a language which is easily understood. If there is an emergency, having people who do not even speak the same language is worrying.

I was pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, say that the IMO is doing all sorts of things to avoid risks to tourist ships, and I certainly accept that if people are sending large ships to Antarctica, it is in their own interests to ensure that they are properly prepared for anything they might meet. Tourism is increasing in many fragile parts of the world. Something that the IMO and others ought to take up is the fact that as far as possible, they should ensure that they consume their own smoke, that they should not dump waste, and that they do not interfere any more than necessary with the environment. We must not make things worse.

What I would particularly like to hear from the Minister when he winds up the debate is whether the Government have any intention of reducing the personnel strength or the equipment at the disposal of the British Antarctic Survey. The survey makes a valuable contribution to science, one that we would not wish to lose. In fact, it conducts a lot of vital research. I have been reading about some of its work, and while it does not say that this or that will happen, it does say that we should be careful about this or that and stresses the need for the scientific measurement of what is actually going on. There appear to be quite a few possibly alarmist stories, so we need the facts. If, in his summary, the Minister is able to say something about the funding of the British Antarctic Survey, that would help a lot.

I am very grateful to the noble Viscount for asking this Question for Short Debate. The nautical experience of the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, is unrivalled, and he has not disappointed us today. Before doing any research, I was quite relaxed about this subject, and I thought that I had a grasp of the issue. I assure noble Lords that I am no longer at all relaxed. This is a new topic for me, but I will be following it up in future months. The noble Viscount has done an excellent job in posing the Question, and I will not repeat all his work. While the environmental concerns must not be ignored—they are real concerns—I will confine my remarks to maritime safety.

In January 1975, the motorship “Lovat” sank in a force 8 to 9 gale. The 13-man crew took to the life raft at 06.30 hours. By 07.45, they had been seen by a cross-channel ferry. By 08.00, they had the first helicopter support on scene, and by 08.30, only two hours later, 10 of the 13 crew members had died from hypothermia or drowning. That happened 29 kilometres south-west of Land’s End.

The reason they died was, despite being commercial seamen, they had not been properly trained and they did not understand the need to conserve body heat, keep the covering of the life raft shut and keep bailing water out. All of that is very difficult to do in a storm. I am not convinced that passengers on cruise ships are anywhere near well enough trained to survive in similar circumstances, let alone far more difficult circumstances in the Southern Ocean or Antarctica. Of course in an evacuation the aim would be to have at least one crewman in each life raft, but would he be an officer or a senior rate? Leadership in a survival situation—which is what it would be—is absolutely vital.

If a human is immersed in seawater at anywhere near freezing point, his survival time is measured in minutes. It is minutes in the water, and it is hours in the life raft, unless you have done everything absolutely correctly. Other noble Lords have correctly identified risks arising from the remoteness and the merciless environment. In one of those disasters in the Southern Ocean, you could easily have to wait 24 hours or more for a rescue ship to arrive. There is virtually no chance of a suitable rescue helicopter—there may be a small utility helicopter—being available, because it is far out of range, and the ships in the area would not be equipped to support the helicopters. It would be extremely difficult, slow and distressing to rescue hundreds, or maybe thousands, of passengers directly from the sea to a ship in the Southern Ocean. In a storm, it does not bear thinking about. A significant proportion of cruise passengers are senior citizens, because that is when people can afford to go on a cruise, or they may be other than fully able bodied. Can the Minister say whether it is legal for a cruise company offering an Antarctic cruise to discriminate on the grounds of disability?

In his reply, the Minister will say that the ships are first class, the crew are specially trained, they have special equipment, they have an Antarctic pilot, and the increase in the number of ships in the area will speed up a rescue if the worst happens. To an extent, all of that is true; but undoubtedly there is an increased risk of this problem occurring.

In his reply, the Minister will tell us that the situation is not out of control and that unreasonable risks are not being taken. He will tell us about the 102 operators in the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, which the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, covered so well in his speech. But not all operators have signed up and the ones who are not signed up will be the ones who are not operating to the highest possible standards. In any case, accidents are notoriously difficult completely to eliminate, no matter how big the ship is. Of course, the Minister will not point out that the IMO has some serious problems. Influence within the IMO lies with Panama, Liberia and the Bahamas, and their interests are not absolutely coincident with ours in this matter. It is well known that it is extremely difficult to get safety changes implemented.

I am concerned that life-saving equipment may not be tested under realistic conditions. How is life-saving equipment—life rafts and lifebelts—being tested? Are we using professional divers in a swimming pool at UK ambient temperatures, rather than using lay people in a defined sea state and temperature? I have been briefed that one’s hands become as lumps of rubber and totally numb after only a few minutes when wet at near-zero or subzero temperatures.

I am not qualified to state the probability of having to disembark a ship in the Atlantic or the Southern Ocean, but in my opinion the risk is increasing. Although the problem may be low risk, the impact of such an incident will be absolutely devastating. The international media will be there immediately. As we know, successful rescue could be extremely difficult and slow unless we are, as we have been, very lucky with the weather. It could take at least 24 hours to get a suitable rescue ship on the scene, so I hope that the Minister has a media plan for dealing with that, because the UK Government, despite all our capabilities nationally, will be powerless to do anything about it.

What should the Minister do? His problem is that shipping is an international activity, with freedom of the seas an underlying principle. As other noble Lords have pointed out, regulation has to be on an international basis, but the mechanism at the IMO may be flawed. The Minister also knows that national regulation would simply make UK operators uneconomic—a point also made by noble Lords this afternoon. The underlying problem for transport Ministers is how the UN as a whole works. I think that that is slightly above their pay grade but also, I suspect, not a priority for the Prime Minister. My fear is that, one day, it suddenly will be the number one priority for the Prime Minister.

I am very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for initiating this debate. He is very knowledgeable on the subject and has a track record and history of taking legislation through your Lordships' House on issues relating to the Antarctic, and a strong personal interest in issues relating to Antarctic exploration and travel to it. As he reminded us, last year he initiated a debate on the subject—and prescient that debate was. Recent events have made another opportunity to discuss Antarctic matters very timely, with the issue of passenger safety and the need to protect the marine environment coming very much to the fore.

This afternoon, in this very short but important discussion, we have had some valuable and timely additions to the contribution of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, who is a great marine expert and who commands tremendous respect on this subject. I confess that this issue is not one on which I have a ready knowledge, nor can I claim any depth of knowledge, but it has been fascinating to work through the briefing material and talk to officials and the noble Viscount. I have learnt something from this and I am extraordinarily grateful to all who have helped me. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed. I shall try to deal with as many of the points that have been raised as I possibly can. We have the benefit of some time.

The Antarctic is a place of great beauty and wonder—a pristine environment like no other on earth. It is a truism to say that it is an area of global significance due to its profound impact on the world’s climate and ocean systems. With climate change being very much to the fore of our thinking, that significance and its importance are increasing. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, drew attention to that in his concluding comments. It is not going to be far away from our thinking. The land mass occupies something like a tenth of the overall land mass of the globe and has a profound effect on the environment.

The area is attracting an increasing number of tourists, and a number of noble Lords drew attention to that. That brings its own set of challenges. The world cruise industry is undergoing a strong renaissance. A record 4 million Europeans took a cruise last year, of which 1.3 million passengers came from the United Kingdom. That shows just how much we love to travel. Compare that with other nation states, and the figures are very different. Perhaps we are a curious nation.

Not long ago I took a taxi to my railway station. I said to the driver that I had not seen him for a while and he told me “I’ve been very busy”. I asked, “Have you been travelling?”. He said, “Yes, I have been travelling and have recently been to the Antarctic”. I would wager that a generation ago, very few taxi drivers would even have contemplated a trip to the Antarctic and certainly they would not have set their meter running to get there. I was struck by that. It is symptomatic of the way that tourism and cruise tourism is developing.

The rate of growth is currently 17 per cent per annum. Cruising is a success story and the United Kingdom industry and our citizens are benefiting significantly from the opportunities afforded by this growth. It is a benign growth but one with challenges. It is benign because it extends and raises our interest levels and awareness of the wider world and globalisation. The Antarctic region is also becoming a destination of choice for many cruise ship operators. Until recently, few people other than scientists and explorers—certainly not taxi drivers—had ever visited Antarctica. In the past few years, however, the region, particularly the Antarctic Peninsula, has become a common destination on many cruise itineraries.

As concerns about climate change increase, the growth in the number of people seeing for themselves this vital region of the globe is not altogether a bad thing, given that it helps to spread the knowledge about this area and its contribution as a pivotal component of the earth’s ecosystem. The UK recognises tourism as a legitimate activity under the Antarctic Treaty and we support the self-regulatory framework established by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Nevertheless, we are concerned to ensure that there is proper management of the tourism industry in the Antarctic and to set strict environmental guidelines. We are also concerned to ensure that tourism to the Antarctic is carefully planned and monitored to ensure the safety of those involved as well as to minimise the environmental impact of their activities.

The arrival of more cruise ships in Antarctic waters, some of which are very large indeed, poses certain risks, which were demonstrated by the sinking of the MS “Explorer” near the South Shetland Islands last November and referred to by noble Lords this afternoon. Fortunately, that marine casualty did not lead to any loss of life among the 154 passengers and crew on board at the time of the accident, nor did it have a major environmental impact. But there is, of course, no room for complacency, since there were a number of fortunate factors involved in that incident.

Governments are aware of the potential difficulties arising from operating cruise ships in Antarctic waters, and consideration will be given to how we can learn from the lessons of the MS “Explorer” when the results of the accident investigation are known. As noble Lords have rightly said, this is a matter for the International Maritime Organisation to take the lead on in due course. The Antarctic treaty parties have asked the IMO to consider guidelines for Antarctic shipping, which would be based on the existing Arctic Shipping Guidelines. The current guidelines include provisions on ship suitability and emergency equipment, to take up the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. That has to include a requirement that all lifeboats carried by polar class ships should be of the fully enclosed type, to provide adequate shelter from the environment. The United Kingdom has been pressing for the guidelines to also apply to the Antarctic, and the IMO has indicated its intention to consider amending the current Arctic guidelines for use in both Arctic and Antarctic waters.

Safeguards are already in place. The Antarctic treaty’s protocol on environmental protection of 1991, which has been implemented domestically through the Antarctic Act 1994, requires all activities in Antarctica to be planned to minimise the environmental impact. In addition, the UK has also implemented an agreement of the Antarctic treaty parties in 2004 that all tourism activities in that region must be able to demonstrate self-sufficient search-and-rescue and contingency plans.

All treaty-flagged or registered vessels entering Antarctica must have either a permit or licence to do so from one of the contracting parties to the Antarctic treaty. The United Kingdom is one of those parties, and the FCO issues permits, under the Antarctic Act 1994, following a checklist of relevant requirements. In addition, only ships carrying fewer than 500 passengers are allowed to disembark their passengers on Antarctica.

Hydrographic survey work and chart production also make an essential contribution to maritime safety. The United Kingdom continues to make a significant contribution, and the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, supported by HMS “Endurance”, is the most active player in the production of Antarctic hydrographic charts.

Most vessels visiting the Antarctic region are not UK-registered, and therefore we have no statutory obligation to them. There are also a number of UK-based operators which operate ships in the area but choose to register their vessels outside the UK. Whatever the registration of the vessel concerned, they are good ship owners with a strong safety culture behind them. Corporate social responsibility is also a key component in improving the social, economic and environmental standards of shipping. That means doing more than the bare minimum needed to comply with legal requirements. After all, better crew standards lead to safer ships, safer ships lead to fewer accidents, and fewer accidents mean less cost and less damage to the environment.

The requirements for ships operating in Antarctica are underpinned by the Safety of Life at Sea Convention—or SOLAS, as it is more commonly called—the International Safety Management Code and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which is commonly known as MARPOL. They are global safety requirements which are kept under constant review.

The stringent SOLAS requirements require the subdivision of passenger ships into watertight compartments, bilge-pumping arrangements and stability requirements to enable the ship to withstand significant accident damage. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, knows better than I, the degree of subdivision varies with the ship's length. Therefore, in this instance we can be enthusiastic about larger ships. There are also requirements covering machinery and electrical installations to ensure that services which are essential for the safety of the ship, passengers and crew are maintained under various emergency conditions.

SOLAS also details requirements for life-saving appliances such as lifeboats, rescue boats and lifejackets according to the type of ship. These provisions are supplemented by the International Life-Saving Appliance Code which provides specific technical requirements for life-saving appliances.

The International Safety Management Code also requires, for example, that ship operators have procedures to ensure the safe operation of ships and protection of the environment in compliance with relevant international legislation and to have procedures to respond to emergency situations.

Noble Lords mentioned that the increase in the number of vessels operating in Antarctica poses a risk to the marine environment. Safety and protecting the marine environment go hand in hand. By enhancing the safety of the passengers and crew, the marine environment is also being protected. Governments recognise, however, the need to protect the marine environment in such an important region. Ships operating in Antarctica must also comply with the relevant provisions of MARPOL. This is the main international instrument aimed at preventing ship-source pollution. The seas and coasts of Antarctica benefit, like all other seas and coasts around the world, from the protection afforded by the MARPOL provisions, and as Antarctica is designated as a special area for the purposes of the MARPOL provisions regulating discharges of oil, noxious liquid substances and garbage, the relevant standards are even more stringent for ships operating in these waters.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, said, passenger ships mainly use heavy grade oil for their propulsion. However, heavy grade oil is a highly polluting substance and can pose severe problems when spilled in icy conditions. Noble Lords will no doubt be pleased to learn that in response to the increasing number of passenger ships entering Antarctic waters and in recognition of the threat which heavy grade oil poses to the pristine Antarctic environment, work has been initiated in the IMO to develop a measure which will very substantially restrict the use and carriage of heavy grade oil in the Antarctic region.

The IMO’s Sub-Committee on Bulk Liquids and Gases discussed the issue in some detail when it met in February 2008, and it is expected that this subject will be a high priority work programme at future sessions of the sub-committee. But ships can damage the environment in other ways which are much less obvious than a heavy oil spill. The United Kingdom is leading the development of the interim Ballast Water Regional Management Plan for Antarctica so as to meet the requirements of Annex II to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which deals with the conservation of Antarctic fauna and flora, and requires precautions to be taken to prevent the introduction of non-native species to the Antarctic treaty area, such as the marine organisms that may be found in the ballast water taken on board vessels to ensure stability. Such non-native species may cause serious ecological impacts if let out of a vessel with the discharge of ballast water into a different environment.

Of course, we need to ensure that both these environmental protection initiatives achieve their objectives. This brings me to the provisions of Annexe VI of the 1991 Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. This annex concerns the setting up of a liability regime for environmental emergencies which will impose strict liability for the costs of environmental damage following an accident in Antarctica. The liability regime will be covered by a system of compulsory insurance and the establishment of a fund to provide compensation. At present, only two of the 28 states required for entry into force have ratified the annexe. While this is disappointing, the United Kingdom Government are keen to progress our ratification of the annex and we fully intend to introduce the necessary legislative proposal as soon as parliamentary time permits.

The measures in place are satisfactory to help ensure maritime safety and protect the environment, but we are not complacent, which is why we continue to play a leading role in seeking to strengthen the existing international arrangements.

Questions were raised, many of which I think I have probably answered. The noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, asked how we might control cruise ships. We take the view that a simple ban is not realistic. Such bans would need global rather than individual action, and it is fair to say that there would be little likelihood that all Governments would agree. We think that the best approach is to continue to develop and raise global shipping standards more generally. We as a nation can be proud of the role that we have played, particularly through the IMO in advancing this.

The noble Viscount also talked about the size of vessels entering Antarctic waters. I referred to that. We recognise that the size of vessels entering Antarctic waters needs to be considered some more. Larger vessels, as I pointed out, tend to be newer. They are also built to a higher specification, with superior safety standards as compared with some of the smaller vessels. We must take a balanced view. There are protections through having larger vessels, but the potential for adverse environmental impacts is greater. We therefore need experts to consider this issue carefully and keep it very much under review.

The noble Viscount also referred to sat-nav. We see immediate benefits to this. The IMO is instituting a system of long-range identification and tracking of vessels. This system, coupled with the use of GPS, will assist in the monitoring of vessels in the region. That is very much to be encouraged, and we as a Government are trying to play our part in moving the IMO along in that general direction.

The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, mentioned the rewriting of the Arctic and Antarctic guidelines and the pairing of cruise ships. That is a very important issue. I can confirm simply that the IMO is looking at the existing guidance. We do not quite know what the outcome of those investigations will be, but work is being pursued. The idea of pairing cruise ships to heighten safety is transparently a sensible notion that I understand is under active consideration.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, talked about training. He drew attention to the tragic incident off Land’s End, and expressed a lack of confidence that training issues were being taken seriously. We do take those issues very seriously. In the guidelines that are issued to those who promulgate cruises in the area, that issue must be addressed by organisers and operators. Specific reference was made to the number of qualified crew, accompanying guides and expedition staff, who must be fully apprised.

What about the training of the passengers? They may find themselves in a life raft in a storm in the Southern Ocean. Perhaps they are lucky and have a good senior rate with them, or perhaps they just have a cook who knows absolutely nothing. They will need to know exactly what to do in that life raft, otherwise they will die in two hours.

One of the points in the document makes it clear that visitors should be aware of conditions and the restrictions placed on the Antarctic expeditionary stations and so on. The point is well made about the importance of ensuring that they have knowledge, so it is important to have guides and that some training is undertaken. I am sure that that takes place; part of the preparation plan has to be carefully tailored to that so that those who travel on those cruises are well aware of those issues. It is important that those issues are addressed and not underestimated, so that testing of equipment and passenger participation in understanding the impact that they can have is actively considered.

We continue to play a leading role in strengthening existing international arrangements. We can never be complacent about issues relating to the environment or the safety of cruises; we are right to keep it under review. The point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, about the importance of ensuring that the International Maritime Organisation is continually up to speed is well understood not just by our Government but other Governments who work in this field. I am grateful to everyone who has taken part.

Before the noble Lord sits down, may I question him on the issue of the sat-nav specialist service, which he mentioned? Will he press the European Space Agency to continue the funding, because that is the key to the issue? It is funding it and we need to ensure that that goes on, otherwise people will not use it. If he is unable to answer that now, perhaps he will write to me.

I would like to offer the noble Viscount reassurance this afternoon, but I do not have briefing on the funding arrangements for that. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who raised another issue about Antarctic survey work, and I was conscious that I had not answered that point either, so I will compose some correspondence and make sure that we properly research the funding arrangements for both those projects and will of course share that with other noble Lords who have participated.

The information comes late. I can tell noble Lords that the Antarctic survey forms part of the Natural Environment Research Council work. We recognise the importance of the scientific contribution made by the BAS and the importance of research and associated monitoring continuing. Looking back, the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985 was an important result of its work, which underlines the value of that research work. I understand that the Natural Environmental Research Council is introducing new arrangements for the funding of science as part of its wider science strategy and will monitor the impact of those arrangements for its research centres, including the BAS but, as I say, I am happy to write to noble Lords with any more detail that can be usefully shared by all who have contributed.

I thank all noble Lords who have been involved; it has been a very valuable debate.

[The Sitting was adjourned from 3.53 pm to 4 pm.]

Mental Health

asked Her Majesty’s Government in light of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health report on the cost to business of mental ill health at work, what support they are providing to business to deal with mental ill health at work; and what plans they have to ensure that the public sector leads in this area.

The noble Baroness said: The Sainsbury centre report, Mental Health at Work, was what alerted me to these serious issues and led me to table this Question. I need to declare an interest as an adviser to the trustees of the Sainsbury centre, but I also have some experience of this, having been the chair of an NHS trust for four years and having seen several of my employees, numbering in the teens, who confessed to me after I had stepped down that they had been mentally ill during the time they were employed by the trust but had felt nervous about confessing to management that that was the case—and this was in an NHS trust where 25 per cent of its functions were dedicated to mental health services. It is that situation which has made me very concerned about these issues.

The Sainsbury centre report, Developing the Business Case, found that the cost to business of mental ill health at work is £25.9 billion in the UK each year, which is just over £1,000 for every employee in every workplace, and the equivalent of £1.3 billion just in the NHS, because I suspect that my trust was by no means alone. More than half of that cost is the result of lost productivity in people who turn up for work. The term that is used—the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has already told me that he thinks it is a terrible word—is “presenteeism”. It means being present at work but not being of much use.

It has been calculated that sickness absence costs £8.4 billion a year. Around 40 per cent of all sick days are taken for mental health problems, up to a total of some 70 million working days. Reduced productivity amounts to about £15.1 billion and accounts for 1.5 times as many working days lost as sickness absence, but costs more because presenteeism is relatively more common among higher paid workers; lower paid workers are more likely to take time off sick. Staff turnover costs £2.4 billion a year, which represents the costs inherent in replacing around 200,000 employees who leave their jobs because of mental ill health. This is a really huge issue and it is important to recognise that only 15 per cent of these costs are caused by work-related mental distress. Most mental distress arises for other reasons and from other causes; stress and distress are very different things.

I turn again to the horrible word, presenteeism. Employees may take time off from work because of ill health, or they may turn up for work as usual, sometimes because they feel duty bound, sometimes because they are worried about what people will say if they do not, and sometimes because they do not want to admit that they have a mental illness. However, they function at less than full capacity because they are feeling terrible. It is much more difficult to measure presenteeism than it is to calculate straightforward absence from work, but studies have been carried out in the United States, Australia and Canada. The key finding is that presenteeism is a much more important cause of lost output than sickness absence, with some studies suggesting that it is six times as costly as absenteeism. The Sainsbury centre has taken a rather conservative view of all this because little information is available on what really goes on in the UK. As an estimate, it has chosen to double the cost of absenteeism, but it still means that it is a huge cost. We know perfectly well that mental health matters to every business in Britain. One worker in six experiences depression or anxiety in any one year. If you add in drug and alcohol problems and severe mental illness, this rises to one in five.

We also know that most employers vastly underestimate the importance of mental health. A Shaw Trust survey of senior managers found that half thought that none of their staff would ever have a mental health problem. A report that will come from the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health and the Employers’ Forum on Disability fairly shortly will show that most employers think that their workplace has less mental ill health than society as a whole. If they all think that, something very strange is going on. This is a wonderful example of denial that tells us a great deal about stigma and the desire to bury the facts.

This is obviously partly about stigma; people are afraid of telling their employers and colleagues if they are distressed. They are much more likely to come into work when they are unwell with a mental illness or from mental distress than if they have a physical health problem. However, the figures are likely to be an underestimate, if anything. Large numbers of people who present to their GPs or to occupational health services with medically unexplained physical symptoms may well have mental health problems that neither they nor their GPs recognise.

The report says that employing people with mental health problems is a good thing, not a bad thing. It is impossible anyway to say that one should not employ them, given the prevalence of the distress. We also know that working is good for people with mental illness. A recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development survey of employers found that 61 per cent reported a positive experience of employing people with a history of mental health problems, and that only 15 per cent reported a negative experience, which is probably lower than the normal rate of dissatisfaction with new employees in general.

We also know that having a mental illness does not make a person unemployable. The former Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, served two successful terms, despite having time off with depression. His openness about suffering from depression during his first term did not stop him winning a second term. We also know that employers can cut the cost of mental ill health through good management of their staff. BT has reduced its mental health sickness rate by a third through its Work Fit programme, which offers support to staff experiencing distress. We also know that a few simple and quite inexpensive measures to reduce stress and support people who become unwell can save thousands of pounds in lost output and precious skills.

We also know what the keys to reducing mental distress at work are. First is the recognition that work is good for health. Evidence is clear that being in work makes people healthier, both physically and mentally, and being out of work reduces life expectancy as severely as smoking and obesity—by about 10 years. Preventing work-related mental distress, such as ensuring that staff do not have unrealistic expectations, tackling bullying at work and so on, makes a huge difference. Giving workers greater control over how they work probably makes the biggest difference of all. Raising awareness of the possibility of mental illness among line managers makes a great difference, as does giving them more knowledge about mental health and helping them to respond confidently and in good time to staff who appear to be distressed. Improving access to help also makes a great difference. That is particularly true of speedy access to psychological therapies, especially to CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to give me lots of good news about that. That makes all the difference between staying at work and going off sick and ultimately losing your job. Providing effective rehabilitation for those who need time off work also helps a lot, but you must maintain regular contact during periods of absence. That is crucial to give the person concerned hope and a clear goal for coming back.

Supporting mental well-being is likely to be different in small businesses than in large ones. Big employers have human resources departments and occupational health services, and can organise staff training and so on. However, small businesses can do their part and it would be really wonderful if the Government could give a bit of lead on that by encouraging small businesses to allow flexible working and encourage them to keep in touch with staff who are off work to help them to return.

We know a great deal. The real problem is that we do not act on it. That is why this report is so important. I really hope that the Government, and the Minister on behalf of the Government, can do something about what goes on in the public sector. The public sector employs millions of people and it has contracts with businesses that employ millions more. Mental ill health among staff costs the NHS over £1 billion, which is equivalent to a quarter of the entire mental health budget for England. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has experienced that as much as I have in the NHS.

It seems to me that public services should be required to demonstrate good practice as employers and in contracts with providers, and that they should be required to support the mental well-being of staff. At the moment, you see them responding less than well when people become unwell. Public services should be doing more to actively seek applications for ordinary jobs at all levels from people who admit to having a mental health problem. I wonder whether the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government will do a little more about that and that they, through the public sector as an employer, will do more to make it possible for people to admit that they have a mental illness, so we have less presenteeism and we can get rid of that horrible word. Can he say whether the Government will ask the public sector to set a lead in its employment practices and contracting practices? That is what has to happen if we want to make a difference to stigma and if we want to reduce the cost of all this.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, for obtaining this debate and for giving us an opportunity to raise a matter that is of considerable concern to many of us who are looking at different aspects, particularly the public service.

I declare an interest as an adviser to the trustees of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health. My advice is slightly differently pitched from that of the noble Baroness, because recently the Sainsbury centre has deliberately focused on two aspects. The first is the mental health of prisoners, and the second is the problems faced by those with mental health problems obtaining work: two areas that have been neglected for too long. Therefore, I was very glad to see this paper, which is in a way a precursor to the work of the problems of people getting work. Unless things are right for staff, nothing will be right for others. I will concentrate on the Prison Service as an example of a public service in which a great deal more could be done.

It is right to say that there probably is no more stressful job in the United Kingdom than being a prison officer. I remember once watching a sex-offender treatment programme and marvelling at the tutors and what they were having to go through when they were role-playing with people who had committed the most awful crimes. They came out of that session literally shaking. One of them said to me that going through that work caused them to think twice when bathing their own children in the evening. That puts tremendous demands on staff; yet there was no proper support mechanism in the Prison Service for looking after those tutors, who were at the leading edge of doing the work of protecting the public on behalf of the community. In a way, the report is a wake-up call to the Prison Service to do a great deal more. We hear quite a lot about absenteeism in the Prison Service, and it varies from prison to prison. The interesting theme to me when inspecting prisons and looking at that was that there was a definite correlation between the management of a prison and absenteeism. It tells you quite a lot that if the management style is not right, people are not going to turn up for work.

There are two workforces in prisons, and prisoners represent a huge mental health problem. There is an Office for National Statistics report that is worth referring to, in addition to those referred to in the Sainsbury centre paper. It was done in October 1998, and it is called Psychiatric Morbidity among Prisoners in England and Wales. It is still the most accurate document available. It shows that 70 per cent of those in prison suffer from some form of identifiable personality disorder. That does not mean that they are certifiable, but that something is affecting their proposal. The reason why that is important and should not be lost sight of in this debate is well contained in a paper that I am very glad has been published today by the CBI, Getting Back on the Straight and Narrow. It proposes a better criminal justice system for all and amounts to a critique of a great deal of what the Government have not been doing. It wants them to do the central work that they say should be done—helping offenders to gain work, which is at the heart of the Government’s recent welfare-to-work programmes helping the hardest-to-reach long-term unemployed, many of whom are ex-offenders.

Unless there are programmes in place to get to the bottom of the mental health problems of those looking for work, you are affecting in many ways the whole of the workforce of the United Kingdom. While it is absolutely right to have the staff right, particularly in prisons, it is worth making certain that the workforce—in this case those seeking work—can be employed. The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health’s report is extremely timely and the quality of the work that has been done by that centre has struck me ever since I first was in contact with it. I hope that the Minister can tell us that the Government are taking this seriously. This is not only a criticism, it is advice. I particularly like the five “How can savings be delivered?” points—recognition, prevention, awareness training, better access to health and effective rehabilitation—because they can be applied to many other aspects of improving all sorts of things in this country, not least the mental health of our workforce.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, for introducing this debate. I probably should, as always in these situations, declare an interest as the chair of a mental health trust in East London and more recently as the chair of a mental health initiative for young people, spearheaded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation—which is relevant to this debate.

Our starting point is of course that mental health is a significant issue for every business in Britain. As the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, mentioned, one in six workers will experience depression or anxiety in any year. Yet, as she also mentioned, employers vastly underestimate its importance. Indeed, employers even assume that they do not have anyone at all with a mental health problem. I have to confess that in our trust, although we have encouraged openness on this matter with our staff for some period—certainly since I have been there—we have made slow progress in this area. I will come back to that point later. Such is the stigma of mental illness that, even within a mental health trust, employees will carry on soldiering on and concealing their problems for long periods at considerable cost to the employer in reduced productivity. I am aware that many of our nurses are underperforming quite drastically. If we could get at the mental health issues of those nurses, we may make considerable progress.

Help for employees, and therefore employers, is potentially on the way. That is the good news and I applaud the Government’s commitment to a considerable increase in spending on evidence-based psychological therapies—I emphasise evidence-based—in the most recent Comprehensive Spending Review, building up to £70 million in the third year. However, I also want to draw the Committee’s attention to the significant risk that much of this money may not be spent on these evidence-based therapies. It is important that strategic health authorities, and at the end of the day PCTs, follow the professional guidance issued by the Department of Health to ensure that the money really is used to the best effect. If it is spent on therapies that have been shown to be pretty ineffectual, it would be a terrible waste. Can my noble friend the Minister assure the Committee that his department will do all that it can to ensure that the funds are spent as the Government intend?

Another important point is the relevance of these evidence-based therapies to the achievement of the Government’s target to reduce the number of people claiming incapacity benefit—or is it employment support allowance now? I am sorry I have slightly lost track of the time frame—by 1 million over 10 years. If this is to be achieved, employers need ready access to evidence-based therapies so that employees suffering from severe distress, depression or anxiety can readily be referred for treatment at an early stage. At the same time employers need to change their internal policies so that anyone going off sick is not left alone on the basis that the manager must not interfere, as this would be harassment, and is followed up by the occupational health people—and, in the case of a smaller employer, somebody within the firm—without delay to identify the problem and, where appropriate, to refer him for evidence-based therapy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, mentioned the incredible success of BT. It is phenomenal. BT has reduced its mental health sickness absence by a third through its Work Fit programme. Other employers would do extremely well for themselves if they followed BT’s example.

Employment coaches, otherwise known as employment support workers, need to be available to those at risk of losing their jobs due to mental health problems and also to ensure that appropriate support is provided to line managers. It is no good supporting just the employee; you must also support managers. Why should they have any experience of these issues? If all these pieces of the jigsaw can be brought together, the benefits to employers, employees and the taxpayer would be extraordinarily significant. We would see a dramatic fall in the number of benefit claimants.

As regards incapacity benefit or employment support claimants, every general practice needs practitioners of evidence-based therapies. Lots of general practitioners have counsellors of one sort or another, who I am sure are very helpful. You can just shift somebody off to see the counsellor rather than the doctor, and that makes sense, but if you really want these people to cease coming to your practice for a while, or, you hope, indefinitely, you have to have a change of mentality. We have to have people in general practice providing therapies that we know will help to cure the person. We know that about 50 per cent of people suffering from depression can be cured through these evidence-based therapies and will remain well for at least two years—if longer studies were done, I think they would show lengthier cures—and that the success rate for those with anxieties is higher still.

A more challenging area for public sector involvement is that of the secondary mental health services. Here the need is for every community team to have an employment coach with the right skills to work with employers. This probably does not mean OTs but rather people used to working with employers who have advertising or PR skills and are helped to understand mental health issues with which they may be less familiar.

If mental health trusts did this, they would enable people to go through the route of voluntary work within their trust and ultimately perhaps to jobs within it, or indeed elsewhere. Again, this employment support should be linked to the provision of evidence-based therapies. They have to go together. It is no good having one and not the other. In East London we have employment coaches and psychological therapists in all our community teams, but I have to confess that this has happened only within the past 12 months due to a thoroughgoing push from certain people within the trust. Does the Minister know to what extent this is now common practice across all mental health trusts? It is probably unreasonable to ask him that, but it certainly would be very interesting to know because that should be the case.

The Healthcare Commission now has a target for local authorities, through their mental health trusts, to increase the proportion of mental health service users in employment year by year. Although there is no specificity there, the idea that you will be marked “good” only if you increase the proportion each year is pretty promising and a good start. There is good evidence that the initiatives discussed here are the best way to achieve that target.

Again, I recognise that this is somewhat outside the Minister’s remit, but cross-departmental work on these matters will be essential if the target of a 1 million fall in the number of benefit claimants over 10 years is to be achieved. Therefore, what progress has been made with the Department of Health in progressing those agendas?

I had not planned to mention the role of the foundation trust model in all this, but I think I will. Others may be aware that we now have something called a board of governors or a member’s council elected by our community. We also have thousands of members, many of whom are service users of our trust. We have had to think how to involve our membership. Our trust has come up with precisely the solution that we are talking about today—it seems eminently sensible for every other mental health trust to do the same—the members need to be invited and encouraged to become involved in voluntary work and, ultimately, in employment. We are right at the beginning of this; we became a foundation trust only on 1 November; but we feel that there is a lot of interest in this and it may be something that we need to encourage nationally. It could be quite a significant way forward for people in the secondary sector. I realise that large numbers of people are not in the secondary mental health sector, they are in the primary care sector, but we could really make progress through that foundation trust model that, when we started, we had not thought of as a major issue.

My final point is one that I raised during our debates on the Welfare Reform Bill last year. The Minister may guess what I am going to mention. I hope that his heart will not sink to hear me mention the words “linking rules” again, but the issue remains as pressing as ever. For noble Lords unfamiliar with this territory, the aim of the linking rules is to ensure that anyone on incapacity benefit who finds a job and who, within two years loses the job, can restore those benefits, supposedly without delay—unless things have changed since I was involved in those matters.

I am concerned that in such circumstances, someone still needs to complete a form, and there are inquiries to be made, before benefits are restored. Also, housing benefit is considered quite separately. In reality, those procedures can take weeks, perhaps months, especially for people with mental health problems who are likely to have fallen out of a job because of a recurrence of those problems. They will be lying in bed, they will not be picking up the phone, answering letters, making sure that they are filling in forms or getting someone else to do it for them.

When we last debated these issues, the DWP was considering the possibility of aligning the reclaim process for housing benefit with that for employment support allowances. I have not completely given up hope of further improvements to the linking rules themselves for employment support allowances. It may be reasonable to limit those special provisions to people with mental health problems, because if your mind is working all right, you can probably deal with those matters, even if you have to sit in a wheelchair; but if your mind is not helping you at all, the linking rules do not answer the problem. Has the Minister managed to make any progress since last summer with those matters? I look forward in anticipation to his reply.

We must all be grateful both to my noble friend Lady Neuberger for introducing this debate on this very important issue and to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health for producing its report and highlighting so graphically the real crisis that we are facing in this country: how issues of mental ill health are costing this country dear. Although the noble Baroness's Question focuses on the cost and the need for support to business, there are the other inevitable costs incurred by the range of agencies to pick up the pieces of fragile or broken lives; the human cost to those who are ill, to other individuals, families and communities; and the urgent need for support for them as well.

One of the real ironies is the extent to which mental illness is the object of so much fear, stigma, ignorance and even cruelty when it is such a common feature of our society, and the evidence shows that it is getting worse. With one in four of us experiencing mental ill health at some point in our lives, there will be very few individuals anywhere who do not know directly of someone who has been mentally ill. I declare an interest here. I have a wonderful son who is now 37. He has had severe manic depression since he was 15, a fact which has had a huge impact on all who have had the good luck to know him. Indeed, it has inevitably involved times of great distress, anxiety and, indeed, fear for us all, and which in his case has meant that long-term real employment has not been possible. We are a society that fears any deviation from what is normal, particularly when mental illness and other disabilities significantly affect and damage the normal, strong or successful in our communities. I believe that we are getting it badly wrong, both materially and morally, where the mentally ill are concerned. The Sainsbury report not only points out graphically the costs of our failure, but also, very usefully, how to begin to deal with the problem.

My noble friend Lady Neuberger has already gone through the detail of the report, and I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I repeat some of it. The cost to business alone of mental illness is vast. The figure of £26 billion annually is hard to get our heads around, unless we think of it as over £1,000 for every single employee, everywhere, each year. Of these employees, the report tells us, at any time one in six will be experiencing a neurotic disorder such as depression, anxiety or stress-related problems. That is different from the group of people who, like my son, suffer from long-term severe mental disorders. The former group is by far the larger and represents the chief concern in the report because people in that group are more able to work and their illness is less likely to be permanent.

We have discussed that ghastly word, presenteeism, which along with absenteeism and high staff turnover, are the main costs. Presenteeism suggests a sort of ghostly figure drifting around the workplace, and I am sure it should not be difficult to find a better word. Being present but unable to work properly is a reflection of the fear felt by the employee of being mentally ill or being found out because of the stigma the illness generates, and the stigma itself is rooted in fear. Furthermore, most employers hugely underestimate the prevalence of mental illness in their workforce, partly because they are simply unaware of it and partly because, I suspect, they do not want to recognise it. That is fear once again. Yet we all know that work is good for business, good for individual self-confidence and self-esteem, good for health, and of course, as the husband of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, knows, good for happiness.

Apart from the stark detailed calculations of the cost of mental illness, we see that appropriate, constructive and effective ways of dealing with mental ill health at work is not rocket science and can save thousands in pounds and people. It is crucially to do with the attitude towards staff of managers, which should be free of prejudice. Managers who are properly informed about the nature of mental illness and trained accordingly are able to facilitate early recognition and swift access to appropriate help. As we know, most fear and prejudice is rooted in ignorance. Much stress can be mitigated by having realistic expectations of staff, dealing effectively with bullying in the workplace and giving people more say over how they work—all of which amount to strategies that lead to a positive working environment. Training is important, so that a manager can feel confident about dealing with someone who is showing signs of mental illness that could otherwise be quite threatening. Knowing where to go for the appropriate help is essential. In this way, appropriate and effective interventions, such as CBT—although sometimes I think that can be exaggerated—can prevent the loss of a job or facilitate an early return to work.

Proper support to stay in or return to work can be crucial. It all seems quite obvious, but it is still sadly lacking and is a real challenge to the Government. My experience over the past few years is that it is not the Government who are leading the way here, but the voluntary sector and the world of social enterprise, with the growing and very exciting development of social firms. They are businesses with a moral compass, where not only do the usual criteria apply for any successful business—such as a proper business plan, a healthy profit at the end of the year, top-class service to the customer and a budget showing future growth—but there is an overarching rationale of meeting a particular social need in the people whom it employs and in the service that it gives.

Social firms are by no means exclusive to the mental health field, but they employ, among many others, people with severe and/or enduring mental health problems. They provide a supportive working environment that recognises and responds to the needs of individuals and, where appropriate, challenging environments where people can carry out real work in real businesses. That may be a stage in recovery in the sometimes long journey to sustained, meaningful employment, or perhaps a place where the individual can be sustained and supported over many years.

I declare a second interest, as my daughter is a beneficiary of just such a firm in Scotland, which I commend to the Committee. It is called Forth Sector, and it is based in Edinburgh. It runs a group of small businesses, including a small guest house where the trainees all have mental health issues of some kind. It is a delightful place, where the highest standards apply, the service is excellent and the occupancy rate is high. I cannot sing its praises highly enough.

The Freud report in 2007 suggested that the true cost to the state of a person on incapacity benefit was around £64,000 a year. The cost of sustaining a person in one of Forth Sector’s social firms is a 10th of that, without including a calculation of the personal, family and social capital that such a placement creates. By trading as they do, not only do social firms provide real work experience, but they effectively substitute for and subsidise the state provision of care. I suggest that the Government take a sustained and real interest in the support and development of this approach and of the work of social firms.

Finally, I quote the example of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship in Scotland, of which I am a patron. It has been supporting people with a range of mental illnesses for years in a variety of areas, including employment. Sometimes clients start by volunteering with a large organisation, such as the National Trust for Scotland, with which there is a long-standing relationship, and sometimes with small businesses. In this and many other ways, its work is invaluable to many people and their families. Typically, it may intervene when a person has become ill and before too long has perhaps lost his home and job, while the employer was simply not aware of illness or the reality of the situation. The outcome of the intervention is a negotiation with the employer and a return to work, home and stability. That is immeasurable. Without NSF, such a person is to be found on the state’s very expensive scrapheap. Its work with young people may involve starting with volunteering, often working alongside them, to experience the working environment, before graduating to real work. That is something that the Government should be encouraging and developing.

The marvellous work of such social firms and voluntary organisations is the beacon in what is still a dark world for so many of the mentally ill. Of course the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, is right to challenge the Government to follow their lead, which is now so overdue and so pressing. I sincerely hope that they will take this latest report from the Sainsbury Centre very seriously, for literally none of us can afford to ignore its message any longer.

I, too, would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, for initiating this important debate. At the outset I would like to contrast West Africa with this country in several respects. My clinical practice is in West Africa for several months every year with a charity known as Mercy Ships. Many of the patients that my wife and I operate on have been rejected by their fellow countrymen because they are assumed to have some sort of curse. This leads to throwing stones at children with hare lips, cataracts, squints and many other conditions. Women who have been rendered incontinent through disasters in childbirth are completely ostracised by society.

Before we adopt too critical an attitude to such behaviour in Africa, it is worth remembering that in this country the all too common attitude towards those with mental ill health can be very strange, to say the least. Even highly intelligent, educated people will use terms like “nutty”, “barmy” and “bananas” to describe those who are mentally ill. The same people would never dream of using such language to describe those with heart failure, pneumonia or cancer. Some have tried to explain this inappropriate behaviour in terms of fear or ignorance of mental illness, or that it acts as a kind of protective carapace. The strange thing is that doctors have also used these derogatory terms, but what is even more surprising is that psychiatrists have done the same. A medical student spent an hour carefully assessing a patient in a psychiatric outpatient clinic and then presented the case history to a distinguished psychiatrist, who started laughing. “What’s the joke?” asked the student. “The joke is that he is a psychopath”, was the reply. “Yes, I know that he is a psychopath”, said the student, “but what is the joke?”. “The joke is that there is nothing we can do for him”. The student thought that the consultant’s response constituted what psychiatrists call incongruity of affect, which is a well known symptom of schizophrenia. That was a few years ago, and hopefully things are improving.

These things are always difficult to judge, but my impression is that there is now less prejudice and ignorance about mental illness, but unfortunately, as has been mentioned already, recent surveys suggest that tolerance towards those with mental health problems is now lower than it was in 1994, which is very discouraging. A survey of members of the Depression Alliance showed that 79 per cent of them were fearful that revealing their condition at work would be damaging. That is a sad state when one bears in mind how common mental illness is in the population as a whole. As the noble Baroness said, one in four in the nation will suffer from mental ill health during their lifetime and at any time one in six workers will be experiencing anxiety, depression or problems related to stress.

Mental ill health is normal in every workplace. We have heard the figures about how much it costs, so I will not repeat them. We have heard the term “presenteeism”, which I do not like at all. I would prefer to use the Latin phrase, labore sed aeger, which means labouring but ill. The Latin word “aeger” covers mental as well as physical ill health. The phrase could be abbreviated to LSA, and would certainly be better than presenteeism.

The figures we have heard are probably underestimates because many people present with medically unexplained physical symptoms that are due to mental health problems. These are not recognised by patients themselves or by their doctors. Indeed, these symptoms can be difficult to diagnose. To make matters worse and even more complex, a patient’s symptoms may be due to mental health problems and concomitant physical disease. It is important to state the obvious that, as has already been said, mental illness does not make a person unemployable. There have been many recent examples of this: one in the form of the Norwegian Prime Minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik. My Norwegian friends in Norway said that people were amazed when he admitted publicly his illness and then took six months off, but his openness was so impressive that he was elected for a second term. Such openness is a great inspiration for those with the same condition.

Mental ill health can be cut by the good management of staff, and there are several excellent examples. BT, as has been mentioned, has reduced its mental health sickness absences by one-third through its Work Fit programme. There is also good evidence that being in work keeps people healthier, both physically and mentally. Unemployment reduces life expectancy by 10 years, as the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, pointed out.

Work-related mental stress can be reduced by creating more pleasant working conditions, giving staff more say over how they work, and dealing with bullying. I remember some years ago in a hospital how some secretaries got very angry with the way they were being bullied and mistreated by people who should have known better. I suggested to them that the next time it happened they should just look the guy in the eye and think to themselves, “Poor chap, he’s not having enough roughage in his diet”. The only problem with this was that it would make the secretaries smile, which sometimes inflamed the situation even more.

Managers should be, and are being, trained in how to deal quickly and effectively with these problems and how to get people to take up psychiatric therapies and effective rehabilitation. On the subject of rehabilitation, it is helpful if managers keep in contact with people when they are off sick and help them to return to work earlier.

There is no doubt that this is a very neglected subject due to the lack of public awareness, the persistent stigma of mental illness and a lack of training among management. Much needs to be done. The Department of Health’s commissioning of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health to tackle stigma and discrimination around mental illness is a welcome development, and I look forward to hearing what more the Minister is going to do.

I start by expressing my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, for calling this debate today and to all noble Lords for devoting their time to this very important issue. I fear that 12 minutes is too short to do full justice to the weight of noble Lords’ contributions, but I shall try. I am also indebted to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health for its policy paper on developing the business case and for all its ongoing work on the mental health agenda, particularly in its links with employment.

The Government are committed to ensuring that 2008 marks a step change in the way we approach the health of the working age population and in particular support for people with mental health conditions. It is central to our aspiration of achieving an 80 per cent employment rate that we improve the health of our working age population, reduce sickness absence and drive down the number of people falling out of work and on to welfare benefits. This success will mean healthier and more productive employees and a stronger economy.

We recognise the changing dynamic of British business and the corresponding shift in the nature of ill health and sickness absence for working age people. Mental ill health is now the greatest single cause of sickness absence. As the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, explained, the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health estimates that it accounts for 40 per cent of all sickness absence—some 70 million days a year. The impact on business is more than £25 billion a year, including £15 billion from—I hesitate to say—presenteeism, with employees staying in work but performing below par.

Mental health conditions are also the single biggest cause of people claiming incapacity benefit—a higher figure than the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. Dame Carol Black’s recent review of the health of Britain’s working age population rightly drew attention to the challenges. An accompanying report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists highlighted that mental health problems cost the British economy more than £40 billion each year.

The evidence is clear that work is generally good for health, and that is true for mental health as well as physical health. The Government have made considerable progress in working to address those challenges—as the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, said, it is not rocket science—but we must go further. We must help all employers to manage mental health conditions at work by tackling the stigma associated with mental ill health; and wherever possible prevent such conditions developing in the first place. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, graphically challenged us on some prevailing attitudes and on the prejudices which, sadly, still persist. We must further improve the access to mental health support services for those who develop conditions, helping people to stay in work or to return to work as quickly as possible.

We have been looking at ways to improve the support that is available to employers, both to ensure that they understand what they can do to prevent mental ill health being caused by work and to help them manage staff with mental health conditions, whatever the cause. The Health and Safety Executive developed its excellent management standards for identifying and managing the risks so that work-related stress can be prevented. The HSE is also supporting employers by developing improved information and guidance through its website.

As part of Dame Carol Black’s review, PricewaterhouseCoopers considered the economic case for business investment in wellness. The evidence from 50 employer case studies suggests that the initial programme costs can quickly be translated into financial benefits. PwC is now working on developing a toolkit that will allow employers to quantify the financial benefits of their wellness interventions. We intend to pilot this toolkit in the summer, and we will encourage employers in both the public and private sectors to take part in this pilot and to use the toolkit to move towards reporting on health and well-being in the boardroom.

We have also been looking at destigmatising mental health conditions in the workplace. The Department of Health, in partnership with Shift, has taken forward the successful “Action on Stigma” campaign, which tackles the stigma and discrimination that people with mental health conditions too often face. The early focus has been on the public sector audience, addressing our wish that government—central government departments, executive agencies and NHS trusts—should be an exemplar, as it is absolutely right that they should, but increasingly Shift has been invited to engage with blue chip companies to support business in tackling discrimination and promoting healthy workplaces.

We need to go further in improving the support for those with mental health conditions to help them stay in work or to return to work quickly. Since 1997, the Government have made a record investment in mental health services. Real terms investment in adult mental health services has increased by nearly a third in the past five years alone. We now have over 60 per cent more consultant psychiatrists, 70 per cent more clinical psychologists and at least 20 per cent more mental health nurses than in 1997.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, last October we announced a significant investment to deliver the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, rising to £173 million in the third year. That will enable the training of more than 3,000 extra therapists to deliver psychological interventions for up to 900,000 more people over those three years. My department is working closely with the Department of Health on this, and we will make sure that it links with our Pathways to Work programme, which is now available across the country. We are providing funding to test private and voluntary sector delivery of employment support within the IAPT programme itself. Employment advisers will help individual customers to remain in, or quickly return to, work, or find jobs that are more suitable for them. As the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said, we need to go further in improving the integration of health and employment programmes to ensure that those out of work with mental health conditions have the best possible support to consider a return to work and that employers have the appropriate information and support to make the necessary adjustments that can make a return to work possible.

Yesterday’s survey from the CBI illustrated the considerable employer support for the introduction of what Dame Carol Black described as “fit notes”. We have been working with a wide range of stakeholders to create a revised medical certificate that is more positive and supports GPs in providing the best possible advice to their patients. More helpful fitness-for-work advice can also help employers to facilitate an earlier return to work, by switching the focus from what people cannot do to what they can do. We are doing so in replacing incapacity benefit with the employment and support allowance. The Department of Health has already agreed to pilot a fit for work service, as recommended by Dame Carol. The DWP has set up a vocational rehabilitation task force to determine what incentives and disincentives currently exist and how we might better encourage employers to provide such services.

The CBI survey also highlighted the significant challenge that is still facing the public sector in tacking sickness absence. All government departments now report their sickness absence to the Cabinet Office on a quarterly basis, and we are committed to reducing current levels by promoting good health and well-being and by addressing the causes of long-term sickness absence. Good line management and a renewed focus on improving support for those with mental health conditions will be a critical part of that. As several noble Lords have commented, it is absolutely right that the Government take the lead in this area. There are examples of good sickness management practice in some government departments, as well as examples of not so good practice in others, and we have heard some of those this afternoon.

To reflect the importance of mental health support for the future health of Britain’s working age population, we have asked Dame Carol Black to support us in producing, for the first time, a co-ordinated, cross-government strategy for mental health and employment. It will build on our current work to address and meet the challenges faced by people with mental health problems, helping to improve their employment chances. Providing improved support to employers, linking mental health and employment programmes, tackling stigma and discrimination and the other issues mentioned today will all be considered as we develop this strategy. Dame Carol has agreed to take the lead on that work, supported by a group of eminent experts from the business, medical and academic worlds, including my noble friend Lord Layard.

The Government are committed to the challenge of reducing the impact of mental health issues on business, reducing sickness absence and improving more generally the health of the working age population. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred to the five identified components of an effective work-based programme in the Sainsbury centre report. Across government, work is under way on each of those components. The recognition by employers that work is, on the whole, good for mental and physical health lies at the heart of our health, work and well-being programme. The HSE’s stress management standards address issues of prevention, Shift’s action on stigma, awareness training and improving access to psychological therapies for increased help. The vocational rehabilitation task force helps the focus on effective rehabilitation. There is still much to do, and now is the time to make extra progress. In the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, the word “now” means that it is time to do it.

In the remaining time, I will pick up on the specific questions that were asked. My noble friend Lady Meacher asked about the linking rules again. I will write more fully on that. I am afraid that we are not yet in agreement with her on the issue of not having to have a claim in the system to access that. We are looking at making sure that the claim process and the reclaim process can be as smooth and effective as possible.

On the mental health of the prison population, there has been extra investment each year in mental health in-reach services and additional funding over three years for support in training for prison officers and staff on mental health. The figure is £600,000; the noble Lord may think that it should be more than that, but we are seeking to focus on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, asked what we are doing to encourage employment support workers within psychological therapy services. I touched on that a little, but the IAPT programme is working with the NHS to encourage the provision of employment support workers in IAPT services. The programme is rolling out at present and the first services will come on stream in September 2008. The DWP is also testing the provision of employment support workers in psychological therapy teams.

I hope that noble Lords will acknowledge that that is some real progress with real opportunities in future on a range of matters on which we now have a real focus. I again thank the noble Baroness for raising this important issue and all noble Lords who have contributed.

That completes the business before the Grand Committee this afternoon. The Committee stands adjourned.

The Committee adjourned at 5 pm.